Good green jobs require building ties between environment and labor
An employee of Quest Energy holds his mining helmet. The jobs of these people will be on the line, and a workable plan and just transition for them will be required for a sustainable shift to clean energy. | Ryan C. Clemens/AP

There is an underlying assumption on the part of many that the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy is simpler than it actually is. The prevailing belief, for example, is that the transition will result in good jobs, a better economy, and become a veritable lynchpin in the fight against climate change. This is a future that is not only possible but necessary . . . yet hardly a simplistic matter. As with any struggle, the arsenal for this battle lies in the hands of the working class.

A life-long labor and environmental activist interviewed for this story by People’s World argues convincingly, along with noted scientists and others, that good green jobs can be created only if we build solid connections between the movements for a clean environment and the labor movement.

Carl Wood, a resident of San Diego, California spoke to People’s World on the matter from his vast experience in both the labor and environmental movements. He is a retired Regulatory Affairs Director of the Utility Workers Union of America and a former California Public Utilities Commissioner. He is also the former board president of California’s Utility Consumer Advocacy group.

Recognition of the scope and context of the issue, particularly the limits of capitalism to solve the problem of the environment means looking back to the past, Wood says.

“Historically, there have been a lot of transitions during capitalism,” he remarked. “One of the most dramatic was the enclosure of communal land in England from the late 1600s through the early 1800s. The effect was that in order to promote economic efficiency, the peasantry were driven off the land, and so many working people lost their livelihoods and were effectively driven out into the cities; this was part of the process of the formation of capitalism in England.”

The potential displacement of coal miners in the switch to clean energy industries is a serious issue. | Dake Kang/AP

From then onward, other kinds of transitions persisted. He added, “We’re all familiar with the Industrial Revolution and the consolidation of small workshops into large factories, and the introduction of automation. In the process, there were workers who were displaced from their industries. The bottom line is that there are deep historical examples of this process and for most workers, technological changes are dangerous to them. So what we’re talking about – transitioning from fossil fuel energy supply to other forms of energy, we’re seeing a similar displacement and it’s not surprising that workers are worried.”

When these changes occurred in decades prior, those industries came up with responses that were ostensibly solutions, but in reality, they didn’t address the real crux of the matter. Wood stated, “In the steel industry – where I worked for 10 years and where my job was eliminated by the introduction of new technologies – they found it expedient to blame such changes on foreign competition.” He mentioned examples of this happening, such as the Trade Readjustment Act, legislation that claimed U.S. workers were being replaced by countries like Japan and Germany, and so supplementary unemployment benefits were provided to people whose jobs were lost in this supposed context. If someone was circumstantially eligible to receive this, he noted, it was helpful, but it still didn’t go very far to solve problems.

“They didn’t address the real problem, which was that the technology had changed,” said Wood. “Instead they had temporary remediation of so-called unfair competition. If you address the wrong problem you get the wrong solutions. So that kind of history is deeply embedded in the history of the working class of this country, so it’s not all that surprising that for workers in the fossil fuel industry, there’s a whole lot of resistance to these kinds of changes.”

Workers as cannon fodder?

Scientists confirm what Wood is talking about. They confirm that the dilemma is not only when a transition into greener industries and jobs happens, but how. “The transition is happening, it’s just happening haphazardly,” said Jeremy Richardson, a former senior energy analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s happening without foresight and without thought, and that is the most difficult way to approach it from a community perspective, but especially for workers.”

Richardson, who has his roots in the coal mining towns of West Virginia, underscored this particular facet of the problem as vital. For workers in the coal industry, he said, “It’s really a tragedy that it’s in jeopardy.” Still, he noted, “There are a couple of really important pieces in the Build Back Better Act that would really, really help communities and workers.” Passage of President Biden’s Build Back Better program was held up in the Senate by two recalcitrant Democrats, West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, and Arizona’s Kirsten Sinema, along with all 50 Republicans.

According to a study by the Utility Workers of America, along with the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Biden administration would need to invest at least $83 billion over a decade and a half in order to support coal workers and accommodate the shift to a low-carbon economy. That analysis said there would need to be five years of wage replacement for these workers, ongoing healthcare coverage, and education benefits for their families and children. While this industrial phaseout is vital in meeting the goal of slashing U.S. emissions in half by 2030, without a proper transition for workers, jobs and livelihoods would become cannon fodder in the fight against climate change.

Carl Wood said that during his time representing his union in California, he was involved in numerous national conferences – including with the BlueGreen Alliance – the goal of which was to find common ground and bridge some of the issues between the labor and environmental movements.

“We had to try to get the environmentalists to understand what workers were facing,” he remarked. “There’s a standard formulation that comes from some environmental organizations of, ‘we provide job retraining, relocation assistance, and new jobs created by green industries.’ But imagine you’re one of my union members who’s a coal-fired power plant mechanic in southeast Ohio, living in a small town and making good wages, so you’re able to buy a house, send your kids to college, etc. If your plant is shut down, then also because it’s a major bulwark for the local economy, the value of your house collapses, and so even if you’re considering another job locally, your next best job could be pumping gas at the gas station.”

The need, then, for unions and environmentalists to work in tandem with one another is essential in pursuing one goal without abnegating the other. Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, outlined the issue thusly: “The environment and creating jobs can go hand in hand, and they really have to go hand in hand, because we are dealing with more than one crisis at a time. We certainly have a climate emergency that we have to grapple with, but we also have a crisis of income inequality in this country that is grounded in economic and racial injustice. And we’re going to need to pursue solutions that are just as interconnected and mutually reinforcing as the causes of those crises.”

“It’s not the practice of American capitalism to look after workers,” said Wood. “But back in the early 80s, there was a push to expand the Redwood National Forest, and it was widely supported by environmental organizations and seemingly doable. It gained the support of a very influential congressman named Phillip Burton. He quickly figured out that the unions hated this proposal because it would have ended logging in a major part of northern California and displaced loggers and mill workers. So Burton met and worked with them, and developed a pretty comprehensive approach to resolving the issue.

“For workers who were close to retirement age, they were provided with funding for – or acceleration of – their pensions. People who lost their jobs were provided with wage support. And there were other provisions that addressed the needs of younger workers who weren’t close to retirement. Burton got this put through Congress, and it really stands as an example for what could be done for displaced coal miners and power plant workers if there was enough political will to do that.”

Non-union jobs. vs. non-union green jobs

Logger Allen Miller on the job in Lower Burrell, Pa. Loggers are another example of workers who need protection during a move away from practices destructive to the environment. | Louis B. Ruediger /Pittsburgh Tribune-Review via AP

Wood also highlighted an often overlooked fact: that so many clean energy jobs are, like their fossil fuel predecessors, non-union. “Within the renewable energy industry, there’s a capitalist industry,” he explained. “And they have much better public relations than the fossil fuel-based utility generation industry. And so they have a much nicer image but the reality is they’re almost entirely non-union and just as often aggressively anti-union. In fact, big utilities in states like California and New York were political liabilities, and so the energy generation industry was opened up to newcomers – these were called ‘qualifying facilities’ under the Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act of 1978. It was supposed to try and create a more environmentally friendly generation, but in fact, it was an attempt to bust up the utility monopolies and allow other capitalists to come in and be part of it.”

Rather than bolstering these false resolutions that merely replace one capitalist process with another, the key to changing this status quo lies in a working-class approach to utility regulation. Wood continued: “The Green New Deal tends to be the starting point [in that fight] for so many, and it tends to be anti-capitalist but not necessarily working class. But a lot of it is funded by these so-called green utility industries that are non-union and aggressively fighting unionization efforts. These organizations may include people who are objectively working class, but they as a whole are not.

“With utility regulation, there are very clear class interests. Most of their rates are formed in a process that divides up consumers by different categories: industrial, commercial, residential, and agricultural. And for fair rates, each of these groups has advocates that argue their cases before commissions and legislatures except for one: working-class consumers. And these are the kinds of changes needed; figuring out ways to have working-class and pro-union interests represented before all these regulatory and legislative bodies.”

“The bottom line,” he concluded, “is that not many are pushing a truly just transition; that this has to be done in a way where the interests of all working-class communities get protected. It hasn’t been argued in the right way, it gets treated as a broad, humanistic approach, and because that lacks a class basis, it’s inadequate and vulnerable to capitalists appropriating the issue for their own benefit. It’s also a real opportunity for political leadership to step up to the plate. You don’t have very many Phillip Burtons nowadays, who will really align with labor. It’s time to take the fairly radical position – in an American context, at least – of protecting the interests of workers.”

The BlueGreen Alliance’s Jason Walsh made a similar declaration, remarking, “I am hopeful that clean energy jobs can deliver for workers. I think we have a president and a Congress that recognize how intersecting our challenges are, and that we have to be pursuing mutually reinforcing solutions to those challenges. And we have a president who explicitly centers workers and jobs at the heart of his climate and clean-energy policies. So I am very hopeful that we can actually move forward and create a clean-energy economy that is equitable and that we can be proud of.”


Blake Skylar
Blake Skylar

Blake is a writer and production manager, responsible for the daily assembly of the People's World home page. He has earned awards from the IWPA and ILCA, and his articles have appeared in publications such as Workday Minnesota, EcoWatch, and Earth First News. He has covered issues including the BP oil spill in New Orleans and the 2015 U.N. Climate Conference in Paris.

He lives in Pennsylvania with his girlfriend and their cats. He enjoys wine, books, music, and nature. In his spare time, he reviews music, creates artwork, and is working on several books and digital comics.