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Clean Transport

The Role Of Unions In Electrifying Everything

The move toward economically and socially sustainable renewable energy is being smoothed by the recent participation of trade unions. How are unions in the US managing the complex transition away from fossil capitalism?

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As a result of human economic activity, the planet confronts a climate emergency. Bold and conclusive solutions are required to avert the worst impacts of this crisis. Yet, because societies are facing unprecedented levels of income and wealth inequality, often drawn along the lines of race and gender, workers’ rights have become contentious, as the role of unions during the transformation to electrifying everything challenges existing fossil capitalism power structures.

From their emergence to the present day, unions have undergone significant changes. However, they remain the most legitimate means of social organization to defend workers’ rights during the evolution to clean energy industries.

A Just Transition & the Role of Unions

What is a “just transition?”

If we are to have an equitable path to a sustainable future, it will require a just transition comprising a variety of policies that provide a viable economic future for all workers, especially those in industries that may be affected by efforts to limit GHGs or by the introduction of new, non fossil fuel based technologies. It requires the involvement of trade unions so that reasonable working conditions are pervasive in the renewable energy sector and its supply chain.

Long term solutions for just transition policies require strong political coalitions with explicit agendas. Such coalitions must include workers across sectors and with divergent existential interests.

A just transition must:

  • be comprehensive, flexible, and integrated so it assists workers, their families, and their communities
  • be accompanied by enduring industrial policies
  • include strong social support programs
  • develop creative, worker-centered labor adjustment programs
  • guarantee equal opportunities
  • address structural gender inequalities so that women of all ages have access to jobs and sectors from which they have been traditionally excluded, including sciences, technology, engineering, and math (STEM)
  • offer workers have a seat at the clean energy bargaining table so that their voices are heard

US Unions Move toward a United Front in its Mission to Tackle Climate Change

Unions that promote electrification tend to do so within a framework of social and environmental commitments, spatiality, and agency. Together, these elements comprise a proactive rather than reactive approach to climate mitigation. More specifically, the success of trade unions can be determined by the density of the workforce associated, the percentages of workers in the market and aligned with union representation, and the bargaining power of workers according to their sector.

Unions, especially in some specific sectors, are able to influence workers, companies, and, consequently, governments and represent an important variable of diverse interests to be balanced in order to produce a successful transition to a clean energy economy. Indeed, sectors that are fundamental to the economy and society, such as electricity or fuel, have greater bargaining power than some other sectors. The country’s political and economic climate, local legislation in relation to union organizations, and market competitiveness all play important roles in a union’s ability to exert power.

As a social movement, unions are not static: they are constantly creating new forms of organization and action. Up until around 2019, US labor unions presented a variety of views about the climate crisis, ranging from continued support for the fossil fuel industry to mixed allegiances to promoting climate policies that withdraw from fossil fuel allegiances. Views of unions are more complex and contradictory than the opposition-support dichotomy that many pundits prefer, according to a report titled, “Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change: Canada in International Perspective.”

Describing the place of unions in the world political economy, called positionality, as “not to be underestimated,” the report notes that the dynamics of the sector, industrial relations, and the place of the union in the broader political economy are all important internal and external factors that create or restrict environmental alliances.

What position toward addressing the climate crisis have different US union organizations had in the last few years?

  • Largely silent: International Association of Machinists (but very keen to protect US air carriers and manufacturers); National Postal Mail Handlers Union; United Food and Commercial Workers Union; National Association of Letter Carriers (but support for greening fleet); International Longshoremen’s Association; Firefighters; Police unions.
  • Largely silent on environment/ climate and support for fossil fuel infrastructure: Elevator workers; Insulators (support energy efficiency); Plasterers; Roofers; Operating Engineers; Painters; Carpenters.
  • Accept need for climate policy and support for fossil fuels: Utility Workers Union of America; Plumbers and Pipefitters; Ironworkers; Boilermakers; International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; Professional and Technical Engineers (support nuclear power); LIUNA; Sheet Metal Workers; Teamsters.
  • Climate policy with adaptation/ support for some fossil fuels: Steelworkers; Industrial Division of Communications Workers of America; Bricklayers; Autoworkers; Transport Workers Union; Amalgamated Transit Union.
  • Climate policy with mitigation of fossil fuels: National Nurses United; Service Employees International Union; American Postal Workers Unions; American Federation of Government Employees; American Federation of County and Municipal Employees; American Federation of Teachers; Communications Workers of America; National Electrical Contractors Association; IBEW 595 ; International Longshore and Warehouse Union; National Education Association; United Electrical Workers; New York State Nurses Association;  Railroad Workers United.

    Final Thoughts

The shift to widespread electrification acceptable has been swift across the globe, and the transition in many US unions has been rapid as well.

For example, by 2020, BYD North America had delivered 4 battery-electric K7M buses to Columbia, Missouri’s transit agency, Go COMO. Embedded within media stories was that fact that the buses were manufactured in the US at Lancaster, California by members of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation (SMART) Union, Local 105 at BYD’s factory.

This month, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) joined the United Auto Workers (UAW) in calling on school districts to electrify the nation’s school bus fleet. This effort is intended to begin a gradual evolution to carbon-free emissions, according to an AFT press release. Right now, about half a million yellow school buses in the US annually generate more than 5 million tons of GHG emissions annually. The pollutants from their tailpipes contribute to asthma and other respiratory conditions among students and drivers — especially in communities already contaminated through environmental injustice. The AFT states that, when electric bus manufacturers agree to a majority sign up process with the UAW, it sends an important message to the public as well as to auto and other workers that the transition to a green economy can create quality, union manufacturing jobs.

It also makes a clear case for why investing public monies to support the shift to electric makes sense for the US people. The fight against the climate crisis will address the impact of pollutants on communities of color; protect students, drivers, and community health; and, create and grow quality union manufacturing jobs that support families and communities.

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a Model Y as well as a Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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