Passing Climate Bills Without Labor Standards Won’t Transition the Economy

The failed unionization attempt at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, isn’t just a setback for the labor movement, it is a setback for all progressive movements, especially the climate movement. Amazon openly violated several labor laws in the unionization drive, and these violations are likely to be adjudicated in front of the National Labor Relations Board. But the fact remains that Amazon is not afraid to act illegally, and this level of unchecked corporate power is fatal for the climate.

To stop the worst impacts of the climate crisis, we need to reduce the power of corporations and the fossil fuel industry. Strong labor legislation like the Protecting the Right to Organize Act (PRO Act), supporting worker organizing drives and incorporating labor standards into climate legislation all empower workers and provide a balance to and check on corporate power.

There is a direct link between empowering workers and climate policy. As Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-New York) articulated, the PRO Act would help facilitate a just transition for fossil fuel workers by making it easier for workers to unionize. Through unionizing, these workers would have more access to training and retraining opportunities to prepare them for different work as their industries transition. Moreover, as the Just Transition Listening Project found, unionized workers receive more support and better transition packages when they lose their jobs because workers bargaining as a unit have more power than when workers are forced to bargain on an individual basis.

The best way to support displaced fossil fuel workers, however, is to ensure there is a job for them to transition into that pays a similar wage with comparable benefits. The job creation potential of climate policy is well-established — as many as 15 million jobs over 10 years could be created through low-carbon investments. Plus, the fossil fuel industry is no longer the job creator it once was. Over 100,000 fossil fuel workers lost their jobs during the pandemic, the majority of which are not likely to return.

Yet, many fossil fuel workers are rightfully wary of just transition efforts, as many jobs in low-carbon sectors pay far less with fewer benefits. Without raising wages and standards in low-carbon industries, low-carbon jobs will never be an attractive alternative for workers in fossil fuel industries. To this end, the PRO Act would also help workers in low-carbon sectors unionize. Fossil fuel jobs are not inherently well-paying jobs. Years of workers organizing and striking, often in bloody conditions, made fossil fuel companies treat their workers better. Similarly, workers organizing in low-carbon sectors can raise wages and make more low-carbon jobs better jobs.

Beyond organizing, integrating labor standards into climate policy is another way to ensure low-carbon jobs are good jobs. New York State recently passed labor protections for renewable energy projects in the most recent budget. The provisions not only require construction on renewable energy projects bigger than 5 megawatts to have prevailing wage and project labor agreements, but also require labor peace agreements for operations and maintenance work on systems 5 megawatts and larger. In labor peace agreements, employers agree to not oppose unionization and workers agree not to strike or stop work. They prevent the type of corporate opposition to unionizing we saw Amazon deploy.

New York State leads the way in creating good climate jobs. In 2017, in partnership with Climate Jobs NY and Cornell University’s Worker Institute, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a $1.5 billion investment to create 40,000 climate jobs through investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. In 2019, Governor Cuomo announced a partnership with the Danish company Ørsted for a massive offshore wind project, which then announced it had entered into a project labor agreement with the North America’s Building Trades Unions to build the offshore wind turbines. The more labor standards are incorporated into low-carbon projects, the more real the possibility for a just transition becomes as good, low-carbon jobs are actually created and not just promised.

Moreover, making low-carbon sectors good employers is important not just for fossil fuel workers, but for all workers. Proliferating more low-wage jobs increases our already record levels of inequality. Emissions reductions through exploitation of workers can never be a just transition. And workers that were historically excluded from the fossil fuel economy must have access to good low-carbon jobs to begin to address past injustices and ensure all workers can take part in the low-carbon future.

The power of the fossil fuel industry has successfully stopped ambitious climate effort and fed decades of climate denial. Organized workers can build the power needed to challenge corporate power. Through supporting worker-organizer and labor standards as part of climate policy, the climate movement not only shows solidarity but also builds the movement and power needed to push for comprehensive climate policy.