By Elliott Parrish
The United States may officially be going green. The Biden administration’s $3.5 trillion budget proposal would funnel more federal support towards climate-friendly initiatives than any other law in US history. Despite the bill’s unprecedented potential impact, more action is needed to support, employ, and ultimately unionize the nation’s most economically vulnerable—those who still depend on a dying fossil fuel industry to keep themselves afloat.
In crafting this budget proposal, it is imperative that lawmakers support organized labor within the clean energy industry, whose workers are unionized at significantly lower levels than their fossil fuel-producing counterparts. As articulated in the Green New Deal, fostering and protecting union formation in this sector must be a top priority. Members of Congress could incorporate ideas from the stalled Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2021, which would have made it illegal for managers to intimidate, fire, or otherwise deter their employees from organizing. Such action would cure many of the ailments that have been hindering a more equitable energy transition, especially by ensuring better workplace safety and supervision, as well as reasonable shift hours with higher pay for qualified employees.
Legislators in charge have a great responsibility placed on their shoulders to transform one of the nation’s most critical industries. Thus far, they have turned in the opposite direction of the Trump administration’s $7.3 in subsidies to keep fossil fuel workers out of the red. Lawmakers have opted instead to allocate $265 billion for clean energy development across the United States.
However, their legislation fails to adequately consider what matters most to the American public: their ability to earn a living. If the transition succeeds, 9.8 million domestic fossil fuel industry workers--or roughly 6% of the national population--will need a new source of employment. Two bills congress is using to inspire their new environmental policy--the Clean Energy for America Act and the Growing Renewable Energy and Efficiency Act--both place an emphasis on prevailing wages for the throngs of Americans entering this emerging field.
But this requirement would be far from a cure-all. When comparing green-collar paychecks to the amounts these employees earned before, the outlook is especially sobering. At current rates (and despite a prevailing wage guarantee within the clean energy industry), those transitioning from coal mining and oil drilling to wind and solar generation would face an annual pay cut to the tune of over $10,000--making the need for union wage negotiation all the more urgent.
As the nation’s stalwart electricity utilities find new labor sources to help them meet their legally required renewable energy credit quotas--meaning they must derive a certain amount of their electricity from clean sources--it is crucial to avoid a bidding process that leaves the fledgling green-collar workforce behind. Traditional regulations set a certain rate of return (basically guaranteeing a set profit) for these corporations, meaning there is no incentive to exploit employees for less pay. But as unregulated, non-unionized solar fields vie to win contracts with larger providers by offering the lowest rate possible, wages paid by the smaller companies are bound to drop. “The process allows the most cost-effective independent power producers...to bid to supply [new green] generating capacity,” reads the shareholder report of NextEra Energy. On top of developing unionized worker representation, new regulations are needed to set inalterable rates of return for these new partnerships with “third party” utilities. An evolving landscape of power procurement has left the old laws outdated and insufficient to ensure all utilities give their workers fair pay.
Finally, a basic financial security net is needed for former fossil fuel employees whose industry is failing through no fault of their own. The creation of a green-collar relief credit would keep job seekers above the poverty line as they vie to enter this new and unfamiliar market. It is paramount to sustain the working class through to the next era of power generation, even if doing so means providing streamlined and increased--albeit temporary--unemployment benefits.
If implemented well, this transition has the potential to create myriad economic opportunities in a more equitable manner for all Americans. As Biden told the nation from his campaign trail last year, “We can’t be cavalier about the impact it’s going to have on how we’re going to transition to do all this, but I just think it’s a gigantic opportunity, a gigantic opportunity to create really good jobs.” In order to mitigate the worst impacts on this nation’s most vulnerable, the United States must protect and foster their right to unionize. This means placing reasonable regulations on their new employers and providing green-collar financial support as millions are forced to switch careers. To do right by the working class that once powered America through the age of fossil fuels, only the most diligent economic support will suffice.