UE Leader Reports from Trade Unions for Energy Democracy Climate Immersion

March 21, 2018

UE Local 255 Vice President Emma Paradis and UE Field Organizer Tara McCauley represented UE at the Trade Unions for Energy Democracy Climate Immersion program in New York on March 7 and 8.

I recently had the opportunity to attend the Trade Unions for Energy Democracy Climate Immersion - a two day intensive intended to educate and activate union leadership on the topic of climate change.  The workshop was held at the Murphy Institute, led by Irene Shen, Sean Sweeney and John Treat with guest speakers from across the world who brought us up to speed on the climate crisis in the context of labor.

Although the day to day struggles of the working class can be all consuming, we must become more conscious of the long view. The need to transition away from fossil fuels poses a difficult question for unions: do we save the jobs we have now at the cost of the future? Or do we take a proactive approach and plan for a just transition? These are big questions to grapple with, but having had the chance become informed and discuss them with those who are studying them, I do feel better equipped to start addressing them.

Up until relatively recently, labor has been relatively quiet on the issue of climate change and struggled with an internal divide.  The potential job losses from corporations being forced to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has been a big concern, particularly among those in manufacturing and fossil fuel production.  This has led some to look towards natural gas (still a major pollutant) and clean coal (lacking in efficiency and economic incentive), at least for the interim, neither of which would sufficiently lower emissions.  The more proactive messages from labor have backed the creation of green jobs and supported market-driven mechanisms to address emissions, such carbon taxes or cap and trade, in congruence with a democratic, socially responsible “just transition.”

While these default positions both express legitimate concerns, especially considering the already precarious conditions workers face, we need to be more aggressive in our approach.  We need to be more aggressive because story we’re hearing and the story that’s folding out before us are not the same.  The materials presented by TUED exposed many of the inconsistencies and misinformation that informs policy decisions aimed at addressing climate change.  For example, the data the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) relies on does not accurately reflect current methane emissions.  Although carbon dioxide is thought to make up 65% of greenhouse gas emissions, this under-represents methane’s contribution.

We spoke with Dr. Robert Howarth (Cornell University) about his research on the methane emissions leaked from the process of extracting natural gas commonly known as fracking.  His research indicates that emissions from shale gas and oil may be greater than we had realized, and that reducing emissions from methane is as important, if not more so, than those from carbon dioxide.  This is due to its shorter lifespan, making the immediate impact of reductions much more significant.  As an alternative to natural gas, he proposed a vision from a different study that mapped out a transition to electrical heat and transportation which would not only increase efficiency, but also allow for the immediate transition to renewables.  Though the challenges of global warming may seem insurmountable at times, the level of specificity in his study helped me more readily conceive of a path towards a just transition.

A just transition needs to be prioritized when evaluating strategies to address climate change.  We need to ensure that the policies aimed at controlling emissions from corporations do not pass the economic burden on to workers through job loss or cost shifting, and that our communities are shielded from the environmental, social, and economic consequences of climate change.

One of the ways we can limit the uncertainty of our future is by making our energy production public again.  While many countries have privatized their energy over the years, it is proving to be inefficient.  We spoke with Angel Figueroa Jaramillo from the Union of Workers of the Electric and Irrigation Industry (UTIER), who brought us up to speed on Governor Ricardo Rossello’s plan to privatize the Puerto Rican Electric Power Authority (PREPA). The union is fighting this every step of the way, not just because they face elimination if the plant is privatized, but because they see electricity as a right, not a commodity, and know that the services provided by a privatized company would driven by profits, not people.

Labor in the United Kingdom also understands the value of regaining public control over utilities and services, especially in the context of gearing up to transition from fossil fuels.  We heard from Sam Mason of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) in the UK, where workers and the Labour Party are hoping to put energy back into the hands of the people in order to plan for a structured just transition.  We ought to follow their lead because until we democratize control over our resources and energy, we will be at the mercy of corporations.

The TUED Climate Immersion was an eye-opening experience that I hope can provide some direction for UE as we review our policy resolutions, educate our members, and plan for the future.  I have outlined below some of the major themes and takeaways from the program, many of which we already acknowledge in our resolution “Protect our Environment for Future Generations”:

  1. Education - Education on the subject of climate change is critical, I believe, to activating our membership and preparing them for the road ahead.  The realities that we are facing can seem distant and convoluted, so they are easy to ignore or push aside.  The TUED materials present the science and politics of climate change so that it is accessible, yet rooted in research and data.  Once exposed to the facts, as well as to what can be done about it, inaction becomes a conscious choice.  It is up to UE to provide trainings and educational opportunities for our members to balance the messages they are receiving from corporations and politicians that convolute the facts.    
  2. Evaluate potential impact of climate change on our members (environmental, social, health) - The impacts of climate change are widespread and will undoubtedly touch all of our members in one way or another.  We need to acknowledge that these impacts are often more difficult for our most vulnerable populations, who are more likely to suffer from health issues related to pollution and feel the repercussions of extreme weather more severely.  We need to consider how we can support each other going forward and take care of those who are in crisis.
  3. Envision the future without fossil fuels - The work that nearly all of our members do is tied to the consumption of fossil fuels.  Be it manufacturing, rail crew van drivers, or processing passports, the work that we do will look very different as we move away from fossil fuel consumption.  In order to ensure economic security moving forward, we need to evaluate what that transition looks like from the perspective of workers in different sectors. 
  4. Methane matters - Reducing methane emissions will be crucial to reversing the course of global warming, though its importance is often minimized.  While some sources indicate that fracking has reduced CO2 emissions and construe it as a “clean” source of energy, they fail mention the significant increase in methane emissions.  Although UE recognizes that fracking is not good for jobs or the environment, as demonstrated by our opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, I think we need to take a stronger stance and resolve to oppose the development of any new pipeline or legislation that promotes the production of natural gas.
  5. Develop a plan for a just transition - We know that working people are caught in the crossfire of the corporate race to the bottom and emissions regulations.  We need to ensure that reducing emissions does not translate into reduced jobs and wages.  Though a serious undertaking, I think that we need to be proactive and develop an alternative vision that will gain the support of policy-makers and union members alike.  We cannot wait for, or rely on, those in a place of power to decide the fate of the working class; we know what’s best for us, let’s act.
  6. Focus on green jobs - While shifting away from fossil fuels may mean job loss in some sectors, it also will mean job creation in other areas.  Beyond solar and wind, a transition to a green economy means changes in infrastructure and technologies that will require a skilled and voluminous workforce - we need to seize this as an opportunity to organize so as to gain quality, good-paying jobs going forward.
  7. Push for public and democratic ownership of resources and energy - The privatization of goods and services is inefficient and takes control out of the hands of the beneficiaries.  We need to push for the public takeover of our energy production so we can make the transition on our own terms and reinvest surpluses into job creation and the development of renewables, rather than the pockets of corporations.   
  8. Be a strong voice at international climate talks - UE needs to have a strong presence at the international climate talks and offer actionable proposals that address labor’s concerns head-on.  I think this is also an opportunity to strengthen alliances with other unions, both within the US and internationally.  We need to get on the same page and send the message loud and clear that union labor is here to stay and we are ready to act in the interest of our future. 


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