Shuler to the Climate Jobs and Just Transition Summit: The Renewable Sector Must Be Unionized

Originally posted on the AFL-CIO site.

Thank you, Jeff. I am thrilled to be joining you all virtually for this groundbreaking summit. Thank you to all the leaders and activists of Climate Jobs New York and Cornell ILR’s Worker Institute. It seems like an eternity since we were all together during climate week last fall.

In these unpredictable and chaotic times, it’s a comfort to be in a space full of dedicated and visionary people who are looking toward the future and want to work together to make progress. This is a historically significant moment in our nation and the world. On climate, racism, inequality and democracy. We’ve reached a critical juncture and the outcome is far from clear.

The effects of climate change are all around us. Look at the wildfires out West—shocking, but now almost routine. Mass devastation in many towns. Entire neighborhoods have been leveled. The air is unbreathable. Lives have been lost.

For me, this hits close to home. I grew up in Clackamas County, Oregon, which was in the epicenter of the evacuation zone. My 73-year-old father still lives there in my childhood home, and my sister lives in southeast Portland.

Oregon was reported to have the worst air quality IN THE WORLD over the weekend. I know from talking to family that, before the rain on Friday, the smoke was so bad people couldn’t go outside.

It’s obvious to most of us that these extreme weather events are related to climate change, even though many of our political leaders continue to bury their heads in the sand. They want to pit us against each other and make it seem like it’s an “either-or” scenario: “Either” good jobs “or” a clean environment. But that’s a false choice because we can have both. The labor movement has a unique role to play to make sure that happens and that working people are put first.

I come out of the IBEW, out of the electric utility sector. My family was supported by a good union job that was fueled by a mix of natural gas, some coal, hydro and nuclear power. I know the sacrifices workers in the industry make. I have met mineworkers in Southwestern Pennsylvania and oil refinery workers on the Gulf Coast in Galveston—these are the workers in the fossil fuel industry that have sustained this country for generations.

And as many of the speakers this morning have said, we are here today to honor that past, AND build a new future. And what Climate Jobs New York and we in the labor movement have figured out, is that we can lower emissions without lowering our standard of living.

We often toss around the words “Just Transition,” and talk about what we think energy workers need. What energy workers want first, of course, is to preserve the good, family-sustaining job they have by adopting new technology. But for those who are displaced, a Just Transition should mean a modern-day GI Bill for energy workers, and a Marshall Plan for polluted and disinvested communities. A “Just Transition” most of all means working people driving the decisions and are at the center of building a better, brighter, equitable future.

The key to all of this is for workers to have a stronger voice and not one seat, but many seats at the table, driving the changes we need.

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler

You probably know that our energy unions support technologies that many climate activists don’t want. Carbon capture. Advanced nuclear. Hydrogen for power and industry. These all reduce emissions. They all find some support in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—following the science as it were.

But we are also ready to grow the good jobs of the future and demand investment in solar, onshore and offshore wind. We need to upgrade our electric grid to keep our nuclear plants open and running safely because they provide 50% of our carbon-free electricity.

We need to create more jobs with energy retrofits like the one we did at our headquarters in D.C. in partnership with the Clinton Global Initiative.

For workers to truly embrace this transition, we need a positive vision. We need workers to know that the clean energy jobs of the future are good-paying jobs.

For our families. For our communities. For this entire country.

That means, as Rhiana said, the renewable sector must be unionized. All of it. Good union jobs with wages we can raise our families on. An offshore wind supply chain that lifts up communities all along the East Coast. Because, let’s be honest, the last 40 years have shown that big changes in our economy have not been good for workers, especially communities of color.

If we don’t have everyone on board, no matter our differences, we know what that ends up in: Gridlock. And gridlock forces workers to hang onto what they have now and fight like hell to keep it, which leads to more divide. That’s where the labor movement comes in. We can be the bridge.

As we grapple with multiple crises at once, we can’t forget in the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity. The energy among progressives is off the charts. Union approval among the public is at its highest in decades—65% in the last Gallup poll.

The opportunity of this political moment is a chance to address systemic racism and gender inequities, reverse the long trend of growing inequality that has plagued our country and finally move forward on climate policy.

The key to all of this is for workers to have a stronger voice and not one seat, but many seats at the table, driving the changes we need. Because the fight to beat climate change, end racism, and reverse inequality can only be won together. These fights can only be won when workers have more power. When more investments flow to underserved communities, especially communities of color. Places like Flint and Oakland. And yes, the coal towns of Appalachia.

Then, and only then, will “equality for all” not just be a phrase but a way of life.

Thank you.

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