As global warming has worsened in the past few years, environmentalists and union members have often protested against each other, whether over fracking, oil pipelines, coal production or the Green New Deal.
However, an innovative new labor-environmentalist effort in New York — to build offshore wind turbines to power up to 6 million homes — is a sharp departure from all that feuding, and shows that these two groups can work together to advance renewable energy and reduce dependence on carbon-based energy.
Giving the plan a vital boost, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced plans to have the state’s energy authority invest billions of US dollars to build hundreds of offshore wind turbines.
Illustration: Mountain People
For Cuomo, the plan is key to New York state’s ambitious mandate to obtain 70 percent of its energy from renewable sources, such as wind and solar, by 2030.
Pushed by a professor at Cornell University, more than a dozen unions came together to develop what they call Climate Jobs New York, a plan that they say would create more than 10,000 jobs — jobs that they agree should be middle-class, union jobs.
“We brought together more than a dozen unions, and said things are not good at the national level in terms of how unions are relating to environmental organizations and the climate movement,” said Lara Skinner, the labor relations professor at Cornell who spearheaded the effort.
She said that several unions were furious at environmentalists for opposing fracking and the Keystone and Dakota Access oil pipelines, which many unions viewed as a boon for job creation.
“Climate change impacts working people,” Skinner said. “There are some major opportunities here for labor if we can get ahead of this thing. What we’ve done is a very investment-led strategy, a very jobs-led strategy.”
The offshore wind turbines are at the heart of the climate plan the unions developed, but it also calls for installing more solar panels, improving and expanding mass transit and renovating buildings to make them more energy-efficient.
The unions’ plan talks repeatedly of a “just transition” so that workers who lose good-paying jobs when, for instance, coal-fired power plants close could be trained for good-paying new renewable energy jobs.
“This is a very practical approach in that we’re not going to the extreme saying tomorrow there should be no fossil fuel. We understand that an immediate transition is not going to happen,” said Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, a federation of construction unions.
“We recognize that our climate is in danger and climate change is real. We’re certainly concerned about future generations,” he said.
In an unusual move, more than a dozen unions and labor federations developed the climate plan, without inviting environmental groups to participate in the early discussions.
One fear was that if the two sides were together from the start, there might be fights over fracking and pipelines that blew up, and prevented progress on other fronts.
One union leader involved in the effort said: “The labor movement and environmental community agree on probably 90 percent of things, so we shouldn’t focus on the things that are going to destroy goodwill.”
In the US, just 30 megawatts (MW) of energy are obtained from offshore wind — a wind farm with five turbines off Rhode Island.
Cuomo plans to go far behind that, calling for New York to obtain 9,000MW of offshore wind, 300 times what the US now obtains from that source.
What Cuomo calls his Green New Deal calls for building hundreds of huge turbines about 24km off the Long Island and New Jersey coasts.
As a first step, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority has solicited bids for 800MW of offshore wind. One bid calls for turbines that are 260m tall, nearly three times the height of the Statue of Liberty, with blades that are as long as a football field.
“Offshore wind is poised to be the next major clean energy resource for the United States,” authority president Alice Barton said.
The project would require welders, plumbers and pipefitters to install the turbines, carpenters and millwrights to build the foundations, utility workers to connect them to the power grid, painters to paint them to prevent rust and myriad construction workers to build a new seaport to handle the colossal turbine parts.
New York officials have agreed all these workers would receive a prevailing wage, the amount paid to a majority of workers in their field in a particular region.
The state also agreed to have project labor agreements for the turbine work before workers are hired that set the terms and conditions of employment, and help avoid strikes.
The construction unions that developed the plan included the electrical workers, laborers and operating engineers.
“If we were going to reposition unions on the issue of climate change, we had to start with the unions that had traditional concerns about it,” Skinner said. “We’re trying to figure out how to reposition unions on this issue, so they’re an engine to tackle the climate crisis.”
The New York effort could serve as a model for environmentalist-labor cooperation in other states, Skinner said.
Among the other unions that have joined the New York effort were the Transport Workers Union, the New York State Nurses Association, and large New York locals of the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
“I have been an advocate for 20 years and this is one of my proudest moments,” said Lisa Dix, who heads the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in New York and has often clashed with unions.
Dix worked with Skinner and the unions in finalizing their plan.
“We have a huge opportunity ahead of us if we can focus on all the great things we’re going to do to build this economy together,” Dix said.
Thirty environmental groups have embraced and are pushing the Climate Jobs New York plan, she said.
“This will be a huge economic driver,” said Doreen Harris, director of large-scale renewables for the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority.
“We will see significant benefits coming to New York from these investments. A broad, new industry will be set up in the northeast, with New York as a hub,” Harris said.
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