As Congress gears up to craft much-needed legislation to protect the earth from global warming, many American workers are wondering what it will mean for their jobs. They may be wondering even more if they hear about the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s proposal for carbon regulation legislation, The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, released March 31. It is 648 pages long. But Section 424 on “Worker Transition” has only three words: “to be supplied.”
Unfortunately, “transition assistance” in the past has often meant little more than a funeral for workers and communities threatened by the side effects of globalization, environmental protection and other public policies. Without a clear program to protect workers from the effects of climate protection, the struggle against global warming can all too easily come to be perceived as a struggle against American workers. Workers have often felt threatened by measures to protect the environment. Today such fears are likely to be augmented, especially in a time of soaring unemployment, by the large changes necessary to protect the planet from global warming.
Environmentalists have often addressed this challenge by pointing out that a transition to clean energy would create far more jobs than it would eliminate. While that may be true, it entirely misses the point. The fact that some people get new jobs provides little solace for the people and communities who have lost theirs.
As Carl Wood of the Utility Workers Union of America put it at this year’s Good Jobs, Green Jobs national conference, “Workers are used to being ground up and spat out by any change in society. In the United States there is no safety net for the victims.” He cited mechanics in a southeastern Ohio coal-fired power plant represented by his union whose jobs would be eliminated by the phasing out of coal as a very real example of how climate protection could threaten specific workers even if it produced more jobs in general.
Coal miners and their communities are particularly at risk. In a September 2008 op-ed, United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts cited a study showing that the Climate Stewardship Act of 2003 would have reduced coal production by 78 percent by 2025, which would have “just about wiped out the coal industry in southern West Virginia and elsewhere in Appalachia.” He added that the more recent Lieberman-McCain bill would have cut Appalachian coal production by 30 percent or more.
The current campaign to reduce the use of coal could easily become a poster child for the threat posed to workers by climate protection. But for that very reason it also provides an opportunity for climate protection advocates to paint a picture of themselves as the advocates and protectors of miners, railroad workers, utility workers and others whose jobs and communities may be threatened by climate protection measures.