Climate Policy Won’t Work Without Considering Labor

Why we must engage workers in the climate change conversation.

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Labor in the Climate Transition Conference, part of the larger Climate Summit in the Bay Area. I participated in a panel on California’s climate policies that will affect goods movement in the state. I should note that California hosts the largest shipping ports and warehousing districts in the nation.

Labor’s place in and position on climate policy—like that of many other stakeholders—has evolved over time. News coverage and opponents of climate policy often like to highlight the costs to workers and their resistance to change. In fact, the U.S. labor movement is now a leader in pushing for climate policy that will reduce GHG emissions.

Richard Trumka—president of the AFL-CIO and a former coal mine worker who grew up in a coal company town in southwestern Pennsylvania—opened this week’s conference with a powerful speech on the need for labor to increase its leadership on these issues. Still, Trumka argued, we cannot ignore the impacts on workers—to do so would not be right and it also makes the politics of effective policy much, much more difficult.

Over time, the discussion about workers and climate change has evolved to address the impacts of climate policy on workers— especially those who may be displaced in the energy sector (including work done by the Kleinman Center’s own Christina Simeone). A long line of labor leaders from across the United States and the globe followed Trumka. Many were from the energy sector and outlined their efforts to do their share while ensuring a “just transition” for their members who would be displaced. This is tough but critically important work.

More is needed, however, and the next step is to put labor at the start of the conversation. Workers are not problems and casualties to be dealt with. They are essential partners in fighting climate change. I discovered support for this idea at breakfast before the conference even started. I happened to meet leadership from the Building Skills Partnership, an organization that provides job training for janitorial workers. Their programs engage janitors as partners in energy efficiency while simultaneously creating career ladders into higher-level jobs in building maintenance and systems management.

We are spending billions of dollars to build LEED certified buildings, they explained to me, but rarely take seriously the way the operation of those buildings can be optimized. Who ensures the water and electricity systems, for instance, are functioning properly? We’ve all seen that super-efficient water faucet malfunction. Partnering with these late-night workers ensures that energy efficient buildings perform to their potential. Who is better positioned to make sure the lights are turned off, water isn’t wasted, and the heating and cooling systems are set to optimal temperatures? These are the people on site day to day managing the systems—with the experience and knowledge to contribute new ideas to make buildings even more efficient.

What can workers contribute in other sectors? Think of oil and gas production workers. What benefits might we gain from having them as partners?

Trucking, where my research is focused, provides another powerful example of why we don’t want to put the cart before the horse when it comes to labor and climate policy. One example in particular captures this. There are fundamental economics of freight service that are influenced by labor conditions. For instance, we know that experienced drivers are much more efficient than new drivers. But the industry has been trapped in a low-road approach of poor wages, long hours, and high turnover. Public money subsidies the training of tens of thousands of new workers every year.  These subsidies mean more fuel is burned.

Estimates suggest that more efficient drivers might be as much as 30% more efficient. Even if a long-haul driver is just 10% more efficient, these drivers drive lots and lots of miles. A typical long-haul driver can easily log 100,000 miles annually. Big trucks average just around six miles per gallon. That translates in 16,667 gallons of fuel burned per year. Burning just 10% less fuel would thus save 1,667 gallons of fuel per worker per year!

Similarly, workers misclassified as independent contractors and responsible for truck payments can’t invest capital in the most efficient technologies. At the same time, workers are paying for the fuel, employers have less incentive to dispatch them efficiently. Rather than fret about fuel consumption, employers might instead prioritize, say, getting customers their packages faster. Less efficient operations and bad jobs go hand in hand.

These are just a few examples of why we need to rethink the role of workers in effective climate policy. In many sectors, like trucking, we need start by understanding how the work is done and why, before we can figure out how to make it more efficient. Workers are not simply potential casualties of climate policy, they are essential partners.

Note: I’ll be here on Penn campus talking more about truck labor and fuel efficiency at the Moving America Forward conference in October. Hope to see you there.

Steve Viscelli

Lecturer, Department of Sociology
Steve Viscelli is a faculty fellow at the Kleinman Center and a lecturer in the Department of Sociology. His research focuses on work, labor market economics, and economic regulation, specifically in trucking industry.