Organized Labor Sees Promise in Transition to Clean Energy

The transition to a clean energy economy will generate millions of new jobs. Unions are working to ensure that those jobs provide a living wage.

Dramatic changes are underway in the ways that the United States produces and consumes energy, with major implications for the country’s workforce. Along the Atlantic shore, states are racing to establish large offshore wind farms and manufacturing supply chains to support them. Automakers in the middle of the country have committed to shifting production to electric vehicles and the federal government is supporting a nationwide EV charging network.

Opportunities will continue to grow in clean energy manufacturing, infrastructure, and services. A central challenge that lies ahead is to ensure that these new jobs provide secure, living wages to support families and communities as they propel the energy transition.

Guest Lara Skinner is Director of the Labor Leading on Climate Initiative at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, which works with labor unions to actively engage in decision-making around clean energy and climate policy. She discusses efforts to ensure that new jobs in the clean energy economy address both economic inequality and the need to rapidly decarbonize.

Andy Stone: Welcome to The Energy Policy Now podcast from the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m Andy Stone.

Stone: Dramatic changes are underway in how the United States produces and consumes energy, with major implications for the country’s workforce. Despite setbacks due to the COVID pandemic, the transition to clean energy is accelerating. Along the Atlantic shore, states are racing to establish large offshore wind farms and the manufacturing supply chains to support them. Automakers in the middle of the country have committed to shifting production to electric vehicles, and the federal government supporting a nationwide EV charging network. Opportunity will continue to grow in clean energy manufacturing, infrastructure and services. A key challenge that lies ahead is to ensure that these new jobs provide secure, living wages to support families and communities as they propel the energy transition. On today’s podcast, I’ll be talking with someone who is working with organized labor to ensure that new jobs in the clean energy economy address both economic inequality and the need to rapidly decarbonize. Lara Skinner is director of the Labor Leading on Climate Initiative at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Her work focuses on assisting unions to actively engage in decision making around clean energy and climate policy. Lara, welcome to the podcast.

Lara Skinner: Thanks so much, Andrew. It’s great to be here.

Stone: The country is undergoing a transition to clean energy, and your work emphasizes the dual opportunities that this presents to address climate change and to create high quality jobs. Can you talk about the fundamental opportunity the energy transition presents?

Skinner: I think big picture, when we think about this transition, we have to keep in mind to tackle the climate crisis at scale and really to do what we need to do by 2030, by 2040 and then 2050, when climate scientists are saying our economy needs to be at net zero. It’s going to require a lot of work and a lot of jobs. We’re talking about a massive transformation of our economy, unlike any one we’ve potentially ever seen before, right? And it’s not just the energy sector, it’s also the transportation sector. It’s also the building sector. It’s also the industrial sector. The energy sector gets a lot of focus. How do we transition to a low carbon zero carbon energy economy based more on renewables? But we also have to figure out how we’re reducing emissions in the building sector, how we’re reducing emissions in the transportation sector and in most parts of the country. Transportation is often the largest source of emissions across the economy. So, to do this, to transition to electric vehicles, to really expand and improve our public transit system potentially have High-Speed Rail, so that folks can take train, which is a much lower carbon source of transportation than, say, flying, to reduce emissions in our buildings to make them more energy efficient, to have renewable energy generation on site that have large scale battery storage systems to regulate our energy system, to have a more renewable energy system and to figure out how to decarbonize the industrial sector. How do we still make steel? How do we still make concrete, but do it in a low carbon or zero carbon manner? All of that’s going to create a ton of work. We need to build a lot of stuff to get there. So, I think big picture, it’s important to keep in mind that most studies estimate that we’re looking at creating anywhere between 15 and 25 million jobs in the U.S. over the next couple of decades to deal with the climate crisis. I think the other part of this is the quality of jobs. Which you mentioned and which I focus a lot on is how do we make sure that these new jobs are going to be a lot of new jobs? How do we make sure that these are going to be high quality family and community sustaining jobs that help to deal with the crisis of inequality that this country is facing? Right now, our economy is mostly producing low wage, low quality jobs. That’s the vast majority of jobs. So how do we use the opportunity of this transition to make sure that these are going to be high quality jobs? And from the union perspective, many unions fought long and hard to make sure that the current energy sector jobs are good jobs. think about utility line workers. Back in the 1800s, fifty percent of utility line workers were dying on the job. It was a very dangerous job and it took the utility workers union, it took the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers many decades and struggle to make sure that these were good paying jobs, high quality jobs with the appropriate health and safety training that went along with them. And if you look at unionization rates across the energy sector, it’s much higher on the fossil fuel side of the energy economy than it is on the new solar wind energy efficiency side. And just to be very specific, if you look at fossil fuel power plant generation or nuclear power generation jobs, about 20 percent of those jobs are unionized. If you look at solar, it’s three to four percent of those jobs are unionized across the country, and in wind it’s a little bit higher. It’s like six to seven percent unionized.

Skinner: So there’s a big concern here around the quality of these new jobs. And how do we make sure that these new jobs are going to be high quality and help deal with the crisis of inequality that we’re facing?

Stone: Well, this gets to a fundamental question here. So how is the nature of work in the clean energy economy different from work in traditional fossil fuel and fossil fuel related industries?

Skinner: Yeah, I would say. I mean, one of the biggest issues that we deal with is that there are not nearly as many jobs on the operations and maintenance side of solar and wind work as there are in the current energy economy. So if you think about building a nuclear, coal, oil or gas power plant, there’s a lot of jobs created constructing those plants. But then there’s also a lot of jobs operating and maintaining those plants. It takes a large workforce to operate those plants, and then there’s often a number of workers and unionized trades that come in a couple of times a year and do maintenance and tuning on those plants to keep them running well. Once you build solar and wind there’s a good amount of jobs on the construction site. Of course, we need to build a lot of solar and wind, and a lot of other types of renewable energy. There’s a lot of work on the construction side. But then once they’re up, there’s very little work on the operations and maintenance side. And so that makes this transition scary for workers who are currently in the energy economy. Are there actually going to be the same number of jobs in the renewable energy economy as we currently have. And that’s just on the number of jobs, of course. I just spoke to the kind of issues around quality of those jobs. What’s the pay? What are the benefits of the training and safety opportunities that go along with these new jobs? And then the other thing I would say is just, there’s not a one to one sort of direct correlation between where we currently have power plants and produce power in this country and where we’re building or might build solar and wind. And so you have to remember that, it’s often whole communities that are based around a power plant. So if you have a big, fifteen hundred or two thousand megawatt power plant, a whole community is often sort of oriented around that power plant. It provides a lot of jobs. It could provide anywhere from five hundred to two thousand jobs. And then there’s a lot of indirect and induced jobs and economic benefits that go along with that power plant. We had a power plant here in New York, a big nuclear plant that shut down. And that plant paid tens of millions of dollars a year in taxes to the local community. And so it was actually the teachers union and other parts of the public sector workforce that came to us and said this plant closing down is having a big impact on our workforce. The public budget just isn’t there to sustain, the budget around our schools, around sanitation, around other public services that the community needs. So you have to think about those broader impacts as well. And with the deregulated energy sector that we have, it’s not like you can say, Oh, we’re closing down a coal plant here, we’re going to build a whole bunch of solar and wind in the same exact spot. It often doesn’t happen that way. So that’s another element of why this transition is a little bit tricky.

Stone: Why the low rates of unionization in clean energy? At least low relative to what the fossil fuel jobs would have.

Skinner: I mean, a big piece of that is just, like I said earlier, the labor movement. The union movement fought for many decades to make those current jobs in the fossil fuel and current energy economy good jobs and unionized jobs. You know lives were lost in struggles that they had to unionize those workforces and make sure that workers had a democratic collective voice on the job. These are new industries so it takes time for organized labor to sort of catch up with the industry and try to make these good jobs. At the same time, we’re now working in a totally different environment than we were back in the late 1800s and early 1900s when unions were first starting up. Now it’s very hard to unionize and to organize workers in this country. There’s a lot of barriers to workers being able to come together and have a democratic collective voice on the job. The other part of it is, the vast majority of clean energy work that needs to be done needs to be done in the residential sector. So we’re not talking about steel mills with twenty thousand workers at one site. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of workers spread across the whole residential sector. Many houses across the whole U.S., so it’s a harder sector to organize.

Stone: So you direct the Labor Leading on Climate Initiative at Cornell, and that’s really working on bringing labor together to ensure that there are unions, that there are collective agreements to make sure that these new jobs in clean energy are also high quality, sustain families, have good benefits. Tell us more about the initiative’s role, and its objectives, and what the genesis for it was.

Skinner: Yeah, when I think about the work that the Labor Leading on Climate Initiative does, I think about three things. And the one is that we’re studying the labor and employment impacts of climate change. And so when we started this work about a dozen years ago, there was increased attention on the crisis of climate change, but it was largely seen as an environmental issue. And of course, this issue actually has huge social, economic, broader labor, employment impacts and those impacts were not really being looked at carefully. And so we thought, as a school that has worked with workers, employers, organized labor for many, many decades since the late 1940s, this was a special sort of angle that we could provide on this work as what are the labor and employment impacts of climate change and the transition to a clean energy economy. So, both how are workers in workplaces and economic sectors going to be impacted by climate change?  There’s been more focus recently on how will extreme heat affect folks who work outside? Right. There’s big implications of that. And again, we’re talking about whole sectors of our economy needing to shift and change. And what will the workforce implications of that be? And so that’s part of what we’re doing is just trying to understand what are those labor and employment impacts? Ultimately, what we want to do is make sure that we’re maximizing the jobs and economic benefits of this transition. We think there are massive opportunities related to making this transition to a clean energy economy. But we also know there are challenges like around job loss, like around displacement of communities like around whether these will be high quality jobs or not. And so we want to minimize job loss. We want to minimize the negative impacts. We want to maximize the positive benefits and make sure that equity is centered in climate policy. So, we do research to really sort of understand what’s happening and then we’re also helping to design policy. And that’s the work that we’re doing and a bunch of different states right now. But we’re designing climate policy. We want it to be science based climate policy. It needs to be ambitious, it needs to tackle climate change at the scale that we need to avoid the worst impacts. But we also need to center the interest of workers. We need to center equity as we take on climate change. And then the other thing we do is provide direct training, education, technical assistance, support to unions, worker organizations and other groups to help them. As you mentioned at the beginning of the podcast, to effectively and positively and proactively engage in the debates around climate change.

Stone: Well as you’ve been talking about right here, there’s obviously a very practical side to all of this. For example, climate jobs in New York, which I think dates back to 2017, which was kind of the first, as I understand, partnership of Labor Leading on Climate Initiative with the state. That work led to, I believe it was a campaign that lobbied the state for a target of nine gigawatts of offshore wind and prevailing wage in project labor agreements for all those workers. So tell us a little bit more about the model that you’re working on at the states to actually have the rubber hit the road and really create new jobs in clean energy.

Skinner: Yeah, so in New York, just to give you a little bit of background on that, that helps explain the work that we’re doing in other states now. I mean, basically, Hurricane Sandy hit downstate New York, Hurricane Irene hit upstate New York, massive devastation. We really saw firsthand how workers union members, frontline communities that have faced historic inequities were hurt first and worst. They saw the most damage had the fewest resources to adapt and recover from these storms. And we really saw union members on the front lines dealing with these storms and the recovery afterwards. The nurses union nurses were carrying patients downstairs by hand to evacuate them from hospitals because there was no power in the elevators weren’t working anymore. We saw public sector workers who were stranded at water treatment plants trying to keep those plants online, line members of the transport workers union trying to get buses and trains to safety and out of horrible flooding. So it just changed the level of consciousness around climate change in New York fundamentally. It wasn’t like climate change is something of the future. It’s like it’s here now and we’re already seeing the impacts. And wow, what can we do to make sure that we don’t see future storms like this, or at least try to limit the number and intensity of future storms? And at the same time, we were seeing more solar and wind projects being built throughout New York state, but most of them being built nonunion. And then on top of that, the environmental movement was sort of rallying after Hurricane Sandy and Irene saying we need to pass big, bold climate legislation in New York state, which was absolutely true. Again, we’ve got to do what we need to do to tackle climate change. But we were very concerned that the climate policy that the state passed would not take into consideration the needs and interests of working people. And so with that I approached, Cornell approached, some of the main labor leaders in New York state, the labor federation’s members of the building trades energy sector unions and said, What would it look like for us to put together a positive, proactive plan for dealing with climate change, but in a way that would really sort of maximize job creation and economic benefits and deal with equity issues? And so we did that. We came out with, it was called Combating Climate Change, Reversing Inequality of Climate Jobs Program for New York State. You can find the report on our website. We produced that in 2017. And that was a labor-only process. We brought unions together and said, Let’s design this plan. It was a multi-dimensional research policy, training and education program. And at the end of that process, the unions that were involved said this was a great process. This is a great report. But we don’t want just a report that’s going to collect dust on the shelves. We want to actually try to make some of this stuff happen and implement the recommendations that were developed in the report. And as you mentioned, the first thing they focused on was offshore wind, and we identified that as an opportunity to deal with climate change, shift New York to renewable power and do it in a big way so that we could see, the sort of, carry on economic development benefits, right, to build the whole offshore wind industry with a manufacturing supply chain that could create a lot of jobs. We said to do that, we’ve got to go big. About half of New York’s power should come from offshore wind. That’s where the nine gigawatt target came from. And we said this work should all be covered by a project labor agreement to ensure that these are going to be high quality family and community sustaining jobs. And the unions that were involved launched their own organization, Climate Jobs New York. They campaigned around offshore wind and they were able to win that goal. They got the offshore wind target, they got the project labor agreement requirement and continue to go on and are running a number of different campaigns around climate jobs now. And so that was really, what we did in New York was sort of the basis for unions and other states coming to us.  Myself, Mike Fishman, who used to be the president of SEIU 32BJ, Vinny Alvarez, the president of the New York City Central Labor Council. John Podesta. We got together and said, what if we created a national resource center that could help unions and other places develop similar plans, run similar processes to have sort of their own proactive, pro-worker pro-union climate jobs plan? So we set up that Resource Center. Labor Leading on Climate acts as the educational and academic partner to the Resource Center, and we’re now running similar processes in about a dozen states across the US.

Stone: Has there been any resistance to this? I mean, I think about the struggle that wind energy and solar energy have had over the last decade, it’s to bring costs down. Has there been anybody who said, Well, this is going to raise costs, make these, these alternatives less competitive? I mean, have you seen pushback?

Skinner: A little bit. Yeah. I mean, there is, some parts of the environmental movement. But keep in mind, the environmental movement is very big and diverse. Many of the environmental justice, climate justice, grassroots environmental groups who are involved in this, where they are very eager to see the development of the clean energy economy benefit their communities. They’re very eager to see job creation in their communities and they want them to be high quality jobs and they recognize the value of them being union jobs and having access to the world class union training infrastructure. There’s some concern from the clean energy, business community, some parts of the environmental movement will having labor standards on this work increase costs and slow the development of clean energy. But there’s been a number of studies in the last few years that showed that the labor costs of these projects is actually very small. That’s usually in the six to eight percent range. It’s all of the other aspects of the projects that actually cost a lot more. And so increasing wages to make sure that these are good jobs tends to have very little impact on the overall cost of the project. And if you think about industries like offshore wind, most of the developers that are coming in to do these projects are European companies. They’ve been doing offshore wind development in the North Sea for more than a decade. And they’re used to working with unions. The vast majority of their workforce is union.

Stone: What is the corollary in the clean energy space to a job such as one in a coal fired power plant where you’ve got pipefitters who are employed over many decades or, keeping the equipment in shape, ensuring the long ongoing operation of that plant? Where is that type of ongoing role in the clean energy industry? Because as you said earlier, when you put up a wind farm, a lot of that work is in the initial construction, less workers are involved in the ongoing operations.

Skinner: Yeah, that’s a great question. I mean, there’s a couple of different answers to it. For example, we did a bunch of work in Texas. Texas is, of course, one of the oil and gas industrial powers of the world. And so one of the things they’re looking really closely at is what role does green hydrogen play? So hydrogen that’s produced completely by renewable energy plays in these industrial sectors? I mentioned earlier, steel making, concrete making those industrial processes, which tend to be quite high carbon. They often have a fossil fuel power generation site connected with the industrial facility. There is potential for those facilities to shift to green hydrogen, so you’ll still be making those products, but you’ll be producing them with a zero carbon renewable energy source through the green hydrogen. So in some cases, it’s like thinking about how we maintain jobs, good jobs that already exist by converting those processes to be low or zero carbon. That’s part of it. And again, in a place like Texas, the United Steelworkers, other unions, have significant union density and some of those industrial sectors. So figuring out how they can be sort of the green energy capital of the world is really important. And then there’s other things, too. If you think about plumbers and pipefitters again, I mean, one of the spaces that plumbers working right now on are absolutely critical to is water quality. Well, it actually takes a lot of power to move water throughout buildings and to heat and cool water. And so thinking about how we are increasing the energy efficiency of water movement, how are we capturing water and reusing it? How are we heating and cooling it with different mechanisms like heat pumps is a big opportunity in the building space that the plumbers and pipefitters would be very connected to. Again, we have wastewater treatment plants that produce heat that can be converted into power. And so thinking about how you take that power and get it back into the current gas pipeline distribution system and be using it in our cities to heat and cool buildings is another opportunity. And then, of course, like geothermal, geothermal is all about piping. Putting a lot of piping into the earth and using that core temperature of the earth to heat and cool buildings. Plumbers and pipefitters obviously would play a big role in that. And I was just learning recently about some of the programs that the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters have around geothermal, around heat pumps, around water efficiency and water and air quality. And again, the union training infrastructure is so impressive, and I continue to be impressed by all of the sort of forward looking programs that many unions have implemented over the last years.

Stone: Well, it’s interesting just to emphasize the point on this one. So the unions in Texas that you’re talking about that were involved in this Texas Climate Jobs project, those are unions that were representing people working in the fossil fuel industry, are working in the fossil fuel industry who are now looking for opportunities in clean energy.

Skinner: Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, Texas, has installed a huge amount of solar and wind. Unfortunately, most of it has been installed by nonunion labor. And so there’s concerns around the quality of those jobs. But, it’s a big state. It uses a lot of power. Some of the things that we look at in our climate jobs plan that may be of interest to folks are things like how does the public sector lead? If you look at a place like Texas that, huge number of public school buildings that consume a massive amount of energy every year. What about installing renewable energy on site? What about doing deep energy efficiency retrofits of those buildings? It’s good for the climate, it’s good for the health and safety of the students, teachers and staff in those schools. And it’s good for the state and school districts in the sense that it really reduces energy costs. They’re spending a lot of money to power to provide electricity and heat and cool those buildings. And that’s going to become a bigger factor as climate change intensifies and we have more extreme heat. Many schools across the US don’t currently have air conditioning. That’s likely going to change in the coming decade. And again, be another reason why energy demand goes up. So thinking about how we retrofit and install renewable energy at public schools, at public buildings, in New York we’re looking at how you do this in the New York City public housing system, which is a huge building system. How do you do it in health and hospital systems? Again, a really big consumer of energy. There are things that we can be doing now to deal with climate change, reduce energy costs which would be good for these sectors, but also create a lot of jobs and do this work at scale, because that’s a thing that we often see as we look across states is the work is not being done at the scale and pace that it needs to be done to really deal with climate change, which is also problematic on the jobs side because if you’re not doing it at scale, some states have programs to retrofit school buildings. But if you’re only doing a dozen school buildings a year and you have thousands and thousands of school buildings, you’re also not seeing the potential to create a lot of jobs in the space, either because you’re just not doing it at scale, you’re not doing the investment. And if you were doing it at scale, you could actually then do bulk purchasing of windows and doors, insulation, solar panels. You would bring the cost down even further to do this work. So that’s an example of something that we looked at in Texas. There’s big opportunities in the building sector. There’s big opportunities in the transportation sector. We know to how deal with climate change, we’re going to have to rely more on low carbon, high efficiency public transit. That’s buses, that’s light rail, that’s high speed rail. And again, a lot of opportunities on the jobs front, both constructing these systems, but also in the ongoing operations and maintenance.

Stone: Well, it seems to me like there might be two general buckets here that we’re looking at in terms of the workers, and those are workers that have skills that are pretty immediately transferable to the clean energy economy and those who may not or may require more retraining. And it’s interesting in kind of doing some research before we spoke, I ran across a presentation from the Seattle Fossil Fuel Workforce Transition Study, and it pointed out that manual and construction related jobs are actually going to be those that are most impacted by automation, which I thought was interesting. How do you talk about transferability, risks, need for new skills and where does automation fall into all this?

Skinner: Yeah, that’s a good question. I mean, one thing that I wanted to mention earlier when you asked about transition is, I think it’s really important to keep in mind that in the US, we really struggle with doing transition well. We have not done, there’s a term in the kind of climate and labor space called just transition. The idea that there is a transition for workers and communities that are negatively impacted by climate change and this transition to clean energy that will be just and equitable transition for them into this new economy. And on the job side, there would be jobs that are just as well-paying that provide similar benefits as workers currently have, who work in parts of the high carbon and energy intensive parts of the economy. And the reality is we have tried to do transition in this country before, and we just haven’t done it well. We haven’t provided the depth of support that workers and communities need to make this transition, and we haven’t provided the breadth. So we just haven’t reached the full scale of workers and communities that are actually impacted by these transitions. I mean, in most states in this country, companies are only required to give a few months notice of closure, that’s not nearly enough time for workers and communities to figure out what’s next. So set aside the kind of skills part of it, just if a power plant or some other facility is closing down and you only have three months’ notice. And that community was largely oriented around that plant. You actually need years of notice and financial assistance and technical assistance to figure out what’s your role in this new economy. What could your community do? What’s the alternative economic development activity and plan that you’re going to put in place that can actually provide the same level of jobs and economic support that that plant or facility was providing before? And we’ve done trips to Europe to learn about offshore wind and other issues, and we’ve said to unions and workers over there, how do you deal with transition? And it’s a totally different ballgame. If you lose your job, you are automatically guaranteed in many countries that you’ll be paid the same as you were when you were working. That’s not how unemployment works in this country, and you have universal health care. Our benefits, our health care in this country are tied to being employed. So, those things make transition in this country much, much more complicated than it is in some parts of Europe that have started to undertake this transition. and we tried to do this with the steel industry, we still have a trade adjustment assistance program and there’s been numerous studies on these programs that say, not really, not really working well. And those programs are there to deal with automation, as well as relocation. So I think it’s really important to keep in mind big picture here. Yes, there’s going to be a lot of new jobs in the clean energy economy, but there’s not a direct path for folks who are currently working in the energy and high carbon industries into those new jobs. It’s just not that simple, and we don’t have a good transition infrastructure in place in this country to support workers into that new economy. So it’s complicated here and again, like I said before, because our economy is largely producing low wage, low quality jobs. If you look at the economy in most states, you’ll see most workers are making $15 an hour or less. So if you’re someone with a high school education working in a power plant making one hundred thousand dollars or more a year, it’s very scary to think about what’s next if that plant closes down.

Stone: Are there any recommendations that you have been working on or the group that you work with have been working on to find a path to support workers through the transition? I just have to recall, we did a podcast, I think, a couple episodes ago looking at Germany’s coal transition. It was just like you just mentioned. The social support system is very strong for workers who are transitioning out of coal and even workers who were close to retirement. Essentially, they are, the plan is to support them into their retirement. What might you recommend in the United States? Is there something in either the bipartisan infrastructure bill that would support this or in Build Back Better if that ever becomes reality that you might be looking towards?

Skinner: Yeah, I mean, a couple of things I would mention. One, I think the work that we’re doing at the state level to develop these climate jobs plans is so important because, we really, we really stand with one foot in the climate world and one foot in the labor world thinking about, how do we take on climate change in a way that’s going to create high quality jobs and build stronger, fairer communities and economies? And so, when we develop our plans for very concrete, if we’re going to make this transition, how much renewable energy do we need to build? What type of renewable energy, how many buildings do we need to retrofit? What does that retrofit work look like? What do we need? How many electric vehicle charging stations do we need to build? What public transit systems do we need to improve and expand to make this transition? So we’re very concrete about what needs to be built to get to this net zero economy that we need, how much it’s going to reduce emissions and get us to the science based targets. How many jobs it’s going to create. And then we get very specific about what do we need to do to make sure that these are going to be high quality jobs and that workers have the training that they need to work in these new industries and new jobs. And then, how much is it going to cost and how do we pay for it? So, we really try to create very specific concrete plans that it’s easy for legislators and policymakers and others to look at and say, okay, yeah, here’s the roadmap for what we need to do. And I think as we think about transition, particularly. Four workers are currently working in the energy economy, it’s really important to be able to say this is what needs to be built, so that everyone can start sort of figuring out, okay, this is this is the these are the workforce skills that we need to meet this demand. And then the other part of what we do is making sure that these new jobs are going to be good jobs because it’s hard to talk about this transition if you keep looking ahead and seeing the vast majority of jobs in solar and wind and energy efficiency, other parts of the clean energy economy are low wage, low quality jobs. That is not an incentive to make that transition. So I think the work that we’re doing at the state level is really important in that way. And then I think if you have that vision, if you have that vision for how do you get to that net zero economy, and it’s and it’s tailored to specific states and it really digs into, we don’t want abstract generic numbers around how many jobs are going to be created in a particular sector. You really need to get in there, understand how many iron workers are going to be needed on the job, how many electricians are going to be needed on a job, how many hours do you typically work on a, say, a school retrofit project? That’s the kind of detail and nuance that we need as we try to make this transition. And then you can use that to really sort of coordinate workforce development and figure out what timeline you need to have the workforce ready for that work. And then, a big piece of the labor standards part like, for example, a project labor agreement, some folks in your audience may not know what that is. That’s basically a project management tool where the unions, the building trades and the company, the developers who are doing a project get together and say, What are we building? How long is it going to take? What type of workers and workforce skills safety training do we need to do this project and you map it all out. And if you map it all out, then you know how many folks you need to bring into the training pipeline to have them ready for say, 2026 when these three offshore wind projects are starting. And of course, part of that commitment is that these workers will be paid well, that they’ll be provided good benefits and that these will be union jobs. So I think, the combination of having these concrete plans, committing to these being high quality jobs, and then actually having the labor standards on the work that ensures it is really important for us making this transition effectively.

Stone: Well it sounds like advocacy is a really important part of this as well in terms of bringing those industries to the states. I mean, on the East Coast, there’s a lot of competition for these new wind energy jobs to build a new energy supply chains in a given state. So I’d imagine that you and the unions are working to bring those supply chains to the given state that you’re working with, right?

Skinner: That’s a perfect example of where there’s going to be a lot of work on the construction side of building these offshore wind turbines. But then, once they’re up, yes, there is operations and maintenance work. Somebody has to make sure that these turbines are working optimally. They require regular maintenance. But again, it’s not kind of the same scale as operations and maintenance work that you see in a coal, oil, gas or nuclear plant. So yes, we’re very concerned around, will there be manufacturing assembling port jobs connected to this industry? That’s where the vast majority of jobs are in, manufacturing and assembly. And I think we’re getting to the point where the U.S. is committing to a large amount of offshore wind development. Biden has set a goal for 30 gigawatts. States up and down the East Coast have and now have a pipeline of projects in the works. I think we’re going to see even more offshore wind development. We’re now looking at developments in the Gulf Coast, on the West Coast, out in Hawaii. So there are a lot of opportunities for us to procure energy from offshore wind. And with that, I think we need to think about how we really sort of bundle that demand and say we need to see more manufacturing and assembly sites for these turbines, many of which are the size of the Statue of Liberty. They’re huge things. They take a lot of work to put together, a lot of manufacturing work connected to that. And I think, yes, we want to figure out how some of that work is happening in the US. And New York had a great victory in their last legislative session. Climate Jobs New York advocated for there to be buy American and build New York provisions in the procurement of offshore wind in the state so that developers, as they’re committing to doing projects, they look to what can be manufactured in New York. And I think we just need to be doing more, and I think we can be doing that at the federal level too. The Biden administration is saying, Hey, I want to talk to the developers and say, we’ve got big commitments for offshore wind. What production processes are you going to locate in the US?

Stone: Environmental groups have historically been very involved in this. What’s the relationship with environmental groups? How much have labor groups worked with environmentalists to push some of this forward?

Skinner: It really varies across the U.S. and over time. I have seen so much great collaboration between the labor movement and the environmental movement over the years. there’s also been a lot of pitched battles between the labor movement and the environmental movement. in our work, most recently, this work that we’re doing in states, as I mentioned earlier, we’re really focused on convening unions to put together these proactive climate jobs plans. And we really sort of center the processes around the unions that are most concerned about this transition and job loss. So a lot of the focus is on building trades unions, energy unions, other unions that work in sectors that are going to be significantly impacted by the transition. And we made that intentional decision to do these kind of labor only processes because we just recognize that there are such unique challenges and opportunities for labor and for workers in this transition. And it felt important to be able to work through those to identify them, work through them, figure out ways to address the challenges, but also seize the opportunities and figure out internal way to approach climate so that unions could ultimately be better partners to the environmental movement and more effective partners and go to the environmental movement and say, yes, climate change is one of the most important issues of our time. We’ve got to tackle it. We’ve got to tackle it at scale. There’s a lot of opportunities here. And also, we have a lot of concerns around, for example, the quality of these new jobs. And here’s what we think needs to happen to make sure that these are going to be good jobs. So I feel really encouraged by the way that the climate jobs coalitions that have been set up in Texas and Illinois and Maine and New York and Rhode Island are collaborating with environmental partners.  And in Rhode Island, their coalition climate jobs Rhode Island is made up of unions, environmental organizations as well as legislators that have come together to do this work.

Stone: So final question for you here, so there have been these coalitions, as you mentioned in so many states, New York was the first one, most recently, I believe Rhode Island. Where are you looking to go next with this? And are there any kind of takeaways or learnings that you would leave us with in terms of how to build these coalitions to create better jobs and to advance decarbonization?

Skinner: I mean, I think we continue to be focused on the state level. In some cases, we’re focusing on the city level where state level action is difficult. I think given the sort of uncertain nature of what will happen at the federal level, it’s very important that there are robust coalitions at the state level that can show that we can tackle climate change in a way that creates good jobs. I think we’ve got to implement as much as we can at the state level. And so when the opportunities arise to really sort of scale this work up at the federal level, we know what works and what doesn’t work. I think with the federal infrastructure money that is available currently and will drive investment into the clean energy economy, we’ve got to do as much as we can to get those projects up and running to actually create jobs. And I think, you know from my perspective that there are labor standards attached to the federal monies that are going down to states and cities that ensure that these are going to be high quality jobs is really important. some states are not able to do that. They’re not able to have those labor standards. And I think we need to send the message from the top that, yes, we’re going to take on climate change, but we’re also going to take on inequality and we’re going to make sure that those labor standards are built into the federal monies that are coming down.

Stone: Lara, thanks very much for talking.

Skinner: Thank you.

Stone: Today’s guest has been Lara Skinner, director of The Labor Leading on Climate Initiative at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Visit the Kleinman Center’s website for more podcasts, as well as Energy Policy research and blog posts from experts in the field. To keep up with the latest from the center, subscribe to our monthly newsletter on our website. Thanks for listening to Energy Policy Now and have a great day.


Lara Skinner

Director of Labor Leading on Climate Initiative, Cornell University
Lara Skinner is Director of the Labor Leading on Climate Initiative at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

Andy Stone

Energy Policy Now Host and Producer
Andy Stone is producer and host of Energy Policy Now, the Kleinman Center’s podcast series. He previously worked in business planning with PJM Interconnection and was a senior energy reporter at Forbes Magazine.