Joe Biden’s latest climate change and clean energy plan mentions the word union more than it does the climate itself.
Why it matters: Wind and solar energy has grown immensely across America over the last decade, but associated union jobs have not. The Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee is trying to change that, which politicians and others say is key to tackling climate change.
What they’re saying: “There’s a halo effect that pertains to the clean energy industry with respect to how those industries treat workers,” said Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a group backed by labor unions and environmental groups.
- But like other industries, he said, "under our prevailing labor law regime, companies are actively discouraging and in some cases actively blocking the ability of their workers to organize, which includes firing them.”
The big picture: The pandemic and resulting economic recession is catapulting worker rights and equity to the forefront of all debates, including energy and climate change.
Where it stands: Biden’s expanded plan on those topics unveiled last week calls for sweeping changes to labor laws, alongside aggressive goals to transition off fossil fuels.
By the numbers: Union presence is “an important factor” in job quality, said Phil Jordan, vice president at BW Research, which conducted an annual report about energy jobs on behalf of the Energy Futures Initiative, a think tank led by former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.
- Jobs in wind and solar are between 4% and 6% unionized. That’s on par with the national average for all jobs, but far lower than the share of union jobs in other energy sectors.
Yes, but: Factors inherent to renewable energy will make it hard for Biden to fulfill his promises on labor and use less fossil fuels, such as how relatively few long-term jobs exist in operating and maintaining renewable-energy facilities compared to other kinds.
- “We agree that over the coming decades we’re going to do more transition” to renewable energy, said Sean McGarvey, president of the North America's Building Trades Unions. “But we can’t transition into careers where they take a 50-75% paycheck cut.”
The intrigue: Some renewable energy advocates agree. “Where we are right now is not good enough,” Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), who is pushing a bill on this topic, told Axios in an interview last week.
The other side: Renewable-energy officials say the topic is increasingly on their radar, but they maintain that their sector already creates quality jobs.
The bottom line: "The speed with which we can transition will be affected profoundly if those who have good-paying jobs in the fossil-fuel world hate the idea of the transition to renewable energy,” Merkley says.