Biden’s climate plan strives to be pro-labor. But it isn’t enough for some unions

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Joe Biden wants energy workers to get paid higher wages and have an easier time organizing.

Yet some labor groups involved in oil, gas and coal work are apprehensive about Biden’s big plans to combat climate change if he wins the White House.

The former vice president’s climate plan won accolades from many corners of the labor movement, yet it is still generating concern from heavy-industry labor groups worried a rapid shift away from fossil fuels will also mean a transition away from their traditionally well-paying blue-collar jobs.

“I’ve read it,” Sean McGarvey, president of the North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU), a federation of 14 construction unions, said of Biden’s climate plan. “The devil’s always in the details. It speaks to many portions of the policy proposal to creating these middle-class family sustaining jobs, union jobs. I’m just not sure how that gets done mechanically at this point.”

President Trump and his campaign are already trying to capitalize on the rift, arguing Biden is acquiescing to liberals such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (R-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

“AOC and Bernie are in charge of energy,” Trump said in a speech last week. “I don’t think Texas is too happy about that.”

Biden’s plan calls for eliminating carbon pollution from power plants within 15 years all while protecting workers.

In an appeal to his party’s liberals, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said he would require electricity utilities to get all of their energy from cleaner sources — including wind, solar, nuclear and hydroelectric — by 2035.

At the same time, Biden’s clean energy standard includes rules and incentives for developers to pay prevailing wages and allow workers to unionize.

His climate plan also called for legislation to give workers more power in disputes and to weaken state-level “right-to-work” laws allowing employees to stop paying union dues.

And the plan is notable for excluding a demand to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — a priority for many left-leaning activists but one that could alienate workers in the swing state of Pennsylvania.

All of those are aspects of the plan potentially appealing to labor groups in the energy sector.

“The traditional components of the energy sector have been heavily unionized and it, throughout the plan, makes note of that and recognizes workers right to organize,” said Josh Freed, head of the climate and energy program at the center-left think tank Third Way.

Yet NABTU, which represents construction workers, notes many of those building energy infrastructure see better wages and benefits in the oil and gas sector than they do in renewable projects.

“We agree over the coming decades, we’re going to do more and more transition,” McGarvey told reporters Friday. “But we can’t transition into careers where people take a 50 percent or 75 percent pay cut.”

Given Biden’s climate ambitions, a handful of energy labor groups are sitting out the 2020 election.

In 2012, the pipefitters’ union endorsed Barack Obama despite his blocking of a project that would have put its members to work — the Keystone XL pipeline.

One of Trump’s first acts as president was to issue permits to allow it to move forward. Now, with Biden saying he will revoke those permits, the pipefitters have decided not to get behind anyone in the 2020 election.

“We continue to remain focused on fighting for our members day in and day out,” Mark McManus, the union’s president, said in a statement. “We look forward to continuing our conversations with the Biden campaign around issues critical to our members and their jobs.”

The United Mine Workers of America, too, are staying on the sidelines in the race between Biden and Trump, despite the latter’s rhetoric on saving coal jobs.

The coal miners’ union finds itself stuck between a rock and a hard place — unable to back Biden, who promises a rapid transition to renewables, and unable to support Trump, whose they say has undermined workers’ rights.

“As of now we are not looking to endorse a presidential candidate,” said Phil Smith, head of communications and governmental affairs at the coal miners’ union, which also declined to endorse in 2012 and 2016.