Last Labor Day, candidate Joe Biden made an impassioned pitch to leaders and members of the AFL-CIO, America’s largest labor federation. Stressing that “the great American middle class was built by unions,” he promised, “I’m going to be the strongest labor president you have ever had,” drawing a smile from his ally and friend, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.
But Biden has also declared climate change the nation’s greatest challenge. Biden’s climate team wants to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2035, which would be a herculean feat. Today, renewables like solar and wind power provide 18% of America’s electricity. The administration would need to use federal muscle to more than triple the current expansion rate of solar and wind energy and install vast amounts of battery storage for backup, leaving only a fraction of natural gas power online for reliability of the grid.
Biden set an aggressive target because eliminating carbon from power generation must occur before the electrification of vehicles and industry – the other major emitters – can reduce their carbon footprint.
But moving at such a rapid pace poses a threat to industrial labor unions. With about 750,000 mostly well-paying fossil-fuel jobs on the line, several unions in the energy sector have rejected Biden’s 2035 target as too ambitious. They’re calling for a 2050 deadline, giving the industry more time to roll out its silver bullet: technology to capture the carbon before it is released into the atmosphere and keep mines, drills, and power plants open.
“We will not support policies that accelerate the closure of coal plants. The closures are already happening more rapidly than communities can deal with and are leaving economic devastation behind them,” says Lee Anderson of the Utility Workers Union of America, an AFL-CIO affiliate with 50,000 members.
Brokering the standoff between Biden and labor is Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, chair of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, through which all climate policy must pass. Manchin is a moderate swing vote in the evenly split Senate, and Biden will need his backing on other contentious issues.
Unions have an ally in Manchin, whose roots in the coal economy run deep. Manchin also sees the climate crisis as a chance to transform coal country into a hub of green manufacturing so fossil-fuel workers aren’t left behind. His priority is the renewal and expansion of an effective federal tax credit started under President Barack Obama to spur clean energy manufacturing in fossil-fuel states like West Virginia. He recently hinted that he could support a 2050 net-zero target in line with the position of some energy unions, which see the more ambitious 2035 date as an existential threat.
Utility, mine and construction unions say that a slower ramp-up with a 2050 deadline would save jobs by providing more time to improve the performance and lower the cost of carbon capture and storage technology.
Fossil fuel workers have reason to worry about massive layoffs from a climate law. Princeton University researchers recently examined five pathways to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 without the benefit of carbon capture for coal. In all pathways, the vast majority of mines and all coal power plants shutter by 2030, although the coal export business will live on. The ranks of 600,000 natural gas workers fall by more than two-thirds by 2050 in most scenarios.
Such job losses would rival the dislocations in the American auto industry that left cities like Detroit in tatters. The Big Three automakers shed about 600,000 employees, or more than half of their workforce, from 1979 to 2003 in the U.S. and Canada.
To compensate, the Biden administration pledges that the energy transition will create “millions” of green jobs, but most new jobs will be in the construction of wind and solar farms, which is temporary work and often not in the same regions that provide fossil fuel employment. The pay is significantly lower, too. The median wage for a solar installer is about $45,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Once the wind and solar facilities are up and running, they won’t be hiring many fossil fuel workers. A coal plant employs a few hundred workers, paying about $82,000 for a skilled operator. A renewable facility mostly runs by itself.
“Look at a picture of a solar or wind farm and there are no cars in the parking lots, nobody is on-site,” says Donnie Colston, director of utilities at IBEW, which has 775,000 members.
Biden has issued an executive order pledging to revitalize coal communities by creating union jobs in mine reclamation and the buildout of wind and solar farms and transmission lines.
But the United Mine Workers has reason to doubt that the president can deliver on a multibillion-dollar redevelopment of coal country. From the collapse of the auto industry in the 1980s to the more recent gutting of manufacturing from free-trade agreements, the federal government has stumbled in creating a meaningful rebound for blue-collar workers.