Speech | Global Worker Rights

Shuler: A Clean Energy Future Runs Through the Labor Movement

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler delivered the following remarks to the Global Unions’ Committee on Workers’ Capital at the 2021 Workers’ Capital Virtual Conference:

Hi everyone, I’m Liz Shuler, President of the AFL-CIO—we’re representing 57 unions with 12.5 million people working in jobs all across the economy in the U.S. and Canada.

Thank you Sharan Burrow, our fearless leader, and I also want to recognize Tuur Elzinga and Paddy Crumlin, for leading the Committee for Workers Capital through the challenges of the worst ever global health crisis.

It’s an honor to join you as co-chair and to be here to say a few words ahead of this fabulous panel. Thank you Aubrey and Lyon from our affiliate union LIUNA, for bringing the worker perspective from the U.S.—I know it will be a great discussion.

And of course, thank you Hugues, Tamara and Shalini, for serving as the CWC’s secretariat staff throughout the year and for your hard work to make this conference possible—it’s a big lift because we’re virtual and we’re global.

Since the CWC’s last conference, we’ve all weathered incredible loss, and we at the AFL-CIO are still grieving the passing of my friend and trade union brother, Richard Trumka.

We miss him every day. We’re honoring his legacy by staying focused and moving forward—just like he’d want.

This panel discussion is very timely.

The question being asked—”Where do labor rights fit in as private market funds ramp up their net-zero commitments?”—is a good one. And my answer is simple: Labor rights should be front and center.

As we speak, the working people I’m honored to represent are leading the response to the climate crisis—repairing, rescuing, designing and, of course, members of LIUNA are building it.

The path to the clean energy future runs right through the labor movement.

And we hear the phrase “just transition” used a lot. But it’s a meaningless phrase if the transition leaves any working person or community behind.

We need support for workers in industries that are declining—wage replacement for those who are displaced, a bridge to pension and local job training programs.

Policy, trade and investments should create jobs, use a racial justice and gender equity lens, and deliver place-based strategies.

We need guaranteed labor rights, including the right to organize with our co-workers in unions, because unions are transformational.

Unions are how we transform bad jobs into good jobs.

Think back to the early days of the carbon-fuel economy, those energy jobs were dangerous and poorly paid.

Industry by industry, nation by nation, through our unions, working people transformed low-wage, dangerous work into good jobs—careers with safety protections and retirement security.

As we build the clean energy future, every working person should have access to the life-changing power of a good, union job.

But as we know, that is not the case today. Renewable energy jobs in the U.S. are largely non-union—they pay a fraction of what existing energy jobs do and most don’t offer benefits or retirement security.

For a sustainable, equitable clean energy future, we need to transform the renewable energy industries with a high-road, high-wage strategy.

It can be done. The off-shore wind sector is a great example and a model to replicate.

We worked out a top-down labor partnership with the developers—we decided together that we were going to work collaboratively to create a high road strategy.

Union labor from the U.S. building trades will build multiple offshore wind projects up and down the East Coast of the United States.

A robust and a pro-active labor strategy makes good investment sense.

Renewable energy projects that take a best-value approach are more successful, and safer, than those using the lowest-cost contractor.

Responsible contractor policies and project labor agreements help make sure projects are delivered on time and to specifications. And that they work.

The success of any project depends on the training and experience of the workforce. Unions represent the highest skilled workforce.

Our apprenticeship readiness and apprenticeship training programs are the gold standard. And they put people on the path to the middle class.

And we are laser focused on diversity—recruiting women, people of color, veterans, and the formerly incarcerated.

Wind is one sector, and I know you’ll be talking about solar.

We applaud President Biden for banning the U.S. from importing solar cells manufactured with forced labor in the supply chain. We want to make sure every part of the global solar supply chain is built with high-road worker rights and environmental protections.

In recent years we have seen a dramatic increase in renewable energy investment by private equity, real estate and infrastructure funds. But are these private funds addressing the need for an equitable transition for workers?

Our pension plans are allocating capital to private funds that are investing in the clean energy economy. We have a choice to make—and with those choices, we have power.

Do we take a high road to invest in labor partnerships and broad based prosperity? Or do we take the low road that will result in a race to the bottom?

The labor movement will exercise our power to make prudent investments in private funds that stand with us.

Especially because COVID-19 has exposed the precarious economic situation of workers around the globe.

In these uncertain times, successful investment funds recognize that creating good jobs is the best way to achieve the financial returns that our pension plans need to pay promised retirement benefits.

And with the climate crisis, it’s not an either-or-issue: either we protect the environment or keep and create good jobs. NO. Answering the climate crisis means doing both.

So the discussion and decisions about private equity, real estate, infrastructure and technology investments should have a worker voice and perspective at the table.

That’s exactly what we’re doing with this panel. Thank you.

And with that, I will turn it over to Tamara to introduce our panel moderator, Catherine Bolger who is a trustee of State Super in Australia.

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