Shuler: The Labor Movement Is the Engine Toward an Equitable, Clean Energy Future

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler delivered the following remarks as prepared to close the Climate Jobs National Resource Center's second annual virtual Climate Jobs Summit:

Thank you so much, Vinny [Alvarez], you have shown incredible leadership and such a source of inspiration. And thank you to our friends at the Cornell Worker Institute. And what an honor to follow Secretary Walsh. I am so proud that you are our Labor Secretary—a card-carrying union member leading the Department of Labor!  

As was said, I’m Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO. We are now 57 unions and 12.5 million working people in jobs all across the country.

What’s clear from the incredible conversation today is this: we can respond to the climate crisis and preserve and create high-quality, union jobs at the same time. 

I will say it loud and clear: the path to a clean energy future runs right through the labor movement. 

We’re building an energetic, resilient and inclusive movement in every ZIP code, in every state—with women, Black, brown and Indigenous folks, and LGBTQ individuals at the center. 
We heard speakers discuss a wide range of exciting, critical policies and technological advances. 

And the common thread running through each possibility is working people and our communities.

That is exactly the framework we need for an equitable clean energy future: Working people at the center of the discussion and driving action on climate change, all while reversing deep-rooted inequities.

Working people are already stepping up in the face of climate change: Fixing our grids, protecting forests, maintaining buildings and roads, building carbon-free healthy schools, evacuating subway stations, providing care relief and more. 

All working people are affected by the climate crisis. And the labor movement is responding, as we heard today, from Connecticut, Texas, Rhode Island, Maine, Illinois, and of course, New York! 

We’ve seen what happens when worker voices and perspectives are excluded—we get bad policy and legislative decisions. 

But we have the chance right now to do things with a better approach, to enact climate and energy policies that prioritize workers, uphold labor standards like Davis-Bacon, encourage apprenticeship utilization and prioritize domestic manufacturing. 

Our former President Rich Trumka and I talked about this all the time.

As most of you know, we lost Rich unexpectedly in early August.

One of the last speeches he gave was at a workshop through the Labor Energy Partnership—a joint effort of the AFL-CIO and the Energy Futures Initiative.

The workshop focused on keeping and creating good, union jobs in the Ohio River Valley—the region where Rich was born and raised, a third generation coal miner.

It’s where his roots with the Mineworkers started. He always talked about the bosses at the mines who thought they could deny workers our rights and about the inequities in those rural communities. 

Rich used the union to put power behind workers’ voices. He wanted every working person, on every job, to have that power of a union too. 

And I believe his very last speech was a message of solidarity to striking miners down in Alabama. 

I mention this because even in his last moments of leadership, Rich was standing alongside workers in coal communities who will be on the frontline of this transition, and he was standing with workers who are designing the clean energy future already. 

That’s what our movement will continue to do.

A successful transition depends on support for workers in industries that are changing—like guaranteeing wage replacement for those who are displaced.

It depends on creating jobs and opportunities within communities impacted by the clean energy transition and environmental degradation.

That means identifying local job-creating investments before existing jobs are lost and lifting up policies that push investments to fossil communities and underserved communities.

And it means organizing the renewable sectors. As John Doherty spoke so eloquently about, workers need the power to come together and bargain. 

But right now, it’s easier for a corporation to stop a union than it is for a worker to join one. 

So most renewable energy jobs are not organized, pay a fraction of what existing energy jobs pay, and don’t offer benefits or retirement security.

That’s why we need the PRO Act—renamed the Richard L. Trumka PRO Act—because it will remove barriers to organizing. 

We also need more job training opportunities that actually lead to careers and build a new, inclusive middle class. 

Our apprenticeship programs in the labor movement are the gold standard—they are the bridge to high-growth, high-demand job and we are laser-focused on recruiting women, people of color, veterans and the formerly incarcerated.
A number of communities in New York have booming pre-apprenticeship programs, like Opportunities Long Island, which has a strong record of placing women and people of color in the Building Trades.

Last Friday, I heard of an Opportunities Long Island graduate, Claude Malloy of Ornamental IronWorkers Local 580, who said: "The day I was accepted is the day my life changed. The program gave me hope again.”

We want anyone looking for that kind of hope to be able to find it through our movement.

And with 68 percent of all Americans supporting unions, and 77 percent of young people, unions are the place where workers from one sector can shift to another without leaving their community or losing good wages and benefits. Where leaders turn for American, union-made supply chains to support green infrastructure and manufacturing. Where we revitalize manufacturing as we grow the renewable sector, and amplify worker voice and perspective so we benefit from investments paid with our tax dollars. And where responding to the climate crisis means addressing systemic discrimination and economic inequality.

We have the unique network to do it—the AFL-CIO can mobilize working people in every state and every city in the country, across party lines and lived experiences. 

Because of it, the labor movement can be the engine that propels us to an equitable, clean energy future.

Thank you to all of today’s participants, especially our labor leaders Becky Pringle and Randi Weingarten; the Worker Institute at Cornell University ILR School; Michael Fishman, Climate Jobs NY and the Climate Jobs National Resource Center; Chris Shelton, John Doherty, John Podesta, Vinny Alvarez, Kyle Bragg and Secretary Walsh, and so many others.  

And thanks to all of you out there watching! 

The AFL-CIO is thrilled to help lead this urgent and hopeful movement.