Speech | Infrastructure

Shuler to LAMPAC: The Clean Energy Transition Is Our Generation's Defining Opportunity

Washington, D.C.

AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler's delivered the following remarks as prepared to the National Labor and Management Public Affairs Committee's 16th annual meeting in Washington, D.C.:

Thank you, Paul [Noble], for that introduction. You and Kenny [Cooper] are doing an unbelievable job leading the IBEW.

I want to thank Tom Kuhn as well, for his vision and his leadership. For giving me the chance to speak about what we’re seeing in this moment, and the clean energy transition as a whole.

But I have to start by saying: How about what we saw in Michigan last week? Where the state House repealed the disastrous, so-called “right to work” law in a new bill. One that Governor Whitmer said she is going to sign.

You didn’t see it on the front pages of any of the big papers. But you should have. Because this is a huge win. It is proof that elections matter. 

That we have momentum. That things are changing all over the country and this is going to be the decade of labor.

Every year this feels like a homecoming for me.

As Paul mentioned and many of you know: I grew up in the IBEW and the electric utility industry. Back when it felt every generation worked at the same company and the company felt like a family.

I worked at the utility in college as a clerical worker in Payroll. My mom worked in service and design.
But my Dad’s story that was really the one that started it all.

He grew up in a fruit-picking shack in Hood River, Oregon. One room for the whole family, parents and five kids.
He got through high school. Enlisted in the Marine Corp and went straight to Vietnam to serve our country.
And when he came back to Oregon, he started trying to build a life. Took some classes at community college with the GI Bill.

Got a job as a hole digger at Portland General Electric. Put in his time, worked hard. And eventually earned his way into a slot in the power lineman’s apprenticeship.

That was a big jump – now he was making a decent wage, had healthcare benefits, could buy a home and put his kids through college. 

And it was only possible because of a breakthrough that happened a generation before him. An incredible innovation.

I’m not talking about the lightbulb or the grid but when this Brotherhood was formed.

Workers like my Dad were able to go out and transform and electrify this country because of the union.

Because of that IBEW Local 125 card he was listened to. Respected. Had a voice.

My Dad’s story, the story of electrification in America, the story of our country moving to a new era it’s only possible because of unions.

Somewhere along the way a lot of powerful people lost sight of that fact. Right now is the best chance we’ve had in decades to remind them.

We’re here in the early stages of the next great energy transformation.

We’ve seen incredible breakthroughs in technology. And what always accompanies that? A bigger and bigger need for skilled workers who can put that technology into action.

The International Energy Agency is telling us that globally we’ll see 14 million new clean energy jobs by 2030, and another 16 million workers switching to new roles related to clean energy.

Our own modeling of the IRA shows almost 1.5 million jobs created in the U.S., many of them related to electrification across our economy.

Electrical workers are going to be the *heroes* of this story.

We need to empower them to go out and lead the transition.

I mean all of us. Our labor movement. Our businesses. The Biden White House, which has been an incredible ally.

We need to all come together and write this future together. 

To make sure every single electrical job in this clean energy transition is a good one. A union one. A high-road one. Because if we don’t we’re putting our own collective future at stake. It’s that simple.

So how do we get there?

I’ll tell you what we as a labor movement are focused on. It’s four simple things.

First: Bringing more people in. We need to fight back against the cultural assumptions and bad messaging we’ve seen for the past two decades:

“Blue-collar jobs are going away. Our entire economy is going to be in the cloud.”

The work I care about in the cloud is the electrical workers 300 feet up installing our wind turbines and building new transmission lines.

We as a labor movement can tell a new story. Let’s go talk to millennials and Gen Z workers who have seen nothing but destabilization their entire lives.

Who want nothing more than a good steady job that they feel good about, too.

Let’s tell them: Come be part of the labor movement.

Get a union job with great pay and benefits. One that will be around a long time. Save the future of our planet, while you’re at it.

But we need more than just a good story.

Utilities and utility workers are the center of this energy transition. 

And behind — and in front — of the utility are hundreds of thousands of jobs in construction, in pipelines, in mining and extraction, in manufacturing, in grids, in distribution. 
Every one of these jobs should be a high road job. With the kind of apprenticeships and training programs we see in construction, and the kinds of collective bargaining agreements we see inside the four walls of the utility. 
The historic IRA legislation that President Biden and his team pushed forward is an incredible step on this front.
Saying to our companies: If we’re going to give you tax credits to build these industries of the future … you need to dedicate a certain portion of hours to apprenticeships, too.

That is a small ask, but it’ll have a big impact. It’s going to help companies get more people in the system, and help young workers as well.

More women, more black and brown workers, more people who need and want these good union jobs. 

But we can do more. 

Every job that touches the power sector should be a high road job, and the utility companies in this room can play an absolutely critical role in making that happen. 

You can demand more from your suppliers, your contractors, and developers.

Third: Partnership, partnership, partnership. Let me give you an example. 

Over the last few months, I spent time in Europe, meeting with the CEOs of these big clean energy companies along with the unions that organize them at home. 

I saw how these companies work closely with our European union siblings. They work together on strategy, politics, and most of all making every job a high road job. We want to see more of that kind of partnership here in the U.S. too. 

So to do that, I am negotiating agreements with some of these big European companies that should make it easier for us to organize everything they touch in this country — Construction. Manufacturing. Utilities. Operations. Maintenance.
I met with the management of Avangrid in Spain and Equinor in Norway. Now both of those companies are at the table with us here in the U.S., ready to talk about more and better cooperation with U.S. unions. 

We know this kind of cooperation won’t always be easy. We are ready to work on it with you.  

But we need to move fast on these agreements.

Every day that we don’t have hundreds of thousands of good-paying, clean energy jobs lined up … the old arguments gain currency/momentum.

The ones that pit our workers against the environment.

And leave an opening for the demagogues.

And threaten the coalition we need to win this new era of clean energy.

We have the model, right now. We have the path forward. We just need to work together to grow it across this country.

Which brings me to my final point. We need to stand together and demand more from Washington in this transition.

President Biden set out to be the most pro-union president in history. From where I sit, he’s making good on that promise.

Thanks to this Administration: We’re in an unprecedented moment with nearly a trillion dollars of federal funding for clean energy and fast moving plans for jobs and investment.

But this money won’t do any good if we can’t get the project built. We know permitting is a top priority for you and it’s a top priority for us. 

But my union friends in the room know: New jobs in clean energy can’t come at the expense of everyone who works in traditional energy today. 

That’s why we need to fight together for this money. Not only to create good union jobs in new energy, but to save good union jobs in traditional energy.

President Biden is kickstarting a national hydrogen industry, national projects on carbon capture and storage, and a new focus on nuclear. This is what will secure the good union jobs we have today. 

So the future is unbelievably bright.

I know IBEW and its utility partners are  going to continue to lead the way. And I promise you we’re going to keep working to grow this movement as one. 

This clean energy transition is the defining opportunity of our generation. It’s that simple. Our unions are ready. Our workers are ready.

Let’s go seize it. Thank you.

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