Trumka: We'll Either Have a Just Transition or No Transition at All

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka delivered the following remarks at the 2020 Ceres Global Investor Summit:

Thank you Reverend [Kirsten] Spalding, I’m pleased to be with you and Ceres today, and of course also to be here with Torben [Pedersen] and Pension Denmark, which is investing Danish workers’ capital in good jobs and clean energy in Denmark, here in the U.S. and around the world. More about that in a moment. And thank you to all those who are joining online today.

This is certainly different than what I expected when I agreed back in January to join Ceres once again for the Global Investor Summit. So before I turn to climate I want to say a word or two about what we can learn from the coronavirus crisis. Our response to the coronavirus has already reshaped our society. It is easy to think the virus is the cause of these changes. But that would be a mistake. The virus simply does what it does. Human beings are the ones making the decisions that shape our societies and our lives, and it is human beings, and human institutions, who will either lead us through this crisis to a better day, or find in the virus the excuse to unleash our own fear, our own greed, our own capacity for hatred.

Consider what this has meant for workers. The global labor movement has been engaged in an unceasing struggle since the virus first appeared to see that working people have the equipment, the safety protocols, and most of all the power, dignity and voice we need to keep workplaces safe for everyone. Yet, despite our efforts, too many workers in critical sectors still don’t have adequate personal protective equipment, access to testing, or paid sick days—risking exposure for themselves and their families every time they go to work. Or they can risk their family’s economic security by staying home to avoid exposure. This is unacceptable, and it has to stop.

In the context of the coronavirus crisis, that starts with the common sense measures needed to hold our economy together that are in the HEROES Act passed by the U.S. House last week, including the critical mandatory workplace safety standard for infectious disease. For working people, the injustices of the coronavirus crisis are nothing new. In the United States, the lived experience of workers for the past 40 years is that most big changes in the economy result in harm to workers and our communities. Trade agreements that protect investor rights but not worker rights. Outsourcing. Deregulation. Wages that lagged productivity for decades, while inequality soared and the cost of health care and education skyrocketed.

Climate change and our response to it can either accelerate this trajectory or take us in a newer, better direction. Rising temperatures threaten the material foundations of our civilization, but also pose enormous challenges to an economy formed on our sourcing and consumption of fossil fuels. We think of coal miners and refinery workers, but the real carbon job footprint includes the railroads, trucks and barges that haul oil and coal, the manufacturing supply chains that produce everything from delicate valves to huge mining trucks that extract fossil fuel. The auto workers that make internal combustion drive trains. We are talking about millions of largely good paying jobs, with benefits and a secure retirement, distributed throughout the United States. And these jobs didn’t get to be life-sustaining careers by accident or the laws of economics.

I come from a coal mining family. When my immigrant grandparents went into the mines in the 1920s, a coal miner’s shovel was a ticket to hunger, disease and an early death. When I went into the mines in the 1970s, we had strong unions with powerful safety committees, wages that paid for houses and college educations, including mine, as well as pensions and health care. But my family’s health and economic security was paid for in blood—our blood, at the hands of the Pennsylvania Coal and Iron Police, and the mine owners, their dangerous mines and Black Lung disease. They, like so many employers today in the coronavirus crisis, saw our health as a cost they could not afford. And the same is true for oil workers and railroad workers and auto workers and utility workers.

Working people made jobs in the carbon economy into good jobs. We fought for every dollar, for every health benefit, for every safety device and rule. And we powered this nation in the process. If we treat the challenge of moving to a low carbon energy sector as though it is a matter for experts, not for workers, if we act as if a minimum wage job or a staffing agency job is the same as a job that pays middle-class wages with benefits, if our response looks like the past 40 years, with job quality declining in the energy sector as it has in so many other sectors, then of course we can expect—indeed we will create—intense opposition to action on climate change.

To prevent that, we must create a politics of hope. Remember, NAFTA went into effect in 1994. Resistance to it reverberates in our politics to this day. Without hope, our politics are in stalemate, and we cannot make progress fast enough. Not on COVID-19, not on fixing our economy, not on reversing inequality, not on fighting racism and not on climate. We need to understand that the true enemies of effective action on climate change are not the workers in the carbon sector, but those who would force them to bear the economic costs of change. Those who offer in exchange for good jobs with real benefits, poorly-paid jobs with few benefits and no future. Those who would seek to combine 21st century technologies with 19th century labor practices. Those like Elon Musk who think that because they make electric cars for rich people they can violate social distancing orders and endanger not just their workers but the entire community in which they do business.

But we know it can be different, if we make the right choices. That’s why the AFL-CIO recently entered into the Labor Energy Partnership with former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz. We will work with Secretary Moniz to develop policies that advance our climate goals and create good jobs, to create hope that the fight against climate can be a win for workers.

This work to lay a politically and economically viable foundation for the transition to a clean economy must go on even as we fight the coronavirus. We have no time to waste. And we need the help of the global investor community to succeed. We want a real spirit of partnership between government, investors, workers and operating businesses—the kind of partnership that our hosts at CERES have always championed. We can work together for a policy framework that supports clean energy and high-quality jobs where workers have the ability to collectively bargain.

Let me give you an example. Last year, I joined Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon at the Capitol to help him introduce “The Good Jobs for 21st Century Energy Act,” which ties an investment tax credit for renewable energy to labor standards. This legislation has wide support. Several energy unions. The National Wildlife Federation. The BlueGreen Alliance. Data for Progress. That is the kind of broad coalition that can make real headway on these issues.

This idea deserves investor support. We must make clear by example that everyone will benefit from fighting climate change. Because the lesson in what has happened globally since the Paris Agreement was signed is that there will be a just transition to a low carbon economy or there won’t be a transition at all. And of course a just transition must be global, just as the atmosphere itself is global.

That can only happen if we rebuild our multilateral institutions, starting with the Paris Accord itself. The AFL-CIO supported the Paris Agreement, and we believe the U.S. must stay in it. But there is no way to have a real global solution to climate until the principles of just transition are not just words in a climate treaty, but reality across the multilateral system.

In the United States, the labor movement believes the offshore wind sector can be an example of how to create well paid, community sustaining jobs. We are putting that belief to the test on the East Coast right now. We’re hopeful that offshore wind projects from Maine to North Carolina will create hundreds of thousands of good jobs from the manufacturing supply chain to maritime and construction jobs to operations. And the labor movement is ready not just to negotiate the terms of these jobs but to train the skilled workers that the project sponsors will need.

The labor movement trains more workers than any institution in the U.S. other than the military. Our training and apprenticeship programs already train workers in the specialized skills needed for offshore wind, and we can meet the need of this vast and critically important project. I personally believe that East Coast offshore wind can be the turning point of the fight against climate change in the U.S., not because of the huge amount of carbon-neutral electric power it will generate, and it will be huge, but because of the potential for a new and truly viable workplace model I believe we can create together—a model that can be the stable political and economic foundation of the great transformation we must make to a low carbon economy.

We are encouraged by the pledges to this vision that renewable energy project developers have made in consultation with our partners at the International Trade Union Confederation, the B-Team, CERES and others. This pledge has been signed by leading offshore developers and includes the following commitments “in our operations and in procurement from contractors:”

  • Social dialogue with workers and their unions;
  • Fundamental rights, including the ILO core labour standards and ILO occupational health and safety standards;
  • Social protection, including pension and health; and
  • Wage guarantees, including prevailing wage rates for skilled workers in the relevant industries.

Last year, I asked AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, who comes out of the power sector herself, to coordinate our work in this area, and to work with our building trades and manufacturing unions to build the relationships we need to make this vision more than words on paper. With the help of the Danish and Norwegian labor movements, and the particular support of the Danish government, we believe we are making real progress. One of our partners in this work is Pension Denmark, so I am eager to hear our friend Torben’s reflections on this critical work.

Let me conclude with this. My friends, we can see now that the forces of authoritarianism are in a dance of death with science deniers. But it isn’t just the economy or our ecology that is in peril of further damage. It is our democracy. The same people that want to deny climate science are seizing on the coronavirus crisis as another opportunity to sow division and hatred, and to undermine the public’s faith in science and in the institutions of democratic government.

To fight both the coronavirus and climate change we need to address the deficit that threatens global society. And by that I mean not fiscal deficits. I mean the deficit of social solidarity that neoliberalism has fed for decades. In the coronavirus crisis, millions of people have sacrificed their jobs, their incomes and their health to save the lives of people they will never meet.

Working people’s sense of social solidarity is undiminished. To fight climate change the critical actors—the investor community, the leaders of multilateral institutions, tech entrepreneurs—must show the kind of solidarity that grocery workers and nurses have shown in these past terrible weeks. And I believe that if the everyday worker can show such solidarity and courage, then so can all of us. Thank you.