Biden Administration Update

The American Jobs Plan and its Discontents: How hard can it be to be pro-union and anti-carbon? Kind of hard, actually. Written by Hannah-Wilson Black.

Hannah Wilson-Black is a second-year in the College studying Environmental & Urban Studies and Creative Writing. Hannah is also the PGE Communications and Projects Intern for the 2020-21 academic year.

Judging by the White House website, President Biden’s $2.25 trillion American Jobs Plan is an attempt to address every major political concern of the past year: the White House fact sheet for the Plan positions the legislation as tackling climate change, “the ambitions of an autocratic China,” unemployment, racial injustice, clean energy infrastructure, and underinvestment in rural communities reliant on fossil fuel-related jobs.[1] If you’re wondering how all of these priorities – especially unemployment and climate change – can be substantively addressed by one bill without leaving any one issue out in the cold, you’re not alone.

During his campaign, Biden promised to prioritize the creation of “good paying union jobs,” particularly in hands-on industries (as opposed to the digital economy). He also made concessions to politicians and voters who lean farther to the left by pledging to stop the Keystone XL pipeline’s construction (which he did on his first day in office) and take the numerous threats posed by climate change seriously.[2] This move upset some traditional labor unions. Joe Uehlein, president of the Labor Network for Sustainability, described Biden’s attempt to be the “pro-union” president and the “climate crisis” president simultaneously a “very difficult balancing act.”[3] Indeed, progressive politicians such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and union leaders alike seem to be holding their breath, watching the Biden administration walk a tightrope, and hoping the president won’t shirk his responsibilities to them.

The Jobs Plan is largely an infrastructure plan, with hundreds of billions of dollars put towards priorities such as bridges and roads, internet access, upgrading electric grids, and retrofitting affordable housing and schools.[4] Funding for improvements to the nation’s home care industry and training for “good paying union jobs” is also included.[5] Biden’s claims that the bill counts as climate change legislation stem from its funding for public transit, clean energy tax credits, climate disaster resilience/adaptation programs, safe drinking water, and the domestic electric vehicle market, among other things nestled in the bill.[6] Many environmentalists have pointed out shortcomings of the plan – the bill would extend tax credits to fossil fuel companies for using carbon-capture technology, which some activists say only encourages business-as-usual and supports a technology that does not “'work in the real world.’”[7] Another common criticism from environmentalists and political progressives is the size of the bill – they consider $2.25 trillion over the course of a decade to be a betrayal after Biden’s campaign promise to commit $2 trillion over four years to climate change-related problems.[8] However, leaders in solar and wind energy were pleasantly surprised by the Plan – federal tax credits, which make solar and wind more affordable to individuals and large-scale utilities, would be extended for another decade under the plan.[9]

If Biden has promised to create “good-paying green jobs,” why are some labor unions and environmentalists unsatisfied with the proposed bill? Shouldn’t the Plan satisfy both?

There are three important things to note about traditional fossil fuel power plant jobs: they tend to be long-term, well-paying, and associated with a union.[10] Renewable energy sources such as solar and wind may be rising in popularity and essentially immune to supply boom-and-bust cycles, but the jobs are new (and have not yet become associated with unions and the higher wages they can lobby for) and primarily short-term construction jobs. Solar and wind farms require significantly less round-the-clock supervision and maintenance than fossil fuel plants. This appears to be the nature of the work, and the beauty of clean energy – the solar arrays hum, the wind turbines spin, and both hopefully run smoothly without human workers putting themselves in unsafe situations. But of course, this means fewer jobs. Rates of union membership and pay among renewable sector workers can be improved, and Biden, along with congressional Democrats, wants to improve union membership across the with a key piece of legislation – the Protecting the Right to Organize Act.[11]

But any implications, from Biden’s team or others, that our nationwide energy transition requires coal industry employees to simply trade one set of tools for another would be a grand oversimplification. If Biden wants to retain the support of unions representing fossil fuel industry jobs, he’ll need to expand his definition of “green jobs” from short-term renewable-sector construction and maintenance jobs to a broader set of options (like domestic care work and low-carbon work more broadly, including work that aims to reduce the carbon footprint of products or services). A report from the progressive Century Foundation also recommends restarting a Bureau of Labor Statistics program that provided much-needed data about current numbers of “green jobs,” which the BLS defined more broadly than the average American citizen might.[12] The same report advocated for the green job training pathways included in the Green New Deal, which the American Jobs Plan has been accused, by Republican members of Congress, of imitating (but not imitating enough, in the eyes of progressives pushing climate action). No wonder union representatives are wary when Biden makes green jobs sound simple – they’re not. They require careful attention, data, and extensive federal training programs. And that costs money – money that many Republicans and some moderate Democrats (so far) refuse to spend.