By Amanda Woodrum and Stephen Herzenberg, co-directors of the ReImagine Appalachia campaign
In a digital press conference in late May, the presidents of the state AFL-CIO in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky jointly released the ReImagine Appalachia campaign’s new white paper. The new report highlights the labor and community requirements that federal climate infrastructure investments must include to guarantee that these investments generate benefits for communities and working people.
As Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, put it: “By leveraging federal infrastructure investment, we have a great opportunity to accelerate the creation of shared prosperity in a 21st-century, sustainable Appalachia… We must seize this moment and put working people at the center of this transformation.”
“Maximizing Value: Ensuring Community Benefits” includes numerous real-world examples that demonstrate what it really means to put working people at the center of federal investments. Labor leaders in America’s heartland know that union labor and working people can benefit from federal climate infrastructure investment as long as it comes with the right policies. If it does, we can create more than half a million good jobs in our four states alone, modernizing our electric grid, expanding universal broadband, repairing the damage left by extractive industries, growing clean and efficient manufacturing, building more sustainable transportation, and promoting small farmers who are using regenerative farming practices.
Appalachia has long fueled the prosperity of the rest of the nation, even while “[t]he Appalachian Region has experienced some of the worst unemployment and poverty rates in our nation,” as Bill Londrigan, president of the Kentucky AFL-CIO, noted. “A transition to a clean energy economy that advances the vast potential of the region and its workforce by providing family-supporting union jobs will reimagine Appalachia and uplift those that have been left behind.”
When it launched in early 2020, ReImagine Appalachia knew that climate action was coming—although we didn’t know whether it was coming in one year or five years. We also knew that much of West Virginia and other communities (Pittsburgh, Youngstown) thrived from the original New Deal but then got hammered by global outsourcing, decimation of the steel industry, union busting, and now the decline in coal. The need for a new vision and opportunity in our region is why ReImagine Appalachia’s blueprint for a 21st Century Appalachia, or “A New Deal that Works for US,” has struck a deep chord throughout our four states
To elevate the region’s voice in national climate debate—based on the mantra “if we’re not at the table, we’ll be on the menu”—ReImagine Appalachia held months of meetings, digital convenings, listening sessions, and town halls. Many meetings were with labor leaders at every level of the movement. We sought their input to ensure that we created a policy framework that recognized unions are absolutely necessary to achieving the magic combination of aggressive action to reduce carbon emissions AND a new era of shared prosperity and local wealth. We also knew we needed to capitalize on Appalachia’s skilled workforce to build the future that includes everyone—no exceptions.
The white paper, released in partnership with the region’s union leaders, fleshes out the heart of the ReImagine Appalachia policy agenda: the community and labor requirements that must be tied to federal investment.
Climate infrastructure investment must ensure strong union rights and good wages on construction projects and permanent jobs. For construction projects, “project labor agreements” (PLAs) are the gold standard—collective bargaining agreements that last the duration of construction projects. One model is a Cincinnati utility scale solar project being built in Appalachian Ohio driven by demand from the city, surrounding municipalities, and their residents. The developer and mayor worked closely with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) from project conception. The request for proposals (RFPs) included a requirement for the use of a PLA, a model that can and should be replicated across the country.
Workers in permanent (non-construction) jobs at federally subsidized companies—e.g., manufacturers of electric vehicles and batteries—must also benefit from “labor peace agreements” that require managers not interfere with organizing (i.e., not do what Amazon did in Bessemer, Alabama). The paper includes a great example of a redeveloped army base repurposed with public taxpayer dollars that included such labor standards that can be applied to the redevelopment of shuttered coal plants and former steel facilities.
Targeted hiring. We must prioritize coal workers in hiring, but also women and people of color who are too often excluded from opportunity. Past policy efforts focused too exclusively on bridging dislocated workers to retirement or retraining them for lower-wage, non-union jobs they don’t want in places they don’t want to move to. Policy can make the difference by prioritizing investments that create equivalent jobs and capitalize on dislocated workers’ skills, right where they already live and want to stay.
And, as Bishop Marcia Dinkins of Ohioans for Sustainable Change stated, “Job growth in this region gives an opportunity to begin to address failed policies of the past and help lift up future generations…. Policies [should] ensure that the jobs we create serve those who have been involved with the criminal legal system to help them reestablish their lives and to reduce recidivism.”
Countless examples exist of major projects in the region and across the country of multi-billion-dollar investments in public transit or other city construction over many years that have incorporated local hiring agreements into project labor agreements, apprentice-utilization requirements, pre-apprenticeship programming, and the use of a first-source hiring system in order to deliver on the promise of inclusivity. Now we need to make these success stories part of the way we do business in this country, at the very least when government dollars are involved.
Federal climate action is coming sooner than later. A letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, signed by more than 200 House Democrats, suggests the message is getting through. It notes that infrastructure investment must include strong labor standards and union rights that make it possible to unionize clean energy jobs. Pennsylvania’s Susan Wild is one of the representatives who organized the sign-on letter.
As Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, rightly stated at the ReImagine Appalachia press event: “The clean-energy economy must be built on a foundation of family-supporting union jobs…. Let’s put workers first and move Appalachia forward.”