Working with Labor

Struggles over coal power plants are usually conducted by coalitions, and unions are often significant players on one side or the other. Addressing the concerns of organized labor can therefore be a critical strategy for the transition beyond coal.

Even if unions do not actively support a transition away from coal, winning their neutrality and forestalling their active opposition can be an important part of a successful campaign.

Understanding Union Concerns

When faced with policy choices regarding coal-fired power plants, unions have a number of concerns that transition advocates can and should address.

Unions are of course concerned about the jobs of union members in coal plants and in related industries like mining and transportation who may be threatened by the closing or downsizing of power plants. Unions in affected industries have a direct responsibility to their members. Under the principle of labor solidarity—“an injury to one is an injury to all”—these unions can call on other unions to help them out when their vital interests are at risk. The measures described in “Chapter 3: Protecting Today’s Jobs” are critical for winning cooperation both from directly affected unions and from their allies in the labor movement.

Unions are also concerned about the secure supply of electricity. Nearly all employers are dependent on electricity and disruptions to supply can cause disruptions to jobs. Further, security of power supply is one of the factors employers consider when making decisions about where to locate their facilities. Transition advocates need to provide convincing answers to the question, will eliminating coal leave us to shiver in the dark? They need to show that renewable sources, which are likely to be far more secure in the long run, can be phased in with a transition that protects against risks in the meantime.

Unions also care about electrical rates. High and unstable rates are harmful to employers and tend to drive jobs elsewhere. This is of particular concern to unions in manufacturing, where energy is a major cost factor. While coal opponents often point out that the public is willing to pay more for clean energy, unions are concerned about the impact of high rates on low-income and fixed-income people. Transition advocates need to make a convincing case that rates will not go through the roof. They also should explore tax relief and other measures to protect the most vulnerable from rate increases.

Organized labor strongly supports new green jobs. This is particularly true of unions that represent workers in industries that may benefit. For example, the Sheet Metal Workers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers unions have long been strong advocates for solar energy; the Laborers’ International Union and other construction unions strongly support green building retrofitting; United Steelworkers has been a leading advocate of wind energy. Plans for alternative energy and for alternative economic development more generally can benefit from trade union input and can be a tool for building bridges to unions.

Unions care not only about the number of jobs but also about the quality of jobs. They are not likely to be favorably impressed by a campaign to shut down a power plant that replaces highly paid good union jobs with minimum-wage contingent jobs without benefits or labor rights, however green they may be.

Unions are concerned to avoid a competitive “race to the bottom” in which low-paid, low-quality jobs drag down the standards for all workers. To avoid that, unions support rules like the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires employers to pay the locality’s prevailing wage. (Davis-Bacon Act protections were incorporated into the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which funded a wide range of green jobs and energy programs.) Many unions are also interested in job ladders that let those who have been excluded from good jobs learn the preapprenticeship skills and work habits that make them eligible for apprentice-track jobs. Finally, unions believe that the right to union representation is a basic human right that needs to be guaranteed for all workers and should be specifically guaranteed for programs promoting green jobs. Such policies to ensure that green jobs are good jobs can be made part of coal-transition programs and incorporated in regulatory and legislative requirements for utilities.

When local plants are threatened, unions are concerned not just about their members’ jobs, but about the broader impacts on the local communities. Closing a plant may have a significant impact on the local tax base, threatening the jobs of public employees, the services provided to community members, and the rates charged to taxpayers. For example, the closing of a coal-fired power plant in Eastlake, Ohio, owned by FirstEnergy Corp, was expected to cut the city’s income-tax base by $600,000 and cause a loss of about $1.95 million in property tax paid annually by the company. [i] Addressing such impacts, for example by finding new tax-generating ways to reuse closed power plant sites, can contribute to meeting the needs and concerns of workers and unions. Clean-energy advocates can work with unions to demand that energy companies and all levels of government contribute to restoring the local economic and tax base (see “The Base-Closing Model”). They can also cooperate to demand broader public policies to restore local economies (see “Just Transition Policies”).

Historically unions have a strong interest in health issues. Public health policies directly protect workers as they do other community members. Unions in the healthcare industry are generally supporters of strong public health policies. Unions are involved in health care policy and in negotiating health care plans for their members, who are directly affected by rising costs that result from community health threats. The devastating impact of coal plants on local health represents an area of common concern between unions and coal plant opponents.

Notwithstanding occasional highly publicized conflicts between particular unions and environmentalists, the labor movement has on the whole been a strong supporter of environmental protection. After all, workers, like everybody else, have to drink the water and breathe the air.

More recently the AFL-CIO has noted the dangers of climate change and has endorsed measures to combat it, although it has declined so far to support the targets and timelines climate scientists say are necessary to prevent climate catastrophe. The increase in extreme weather events caused by climate change is also beginning to have a devastating effect on workers and workplaces. Many trade unionists also believe in a basic human solidarity that leads them to be concerned about the effects of climate change not only on themselves but on people everywhere.

Finally, unions need allies. They are under constant attack both from their own employers and from right-wing political forces that seek to create a union-free environment. They also need allies to win contract campaigns, strikes, and public policies that benefit their members. Environmental groups have been important union allies—for example, in the 2011 struggles to prevent state Tea Party politicians from abolishing the rights of public employees to organize and bargain collectively. So have a wide range of progressive individuals and organizations that are likely to be sympathetic to transitioning beyond coal. This gives unions an interest in maintaining good relationships with environmental and progressive allies, provided they can do so without harming the core interests of their own constituents.

Unions and Transition

Clean-energy campaigners need to build wide coalitions in support of their immediate and long-range goals, and they need to persuade those who might join opposing coalitions to instead remain neutral or at least not to campaign actively on their behalf. How can advocates of a transition from coal build such relationships with organized labor?

First, it is necessary to recognize organized labor as a legitimate and important voice in the energy discussion, representing both workers who are directly affected and working people more generally. In the case of the recent Colorado energy legislation (see box: Colorado: Workers at the Table?) unions stated that their initial opposition to a transition from coal was rooted in their exclusion from the decision-making process. The concerns of various unions and other labor organizations regarding job security, job quality, energy security, and utility rates need to be seriously addressed. (Many of the same concerns, like energy security, utility rates, and community impacts will need to be addressed for other constituencies as well.)

At the same time, unions’ positive interests in green jobs, economic development, health, environment, and a healthy progressive alliance provide the basis for genuine cooperation in many areas. It is best if relationships can be built before potentially divisive issues arise. The constructive role of the union in the transition from coal in the Blount Street power plant in Madison (see “A Just Transition in Madison”) resulted in part from the fact that the president of the local union had several years before been part of the mayor’s commission on clean energy, and had even once served on the board of a local environmental organization. It’s hard to substitute for trust, and trust isn’t won in a day.

Establishing a planned, orderly transition is critical for addressing labor’s concerns, as well as those of other groups, that can meet both the need for a just transition for those workers directly affected and the broader needs for economic development in the community as a whole. For example, when Seattle unions backed the phaseout of coal at TransAlta (see box: TransAlta: Labor Backs a Transition Beyond Coal) the Seattle Times reported that “Labor groups backed the deal because of the 15-year phaseout and the company’s financial contribution”[ii] – a contribution of $30 million to a community investment fund for energy efficiency projects and of $25 million for an energy technology transition fund to support innovative energy technologies and companies in Washington state. [iii]

Cooperation between organized labor and those primarily concerned with the environment is never likely to be completely smooth. Each group has interests and responsibilities that it rightly believes it has an obligation to protect. There is no substitute for an aggressive effort to meet the interests and responsibilities of each in ways that are compatible with the interests and responsibilities of the other.

How Organized Labor Is Organized

American unions have a two-hundred-year history that has created a structure that can be difficult for outsiders to decode; indeed, even insiders often have detailed knowledge of only their own part of the forest. The best way to understand your local labor movement is to develop relationships with people in a variety of unions and allied institutions. Here are some things to be aware of.

Since the nineteenth century, the most powerful unit in organized labor has been the national union. The first unions represented workers in individual crafts, such as carpenters and printers, and such craft unions continue to this day. In the twentieth century, a new form of industrial union aimed to represent workers throughout a major industry, like the auto industry or the steel industry. More recently, union mergers have resulted in many unions representing diverse workers in largely unrelated occupations and industries—what is sometimes called general unionism.

As a result, workers in the same occupation, industry, or workplace may be represented by many different unions. For example, utility workers are represented not only by the Utility Workers Union, but by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Steelworkers, among others.

Although most unions are members of the large federation the AFL-CIO (56 affiliates unions) or the smaller Change to Win (with four affiliated unions), each national union is largely autonomous and sets its own policy, even if it differs from its federation. The federations play a role in speaking for the broader interests of their members and of working people in general, but they devote much of their work to providing support for their member unions. Both national and local union officials are elected by their individual members or their members’ representatives, but officials of the federations and their state and local affiliates are elected by their member unions.

At a local level, workers belong to local unions, which are affiliates of national unions. A workplace may be represented by one local or by different locals from different unions. A local may represent workers in one workplace or in many. Local unions bargain with their employers and take public policy positions under the general guidance of their national union but often on their own initiative.

Most unions in a particular area are represented by a central labor council (CLC). CLCs typically used to represent a single city, but they have increasingly merged to form regional councils. State labor councils represent most unions in each state. Local and state labor councils are affiliated with the national AFL-CIO, but they often also include unions that are members of Change to Win. Local and state labor councils speak for the broader interests of working people, but they also are responsible for mobilizing support for the particular concerns of their member unions. Often unions, especially the larger and more powerful ones, operate more on their own in the political and public policy arenas than they do through central labor councils.

What Unions Are Up Against

One reason unions fight so hard to hold onto existing jobs is the intense resistance they meet trying to organize in sectors where they are not already strong.

While as many as 58 percent of American workers would like to be represented by unions, less than 8 percent of workers in the private sector actually have union representation. [iv]

While American law guarantees workers the right to be represented by unions, when they try to form unions they are regularly met by harassment and intimidation. A study of 562 union election campaigns found that:

  • 63 percent of employers interrogate workers in mandatory one-on-one meetings with their supervisors about support for the union
  • 54 percent of employers threaten workers in such meetings
  • 57 percent of employers threaten to close the worksite
  • 47 percent of employers threaten to cut wages and benefits
  • 34 percent of employers fire workers [v]

Ensuring Green Jobs Are Good Jobs

To ensure that green jobs are also good jobs, the AFL-CIO recommends the following standards:

  • Neutrality in any union organizing campaign (companies agree to let workers decide without interference whether they want a union)
  • Comprehensive Davis-Bacon prevailing-wage coverage applied to all facets of federal construction assistance (wages aren’t cut below established local standards)
  • Bona fide apprenticeship programs with a record of compliance with apprenticeship hiring requirements (apprenticeships that meet established standards)
  • Joint labor-management partnerships (cooperation between management and union in addressing common concerns)
  • Health and retirement benefits
  • Employer-based training, including on-the-job training and skill upgrading
  • A record of compliance with federal laws, including prevailing wage laws, OSHA, antidiscrimination/antiharassment, and environmental laws
  • Compliance by subcontractors

(For further information on labor standards for green jobs, see the report “High Road or Low Road: Job Quality in the New Green Economy” by Good Jobs First at http://www.goodjobsfirst.org/pdf/gjfgreenjobsrpt.pdf )

Colorado: Workers at the Table?

Colorado provides an example of how a proposal to close a coal-fired power plant initially led to significant labor opposition, but an established pattern of cooperation between labor and environmental movements defused the conflict and ultimately supported a successful transition beyond coal.

As early as 2000, Colorado environmental groups began to push for renewable energy standards (RES) for electric utilities. In 2004 the first citizen-based ballot initiative in the country established a state RES. Soon after a coalition was formed under the aegis of the Colorado Apollo Alliance to bring together unions, environmental groups, farmer organizations, and business associations around the idea of linking clean energy and good jobs. In 2009 labor and environmental leaders held a dozen meetings “to brainstorm ideas, share needs and interests, and iron out differences.”

The result was proposed legislation to increase the RES to 30 percent, one of the highest in the nation. The bill included unusual provisions to ensure that green jobs were good jobs. For example, it required that a proportion of workers on solar installations be certified solar installers, creating a green career path. And it required the consideration of the availability of long-term career opportunities and wages, health care, and pension benefits in approving RES proposals. The bill passed in 2010. One advocate said it showed that “By working together, labor and the environmental community have proven that we can build a new cleaner energy economy and ensure that working families thrive at the same time.[vi]

Colorado produces both coal and natural gas, and a more difficult issue arose in early 2010 when Gov. Bill Ritter proposed a bill that would encourage Xcel Energy, Colorado’s largest utility, to shift its aging coal plants to natural gas and renewables. The legislation was called the Clean Air Clean Jobs bill, and supporters emphasized its worker-friendly characteristics. In an op-ed supporting the bill, Roger Singer, of the Sierra Club, and Robert Richardson, M.D., of Physicians for Social Responsibility, wrote,

The transition to lower carbon-emitting, cleaner sources of energy won’t just reduce pollution; it will create new green jobs in the design and construction trades and in plant operations. The job transitions will require highly skilled labor and working family wages, and we hope that the utilities will craft a work plan in collaboration with the power plant employees to ensure that workers are able to transition comfortably.[vii]

The proposal was supported by Xcel itself, the natural gas industry, and environmental groups. It was opposed by the coal industry, the railroads—and initially by organized labor. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the United Railway Workers Union, representing utility and railroad workers, opposed the bill in the House. They also won support from the Colorado AFL-CIO. Mike Cerbo, executive director, said the bill put 200–300 jobs at risk because gas-fired plants use fewer workers than coal-fired units. “Working families whose livelihoods are based on the existing economy weren’t at the table,” he testified.[viii] Despite framing the bill in terms of future jobs, clean-energy advocates apparently had not persuaded Colorado labor they had adequately addressed the jobs of those currently at work.

Cerbo’s statement was widely quoted in the media. But within a few days, organized labor’s position began to shift. By the time the bill came up in the Senate, the AFL-CIO had moved from opposition to neutrality—and the bill overwhelmingly passed.

Meanwhile, the community of allies that had supported previous clean-energy measures reached out to address labor concerns. A coalition that included the Sierra Club, the Colorado AFL-CIO, the Building and Construction Trades Council of Colorado, and the community group FRESC: Good Jobs, Strong Communities began pressuring Xcel for a community workforce agreement that would provide labor protections similar to those in the RES legislation. A delegation brought handwritten testimony from dozens of unemployed construction workers supporting the proposal. Jonah Fruchter, of the Sierra Club, testified to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) that “By negotiating a community workforce agreement to adequately address these jobs issues, Xcel can help uplift Colorado workers while at the same time addressing the environmental, air quality, and health needs of our state.”

Labor-environmentalist cooperation grew even stronger as the PUC held a series of hearings on implementation of the new law. In the PUC implementation process, the building trades encouraged a positive approach to a shift that would likely result in construction jobs. After Xcel reached an agreement with the union on relocation, retirement, and transitioning workers to new jobs, the IBEW likewise became a cooperative partner in implementing the change.

Worker Protection Demands for Coal Retirement Campaigns

Here are key protections for workers and their communities that coal-retirement campaigns can demand from coal power plant employers and public officials and agencies who negotiate with them:

  • Negotiate a jobs agreement with unions representing affected workers.
  • Find jobs for affected workers who want them.
  • Ensure job retraining for those who need it to fill new jobs.
  • Provide decent pensions with healthcare for workers who are not provided other jobs and who do not opt for retraining.
  • Create jobs restoring the site.
  • Reutilize facilities to replace losses in tax base.
  • Fund job-creating community economic development.

Protections should apply to all affected workers, including those in supply and transportation.


[i] Caitlin Fertal, “FirstEnergy Looks to Give Second Life to Coal-Fired Power Plant in Eastlake,” News-Herald (Willoughby, OH), March 27, 2012.

[ii] Craig Welch and Mike Lindblom, “Agreement Reached to Stop Burning Coal at Centralia Power Plant,” Seattle Times, March 5, 2011.

[iii] Christie, “TransAlta to Phase Out Coal Boilers” (see n. 24).

[iv] Richard Freeman, “Do Workers Still Want Unions? More Than Ever,” EPI Briefing Paper no. 182 (Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute, 2007).

[v] Kate Bronfenbrenner, “No Holds Barred: The Intensification of Employer Opposition to Organizing” (Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute, 2009).

[vi] FRESC, “Formula for a New Energy Economy in Colorado” (Denver: FRESC, 2012).

[vii] Roger Singer and Roberta Richardson, “Clean Air and Clean Jobs,” Denver Post, March 26, 2010.

[viii] Mark Jaffe, “Job Losses Expected in Plan to Reduce Pollution at Coal-Fired Plants,” Denver Post, March 26, 2010.