Biden: Clean energy ‘must provide an opportunity to join a union’
Joe Biden as he explained his program for withholding federal tax dollars from firms that engage in union busting and his plan to funnel federal jobs into projects that hire union laborers. | Patrick Semansky/AP

WASHINGTON – The millions of clean energy jobs in the new economy presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden advocates “must provide an opportunity to join a union.”

Not only that, but the federal minimum wage should be $15 an hour—more than double the $7.25 it has stayed at for 11 years—and unionized shops of all types should get preference for federal contracts written into law, he proclaims.

“Taxpayer dollars should never flow to employers who steal workers’ wages, violate labor laws, or engage in union-busting, and Democrats will guarantee they won’t,” he says.

The pro-worker promises were part of a 110-page “green economy” plan a joint “unity task force” of backers of both Biden and his last remaining primary foe, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., put together. Biden foreshadowed many of them in an April speech.

And they got enthusiastic endorsements from panel members, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Association of Flight Attendants/CWA President Sara Nelson—along with jeers from the Chamber of Commerce and other corporate lobbies, led by the fossil fuels industry.

“This is great. Baked-in labor protections and good jobs as the foundation of environmental policy is as it should be, and it’s here because we are finding common cause together, organizing, and pushing forward. Keep it up!” Nelson tweeted.

Ocasio-Cortez, a strong Sanders supporter and surrogate, was similarly enthusiastic about the clean energy provisions, but she noted in an earlier tweet: “Employers say ‘We already offer great benefits, why bother unionizing? We offered great benefits toomany of which were ratified in our contract! A union can also: a) Protect these benefits, &/or b) Establish important non-monetary rights & protections.”

Late in 2019, she introduced legislation mandating federal contracts go to union shops, in so many words. It went nowhere.

Biden led off the plan by explaining the threat of global warming means the U.S. must take action now to try to reverse and eventually eliminate the greenhouse gas production that leads to it. One way to do so, he declared, is a massive investment in green-oriented infrastructure, such as mass transit, railroads, retrofitting buildings and schools, and replacing aging and often lead-infested water pipes.

“We agree with scientists and public health experts that the United States—and the world—must achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible, and no later than 2050,” Biden said. And unionists must be the ones on the job, he states.

“We believe federal investments in infrastructure should help cut carbon pollution, build resilience and protect communities from the impacts of climate change, promote racial equity and sustainable economic development, and come with livable wages and robust labor protections that empower workers,” his plan says in its opening pages.

“All jobs in the clean energy economy should provide an opportunity to join a union. Democrats will restore and protect workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively. We will build a diverse pipeline of talent in the clean energy economy by increasing access to industry-based credentialing programs and registered apprenticeships,” Biden added.

That may help acceptance of Biden’s green economy plan with notoriously skeptical building trades union leaders. Unions and their contractor allies run registered apprenticeship programs, providing most of the nation’s construction workers. But anti-union cut-rate contractors, led by their front group, the Associated Builders and Contractors, have been trying to horn in on the business and have the GOP Trump administration’s ear to do so.

“Let’s not just praise them, let’s pay them,” Biden says of all workers. That means “a decent wage of at least $15 per hour, and ending the tipped minimum wage and the sub-minimum wage for people with disabilities, and strong benefits so they can live a middle-class life and provide opportunity for their kids.”

“This starts with passing the Protecting the Right To Organize (PRO) Act,” the comprehensive pro-worker labor law rewrite the Democratic-run House OKd earlier.

It also means “providing 20 million public service and federal government workers with bargaining rights, and taking other steps to make it easier for workers to organize unions and collectively bargain,” he added.

The plan’s labor section also contains promises to repeal so-called right to work laws and to repeal bans on secondary boycotts, outlaw captive audience meetings and restore the joint responsibility of a corporate titan—think McDonald’s—and its local franchise-holder to obey, or be penalized for breaking, labor law. All those provisions are in the Pro Act, too.

What’s not in the Pro Act, but what Biden advocated on the campaign trail, and what is in the plan, is a proposal to send flagrant labor law-breaking executives to jail.

Biden also would dump Trump-era anti-worker moves, notably a GOP-majority Supreme Court ruling that mandatory arbitration of grievances supersedes labor law. Bosses routinely win 90% of such arbitrations. He’d also ban “non-compete clauses” which non-union shops—even fast-food franchises—force on workers to prevent them from joining competitors.

Biden concentrates on clean energy moves, even if he doesn’t utter the words “Green New Deal.” It’s become a lightning rod for corporate interests—who are already running an ad campaign against it, demonizing Ocasio-Cortez.

But he doesn’t neglect the workers, especially in coal-fired power plants, who will be left behind. The 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton left herself open to charges that she was ignoring or denigrating those workers, many of whom wound up voting for Republican nominee Donald Trump. Their votes helped him win the key industrial states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, as well as coal-dominated West Virginia.

“Democrats will empower and stand with workers and communities who have put their health and lives on the line and who have been impacted by the changing energy market, including by fighting to protect retirees’ health and pension benefits, shoring up the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, and increasing funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission to support locally driven economic development priorities,” Biden’s plan says.

His plan also promises the Dems “will hold fossil fuel companies accountable for cleaning up abandoned mine lands, oil and gas wells, and industrial sites, so these facilities no longer pollute local environments and can be safely repurposed to support new economic activity, including in the heart of coal country.”

The Democratic-run House has passed much of what Biden advocates. Its legislation includes the public workers’ collective bargaining bill, as well as the Pro Act. They’re among the 500+ House-approved bills, many of them pro-worker, that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., won’t let see the light of day, not even in committee hearings, much less debate and votes in the U.S. Senate.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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