Labor Secretary: Cleaning the environment will boost economy

CLEVELAND – Cleaning up the environment is “an economic tool” to provide good jobs for U.S. workers, Obama administration Labor Secretary Thomas Perez says.

And cleaning up the environment and good jobs are not contradictory goals, either, he declares.

Perez sounded those two themes as the keynote speaker at the annual Good Jobs Green Jobs national conference, held this year in Cleveland on June 6. Delegates, including some union delegates and leaders, discussed opportunities related to clean energy initiatives and how they will create and maintain quality jobs.

Their key points included that not just restoring the environment but rebuilding our creaky and aging infrastructure – while also making it more environmentally friendly – would provide those good jobs.

“The economic wind at our back results in the shared prosperity for everyone,” Perez said. “That is the basic work of the Department of Labor and the Environmental Protection Agency, ensuring that we attack climate change and are environmental stewards.”

Perez said the nation must come together and tackle environmental challenges it faces, including working to ensure the implementation of common-sense regulations.

“As I work at the Department of Labor, we hear the tired arguments that businesses can either protect a worker or make a profit,” Perez said. “I make house calls and I’ve met so many people building profitable businesses and protecting workers – such as the International Masonry Institute in Bowie, Md.”

While announcing new safety standards related to silica dust in early April at the institute, Perez said nobody should have to walk into a job and give up their lives to that job.

“Facilities like IMI show facility safety and growth can go hand-in-hand,” Perez said.

Perez added that development of wind and solar energy are ways to transform the environment. He mentioned a visit he made to Toledo, Ohio, about a year ago where he toured the Toledo Electrical Joint Apprenticeship and Training Center, where apprentice training includes learning about and working on wind turbine technology.

There, he met with apprentices who have good-paying careers working on clean-energy technology – jobs that cannot be shipped overseas.

Careers such as working on wind turbines and building solar panels are a key to creating a strong middle class, Perez said. He also referenced a new factory being constructed at an old steel mill in Buffalo, his native city. Once operational, the factory will become the largest manufacturing facility of solar panels in the Western Hemisphere.

This union-built and union-employed factory will help produce much-needed American made products that provide clean energy and result in a cleaner environment, Perez said.

Besides creating clean energy, Perez said the nation must focus on improving its infrastructure.” As an example, he discussed the preventable water crisis in Flint, Mich., calling it an abomination. Meanwhile, he noted, seven billion gallons of potable water are lost per day to leaks in drinking water pipes.

This should be the “low hanging fruit” of the movement to create good jobs while adding the environment, he told the audience. He then encouraged those in attendance to urge their federal lawmakers to support additional funding for capital infrastructure projects.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, told conference attendees that demand for clean energy jobs needs to start at home. Nearly 70 percent of clean energy jobs are currently located overseas, he explained. “We supply less than 10 percent of global solar panels,” Brown said.

Brown praised the Department of Energy’s new partnership that will lead to the creation of a wind farm in Lake Erie. But he also spoke about the need to help the environment by stopping methane leaks that are occurring in old pipes in many cities throughout America. This work, he said, will create many jobs for plumbers and pipefitters.

Besides Perez and Brown, Plumbers and Pipefitters President William Hite received the 2016 Blue-Green Champions Award for the union’s work during the Flint water crisis.

Members from union Local 307 volunteered their time, working tirelessly to help install new faucets and filters designed to reduce the amount of lead in the drinking water in almost 5,000 Flint homes. Additionally, members also purchased $20,000 worth of bottled water for the residents to use.

“When there’s a crisis, and it has to do with water pipes or sanitation, never forget that the plumber protects the health of the nation,” said Hite. He called the water crisis a disgusting development and a disgrace to the people who live in the city. But added that his members were happy to do what they could for the people of Flint.

The Flint water crisis, which saw lead poison its drinking water and permanently harm its kids, occurred because a state-appointed fiscal “czar,” looking to save money, ordered the city’s water source switched from relatively clean Lake Huron to the dirty Flint River, without needed equipment to prevent lead in Flint’s old water pipes from contaminating the water. A public health doctor blew the whistle on the crisis, as officials ignored residents’ complaints.

Hite also touched on his union’s recent affiliation with the Roofers to help collect and conserve rainwater. Signed last year, the two unions are partnering on this important project to help train their members to install much needed water collection systems in areas where water conservation is mandated or a high priority.          

Photo: Workers install photovoltaic panels at a solar plant in Germany.  |  Flickr/Windwarts Energie (CC)