Clean Energy Jobs & Union Labor

How to Talk About Climate Change 2019

Examples of union labor working in the energy transition can be found across the United States; in renewable energy installations, electric vehicle manufacturing, building retrofits, and other infrastructure projects. These growing parts of the organized labor workforce are strengthening ties between the labor and climate movements, which are working together to achieve ambitious climate policy and emissions targets, and accelerate the transition to clean energy and transportation. Even unions entrenched in fossil fuel industries recognize the growing impacts of climate change and inevitability of the energy transition, and are beginning to call for policy that will address climate change through supporting unionized labor.

Clean energy jobs are typically good jobs, providing a median hourly wage 25 percent higher than the national average, with better health care and retirement benefits and a higher unionization rate than the rest of the private sector. For example, energy efficiency jobs, the largest employment sector in clean energy industries in the U.S., have a 10 percent unionization rate—60 percent higher than the national average for private sector workers. Overall, nearly 3.6 million people worked in wind, solar, and other clean energy fields at the end of 2020.

Below are some examples of how the shift to a clean energy economy is creating opportunities for organized labor.

  • A groundbreaking coalition of 27 labor unions including the United Steelworkers and the Texas AFL-CIO launched the Texas Climate Jobs Project, which aims to address the challenges of climate change, the energy transition and income inequality. The coalition launched with a report that found the transition to clean energy could create 1.1 million jobs in Texas over 25 years.
  • Global clean energy major Orsted agreed with the North America’s Building Trades Unions to collectively identify the skills needed to develop offshore wind along the. East Coast and train the skilled labor force needed to build the new projects. Dominion Energy and Vineyard Wind have also announced similar arrangements. 
  • The largest coal miners’ union in the U.S. endorsed President Biden’s energy policies while calling for actions including a national training program for dislocated miners and tax incentives to build-out renewable supply-chain manufacturing in coalfield areas. 
  • The United Auto Workers is preparing a broad effort to organize workers at electric vehicle and battery start-up companies like Rivian, Lucid and Tesla that have new U.S. manufacturing plants. 
  • The 200-million-member International Trade Union Confederation joined the 2019 global climate strike, calling for global climate action, while the AFL-CIO joined with the Energy Futures Initiative in creating a policy blueprint for building out carbon reduction and removal infrastructure in a way that creates new, good-paying jobs. 
  • A New York State budget passed with inclusion of prevailing wage and project labor agreement requirements for construction of renewable energy projects over a certain size and shortly after, Connecticut passed similar legislation.  
  • The climate-focused Sunrise Movement launched a “Good Jobs for All” campaign with an AFL-CIO leader, and groups such as the Sierra Club and National Wildlife Federation — have partnered with the United Steelworkers and other unions to endorse the need to plug old oil wells that leak methane gas.

As the shift to a clean economy accelerates, policy will be increasingly needed to make the transition fair, equitable, and as smooth as possible for workers. Failing to adapt to the energy transition means American industries will fall behind other countries, with major implications for U.S. workers. 

Clean jobs will not automatically provide high salaries or sufficient protections, according to the White House Council of Economic Advisors. Without a federal strategy for the transition, well-paying jobs could be lost, and the need for well-paying jobs may not be created. Jobs could be lost in the automotive sector, for example, if policy does not encourage automakers and auto suppliers to build electric vehicles, batteries, and their other components in the U.S. If, however, manufacturing policy is enacted to facilitate an equitable transition to electric transportation, a net increase of 2 million jobs could be supported in 2035.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends establishing White House offices to oversee support for displaced workers and regions that lose employers, including affected workers in decision-making processes, expanding federal assistance programs, and targeting investment for industry growth in underserved regions. Congress is also considering federal labor standards like the PRO Act, which would help the shift to a clean and more climate-resilient economy support workers and lessen economic inequality. Ultimately, labor and climate advocates agree it is in the strategic long-term interest of the U.S. to ensure the clean energy future centers workers and includes policies that create millions of family-sustaining union careers.