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Green vs. Blue: Biden's climate plans face labor concerns

Two of the president's top policy priorities are colliding as his administration prepares a sweeping, green reboot of the U.S. economy.
Image: SunRun Solar Panel Installations As California Becomes First State To Order On New Homes
Contractors install SunRun Inc. solar panels on the roof of a new home at the Westline Homes Willowood Cottages community in Sacramento, Calif., on Aug. 15, 2018.David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Two of President Joe Biden's prevailing priorities — fighting climate change and protecting workers — are colliding as his administration prepares a sweeping, green reboot of the U.S. economy.

Biden's bid to shift rapidly toward electric cars, renewable power and clean manufacturing is bringing to the fore long-simmering tensions between organized labor and environmentalists, two reliable Democratic constituencies whose interests don't always converge. At stake are millions of well-paying jobs that underpin the American middle class but are concentrated in heavily polluting industries that Biden hopes to phase out.

The "green versus blue" divide is coming into focus as Biden readies a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure and jobs package intended to juice the economy after the Covid-19 pandemic, even as his administration presses pause on pipelines and some oil and gas drilling projects that offer the promise of good-paying jobs.

No one seriously questions Biden's pro-labor bona fides. After campaigning on a vow to be "the most pro-union president you've ever seen," he made a dramatic down payment this week by publicly backing Amazon workers in Alabama who are voting on whether to unionize.

Similarly, most climate hawks couldn't be happier with Biden's commitments to aggressively cut greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes and power plants. But the push to stand up the nascent green industries needed to achieve that has sometimes come at laborers' expense.

"The clean tech sector as a whole, whether you're talking about renewable energy or other clean technologies, is typically lower-wage, nonunion jobs — and that has to change," said Anna Fendley, regulatory director for United Steelworkers, which endorsed Biden and whose million-plus membership includes oil and gas workers.

Take electric power. Biden, in an executive order a week after taking office, set a goal to zero out carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector by 2035, a lofty target that requires rapidly ramping up wind and solar. He also wants the workers who do it to make prevailing wages and have the right to join a union.

Here's the rub: As it stands, wind and solar jobs just don't pay as well. A power plant operator, for example, makes an average of $79,400 per year, according to the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to $46,900 for a solar installer and $56,700 for a wind turbine technician.

Overall, that's still better than the average job available these days to someone seeking work in the pandemic-hobbled economy. But the pay cut, compared to the salaries offered for fossil fuel jobs, complicates efforts to find new employment for those who lose their livelihoods as the U.S. weans itself from dirtier fuels.

One reason may be that almost all wind and solar jobs are nonunion. In facilities that produce electricity from natural gas, 11 percent of workers are unionized, and 10 percent in coal. That drops to 6 percent in wind power generation and just 4 percent in solar, according to 2020 data from the U.S. Energy and Employment Report, an annual survey.

"Laying a pipe or becoming a coal miner, those weren't always good jobs. They became good jobs because of decades of organizing," said Robert Pollin, who teaches economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and has consulted for the Department of Energy.

Wind and solar jobs are concentrated mostly in installation, meaning there are fewer long-term jobs once sites are up and running than with oil and gas. And much of the hardware is imported from overseas, including from China, rather than manufactured by U.S. laborers, energy analysts said.

As the industry has taken shape over the last two decades, wind and solar companies have argued that with high costs and slim profit margins, they can't grow and replace coal and gas as quickly if paying union wages at the same time.

"That argument's wrong," said Jason Walsh, executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, which aims to unite labor and environmental groups. He said higher wages are not a major factor in how fast renewable power can expand because the projects are capital-intensive, with most of the budget spent procuring solar panels and wind turbines — not on labor. "Even if you pay workers a family-supporting wage, it's not really going to increase the overall cost of the project."

Likewise, Biden wants Americans to ditch their gas-guzzling vehicles for electric cars and trucks, taking aim at the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions: the tailpipe. Since Biden took office, General Motors has announced plans to go all-electric by 2035, and other major automakers have taken similar steps.

For workers who have relied for decades on skilled, high-paying auto jobs, that shift injects serious uncertainty into their future. That's because electric vehicles, which use simpler electric motors rather than multigear transmissions and combustion engines, could require far fewer workers to build the same number of cars. The United Auto Workers union has previously said that as many as 35,000 jobs could be at stake.

All electric vehicles made in the U.S. are currently either made with nonunion labor, like Tesla's, or with most of the parts imported, failing Biden's "American-made" test. Even the heart of electric vehicles, the lithium-ion batteries, are largely outsourced to other companies that supply them to automakers but may not pay the same wages and benefits.

"Electric vehicles have among the lowest U.S. and Canada content overall," said Kristin Dziczek, vice president of industry at the Michigan-based Center for Automotive Research.

Biden's move to nix the Keystone XL oil pipeline has also caused early tension with some elements of organized labor. TC Energy Corp., the Canadian company aiming to build the controversial oil pipeline, said it laid off 1,000 people after Biden's January decision.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, which endorsed Biden, criticized the president for failing to have other jobs ready for those same workers when he rejected the pipeline, although Trumka and other top union leaders have otherwise praised Biden's climate and jobs plans.

With the Biden administration preparing to turn its focus to the jobs and infrastructure package after the pandemic relief bill is complete, lawmakers and labor groups are already angling over how best to ensure the president's dual goals of protecting workers and the climate don't come at each other's expense.

A sweeping climate bill unveiled by House Democratic committee chairs this week that would mandate increasing renewable power use included a provision requiring any money spent go to contractors that pay "no less than the local prevailing wage" — a Labor Department-set rate. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., told NBC News this week she plans to reintroduce a bill that would provide Medicare and free higher education to unemployed coal workers.

Last month, Biden met with major union leaders on infrastructure and vowed that good jobs needn't be sacrificed. And Gina McCarthy, his domestic climate czar, told Vox in a recent interview that "good-paying union" jobs would be central to the package, adding that "President Biden does not think that's a secondary consideration."

"Biden has the playbook," Walsh of the BlueGreen Alliance said. "Now let's see them do it."