Fossil fuel workers say green economy could leave them in the dust

As New York seeks to build a green economy and fulfill its climate mandates, excitement is growing over promised new jobs, thwarted by real concerns about shortened careers.

Joseph Zanfardino, a resident of Long Island, worked for four decades as a plumber and installs gas lines in homes. Even at 63, he says he has no plans to retire any time soon.

As he rose through the ranks, his union colleagues taught him “respect, standards and quality of life,” he said. Her work has enabled her to support her six children.

“You’re going to take a middle class and destroy it,” Zandardino, a member of Plumbers Local 1 who was at a downtown Brooklyn rally this week, told THE CITY. “I fight for the members, myself and our children…. They try to get us to drop off our tools and bring electricity for all our power needs which is ridiculous.

The transition to “decarbonize” New York’s economy to implement its climate law is expected to create hundreds of thousands of new clean energy jobs, exceeding those that will be lost by a 10-to-1 margin, a state climate panel estimated last year.

Policymakers in New York are faced with overlapping issues raised by those who see the clean energy transition as a way to bring the young and historically marginalized into the green economy, as well as those who want more support for workers in industries where jobs are at risk.

“The question here is how do we ensure that those same workers who leave those sites and those jobs will have benefits and protections for themselves and their families?” said Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of the organization ALIGN, a union-funded group that promotes green jobs.

“This is a problem that cannot be overlooked, this is a problem that needs to be addressed…as we move away from fossil fuels,” she added. “It’s not an option, it’s not an ‘if’ – the question is ‘how’.”

John Murphy, the international representative of the United Association of Plumbers, Pipefitters and Sprinkler Fitters, put it this way: “What are we going to put in place to say, ‘Okay, we have to do this, but we want to s ensure that workers are taken care of? »

Anxiety over job loss was on full display Tuesday, with dueling rallies unfolding in downtown Brooklyn ahead of a hearing at New York City College of Technology that afternoon on the state . track project to achieve its legally mandated objectives.

Hundreds of trades workers from Plumbers Local 1, Transport Workers Union Local 100, IBEW 1049 and others gathered outside City Tech, holding signs reading “Protect the planet and blue collar jobs” and “There is a better way! »

Meanwhile, a rally just up the street led by New York Renews – a coalition from environmental, faith-based, labor and community organizations — emphasized the opportunities for growth inherent in the green plan.

Sketches of a roadmap

The state’s climate law mandates a carbon-neutral economy by 2050, a goal largely to be achieved by moving away from burning fossil fuels and toward increased electrification powered by renewable sources. renewable and clean energy.

Some scientists and artisans, in testimonies and at gatherings, have also urged using “without fossils» fuels — such as hydrogen and biogas created from organic matter – as part of the state’s climate plan. These resources, they say, would utilize existing gas infrastructure, keep more people employed and effectively advance decarbonization goals.

There is an open question on the roles of so-called “renewable natural gas” and hydrogen in New York’s energy future.

A possible way for the state to fulfill its mandates, these fuels must be used, and another does not – it instead includes faster electrification and wider use of renewable resources. The latter is backed by members of the New York Renews Coalition, who call renewable natural gas and hydrogen “false solutions.”

“Science will always be our guide on this and that includes the economics of this plan,” State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos told THE CITY in an interview this month. latest. “What we need to do is balance meeting the goals with protecting jobs and growing our economy here in New York.”

Union members protest elements of New York State’s climate mandates outside City Tech in downtown Brooklyn on May 3, 2022.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Whichever path policymakers decide to take, more than 211,000 green jobs could be created by 2030, with solar power, offshore wind, building electrification and manufacturing expected to be the sectors the most dynamic due to the energy transition, according to a 2021 Job Study by the Just Transition of the State Task Force.

The same study predicted that 22,000 jobs would be lost by 2030, in areas like natural gas distribution and petroleum fuels.

The Just Transition Task Force has not met since December 2021 but may meet at the request of the council tasked with determining how the state will fulfill its climate mandates.

Governor Kathy Hochul on Tuesday named Mario Cilento, president of the American Federation of Labor and the New York State Congress of Industrial Organizations, to that council. The move could bring labor issues related to both job creation and job displacement to the forefront of planning.

In a statement, Cilento said it would “ensure that the voices of all workers are fairly represented.”

The Just Transition Study has recommendations issued by the 2020 Sustainable Development Solutions Network Zero carbon action planwho mapped ways to help displaced workers in fossil fuel-based industries.

This plan included pension guarantees, re-employment and three years of compensation equal to their salary in previous jobs, as well as two years of retraining and up to $75,000 for possible relocation.

A statewide program could cost New York about $60 million a year between 2031 and 2050, according to 2017 estimatestwo years before the state enacts its climate law.

“If you care about a climate agenda, you’re breaking resistance by telling workers in communities that we’ll meet your needs,” said Robert Pollin, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and director of the Political Economy Research Institute, co-author of this 2017 report. [fossil fuel industry jobs] these are good jobs, these are good paying jobs.

Colorado offers an example of how a state is working to support workers who will be out of work as coal mines and coal-fired power plants close. His Just Transition Officecreated in 2019, takes proactive action with people at risk of being unemployed to help them plan their economic future, develop new skills and find other jobs.

For its part, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority has committed $120 million for workforce development and training programs that will reach 40,000 New Yorkers. The authority also requested a $25 million federal grant to support the training of new and displaced workers for clean energy jobs. It also supports work programs for new workers and those transitioning into clean energy work.

“As the state transitions to a more inclusive green economy, it is actively committed to preparing its workforce, especially those who may be vulnerable to displacement, to meet the growing demands of the fuel industry. clean energy, ensuring that all New Yorkers are positioned and equipped to reap the benefits,” a NYSERDA spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

“We don’t want to build our own gallows”

Some in the trades scoff at such a plan, such as Constance Bradley, president of Transport Workers Union Local 101, representing National Grid workers.

“They forgot we were there making sure they had heat, making sure they had water, making sure they had cooking gas,” Bradley said Tuesday. , talking about the work done during the pandemic. “Now they’re telling us we need to train for something else?”

Zanfardino, of Plumbers Local 1, also expressed skepticism about how anyone his age would be retrained.

But others have more faith in the ability of trades workers to adapt and in unions to provide training for the next phase of human technology.

Environmental activists rally outside City Tech in downtown Brooklyn in support of limiting gasoline in the state's climate plan, May 3, 2022.

Environmental activists rally outside City Tech in downtown Brooklyn in support of limiting gasoline in the state’s climate plan, May 3, 2022.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“We will always need to build stuff and fix stuff and fix stuff. Building trades skills will be needed no matter what solution we adopt,” said Rebecca Lurie, a retired carpenter and founder of the Community and Worker Ownership Project at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. “The building trades will have work no matter what. The “what” is: “What are we building and for whom? “… It is very important that we do not build our own gallows.

Lurie said unions will play an important role in ensuring workers stay safe and have high-quality jobs in the emerging economy.

It’s a source of pride for Shari, a 23-year-old from Harlem and an apprentice at Plumbers Local 1, who keeps the motto “Plumbers protect the health of the nation” in mind.

She attended the rally on Tuesday and expressed doubts about clean energy plans that would phase out gas. But she said she doesn’t think her job is in jeopardy, though she acknowledged, “changes absolutely have to be made because of the way we extract fossil fuels.”

Shari spoke of the pride she has in her work, which she called “an art”. Learning the trade has given her confidence and she is now convinced that she will always be able to feed her family.

“I’m surprisingly not very worried about my future,” she said. “I’m actually very excited about what’s going to happen.”