Former Vice President Joe Biden has earned praise from union leaders for advancing a clean energy plan featuring infrastructure, auto, transit, construction, and energy projects designed to benefit organized labor.
The proposed plan to “build a modern, sustainable infrastructure and an equitable clean energy future” also includes appeals to “environmental justice” that resonate with progressive policy advocates. However, free market policy analysts have expressed concern about the impact Biden’s plan will have on energy and labor costs.
Biden, who is expected to become his party’s nominee for president on Aug. 20, rolled out his plan on July 14. He first joined forces with his former rival Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to form a “unity task force” that served as the foundation for many of the green energy proposals and union favors included in the final Biden plan.
The task force, co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), proposes to achieve “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050 and recommends eliminating emission from power plants by 2035 as a major step toward achieving this goal.
The Biden clean energy plan embraces the task force’s timelines and its anti-carbon policy prescriptions. Biden seeks to “achieve a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035” and to place the United States “on an irreversible path to achieve net-zero emissions, economy-wide, by no later than 2050.”
The Biden–Sanders task force emphasizes the need to provide “people of color” and “low income Americans” with clean energy job opportunities that could offset the “disproportionate” impact climate change has on those communities.
The task force goes on to state that “Democrats believe we must embed environmental justice and climate justice at the heart of our policy and governing agenda.”
In a similar vein, the official Biden clean energy plan seeks to “ensure that environmental justice is a key consideration in where, how, and with whom we build—creating good, union, middle-class jobs in communities left behind, righting wrongs in communities that bear the brunt of pollution, and lifting up the best ideas from across our great nation—rural, urban, and tribal.”
The concept of “environmental justice” appears to have gained traction among progressive policy advocacy groups in the past few years. The Equitable and Just National Climate Platform, which formed in October 2018, is working to take full advantage of the “opportunity created by the 2020 presidential election for environmental justice and national environmental advocates to jointly develop and infuse new and equitable climate and energy ideas into the national policy conversation.”
The Center for American Progress, a Washington-based nonpartisan policy institute, marked the one-year anniversary of platform details it co-authored with other progress groups in a recent press release.
“Now more than ever, it is clear the country cannot address the climate crisis in a vacuum—it must be tackled comprehensively with solutions that advance racial, economic, and environmental justice, even as they curb carbon pollution and other greenhouse gas pollution driving the climate crisis,” it states.
But David Kreutzer, a senior economist with the Institute for Energy Research (IER), a Washington-based organization that favors free-market energy policies, sees a political agenda at work in this appeal to environmental justice in the Biden plan and elsewhere that he said doesn’t square with sound public policy.
“The environmental, social justice angle is a cynical hijacking of minority grievances to promote an elite agenda,” Kreutzer said. “We know forcing green policies on consumers significantly increases energy prices, which disproportionately impact poorer people.
“The further stifling of economic growth, which these programs will do, condemns disadvantaged groups to extended poverty. Note the impact of Trump’s pro-growth tax and regulation cuts. Until the COVID crisis, minority unemployment was at record low levels, and wages at the lower end grew the fastest.”
Prioritizing Union Jobs
The task force recommendations include several overt appeals to organized labor that are also folded into Biden’s clean energy plan.
The task force, for instance, states: “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.”
The Biden plan calls for “federally funded projects to prioritize Project Labor and Community Workforce Agreements” and for these projects to “employ workers trained in registered apprenticeship programs.”
In his plan, Biden also expresses support for legislative efforts that “will make it easier for workers to organize a union and collectively bargain with their employees.”
The Biden plan also says his green energy initiatives will “empower workers to organize unions and bargain collectively with their employers as they rebuild the middle class and a more sustainable future.”
Federal Government as a Union Advocate
Sean Higgins, a research fellow at The Competitive Enterprise Institute specializing in labor policy, sees a “massive giveaway to unions” at work in the Biden–Sanders green energy plan.
“Taxpayer dollars will be used to prop up an industry, green energy, that struggles to compete without the federal government’s assistance through subsidies, regulations or—typically—both,” Higgins said.
“It’s the green version of having a 1950s-style industrial policy. Ensuring that all union leaders’ demands are met first and foremost will drive the energy industry’s labor costs up even further, necessitating even more federal assistance.
“Business leaders will likely agree to this if the taxpayer subsidies are sufficient enough that it makes up the difference. In short, taxpayers will be paying more for energy while being told we feel better about this.”
The fact that the task force seeks to “establish the federal government’s role as promoting and facilitating collective bargaining and helping the parties bring their negotiations to a rapid and successful conclusion” is also noteworthy, Higgins said, because it means the federal government would not only be defending or protecting the right to collectively bargain, but taking sides.
“In other words,” he said, there’s “an explicit promise for the federal government not to be a neutral arbiter but rather a pro-union advocate. In practice, this will likely mean the administration will tie green energy subsidies to promises that businesses leaders not oppose organizing bids and forgo union elections. Whether a majority of those workers actually want a union will be a secondary issue.”
“You’d think that if a majority of rank-and-file workers were truly eager to collectively bargain, as union advocates like Sanders are fond of claiming, that none of this would be necessary. Yet the aggressive efforts by Sanders and others to promote collective bargaining suggest otherwise—that they know workers’ interests lay elsewhere, and so they have to be forced into unions for their own good,” he said.
The Competitive Enterprise Institute is a libertarian think tank based in Washington.
The Epoch Times contacted the AFL-CIO seeking comment on the Biden plan, but didn’t receive a response. The Service Employees International Union did respond, however, and referred The Epoch Times to its statement released on Twitter.
“@JoeBiden is making the creation of good, #union jobs a key part of his plan to tackle climate change as we #BuildBackBetter. And he knows that we can’t talk about the policies without talking about the communities of color who have been most impacted by corporate polluters.”
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has also released a statement, from Lonnie R. Stephenson, the union’s president, praising Biden’s plan. The statement reads in part as follows:
“This plan will spur a renaissance in American manufacturing while creating numerous good jobs for electricians by using the power of the federal government to encourage demand for electric vehicles. It will also put Americans to work rebuilding our aged transportation infrastructure, including investing in our railroads, which means more good rail jobs. These are vital jobs that our nation needs more than ever. And by strictly enforcing prevailing wage, workplace protections, and supporting the right of workers to organize unions and bargain collectively, the plan ensures that these will be good, middle-class sustaining jobs.”
Labor Strikes in the Energy Sector
Iain Murray, a vice president for strategy and senior fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, envisions a potential scenario where labor strikes in the energy sector could have significant implications for vulnerable communities.
“Having the right to organize comes with a right to strike,” he said. “If energy generating industries are on strike, electric reliability will suffer. In other countries where energy workers have gone on strike, there have been tactical strikes aimed at inflicting pain on the public to put pressure on employers to settle. If, for instance, wind farms had to shut down due to a strike during peak times for a/c, many thousands of customers could find themselves without a/c on hundred-degree days, meaning they would demand the company settle and get their employees back at work. Extended strikes could have very real human consequences.”
Murray also expressed concern that “making all green jobs union jobs will make them much more expensive, ensuring fewer of them and making the projects more expensive.”
While the Biden–Sanders clean energy plan highlights the need to help “disadvantaged communities,” Kreutzer, the IER economist, anticipates that the policy proposals would actually harm people most in need of new opportunities.
“Economic freedom powered by our growing energy dominance has proven to be the best anti-poverty program ever,” he said. “Biden’s plan, with its bizarrely nostalgic echo of programs from the Great Depression, move the country and its hardworking people in the exact wrong direction.”