Labor Groups Advocate for a Just Transition in New York

New York is often acclaimed as one of the most environmentally progressive states in the nation, yet when the state enacted the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) in 2019, it left out provisions advocated for by a key stakeholder in the transition to clean energy: labor groups.

Originally, the bill proposed a number of provisions intended to ensure that the state creates high-quality jobs. This included measures on prevailing wages, apprenticeship programs, and preferences for women and minority-owned businesses. The original version of the CLCPA also incorporated provisions meant to provide a safety net for displaced fossil fuel workers and ensure fair wages for employees building the resulting renewable energy sector. However, these measures were cut at the last minute by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Although workers, particularly those in the renewable energy industry, are essential to New York’s transition to a carbon-free economy, they were largely overlooked in the passage of the CLCPA. Over a year after the law’s signing, labor groups across the state continue to advocate for legislation that takes their priorities and needs into consideration.

Understanding the CLCPA

The passage of the CLCPA is still considered a success for emission reductions, renewable energy, and environmental justice. The bill sets benchmarks goals and mandates that New York reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 85% below 1990 levels, with offsets accounting for the remaining 15%, by 2050

The Act also sets a target of 100% carbon-free electricity by 2040. These changes are led by a Climate Action Council, which works in consultation with sector-specific advisory panels, a Climate Justice Working Group, and a Just Transition Working Group

The Act also mandates at least 35% of the state’s clean energy funds to be spent in “disadvantaged” communities throughout the state. To ensure that these funds are being invested appropriately, climate coalition New York Renews requested a public audit of state agencies by the end of the year, though it has not yet been fulfilled.

Despite these successes, however, it is still important to be critical where  CLCPA falls short — primarily, by failing to include vital labor provisions. 

Why were labor provisions cut?

The day before the Senate voted on the bill, Governor Cuomo made a compromise with the legislature, with a promise to sign the bill into law. In this compromise, Cuomo changed the bill’s name from the CCPA to the CLCPA, inspired by an alternative state climate plan he proposed earlier in 2019, the Climate Leadership Act.

While the new version of the bill remained ambitious on emission reduction targets and renewable energy goals, it weakened labor rights provisions. Cuomo cut some of the measures that advocates for working-class and climate-vulnerable communities had pushed for, and the current CLCPA no longer contains a section on jobs and workers. Instead, the final text states that all projects related to the Act will be “subject to prevailing wage laws.”

Labor was not the only aspect of the original text that changed when the bill became the CLCPA. The new bill also weakened environmental justice provisions by lowering the required benefits to disadvantaged communities from 40% of total investments to only 35%.

Likely, the reason why Cuomo cut these labor provisions was because elsewhere in the legislature, a different deal was being settled that may have conflicted with the CLCPA. This deal would have put in place wage and job standards across all state government programs, not just clean energy jobs.

“Sometimes as happens in these battles under cover of night, things get slipped in through the cracks that are not what we had wanted to see,” said Adrien Salazar, a campaign strategist at think tank Demos, in an interview with Grist.

Labor groups speaking out

This change was particularly disheartening for labor unions that publicly supported and pushed for the bill. Groups including Service Employees International Union (SEIU) 32BJ, New York State Nurses (NYSNA), the Teamsters, all supported the bill before it was passed, but were disappointed with the Governor’s changes

Leaders of ALIGN, an alliance of labor and community organizations in New York City, have also continued to advocate for local policies that benefit workers while tackling climate change. Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of ALIGN, recently called upon NYC to invest in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Silva-Farrell recommended the city invest “$1 billion annually to fund energy efficiency retrofits in affordable and public housing units, and $3 billion for a green bonds program to fund local renewable energy projects.”

“Climate change is the biggest challenge of our time. Here in New York City, we need larger annual budgetary investments to tackle climate change. Yes, money matters: without bigger city investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency, climate change will defeat us. We cannot let that happen,” said Silva-Farrell of ALIGN.

Climate activists pushing for policy change

New York Renews, a leading climate coalition in the state that was the driving force behind the CLCPA, also recently launched a Climate, Jobs, and Justice Recovery campaign to make polluters pay for a just transition in the state. The campaign aims to raise billions from corporate polluters and invest the funds into green job creation, programs driven by frontline communities, and renewable infrastructure.  

“New Yorkers do not need more austerity, we do not need tweaks, we need a transformation of our state to prioritize the health and sustainability of our communities. The way we get that is to make polluters and the rich pay their fair share to maintain vital services and create a climate, jobs, and justice recovery,” said Stephan Edel, NY Renews Coalition Coordinator.

NY Renews is now pushing for the The Climate and Community Investment Act (CCIA) in New York. The act would charge polluters $35 for each ton of greenhouse gas pollution they put into the air, and invest the funds directly into frontline communities. Research has shown that the Climate and Community Investment Act will create and sustain 150,000 green jobs and generate $138 billion for NY’s economy over the first decade of its existence.

The act would also create family-sustaining wages, with average wages in the clean energy sector expected to be over $60,000 per year. For workers with some college schooling or an Associate’s Degree, average wages would total more than $70,000 per year, according to NY Renews.

This plan also includes prevailing wage standards and apprenticeship programs. It would set union prevailing wage mandates for all state-supported programs; and require that programs hit targets for utilizing Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprises and hiring local workers.

Although the needs of labor groups were largely ignored in the CLCPA, labor groups and climate activists continue to push for equitable legislation that supports them. As the state shifts to a clean energy economy, it is essential that the workers making this transition possible are not forgotten.

Featured Image: Photo by Alex Simpson via Unsplash