Pennsylvania Democrats seek balance between environmental policy and loyalty to labor

By: and - Sunday November 19, 2023 7:00 am

Pennsylvania Democrats seek balance between environmental policy and loyalty to labor

By: and - 7:00 am

(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

With a majority in the state House for the first time in a dozen years, Pennsylvania Democrats launched this legislative session with an ambitious environmental agenda.

Lawmakers introduced bills to mitigate the impact of natural gas extraction on nearby communities, halt the reactivation of idle coal power plants, and ensure that a nearly $2 billion investment in the state’s future hydrogen economy doesn’t perpetuate the use of fossil fuels.

Each one, supporters said, was a step toward meeting Pennsylvania’s climate goals and improving environmental justice for its residents. 

Democratic leaders, however, caught between the competing interests of the environmental movement and building trade unions — both traditionally strong allies of the party — didn’t share the goal of putting sweeping climate and environment legislation up for votes.

That’s a classic scenario, Brian Obach, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at New Paltz, said. Political leaders must often walk a fine line between the urgent push to slow climate change and the valid, if somewhat overstated, concern that phasing out fossil fuels kills jobs, Obach said. 

“There is no quick and easy way around this,” Obach, author of “Labor and the Environmental Movement: The Quest for Common Ground,” said. “Where progress has been made it has been where environmentalists and trade unions have established long-term understandings about their mutual interests.”

Overcoming the resistance to change is a process of building understanding, trust, and consensus that trade unions’ and environmentalists’ priorities can coexist.

We absolutely reject the idea that we have a binary choice between economic and job growth, and protecting the environment

– Katie Blume, of Conservation Voters Pa.

In June, state Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware), chairperson of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, called a meeting to order where the panel was set to vote on a pair of bills.

One was his own bill to put a moratorium on new air emission permits for power plants that directly serve crypto mining operations. The other, introduced by state Rep. Danielle Friel Otten (D-Chester)  would increase the minimum distance between fracking sites and homes or schools.

After the roll call and pledge of allegiance, Vitali made a surprising announcement.

“OK, here’s the situation. Five minutes ago, I was called by my leadership and asked to not run these bills. I am deeply disappointed by this decision, but I am going to comply with the wishes of my leadership and not run these bills. That’s all the business I have,” Vitali said.

And with that, he ended the meeting scarcely three minutes after it began.

Vitali later brought his crypto mining bill back to the committee with an amendment removing the proposed moratorium on new power plants, leaving it as a measure to gather information on the new industry’s environmental impact.

Pa. House environmental leader guts his own bill to manage crypto mining growth

He told the Capital-Star in October that he realized he needed to take a different approach.

“I think I learned the hard way in my first six months as majority chair that there’s not a high tolerance for strong environmental policy … even in my own caucus,” Vitali said.

With a narrow one-vote majority and some members facing reelection in swing districts next year, Vitali said Democratic leaders were wary of calling votes on legislation that could be seen as killing jobs and hurting unions.

“They’ve almost been given an automatic veto over environmental policy in our caucus,” Vitali said of building trade unions, which gave 89% of their political contributions nationally to Democrats.

“I don’t blame labor. They have a right to act in their own self-interest,” Vitali said. “As elected officials, we have a duty to act in the greater best interest and sometimes that means saying no to labor.”

The Capital-Star requested interviews with seven Pennsylvania building trade union leaders but none responded.

Threading the needle

Pennsylvania has ambitious climate goals, outlined in 2021, by former Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration. The roadmap to reaching those goals is detailed in a  278-page Climate Action Plan that calls for Pennsylvania to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26% by 2025 and by 80% by 2050 based on 2005 emissions.

“I urge leaders across government, business, agriculture, academia, and community organizations — and all Pennsylvanians — to join in making climate change a top priority,” Wolf wrote in the plan. “It is only with your commitment, collaboration, and action, large scale or small, that Pennsylvania will meet the climate imperative.”

But Wolf’s own party has faced obstacles in implementing the plan.

The prevailing wisdom has been that technological advances, like robotics and AI, or environmental policy changes typically means a reduction in jobs, but supporters of those initiatives say the opposite is true. 

“We’re completely in line with our friends in organized labor in the belief that we can grow our economy, create union jobs, and meet our climate goals,” Katie Blume, political and legislative director for Conservation Voters of Pa. said, “There might be disagreement on some of those fine details, but we absolutely reject the idea that we have a binary choice between economic and job growth, and protecting the environment.” 

Blume pointed to the Biden administration’s $10 million investment in clean energy workforce training programs and state Rep. Liz Fiedler’s (D-Philadelphia) recent “Solar for Schools” legislation as examples that climate and environmental policy and jobs are not at odds. 

Solar power panels in field on a sunny autumn day (Getty Images).
(Getty Images).

“That is a narrative that I think has been used by folks who are not pro-environment, and it’s a narrative that they’ve been trying to capitalize on,” Blume said. “But if you just look at President Biden’s clean energy plan, and the billions of dollars invested, both in workers and the environment, there’s absolutely a path forward, and it is not a binary choice.”

Fiedler’s Solar for Schools bill would leverage federal funding through the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to pay for 30% to 50% of the cost of solar panel installation projects for Pennsylvania school districts. It passed in the House in June with strong bipartisan support and is awaiting action in the Senate.

Its success came with support from a coalition of supporters that included environmental groups such as PennFuture and the Sierra Club and labor organizations such as the Pennsylvania Building Trades Council and the International Union of Operating Engineers, Fiedler said.

House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D-Montgomery) said Fiedler brought labor and environmentalists to the table early in the process of drafting the bill and methodically worked to build consensus. 

“That is a framework and a model that we can use to push similar legislation that can continue to thread that needle,” Bradford said.

While the legislation would help Pennsylvania secure some of the billions offered through the IRA and create jobs equipping the commonwealth’s 500 school districts, Fiedler said the reduced pollution and energy costs for those communities benefit workers, too. 

“Too often it’s forgotten that the workers who do this labor live in those communities. I think the workers and the environment are connected inextricably,” she said. “They want the environment to be a place where they can safely work and live and play.”

As the renewable energy sector continues to grow, more jobs are projected to come with it, according to federal data. 

The U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects that wind turbine service technicians and solar photovoltaic installers will have some of the fastest employment growth from 2020-2030 of any occupation, projecting a 68% increase and 52% increase, respectively. 

“A clean energy or renewable energy future will be built with the hands of labor with organized labor,” Adam Nagel, director of government affairs at PennFuture, said. “We are ready and available to work with all parties to achieve a future that ensures that we can as best we can live and work on a habitable planet. 

Selling organized labor on policies and legislation that create more jobs is easy, Todd Vachon, assistant professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University, told the Capital-Star.

“They pass no moral judgment on the projects but they want their members to be fully employed and contribute to the pension fund and hopefully make a career out of it,” Vachon said.

Bringing workers in new energy sectors is a challenge, Vachon said, with labor law in the United States tilted in favor of employers. It’s also difficult to get unions to invest in nascent industries, he said.

“I think they need to see that it’s real and not just a promise,” Vachon said. “Is the money on the ground?  Is it shovel-ready? You'll start to see union support for those projects when they see that it’s not just pie in the sky.”

But the greatest challenge is in overcoming opposition to policies that make workers redundant when those without a college degree face a dearth of jobs that pay well enough to support a family.

“Those jobs aren’t there like they used to be. You can’t graduate from high school, get a job and buy a house and a car anymore. You get it why working people don't want to give up their job at the power plant,” Vachon said.

Moving away from industries that are bad for the environment has been a tough sell for job-conscious labor unions. (Getty Images)

Recognizing the challenge that some of its communities would face with the transition away from coal, Colorado created an Office of Just Transition to transform the economy of the state’s coal-producing region. The office directs state funding for economic development and worker support to those communities. A similar agency is the subject of proposed legislation in New Jersey. 

The assurance that workers will not be left jobless is part of the process of building understanding and trust, Obach, the SUNY professor, said.

“That's part of the learning that the environmentalists need to do. When labor issues arise they need to be there to make sure that these great new green jobs are union jobs,” he said.

Prioritizing trust

Pointing to the Canadian wildfires earlier this year and rising global temperatures, Nagel said that there’s “growing recognition” of the need to “do the work and put in the time to advance policies that will mitigate those impacts over time, potentially, and at the very least, make our commonwealth, our country, our planet more climate resilient.”

Despite varying perspectives, environmental advocates, such as Nagel, believe labor and environmental priorities can work collaboratively. 

“I think labor plays a key role there,” Nagel said. And I think that we all need to act in a concerted effort to advance some of these goals and to ensure that we're doing all we can.”

Organized labor and environmental advocates must prioritize building trust to chart a path forward for Pennsylvania to realize its climate goals, said James Kunz, administrator at the Pennsylvania Foundation for Fair Contracting, a group that investigates wage theft and fringe benefit fraud on public construction projects.

A stereograph taken three miles underground in Pennsylvania shows two men in a mine shaft. (Photo credit Strohmeyer & Wyman, New York, c. 1895 from Library of Congress)
A stereograph taken three miles underground in Pennsylvania shows two men in a mine shaft. (Photo credit Strohmeyer & Wyman, New York, c. 1895 from Library of Congress)

“I think there is some trust-building that has to happen on both sides,” Kunz said. “I think oftentimes on the environmental side, they often ask us to recognize their knowledge and skills, and I do personally, trust that movement would be trying to put us on the best path forward to deal with climate change. But at the same time, they’ve got to come and look at organized labor and say, well we trust you to help us understand what workers need.”

Kunz attributes labor’s hesitancy to trust other parties to lessons learned from Pennsylvania’s storied industrial history. 

“In Pennsylvania, we don't have to look very far back in our history, to see, the last time there was a big sort of shift in energy production and industrial relations to see what happens if we do it the wrong way,” Kunz said. “We have memorials scattered all across the Commonwealth, to tragedies that have happened in the coal industry.”

Labor’s caution, he said, also demonstrates a desire to not repeat past mistakes that allowed wealthy oil tycoons to exploit workers during the Industrial Revolution. 

“Organized labor is saying: ‘Look, we've learned our lessons,’” Kunz said. “‘We're not going to allow our members, and workers in general, to be taken advantage of’ and I think that there is the same sort of money, wealthy individuals who invested in coal and steel at the turn of the 20th century, that same sort of mentality and thought are the ones investing in the next generation of energy. … I don't want us to develop a new class of robber barons.”

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.

Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry.