Wednesday, June 26

Pravin Visakan: California labor unions must stop combating climate change bills


Imagine a state senator stepping up in the final days of California’s legislative session to present his bill to revolutionize the Californian energy sector. Unbeknownst to him, union representatives are preparing to sabotage it.

Labor interests have started working against Californian legislative efforts aimed at combating climate change. This pattern of opposition was prevalent in the state legislature’s latest session, from Jan. 4 to Sept. 15, during which union powers axed several bills aimed at limiting offshore drilling, changing the paid permits for carbon emissions and making changes to the electric grid to allow for more widespread distribution of power.

A noteworthy victim was Senate Bill 100, a bill authored by State Sen. Kevin de León and designed to hasten the state’s adoption of renewable energy. Under current law, California must derive 50 percent of its energy sustainably by 2030. The new bill would have increased this figure to 60 percent and would require a full commitment of 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.

The justifications for labor opposition vary among the several bills and industries involved. Common among them all, however, is a short-sighted attitude that threatens to upset the ecological health of the planet in favor of short-term worries. Political grandstands by labor interests may serve labor unions’ immediate and important priorities, such as fair wages and working conditions, but rising temperatures could subject California to prolific health issues, as well as an increase in the frequency and intensity of droughts and wildfires.

Labor unions need to show more support for climate change bills in future sessions of the California legislature, not hamstring our state’s efforts against global disaster for fear of lost jobs and unfair labor practices.


Recent extensions to California’s cap-and-trade carbon emission permit program serve as one example of union clout. The program would have allowed for rebates on electric cars sold in California, paid for by taxes on carbon emissions. This would lower the barrier for entry to owning electric cars and would increase the number of such cars on the road.

However, union interests co-opted the bill, with the latest provisions requiring that businesses be deemed “fair and responsible” when dealing with workers before being eligible for rebates. On the surface, this seems like a fair deal and a good thing for everyone; it’s important businesses are held responsible for how they treat their workforces.

But climate legislation is the wrong arena for the battle of creating satisfactory working conditions. Restricting rebates to specific companies will decrease the bill’s effectiveness by leaving out certain models of electric vehicles. Union representatives are damaging California’s efforts to fight climate change.

Ideally, workers should have protections, and the environment should be cared for – but boosting one at the cost of another is a strategy that ends well for no one.

And for many of the stymied bills, the main objection was the loss of jobs. The possibility of environmental legislation actually adding to workers’ livelihoods shouldn’t be overlooked. In the case of SB100, electrical workers’ unions largely opposed the bill’s application of distributed power generation, a model that consists of small, household batteries and rooftop solar power. Unions have expressed fear these changes would result in fewer opportunities for employment.

However, a Stanford investigation plan for entirely renewable energy generation takes concern over employment rates into account. The report estimates entirely sustainable energy in California will ultimately create approximately 220,000 more long-term jobs than jobs lost. This is in addition to generating savings in health costs for the state. In other words, the economic fallout of large changes in an industry isn’t a worry in the long term.

Of course, many of the additional positions come in the form of construction or other positions current electrical workers may not be qualified to attain. Transitioning from one field to another is by no means easy. Climate change bills should provide some sort of aid for workers during the transition period to renewable energy. Blithely charging forward without addressing these issues, as it seems Sen. de León’s office has done, is unhelpful.

That being said, the existential threat of climate change is one that needs to be taken seriously. Several sources have identified human activity as the cause of rising temperatures, and it’s a problem that needs to be addressed. Especially today, the national political climate seems increasingly hostile to our natural one. California needs to keep pushing boundaries in order to set an example for other states. In order to do so, labor unions need to stop undermining bills set on protecting the environment when they come up in future legislative sessions.

The state’s efforts at greater sustainability are important for the future of California and for the world. When dealing with the climate, union representation in Sacramento would do well to approach matters less like renewable energy saboteurs and a little more like Captain Planet.

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Opinion columnist

Visakan is an Opinion columnist.

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