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Sunday, May 12, 2024

AFL-CIO's Patrick Crowley speaks on the future of climate and labor in Rhode Island

The practical aspects of jobs and a green economy


On April 24, Patrick Crowley, Secretary-Treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, spoke briefly at an event sponsored by Fountainhead RI [which does not take its name or guiding principles from the infamous 1943 Ayn Rand novel] about the future of climate and labor in Rhode Island. The event was in the Waterfire Arts Center.

Here’s the Secretary-Treasuer’s talk, edited for clarity:

“My name is Patrick Crowley. I'm the Secretary-Treasurer of the Rhode Island, AFL-CIO. We have 80,000 working men and women who are part of our unions across Rhode Island. We are 20% of the workforce, and that's one of the reasons why we say Rhode Island is a labor state.

“A couple of years ago, the labor movement recognized something very interesting. We were the first state in the nation to build offshore wind, and it was the men and women of the Rhode Island Building Trades who put in those six turbines off the coast of Rhode Island. But we recognized that as this industry was changing, the labor movement needed to have a significant presence in it.

“I just want to acknowledge something that Justice Brandeis said back in 1932, and most of you probably have heard a version of this, but he talked about how states are the ‘laboratories of democracy.’ What he really said was, ‘a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.’

“Rhode Island is that single courageous state in a lot of ways, and Act on Climate is an incredibly important piece of legislation. I would put it up with the Inflation Reduction Act, the Chips Act, and the Infrastructure Act, at a state level. It is an example because here's what the Act on Climate does: It mandates not just that we are going to be net zero in Rhode Island by the year 2050, it mandates that the state is going to create the economy to get to net zero. That is a radically different approach to economic planning and industrial policy from what the country has been involved in for the last 50 years. Rhode Island's approach is unique and here's why.

“The Act on Climate does a couple of things. Net zero by 2050 is the easy part. We're one of 14 states, including the federal government under President Biden, that has set that as a goal, but [in Rhode Island it's about] how we're getting there. The law mandates that the state needs to be involved in planning, programming, and actions to get to that target number and create the economy that's going to produce it. It also mandates that the state, every five years, has to develop a plan involving every state agency to create that economy. Not only that, but the people that have been impacted the most by the ravages of climate change and have been impacted the most as disadvantaged communities by the current legacy fuel economy, have to have a say and what that plan looks like. They have to be at the table crafting what this new economy is going to be and that includes the workers that may be impacted.

‘…a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.’ - Justice Brandeis

“A guy driving a fuel truck in South Providence at the Port makes $120,000 a year. Someone installing solar panels in your neighborhood is making about $17,000 a year. That's not a fair trade - to say, ‘Just go install solar panels’ or ‘Just go back and learn how to do computer programming’ is not going to work. What the state is doing is creating an economy that's mindful of how those impacts on working people are going to be taken care of. Now, that's easy to say, right? It's easy to say we're tinkering with the economy, we're making this new economy, blah, blah, blah.

“But here's how we're doing it. Think about what happened after we passed the Act on Climate in 2021. In 2022, we passed the 100% renewable energy standard, which says that by 2030 the State of Rhode Island has to procure all of its electricity from renewable energy sources. We'll be the first state in the nation to get to that standard.

“The second thing that we did as a state was pass an offshore wind procurement, which said that by 2027, we had to have a minimum of a thousand megawatts of offshore wind produced in the state.

“The third thing that we did was we passed the labor standards bill, which said that whenever the state is a market player in this economy or its subdivisions, which means a state agency, a municipality - and, I would argue, if it was a school committee, whatever the case may be - if any political subdivision of the state of Rhode Island is going to be a market player they have to do three things:

“First they have to make sure that the work is going to be conducted with pro-labor standards, meaning that there'll be a project labor agreement or a labor peace agreement, which means that the employer and organized labor have to arrange how this project's going to get done.

“Second thing is that they have to make sure that prevailing wages are going to be paid because as I said before, the new economy in the renewable energy sector is radically underpaying its workers.

“Third, and this is I think one of the most important parts of it, is that they made sure that apprentices have to be utilized whenever this work gets done. Why is that important? Because if you look around the legacy fuel economy and the people that are doing those jobs, especially here in the northeast, [they are] white and male. The new economy has brown, Black, and female faces. It's also an older workforce. In the legacy economy, the average construction worker's age is 55 years old and for the first time in a hundred years, their sons, and I mean their sons, aren't following them into their crafts.

“As we diversify our workforce, the a hundred thousand dollar jobs that the labor movement has fought for 50 years, are going to be replaced by brown, Black, and female faces making minimum wage jobs. That's entirely unfair. We've got to create an economy that lifts them and keeps them making those family-sustaining wages.

“Here's where we need to step back and think about what we do. Act on Climate mandates that the state creates a new economy. We passed a law that says that we have to have a hundred percent renewable energy standard by 2033. We legislated into existence the demand. We legislated into existence the supply, by having the offshore wind procurement. As prices are established by the intersection of the supply and demand curves, what we've done by having the labor standards component is make sure that instead of profits engineered from exploitation and market manipulation, profits are going to come from innovation and efficiency, which is what this economy needs if we're going to decarbonize by 2050.

“When you step back and think about how different that is, it's a radically different approach. Rhode Island is going to be the state that gets there first because the way we've engineered this is by making sure that working people have a vested interest in doing this. It's a labor state, and we're going to make sure that labor, along with business, is leading the way to get there.”