The struggle of Vermont’s workers is deeply interrelated with our state’s climate goals. As a labor advocate, working electrician and member of the Just Transitions subcommittee of the Vermont Climate Council, I’ve spent this past year trying to help people understand why.
The climate crisis means Vermont, and the rest of the world, can no longer afford to center our economy around the extraction of fossil fuels. They cause too much harm to our people and planet. There is incredible potential for job creation as we make the shift from an extractive to a regenerative economy, based around sustainable energy creation and jobs that support people and communities.
For instance, we are seeing growth in solar and wind installation, electric vehicle infrastructure, energy storage and management, automation, weatherization, broadband expansion, HVAC and air quality, environmental cleanup and farming. But what does all this mean for workers who have relied on long-term, secure employment in oil, gas and petroleum jobs, and who worry about losing their jobs?
“Just Transitions” is a framework of social policies ensuring during the shift to reduce green-house gas emissions, programs and strategies developed benefit and support Vermonters equitably. As Vermont takes steps to adopt a clean energy economy, we need to ensure people aren’t losing their jobs in fossil fuels, but rather transitioning into different jobs — ideally, union jobs — where they are paid fairly, receive health and retirement benefits, and are provided support through their transition.
There are policies Vermont could adopt to ensure a just transition. For one, the state should pass card check legislation streamlining the process for employees to unionize their workplace. The state should also stipulate that any contractors performing work on green energy projects over 500kw are compensating their workers with the Vermont state prevailing wage, and providing them with full benefits. Where no state prevailing wage exists for the type of work performed, such as weatherization, a fringe benefit requirement should be attached to the state’s minimum wage that is equal to the fringe benefit required by the state prevailing wage.
Vermont also needs to do more to train and retain skilled workers, of which we have a shortage. Increasing wages is a start. If jobs promise higher pay and better benefit structures, Vermonters will be more likely to stay here after graduating from high school and college, instead of heading out of state to seek better employment opportunities. Workers will also be able to afford homes closer to where they are employed, which means shorter commutes, a better quality of life and less pollution.
It’s normal for workers and industry to undergo transitions. Factories close and industries change over time. A just transition would ensure during the shift to a clean energy economy, those who are working now and those who want to work, receive support. This includes training to learn new jobs, a life-sustaining wage once working, relocation assistance if necessary and providing an opportunity for a secure retirement.
The Vermont AFL-CIO, along with the RENEW New England Alliance, advocates for a “jobs guarantee” at the core of their framework. The idea is that everyone who wants a good job, can have one. No worker should be left behind.
The Vermont Climate Council has been tasked with reaching certain goals for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. As part of that work, we want to see policies and programs develop that benefit Vermont’s people, especially those who have been marginalized the most. Working people really need a boost. For electricians and other tradespeople, our wages are lower than in neighboring states. Many of us are struggling to make ends meet.
But I am optimistic. I believe Vermont has the tools to make a just transition a reality. More than that, we have an obligation to our workers and our planet to bolster a green energy economy that gets us away from fossil fuels for good. We can do that by creating jobs that pay people enough money to thrive. Only then can we uplift Vermonters and the economy as a whole, while making our state more resilient to future challenges.
Danielle Bombardier is a working electrician of IBEW Local 300 who serves as secretary-treasurer of the Vermont AFL-CIO. She lives in Colchester.