For too long, the interests of labor and environmental groups have cleaved through the Democratic Party. The transition to clean energy has stressed this relationship further: as carbon-based sources of power come under fire, the union jobs that go along with them (workers at power plants) are being replaced by low-wage, non-union positions (think solar panel installers, who frequently make minimum wage).
This trend has contributed to the hollowing out of the middle class, and has been watched with unease by those concerned with income inequality. And it frequently pits environmentalists against the labor movement – two forces that should be powerful allies in the fight against growing corporate power.
That’s why last week’s agreement to phase out the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant – and take care of the workers there – is historic. It provides a new model for labor and environmentalists – one that provides green power without tossing aside middle-class jobs.
Diablo Canyon currently supplies California with ten percent of its energy. And it provides good middle-class jobs, with benefits, to over 1,000 union members. But Pacific Gas and Electric, the utility that distributes the power, was concerned that California’s energy policies are increasingly making operation of a base load plant like Diablo Canyon financially unsound.
Closing the plant in short order would have created havoc in the energy market and thrown over 1,000 people out of work. But environmental groups (including Friends of the Earth, the National Resource Defense Council and others) agreed that a safe and organized phase-out, one lasting over the next eight to nine years, could drive the replacement of nuclear power with other carbon-free sources. And they didn’t flinch at a generous retention package designed to keep the skilled, experienced, and professional workers needed for the operation and maintenance of the plant on the job.
So parties that are usually at odds – the union that represents Diablo’s operating and maintenance workers, the environmental groups and even PG&E – worked out an agreement to eventually shutter Diablo Canyon, replace its energy with solar, wind and other green sources, and take care of the workers there.
That is historic. All sides had to give, but all sides were willing to accept the very good and not insist on the perfect. In my long experience in California’s energy industry, I can tell you that in deals like this, the workers are often ignored. But not here – the progressive, generous treatment of Diablo’s workers make this a win for labor.
Continued operation of Diablo Canyon would have been better from where I sit, but this is a pro-worker ending to a story that might well have ended poorly. And it should serve as a model for future deals. Labor and environmental groups must learn to work together, because no industry is sustainable if its workers are disposable.