What if workers were at the center of the transition to a low-carbon economy?


Joe Uehlein was 18 when he joined Laborers Local 158 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and went to work on a concrete crew. In the parking lot, he saw a co-worker’s bumpersticker that bothered him: “Hungry and out of work? Eat an environmentalist.” The construction site was the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, where America’s worst nuclear accident later took place.

Joe Uehlein
Joe Uehlein

Uehlein went on to a 30-year career as a union organizer, negotiator and strategist, and rose to the top post in the national AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department. But he never stopped thinking that the bumpersticker had it wrong — you can have good jobs and protect the environment.  To that end, he now heads the non-profit Labor Network for Sustainability. On July 7 he visited Portland to talk  about  a “just transition.”

Too often, workers are “road kill” when environmental reforms are implemented, he said. It doesn’t have to be so. To fight catastrophic climate change, humanity must end the use of fossil fuels. But that doesn’t mean the estimated 2 million Americans employed in fossil fuel industries must be left behind.  Uehlein’s group is calling for government investment in local economies that are dependent on fossil fuel jobs — before disruption begins. A modest carbon tax – and funds freed up by eliminating fossil fuel subsidies – could fund millions of jobs in HVAC conversion, conservation retrofits, and renewable energy development like offshore wind farms.

See the full proposal here.


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