Jeff Merkley at the Blue Green Summit


U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) gave a keynote address Sept. 15 to labor and environmental leaders assembled for a national Clean and Fair Economy Summit in Olympia, Washington, organized by the BlueGreen Alliance. Read an edited transcript of his remarks below, or scroll to the bottom and watch the address in its entirety on YouTube.


We have a labor economy that is hurting. And we have an environment that has a massive challenge. And if we aggressively take on that challenge, we can also help to heal our labor economy. We have an opportunity to make an America that works a lot better for working Americans. That’s the goal.

The last four decades have not been good.

My father was a millwright, a mechanic, a proud labor union machinist. And on that single working wage, we lived the American dream. My parents were able to buy a home, have a car, and take modest annual vacations. They were able to save money for retirement, and they had a modest union pension. They were able to build a strong foundation for their kids. That’s the stability of a full-time living wage job. It was an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, in large part because my father was able to be part of the union. And we were moving forward. If you were to turn the clock back, my grandmother during the depression was living in a box car, and my grandfather was making home brew and playing poker to keep the family afloat. It was a big transition in one generation.

There were three pretty golden decades, from 1945 to 1975, in which workers were able to participate in the growth of wealth that they were creating. But from 1975 until now, the story is not so good. We’ve seen flat wages for workers. We have often seen declining wages for workers. We have seen a relentless attack on the right and ability to organize, going back to the Reagan administration. Since the early ‘80s our union membership has dropped in percentage terms by more than half. In January of this year Kentucky became the 27th state to become a union-busting “right-to-work-for-less” state. Over half the states have done that.

And then we have all the jobs getting shipped overseas.

If you are running a company in a country where there are no wage laws and the wages are a dollar an hour, and there are no environmental laws, or no enforcement, so you can pollute as much as you want … and I have a competing factory in the United States … who’s going to make things for less?

What is so hard for us to understand? If we give our overseas competitors this massive advantage over our American manufacturers, then our factories are going to shut down. It’s not some theory. We’ve lost more than 50,000 factories and 5 million factory workers. And the multinational companies want to make things at the lowest price anywhere in the world, and sell them in America. They say “Oh look at this, it’s an equal deal — they get access to our market, and we get access to their market.”

But if you can make things for so much less than me, aren’t you going to have an advantage in your own country as well as in my country?

And therefore it becomes a lose-lose dynamic for the American worker. And here’s the thing: If we don’t make things in America, we’re not going to have a middle class in America. That’s why we have to fight to make things here in the United States.

And we don’t just lose those factory jobs. Those factories have whole supply chains that need to be located close by. And then those supply chains shut down. They may not be as visible as the big factories, maybe five jobs here, 10 jobs there, but is that a loss of supply chain jobs. And then we have another level of loss because the payroll from the factory workers and the supply chain workers disappears, and that affects jobs throughout our retail. So we are triple-cursed by these trade treaties like NAFTA and CAFTA … and SHAFTa (that’s what I call the one that was stopped last year, the TPP.)

Since the 2008 recovery, we have seen virtually all the new income in America go to the top 10 percent. And let’s take a look at what that’s done to wealth inequality.The top 10th of 1 percent own as much as the bottom 90 percent in America. This makes us look more like a Central American dictatorship than an advanced evolved democratic republic. …

So it’s a lot tougher for blue-collar communities. I still live in the same blue collar community that I was in from third grade through high school, on the very east edge of Portland. It’s struggling. It doesn’t have much property tax base for the schools. But at the time I was a kid, families were doing a lot better. They were able to buy these three-bedroom ranch homes with a single car garage. It was easier to get a living wage job. Now it’s a lot tougher, in the same neighborhood. And when it comes to owning a home, many of the families in the community are thinking that the only way they’re going to be able to have a home is to inherit it from their parents. It’s a whole different dynamic for a neighborhood, and it reflects what happened this last four decades. And it isn’t that the wealth hasn’t continue to grow in America. Wealth has gone up enormously in the last four decades. It’s just that workers have not gotten to share in the wealth in the same way.

Now let’s talk about the environmental challenge. Since Oregon is home, I tend to think about what I’m seeing on the ground in Oregon. One thing that I’m seeing is that the change in climate is very good for pine beetles and very bad for trees. The average snowpack in the Cascades has been dropping, and that has affected the fishing. The streams are warmer and smaller.

I do a town hall in every county every year. Two thirds of those counties are “dark red” counties, so I hear a lot about what’s on Fox News, and what they’re getting in their email feeds.

In Klamath Falls, I was asked at a town hall, “How can you be fighting for jobs and also be concerned about climate change?” And I said, “How many people here fish?” And everybody raised their hands at that town hall (half because they fish, and half because they didn’t want to admit they don’t fish!) So I said, “Have you seen that these streams are smaller and warmer? And they said yes. And we’ve had three worst-ever droughts in the last 15 years here in the Klamath, and it’s really hurting our farmers and it’s really hurting our ranchers. And you know about the pine beetles and the red zone — which, if you’ve driven through it you just can’t believe how much forest has been wiped out by pine beetles. What about the oysters on the Oregon coast? We lost 1 billion oysters in 2007 and 2008. It turned out it was the acidity of the Pacific ocean had increased by 30 percent, and acidity makes it harder for baby oysters at the beginning of their life to start making the shell, and in the effort to do so, they die. It’s because of the higher amount of carbonic acid that comes from carbon dioxide. From our burning fuels.

And we see it nationally. Glacier National Park had 150 glaciers when our parents were born. Now there’s 25. And in 20 years they anticipate it will be zero.

And the moose in Minnesota are dying from the ticks, because it’s not cold enough to kill the ticks in the winter. In Maine they are worried about losing their lobsters to Canada because they’re cold water lobster and their migrating north.

And on and on: Zika expanding, the Canadian permafrost melting, coral reefs around the world dying, the Arctic ice disappearing. Last year, 2016, was the first year that a luxury cruise ship went through the Arctic, and it went through again this year, it’s the same ship. It’s called crystal serenity. And at the same time it was passing through that Arctic, Hurricane Harvey was forming, and behind it Hurricane Irma. And our forests here in the Northwest in Oregon, Washington, and California were on fire. So there is no serenity here. So, while any individual storm can’t be blamed on the circumstances, in general the storms are worse because the water in the ocean is warmer and it feeds the energy in a hurricane. …

In Oregon, we’ve had storms all my life, but we have more lightning strikes with the kind of storms we have now, and we have drier conditions on the floor of the forest, drier than a kiln-dried two-by-four. That combination is devastating.

It is anticipated we will lose half of our forests to pine beetles by the end of the century in the Pacific Northwest.

And behind all of this is carbon dioxide from burning fuels. You can track it scientifically. The changes are very significant. We’ve gone from 270 parts per million 150 years ago to now over 400. And we were going up at one part per million per year 20 years ago. Now we’re going up two parts per million. In the last two years we’ve gone up at 3 parts per million per year. So the rate of global carbon pollution is accelerating.

We need to be able to say, “hey we hit 400, and need to come back down to 350.” Instead, it’s accelerating at an even faster rate.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, our temperature has gone up 1.5° over our previous level, and it is anticipated that three decades from now it will have gone up by triple that amount. If we see these impacts from 1.5°, what’s going to happen when we go up by 4.5° three decades from now? And it is expected to double again by the end of the century to 9°.

We are running a race, and we are losing that race.

That means we have to think of energy conservation, more mileage, more insulation, double-paned windows, energy-efficient appliances.

But we also have to think far more boldly, far more dramatically. We must stop burning fossil fuels. And we have to do it in the next three decades to have a chance to take this on. And we have to do it in partnership with the world. We have to completely transform our energy economy, and that’s a very scary thing to lay out, because we have a lot of jobs invested in our current energy economy.

But what we are seeing is that is already underway — due to technology. Even if we set aside the whole issue of climate change, we’re still going to undergo this change, because it is less expensive or at least cost competitive to have new generation come from solar energy than from coal or gas. So even states that aren’t having a conversation about climate change are still transforming their energy economy.

Lamar Alexander, the senator from Tennessee, he hates wind turbines. He owns a vacation house in the Northeast, and he doesn’t want wind turbines to look at, and he doesn’t want to look at them in Tennessee. That’s my understanding. He wanted to cut the research on wind turbines. So I said to Senator Chuck Grassley from Iowa: “You have a lot of wind energy. He said, oh yeah, we’re leading the nation in wind energy, more per capita.” I said, “Well, do you think we should keep funding research to do it even more, better, cheaper?” He said, “Oh yes.” So he partnered with me, and we rescued the research funding that Senator Lamar Alexander had eliminated. Not that Senator Grassley would’ve admitted for one second that there’s anything changing in the world. But he likes that wind energy. Those rural counties are getting a lot of property tax from those turbines. Those rural farmers are getting a whole lot of money, and have more money to spend in the local economy.

So there is going to be a change either way. It’s going to be massive. And we have a choice, either to seize it and try to make it the best possible opportunity for American workers or to not seize it, and in that case, it will be a great opportunity for workers overseas. I would rather have that opportunity for American workers.

We have huge manufacturing potential for making the components that go into renewable energy infrastructure. We have huge opportunity for constructing utility-scale and distributed-scale solar and wind. We have high-voltage electric lines that need to be constructed. We have residential reconstruction, everything from changing water heaters and gas and oil furnaces into heat pumps to installing energy-saving windows and doors. … So we have all these areas in which jobs can be created.

We are seeing the renewable energy economy grow 12 times faster than the rest of the economy. We have seen in a single year, 2015 to 2016, solar jobs jump 25 percent in the United States. We now have 260,000 Americans working in the solar industry. We have a Kentucky coal company, Berkeley Energy Group, that is now planning the largest Kentucky solar field — on top of a former strip mine. And they have a provision that says that the jobs will go to former coal workers.

Our coal workers and other fossil fuel workers have been powering our economy for many years. They have been the foundation for the standard of living we had today. We have to make sure as we seek to create jobs in a new energy economy that fossil fuel workers are at the front of the line.

And I realized that things were changing when I found out that Kentucky’s Coal Museum was putting solar panels on its roof. We see the low cost of solar and the low cost of wind driving this.

I was meeting with the power minister of India, and he wanted to tell me about America burning fossil fuels for 150 years — so why should we ask India to do anything? And that wasn’t inaccurate. And I said, “Looking forward, how much does it cost to put in a new kilowatt of coal power? Seven cents. How much for a new kilowatt of solar power? Three cents. So we don’t need to argue about the past. Let’s look at the future. How can you create more power faster for the 300 million people in India that don’t have electricity?”

He said, “We have to build another 300 coal plants, and we have to move fast.” I said, “well, you can move fast on solar too.”

That was in April. In June, what did the power minister of India announce? That they’re not building any more coal plants.

We have 540,000 plug-in electric vehicles in America, so that’s now starting to be a small share of our total vehicles. But we sold 17 million vehicles last year. So 500,000 doesn’t sound like so many. But it is enough for us to start to understand how plug-in vehicles work. I bought a Chevy Volt, designed and made in America, five years ago. I made my last payment on it this week. And it was way too expensive to buy, because we make so few of them. The price is going to start coming down. But I’ll tell you this: It’s a hell of a lot cheaper to drive. The cost of my former car was about 20 cents a mile for gas. My Chevy volt, on electricity, costs 3 cents a mile. At 10,000 miles a year, that’s $2,000 you’re saving on fuel.

We are seeing so much change. India has announced that it’s not going to sell fossil fuel cars after 2030. France and the UK announced that they are not going to sell them after 2040. Last week China announced that they are going to stop selling fossil fuel cars at a date they’re going to to figure out in the future. They are pushing ahead.

I was very struck about Norway. Norway did some things like offer free parking for electric vehicles, lower the annual registration fee, put in more charging stations. And in about four years, they went from 5 percent of their vehicles sold being electric vehicles to now 40 percent. That’s a dramatic transformation.

We’re back to the big question: Is the US going to lead this economic revolution, and sell our technology to the world, or are we simply going to be buying the products from other countries? And I’m very worried about where we are.

Now, there are a lot of jobs in our fossil fuel industries, but those jobs are going to keep changing for the reasons I’ve described.…

This week General Motors announced it is moving its design team for electric cars to China. That’s a knife in my heart. Why? Because China is investing heavily in the car charging stations, and they are pushing their automakers to embrace battery-powered vehicles. And here’s the diabolical part: They are requiring their American and European partners to hand over their technology when they make cars there. And we’ve seen this movie play out before….

They believe the future is in solar and wind and electric cars, and they are subsidizing it heavily. We cannot let them beat us. Let’s make sure that America owns this energy revolution.

Let’s seize this opportunity. We can be at the forefront of making these products. We can make sure our fossil fuel workers get the first shot at jobs in the transition. We can make sure our disadvantaged communities have a chance to have that clean energy technology in their communities, because they’re often the most polluted communities. And that they have the opportunity to get the jobs. We can work to make sure the workers have the right to organize in this new economy and get a fair share of the wages they create.

Right now we’re not going to make a lot of progress in Washington, DC, but we can carry on that fight in every state. It’s happening in Oregon, where there is an effort underway to adopt a bold piece of climate legislation. It’s happening in Washington state, where the Legislature set targets for greenhouse gas reductions. And California on this day, the state assembly is voting on a 100 percent renewable energy bill that would put California at the forefront of this transition and create jobs in California.

Bobby Kennedy said, “If we fail to dare, if we do not try, the next generation will harvest the fruit of our indifference, a world we did not want, a world we did not choose, and a world we could’ve made better.”

Let’s apply ourselves now, not only taking on climate disruption but taking on a much better economy where workers share in the wealth that they create here in the United States of America.


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