As we move into the holiday season and look back on one of the most eventful years in modern memory, there is much upon which to reflect — and many changes coming down the road ahead. With President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris moving full steam ahead with the work of transitioning control of the government, now is the time to take stock of what change means for Utility Workers.
One of the core elements of the Biden-Harris campaign all year long has been to place organized labor at the center of their ‘Build Back Better’ Jobs and Economic Recovery program. Regardless of when an effective and widely distributed COVID-19 vaccine emerges, it is a certainty that the incoming administration will immediately move to appoint labor friendly personnel across the government, most particularly at the U.S. Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board.
Although, as of this writing, there are still several names in the mix for these positions, they all share one thing in common — careers grounded in a lifetime of support for the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively. Trade unionists should expect these agencies, and government policy, to change course in support of unions and workers beginning from Day 1 of the new administration. These changes will result in real benefits for the UWUA and its members on vital issues such as workplace safety, the right to form a union and to negotiate strong contracts. These changes will be brought about because the Biden-Harris administration values unions and workers.
Over the course of a long campaign season, much has been written and said about the views of the candidates regarding energy policy. As has been widely reported, the Biden-Harris plan calls for an investment of over seven trillion dollars in infrastructure, healthcare, and education. That is a tall aspiration but, regardless of what gains political traction in the next few years, it’s a fact that utility companies across the nation will continue to make new investment decisions regarding the manner in which energy is produced, stored, and distributed and that new technologies will continue to change what’s technically feasible. For the foreseeable future, it is a certainty that the nation’s energy systems will continue to evolve.
Despite the attempt of ‘gotcha’ journalism over the last year to pin the Biden-Harris team down on what technologies they may favor, the plain fact is that the next administration will be an ‘all of the above’ government. Energy systems are simply too fundamental, and too deeply entwined within the economy for major changes to occur overnight, and the politics of attempting such rapid — and radical — change would continue to run into opposition on both sides of the political aisle.
Employers, markets, technologies, and consumers can expect the steady evolution of the energy sector to continue over time, just as they have been for the last two decades. Of course, these changes have not always been a positive for everyone involved. As industries reposition assets, as investment priorities change, and as technologies advance, jobs will be gained and jobs will be lost. The UWUA will be training, organizing and preparing for the new jobs that are coming, and assisting those workers and communities where change has negative impacts to help them chart the next stage in their lives.
As the energy industry continues to change and to the extent that impacts members, the UWUA leadership is confident that the Biden-Harris administration will listen to the union’s concerns and work together to create a path forward for members, their families and their communities.
A centerpiece of the Biden-Harris campaign has been to elevate the need to rejuvenate the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Over the course of the last year, the candidates have made clear that, in their view, OSHA has been missing in action in the fight to contain COVID-19. They have consistently called for swift action to be taken by OSHA to staff up, increase safety inspections, and put in place a much needed national standard — starting with an emergency temporary standard immediately — for infectious disease control in American workplaces.
Putting the power of federal oversight, inspection, and even penalties behind basic requirements such as social distancing, hand washing, ventilation, personal protective equipment, and proper communication of risks and safety measures would be a game-changer. On this and many other, more traditional workplace safety issues, the incoming administration is expected to take real action to protect the health and safety of UWUA members, and of all American workers.
Working In the New Normal
With two Senate races in Georgia still to be decided in January, it appears as though the era of divided government is likely to continue. Even if the Senate should end up in a 50-50 tie however, moving major policy in government will remain a high bar as procedural rules such as the Senate filibuster, and centrist officials such as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and others, will make radical change close to impossible. Particularly as the Democratic majority in the House has narrowed considerably, a more realistic expectation is that this will be an era of reduced expectations and compromise to meet small — but not unimportant — goals.
On energy, policy initiatives such as preserving existing nuclear facilities, building out carbon capture and storage technologies, or making the natural gas grid more efficient by curtailing methane losses will stand a far higher chance of seeing daylight than more radical approaches to energy policy advanced by more progressive politicians.
On labor, much progress will be made through political and policy choices within federal agencies but, as trade unionists, union members must be educating themselves on these changes along the way. It is unlikely that full bore reform of federal labor law will take place with the political center holding sway in D.C. Instead, the ‘devil will be in the details’ as agency rules and decisions will steadily alter the landscape in favor of organized labor.
On safety, workers will have a strong new ally at OSHA, and a chance to recharge the agency with its core duty — ensuring safe workplaces for all Americans.
It’s been a long year and the path ahead will not be without obstacles but, with the work and solidarity of organized labor, UWUA members should expect to feel the winds of change blowing in their favor.
UWUA Supports Labor Candidates Around the Country
Across the country, the UWUA leveraged the power of its national Committee On Political Education (COPE) fund to influence races at the national, state and local levels, helping to support labor-friendly candidates and key policy allies. In addition to the Biden-Harris campaign, the union supported races for the U.S. House and Senate, state legislatures, and city and county officials in Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
The UWUA has friends and allies all over America and took action to help them at every opportunity. Candidates sought the union’s support on issues affecting families, workplace safety, energy policy, infrastructure investment, union apprenticeship training programs, and the rights of workers to take collective action. By demonstrating the ability to impact elections in states across the country, the UWUA made its members’ voices heard, pressed candidates to support the rights of working people, and advanced a message of family and community-supporting jobs for the future of which members an all be proud!