Green stimulus, worker health and safety ignored as U.S. authorizes $2 Trillion in Coronavirus crisis

On March 27, the U.S. Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) – at $2 trillion, the largest stimulus in U.S. history.  For individual taxpayers, it offers a one-time  $1,200 payment, plus $500 more for each child under age 17; it also  expands unemployment insurance amounts and duration. Details of the provisions are summarized in FAQ’s from the New York Times  , and in Forbes . General reaction to what is clearly a compromise Bill appears in “ ‘Far More to Do,’ Say Progressives After House Approves and Trump Signs Corporate-Friendly Coronavirus Relief Act “(Mar. 28).  Pramila Jayapal , Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC),  issued a press release which states that Democrats are already formulating policies for the next legislative package, and gives a point-form summary of the CARES Act, describing  provisions related to  Worker-Centered Industry Assistance, the airline industry,  and transit industry:

“The bill requires businesses receiving federal assistance to maintain existing employment levels to the extent possible and prohibits stock buybacks or dividends for the length of any loan provided by the federal government plus one year and restricts any increases to executive compensation for two years. The bill also provides direct payroll payments to keep millions of airline workers on the job and receiving paychecks, while also prohibiting airline companies from stock buybacks and dividends for the entire life of a federal grant, plus one year.” Regarding Transit Agencies: “The bill provides $25 billion to transit agencies, which have all seen a drastic drop in revenues as social distancing has been implemented.  This funding is to be used to protect the jobs of the employees of the transit agencies, funding their paychecks during this public health emergency.”

 

Worker Health and Safety in the CARES Act

The  article in Common Dreams  quotes the president of the Economic Policy Institute, who states that the CARES Act “also egregiously fails to include explicit protections for worker safety during this epidemic in industries seeking federal relief.”  On this issue,  Labor Notes published a compilation of worker actions over health and safety concerns in “Walkouts Spread as Workers Seek Coronavirus Protections”(Mar. 26). Anxious and sick workers at food delivery service Instacart and at Amazon announced their plans to  strike over health and safety on March 30, as described in “Amazon and Instacart Workers Are Striking for COVID-19 Protections” in Slate, and also in ‘The Strike Wave Is in Full Swing’: Amazon, Whole Foods Workers Walk Off Job to Protest Unjust and Unsafe Labor Practices (Mar. 30).

Other workers are also walking out on March 30, as described in Vice : “General Electric Workers Launch Protest, Demand to Make Ventilators” , demanding that their idle plants be converted to the socially-useful work of making ventilators.

A selection of  notable readings about Covid-19, workers, and the climate crisis in the U.S.:

Jeremy Brecher, Research Director of Labor Network for Sustainability has written three articles so far in his new column, Strike.  Brecher offer his own views and commentary, but also links to important reports and statements from unions, advocacy groups, and such U.S.  press outlets as Vox, Grist, Politico, and the Washington Post, among others.  The first Commentary,  “In Coronavirus Fight, Workers Are Forging an Emergency Green New Deal” (Mar. 16) describes the impact and challenges of Covid 19 in workplaces, and the initiatives taken by many U.S. unions.  Article #2, “An Emergency Jobs Program for an Emergency Green New Deal” ( March 24) proposes what he calls  a “Green Work Program” (GWP) for the U.S. , based on the principles of a jobs guarantee: “A GWP will provide jobs for all who want them in their own communities performing socially useful work. It will be established by federal legislation, funded by the federal government, and run under the jurisdiction of the Department of Labor or another federal agency. It will be primarily administered by local and municipal governments, nonprofits, social enterprises, and cooperatives. In contrast to the WPA, it is a permanent program, though its size can be expected to vary depending on economic conditions and social needs.”  Brecher’s #3 commentary is “Momentum Builds for Green New Deal Jobs”, which  appeared on March 30, summarizing major policy proposals for a Just Recovery.

Naomi Klein updates her thoughts about disaster capitalism in a new video  at The Intercept, explaining how  governments, especially the Trump administration in the U.S.,  are exploiting the the coronavirus outbreak “to push for no-strings-attached corporate bailouts and regulatory rollbacks.” The most egregious example of this regulatory rollback came on March 26 in an EPA press release “EPA Announces Enforcement Discretion Policy for COVID-19 Pandemic “,  critiqued by Inside Climate News in “Trump’s Move to Suspend Enforcement of Environmental Laws is a Lifeline to the Oil Industry” (Mar. 27) .  The Intercept‘s Coronavirus coverage emphasizes this aspect of the crisis.

David Roberts, “A just and sustainable economic response to coronavirus, explained” appeared in Vox (Mar. 25) .

Meehan Crist in “What the Coronavirus means for climate change” an Opinion piece in the New York Times  on March 27.

Bill McKibben now writes an Opinion series for the New Yorker magazine, emphasizing climate change connections.  Recent articles include: “If We’re Bailing out Corporations, they should bail out the planet” (Mar. 20), and “The Coronavirus and the Climate Movement  (Mar. 18) .

Progressives and climate activists: An Open Letter to Congress for a Green Stimulus Plan  appeared in Medium on Mar. 22 (with approximately 1200 signatures by Mar. 24).  Amongst the signatories are  high-profile activists such as 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben; former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy;  Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis, co-founders of The Leap, as well as prominent academics.  It is aligned with the 5 Principles for Just COVID-19 Relief and Stimulus  proposed by environmental, labour, and other progressive groups, including the Climate Justice Alliance(CJA).    In a March 24 press release, “Seven Congressional Leaders Join 500+ Progressive Organizations To Demand People’s Bailout In Response To Coronavirus Crisis”, CJA announces that  Senators Ed Markey and Tammy Duckworth, and Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Mark Pocan, Debbie Dingell, Pramila Jayapal, and Barbara Lee endorse joined their People’s Bailout campaign, based on the 5 Principles.

Thomas Hanna and Carlos Sandos Skandier :  “We can’t let this economic crisis go to waste” an Opinion Piece in Open Democracy (March 16), which argues ..”During this, or any future, economic crisis, public support and funding to stricken industries must be conditioned on public ownership and control within the overall perspective of a Green New Deal and a just transition for workers and communities affected by the required shifts to renewable energy and less carbon intensive modes of transportation and production. This means not simply injecting public money into banks, oil and gas companies, and airlines in order to stabilize and resurrect their existing business so they can continue financing, extracting, and burning fossil fuels at a pace that will blow our chances of keeping temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius by 2036.” ….

 “How to Make the Airline Bailout Work for Workers, Not Just CEOs” from Inequality.org (March 17) endorses the proposals from Sara Nelson of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA , including direct payroll subsidies for airline workers.   The article in Inequality includes a table which shows how much the five biggest U.S. carriers spent on stock buybacks between 2010 and 2019 – including American Airlines, which spent $12.5 billion on buybacks, to increase the value of executive stock-based pay. Sara Nelson makes her case in an interview in In These Times (Mar.19) :  “Our Airline Relief Bill Is a Template for Rescuing Workers Instead of Bailing Out Execs” .  She concludes:

“This virus is a very clear metaphor for what we always say in the labor movement, which is “An injury to one is an injury to all.” It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, or where you come from. If a virus exists and we don’t do something about it, then we’re all at risk. “

Canada enacts Economic Stimulus Plan for COVID-19 amid calls for sustainable investment, not bail outs

With almost one million new employment insurance claims made so far during the COVID crisis and a grim new forecast by TD Economics just published, a special sitting of  Parliament on March 25 passed a economic stimulus package for Canada.  As described in  “Feds rejig benefits to get aid to workers affected by COVID-19” in the National Observer (Mar. 26), the new measures will combine and augment the two  previously announced benefit  programs into one, the Canada Emergency Response Benefit .   The core of the new benefit program will use General Revenues rather than the EI Fund, to provide “a $2,000-a-month payment for up to four months to workers whose income drops to zero because of the pandemic, including if they have been furloughed by their employers but technically still have jobs.” It is promised that the money will reach Canadians by mid-April, with an additional increase to the Child Care Benefit of $300/month/child beginning in May. The Ministry of Finance summary is here ; the fine print is in the Notice of Ways and Means Motion here .

In response to the government’s stimulus, David Macdonald has written  Unemployment may hit 70-year high, but new EI replacement will help”, which appears in Behind the Numbers from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (March 26). Macdonald identifies the  four industries at the highest risk of immediate job losses from the pandemic:  passenger airlines; arts, recreation, culture and sport; retail sector; and accommodation and food services (which alone employs 987,000 workers in normal times).  He then analyses how the benefits announced on March 25 will impact the approximately 2 million most vulnerable occupations within those industries.  The article also forecasts alarming unemployment scenarios across Canada, and specifically in  Canada’s cities, where service workers form a high percentage of the labour force. Some conclusions: unemployment in Calgary could rise from the already high 8.0% to a probable rate of 15.3%, excluding any further oil price shocks; Ottawa could rise from its February 2020 low 4.4% to 11.6% in the worst-case scenario; Toronto could see  an increase from 5.4% to 12.4% in the worst case; Montreal from 5.2% to 13.4%, and Vancouver 4.7% to 13.8%.

Calls for Sustainable investments, not bail outs

In reacting to the March 25 emergency stimulus measures, Julia Levin of Environmental Defence Canada raises the biggest elephant in the room: concern that money will be used to bail out the troubled oil and gas industry .  Environmental Defence warns :

“We applaud all of the federal parties for working together to take this positive step to pass legislation which will help those struggling” …. “But hidden inside this new law were changes that will make it easier for Canada’s export credit agency, Export Development Canada, to funnel billions more towards domestic oil and gas operations — without public scrutiny.”

Others who have spoken out against short-term bail outs: 

Civil society and labour unions: “No New Money For Oil and Gas Companies—Give It To Workers—Say Large Collection of Groups Representing More Than One Million Canadians” ,  an Open Letter to the federal government in advance of the March 25 announcement. It states: “Giving billions of dollars to failing oil and gas companies will not help workers and only prolongs our reliance on fossil fuels. Oil and gas companies are already heavily subsidized in Canada and the public cannot keep propping them up with tax breaks and direct support forever. Such measures benefit corporate bottom lines far more than they aid workers and communities facing public health and economic crises. “

265 Canadian Academics: As reproduced in the National Observer, another open letter to the Prime Minister from academics and advocacy groups  (with a list of the 265 signatories here )

A bailout for the oil and gas industry? Here’s why experts say it’s not a long-term solution” by Sharon Riley in The Narwhal , which notes that the  oil and gas industry has called for a postponement of increases to the federal carbon tax and  “a federal Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) modeled after the U.S. program developed in 2008 to purchase positions in distressed companies.” The experts who argue against it include Jeff Rubin (former chief economist with CIBC World Markets), Gord Laxer, (Professor Emeritus University of Alberta), Chris Severson-Baker (Pembina Institute), and Ian Hussey (Parkland Institute).  In “Bail out Workers, Not Fossil Fuels, Climate Advocates Tell Trudeau” in The Tyee (March 20),  Geoff Dembicki  discusses the same issues.

COVID-19 crisis is a tipping point. Will we invest in planetary health, or oil and gas?” (Mar. 24)  by Dr. Courtney Howard,  Board member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.

Coronavirus and the economy: We need green stimulus not fossil fuel bailouts” by Kyla Tienhaara, Canada Research Chair in Economy and Environment at Queen’s University, published in The Conversation (Mar. 24). She argues that “Stimulus measures should either provide substantial environmental benefits such as greenhouse gas emissions reductions or re-orientate the economy to low-carbon activities, such as care work and the arts….   bailouts to the fossil fuel industry and airlines would be monumentally counterproductive.”

Tim Gray of Environmental Defence offers some specific alternatives in “How Canada can build an environmentally sustainable future after the COVID-19 Crisis” (March 23).

These same arguments are playing out internationally – Naomi Klein has released a new video at The Intercept,  explaining  how the Trump administration and other governments across the globe are “exploiting” the coronavirus outbreak “to push for no-strings-attached corporate bailouts and regulatory rollbacks.” She urges working people worldwide to resist such efforts and demand real support from political leaders during the ongoing crisis.”  In the U.S., the Climate Justice Alliance is part of that resistance, as described in Demand A People’s Bailout that Protects Workers while Ensuring Safe and Sustainable Energy  .

 

Can the fight against COVID-19 help the climate change fight?

With the world reeling under the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, some are trying to make sense of our disrupted world, and find lessons and hope for the fight against climate change.

One thoughtful and useful article is  “Can COVID-19 create a turning point in the fight against climate change?”,  which appeared in Medium on March 13.  Acknowledging that the pandemic is distracting attention and resources from the climate fight, author Kaveh Madani  argues that “The COVID-19 crisis is teaching us some lessons and implementing some reforms that are essential for success in mitigating the climate crisis.” Specifically, economic and financial reforms; reduction of GHG emissions; the move to “virtual life”, including teleworking; reduction of aviation travel and consumerism; the importance of science; the interconnectedness of our global world, and conversely, the importance of individual action.

Another widely-cited article  appeared in Fast Company, “What would happen if the world reacted to climate change like it’s reacting to the coronavirus? . The article quotes May Boeve, executive director of 350.org, who finds hope in the fact that: “We’ve seen that governments can act, and people can change their behavior, in a very short amount of time… And that’s exactly what the climate movement has been asking governments and people to do for years in the face of a different kind of threat—the climate crisis.”  The downside? The response to the climate threat has not been as swift and strong, which she attributes to the perception that it is a “ somewhat distant problem, despite the growing number of climate-related disasters that happen every year”, and because “in the climate crisis, powerful companies have a lot to lose if the world acts decisively, and with the virus, though many people are losing money, there’s no similarly massive opposition to trying to address the problem.”

Two articles on March 15 in The Energy Mix explore how the Coronavirus has disrupted the oil and gas industry, and how that may help the climate fight.   “Coronavirus Triggers OPEC+ Breakup, Drives Deepest Oil Price Dive in 29 Years” (March 15)  summarizes the geopolitics and oil price collapse;  “Oil War and Covid-19 Create Risk, Opportunity for Clean Energy”  (March 15)  summarizes the opinions of several market analysts who argue that “It doesn’t make sense to reduce your investment in renewables if the oil price crashes …It’s more logical to reduce your investment in oil.”  Amongst possible benefits:  governments would reduce fossil fuel subsidies and redirect funding to health priorities, and  investment redirected to clean energy would strengthen that sector.

Finally, Avi Lewis of The Leap wrote a Globe and Mail Opinion piece, “In the midst of converging crises, the Green New Deal is the answer in which he argues: ” In the midst of all these terrifying and converging disasters, this is perhaps the greatest opportunity – to shatter the shackles of austerity thinking and see the potential for government to do big things, like actually lead a democratic and inclusive response to the climate emergency at the speed and scale that science and justice require.”

Scotland’s Just Transition Commission releases interim report and recommendations

offshore wind Beothuk Installation Newfoundland.jpgOn February 27 , the Scottish Just Transition Commission released its Interim Report , emphasizing the urgency for the Scottish Government to begin planning for transition immediately, and offering some positive examples of initiatives underway.  The Commission  calls for a government commitment to develop a Climate Emergency Skills Action Plan- specifically, an “assessment of workforces most likely to be affected by the transition (including those indirectly affected through supply chains), and the most immediate and pressing skills requirements needed to support the net-zero transition”.  The Commission’s interim recommendations also include:  a call to “Place equity at the heart of the Climate Change Plan update”; ensure that there is transition support for the Agriculture sector; establish a Citizens Assembly on climate change, operating independently of the Scottish Government; promote Scotland’s approach to just transition at COP 26 meetings in Glasgow in 2020; expand on the success of energy efficiency initiatives with funding support; begin planning for low-carbon infrastructure, noting that future government infrastructure investment should avoid locking in emissions and inequality; place the climate emergency at the heart of spending decisions; and improve modelling and research to help understand the transition.

Perhaps most controversial is the final recommendation:

“The oil and gas industry currently provides and supports a large number of high quality jobs meaning any transition for the sector and its supply chain in the decades ahead will need to be carefully managed. Strategies such as Roadmap 2035 from Oil and Gas UK have begun to set out the role industry believe they can play in a net-zero economy.    … To further support the deployment of CCUS and hydrogen, Government should consider supporting a programme of focussed research in collaboration with industry, with the aim of delivering a reduction in the costs of deploying these energy solutions in a way that secures a just transition for workers and stakeholders. “

The  Scottish Just Transition Commission  was launched in  September 2018, chaired by Professor  Jim Skea, and including two unionists amongst its membership: Richard Hardy, the National Secretary for Scotland and Ireland at labour union Prospect , and Dave Moxham, Deputy General Secretary of the Scottish Trade Union Congress .  The Commission has issued a Call for Evidence in 2020, with a final report and recommendations expected in 2021.  In the meantime, the Commission states that 2020 will be used to “consider a range of cross-cutting themes such as finance, skills and technology innovation”, and have commissioned a report on international just transition experiences.  The Interim Report also references several existing reports, including one commissioned by the Coalfields Regeneration Trust: The State of the Coalfields 2019: Economic and social conditions in the former coalfields of England, Scotland and Wales (July 2019), published by the  Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at She­eld Hallam University, in Sheffield.

Reaction is summed up by Friends of the Earth Scotland in its favourable statement, “Time to move beyond rhetoric on just transition, say Unions and environmentalists”. Reaction from the Scottish Trade Unions Congress is here ; Prospect’s reaction is here .  

Fewer jobs will be needed in Alberta’s oil sands according to Parkland report

parkland futureofalbertasoilsands_coverThe latest of several reports by the Parkland Institute and Corporate Mapping Project  was released on March 10:  The Future of Alberta’s Oil Sands Industry : More Production, Less Capital, Fewer Jobs .  Author Ian Hussey  argues that a managed decline of the industry is needed, and that it is now in its mature phase – with  53,119 jobs lost between 2014 through 2019.  With this maturity comes fewer construction projects, and technological change is driving down operational employment. Although most people are aware of the adoption of driverless trucks, Hussey also discusses  horizontal multi-well drilling pads; supervisory control and data acquisition, remote monitoring, and information technology and analytics; and replicated designs and modularization.   In sum,

“Despite the growth in production, fewer and fewer employees are needed. In 2019, overall productivity per employee in Canada’s oil and gas industry was 47% higher than in 2011, and productivity in the oil sands was 72% higher in 2019 than 2011. This indicates that the jobs that have been lost in recent years are likely not coming back. Production is at an all-time high and has increased 23% since 2014, while jobs have declined by 23% since 2014.”

The report also profiles the “ Big Five” oil and gas companies operating in Alberta:  Suncor Energy, Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL), Imperial Oil, Cenovus Energy, and Husky Energy – providing statistics on their production, reserves,  profits and shareholder returns, and capital spending.