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.”

A Just Plan to wind down B.C.’s Fossil fuel industry by 2050

Winding Down_report cover_CCPA-BC_1  Winding Down BC’s Fossil Fuel Industries: Planning for climate justice in a zero-carbon economy   was released on March 4  by the B.C. office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, as part of the Corporate Mapping Project.  Authors Marc Lee and Seth Klein begin with an overview of the province’s  fossil fuel industries (including locations, production and reserves)  noting that all fossils produce one-quarter of B.C.’s GHG emissions, (most of which is from Liquified Natural Gas (LNG)). Calling the government’s current strategy of promoting LNG production through clean electricity “untenable”, the report proposes a four-point phase-out plan for all fossils over the next 20 to 30 years, including: 1. Establish carbon budgets and fossil fuel production limits; 2. Invest in the domestic transition from fossil fuels and develop a green industrial strategy; 3. Ensure a just transition for workers and communities; 4. Reform the royalty regime for fossil fuel extraction.

To design a Just Transition plan, the authors cite as “helpful” the examples of the Alberta coal phase-out and the 2018 coal phase-out agreement in Spain, as well as the existing Columbia Basin Trust example of community transition.  In the long time frame of 20 to 30 years, they see the retirement of many existing workers, so that attrition will accomplish much of the job shedding. Although they say that Just-transition strategies “must include efforts to maintain employment in areas where jobs are likely to be lost” – implying reinvestment in resource-based communities – they also recognize the built-in gender bias of such a strategy and advocate investment in  public sector jobs – such as child care and seniors services.

To secure Just Transition funding

The report states:

“ ….BC should aim to invest 2 per cent of its GDP per year … or about $6 billion per year in 2019, an amount that would grow in line with the provincial economy. Assuring such levels of investment should give comfort to workers currently employed in the fossil fuel industry. Revenues from higher carbon taxes and royalty reforms (described below) would be an ideal source of funds, and/or governments could borrow (through green bonds) to undertake high levels of capital spending on decarbonization initiatives. In contrast, the 2019 BC Budget lists total operating and capital expenses for CleanBC over the next three years at, cumulatively, only $679 million, less than one-tenth of a percent of BC’s GDP.”

Managing Income loss for transitioned workers:

The authors state: “On average, fossil fuel workers make 28 per cent more than workers in the rest of the economy, although this includes gasoline station workers who earn  comparably low wages. Replacing more than $5 billion of income over the course of the wind-down period is therefore a central challenge”…. By assuming a 20 to 30 year time frame, they calculate a job substitution of 500 to 700 jobs per year, and state: “ There is no reason to believe that such a transition should be a problem if the right policy supports are implemented and a proactive green investment strategy is pursued to create alternative employment options.”  Earlier in the report, the authors estimate that, assuming the province invests 2 per cent of its GDP annually (about $6 billion in 2019) in green job creation, at least 42,000 direct and indirect jobs would be created  in a range of opportunities.

The CCPA offers an 8-page Executive Summary of the report, and an even briefer version , written by co-author Marc Lee, was published in the Vancouver Sun on March 8.

Australia Senate Committee Report shows a green economy is possible

Flag_of_Australia.svgOn 31 July 2019, the Australian Senate established a Select Committee into the Jobs for the Future in Regional Areas, with a mandate to inquire and report on new industries and employment opportunities that can be created in regions and rural areas. The terms of reference were broad and included “lessons learned from structural adjustments in the automotive, manufacturing and forestry industries and energy privatisation ; the importance of long-term planning ; measures to guide the transition into new industries and employment; and the role of vocational education providers, in enabling reskilling and retraining.”

Public consultations were conducted in seven locations and 174 submissions were received from academics, policy experts, government representatives and unions, between July and September.  The Report of the Select Committee was released in early December 2019, but because Senators were unable to set aside politics and arrive at consensus recommendations, the report consists mostly of excerpts from the submissions heard.  There are 14 recommendations made by the Chair , and separate recommendations by Labor members and by Government Senators, who said: “The word ‘transition’ is a loaded term which necessarily involves preconceptions around the direction of the Australian economy. The issue surrounding the definition of ‘transition’ is one of the reasons why the committee could not reach agreement on recommendations.”

Neverthess, the report and submissions are a valuable record of the current situation in Australia because they discuss examples of the technological innovations in current industry, and future job opportunities in renewable energy, biofuel, mining, lithium-ion battery manufacture, waste management, hydrogen energy export to Asia, and ecological services and natural infrastructure (including site rehabilitation and reef restoration).

Some excerpts:

“… the growth in renewable energy generation presents direct opportunities for increasing manufacturing activity: Installation and construction employs large numbers of people for short periods of time, but a globally competitive renewables manufacturing industry creates jobs for decades. The Victorian state government has only scratched the surface of the opportunity for Australia in this space. They have reopened the Ford plant in Geelong and allowed Danish multinational Vestas to start assembling wind turbines, but there is also Keppel Prince in Portland and Wilson Transformers in Wodonga, who have also been involved in the renewables supply chain, creating high skilled, meaningful manufacturing jobs.”

“…. the GFG Alliance in Whyalla which is proposing to revitalise the steelworks and bring down the cost of production with a variety of innovative and technologically advanced initiatives. Depending on the final configuration, a portion of the energy used at the steelworks would be sourced from a 280 MW solar farm in the Whyalla region….. Sun Metals, a solar electricity generation farm, supplies the existing zinc refinery with about 30 per cent of its electricity needs. That refinery is expanding its zinc production and is looking to expand its portfolio of renewable generation assets to further reduce its exposure to volatile electricity grid prices. Similarly, the development and commercialisation of the EnPot technology for aluminium smelting has the potential to redefine and expand the role of aluminium smelting in Australia as an electricity grid stabiliser as well as a value-adding base metal producer.”

Regarding future skills and labour market concerns:

The Centre for Policy Futures characterized the role of industry skills councils as critical to ensure that training matches the available jobs.  “… These councils must be part of the community consultation process; work with the public authority to identify what future employment opportunities might look like; and determine the future employment, reskilling and retaining opportunities that might be available.”

Concerns about the skill differences between workers currently employed in coal mines and power-stations were highlighted by the Institute for Sustainable Futures: “The nature of the workforce in coalmining means that the transition there is going to be more challenging than it is in power generation. Power generation has a lot of trades, technicians and professionals. One in two coalminers is a truck driver or a machine operator—the second-lowest skill category. So it is going to be a lot more challenging than power generation, where you’ve got a relatively skilled workforce.”…. Regional Development Australia South West noted that: Average wages here in the mining sector are $137,000. Average wages in tourism are $49,000. You can’t replace those mining jobs with tourism jobs.”

Regarding Transition Planning :

Several submissions supported the creation of a National Transition Authority, with responsibility for planning and collaboration, but  not replacing the need for local transition planning bodies.

The Next Economy (Submission #16 here ) put forward a model for a national Transition Authority which would : 1.  oversee funding and coordination of transition planning at both a national and regional level 2.  coordinate with other authorities and government agencies to ensure that the scale, type and pace of the transition will enable us to meet international climate obligations to reduce emissions 3.  coordinate an industry-wide, multi-employer redeployment scheme to provide retrenched workers with the opportunity to transfer to other power generators 4.  ensure companies meet their responsibilities to workers in terms of redundancy payments and entitlements, retraining opportunities, and generating jobs through full decommissioning and rehabilitation of sites .

Sadly, these recommendations and examples hold little sway with the current government of Australia, as Prime Minister Morrison continues to support the development of new coal projects.  The Senators’ Comments in the Select Committee Report are a catalogue of government positions, summed up by this :

“In the view of the Government Senators, the majority report (approved by the Greens and the ALP Committee members) inadequately highlights the importance of jobs associated with coal mining and oil and gas production to the Australia’s economy.”