Workers who respond to wildfires – some news you might have missed

The Columbia Journalism Review published an article on November 1: “What journalists miss when covering the California fires” . It states “we discuss celebrities and show pyro-pornography to capture attention. …. journalists could also use the borrowed interest to discuss bigger environmental consequences impacting people inside (and sometimes outside) of California.”

firefight in smokeHere are some articles which  focus on the impacts for working people in California and Canada, especially first responders and health care workers.  A previous WCR article,  “What happens to workers when wildfires and natural disasters hit?”  appeared in December 2017, after the Fort McMurray wildfires in Alberta.

California:

At PG&E, a workforce on edge — and under attack — as fire season arrives” in the San Francisco Chronicle (June 8) describes how front line workers are suffering harassment because the public blames their employer, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, for the 2018 Camp fire, as well as for the disruptions of their planned power outages to avoid sparking more fires.

A blog post  Power Shutoffs: Playing with Fire summarizes the issue of California power shutoffs and includes anecdotal reports from a  focus group study of home health care and nursing home workers, which  found that lack of communication was a common problem as they try to care for or evacuate their vulnerable patients.  The focus group was convened by the Emerald Cities Collaborative and SEUI2015.

Home healthcare in the Dark : Why Climate, Wildfires and Other Emerging Risks Call for Resilient Energy Storage Solutions to Protect Medically Vulnerable Households from Power Outages. This report published by Clean Energy Group and Meridian Institute in June 2019  identifies the problems associated with unreliable power when the electric grid goes down either through disaster or through  planned power outages to prevent wildfires. The report  makes a series of recommendations directed at policy makers, including:  “truly resilient power should be generated onsite, should not be dependent on supply chains that may be disrupted during catastrophic events”.

Getty fire: Housekeepers and gardeners go to work despite the flames” in the LA Times which also highlights the chaos brought by lack of communication, and the need for low-wage workers to work, despite danger.

International Association of Firefighters press release “California Members Work around the Clock to Contain Wildfires” provides an overview of  wildfire fighting by their members and points out that firefighters’ homes may also be in the path of destruction. (a fact that is true for other essential workers such as  health care workers).

“As fires rage, California refines an important skill: Evacuating” in the Washington Post (Oct. 29).  Describes the challenges of first responders responsible for vulnerable patients in hospitals.

New threats put wildfire fighters health on the line”  in the New York Times points out : “While burning wood poses some threat to lungs, man-made products and the gases and particles they produce when burned are far more dangerous…Unlike urban firefighters dealing with structural blazes, these wildfire responders do not wear heavy gear that filters air or provides clean air because the gear is unwieldy and too limited to allow the kind of multi-hour, high-exertion efforts demanded on the front lines of these large outdoor infernos.”

And from 2017, “Suicide rate among wildland firefighters is “astronomical”” in Wildfire Today  , based on a more substantial article in The Atlantic: “A Quiet Rise in Wildland-Firefighter Suicides”

 

Canada:

Climate change is making wildfires in Canada bigger, hotter and more dangerous”  in Maclean’s (July 18 2019) is a quick overview of the Canadian experience.

We were blindsided: Rappel firefighters criticizes UCP for axing program  in the Edmonton Journal  (Nov. 7) and an article in the newspaper Fort McMurray Today react to the Alberta government cuts which will eliminate the 40-year-old rappelling program, which employs more than 60 firefighters who rappel from helicopters into forest fires. Staffing for close to 30 wildfire lookout towers and one air tanker unit will also be cut. The articles describe the dangerous job of fighting fires.

A  British Columbia government press release at the end of October 2019 announces two research projects underway to study  firefighter health and wellness (including its physical, mental and emotional dimensions).  One at the University of Northern B.C. is a scoping study to contribute to a long-term research strategy for worker health by the B.C. Wildfire Service. The second, supported by the government of Alberta,  is examining the nature and concentration of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the air that firefighters breathe and accumulate on their skin. This study will also “explore the practicality and effectiveness of firefighters using respiratory protective equipment; and investigate whether wildland firefighters have more chronic lung disease than other people of the same age, gender and geographic location.” A progress report on the initial phase of this project is expected in March 2020.

“Fire-weary Western Canadians are picking up stakes and moving on” in the National Observer (June 24  2019)considers the impact of smoke as well as fire over the past two years in the West, discussing how “residents … young and old, often on fixed or limited incomes, are making tough choices about where they want to live and to work. The decisions are being informed by many factors, but often the most pressing concern is the increasing frequency of forest fires.”  (This updates some of the themes of a 2017 Globe and Mail article “Fort MacMurray wildfires leaves livelihoods in limbo” ).

Unions have made consistent and significant donations to wildfire-affected communities.  Some examples: “Steelworkers Humanity Fund Contributes $69,000 to Fort McMurray Recovery” (2016); “Steelworkers Contribute $100,000 to B.C. Fire Relief” (August 2017),  and Steelworkers Humanity Fund Contributes $58,950 to Support Disaster Recovery Here and Abroad (June 2019) –  which specifies a $10,000  donation to the  High Level Native Friendship Centre food bank in Northern Alberta after  forest fires caused  the evacuation of the town.  Also,  “Unifor wildfire relief donations top $220k” in 2017, and  a 2018 press release announced $150,000 to the B.C. Fire Relief Fund of the Canadian Red Cross in 2018 through Unifor’s Canadian Community Fund  as well as its Social Justice Fund .

How are workers affected by PG&E power outage in California?

california map PGE_outage_10-10-2019The California utility company largely blamed for the catastrophic Camp Fire in 2018 is making headlines again.  In the midst of dry, windy weather conditions, Pacific Gas & Electric shut off power to approximately 800,000 accounts (translating into 1.8  million people) on October 8, in an effort to reduce the risk of another wildfire caused by sparking from their electricity transmission lines.  The Los Angeles Times provides a general overview in “Gov. Newsom slams PG&E over ‘unacceptable’ power outages and failure to fix systems”  (Oct. 10) and “Millions Brace for Unprecedented Power Cuts in California” in Bloomberg News reports that shutoffs will affect major cities in the San Francisco Bay area,  including Oakland, San Jose and Berkeley, with a possible duration of up to 6 days.

The chaos, anger and inconvenience has additional  significance for workers, described briefly in  “Confusion reigns as California utility cuts power in 34 counties to reduce wildfire risk” (Oct. 10) in Energy Mix . More details appear in “What happens when a power company decides to turn off the electricity for millions of residents?” in Wildfire Today which states: “The indirect effects of having no electricity expand to a much larger population when you consider traffic lights not working, tunnels on highways being shut down, plus the closure of gas stations, schools, and businesses …. At some point, cellular telephone towers and infrastructure may exhaust their emergency power supply systems, not to mention the batteries in the public’s cell phones…And in an emergency, firefighters’ communications could be hampered by the disabling of their radio repeaters on mountaintops. Notifying residents of approaching fires and conducting evacuations in order to save lives could be challenging.”

And what of the PG&E workers?  The local Sacramento Bee newspaper reported “PG&E employee shot at ahead of utility’s massive Northern California power shutoff” (Oct. 9) as residents take out their frustrations on employees doing their jobs.  The Washington Post reported “PG&E pleads for employee safety amid outage after police report egging, gunfire at vehicle”  .  One worker’s wife is  widely reported to have issued a social media plea  stating that utility workers “are simply employees and have no say in any decision making so shouting profanities or resorting to violence towards PG&E workers will never do any good but it would instead hurt someone’s father, mother, brother, sister, husband or wife. ”  Truly a dark time.

The right policy mix determines the extent of job creation for California’s proposed offshore wind industry

floating offshore windCalifornia Offshore Wind: Workforce Impacts and Grid Integration  is a report released on September 27 by the Center for Labor Research and Education at University of California, Berkeley, in partnership with Energy and Environmental Economics Inc. The report seeks to quantify what benefits for workers and communities would emerge from a major offshore wind power sector, given that the depth of California’s waters require floating platform wind installations, and floating wind is in its infancy. (According to the report, the only commercially operating project now is the 30 MW Hywind  project , opened in 2017 off the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland). The author interviewed union leaders, offshore wind industry participants, workforce training professionals, and port and transportation specialists for their firsthand accounts of the impacts of offshore wind, as well as analyzing the research to date on the economic and employment impacts of the fixed-bottom offshore wind industry around the world. A press release provides an executive summary of the report.

The conclusion: state policy intervention is a crucial determinant of the level of benefit for offshore wind.  Excerpts from the report: The largest economic benefits would occur “if an in-state supply chain were developed for the primary components of wind turbine generators—blades, nacelles (hubs), and towers—as well as the floating platforms, thus creating thousands of manufacturing and construction jobs. But the offshore wind industry is highly globalized, with its supply chain centered in Europe, and by the mid-2020s, China is likely to become a major exporter of wind components. … policymakers should set a clear goal for offshore wind as part of the long-term renewable energy planning process (for example, a mandate for at least 8 GW over a decade). If the offshore wind planning process were to evolve in a more piecemeal basis, without strategic direction or fixed targets, wind developers and manufacturers would lack incentive to make major California investments…. Although the state has a strong workforce training system, including the construction industry’s state-certified apprenticeships, skills gaps are likely to be a challenge for offshore wind on the North Coast. The state should consider creating a High-Road Training Partnership (HRTP) for offshore wind to fill these gaps and broaden community access to offshore wind jobs. HRTPs are a new state program of industry‐specific training programs that prioritize job quality, equity, and environmental sustainability.”

 

 

Updated: U.S. Labour views on climate strikes and the Green New Deal

Speakers, listed here, addressed the issues of Just Transition, the Green New Deal, public ownership of energy production, and an appropriate role for labour in climate activism at the New York Labor History Association Annual Spring Conference on May 11, under the banner  “Taking the Lead: Labor and Global Warming: Our History, Activism and Challenge”.  “New Calls for a General Strike in the Face of Coming Climate Catastrophe” appeared in the Labor Press (May 13) (re-posted to Portside on May 22) , summarizing some of the discussion, especially the statement by Bruce Hamilton, VP of the  Amalgamated Transit Union, that a general strike “should never be taken off the table”.  The article notes that “A general strike, however, requires a level of unity around the question of climate change and the Green New Deal that presently does not exist inside organized labor.”  On May 30, Portside published  a lengthly compilation of “Reader Responses”  , both pro and con, about using a general strike as a tactic.  (Note that the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is calling for  “a day of global action on climate change” on June 26 as part of their  Climate Proof our Work campaign   , and the Fridays for Future student strike movement has called for a worldwide general strike by adults and youth for September 20).

Union differences  around the Green New Deal have been noted before in the WCR:  in “Labor’s voice in support of the Green New Deal” (May 14) , and “AFL-CIO Energy Committee releases letter opposing the Green New Deal” (Mar 14). On May 22, “The Green New Deal is fracturing a critical base for Democrats: unions” appeared in Vox, providing  a broad overview of national and state-level examples.

Service Employees International Union endorses GND: On June 6, the Service Employees International Union issued a press release announcing that the International Executive Board had passed a resolution in support of the Green New Deal , which states in part: “the Green New Deal supports the right of all workers to have unions, no matter where they work; makes unions central to accomplishing the ambitious goal of an environmentally responsible and economically just society; and commits to providing universal healthcare and a good, union job with family-sustaining wages
and benefits for everyone who wants one.”   The Resolution affirms the goals of the GND, commits to political action, and to cooperation with other advocacy partners in environmental,  immigrant, health care,  and economic justice movements.

On the issue of transitions, it states:

4. “SEIU stands in solidarity with all in the labor movement who share our desire to create family-sustaining union jobs and a healthy and safe environment. Workers who have built and are dependent upon the fossil fuel industry must have:

  • a. Access to good union jobs, training and advancement if their current jobs cease to exist;
  • b. Guaranteed pensions and a bridge of wage support and healthcare until impacted workers find comparable employment or reach retirement;
  • c. Financial support for local community public services during a transition period

Green New Deal and Labour in California:  There is support for the Green New Deal  in polling the green new dealCalifornia – as evidenced by “Packed Bay Area Convergence on Climate Plans for Green New Deal” and other articles  in the Green New Deal compilation by the Labor Network for SustainabilityYet “Labor anger over Green New Deal greets 2020 contenders in California”  appeared in Politico, focusing on the opposition to the Los Angeles Green New Deal announced on April 29, chiefly by California’s building trades unions.  Those unions fear job loss and the costs members may face from higher gas taxes, as well as congestion pricing for tolls on freeways during rush hour. They have differed with environmentalists in the past over environmental justice and pollution regulation at the State level .  In “The Green New Deal- Be-labored?” in Resilience (May 11) and originally in Civil Notion, author Joel Stronberg describes the California divide in even greater detail and quotes a professor from Loyola Law School, who assesses that “the Green New Deal…divides the Democrats on a fault line, which is more of the elites against the working class Democrats who are concerned about losing their jobs.”  Stronberg also states that the Association of Flight Attendants is a second union which has endorsed the Green New Deal, and cites a recent survey by Data for Progress between March 30 and April 7, 2019 which measured union members’ (not leadership) attitudes. According to Stronberg, it shows 52 percent of current union members approve of the Green New Deal, 22 percent were opposed,  21 percent didn’t know about it, and five percent were neutral.

Canadian unions:  In Canada, unions have not yet been as vocal about the Green New Deal – although “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal: The Canadian Connection” in The Tyee (June 3) describes the close ties between the U.S. GND and Canadians Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein of The Leap.    Some unions have endorsed the uniquely-Canadian Pact for a Green New Deal – and the United Steelworkers  have endorsed the New Democratic Party’s newly announced climate change platform  – Power to change: A new deal for climate action and good jobs .

U.K. makes progress on a Green New Deal amid the chaos of Brexit

Understandably, the Members of Parliament in the United Kingdom are preoccupied with the chaos of the Brexit crisis – which in itself, has huge implications for environmental policy in the country.  “How Brexit will impact the UK’s environmental policy”  provides a good summary of the specifics, and an active website publishes analysis by “a network of impartial academic experts analysing the implications of Brexit for UK and EU environmental policy and governance” . Greener UK, a network of 14 environmental NGOs, is also focused on Brexit “in the belief that leaving the EU is a pivotal moment to restore and enhance the UK’s environment. ”

Lucas UK screenshot gnd billProgress on a Green New Deal  amidst the chaos:  But while Brexit rages, and  the country awaits the May 2 publication of recommendations on long term net zero emission targets by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC),  the Decarbonisation and Economic Strategy Bill  was tabled in the House of Commons by two members of Parliament – Green Party member Caroline Lucas  and Labour Party member Clive Lewis .  Although the bill doesn’t use the term “Green New Deal”,  Caroline Lucas  does in her Opinion piece in The Guardian, “The answer to climate breakdown and austerity? A green new deal” (March 27).  She states: “Our bill would introduce a “green new deal” – an unprecedented mobilisation of resources invested to prevent climate breakdown, reverse inequality, and heal our communities. It demands major structural changes in our approach to the ecosystem, coupled with a radical transformation of the finance sector and the economy, to deliver both social justice and a livable planet… This is purposely radical territory. We must push the boundaries of what is seen as politically possible. Because climate justice and social justice go hand in hand.”  The official summary  of the Bill appears on page 7 of the parliamentary Order Paper for March 26 including a 10-year time line with reporting requirements, and a stated goal for  community and employee-led transition from high-carbon to low and zero-carbon industry, and the eradication of inequality.

UK Green New Deal coverGreen Party MP Caroline Lucas has a long history with the concept of “green new deal”, as part of the Green New Deal Group which was founded in the U.K. in 2007  and published its first policy statement :  A Green New Deal Joined-up policies to solve the triple crunch of the credit crisis, climate change and high oil prices  in 2008.

The Labour Party has also been in the news recently for its new grassroots initiative, the Labour Green New Deal.  For example,  “Labour scrambles to develop a Green New Deal” in Climate Change News (Feb. 14);  “Labour members launch Green New Deal inspired by US activists” in The Guardian (March 22) ; and “Our new movement aims to propel Labour into a radical Green New Deal”  (March 22) in The Guardian,  an Opinion piece by  Angus Satow, co-founder of the coalition, who states that the party’s  Green Transformation Environmental policy statement, is a starting point, but “ a GND means a new settlement for Britain. It would give local communities the funding and power to control their future, while democratising industry and the economy. Communities with control of utilities will have great power over their lives, while tackling fuel poverty, as the profits go to ordinary people, not shareholders.” “Labour for a Green New Deal – because climate change is a class issue” by Chris Saltmarsh at Labourlist(March 22) lays out the role of unions in the initiative, with specific and detailed plans: “A Green New Deal in the UK is therefore nothing without participation and leadership from our unions. Rank-and-file trade unionists across the country are ready to organise for this from below. We’ll work with them to build support, host events, pass motions from branches to policy conferences, and develop regional plans for a Green New Deal that put workers first.”