Can labor unions support Carbon Fee and Dividend?


Panel discussion on March 12, 2018, with SEIU, IBEW, AUW and UC Berkeley labor researcher

Can labor unions support Carbon Fee and Dividend?

By Dave Massen, Phil Russell, and John McDonagh

Labor unions – not a subject that many CCL members are familiar with. Private sector union participation is low nowadays. Some of our parents may have been union members, but that’s it for most of us.

But labor unions are important to the Democratic Party, contributing to candidates and helping to get out the vote on election day. Democratic members of Congress, including Nancy Pelosi, have asked us, “Which unions support Carbon Fee and Dividend (CFD)?”

Panel discussion with labor representatives

To learn how unions see the transition to a low-carbon economy, last month three San Francisco Bay Area CCL chapters, along with the local League of Women Voters, co-sponsored a discussion with panelists from the auto (UAW), electricians’ (IBEW), and service employees’ (SEIU) unions, and held it at a longshoremen’s (ILWU) hall. Our moderator came from the BlueGreen Alliance, and we invited labor unions, elected officials, and environmental and climate policy advocates like CCL members to attend.

It became clear from the discussion that the unions on our panel want new jobs that are created to have pay, benefits, training and advancement opportunities, workplace safety, and a voice in workplace governance that are equivalent to their current jobs.

But so far, the renewable industries don’t consistently deliver these requirements. For example, IBEW members are hired for large-scale projects like solar farms, but residential rooftop solar installation is non-union, without “family-supporting” pay and benefits. Our UAW panelist reported that Elon Musk is strongly anti-union, and at Tesla injuries per worker are 30% above the industry average and serious incidents are double. Solar City, owned by Tesla and focused on small-scale and residential solar, shares an anti-union viewpoint.

The main takeaway for CCL members is that from workers’ points of view, there are jobs and then there are good jobs. How many of REMI’s projected 2.8 million new jobs are good jobs?

Beyond job quality is job loss, especially among fossil fuel workers. Our Steelworkers (USW) panelist caught the flu and had to cancel, but we know that refinery and mine workers feel it’s unfair if they suffer from climate policies. They want a “just transition” where retirement and health benefits are guaranteed, and meaningful job retraining programs lead to employment with union-level pay and benefits.

Connecting workers’ needs with CFD

It will take money to address these union concerns. Since there’s no funding for special programs in CFD, how can unions can support it?

First, government, teachers’, and nurses’ unions may support CFD without changes.

Second, when we talk with unions, we can honestly explain how it’s critical to have bipartisan support for climate legislation, so that it will last, and that means considering Republican priorities like not growing government. Dividends are a benefit, and so is reducing global warming.

Finally, it’s possible that a small amount of carbon fee revenue, like 10 percent, could be set aside for certain programs with bipartisan support in Congress. Ten percent of revenue would be around $200 billion over eight years, and 90 percent to dividends would protect nearly as many Americans from price increases. The money could be used for transition programs and infrastructure investment, which Republicans and Democrats both might support.

Transition assistance would clearly help workers, but what about infrastructure investments? Here’s what our fourth panelist, a labor policy researcher, told us: “The ‘good’ jobs come about from centralized spending, especially governmental spending on infrastructure and other programs. When you consolidate money from a tax or a cap auction, you have more leverage for influencing the types and quality of jobs.”

CCL will still advocate revenue neutrality and 100% dividends as the starting point, with any  exceptions to come through amendment or from members of Congress who introduce legislation. Though our CFD advocacy doesn’t change, we can still discuss with unions what could be done with 10% of the revenues. It’s our experience that this opens up new avenues for conversation. 

Zero Net Energy Center in San Leandro, CA

Continuing the conversation

Later, we met with the electricians’ panelist and talked about the second two points. He was interested in the Household Impact Study and the potential for 10% of the revenue, and said he would consider meeting again. He complimented CCL, calling us “thoughtful” – this from a gentleman who is a thoughtful leader himself.

We met at IBEW’s Zero Net Energy Center, which trains members in the electrical work of the future. It’s financed partly by 85 cents per hour from local electrical workers’ wages. We were impressed by the union’s forward thinking and by the quality of the facility.

Should we hire union workers, or would higher prices for union-made “green” products be a barrier for consumers? Our labor researcher’s reply: “I love this question, because there’s a large volume of studies that show that raising wages and benefits causes little or no rise in product prices. There are several reasons for this. Higher wages and benefits attract better-qualified workers, who produce more per hour of labor. And the interests of these workers are more aligned with company interests, leading them to recommend process improvements that raise productivity.”

Labor unions help our society and economy by raising workers’ wages and benefits. We can thank unions for the eight-hour day, overtime pay and weekends. They also provide training to increase workers’ skills and may recruit workers from underserved communities to their apprenticeship programs. Their legitimate concerns about the low-carbon transition should be addressed.

To learn more or to get involved, write to Dave Massen at dmassen (at) and join CCL’s Labor Outreach Action Team.

Dave Massen and Phil Russell are members of CCL’s Labor Outreach Action Team and volunteer with the San Francisco and Silicon Valley North, CA, chapters, respectively. John McDonagh volunteers with the Contra Costa, CA, chapter and arranged the meeting with the IBEW leader.