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UAW members testify in favor of just energy transition office legislation

As Democratic lawmakers continue pushing on policy to transition Michigan to clean energy sources, members of the state Senate Labor Committee heard testimony Thursday on a bill to ensure workers are not left behind in a switch to renewables.

Senate Bill 519, introduced by State Sen. Sam Singh (D-East Lansing), would create a community and worker economic transition office within the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO). The office would seek to aid workers and communities whose jobs are impacted in the transition from fossil fuel energy to renewable sources.

As Michigan begins to move away from coal, energy utilities have done a good job of helping workers through the transition to new technology and avoiding large layoffs, Singh said. However, concerns about the future of Michigan’s energy transition remain.

“I think we’re always concerned whenever you’re making a transition that you should have a system in place that makes sure that we are protecting workers,” Singh said.

“How do we help those employees get the skill sets so they can transition to a different part of the industry?” Singh said.

State Rep. Jasper Martus (D-Flushing) joined Singh testifying in favor of the bill, with both lawmakers noting the importance of including the auto industry in the conversation about energy transitions.

“I think that embracing electric vehicles is exciting. It’s new. I think Michigan can play a key role not just regionally, not just nationally, but internationally to embrace electric vehicles. But we have to make sure that we don’t do that at the expense of our local communities,” said Martus.

Singh and Martus also noted the impact that economic transitions can have on communities.

“You can often see a community that might have had a really high property tax value on a coal plant. As that’s being retired, that revenue could change dramatically. And that could be a significant hit to a community,” Singh said.

Martus addressed the impact of lost automotive jobs noting how the exit of automotive manufacturers from Flint has impacted the city and its surrounding communities.

“The chairman [John Cherry (D-Flint)] and myself represent communities that have witnessed what happens when we overlook and undervalue communities that work in the automotive industry.

When Singh and Martus took questions, State Sen. Thomas Albert (R-Lowell) asked if the bill was an acknowledgement that clean energy policies were killing jobs in the state.

In response, Singh noted the high cost of importing coal to the state to power coal plants that will be saved as Michigan energy companies begin transitioning away from the fossil fuel.

“As the entire country has moved away from, getting away from coal, I think we’re doing it in a very responsible way because we’re ensuring that workers are getting trained for the new jobs that are coming up in these industries,” Singh said.

Martus said the focus was not on platitudes, but providing people with the skill and tools they need to continue to work in a way that embraces where the economy is going.

The bill received a variety of supportive testimony from members of the United Auto Workers Union (UAW), as well as the AFL-CIO and the Michigan Laborers District Council.

“The UAW built the middle class, so we need to continue to support the middle class so we don’t lose the middle class,” said Denise Caldwell, a UAW member and the state president of the Coalition of Labor Union Women.

Ryan Sebolt, director of government affairs for the Michigan AFL-CIO outlined the need for efforts to support an equitable transition in his testimony.

“There are several industries that will be impacted by energy transition, including auto workers, who will be shifted away from reducing combustion engines to electric and hybrid vehicles, oil and gas and coal transportation, generation maintenance, refinement and skilled trades,” Sebolt said.

“A fair and equitable transition must keep workers and communities whole, revitalize and diversify local economies and address racial inequities to ensure the retention and creation of an accessible pathway to good paying union jobs,” Sebolt said.

Sebolt cited a study from University of California Berkeley’s Labor Center, noting that 74% of workers were able to find new employment after being laid off, workers often made a median of $12 less hourly than in their prior position.

While Sebolt referenced the study as an example of concerns to address in an energy transition, Albert argued this was a reason to pump the brakes on clean energy policies.

Regardless of whether the legislature acts on its clean energy policies or not, Sebolt argued market forces are pushing the transition to clean energy. This bill would place guardrails on that transition rather than forcing it, he said.

“The transition is happening. It is globally happening. It is here, and we have to make sure that American workers and Michigan workers are competing and participating in that transition to the highest level possible,” Sebolt said.

While the bills also gathered support from the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and Millwrights, Utility Workers of America, and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades Council 1M, none of these organizations offered testimony at the meeting.

Both the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) Michigan, and the Mackinac Center For Public Policy, a nonprofit advocating for free-market principles and limited government, opposed the bill.

While neither group had someone speak during the committee meeting, the Federation submitted written testimony, arguing this policy was aimed at mitigating job loss from environmental policies, and that it prioritized union workers.

No votes were taken on the bill, with Singh saying he was open to language changes in the bill, and would be working to incorporate additional feedback he’d received on the bill within the next week or so.

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Article originally published by Michigan Advance
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