Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | New projects in Appalachia show how the region can seize on a growing wave of climate infrastructure investment to build a workforce that is diverse, well-paid, and protected by strong labor standards.
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles from ReImagine Appalachia, a coalition working to transform and strengthen the economy across parts of Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. At Route Fifty, we’ve reported previously on this project in our news coverage. Here, we’re giving the advocates behind the effort an opportunity to describe their approach, for themselves, in greater detail.
You can find the other articles in this series here.
Persistent poverty and traumatic job losses have plagued coal country for decades. These economic pains lead many in the region to prize remaining high-paid coal utility and mining jobs and to fear that further losses will translate into more downward mobility, joblessness and opioid addiction for residents.
But the region has a chance to pivot to a diversified clean economy with middle-class jobs for all, boosted in part by federal climate infrastructure investments. For instance, in southern West Virginia, the Appalachian Climate Technology Coalition (ACT Now), spearheaded by Coalfield Development Corporation, offers a bold, integrated vision (see also this video) of how investment in clean industries can create over 6,000 good jobs. That effort is happening with the help of a $62.8 million Biden Administration Build Back Better Regional Challenge award.
Instead of an economy dependent on extraction, ACT Now envisions 10 converging “opportunity industries” including sustainable manufacturing, electric vehicle transportation, renewable energy, energy efficiency, reforestation, reclamation and regenerative agriculture. These industries capitalize on the region’s natural and repurposed fossil fuel assets, including its energy export grid and transportation infrastructure, trades skills and work ethic.
Many of the jobs created will be good, union jobs thanks to partnerships with unions of miners, carpenters, electricians and utility workers. Also, Coalfield Development and project partner Solar Holler, the biggest West Virginia solar installer, have voluntarily recognized unions. ACT Now projects also comply with federal wage and benefit standards, incorporate local hire provisions and require unions to incorporate racial equity in recruitment and hiring.
Diverse, low-income workers can access jobs on ACT Now projects through a six-week program of well-paid work and classroom training, with graduates able to enter union pre-apprenticeship then apprenticeship.
ACT Now is only the beginning of coal country workers gaining access to good, new jobs locally, rather than being forced to take jobs they don’t want in places they don’t want to live. To pull off this transition throughout coal country, government at all levels needs to enact policies that improve jobs and enable dislocated and diverse workers to access those positions.
We can build better jobs by embedding several features of the ACT Now initiative in all publicly funded, government regulated projects. Those features include:
- Strong labor standards that ensure good pay and more union jobs.
- A “train and place” approach, which allows workers to more easily transition to their next union job, where they live.
- A focus on diversity and inclusion to provide opportunities for workers of every race and gender.
Below are several examples of how these elements have been reflected recently in the region.
Strong Labor Standards
The Cincinnati Solar Project drove construction of a 100-MegaWatt solar farm in Highland County, Ohio. A project labor agreement, or PLA, required accessing skilled trades workers from local union hiring halls at union wage and benefit rates. The project also reserved some jobs for apprentices, creating pathways into union construction careers for targeted workers.
In West Virginia, the expanding wind electricity industry uses PLAs on construction because developers value the access to highly skilled labor, including crane operators who have to navigate high winds. Local communities like PLAs because they ensure good jobs for local workers, increasing demand at local businesses and local tax collections. PLAs lead to pay comparable to fossil fuel jobs, rather than a third less in renewables without PLAs.
Train and Place Approach
A May 2022 agreement between the United Mine Workers of America and the Sparkz corporation provides a model for transitioning coal workers into their next good union job. Sparkz agreed to retrain and reemploy coal miners in a cobalt-free battery plant on the site of a shuttered glass plant off U.S. Route 50, capitalizing on coal miners’ training and awareness on workplace safety.
Diversity and Inclusion
Training pipeline programs created by local building trades, in partnership with community groups, now diversify unionized construction throughout coal country. They offer proven models for increasing racial equity that can also be used to give dislocated coal industry workers pathways to good new jobs. Examples include Intro to the Trades in Pittsburgh, Building Futures in Columbus, Ohio, and Kentuckiana Builds in Louisville, Kentucky. These training pipelines forge multi-racial alliances between communities and trades to increase union market share, creating more good, union jobs for workers of every race and gender.
Scaling Up Regionally
Realizing a vision like ACT Now’s across the four-state Ohio River Valley is the goal of ReImagine Appalachia and the Marshall Plan for Middle America. To scale up, we need a regional network that spans communities large and small to maximize the region’s drawdown of federal infrastructure and climate funding.
Informed by the Cincinnati solar model, we also need to aggregate local government procurement demand to increase our collective leverage in clean industries, like renewable energy, electric bus and van manufacturing, the advanced street light sector and water and sewer infrastructure, among others. Aggregated government purchases of manufactured products should have “made in Appalachia” preferences that accelerate regional growth of clean manufacturing. Procurement of construction and manufactured products need strong labor standards to ensure good pay and more union jobs.
Government policy should also support expansion of the “train and place” approach used at Sparkz—which contrasts with traditional workforce “train and pray” approaches that don’t lead to actual jobs. By replicating and scaling up the United Mine Workers-Sparkz model, more coal workers can go straight from their old union job to their new union job. Mandating or subsidizing statewide sectoral train and place partnerships—in electricity generation, for example—could open more clean sector jobs to coal industry workers.
A final ingredient needed for shared prosperity in a ReImagined Appalachia: protection of union rights for workers now organizing at the giants of the U.S. economy, such as Starbucks and Amazon, and in locally rooted service industries that have to locate near their customers. Making jobs at these companies, and in these industries, middle class through the transformative power of unions would create good new jobs for all who want them.