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Fossil-Fuel Industry Workers Say Green Economy Could Leave Them in Dust

Many environmental and labor leaders pitch New York’s clean energy transition as a way to employ young and marginalized people — little consolation to workers in fossil-fuel industries worried about job loss.

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National Grid installs a natural gas pipeline up Manhattan Avenue in Brooklyn, Feb. 13, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

As New York looks to build a green economy and meet its climate mandates, excitement is building over promised new jobs, countered by real concerns over careers being cut short.

Joseph Zanfardino, a Long Island resident, has for four decades worked as a plumber and installs gas pipes in houses. Even at 63, he says he has no plans to retire soon.

As he rose up the ranks, his union colleagues taught him “respect and standards and quality of life,” he said. His job has allowed him to provide for his six children. 

“You’re gonna take a middle class and destroy it,” Zandardino, a member of Plumbers Local 1 who was at a Downtown Brooklyn rally this week, told THE CITY. “I’m fighting for the members, myself and our children…. They’re trying to make us lay down our tools and bring in electricity for all our energy needs, which is ridiculous.”

The transition to “decarbonize” New York’s economy to implement its climate law is expected to result in hundreds of thousands of new clean energy jobs, outpacing those that will be lost by a margin of 10 to 1, according to estimates by a state climate panel last year. 

New York policymakers face the overlapping questions raised by those who see the clean energy transition as a way to bring younger and historically marginalized people into the green economy, as well as those who want more support for workers in industries with jobs at risk.

“The question here is, how do we ensure that those same workers who will be transitioning off those sites and those jobs will have benefits and protections for themselves and their families?” said Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of the organization ALIGN, a union-funded group promoting green jobs.

“That is an issue that cannot be overlooked, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed … as we move away from fossil fuels,” she added. “This is not an option, this is not an ‘if’ — the question is ‘how.’”

John Murphy, the international representative with the United Association of Plumbers, Pipefitters and Sprinkler Fitters, put it this way: “What are we going to put in place in order to say, ‘Okay, we need to do this, but we want to make sure the workers are taken care of?’”

The anxiety about job loss was on full display Tuesday, with dueling rallies taking place in Downtown Brooklyn ahead of a hearing at New York City College of Technology that afternoon on the state’s draft pathway to achieve its legally mandated goals.

Hundreds of trades workers from Plumbers Local 1, Transport Workers Union Local 100, IBEW 1049 and others rallied in front of City Tech, holding signs that read “Protect the planet and blue collar jobs,” and “There is a better way!” 

Meanwhile, a rally just up the street led by New York Renews — a coalition of environmental, faith, labor and community organizations — emphasized the growth opportunities inherent in the green plan. 

Outlines of a Roadmap

The state’s climate law mandates a carbon-neutral economy by 2050, a goal to be achieved largely by moving away from burning fossil fuels and towards increased electrification powered by renewable and clean energy sources.

Some scientists and trades workers, in testimonies and at rallies, have also urged using “fossil-free” fuels — such as hydrogen and biogas created from organic materials — as part of the state’s climate plan. Those resources, they say, would make use of existing gas infrastructure, keep more people employed and effectively advance decarbonization goals.

There’s an open question about the roles of so-called “renewable natural gas” and hydrogen in New York’s energy future.

One possible pathway for the state to achieve its mandates includes using those fuels, and another does not — it instead includes quicker electrification and wider use of renewable resources. The latter is supported by members of New York Renews Coalition, who call renewable natural gas and hydrogen “false solutions.”

“Science is always gonna be our guide on this and that includes the economics of this plan,” state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos told THE CITY in an interview last month. “What we have to do is balance hitting the targets with protecting jobs and growing our economy here in New York.”

Union members protest elements of New York State’s climate mandates outside City Tech in Downtown Brooklyn, May 3, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

No matter which pathway state policymakers decide to adopt, more than 211,000 green jobs could be created by 2030, with solar, offshore wind, building electrification and manufacturing expected to be the top-growing sectors as a result of the energy transition, according to a 2021 Jobs Study by the state’s Just Transition Working Group.

The same study predicted 22,000 jobs would be lost by 2030, in areas like natural gas distribution and petroleum fuels.

The Just Transition Working Group hasn’t met since December of 2021 but may come back together at the request of the council tasked with figuring out how the state will meet its climate mandates.

Gov. Kathy Hochul on Tuesday appointed Mario Cilento, president of the New York State American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, to that council. That move may bring labor issues touching on both job creation and displacement to the forefront of planning.

In a statement, Cilento said he would “ensure that the voices of all working people are fairly represented.”

The Just Transition study has floated recommendations put forth by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s 2020 Zero Carbon Action Plan, which mapped out ways displaced workers in fossil fuel-based industries could be helped. 

That plan included pension guarantees, re-employment and three years of compensation equal to their pay in previous jobs, as well as two years of retraining and up to $75,000 for possible relocation.

A statewide program could cost New York about $60 million per year between 2031 to 2050, according to 2017 estimates, two years before the state enacted its climate law.

“If you do care about a climate program, you break down the resistance by telling the workers in the communities that we’ll be addressing your needs,” said Robert Pollin, an economics professor at University of Massachusetts-Amherst and a director of the Political Economy Research Institute, who co-authored that 2017 report. “You do have to make sure to incorporate the transition features because these [fossil fuel industry jobs] are good jobs, they’re good paying jobs.”

Colorado offers an example of how a state is working to support laborers who will be out of jobs as coal mines and coal-fired power plants close. Its Office of Just Transition, created in 2019, conducts proactive outreach to those who will likely be out of work to help them plan for their economic futures, develop new skills and find other jobs.

For its part, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority has committed $120 million for workforce development and training programs that will reach 40,000 New Yorkers. The authority also applied for a $25 million federal grant to support training both new and displaced workers for clean energy jobs. It also supports job programs for new workers and those transitioning into clean energy work.

“As the state transitions to a more inclusive green economy, it is actively engaged in preparing its workforce, especially those who may be vulnerable to displacement, to meet the growing demands of the clean energy industry, guaranteeing all New Yorkers are positioned and equipped to reap the benefits,” a NYSERDA spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

‘We Don’t Want to Build Our Own Gallows’

Some in the trades scoff at such a plan, like Constance Bradley, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 101, representing National Grid workers.

“They forgot we were out there making sure they had heat, making sure they had water, making sure they had cooking gas,” Bradley said Tuesday, speaking of the work done during the pandemic. “Now they tell us we have to get trained for something else?” 

Zanfardino, of Plumbers Local 1, also expressed skepticism about how anyone his age would be re-trained.

But others have more faith in the ability of trades workers to adapt and in the unions to offer training for the next phase of human technology.

Environmental activists rally outside City Tech in Downtown Brooklyn in support of limiting gas in the state’s climate plan, May 3, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“We always will need to build stuff and fix stuff and repair stuff. The skills of the building trades will be needed, no matter what solution we go forward,” said Rebecca Lurie, a retired carpenter and founder of the Community and Worker Ownership Project at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. “Building trades will have work no matter what. The ‘what’ is, ‘What are we building and who for?’ … It’s very important that we don’t build our own gallows.”

Lurie said unions will play an important role in ensuring workers stay safe and are employed in high-quality jobs in the emerging economy.

That’s a point of pride for Shari, a 23-year-old from Harlem and an apprentice with Plumbers Local 1, who keeps in mind the motto, “Plumbers protect the health of the nation.” 

She attended the rally Tuesday and expressed doubt about clean energy plans that would phase out gas. But she said she doesn’t think her work is at risk, even as she recognized, “there definitely need to be changes made because of the way that we extract fossil fuels.”

Shari spoke of the pride she has in her work, which she called “an art.” Learning the trade taught her confidence and she now has faith she’ll always be able to feed her family.

“I’m surprisingly not very worried about my future,” she said. “I’m actually very excited for what’s going to happen.”

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