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Cynthia Phinney is the President of the Maine AFL-CIO, a federation of 160 unions representing 40,000 workers in Maine.
The overlapping crises of climate change, widening inequality and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic present huge challenges for communities and working families throughout Maine. As the earth continues to warm we’re experiencing more intense nor’easters, worsening heat waves, rising sea levels and the ever-increasing threats to our livelihoods in our fishing-, forest- and tourism-related economies. At the same time, four decades of stagnant wages and the economic fallout from the pandemic have left a growing number of Mainers unable to keep up with skyrocketing costs of housing, food, gas and other basic necessities.
Historically in moments of profound crisis, workers have stepped up by organizing through their unions for a fairer and more democratic society. The collective power of unionized workers played crucial roles in the fights to end child labor, expand suffrage to women, strengthen civil rights, establish a minimum wage, win an eight-hour work day and secure landmark environmental and occupational safety legislation.
From our inland mill towns and forests to our docks and shipyards, Maine workers have always been on the front lines of these struggles. Today, Maine’s organized workers are coming together again to solve the biggest challenges of our day: climate change and inequality.
This week, the Maine Labor Climate Council, a newly formed coalition of labor unions comprising thousands of workers across our state and many sectors of our economy, released a landmark report that lays out a worker- and community-centered vision for transitioning to a clean-energy economy.
Our report offers bold, science-based solutions for building out Maine’s renewable energy economy, including electrifying all state and local vehicles, such as school and city buses, by 2040; expanding public transit and building a high-speed rail corridor that connects our inland and coastal communities; doing deep energy-efficiency retrofits and installing solar on all K-12 public schools and publicly owned buildings by 2035; and installing 3 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030 and upgrading Maine’s energy transmission and storage capacity.
But meeting these ambitious climate goals shouldn’t come on the backs of everyday Mainers. It’s essential that the clean-energy economy we’re building improves the lives of working people and communities — particularly those left behind by decades of factory closures, rising costs of living and underfunded public infrastructure like roads and schools.
That’s why we’re committed to ensuring that clean-energy jobs are high-quality jobs. Whether building solar farms, making homes and workplaces more energy efficient, constructing netzero affordable housing, or expanding and electrifying our public transportation network, workers in our coalition are determined to raise the standard for wages and working conditions.
At the same time we’re pushing to expand apprentice and pre-apprentice programs, which open pathways into unionized renewable energy careers for all Mainers. With more and more Mainers crushed by unsustainable levels of student debt, apprenticeships offer a vital “earn while you learn” alternative.
Most importantly, our report offers strategies for a just transition that will keep workers and communities whole as we move from fossil fuels to an economy powered by renewable energy. For workers most affected by this shift, we’ll be fighting to guarantee pensions, phased plant retirements, and wages and benefits to help them bridge the gap to their next careers.
Putting workers at the center of our climate policy goals makes sense. Whether it’s electricians installing electric vehicle charging stations, teachers and state workers pushing for more energy efficient workplaces, or lineworkers hardening our power grid, workers will be the people who build our future and help us meet our ambitious climate change goals.
Maine has seen plenty of unjust transitions before — from mill and factory closures to the automation of forestry and agriculture jobs — and it’s up to us to ensure that this one results in a fairer economy for everyone. We’ll do all of this by letting our union brothers and sisters lead the way.