After months of contentious negotiations and impasses between labor unions, environmental groups, and elected officials, the State of Illinois signed into law a comprehensive climate bill on Sept. 15.
The legislation, the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, requires the State of Illinois to shift toward 100% carbon-free energy by 2045, doubles state investment in renewable energy, and includes labor standards such as prevailing wage requirements, equitable job opportunities, and training programs for the jobs created by renewable energy projects.
“The renewable industry, particularly the solar industry, in Illinois has promoted the idea that investment in green jobs will create good jobs in Illinois, while our experience has shown that, though there are jobs being created through projects like solar farms, what we have seen here to date has been workers coming in from out of state, primarily, who are paid little more than minimum wage,” said Sean Stott, director of governmental affairs for the midwest region of the Laborers’ International Union. “This legislation will correct that and it will require developers and contractors that install solar projects and other renewables to pay a good wage, a wage that workers can sustain their families on, that they can build a career on.”
In several states around the US, including New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Texas, and Illinois, labor unions and environmental groups have been coordinating with one another to develop jobs proposals, projects, and legislation to address the climate crisis. At the same time, these unions and environmental groups have focused on educating workers and the public about the climate crisis and getting communities involved in developing solutions.
“Those are difficult conversations to have in organized labor because of the jobs that many of our affiliates perform,” said Pat Devaney, secretary-treasurer of the Illinois AFL-CIO. “We have a lot of jobs in the energy sector and particularly in fossil fuel generation, so for us to come forward with a proactive plan [for transitioning] from fossil generation to clean energy, I think, really says a lot about labor’s commitment to combating climate change.”
Delmar Gillus Jr., chief operating officer of the environmental nonprofit Elevate, was one of the leading negotiators in developing the legislation, focusing particularly on addressing inequity issues. When asked about how this inequity was addressed by the bill, he cited funding and infrastructure support for community organizations to develop and build on these programs, funding and resources for support services, and providing incentives and access to capital for projects and contractors in Black and Brown communities that were being left behind by the renewable energy economy in Illinois.
“Communities of color weren’t seeing all the benefits from this economic growth, so one of the things we wanted to focus on in the bill was making sure that we could do that,” said Gillus. “Now that the bill has passed, our work has just begun. The initial implementation phase is going to be critical. We need to get all of these programs set up in a way where the community is engaged, begin to work on the rulemaking, regulation, and the implementation processes so that all these programs are designed and work for these communities.”
The Illinois legislation also provides $700 million in funding over five years for two Exelon nuclear power plants in the state that were at risk of being shut down completely, shedding hundreds of jobs in the process.
Under the bill, private coal plants in Illinois must shut down by 2030, and municipal coal plants are required to reduce emissions by 45% by 2035 and reach zero emissions or shut down by 2045.
Illinois is the most nuclear-reliant state in the US, with half of the state’s electric generation currently provided by nuclear facilities. These facilities generate 90%of the state’s current carbon-neutral power—other renewable energy productions through solar and wind are still growing.
IBEW Local 15 business manager Terry McGoldrick explained how workers at the nuclear power plants in Illinois have worked through the pandemic, pulling 12-hour shifts, sometimes seven days a week, all while worrying about whether or not they were still going to have a job in the future.
“The people that work at these plants have a very specific skill set, are highly educated, and they kept the lights on during a pandemic every single day, where a lot of people have the option to work remotely,” said McGoldrick. “It’s really more than just energy legislation, this is about humanity, and it’s about the communities these plants are in.”
The labor and environmental movements have been coordinating around the US to develop plans and legislative solutions for the climate crisis; the United Mine Workers of America developed a just transition proposal for coal miners and their communities earlier this year, but still differ with clean energy advocates on fully embracing renewable energy. The Texas AFL-CIO passed a green jobs plan over the summer with the support of 121 unions in the state, including those which represent workers in the fossil fuel industry. Earlier in 2021, Connecticut passed a bill to ensure large scale renewable projects pay prevailing wages and create benefits agreements with communities and New York also adopted labor standards in the renewable energy sector.
The recent legislation in Illinois provides a comprehensive solution to addressing the climate crisis at the state level, while environmental and labor groups continue to try to move forward conversations, organizing, and ultimately legislative solutions for the climate crisis.
A carbon-free schools program was also included in the climate jobs legislation passed in Illinois, with support from the Illinois Federation of Teachers. The program seeks to assess and install solar energy infrastructure in public schools as a means to improve public education infrastructure, and create good paying, union jobs to build it.
“People want their kids to learn in healthy places. I think they see where this is going in the future and that solar is a great promise for public schools,” said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers.
He noted the carbon-free schools program was one of the easier parts of the legislation for unions and environmental groups to agree on. Now that the bill has passed, Montgomery said, the efforts are turning toward developing creative ways to pitch proposals for school boards to support and fuse the push for climate science education projects for students with the need to expand solar development in public schools.
“There are a lot of public schools and universities in the state and US, and you can make a big dent on what we have to do for the climate in schools,” he said. “We have to be on the right side of history. We have a lot of work to do to help decarbonize.”