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Questions on the Build Public Renewables Act, Part 1: Was This a Labor Victory?
Correcting the progressive and socialist record on labor’s involvement in the successful campaign to Build Public Renewables in New York.
In May, the New York State passed budget legislation that included an initiative to allow the New York State Power Authority (NYPA) to own and operate renewable energy projects across the state. This new law built upon previous legislation drawn up by a campaign of environmental groups and Democratic Socialists of America chapters across New York State under the name the “Build Public Renewables Act” (BPRA). (Disclosure: I campaigned in this coalition as co-chair of our local DSA chapter’s ecosocialist committee from 2019 to 2021.)
According to its proponents, BPRA is the culmination of a “Green New Deal” campaign that leverages the public sector to embark on a rapid buildout of renewable energy and will offer cheaper utility bills for the working class. Some accounts — from reporters, prominent socialist commentators (see, e.g., here and here), and campaign activists — additionally make the claim that the legislation was won with a labor union coalition. As an oft-repeated campaign message goes, the legislation, and now the law, is a clear win for the state’s electricity workers, containing “gold standard” labor language focused on a “just transition” for fossil-fuel-related jobs that need to be phased out in favor of cleaner technologies. This unambiguous win for these climate activists and their Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) caucus in the legislature has led prominent commentators to claim their method of organizing is a key model for how the left should orient toward climate politics generally (as opposed, rightly, to the prospect of blowing up pipelines).
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Amid all the hype, this essay (in two parts) is an attempt to critically assess these claims. This first part examines the labor question and argues the BPRA win is a product of DSA’s impressive electoral success and power in the New York legislature. That’s despite the campaign’s inability to gain traction with the highly organized workers in the electricity/utility system — a reality obscured by much of the hype surrounding the victory. Part 2 next week will assess similarly dubious campaign claims that BPRA is a climate victory, i.e., that it will use the public sector to spur rapid decarbonization, and more broadly that it represents a model for a “Green New Deal.”
Correcting the record on labor’s involvement
One of mine and Fred Stafford’s original criticisms of the campaign is that it was a coalition driven by Green NGOs and lacked any organic linkages with the unions and workers in the electricity sector. To their credit, the Public Power NY (PPNY) campaign has been highly cognizant of this problem — and I know there was real effort among the organizers to reach out and build linkages with the relevant unions. That effort was likely hampered, however, by the fact the BPRA legislation was already written and introduced before much if any contact was made. Companion legislation drafted by the coalition, the NY Utility Democracy Act, which would take over the state’s distribution utilities entirely (ConEd, National Grid, etc.), likewise had zero input or buy-in from the highly unionized employees of those utilities.
This real shortcoming of the campaign has led to a kind of “revisionist history” where a selective use of facts is used to claim they did in fact win over “labor” to the legislation, and the claim continues to reverberate throughout left media. For example, in a retrospective interview with key campaign leaders in the Democratic Socialists of America journal Socialist Forum, they claim Senate leaders were key in “bringing the labor unions around to the bill.” The American Prospect published a purported explainer, “How New York’s Democratic Socialists Brought Unions Around to Public Renewables” — an article whose only sources are public power campaign activists themselves, not any workers.
The evidence to corroborate industrial union support is murky at best. So I’m going to try to lay out what I consider the more complicated story of labor as it unfolded chronologically from around May 2022 to the passing of the legislation.
May 2022: Electoral road to the AFL-CIO’s ear
In the final days of the 2022 legislative session — the second of three sessions in which BPRA was introduced — the only public union support the coalition was able to muster from unions was from the President of the New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) and the President of a local of the Professional Staff Congress of CUNY, the American Federation of Teachers. These are hardly the relevant unions at stake in the legislation (see here where the two union statements are outnumbered by eight from what could be seen as Green NGOs).
However, the coalition did make significant inroads with the highest levels of the union bureaucracy very late in the legislative session in 2022. According to the organizers, State Senator Michael Gianaris was so concerned he would be primaried by DSA forces that he personally pushed unions to connect with the coalition on BPRA. This led to negotiations in late May of 2022 that pushed the AFL-CIO from opposition to “neutrality” — and neutrality means the coalition did not win over labor to their side. The AFL-CIO also added strong labor language to the bill, but one might ask why it took over two years to include strong labor language?
The organizers say Gianaris’s pressure also led to a meeting with IBEW Local 1049 on Long Island, whose President Pat Guidice is President of the Utility Labor Council of NY, an entity that historically opposed the public power campaign. (In a 2020 published letter to the editor in the New York Daily News, the previous President of the Utility Labor Council flatly said, “we disagree with the suggestion that our employers move from the private to the public sector…To date, the government and climate activists have demonstrated that creating good paying union jobs is a low priority.”) The organizers claim they have a personal relationship with Guidice now. This is all impressive, if the claim is taken as fact, but (a) it is clearly a product of NYC-DSA’s electoral power and pressure on elected Democrats and (b) it is predicated on closed-door brokering of relationships for which there is zero public evidence of support. That’s not a great basis for labor’s involvement in political campaigns.
The campaign had enough power to gain the attention of these unions, but in no way did the campaign win over or integrate these unions into a labor-centered public power campaign. The new union language was part of a last push to pass BPRA in the legislative session in 2022. It did pass the Senate, but Speaker Carl Heastie refused to bring it to vote in the Assembly. Ever since this moment, the PPNY campaign has consistently claimed unions wrote “gold standard” labor language that workers support.
July 2022: A public hearing for the labor perspective at last
The campaign’s success in generating public pressure led Heastie to schedule a public hearing on the legislation in late July 2022. Again it is a credit to the campaign for creating tremendous pressure around the legislation that led to this important political event in the first place. The hearing featured testimony from key union leaders in the utility/electricity sector in which they opposed the legislation. This opposition took place after the supposed breakthroughs with labor in May 2022. During the hearing, Guidice did praise the labor language as “the best I’ve ever seen.” The PPNY coalition took this statement as evidence of support (and repeated it constantly in its promotion for the legislation), but they failed to acknowledge that Guidice opposed the legislation in his testimony. See the hearing transcript p. 289, where he clearly says, “we're opposing the concept of having State authorities, particularly the New York Power Authority, having a critical role in achieving the State's renewable energy generation and transmission goals.”
In the Socialist Forum interview campaign representatives say, “At first, people like [Guidice] were not into BPRA. It took a while for them to come around, but we were able to convince them once the just transition language in the bill was going to stay in the bill.” The interview ends with the proposition that Guidice will now aim to win over the rest of the utility unions to BPRA. If Guidice turns into a vocal advocate that would surely be impressive, but I’ve seen no evidence of his support yet.
The other key testimony from the hearing comes from the President of Utility Workers Union of America Local 1-2 James Shillitto — a union whose members include over 7,000 utility workers in the NYC/Westchester area, including some who work for NYPA. In his testimony, Shillitto articulates the main reason these workers oppose BPRA: it has been “extremely difficult for the workforce to negotiate a contract with this government run authority [NYPA], often working years without a contract.” This is because of New York State labor law for public sector workers: “The workers that work for the New York Power Authority are covered under the Taylor Act… And that's what gives cause to our issues with negotiating contracts. There's no incentive for NYPA management to come to an agreement.”
Unless I’ve missed it, the PPNY coalition has never significantly addressed how this concern from electricity workers will be rectified if NYPA were to really massively expand their role in building renewable energy projects across the state. Yes, the legislation does have good labor provisions, but it does not change public sector labor law, the Taylor Act, nor NYPA’s egregious history as a bad bargainer with electricity workers.
February 2023: The governor and NYPA offer their version
Finally, in February, Gov. Kathy Hochul released her version of the legislation, dismissed as “BPRA Lite” by the campaign but praised in Public Power Review by Fred Stafford. Hochul’s exclusion of the strong labor language extracted from the AFL-CIO in May 2022 — the collective bargaining requirement — allowed the coalition to (admirably) organize around making sure the language was put back in.
In the same month, the reporter Lee Harris from The American Prospect ran the first story I’m aware of that bothered to actually speak to the utility unions/workers most affected by the legislation (not to be confused with the aforementioned dubious article in the Prospect). The report reaffirmed that these unions do not support the legislation. It also demonstrated the tensions between the campaign and utility workers. “If utility workers have misgivings about the climate activists’ proposal, the frustration has run both ways,” Harris writes. “They’ll say one thing, and then they’ll tell us other things,” campaign organizer Lizzy Oh told her.
Quoting Shillitto of UWUA Local 1-2, Harris also reported that the union was pushing NYPA, unsuccessfully, to include “just transition” language in their contract negotiations for workers at a fossil-fueled NYPA power plant in Astoria, Queens. It’s quite amazing this is literally at the heart of NYC-DSA territory, yet no one in the coalition has ever mentioned it or even seemed aware of it. Although the BPRA legislation itself has “just transition” language in it, it’s not clear how this will inform actual union contracts that NYPA signs with workers.
The campaign also aimed to include a provision that changed the composition of NYPA’s Board of Trustees, which theoretically could have ameliorated their poor behavior vis-à-vis unions. Harris reported that utility workers supported the idea of labor representatives on the Board. But this provision was scrapped in the final negotiations.1
May 2023: The campaign wins labor language but not labor
The PPNY campaign negotiated the inclusion of another labor protection in the final bill: the explicit assurance that NYPA renewables projects would require project-labor agreements on top of the same law that applies to private-sector projects. (That preexisting law for private projects was the result of an earlier victory of the Climate Jobs NY coalition, which indeed included the public support of labor unions in the industry, but it requires only prevailing wages.) This additional labor protection, as one of the positive reports alleges, “allayed” union concerns about NYPA. But still no industrial unions praised the incorporation of this labor provision.
The final passing of the NYS Budget legislation led to an outpouring of celebratory reporting and boosterism from left outlets and climate writers to designate the law as a massive victory for socialist climate politics. And amid their lofty rhetoric of winning with a labor coalition, none of them clarify that this labor support came only from unions of teachers, nurses, clerical, and service workers — not any electrical or utility workers.
A final note: as Liza Featherstone’s positive portrayal of the organizing campaign suggests, much of the “labor” support for BPRA is assumed into the future. “BPRA creates thousands of well-paid, green, union jobs...” As we’ve argued previously, this claim was always based on dubious NGO modeling: “This group ran a software model that claims the legislation would create ‘between 28,410 and 51,133 good jobs,’ a wide range that includes new indirect jobs upstream of projects, direct jobs on the projects themselves, and induced jobs created by consumption.”
Will they come?
If BPRA won over unions and represented a victory for labor with “gold standard” labor language, it is strange that none of the key industrial unions — the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Utility Workers Union of America, or the building trades — have publicly voiced support for the legislation. Nor has the AFL-CIO of NY, previously moved to “neutrality” in May of 2022, shifted to public support for the legislation. The positive labor language might represent a classic case of a leftwing “class focused” appeal to industrial electricity workers, but not one that is “class rooted” in the unions and among the workers themselves.
In Part 2 next week, I’ll assess some different pervasive claims around the successful campaign to Build Public Renewables: whether it can truly be called a climate victory and whether it serves as a model for a Green New Deal. Stay tuned and subscribe to Public Power Review.