‘Well-paying, stable careers’: Michigan union workers gear up for ‘Clean Energy Future’

clean energy

State Sen. Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) speaks with labor leaders during a panel discussion at Michigan State University on June 3. (Kyle Kaminski/The 'Gander Newsroom)

By Kyle Kaminski

June 4, 2024

The nation’s fastest-growing union of construction workers is standing behind new state laws designed to help drive more clean energy investments—and jobs—into Michigan.

MICHIGAN—Legislation signed into law last year by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is set to help shift Michigan to much cleaner forms of renewable energy, lower utility bills for Michiganders, and bring billions of dollars in both federal funding and private investment into the state.

And during a panel discussion this week, both union and business leaders joined state Sen. Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) to rally behind yet another expected benefit for the recently signed state laws: the creation of tens of thousands of “good-paying” union jobs across Michigan.

“The jobs that are going to be created from this package of laws are high paying, high quality, well-trained, that can provide a true middle-class livelihood—which is what we’re striving for in Michigan,” said Robert Joerg, director of government affairs for the Michigan Laborers District Council, which represents about 15,000 construction and energy workers statewide.

“The second part is economic input,” Joerg added. “We’re talking billions and billions of dollars that are going to be invested and spent on construction of new energy facilities across the state. That’s going to lead to thousands upon thousands of high-paying union jobs across Michigan.”

The town hall style event—hosted by Singh and the Michigan League of Conservation Voters at Michigan State University on Monday evening—featured representatives from MSU College Dems, the Michigan Laborers District Council, and the Energy Innovation Business Council.

The discussion focused largely on how the laws will change energy production across Michigan, as well as create more job opportunities for workers in construction, energy, and manufacturing.

Here’s the deal:

State legislation signed into law last year is shifting state standards for Michigan’s electricity providers—namely by requiring them to ditch coal and natural gas and source most (and eventually all) of their energy through renewable sources like wind turbines and solar arrays.

The transition is gradual. By 2030, Michigan must produce half its energy from renewable sources, which also includes nuclear energy; natural gas that uses 90% effective carbon capture technology; biomass landfill gas made from solid waste; gas from methane digesters using municipal sewage waste; food and animal manure; and certain types of incinerators.

The new laws push that mark to 60% renewable energy by 2035 and to 100% by 2040, as well as create new energy efficiency programs that state officials expect will translate to significant savings for Michiganders who are frustrated with the rising cost of their household utility bills.

Singh said the new standards will also help Michigan gain a new sense of energy independence as it reduces its heavy reliance on other states and countries for coal, natural gas, oil, and petroleum products—and steers about $18 billion a year back into the state economy instead.

“The fact that you’d have workers here in Michigan using renewable energy and taking one of the most expensive fuel sources—coal—completely off the portfolio is amazing,” Singh said.

“That means whatever is going on in the world, it’s not our problem when it comes to energy production and we can continue to go about our day without worrying about what’s happening overseas,” added Zach Nessel, a panelist and the former president of MSU College Dems.

What’s in it for Michigan workers?

Beyond helping tackle the climate crisis and protect the environment through cleaner forms of energy, the new laws are also set to help lure nearly $8 billion in federal funds into Michigan to help support new clean energy projects—creating about 160,000 new jobs along the way.

“This is a huge opportunity. This is a huge draw for one of the fastest growing sectors in the American economy,” said Justin Carpenter, director of policy for the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council, which represents nearly 200 advanced energy companies across the state.

Carpenter also echoed a recent remark that he heard from Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist: “Detroit used to be the arsenal of democracy, and as we go forward into a cleaner future, it can be the arsenal of decarbonization. We can live and build our manufacturing right here.”

Because the transition to renewable energy will create an inherent education and skills gap for Michigan’s energy workers, Singh said state lawmakers worked directly with labor unions to craft laws that ensure that no workers will be left behind in the statewide shift to clean energy.

Among them: Senate Bill 519 (which Singh sponsored) called for the creation of the Community and Worker Economic Transition Office within the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, specifically to help workers and communities adjust to the clean energy transition.

That office launched earlier this year, and employs a team of people who work to raise awareness of existing state resources—like the state’s Electric Vehicle Jobs Academy—to help connect more Michiganders with tuition-free college degrees, paid skills training, and jobs.

Among the other primary goals of the new office: Ensure that every Michigan worker can proactively prepare for—and benefit from—changes coming to the state’s economy as energy, construction, and manufacturing workers accelerate the transition to an electric-powered future.

“In past transitions, when labor was not at the table, people were left out in the cold,” Joerg said. “When NAFTA was signed and we saw the de-industrialization that occurred across the upper Midwest, there really was no protections for workers, especially in a state like Michigan, the birthplace of the American labor movement, the workers were left behind.”

“There were no resources for folks to be retrained. There was no social safety network for folks to be supported,” he added. “There was no way for communities to adjust to the rapidly changing global economy, and that has left some really deep scars and has been damaging for communities.”

Under Michigan’s new clean energy laws, however, workers are a top priority, panelists said.

“As we were going through this process, we wanted to take a look at labor standards and ensure the things that were being built out—especially these large facilities—would have the best labor standards in the country,” Singh explained during the panel discussion on Monday.

The new laws don’t specifically dictate that any of Michigan’s clean energy projects be constructed by (or employ) union workers. But the panelists said “exceptionally strong labor standards” required for each project will naturally allow union workers to reap the benefits.

These standards include requiring all large-scale renewable energy projects to have labor agreements that include a prevailing wage to ensure workers are paid at competitive rates, which the AFL-CIO has billed as the “most comprehensive” labor protections in the country.

“These jobs that are going to be created, many will be union jobs,” Joerge said. “For the construction industry, you’re looking at healthcare, a pension—which is quite rare today.”

Reports show Michigan led the country in a clean energy jobs boom last year, with nearly 16,000 new jobs created between August 2022 (when the Inflation Reduction Act was signed) and July 2023. And with at least $21.5 billion in federal investment leading to 45 new clean energy projects being announced or moving forward over the last two years, the state of Michigan is still home to more new clean energy projects than any other state in the nation.

“It’s exciting to have folks in our state government that are thinking 20, 30, and 40 years into the future so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, and so that workers aren’t being left behind,” Joerg said. “These workers are going to have well-paying, stable careers for decades to come.”

READ MORE: Workers rush to ‘make it in Michigan’ as clean energy jobs multiply

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Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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