Growing and strengthening west Michigan's middle class
Sean Egan (IBEW 275) is the president of the Kent-Ionia Labor Council.
GRAND RAPIDS December 14, 2015– Like many, I have been following with reserved optimism as 196 countries were working diligently in France over the past couple weeks on addressing global warming. I’m sure the pundits, and more importantly scientists, will be digging into the agreement over the next several months to identify the good, bad and insignificant. I, for one, am pretty excited about this monumental shift toward a common goal. Being a citizen and union member, common goals are right up my alley.
Our world and our society continue to evolve. This includes all aspects of our government, economy and our working lives. We have seen technology replace millions of working people around the world. We have witnessed industry seeking out the lowest-wage countries to produce goods. We are experiencing a major shift from fossil fuel-based economies to those driven by electrical innovation and renewable use.
We will continue to see these changes. While we know that this agreement will never be seen as perfect, we have to chuckle at the minority challenging the science and combined intellect of 196 world leaders that were willing and able to accomplish such a feat.
As proud working class people, it is important also that we recognize change as only inevitable, and attempt to see where our working lives are headed. Change in and of itself is neither good nor bad, as is the same for our future. Rather, we must attempt to prepare for— rather than attempt to stop— change. That is not to say we shouldn’t guide change to a more reasonable outcome for workers.
I believe working people already know what to expect, but different parts of our economy will see more disruption than others. First, I believe we will see the end of coal as a fuel source in the next several decades. This will severely impact certain regions of our nation. Generations of mine workers have helped fuel our economic and industrial growth. We must prepare these workers for the shift away from coal, to protect these families from generations of joblessness, and ultimately find new industries for their valuable contributions to our nation.
Second, natural gas will be utilized in the short run, but likewise, technology will minimize this fuel source. As renewables expand, I would anticipate that natural gas will be utilized as a base load support for fluctuations in renewable production. This means slower but steady production of natural gas, less large scale power plants, and a displacement of many utility workers and construction workers. For those not in the industry, there is a huge difference in employment needs for a fossil fuel power plant and a renewable production of a similar size.
Third, we hear a lot about nuclear energy production but I’m not sure I really believe that will ever be realized, as the focus will be on renewables. While nuclear energy is considered clean as far as emissions go (there are none), nuclear waste is extremely hazardous and the dangers of a plant failure have pretty much stopped new development or use in our nation.
Finally, support and service industries will be affected in a myriad of ways. We can picture that job reductions will certainly impact the local grocery, car dealers, etc. Some industries will grow such as electrical line transmission and distribution, and perhaps manufacturing (although many of the wind turbines and solar panels are imported), and support industries for renewables.
I believe it is important to embrace and shape the change the best that we can. Over our economic evolution we have always seen technology replace working people and shift the type of production and services we work in. We have seen production sent to low wage countries, connecting our world and workforce in ways previously unimagined.
Now, we will be seeing a global shift toward a more environmentally sustainable future. Our challenge is to ensure that we continue to evolve our society and governments toward a better, happier existence for all people. I’m not quite sure what that looks like, but I do know that employment will change and shift. While employment in some industries will shrink, others will grow. In a hundred years from now, some new industry that we have never even dreamed of will sprout, and we’ll be wondering what to do as that new industry starts to displace workers, just as we are wondering today.