News & Commentary

December 2, 2022

Tascha Shahriari-Parsa

Tascha Shahriari-Parsa is a student at Harvard Law School.

In today’s news and commentary: the Senate disappoints railway workers by failing to add sick leave to Biden’s imposed contract; the Senate nonetheless passes the imposed contract without sick leave; and a new report details the role of state attorneys general in a just transition.

A Bill that would have added seven days of sick leave to the contract imposed by Congress on railway workers did not receive the votes necessary to overcome the filibuster in the Senate. As Miriam mentioned, previously, the House passed an initial bill intended to avoid a strike by railway workers, and then passed another bill that revised the original deal by adding seven days of paid sick leave to the imposed contract. When that second Bill reached the house, it received only 52 votes in favor, with 43 votes against. The 52 votes in favor included six Republicans who voted for the paid sick leave policy, but one democrat — Senator Joe Manchin (W.Va.) — voted against it.

While the sick leave bill died in the Senate, the chamber voted 80-15 in favor of the Biden Administration agreement that legislates a 24% raise through 2024, but which has been decried by labor groups as not going nearly far enough. One Open Letter from over 500 Historians states: “We are alarmed by your decision to ask Congress to impose an unfair and unpopular settlement in the current railway labor negotiations, which constitutes a negation of the democratic will of tens of thousands of workers and a subversion of your commitment to a revival of the American union movement. Instead of imposing a contract that these workers have already rejected, we urge you to put the full force of your Administration behind the eminently just demands of the railway workers, especially those that provide them with a livable and dignified work life schedule.” Another open letter by Railway Workers United has over 3000 signatories at the time of writing, and urges for the rejection of “President Biden’s proposal for Congress to force rail carriers and rail workers to accept a tentative contract agreement that has been rejected by four out of the twelve railroad unions.”

The State Energy & Environmental Impact Center of NYU School of Law and the State and Local Enforcement Project at the Harvard labor and Worklife Program released their joint report, “A Role for State Attorney Generals in a Just Transition.” The report examines the role that state attorneys general (AGs) can play in a just transition to renewable energy, with insights about the AG’s role in enforcing workers’ rights and environmental protections side by side.

One of the report’s key recommendations is around increasing unionization rates in the clean energy sector, noting that the growing clean energy sector currently lags behind the fossil fuel industry in its union density (6% in solar and wind, compared to 10% in coal and 11% in natural gas). To ensure higher rates of unionization in the green economy, the report suggests placing clean energy jobs directly in the public sector; “designating taxpayer-funded clean energy projects as public work projects”; supporting labor law reform in including the PRO Act; and using project labor agreements; and pushing for the clean industry’s support for unionization. Aside from unionization, the report also suggests other tools to ensure a just transition, including prevailing wage, safety and health protections, the use of community benefit agreements (including those requiring a specific percentage of workers on the project to be from local, low-income communities); preventing the misclassification of workers as independent contractors when they should be treated as employees; and considering the creation of a federal jobs program.

Other sections of the report give a background on AG powers, provide considerations for workers in the fossil fuel industry, and underscore specific actions that AGs can take to improve job quality in the clean energy sector, to ensure a just transition away from fossil fuels, and to protect workers across sectors from the impacts of climate change.

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