Very often, the fossil fuel industry and its allies try to divide climate activists from blue-collar workers, as if our interest in a habitable planet where we can earn enough money to feed our families is not somehow shared. But from my own history, I know this is not the case.
I was born in Gillette, Wyoming, in one of the biggest coal mining regions in the world. I have spent my entire adult life working “out in the field,” so to speak. My very first industrial job was working for a company called Cotter in my hometown of Canon City, Colorado. During its heyday between 1958 until 1979, and intermittently since then, including when I worked there, it was a yellow cake uranium processing facility. It is now a Superfund site.
After that I moved to the scrap recycling industry, where I stayed for the majority of my adult life. There I worked on everything from decommissioned coal cars to your average everyday refrigerators. Over the years, I had to clean up many vehicles that came in to be shredded for scrap, which still had many contaminants inside. Working conditions were never favorable. My wages were always lower than those of most of my male counterparts. Sometimes I was not treated as an equal, despite being skilled in my field. And as a woman I also faced countless sexist remarks and gender discrimination on the job.
Six years ago, I started in a new industry that employs my skills as a heavy equipment operator: renewable energy. My first job was at a solar field being built next to the coal-powered Commanche Power Plant in Pueblo, Colorado. Since then, I have followed the renewable industry all over the country, working on both solar and wind installation projects.
Though I have a career I can be proud of, things are still far from ideal. I am one of tens of thousands of renewable energy workers without a voice on the job. Wages are still inadequate. Job conditions are mostly up to Mother Nature, but could be better in some instances. And many of my colleagues have it even worse than I do. While I have a permanent position, they jump from one job to another without health insurance, sleeping in their cars while they wait for per-diem checks to arrive. Things surely could be greatly improved for those of us who have dedicated our lives to travel for construction of renewable power plants.
Without skilled, hardworking renewable-energy workers, there can be no transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. We are vital yet ignored, due in large part to the fact that 40 years of corporate power have severely diminished the membership of labor unions and made it nearly impossible for workers to organize. To get to where we need to go, we need to scale up the industry to match that of the auto and steel industries in their heyday, with wages and benefits to match those good union positions from that time.
Despite the challenges we face on the job, we are optimistic about the possibility of a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Those of us who are members of the emerging US-based Green Workers Alliance are coming together to share stories, strategize about best practices, stand up to harassment on the job, share negotiation tips, and push back against promises broken. And we are collaborating with, and learning from, our friends in the climate-justice movement.
At this critical moment in the fight for our planet, the Green Workers Alliance is joining the coalition of progressive forces demanding bold climate action at the federal level. We are also holding those who control the energy grid — the giant utility companies — accountable for ensuring that clean energy workers receive compensation comparable to the well-paying jobs in oil and coal as they massively increase their renewable energy output.
My whole life — from my work at the uranium mill to my time in the scrap recycling industry — I have seen first-hand the ravages of our environmental destruction. I am grateful that over the past six years I have gotten to play some role in decreasing our human footprint on the planet. Now I join my colleagues in demanding that our national leaders remember that clean energy is built by those of us willing to climb a wind tower, or spend hours outdoors in poor weather installing solar panels, or climb someone’s roof. We deserve to have the resources to take care of our families as we care for the planet.
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