No matter how the energy sector evolves, Ohio workers will always be our greatest resource. It was mineworkers and steelworkers and other American workers in our great industrial unions who powered our economy and helped build our middle class.
But for several decades now, a combination of market forces, foreign competition, government policy, and two economic crises in the span of a decade, have all contributed to decreasing coal employment and big changes in the energy sector. We can only expect those changes to continue, as our country fights climate change and innovates with new, renewable energy sources.
We cannot allow the workers who powered our country to get left behind as we adopt new technology and grow the renewable energy sector – that’s why this week I introduced the American Energy Worker Opportunity Act, to look out for these workers.
For too long, we’ve had politicians try to sell Ohio energy workers a fantasy that long-closed mines would reopen, instead of treating Ohioans with respect, and positioning workers to train, get new jobs, and thrive as the energy industry changes.
My bill would provide critical resources and training opportunities to workers whose jobs are affected by the shrinking of the coal, oil, and gas sectors in the coming years. These resources include temporary wage replacements and assistance to maintain their health benefits and retirement contributions, and grants for education and training for themselves and their children, including a 4-year degree if they choose.
This bill would also give these workers priority for jobs created in renewable energy projects funded through President Biden’s Build Back Better plan.
We know a lot of these workers’ skills translate well to new energy projects – whether it’s making batteries and solar panels, or wiring new smart grids.
Often, it’s not a matter of starting over and retraining for a whole new career, it’s just about updating your skills, taking a training course or two to get a job in a related field. Throughout my career I have often talked about my canary pin – it was given to me by a steelworker in Lorain, and it represents our commitment to working people. When coalminers took the canary down into the mines to warn of poisonous gas, they didn’t have a union strong enough or a government that cared enough to protect them. Those workers were on their own.
We cannot leave workers on their own today, and we can’t leave entire communities on their own – Ohioans know all too well how changes in one sector can affect a few big employers and leave entire towns reeling.
Of course, technology is always evolving and our energy sources change with time. But as that happens, workers can’t just be a cost to be minimized.
All work has dignity, and we have to put workers at the center of this transition.
Sherrod Brown is the senior U.S. senator from Ohio.