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Switching Channels

August 18 2014

It’s summertime, and as usual, there’s nothing to watch on television except reruns. The big broadcast networks are busy recycling old episodes of their boring sitcoms and crime dramas, hoping we won’t notice it’s the same old stuff they’ve been serving us for years.

Now it appears the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is doing the same thing. In early June, just as the weather was beginning to warm up, the Agency took a page from the networks’ playbook and issued a proposed rule to cut carbon emissions from existing power plants.

EPA’s proposal is filled with the same old stale, discredited anti-coal proposals that have long been championed by environmental extremists. Even worse, it repeats the same worn-out, misguided strategy over and over again.

In other words, it’s a rerun – a really bad one.

The plan would require U.S. power plants to cut carbon emissions by 30% from 2005 levels by 2030. Many coal-fired power plants will find it extremely difficult – if not impossible – to comply, forcing them to either shut down or convert to less dependable and more price-volatile fuel sources. The New York Times reported that experts predicted the rule could result in the closure of “hundreds” of coal-fired plants. That’s a scary proposition when you realize that coal-fired generation currently supplies roughly 40% of the nation’s power.

As union contractors, we’ve seen this episode before, and we know that it ends badly – not just for us, but for our partners in the building trades unions as well as businesses and consumers across America.

If Hollywood decided to turn EPA’s carbon proposal into a TV show, it would probably be called Desperate Regulators. Or maybe they’d steal a title from the movies and call it Clueless, featuring an all-star cast of career government bureaucrats who don’t understand how the real world works. I’m not sure if it would be a comedy or a tragedy.

Personally, I’d like to see some network do a reality show based on the proposed rule. Take the people who wrote it, fly them to Texas in the middle of August, and force them to live according to the rules they wrote. Require them to find enough power to run their air conditioners at full blast and keep their food cold without using electricity from coal-fired plants (because if EPA’s proposal becomes law, there probably won’t be any left). And if they do manage to find enough electricity, they’ll have to pay their sky-high monthly bill not with a generous government salary, but with one that reflects the median income of our middle class: around $50,000 a year. Now that would be a fun show to watch – definitely “must-see TV!”

Unexpected Benefits

In all seriousness, though, there’s a silver lining to this EPA cloud. Hard times bring people closer together. When faced with a serious threat, people from different walks of life – union contractors and members of the building trades, for example – will rally and join forces, putting aside their disagreements for the greater good. It’s in these times of crisis that you find out who your true friends are – who you can really count on.

In recent years, the union construction industry has had its fair share of crises. The first one was jobsite safety. We looked at the terrible injury and fatality statistics and responded with a tripartite emphasis on higher standards that shocked industry observers and ultimately led to the creation of the NMAPC Zero Injury Safety Awards®. Then came the economic crash of 2008, followed by the looming threat to multiemployer pension plans and the need for quick and long-lasting reform.

In all of these instances, the industry could have fractured and collapsed; instead, we chose to come together and fight. Circumstances forced us to cooperate, and the results have been amazing. There’s something about being shoulder-to-shoulder in the foxhole and fighting for the same cause that changes people. Our recent struggles have brought contractors and the building trades closer together than ever before. We truly are a “band of brothers” (and sisters!) fighting to save our very livelihoods.

The benefits of this special partnership, forged on the political battlefields of Capitol Hill, are hard to miss. I’ve seen them up close and personal, especially when it comes to pension reform. TAUC and the building trades worked side-by-side with other interested parties in creating the Solutions Not Bailouts proposal to save troubled plans (see www.solutionsnotbailouts.org for more information). Recently, TAUC and the Iron Workers sent a joint letter to Congressional leaders, urging them to read the proposal and take immediate action. And in May, TAUC was pleased to welcome four building trades presidents to our annual Leadership Conference, where each emphasized the importance of partnership and true cooperation (see Page X).

Decision Time

Now we face yet another threat: EPA’s carbon emissions proposal. And once again, this threat has reminded us that we have more in common than we thought. At the end of the day, we want the same thing – a growing and vibrant U.S. power industry, one where coal-fired generation plays a significant role. Only then can we provide long-term career opportunities for contractors and craft workers alike.

Sure, EPA’s proposal sounds great…on paper. Plans dreamt up by people with no business or economic experience often do. Unfortunately, the real world has a nasty habit of intruding on these best-laid plans and exposing their fatal flaws. But by then it’s too late. The bureaucrats in Washington will still have their jobs, but thousands of union craft workers who have helped to build and maintain these plants will be left wondering how they’re going to feed their families and pay their mortgages.

EPA promised to create a responsible and original plan to limit carbon emissions. Instead, it gave us a rerun. So the question is, are we going to sit here passively and watch this horrible episode unfold, or are we going to take action – together – and change the channel? Because there’s another show on that I think you’ll like. It’s called Labor-Management Cooperation, and all of the episodes are brand-new. The best part is, we get to produce it ourselves – and we’re also the stars.

Now…where did I put that remote?

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