Michigan Unions, Environmentalists Call For Infrastructure Repair

Utility Workers President Mike Langford tells a Michigan forum on the environment and jobs that water main leaks alone cost the U.S. 7 billion gallons of fresh water, and $91 million, daily.  Massive rebuilding of that and other infrastructure could not only improve the environment but create jobs, he said.  Photo courtesy the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO via PAI Photo Service.

Utility Workers President Mike Langford tells a Michigan forum on the environment and jobs that water main leaks alone cost the U.S. 7 billion gallons of fresh water, and $91 million, daily. Massive rebuilding of that and other infrastructure could not only improve the environment but create jobs, he said. Photo courtesy the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO via PAI Photo Service.

WARREN, Mich.–More than the climate is changing.

On May 30, a packed town hall meeting on climate change and infrastructure needs at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers hall in Warren, Mich. Showed growing concern and unity between labor and the environmental movement.

Leaders of unions, the BlueGreen Alliance, American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the Union of Concerned Scientists discussed the stark reality of climate change, the decaying U.S. infrastructure and the need for immediate action.

“Climate change is here, it’s real and it’s good to see so many people here finding solutions,” said Metro Detroit AFL-CIO President Michalakis. Many speakers called the meeting only the start of a movement to save the planet and communities.

The bleak facts startled the audience.

Utility Workers President Michael Langford said water mains leak seven billion gallons a day of fresh water, at the cost of $91 million daily. Brian Pallasch of ASCE said 600 of those leaks occur daily because of an aging infrastructure. Most water mains were installed soon after World War II. Astonishingly, earlier ones, made of wood, still exist and all the leaky mains contribute to the discharge of 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage a year, he added.

An approach seen too often by Langford is, “Why fix it, we’ll just charge you more?” He added: “We are paying top dollar and getting a Third World infrastructure.”

And Langford said the electrical transmission distribution system is so old that if you brought back Thomas Edison, who developed the first electrical transmission system, he’d feel “right at home. Nothing has changed.”

But he said it doesn’t have to be that way. New technology can carry much higher voltage with little power loss and it’s a way to save energy and “green up” the economy. He noted China now has lines that carry far greater voltage with less loss.

David Foster, a former Steelworkers vice president who now heads the BlueGreen Alliance said the infrastructure problems reflect the U.S. rich-poor divide. “If you’re wealthy you get to live in the First World economy. If you’re like the rest of us, you get to live in the crumbling infrastructure. Six months after (Hurricane) Sandy, they were still turning on lights in poor communities,” Foster noted.

Michigan Federation of Teachers President David Hecker also cited the rich-poor divide in infrastructure quality. Noting that ASCE gives school infrastructure a “D” grade, Hecker said what “pulls” that grade up to a D are the few schools getting high grades, often in wealthy communities.

Hecker said all kids need an environment conducive to learning. No child should go to a school with a failed infrastructure and it was “despicable” that so many do, he added. Besides creating a better learning environment, Hecker said one “green school” facility would save $100,000 annually in costs, enough to hire two additional teachers.

Steelworkers Assistant Legislative Director Roxanne Brown cited the recent I-5 bridge collapse in the Seattle area. She said a truck hitting a bridge should not cause it to collapse and warned there are thousands of bridges at this level of disrepair that if hit, could fall down. The Laborers frequently make the same point about bad bridges.

Brown, whose union co-founded the BlueGreen Alliance, added the U.S. is not enacting national policies to prevent climate change and is far behind much of the world in getting at the root of the problem. That led Steve Frenkel of the Union of Concerned Scientists, to state the obvious: We need to transition from a fossil-fuel based economy.

That transition, however, is not popular among policymakers, especially on Capitol Hill or in GOP-run states. It’s also not popular with some unions, Langford said.

“What will happen to the workers employed in those industries?” Frenkel asked. Those workers are primarily in coal and petrochemicals. “We must insure workers and communities affected by the transition get the help they need,” Frenkel admitted.

When it comes to next moves, Langford urged concerted action by unionists, environmentalists and their allies. All must “put on a fight and take the show on the road. Our goal is to take it to every state and explain to the communities how they are getting ripped off,” he explained. His union has started a “Repair America” campaign.

Langford, whose union represents workers at the nation’s power plants and similar facilities, is campaigning nationwide about how the U.S. is behind other nations in quality and condition of highways, railroads, airports, water mains and power lines.

Using state-of-the-art technology for such reconstruction is essential, Langford adds. And reconstructing infrastructure not only creates energy efficiency, but produces well-paying union jobs and infrastructure resistant to the effects of climate change

“In Michigan, we have the opportunity to forge a powerful and unified labor-environmental response to the jobs, economic, and climate crises impacting America and its workers, and the broader global community. It’s the right thing to do,” he says.

 

-PAI