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Just transition needed in transit electrification, labor leaders say

As reported by Chris Teale for SmartCitiesDive

Dive Brief:

  • As public transit agencies electrify their bus fleets and other vehicles, they must ensure a just transition to protect workers who may be put out of work by the new technologies, transportation labor groups warned Monday.
  • In a joint policy statement, leaders of two unions that represent transportation workers — the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU), alongside the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO (TTD) — said transit agencies should be required to show the workforce impacts of buying electric vehicles (EVs), establish a national workforce training center to train current employees on those systems and guarantee that workers will be represented on task forces and committees around climate change and technology.
  • The groups cautioned that if the federal government fails to mandate worker protections as transit agencies electrify their operations, major job losses could result, while a lack of training programs could leave workers unprepared for the next generation of vehicles.

Dive Insight:

President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan calls for a major investment in EVs and electrified transit, with a focus on what a senior administration official described as “infrastructure for the future.” But the labor groups said as public transportation agencies forge ahead with plans to electrify their vehicles, transit workers, including operators and mechanics, are not being prepared to transition to an electric future away from traditional diesel-powered vehicles.

In an interview, ATU International President John Costa said only about 3% of the group’s membership is trained on the technology and how to maintain it safely, even as agencies increasingly turn to EVs. The differences between traditional vehicles and EVs include the different personal protective equipment required to maintain them, the use of rubberized tools and the difference in motors. Operators must also be retrained, as a new style of driving is required to reduce strain on the battery from braking, he said.

Costa said while electrification’s aim to reduce emissions is noble, agencies cannot rely on vehicle suppliers to train operators in the new equipment, and if there is no training on offer, workers risk their existing skills becoming obsolete.

“This is all good technology,” he said. “This is all good stuff. But at the same time, we don’t want to lose workers over this. We want to create more jobs for people to have good paying jobs.”

TWU International President John Samuelsen sounded a similar warning, saying in an interview that in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania alone, 10,000 mechanic jobs could be under threat with the move to electrification because electric motors require less maintenance. Those workers should be protected with roles elsewhere or training in other areas, he said.

Already, ATU is hosting training sessions for its members, including a virtual one last week that Costa said drew representatives from 60 of its local chapters across the United States and Canada. But the groups called for a national training center that would offer hands-on experience for operators and mechanics, especially for the smaller agencies that may not have the budget to bring in their own training staff.

For its part, the Biden administration pledged to “summon a new wave of worker power to create an economy that works for everyone,” including by training workers on the new skills they will need and ensuring no one will be left behind.

Samuelsen said agencies and governments need to be forward-looking in preparing now for the growth in electrification. Their comments come as transportation groups are urging the Biden administration to prioritize electrified transportation and on the heels of the U.S. Departments of Energy and Transportation awarding grants to help improve the energy efficiency and affordability of public transit systems.

Individual agencies, too, are making moves. The Delaware Transit Corp., which operates the Delaware Authority for Regional Transit, received a federal grant to install a solar array at its operations and administration facility, while the Foothill Transit agency near Los Angeles turned heads when it purchased the nation’s first double-decker electric buses in 2018. The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority has pledged to invest billions of dollars in a zero-emissions bus fleet.

“I think the government and the trade union movement and other stakeholders in this must be developing a system that’s always looking 20 years to the future to ensure that the nation’s workforce isn’t ambushed by technology going forward,” Samuelsen said. “And there is a great ambush going on right now. There are many who work with diesel buses right now in cities across America that have no idea of the danger that they’re in.”

Costa said any discussions around electrification must include representation for frontline workers, especially on any committees or task forces that explore the use of new technologies to reduce emissions or otherwise fight climate change. Both Costa and Samuelsen said such representation has been lacking so far.

“It’s very important because there’s nobody better than having the workers at the table, they know the job, they can explain the job,” Costa said. “We don’t need a bunch of corporate white-collar people dictating what they think it should be and don’t know what it is.”

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