Change in the Coalfields: A Podcast by Coalfield Development

Jason Walsh

January 15, 2021 Episode 8
Change in the Coalfields: A Podcast by Coalfield Development
Jason Walsh
Show Notes Transcript

We took a couple weeks off for the Holidays but we're back with a brand new episode and a new name, Change in the Coalfields!! 
This week we have a virtual conversation with  Jason Walsh. Jason is Executive Director of Blue Green Alliance and is currently based out of Washington D.C. 
You can find more information about Blue Green Alliance and Jason's work with them by going to https://www.bluegreenalliance.org/

Check out our social media pages to see some video clips of the conversation and let us know what you think of this format! 

We will be releasing new episodes bi-weekly, sometimes even more regularly, for the remainder of 2021! 

https://coalfield-development.org/

Brandon Dennison:

This is Change in the Coalfields, a podcast by Coalfield Development, all about change in Appalachia. What change has happened, what change is happening and what change still needs to happen. I'm your host Brandon Dennison founder and CEO of Coalfield Development. Okay, welcome to Change in the Coalfields. My name is Brandon Dennison and this week, I'm very honored and excited to be joined by Jason Walsh. Jason is executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, and that is a national organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. Jason, welcome to the podcast.

Jason Walsh:

I am very pleased to join you, Brandon. Good to be here.

Brandon Dennison:

And Jason and I, we've done some work together in various ways over the years. So Jason has a really interesting perspective on change in Appalachia, for sure. Can you tell us just a little bit about the BlueGreen Alliance?

Jason Walsh:

Sure, the BlueGreen Alliance is a coalition of labor unions and environmental organizations. We were founded by our two original odd bedfellows, the United Steelworkers Union, and the Sierra Club back in 2006. We now have six national labor unions and six environmental organizations as members of BGA. The foundational principle of our coalition really all of our work, is that we don't have to choose between good jobs and a clean environment, that we can and have to have both. We have a consensus based decision making process within the BlueGreen Alliance, which is often an enormous pain in the butt to actually make work, but can can be a very powerful thing when we make it work right.

Brandon Dennison:

So you mentioned six unions and six environmental groups, is that sort of written into the bylaws that you have to have an equal number?

Jason Walsh:

No, it isn't. Although those numbers would suggest that we don't have exact numbers written into our bylaws, but we do we do try to keep a fairly even balance between our blue and green partners. We also try to get a fair amount of diversity, you know, particularly with our labor partners, right? So we've got an industrial union, like the steelworkers. But we've also got public sector service sector unions, SEIU and the American Federation of Teachers. We've got a utility sector union, the Utility Workers of America, and we've got some some building trades unions, both the bricklayers Union and the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters.

Brandon Dennison:

Pretty remarkable gathering of different groups there. And so what are some of your priorities for 2021?

Jason Walsh:

So I would say our biggest priority for 2021 is to pass economic recovery legislation that is centered on rebuilding, rebooting, cleaning up our manufacturing base in our infrastructure, both both of which are in challenging times, and building an economy in a country that is fairer and more inclusive. And that doesn't make people sick.

Brandon Dennison:

Yeah, you mentioned, you know, we don't have to choose between environment and economy. I wonder if, are folks in your coalition starting to believe that actually a cleaner economy, like that's where the growth is going to be that there's that there's a net positive opportunity for more jobs than we had before, in cleaning up our economy and our environment at the same time.

Jason Walsh:

I think that is a foundational belief of our partners. The key caveat to how you just described is making sure that as we build that clean economy, we support and create high quality, preferably union jobs. You know, as we look at the pretty significant problems facing this country, we recognize a climate crisis. The science is pretty undeniable. But we also recognize that that we have a crisis of both economic and racial inequality in this country, and that we've got to address both in really our work in this space as has evolved since honestly the 2016 election. After that election, BGA did a bunch of soul searching. We felt as an organization that that some self examination was was particularly important because many of the working class voters who supported Trump were members of our partner unions, and a core constituency of ours. Right. So we embarked on what became a roughly a year and a half long research project to understand how working class voters thought about responded to our issues, energy, climate, the economy, trade, I mean, frankly, we wanted to understand whether we were speaking past people, or whether the issues we work on and how we talk about them, were still compelling and important to them. So we conducted listening sessions across mostly the Midwest with the rank and file members of our partner unions we did, we did focus groups, we did a survey of over 1,400 voters, we learned a lot from all that. And I would say some of the most important takeaways that I think still hold true today were that working class voters believe that climate change is real, and want to see action on climate, want to see action on clean air and clean water. At the same time, they didn't want any climate solutions to be at the expense of their jobs, right, they were struggling with their day to day economic situation, their wages, were not keeping up with the cost of living for health care and other necessities. And this was, you know, 2017 2018, when the economy, at least by any official measure was a heck of a lot better than it is today. Unemployment rate was was still officially low, but they didn't feel like there were enough good jobs in their communities, the principle and the message that I had sort of spelled out to you, right, that Americans shouldn't have to choose between between good jobs and a clean environment resonated really strongly with them, which is good, since it's basically our mission and what they wanted, you know, affirmatively was a positive unifying vision for creating jobs and protecting the environment and building equity and opportunity, pretty, pretty basic values. So we took that and decided that as a coalition, we needed to develop a plan that addressed all of those beliefs holistically, right, the desire for climate action, but also the really strong and, and well-informed economic anxiety that was out there. And which, of course, is even more pronounced now, in January 2021. And so, you know, we went through a process that ultimately, after 21 drafts, these are the joys of working in coalition, right? That resulted in a platform we call Solidarity for Climate Action, we released that in 2019. And it's really been both the catalyst and the framework for all of our work since then fighting both economic and racial inequality and the climate crisis. And, you know, it was a priority of ours in that document that it not be a lowest common denominator platform, right? Which God knows is easy for coalition's to produce. There were parts of the platform that were hard for some of our labor partners. There were parts of our platform that were hard for some of our environmental partners. But the fact that it was hard, I think is a good thing. We really kind of pushed our comfort zone as a coalition. And it really drew us closer together. So that's a long winded answer to your question, Brandon.

Brandon Dennison:

It's fascinating on multiple levels. I mean, just the process of that I can imagine the process of consensus decision-making and then it's, I'm familiar with it. It's a bold, it's a bold document. And I would imagine, you know, it's a tense, difficult time for our country, there is a changing administration, are you feeling optimistic for the adoption of at least some big chunks of that proposal?

Jason Walsh:

I am, particularly given that we have a president-elect who has put forward a vision for building a clean economy and doing it with working people at the center of climate solution. We're ready to get to work and really eager to get to January 20th, and an administration that we can work with constructively and a Congress that is controlled in both chambers by the Democratic Party, which increasingly has, I think, embraced the framing that the BlueGreen Alliance has always used right to talk about how we address climate and energy and jobs, challenges that all Americans are facing across the country.

Brandon Dennison:

Well and you raise this great caveat of politicians always love to talk about jobs. It's probably the number one word you can find in the draft of a political speech, but not all good. Not all new jobs are necessarily good jobs. And that's a key caveat to the discussion that I appreciate you pointing that out.

Jason Walsh:

Yeah, I think it's particularly important as we talk about the clean energy economy and clean technology jobs. I mean, there, there is, unfortunately, a bit of a mixed record here, right, where not enough of the jobs that have been created or promised are consistently high-quality, family-supporting career jobs there, there are a bunch of different things we need to do to make sure that happens, which we should talk about, but certainly one of the principal ways of ensuring job quality is to increase union density within some of these emerging sectors like solar and wind, right? Where the union density is only, you know, 4 to 6% of the entire workforce. That's that's not good enough, not not only is that a an equity issue, it's also a political economy issue, right? The reality is that on average, you look at a building trades worker, you know, somewhere in the in the in the country, they are getting better paid in more consistent work, often from fossil fuel economy projects, it's gonna be very hard for for them to fully embrace the kind of transformation and transition that we're working toward. Until and unless their rank and file members can, can get jobs that are as good and safe and respected as the jobs that they have from incumbent energy technologies.

Brandon Dennison:

So Jason, how did you get into this kind of work being involved with unions being in public service? You know, reading on your on your bio, on the blue green Alliance website, it looks like you've you've been actually trained in union organizing and consensus decision making. So can you just tell us a little bit about your journey and how you landed here?

Jason Walsh:

It is a long and meandering pathway, Brandon. How long do we have here?

Brandon Dennison:

The highlights the highlights. Well, and really, like what drives you, you know, sort of beyond the accomplishments in the accolades? What is it that keeps you waking up and going back at it day after day, year after

Jason Walsh:

What keeps me going day after day, year after year year? is is something that the late Senator Paul Wellstone used to say, which is that we all do better when we all do better. That, in many ways, kind of encompasses why I do this work and have done it for over 20 years. I mean, just to tell you a little bit about me, you know, I actually grew up in New York City, pretty pretty far from where you're sitting right now. Or where I'm sitting, you know, this was the 1970s 1980s, where literally from block to block, on the upper west side, where I lived at the time, when it was still possible to live there. If you weren't wealthy, you would see an illustration of the enormous race and class divides of our country, literally from block to block. And that kind of formed me. And, you know, my mom's experience, you know, who we were living in a rent control two bedroom apartment on 79th Street, you know, where she started a daycare center. When I was in fourth grade, I'd come home and get mugged by three year olds, it was still possible for working class and even middle class folks to live there. It's much harder now. My mom ultimately got got priced out when she moved north up to the Bronx, and then out of the city altogether. But to the point I just made, I mean, you know that, that gave me a pretty early and important lesson in what struck me even at a very young age, as a set of relationships and power structures in our country that were just not fair. I think I also benefited from just having a lot of life experience. I mean, I didn't go straight into college, I traveled a lot, both internationally and around our country lived in a lot of different places, you know, worked a lot of jobs, including a summer decapitating salmon up in Alaska, which gave me a very important experience of working on a shop floor, spent a little time union organizing, as it says in my bio, but I don't want to overplay that. I worked on a nursing home workers organizing campaign and then a campaign trying to organize sweatshop workers. [I] ran anti-poverty coalition in Minnesota for a few years. But you know, with that experience running the coalition, I kind of found what I felt like I was kind of good at, you know, which is bringing a bunch of different interests and stakeholders together to figure out where we could actually work together for the public good. And I actually didn't touch anything related to energy or climate until about halfway through my career. Came more out of you know, economic justice and worker justice stuff, but then got connected to a guy named Van Jones, who has since become a kind of a media star and CNN commentator. I was already doing some organizing and coalition organizing out in California, and Van was just starting to get a lot of national attention talking about green jobs. I didn't know crap about green. But I knew something about jobs and how to make jobs, good jobs and knew quite a bit about workforce development. Right, he was able to successfully pitch Speaker Pelosi on developing something that ultimately became the Green Jobs Act, which was included in the, ultimately included in the 2007 energy bill. When when Congress still passed energy bills, and but when he first when he first successfully engaged with Speaker Pelosi, he, he realized he needed some help on actually writing a bill and moving it through Congress. So that was that was a good catalyst for our relationship. And then I joined Van as the first national policy director for an organization called Green For All, which, you know, as Van described, it was really, you know, all about trying to build a, a green economy that was strong enough to lift people out of poverty and a green economy that would have made Martin Luther King [Jr.] proud. And I've kind of been at this intersection of jobs and workforce development and economic development and unions and environmental groups ever since.

Brandon Dennison:

And you also, you quoted, Senator Wellstone, the late Senator Wellstone, it looks like you actually had a chance to work in his office when he was alive and serving,

Jason Walsh:

Yeah, I moved to Minnesota for grad school and is that right? got this job as a policy fellow where I got to meet him and work with him and his staff. And, you know, he continues to be a real inspiration to me, honestly, he was kind of a remarkable man, and was absolutely committed to uniting and aligning the environmental and labor movements. And in fact, the person who helped to start the BlueGreen Alliance, along with Leo Gerard, the then-president of the steelworkers union, and Carl Pope, the then-president of the Sierra Club was a guy named Dave Foster, who came out of Minnesota, and still lives in Minnesota, and actually ran a district for the United Steelworkers Union that included Minnesota and a bunch of the region. So the Minnesota roots of the BlueGreen Alliance, run deep and all the way down to, you know, being very inspired by Senator Wellstone.

Brandon Dennison:

You go on to serve in the in the Obama administration. And where we intersected was I saw you give a public speech about a new effort called The POWER initiative. And POWER was an acronym for Partnerships and Opportunity, and Workforce and Economic Revitalization. And this was a plan to help coal communities with, with the transition that was underway from dirtier sources of energy to cleaner sources of energy. You were, uh, you were pretty much you were spearheading that effort. Right?

Jason Walsh:

I was. Absolutely, but working for a boss who called the shots in President Obama, you know, in response to his charge, you know, as a administration, we really needed to up our game in terms of responding to and helping the workers in the communities on the hurting end of the transformation that was happening in our energy economy. And in particular, in our coal fired power sector, which was, I don't need to tell you being felt most acutely at the time when we started this in 2015 in Central Appalachia. So power was a coordinated effort across 10 federal agencies ultimately to align and scale up and target federal mostly economic and workforce development funding, but also additional resources to coal communities and coal economy workers. And we intentionally defined the coal economy very broadly right to include communities associated with coal mining, but also with coal fired power plants and related manufacturing and transportation and logistics supply chain. We were committed to working closely with key stakeholders in coal communities. I still remember with fondness, Brandon doing an economic diversification roundtable that you helped to organize in West Virginia at the Hawksnest. Yep, at that very beautiful spot. But you know, the really that was all part of an effort to identify and fund projects across a bunch of different industry sectors that held the promise of building a more economically diversified and economically resilient future in coal communities. Right? And with the foundational premise being a belief that successful economic development results from focusing on regional economic ecosystems and bottom up strategies that leverage local and regional assets to the fullest. We also felt like it was really important to get, you know, new actors and new organizations involved, right, which some of those roundtables and conversations help but we also, you know, then helped to stand up what ultimately became the Just Transition Fund, which is not doing good work across the country now, but you know, the Justice was was was actually Heidi Benko and that crew really helped here, right, what was setting up a pot of money that would actually could be provided to NGOs and other organizations that don't traditionally know how you get federal grants or have the capacity to actually pull them down and actually to give them you know, small amounts of money to help them do that, because we felt like there were a set of solution pathways out there that were, you know, extended well beyond kind of the usual suspects. Coalfield Development, obviously, one of them, but there are many others as well. And I feel really good about the work that we supported, and really grateful to the work that that you and all your colleagues have done. You know, and we're doing over that period of time.

Brandon Dennison:

And that's pretty unique, right? I mean, to get money, straight to grassroots groups. I mean, a lot of times this money has to flow through a state bureaucracy or, you know, local government bureaucracy that had to be a fight to get it set up this way.

Jason Walsh:

Yeah. But it depended on the agency. Honestly, one of the great benefits of the Appalachian Regional Commission [ARC] is that they're they were already set up and under the leadership of the federal co chair, Earl Gohl to make grants directly, you know, that's how we set up the power fund within the ARC. I wish we had those kinds of regional entities across the country, we could certainly use one out in the Powder River Basin, right? In Wyoming and Montana and places like that. And were part of the culture was really like you, you engage with the people who, the leaders from these communities on a regular basis. So you so you're not just making a set of decisions from on high. I mean, frankly, it depends on the agency and the the various authorities they've been granted by Congress. One of the things that, you know, I certainly learned from that experience was that we just don't have the systems in place. Or the programs in place to support this kind of transition as it continues in Appalachia, but as it extends well beyond Appalachia, geographically, but then also beyond the power sector, economically, and so I think what excites me, one of the things that excites me, in terms of working with the new Congress and a Biden administration is helping figure out what new systems we put in place to actually do this well.

Brandon Dennison:

And do it at a larger scale, too, right? I mean, this was not really part of a massive congressional effort. There was some increased funding for the power initiative, but nothing transformational, right?

Jason Walsh:

No, I mean, we, you know, as you remember, we put forward a sort of companion budget requests, right, that were sometimes known as the Power Plus Plan, right? That both increased funding into existing programs like ARC, but then also tried to make a broader set of investments. You know, it wasn't anywhere close, you know, we got a few increases. So we were able to jack up a ARC's funding line to probably its highest level ever, but it was harder to do some other stuff. You know, what, whereas if you look at a country like Germany, where a much smaller population and economy they've they've dedicated $38 billion, roughly in U.S. dollars equivalent.

Brandon Dennison:

That was billion with a B, right?

Jason Walsh:

Yep. It's just a totally different ballgame.

Brandon Dennison:

Or even other sectors of the economy, right? I mean, with the tariffs in agriculture, we dumped a billion, you know, with a B on agriculture communities for tariff relief, just with the snap of a finger. A lot of times I get the question, and what's so special about coal communities, you know, why should our country and frankly, sometimes it comes from liberals saying why should we be investing in coal communities any different from any other community? I have, I'm trying to hold back, I have my opinions. I wonder what you might say to a question like that?

Jason Walsh:

I mean, I have a couple of different responses. I mean, look, I think we as a country, we shouldn't be leaving any worker or any community behind. With coal communities, we have to honor the fact that the these are communities, and these are workers with respect to coal economy workers who powered this country for generations, you know, and paid a really, really steep price for doing that in terms of environmental health and worker health. And the consequences of providing all that cheap power for decades are significant. When you see, when you read President-elect Biden's plans, right. I mean, you you will see that that language echoed in his plans, right, that we actually have an obligation to fulfill I think is really important. The part of that argument that you're too tactful to mention. You know, there's arguments from Democrats, which are a little bit more parochial, which are like, 'Why, why should Democrats invest money in these parts of the country, if they don't vote for us anyway, anymore.' That just kind of pisses me off.

Brandon Dennison:

And that's, that's one of many contributors. That's, I mean, that contributes to the division rather than help overcome it. Right? That's right, I think to just sectorally, you know, the the huge high cost, but also, I think, in agriculture, if jobs are lost, you know, the general agreement is, 'Let's build that sector back up to regain those jobs.' In the auto sector, you know, nobody wants to let the auto sector die, we want to build that back up and have those jobs. Whereas for coal, you know, that if we take climate change seriously, there is a reality that sector is going to get smaller. And so I think that makes it a little bit different from some of the other sectors that get assistance as well.

Jason Walsh:

I think that's exactly right. And I think with you mentioned, a couple of good examples, I mean, let's take the auto sector, right, I mean, I hope we're not in a situation, let me be a little bit stronger with that we will have failed. If we're in a situation with the auto sector, and the workers and communities that rely on on the auto sector that is, you know, similar to the situation we've all been kind of living through with respect to the coal industry and Appalachia. With the auto sector, if we don't get ahead of this, right, so that we're not just reacting and not just trying to minimize the pain, but instead try to maximize the gain, right, and ensure that that we're actually not laying people off here, the workers on lines that are making component parts for internal combustion engines today are, you know, 5 to 10 years from now, making component parts for [an] electric vehicle, right? That's the transition we need to make there. And because there's just going to be a world of pain, both economic and political, if we don't do that successfully.

Brandon Dennison:

So Jason, I think the work that you're doing is amazing, I think, you know, the power initiative in Appalachia that I have the most direct experience with it, it was such a great first step for a just transition. You know, we all knew it wasn't enough money to do everything that needed done. But it was a great first step. I'm so hopeful we can we can build off of that over the next few years. And so I just wonder, with your experience in Appalachia, I like to ask everybody sort of two questions at once, which is how have you seen Appalachia change? In your time working with different partners based in this region? And what do you think still needs to change? Or should change faster, here in Appalachia?

Jason Walsh:

Well, I think one of the things I've seen change is, is just an enormous amount of incredibly good work being done on the ground. That was certainly happening, you started your organization well before the POWER initiative, right. But I think what we were able to do with the POWER initiative was to provide resources to a lot of this work, right to move it from, from an idea or from proof of concept to something bigger, you know, now, five, six years later, you know, we see examples of this across the entire region, where there are efforts underway across multiple sectors right, than really, I think I can say without hyperbole represent the future of the region. What I think we need to do more of is we need to supercharge public investment and by that, I mean, because most states are broke right now, federal investment in the region, as I suggested earlier, we need to be creating a set of support systems for workers and communities that have relied on the coal industry and are really continuing to struggle. I mean, it was striking to me when I worked in the White House, you know, and I would call around to talk to people just to see what was going on. And I I talked to Workforce Investment Board folks, probably [in] five different states. And in each place, I, we talked about a bunch of things, but I asked a same or similar question, you know, across all of these places, you know, I'm talking, you know, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Appalachian Ohio, right? And I would ask, 'What kind of training programs are your dislocated, you know, coal miners going into, you know, what kind of jobs are they getting?' And I expected to get like a bunch of different answers. I didn't get a bunch of different answers. I got the same answer from from each of these places, right? And the answer was, you know, commercial driver's license training, not because dislocated coal miners had any special passion for driving trucks and being away from their families for months at a time, but because that was a job that that paid less than but at least a living wage to them that they could get if they went through only an eight week training program. They needed they needed a training program that training program that short because they'd already run out of their six months of unemployment insurance. Right. So the fact that we have dislocated worker programs that that don't provide in any consistent or scaled way, income support for folks who are trying to totally remake their careers and lives, it's just insane. The idea that people can actually navigate that successfully. So I mean, that's one example among many, right? But we need a totally different and more expansive set of supports for workers who get dislocated and who were trying to recreate themselves. On the demand side and, you know, a renewed and and scaled up effort to invest in economic development and economic diversification because, as you know, none of this stuff is cheap. And as we're, as the new Congress and the new administration, tries to craft a plan that will jumpstart our economy at a time when, you know, unemployment rates are eight, nine and 10%. And a lot of states, these kinds of investments in communities that have have been hit not only by COVID, but by the decline of what had been sort of linchpin industries have to be a priority.

Brandon Dennison:

Very well said, Jason. I feel like there's a lot I would really like to have you back actually because there's a lot that I'd like to dig into even deeper, but I'm really grateful for your time and grateful for your work and your service and your partnership and appreciate you joining Change in the Coalfields.

Jason Walsh:

Well, it's a pleasure being here and I really appreciate all the work that you've done, Brandon, and the inspiration that you have provided for me and for a lot of other folks doing this work.

Brandon Dennison:

Sure. Well, we'll be sure and talk soon.

Jason Walsh:

All right, take care.

Brandon Dennison:

Change in the Coalfields is a podcast created by Coalfield Development at the West Edge Factory in Huntington, West Virginia. This episode was hosted by Brandon Dennison, and produced and edited by JJN Multimedia. Become a part of our mission to rebuild the Appalachian economy by going to our website, coalfield-development.org, to make a donation. You can email us anytime at info@coalfield-development.org and subscribe to our newsletter for up to date information on the podcast. You can follow us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn by searching for Coalfield Development. Check back soon for more episodes.