The Wrong Way to Debunk Trump’s Pipeline Jobs Claims

Kate Aronoff March 29, 2017

The clean energy sector is creating jobs at a remarkable rate. (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

There’s a right and a wrong way to debunk the right-wing myth about jobs and the envi­ron­ment. As a refresh­er, here are the basics of that myth: Jobs in the extrac­tive indus­try are an invalu­able engine of job cre­ation and a key dri­ver of eco­nom­ic growth. Peo­ple con­cerned about the envi­ron­ment want to kill projects, like the Key­stone XL and Dako­ta Access pipelines, that would pro­vide jobs and help stim­u­late the economy.

If you’re read­ing this, you prob­a­bly already know that argu­ment is wrong. Jobs in the U.S. clean ener­gy indus­try — itself a very small sec­tor — out­num­ber jobs in the fos­sil fuel indus­try 5 to 1, accord­ing to a recent report from the Depart­ment of Ener­gy. What’s more, renew­able ener­gy has the poten­tial to cre­ate mil­lions of jobs in the future, which would make that type of employ­ment dwarf even the bloat­ed jobs fig­ures the White House cites in defense of fos­sil fuels.

But here’s how not to dis­pel fos­sil fuel indus­try talk­ing points: not­ing the dis­par­i­ty between part-time and full-time con­struc­tion jobs. Since the Key­stone XL’s per­mit was approved by the State Depart­ment last Fri­day, a num­ber of out­lets — includ­ing those with a specif­i­cal­ly envi­ron­men­tal­ist bent—re-upped a sta­tis­tic that made the rounds before the project was squashed back in 2015, stat­ing that the project will cre­ate just 35 per­ma­nent jobs. The State Depart­ment esti­mates that the Key­stone XL pipeline will cre­ate some 42,000 direct and indi­rect jobs, 50 of which will be per­ma­nent. Fif­teen of the 50 jobs are tem­po­rary con­tracts, leav­ing just 35 peo­ple with ongo­ing jobs main­tain­ing the pipeline. This line of argu­ment con­tends the fact that so few of these posi­tions are per­ma­nent means that Trump’s jobs argu­ment is an elab­o­rate rouse.

Here’s the prob­lem: All con­struc­tion jobs are tem­po­rary. When you con­struct some­thing, it is even­tu­al­ly built. Work­ers in the build­ing trades might work on sev­er­al projects in a giv­en year, and part of what build­ing trades unions do is set up the peo­ple they rep­re­sent with projects.

Talk­ing points about per­ma­nent ver­sus tem­po­rary jobs aren’t just bad because they stand to make the peo­ple spout­ing them sound gross­ly out of touch with work­ing peo­ple. Jobs build­ing wind tur­bines and sea walls and installing solar pan­els are also often tem­po­rary jobs. And that’s okay!

Mak­ing sure they’re good ones is anoth­er mat­ter. Because of long-stand­ing and union-nego­ti­at­ed norms in the build­ing trades, the union­ized work­ers who build pipelines tend to bring home good mon­ey and ben­e­fits, some­times mak­ing as much as six fig­ures in a year. Build­ing trades and their work­ers, then, aren’t being some­how duped by Trump about these fig­ures. The pipeline will cre­ate new jobs for their mem­bers, who, by and large, will be hap­py to work them.

But as Bryce Covert points out in The Nation, min­ing, man­u­fac­tur­ing and con­struc­tion jobs togeth­er account for less than 13 per­cent of jobs in the Unit­ed States. More than 80 per­cent of work­ers are housed in the ser­vice sec­tor. The clean ener­gy sec­tor is cre­at­ing jobs at a remark­able rate, and there’s plen­ty of oth­er work that is just as low car­bon — and hap­pens to be in some of the fastest grow­ing parts of the econ­o­my. Teach­ers and nurs­es don’t emit mas­sive amounts of car­bon into the atmos­phere. Their pro­fes­sions are (rel­a­tive­ly) heav­i­ly union­ized, but wages in oth­er, non-union­ized parts of the ser­vice sec­tor remain piti­ful­ly low — an indus­try stan­dard being fought tooth and nail by the Fight for $15 campaign.

So don’t fact-check the Key­stone jobs line on the basis that the jobs aren’t per­ma­nent. Ask why Trump isn’t fuel­ing high-pay­ing, union job growth in the sec­tors where most Amer­i­cans work and that are already cre­at­ing jobs.

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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