Indiana County job prospects: ‘bubble up,’ trickle-down

Economic development

President Joe Biden promotes his $2 trillion infrastructure plan during a March 31 speech in Pittsburgh.
Photo: WITF

By David Loomis

INDIANA – There go another 43 union jobs in Indiana County. The half-century-old, coal-fueled power plant in Homer City, majority-owned by multinational conglomerate General Electric Co., on Thursday announced it will lay off 16.5% of its 260 workers next month. The plant’s operator helpfully announced what did not account for the corporate-ordered job cuts:

RGGI.

The 11-state, regional climate compact Gov. Tom Wolf proposes to join has generated unwavering opposition from state Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, since the governor’s October 2019 announcement. The senator, and fellow Indiana Republican state Rep. Jim Struzzi, have argued that RGGI will cost the county good union jobs and will ruin the economies of power-plant communities.

Last week’s layoffs announcement didn’t change Sen. Pittman’s talking points. He hoped the governor “reconsiders his decision on RGGI in light of this discouraging news and realizes that his regulations will further devastate the working families of my district.”

That message resonates with craft union members who help operate the power plants – and who helped re-elect both lawmakers by comfortable margins last fall.

Their employers in the energy and natural-resources industry rank among the largest contributors to the election campaigns of Mr. Pittman and Mr. Struzzi. To Sen. Pittman’s 2020 reelection, the industry contributed $42,995 (including $3,500 from the Pennsylvania Coal Association) – about 16% of his $269,818.45 total. To Rep. Struzzi, the industry contributed $5,000 to his 2020 re-election campaign – 7.5% of his $66,911.93 total.

The lawmakers also have received non-financial assistance from the industry, according to recent reporting by the Energy and Policy Institute, a San Francisco-based, nonprofit watchdog.

None of this suggests impropriety. Indeed, both lawmakers argue that their opposition to RGGI represents the best interests of their constituents.

NOT ALL their constituents agree.

On April 8, Mr. Struzzi posted on Facebook a supportive Pittsburgh Regional Building Trades Council letter and his own analysis that reduced the RGGI debate to “a simple answer — jobs.” Some readers saw oversimplification.

“Jobs?” responded one commenter. “That is laughable. Please remind me what you did for all of the IUP faculty and staff that were furloughed or let go? How about the nurses at IRMC? You are not fooling me with wanting to save jobs.”

Consider IUP, the county’s largest employer. (The hospital ranks No. 3.) The university last fall announced plans to lay off 128 of 601 faculty members – a 21.2% cut, or more than one in five professors and triple the number of power-plant layoffs in Homer City next month. Neither Rep. Struzzi nor Sen. Pittman flinched. Mr. Pittman, for example, described the university cuts as “difficult” but “necessary.”

The more thorough answer to RGGI and jobs would recognize that the power-plant employment local lawmakers prize is vanishing into a clean-energy future described by President Joe Biden in his March 31 speech in Pittsburgh, where he unveiled the $2 trillion infrastructure program he campaigned on. Like RGGI, it concentrates on climate change.

“You’re handing your children and grandchildren a country that will lead the world in producing clean energy technology and will need to address one of the biggest threats of our time,” Mr. Biden said. “That’s what we’ll do.”

It also concentrates on employment.

“It’s the largest American jobs investment since World War Two,” Mr. Biden said. “It will create millions of jobs, good-paying jobs.”

The plan includes $16 billion to clean up abandoned mines, to pay union oil and gas workers to cap old oil and gas wells, and to build a “fully clean” power grid, Mr. Biden said. That’s good news for our 15th Congressional District, which ranks first in the nation for abandoned mines. (The district’s Republican representative, Glenn Thompson Jr., last month introduced bipartisan legislation to extend funding for reclamation.)

Union workers appreciate the president’s plan. He was applauded by a platoon of Pittsburgh hard hats and introduced by a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 29.

“For decades, Pennsylvania was a global leader in manufacturing and good union jobs,” the worker said. “It can be that way again.”

Capital is enlisting with labor, too. Among corporations converting to climate-infrastructure efforts is General Electric, the majority owner of Homer City’s coal-fired power plant. In December, GE announced an all-out corporate effort to replace coal and fight climate change. For the Fortune 500, S&P 100, multinational conglomerate founded by Thomas Edison and J.P. Morgan in 1892, such strategic decisions affecting a global workforce of around 174,000 are not made lightly.

LOCAL LAWMAKERS should acknowledge that job loss is a broader issue that affects many more than power-plant employees. Indiana County has been losing population and employment for decades. From 2000 to 2019, population dropped by 6.1%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In February, the county’s unemployment rate stood at 8.8%, up a notch from January and significantly higher that the statewide jobless rate of 7.3 percent. Among the county’s civilian workforce of 37,692, about 3,300 Indiana County residents were out of work.

A confluence of crises – a Covid-19 pandemic, an opioid epidemic, the bust of a predicted fracking boom, the decline of King Coal, the withering of a 146-year-old state university – makes economic development an existential concern for Indiana County.

Forward-thinking local leaders should recognize opportunity here. The region has inherited a couple centuries of cleanup from the carbon-intensive industries that powered the nation’s industrial rise and won world wars, but also polluted the environment and passed the buck to the public.

In the process, the region has compiled a deep resume for future energy development, including renewables. Mr. Biden’s Pittsburgh vision might couple with the region’s intellectual capital — including IUP’s recently established environmental engineering program whose graduates will use science and math to protect public health and the climate. Their research might also help solve carbon-sequestration technology embraced by Sen. Pittman.  (All this assumes, of course, that IUP and PASSHE don’t “redesign” the promising program out of their – our – regional future.)

CITIZENS, TOO, should embrace unusual invitations to help design their future.

— The Indiana County Sustainable Economic Development Task Force recently led a webinar on RGGI and the region’s energy sector. The March 31 panel hosted two craft union representatives, a coal lobbyist and an environmentalist. The hourlong discussion has not been posted on the task force website.

— The local Chamber of Commerce has launched a series of webinars on how to spend federal Covid-19 relief funds flowing into the county’s economy. A video recording of the hourlong April 9 webinar, featuring county commissioners and U.S. Rep. Thompson, has been posted on the Chamber’s website. Citizen questions were solicited but not much in evidence. Existing services and programs got more air time than any novel ideas. But more Chamber webinars are planned.

— County commissioners are scheduled to deliver an annual State of the County address on April 22 — Earth Day, as it happens.

— A series of town-hall meetings planned by county Commissioner Sherene Hess may provide a more accessible public forum. Ms. Hess outlined in a March 24 Indiana Gazette op-ed her plan to invite more-interactive discussion of how to invest federal relief funds in the county.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be both prudent and visionary stewards of these funds, to use them to work toward a more prosperous future for Indiana County residents,” Ms. Hess wrote. “I also believe the best ideas bubble up from the people.”

__________

David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.

The HawkEye invites comments on this and other issues of community interest. Email doloomis@iup.edu or click on the “contact us” drop-down menu, above.

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