A few years ago I was asked to provide advice to a labour union on the best way to oppose a government policy that would result in thousands of job losses for the union’s members. I took on the engagement with a very strong and personal sense of responsibility. The issue of employment and job security affects millions of people; you read about it all the time, though much of the media commentary focuses on the big numbers and percentages and trends; things that almost make it seem impersonal. But there are also people in my own life who have been touched by at least the prospect of job insecurity. Many people in my life, people close to me whom I care for deeply, talented, energetic, passionate people—family, friends, and significant others—still struggle with it. It affects you in profound ways. It can be frightening and demoralizing.
Unemployment: the most upsetting and existential peacetime issue of our age. If you know someone who is dealing with it, or worrying about dealing with it, be compassionate and cut them some slack. Because there but for the grace of God go you.
In my initial discussions with the new union clients I sensed a quiet, very restrained, but palpable anger about the policy they had asked for advice opposing. I understood what that was about. I know what it is like to worry about people who are colleagues, friends, and family. I put everything I had into that case, and my client succeeded in at least delaying the implementation of the policy. What struck me throughout—as I researched the public opinion environment in which the policy was formulated, and worked with my clients to develop an effective strategy for opposing it—was the callousness, on the part of those who supported and continue to support that policy, toward the thousands of people who will lose their jobs because of it. I am supposed to be a brass-balled consultant, providing objective advice. And I am one. But, though I believe I provided good advice unclouded by personal emotional investment, I found it difficult to be detached about people who would soon be dealing with unemployment.
I wrote yesterday about the coming closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Vernon Vermont. The title of my article, “Vermont Yankee closure means one thing: more carbon in the atmosphere,” made it sound like carbon emissions are the only and most important thing. That is not correct. Yankee’s closure will certainly result in massive new amounts of carbon being dumped into the air. But that is not the only implication of its closure. It does not mean just that one thing. It means 600+ other things. Those 600+ things are jobs, and each one of them is represented by a talented, energetic, passionate human being who soon will be out of work.
This point was made brilliantly, by someone who knows what he is talking about. Jack Gamble, as you will read in a letter to the editor he wrote to the Valley News, which covers news in Vermont and New Hampshire, works at the Oyster Creek nuclear plant in New Jersey. Though Oyster Creek is licensed to operate to 2029, its owner, Exelon Corporation, has decided to close the plant ten years early. At that point, Jack Gamble and his wife (who also works at the plant) will both lose their jobs. As trained nuclear professionals, they will likely have to move to another community to get employment, uprooting their young daughter in the process.
Like Vermont Yankee, Oyster Creek has its own coterie of anti-nuclear opponents. And like Vermont Yankee, opponents of Oyster Creek celebrated the news that Exelon will close the plant prematurely. They celebrated like it is party time, though six hundred people will soon be dealing with the deeply upsetting and unsettling experience of unemployment. Read Jack’s letter: it is frank and candid, and though it pulls no punches it is remarkably restrained considering it was penned by somebody who will soon be sharing with his entire family the experience of unemployment. Here’s the link again.
Reading Jack’s letter reminded me of my initial conversations with my union clients. Like Jack, my union clients were matter-of-fact, and had to keep their heads in the face of baffling and callous indifference to the impending plight of thousands of people whom they knew. But it was impossible to miss the anger underlying their concern. They had great difficulty accepting that people were celebrating their members’ impending unemployment. I did not blame them for that then, and I don’t blame them today. It is wrong to celebrate somebody’s loss of employment.
And it is impossible for me—still a brass-balled consultant—to not feel similar anger in the case of Vermont Yankee and Oyster Creek. As I said, there are important people in my life right now who are dealing, or have dealt, with actual or prospective unemployment.
The closure of a clean energy employer is a tragedy, on both the human and environmental level. Nobody should celebrate it.