Rethinking Infrastructure


Chris Williams is an author, activist and educator. His writing publishes widely in and out of the US, translated into many languages. He is the author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket Books, 2010) and the forthcoming Creating an Ecological Society: Toward a Revolutionary Transformation (Monthly Review Press, 2017).

Seth Sandronsky: Authorities in mid-February ordered the evacuation of nearly 200,000 people downstream from the Lake Oroville dam in Northern California, 75 miles north of Sacramento, due to a failing emergency spillway that threatened catastrophic flooding. Is this an isolated event or a symptom of a wider problem?

Chris Williams: The US’s dangerously crumbling infrastructure received a D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers. By their calculations, to bring US dams, energy systems, sanitation, sewage, transit and a host of other infrastructure to safe and modern levels requires $3.6 trillion of investment between within the next three years.

One of the ASCE report’s three key areas for attaining that goal is to focus on promoting “sustainability and resilience”, the very antithesis of building more oil and gas infrastructure that will only exacerbate climate change, something President Donald Trump denies is happening.

SS: Can you address climate change and the crisis of national infrastructure?

CW: Merely examining building retrofits for energy efficiency, a sector that currently consumes 49% of all the energy used in the United States and three quarters of all the electricity (which is 75% generated from burning fossil fuels and so a major contributor to climate change) would create 3.3 million direct and indirect cumulative job-years while significantly reducing carbon emissions, according to a 2012 report by the Rockefeller Foundation and Deutsche Bank. As for renewable energy it is increasing rapidly and coming to rival employment in fossil fuel production which is in decline, according to an authoritative 2016 annual report on jobs in that sector: “renewable energy employment in the United States increased by 6% in 2015 to reach 769,000 jobs. Solar employment continued its rapid expansion - growing by almost 22% to reach 209,000 in 2015. Jobs in the solar industry grew 12 times as fast as overall job creation in the US economy, and surpassed those in oil and gas extraction (187,200) or coal mining (67,929).”1

Bringing all the infrastructure of the US into the 21st century would require massive amounts of labor and tens of millions of jobs (while significantly cleaning up our air, water and soil while hugely reducing carbon emissions). But Trump isn’t talking about doing any of that because it would run counter to his desire to release corporations from any remaining restrictions on their social and ecological modes of operation in the pursuit of profit maximization.

SS: Can you flesh out the president’s (in) actions concerning the environment and labor?

CW: What he is talking about doing is making Andrew Puzder his Labor Secretary. An unapologetic sexist, Puzder is a fast-food magnate; CEO of CKE restaurants that owns the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s burger chains. He opposes the Fight for $15 an hour, saying that after passage of minimum wage legislation in California it was no longer possible to “be a capitalist in this state” before callously asking, “How do you pay somebody $15 an hour to scoop ice cream? How good could you be at scooping ice cream?” Two thirds of Puzder’s female workforce report being subject to sexual harassment at work and one third of his workforce report having their wages stolen, something for which his company has been repeatedly sued. [Puzder withdrew from consideration for the secretary of labor post on Feb. 15.]

It is hard to imagine how slashing environmental regulations by cutting down the size and effectiveness of the Environmental Protection Agency (headed by anti-EPA Scott Pruitt) or undermining health and safety regulations, pay (which has been stagnant for most workers since the early 1970s) and job security by appointing Puzder to run the Labor Department could possibly be in the interests of working people. Breathing dirtier air, drinking more contaminated water, eating food free from the pesky investigations of the Food and Drug Administration, living in houses closer to less-regulated industrial plants and working in mines, fields and factories less subject to government oversight and regulation with regard to labor, health or environmental rights can hardly be a good thing for working-class people.

SS: North America’s Building Trades Unions and the Laborers’ International Union of North America, AFL-CIO, support the Key XL (KXL) and Dakota Access (DAPL) pipeline projects to move fossil fuels around North America. What is at-risk here, and why?

CW: This signals the death knell for organized labor if labor leaders side with Trump. Particularly as those changes will dovetail with a further militarization of the police and an increase in their power to disrupt social protests and labor strikes. Trump’s program is one of tax cuts for the rich and corporations, removal of the last remaining vestiges of government regulation from businesses so they can pollute and cut wages and conditions at will, and selling the US as a low-wage economy to the world.

Fortunately, working people in the millions, inside and outside unions, as well as some union leaders under pressure from their membership are rejecting just such an outcome. They are already actively campaigning and organizing against Trump, against the KXL and DAPL, the anti-labor, anti-environmental and ultimately anti-human priorities of the Trump administration. The leaders of NABTU and the LIUNA will find they are on the wrong side of history.

Sources: Renewable Energy and Jobs Annual Review 2016 <>

Seth Sandronsky is a journalist and member of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2017

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