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Bellingham city and labor leaders partner to save dying jobs

As jobs turn greener, the City of Bellingham wants to make sure fossil fuel workers don't become fossils themselves.

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — To become carbon neutral by 2050, Bellingham is making a bold move.

The city is mandating that all new commercial construction and all future residential buildings more than four stories tall must use electricity to heat water and rooms, instead of natural gas or oil.

"There's a lot of people that this actually impacts," said Trevor Smith, political director for Laborers Local #292. 

From homebuilders to homebuyers, the conversion will have a ripple effect. Installing electric heaters will likely raise construction costs, but exactly how much is an unknown.

"On major projects, I don't think it will be a heavy lift," said Bellingham Bay Builders President Dave Brogan.

He believes the biggest impact will be on the labor force.

"There will likely be less need for gas piping, but certainly more need for solar panel installation," Brogan said. "Hopefully there's a transition."

It's that transition that concerns Trevor Smith. He represents about 1,400 union laborers across the north Sound. It's his job to find ways to protect those jobs.

"Right now, there's a lot of fear and a lot of unknowns when it comes to the workforce," Smith said.

Now, labor and the city are working together to write new rules to convert fossil fuel jobs into green ones.

Smith believes it to be the first time that has ever happened in any U.S. city.

"We started looking around the country at where this language may exist from other entities and other municipalities that have done this. It doesn't exist," Smith said. "I don't know that we ever would have chosen to be part of the grand experiment, but now that we're here, we certainly want to make sure that we can represent our members, represent our local communities, and figure out how to save living-age jobs."

In Smith's membership alone, fossil fuels account for 500,000 hours of work every year. Those are family-wage jobs that come with benefits.

Among the many things he's pushing for are city-sponsored apprenticeships and training for green jobs such as "hardening our infrastructure to better withstand extreme weather brought on by global warming, and protecting our communities against rising sea levels by building dikes and levees."

Smith believes the partnership will help keep fossil fuel workers from becoming fossils themselves.

"We're trying to build something for the future that doesn't leave workers behind," he said.

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