What is a High Road Labor Standard?

April 9, 2021




“Deliberate policy interventions are necessary in order to advance job quality and social equity as California transitions to a carbon-neutral economy, just as such efforts are required to reduce pollution, protect human and environmental health, and to safeguard communities from an already-changing climate.”

Tim Rainey (Executive Director for the California Workforce Development Board) and Kate Gordon (Director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research), in the Foreword to Putting California on the High Road: A Jobs and Climate Action Plan for 2030 (June 2020).

This post is the second in a series on Gridworks’ project on high road labor standards in transportation electrification.  Check out our first post here.  

This month Gridworks set out to define “High Road Labor Standard” and understand what this concept means in the context of transportation electrification.  What we learned is that high road standards are about much more than just labor – they sit at the intersection of worker rights, social justice, and environmentalism – and they offer a platform to build coalitions that can collectively pursue climate and equity goals with a more inclusive perspective.  With the national call  to create good-quality jobs electrifying vehicles, and California’s call for a new Social Compact for Work and Workers, we are at a momentous time to transform workforce expectations and standards.  

Where We Began

The UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education defines a “high road economy” as one where businesses “compete on the basis of the quality of their products and services by investing in their workforce” (Zabin et. al., page 53).  The same report notes that investing in a workforce includes demand-side strategies, which pertain to the kinds of jobs created and the firms or institutions that offer them, and supply-side strategies, which prepare the workforce for those jobs.  

Investing in a workforce, however, is not necessarily limited to traditional practices like paying prevailing wage, providing health benefits, or providing pathways for training and certifications.  These practices alone may not be enough to ensure that jobs in charging infrastructure construction, vehicle manufacturing and assembly, the battery supply chain, and vehicle operations and maintenance take the high road and provide opportunities for broader economic development and socioeconomic mobility.

In a recent meeting of Gridworks’ High Road Labor Standards Advisory Committee, which includes representatives of California state agencies, labor, environmental advocates, and environmental justice   stakeholders encouraged us to think more broadly about strategies that can improve job quality.  While there was agreement that high road jobs would offer prevailing wages and other workforce provisions, there was also agreement that high road standards should do more to protect workers and the environment from exposure to toxic substances and air pollution, and that workers from disadvantaged communities, disadvantaged workers,* and workers in declining industries should have priority access to jobs.

To help frame a high road approach to workforce standards in the Unified Strategic Workforce Development Plan, the California Workforce Development Board, identifies the following principles for a high road workforce development agenda:

  • Job Quality – At a minimum, quality jobs include family-supporting wages, benefits, safe working conditions, fair scheduling practices, and career advancement opportunities that are transparent.
  • Worker Voice – Recognize workers’ experience and knowledge to inform job structures/descriptions and quality. Leverage workers’ perspectives to:
    • Assess workforce gaps;
    • Address expected changes resulting from technological evolution and deployment;
    • Maintain or increase competitiveness in anticipation of, or in response to, market forces like new laws and regulations; and
    • Inform career advancement needs and opportunities.
  • Equity – Take a systematic approach to generating greater opportunity for Californians who have been left out of the mainstream economy, are under-represented in high-wage occupations and industries, and/or face multiple barriers to quality in employment. 
  • Environmental Sustainability – Address issues related to environmental sustainability, particularly climate change, given the serious implications that climate change has for California’s economy and the disproportionate impacts of climate change on low-income communities and communities of color.

Thinking Bigger

Through discussion with our project Advisory Committee, research and learning, Gridworks is embracing this framing and expanding the way that we think about labor standards to recognize that jobs should support individual workers, their communities, and the environment.  Standards are not only about setting expectations for fair labor practices, but also for setting expectations about how jobs are contributing to communities and reducing environmental harm.

It is important for us to recognize that there likely isn’t a set of widely applicable “high road standards” because different industries will have different needs and it’s up to workers, unions, employers, and community members and leaders to define and negotiate their standards. 

That said, the Advisory Committee agrees that the broader clean energy industry needs to support basic standards like safe working conditions and living wages, and benefits like paid time off and health insurance.  The broader industry must also listen and respond to community members and leaders when they share their perspectives on what they need from the jobs they have or want in their communities.  While these practices may be well-established in unionized industries like construction, they are not guaranteed in emerging industries like the electric vehicle battery supply chain or in rapidly growing industries like vehicle operations and maintenance.  

Forging Ahead 

In our working sessions with the Advisory Committee, there was consensus that the intersection of California’s policies and goals must be recognized and embraced to enable our success.  Transportation electrification will be most successful if we simultaneously create quality jobs, improve worker access to those quality jobs, and reduce environmental pollution.  However, as a state and a clean energy industry, we have a lot to learn about how to design, implement, and enforce workforce standards.  The intersectionality of high road standards will require deliberate planning, thoughtful coordination, and inclusive conversations among state agencies, employers, workers, and advocates.  This work will not be fast or easy.

As we move forward with our project, we’ll be asking our Advisory Committee for input and feedback on principles and key concepts for high road workforce standards.  We’re aiming to establish a foundation which may be adapted to meet local needs through more detailed conversations.  Questions we are asking our Advisory Committee include: 

  • Are there any modifications to the California Workforce Development Board’s principles for a high road workforce development agenda that should be made?
  • How to ensure that community needs are heard and addressed in developing standards?  
  • Are there additional considerations that apply to industry-specific jobs in charging infrastructure construction, vehicle manufacturing and assembly, the battery supply chain, and vehicle operations and maintenance?

 If you want to be part of the conversation, please feel free to reach out to us at info@gridworks.org.

*The CPUC defines (see page 79) a disadvantaged worker as an individual that meets at least one of the following criteria: 

  • Lives in a household where total income is 50% of Area Median Income;
  • Is a recipient of public assistance;
  • Lacks a high school diploma or GED;
  • Has previous history of incarceration lasting more than one year or more following a conviction under the criminal justice system;
  • Is a custodial single parent;
  • Is chronically unemployed;
  • Has been aged out or emancipated from the foster care system;
  • Has limited English proficiency; or
  • Lives in a high unemployment ZIP code that is in the top 25% of only the unemployment indicator of the CalEnviroScreen Tool.
Post by Deborah Shields