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Dispatches From the Heartland
The first in an ongoing series of columns from former Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH)
Deploying American-made clean energy technology is not just about reaching our climate goals—it’s about reinvigorating America’s economy, creating more good-paying jobs, and securing a durable competitive edge for American industries. States like Ohio are at the forefront of this transition and hold enormous potential to build a more affordable, reliable, secure, and clean economy. But getting there will take a lot of work, particularly in rebuilding Americans’ trust in our institutions.
In a monthly “Dispatches from the Heartland” column, I will offer an on-the-ground perspective on the opportunities and challenges we face to get this clean energy rollout right—and show how policymakers can keep workers at the center clean energy announcements, programs, and investments. Our mission is to revitalize communities across the Midwest in a way that involves and inspires working-class Americans. Candidly, that hasn’t been a strength of the liberal ecosystem—but it must be if we want to succeed.
In Bruce Springsteen’s song “Youngstown,” he sings not only about our workers’ grit but more importantly their contribution to the greater good: “[T]hey built a blast furnace here along the shore, and they made the cannon balls that helped the Union win the war.” Here in Youngstown, we have always been proud of our contribution to the Union’s victory in the Civil War.
Ohio was also ground zero of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famed Arsenal of Democracy. Glass was made in Toledo, rubber in Akron, and steel in Cleveland, Youngstown, and other towns all along the Ohio River. From 1941 to 1945, approximately 839,000 Ohio men and women went to war to protect democracy, and Ohio’s non-service women worked in the factories ensuring we had the tools to win the war and created future American leadership. We proudly defended freedom in an hour of maximum danger.
After the war, steelworker families in Ohio would watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in downtown New York City on TV. Dads could point to the magnificent skyscrapers in the background and say to their children, “I made the steel that holds those buildings up.” Workers took pride in making America such a marvel to the world.
Back then, workers had a purpose. Their work was tied to a deeper vision and mission—a higher calling—for America. It’s time for us to give our workers a similar vision today.
That’s why I see opportunity when I look at the investments in a clean energy future we’ve made as a country. Not only an opportunity for good paying union jobs for American workers—an opportunity for America to finally re-align our workers with a truly national vision that gives them purpose and meaning. Indeed, workers will prove essential to us all in solving the great problems we face as a society—especially the climate crisis.
The challenges of climate change are real and scary for many, especially younger generations. If we want our clean energy future to really take off, this effort needs to be about much more than just good-paying jobs: workers need to see themselves as the defenders of their children’s futures. Clean energy workers are not just making batteries or assembling electric vehicles. They are building a world that stops climate change in its tracks and paves the way for a safe and secure future for their kids—just like the workers who built the cannon balls to preserve the Union or the planes and tanks that stopped Hitler.
The Inflation Reduction Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the CHIPS and Science Act will transform the American economy. We’re already seeing it in Ohio today, and I’ll talk more about it in future columns. New battery plants will employ thousands of union workers, as will new EV assembly lines. Intel’s new semiconductor fabrication plant outside of Columbus, Ohio will take 7,000 union construction workers years to build and create thousands of jobs that pay $135,000 a year. Workers are beginning to see the new economy emerge right here in Ohio.
But if we want the political coalition and support to continue this progress, then workers must see themselves as part of the bigger picture and instrumental to a larger national purpose. They need to see their union jobs as more than just a paycheck or economic security. At the very heart and core, they need to see their work as an expression of their love for their children and a deep commitment to their future. We will know we have succeeded when workers in Ohio are driving with their children, listening to their favorite Springsteen song, and can point out the window and say, “You see all these electric vehicles? I built those for you.”
That’s when we’ll know the clean energy future is here to stay.
Tim Ryan is a Senior Visiting Fellow at Third Way and formerly represented Ohio’s 13th Congressional district in the United States House of Representatives.