What a Just Transition Would Actually Mean for Workers

If there can be a Superfund for toxic dirt, there should be one for workers.

In These Times Editors

Illustration by Terry LaBan

just tran•si•tion


1. A framework to address the livelihoods and needs of the workers and communities most impacted by the switch to renewable energy

We want [a plan to] mobilize the economy in a way that transitions us off of fossil fuels in 11 years, but also protects every single worker [and] their ability to have a job and healthcare.” —Nicole Karsch, Sunrise Movement Organizer

Where does this idea come from? 

The superficial conflict between saving the planet and saving the economy has long dogged environmentalists, but the way out,” according to U.S. labor leader Tony Mazzocchi back in 1993, is to make provision for the workers who lose their jobs in the wake of the country’s drastically needed environmental cleanup.” Mazzocchi, once vice president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (later absorbed into the United Steelworkers), was responding to chemical plant closures and then-new Superfund environmental cleanup programs. If there can be a Superfund for toxic dirt, the thinking went, there should be one for workers. That vision of labor and environmentalists working together is at the center of a just transition.” 

Is a just transition part of the Green New Deal? 

It should be! While Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s landmark 2019 resolution included such measures as a federal jobs guarantee, it did not specifically address fossil-fuel workers, leaving it open to criticism by union leaders. Bernie Sanders’ version, released later that year, included up to five years of income replacement and free education for displaced workers. Climate groups, including the Sunrise Movement, also advocate income guarantees. These provisions, modeled after the GI Bill, are an important step toward winning support from labor. 

Given how 2020 has gone so far, what are the odds we’ll get anywhere near this? 

It may not surprise you that, for all his talk about coal country, President Donald Trump has not weighed in on what a just transition would look like. The new Joe Biden climate plan, more aggressive than his primary platform, at least leaves the conversation open with the potential to create millions of new climate jobs. States, too, can take action. Colorado passed a groundbreaking just transition law in 2019 that guarantees benefits and grants for former coal workers and coal-dependent communities. It’s hard to imagine replicating this victory given state budgets during the pandemic, but the pandemic also emphasizes the importance of a just transition — as oil demand plummets and thousands of refinery workers may face imminent layoffs nationwide. The transition is happening regardless. The question is whether workers and communities will be left behind.

This is part of The Big Idea,” a monthly series offering brief introductions to progressive theories, policies, tools and strategies that can help us envision a world beyond capitalism. For recent In These Times coverage of a Just Transition in action, see, The Just Transition for Coal Workers Can Start Now. Colorado Is Showing How,” Climate Activists Can’t Afford to Ignore Labor. A Shuttered Refinery in Philly Shows Why” and This Crisis Can Be a Gateway to Climate Action. These Activists Are Showing How.”

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