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

noun

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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