The Just Transition for Coal Workers Can Start Now. Colorado Is Showing How.

Rachel M. Cohen

Landon Long works on clean up after the coal silo demolition at the Oxbow Mine in Somerset, Colorado, April 29, 2016. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

This past May, Colorado’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic gov­er­nor Jared Polis signed a series of new envi­ron­men­tal bills into law, with the enthu­si­as­tic back­ing of the state’s labor move­ment. Leg­is­la­tion ranged from expand­ing com­mu­ni­ty solar gar­dens to estab­lish­ing a Just Tran­si­tion” office for coal-depen­dent communities.

Orga­nized labor in Col­orado hasn’t always been an ally in the fight against cli­mate change, but begin­ning in 2018, a Demo­c­ra­t­ic mes­sag­ing bill that called for 100 per­cent renew­able ener­gy by 2035 forced local unions to start hav­ing some tough conversations.

Repub­li­cans con­trolled the Sen­ate, so the bill had no chance of pass­ing, but it forced the con­ver­sa­tion on our end as to what do we need to do to get behind these bills in the future, instead of just block­ing them or delay­ing,” explained Den­nis Dougher­ty, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Col­orado AFL-CIO, which rep­re­sents approx­i­mate­ly 165 unions rep­re­sent­ing more than 130,000 work­ers. It was real­ly the first time we asked our­selves, well what’s our game plan?”

In Feb­ru­ary 2018, Col­orado activists launched a state-based affil­i­ate of the Peo­ples Cli­mate Move­ment, a coali­tion of com­mu­ni­ty, faith, youth and envi­ron­men­tal groups focused on pro­mot­ing an equi­table response to cli­mate change. Dougher­ty, who worked for years as a fed­er­al medi­a­tor before join­ing the labor move­ment, soon became co-chair of the Col­orado coali­tion. This was the first time labor has real­ly stepped out in lead­er­ship on cli­mate,” he told In These Times.

What fol­lowed were a series of orga­nized talks between unions and envi­ron­men­tal groups. With resources from its par­ent orga­ni­za­tion, the Peo­ples Cli­mate Move­ment Col­orado even hired a skilled facil­i­ta­tor from the Insti­tute for the Built Envi­ron­ment at Col­orado State Uni­ver­si­ty to help guide its con­ver­sa­tions. The work cul­mi­nat­ed in a Cli­mate, Jobs and Jus­tice Sum­mit last September.

Democ­rats won a major­i­ty of seats in the state Sen­ate after the 2018 midterms, giv­ing them tri­fec­ta con­trol over Col­orado pol­i­tics, and the abil­i­ty to pass many cli­mate-relat­ed bills this year. Those bills includ­ed two pieces of leg­is­la­tion advo­cates hope can serve as a mod­el for cli­mate, jobs and jus­tice orga­niz­ing in oth­er states.

One is HB-1314, which estab­lish­es a Just Tran­si­tion Office in the Col­orado Depart­ment of Labor and Employ­ment. The first-of-its-kind office, which will have both a ded­i­cat­ed staff and an advi­so­ry com­mit­tee of diverse stake­hold­ers, is charged with cre­at­ing a equi­table plan for coal-depen­dent com­mu­ni­ties and work­ers as the state tran­si­tions away from fos­sil fuels. The goal is to mit­i­gate the eco­nom­ic hard­ship that will accom­pa­ny this ener­gy tran­si­tion. A draft plan is due by July 2020, and by 2025, the state will start admin­is­ter­ing ben­e­fits to dis­placed coal work­ers, and pro­vide work­force retrain­ing grants to coal-tran­si­tion­ing com­mu­ni­ties like Pueblo, Larimer, Delta, Mor­gan and others.

As part of the leg­is­la­tion, labor unions suc­cess­ful­ly pushed for lan­guage around wage dif­fer­en­tial ben­e­fits” for those work­ers who end up in jobs that may pay less than the jobs they cur­rent­ly have in the fos­sil fuel indus­try. The Just Tran­si­tion office would pro­vide sup­ple­men­tal income” to cov­er all or part of the dif­fer­ence” between a coal worker’s old job and their new one.

Dougher­ty said they pushed for an office pre­cise­ly because they thought it would be stronger than an advi­so­ry board or a task force. I’m not wor­ried it will be some­thing with­out teeth,” he said. There’s also so much groundswell to keep up pressure.”

The sec­ond bill, SB-236, includes lan­guage to autho­rize the so-called secu­ri­ti­za­tion of coal plants, as a way to has­ten their retire­ment and to bring addi­tion­al funds to coal-depen­dent com­mu­ni­ties. The idea is to allow a util­i­ty com­pa­ny to swap its remain­ing coal plant debt for a ratepay­er-backed bond. Twen­ty oth­er states have bond secu­ri­ti­za­tion laws, and they have been used by gov­ern­ments to close a nuclear plant in Flori­da and a coal plant in Michi­gan. The twist in Col­orado is to use some of the mil­lions of dol­lars in sav­ings from secu­ri­ti­za­tion to rein­vest back in work­ers and vul­ner­a­ble communities.

The bill spon­sor, Demo­c­ra­t­ic State Rep. Chris Hansen, first intro­duced the idea in 2017. While his bill passed the House, it died in the then-GOP-con­trolled Senate.

Labor and envi­ron­men­tal groups sup­port­ed the secu­ri­ti­za­tion bill this year, though Dougher­ty empha­sized that the sav­ings it could gen­er­ate would not be enough on their own to fund the kind of just tran­si­tion they’re look­ing to see. We see it as just one fund­ing mech­a­nism for com­mu­ni­ties and work­ers,” he said. (A sep­a­rate bill also passed this year by Col­orado law­mak­ers enables the state’s pub­lic util­i­ties com­mis­sion to dis­trib­ute some of the secu­ri­ti­za­tion sav­ings to vul­ner­a­ble communities.)

Accord­ing to the Col­orado Min­ing Asso­ci­a­tion, Col­orado is the 11th largest coal-pro­duc­ing state, with six active coal mines, employ­ing a lit­tle over 1,200 mine work­ers. The Nation­al Min­ing Asso­ci­a­tion esti­mates that near­ly 18,000 peo­ple across Col­orado are employed direct­ly by the state’s min­ing industry.

For both the Just Tran­si­tion office and the coal plant secu­ri­ti­za­tion bill, lead­ers say key to pas­sage was a lot of edu­ca­tion, research and tough, hon­est dialogue.

Rep. Hansen, who has a PhD in resource eco­nom­ics and worked in the ener­gy sec­tor before run­ning for office in 2016, said get­ting his bill passed was a mul­ti-year process of stake­hold­er engage­ment. I also real­ly had to edu­cate my own col­leagues about secu­ri­ti­za­tion,” he told In These Times. Some folks in Col­orado thought this was a give­away to the util­i­ties indus­try, but it’s real­ly the oppo­site of a bailout because for the secu­ri­ti­za­tion to work the com­pa­nies have to walk away from sig­nif­i­cant amounts of revenue.”

Rep. Hansen said he’s been try­ing to be hon­est with peo­ple that major eco­nom­ic tran­si­tions are com­ing, and the best thing lead­ers can do is proac­tive­ly plan ahead. There will be dis­lo­ca­tion and dis­rup­tion but the alter­na­tive is to let what we’ve typ­i­cal­ly had hap­pen in this coun­try which is just kind of a free-fall for tran­si­tion­ing com­mu­ni­ties with no real help from gov­ern­ment,” he said. I much rather try and pre­pare then be reac­tive after-the-fact.”

With­in the Just Tran­si­tion office, Dougher­ty said labor unions plan to push for the wage dif­fer­en­tial ben­e­fit to cov­er a tran­si­tion of up to three years. For exam­ple, if some­one was earn­ing $100,000 in a coal-indus­try job, and retrains for anoth­er posi­tion that pays $60,000, labor wants to see the state cov­er that dif­fer­ence for sev­er­al years. 

Dougher­ty said at first unions thought a just tran­si­tion” could mean demand­ing jobs at the same lev­el of pay and ben­e­fits that work­ers are cur­rent­ly earn­ing in per­pe­tu­ity, but after doing research into the issue and assess­ing the polit­i­cal real­i­ties, they mod­i­fied their demands.

We hired some­one to research every just tran­si­tion’ that’s been done across the world,” he explained, adding: We said, okay, well what can we real­is­ti­cal­ly do at the state lev­el that we think is fair while also not com­ing out and demand­ing some­thing that’s nev­er going to happen?” 

I think what hap­pened in Col­orado is real­ly, real­ly impor­tant,” said Paul Get­sos, the nation­al direc­tor of the Peo­ples Cli­mate Move­ment. It’s a real exam­ple of union lead­ers who are real­ly will­ing to edu­cate oth­er union lead­ers about the issues to see how they can move their insti­tu­tions forward.”

Get­sos added that Colorado’s expe­ri­ence reflects how suc­cess­ful leg­isla­tive vic­to­ries are not won overnight. It takes a lot of rela­tion­ship build­ing,” he said. A lot of trust.”

Rachel M. Cohen is a jour­nal­ist based in Wash­ing­ton D.C. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rmc031
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