Just Transition: Just What Does It Mean for Labor and Energy?

Sculptor Lenore Thomas created a series of bas relief panels depicting the preamble of the Constitution on the original Greenbelt Center School in Maryland the 1930s. Each one reflects the era’s social and economic concerns.

The nation’s momentum-gaining move from dirty coal to solar, wind and other renewable energy sources is a boon for clean air and clean water.

But how does this shift bode for the coal miners and the operators of coal-fired power plants? Understandably, many workers are scared because they view it as a disruption that puts them on a speedy path to the dustbin.

Panic about that less-than-appealing destiny prompted them to reject Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate who promised training and help with rebuilding moribund economies. Instead, they gravitated to false messages about President Barack Obama’s supposed “War on Coal.” They voted for Republican Donald Trump partly because he vowed to restore their jobs, although he didn’t seem to know or care that coal actually was being muscled aside by the glut of low-priced natural gas harvested, ironically, via hydraulic fracturing during the Obama administration.

What happens now? The jury is still out on how the Trump administration might change the situation for coal-dependent regions such as Appalachia and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana.

In the meantime, there are murmurs of hope for these workers and their communities from an under-the-radar cause with the catchphrase “Just Transition.”

It’s an idea with roots in labor unions that has since caught on with civic leaders, the environmental justice groups and average citizens who want their communities healthier and more whole for the long run. It doesn’t promise to be the solution, but it can be part of it.

Just Transition was the brainchild of Tony Mazzocchi, a World War II veteran who attended college on the GI bill and in the 1970s encouraged trade unions to support the ban-the-bomb peace movement. As a leader of the union for oil, chemical and atomic workers, he suggested that GI bill-like support become available for atomic workers down-sized due to disarmament.

Mazzocchi revived that thought in the early 1990s after scientists more publicly and clearly linked climate change with the burning of fossil fuels by humans. He proposed a “Superfund” for energy workers, borrowing language from the relatively new federal dollars earmarked for toxic cleanups.

“There is a Superfund for dirt. There ought to be one for workers,” he said in 1993, explaining why workers displaced by environmental protection policies ought to have access to money and college opportunities “to make a new start in life.”

“Paying people to make the transition from one kind of economy, from one kind of job, to another is not welfare,” he noted.

Mazzocchi’s Superfund for workers morphed into Just Transition when environmental organizations complained that the former name carried too many negative connotations.

After the Just Transition Alliance was formed in 1997, the key principle of equity—that society as a whole, not just displaced workers, should bear the costs of environmental protection—spread across labor unions in the United States and abroad.

But gaining traction over the last two decades has been tough because the U.S. working class feels left behind with limited options.

It’s understandable that AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka has dismissed Just Transition as “an invitation to a fancy funeral” and Cecil Roberts of the United Mine Workers doubts the concept of Just Transition because he’s “never seen one.”

But believers exist from New York to Oregon, and places in between. And they’re not just talking, they’re doing.

Using Mazzocchi’s original language as a guiding light and tweaking it as necessary, they are helping laid-off energy workers and teetering communities reinvent themselves.

One of the reasons for Renewal News to exist at all is to tell readers those stories via on-the-ground reporting.

For instance, commercial fisherman Brendan Smith has launched GreenWave, a project that trains diligent newcomers or old salts in climate-friendly ocean farming with a focus on seaweed and shellfish.

Listen to his enthusiasm for weaving Just Transition guideposts into his venture.

“You can’t have a Just Transition that just cares about coal miners or just cares about poor people of color in Detroit,” Smith said. “You have to address work for both … for both political and moral reasons.”

Smith and others have found that shifting jobs from one set of workers to another only leads to more tension, angst and finger-pointing.

“The beautiful thing about Just Transition,” he concluded, is that “it allows us to get the morality, politics and economics right.”

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth H. McGowan is a Washington, D.C.-based, award-winning energy and environment reporter. As a staff writer for InsideClimate News, her groundbreaking dispatches from Kalamazoo, Mich., “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. An e-book version of the narrative won the Rachel Carson Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists. Elizabeth, who started her career at daily newspapers in Vermont and Wisconsin, has served as a Washington correspondent for Crain Communications, Penton Media, and most recently, Energy Intelligence. Her freelance news reports and features have also appeared in E/The Environmental Magazine; Washingtonian magazine; Intelligent Utility magazine; Outdoor America (magazine of the Izaak Walton League); the journal Appalachia; Capital Community News; the Gulf of Maine Times; Mizzou, the alumni magazine for the University of Missouri; Lore, the magazine of the Milwaukee Public Museum; and Nature Conservancy magazine Elizabeth’s latest reporting venture is Renewal News, a start-up that explores the intersection of nature, labor and energy. The idea is to tell stories about how U.S. communities are evolving as climate change forces all sectors to re-examine their relationship with a fossil-fuel dominant economy.

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