The Roots and Shoots of Just Transition

JustTransition-610x390From 1974-1991 I worked on assembly lines at General Electric Appliance Park in Louisville, Kentucky. I hired in right at the end of the post WWII economic boom. In 1974 there were over 24,000 people working at Appliance Park. By 1991 that number had shrunk to about 6,000. Like many at the low end of the seniority list, I had a wild ride in and out of GE due to business cycle boom and bust, robots, outsourcing, and production shifts from one GE factory to another.

The last time I was called back from a layoff, I worked on a refrigerator compressor line, testing for leaks before they filled the system with Freon. This was in the late 1980s while the Montreal Protocol to Protect the Ozone Layer was being negotiated. Of course, Freon, an efficient and safe-to-handle refrigerant, was also the most prominent ozone-depleting chemical. It was disorienting to know this and to experience the nearly total silence on the issue at work. Once it was clear that Freon had to be replaced, GE claimed it had to redesign certain components and retool some of the manufacturing process. The company challenged the union to meet or beat what it would cost to make those parts somewhere else. The union kept the work but with a plan that used fewer workers. By that time, I had moved on to the washer/dryer building, been laid off yet again, moved back to Massachusetts where I grew up, and gone back to school.

I began studying the changing nature of work and asking: How can we have decent livelihoods without destroying our own habitat? People say the word “sustainability” is too vague and overused; but after my long, strange – often lonely and frightening – trip through the global economy, I was elated to learn about sustainability because it meant there were people out there asking the same questions. I felt the same way when I heard about Just Transition while researching an article in 1999 for the progressive economics magazine Dollars & Sense about the relationship between the labor and environmental movements. The roots of Just Transition were in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW), the same union that represented Anacortes refinery workers then, before merging with the Paperworkers union which later merged with the United Steelworkers.

What would a Just Transition look like? A Superfund for workers? A GI Bill for workers? That’s how the late Tony Mazzocchi, the visionary OCAW leader described it in the 1990s. Members of OCAW and its successor unions work in some of the most dangerous and environmentally damaging situations. (Thirteen people have died in explosions at Anacortes refineries, seven at Tesoro in 2010 and six at what is now Shell, in 1998.) Mazzocchi understood that to protect workers, nearby communities and the Earth itself, these toxic workplaces needed to change and in some cases close altogether. He also understood that such profound changes would put workers’ livelihoods in jeopardy and drive a wedge between labor and environmental activists who were fighting the same predatory corporate system.

Mazzocchi devised, and OCAW endorsed and promoted, the program that came to be known as Just Transition. Funding, as he saw it, would come from a surcharge on toxic substances and a tax on international financial transactions. The fund would maintain wages and benefits for workers until they could find new jobs with comparable compensation; and would pay for education and training as well as relocation expenses for those who chose to move. After OCAW merged with the Paperworkers union in the late 1990s and Mazzocchi died of cancer in 2002, Just Transition lost its main champions in the labor movement.

But Just Transition was always meant to include communities that were polluted and exploited by toxic industries; and it was those communities who kept the idea alive. The Our Power Campaign – Communities United for a Just Transition is an alliance formed to hold polluting companies responsible for the damage they have done; to close and clean up toxic facilities; and to regenerate local economies with renewable energy and healthy and sustainable enterprise. The Just Transition Initiative is a central organizing principal of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, one of the founding communities of the Our Power Campaign. Black Mesa, based in the Navajo Nation, has several goals: that Peabody Energy close and clean up two coal mines on land sacred to the Navajo People; to close nearby coal-fired power plants that pollute the Navajo reservation and replace them with solar energy; and to develop a healthy and sustainable local living economy. Now that Peabody has filed for bankruptcy, Black Mesa and others impacted by Peabody operations are demanding that the bankruptcy court create a Just Transition Fund to protect workers and communities. (There’s a petition to the court you can sign at the end of this article “Why Peabody’s Bankruptcy Requires a Just Transition” by Jenny Marienau, US Divestment Campaign Manager for

Richmond, California, another Our Power Campaign community, is fighting to prevent the infamous Chevron refinery from handling tar sands and other dirty domestic forms of crude oil. There have been numerous fires and explosions a this refinery that injured workers and sickened nearby residents with noxious fumes, Led by the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) and Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), Richmond is “working to create a new, clean, green, democratic and equitable economy.” Richmond, whose residents are predominantly people of color, was from 2007-2015 the largest US city with a Green Party Mayor. She is now back on the City Council after reaching term limits as Mayor.

Our Power emerged from the Climate Justice Alliance (CJA) of frontline communities and allies united for a Just Transition away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable local economies. CJA partners with and other other organizations to promote the “Divest-Reinvest in a Just Transition Iniitative” to use funds divested from fossil fuel companies for investment in healthy democratically-controlled local economies.

With growing awareness of the climate crisis and its far-reaching impacts, the labor movement is again calling for a Just Transition to ensure that workers will have a voice in shaping the changes necessary to move away from fossil fuels. The Blue Green Alliance of labor and environmental organizations (in which the United Steelworkers union plays a major role) reviewed efforts by the international labor movement to include a Just Transition for workers in global climate agreements. Languiage calling for a Just Transition was included in the Preamble to the December 2015 Paris agreement. Also in December 2015, US Senator Bernie Sanders introduced, and Senators Jeff Merkley and Edward Markey co-sponsored, the “Clean Energy Worker Just Transition Act” to assist workers in fossil fuel industries during the transition to a clean energy economy.

One of the goals of the Labor Network For Sustainability, founded In 2009, is to change the narrative from “jobs vs the environment” to ”a Just Transition for workers.” LNS educates workers and environmentalists about each others’ concerns and challenges. In an arfticle describing Break Free, labor historian and LNS Co-Founder Jeremy Brecher drew on recent court cases demanding that the government protect the right to a stable healthy climate as a public trust, and on cases that defended civil disobedience as necessary to prevent great harm from climate change. “Break Free From Fossil Fuels participants will define themselves to the movement, the public and the courts not as criminals but as law-enforcers trying to enforce legal rights and halt governments and corporations from committing the greatest crime in human history.”

It’s only fitting, as Just Transition becomes a key goal of the movement for climate justice, that Tony Mazzocchi be remembered. Last fall in an article headlined “Tony Mazzocchi Lives: Blue-Green Organizer Takes Up ‘Just Transition’ Mantle,” Counterpunch interviewed Alex Lotorto, an anti-fracking activist in the shale gas region ofPennsylvania who is also a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. Lotorto understands clearly that Just Transition isn’t only about going from dirty to clean energy, but that it’s about creating and sustaining healthy economies in which workers and their communities can thrive. Lotorto envisions a Just Transition that would offer jobs based on the needs and resources of the region, for example, in recycling facilities, farming and food processing, sustainable forestry, and clean-technology-based manufacturing, as well as renewable energy.

Bringing it all back home: In the wake of Shell No actions in the Pacific NW, Labor Notes wanted to know “How Do We ‘Change Everything’ without Pitting Workers against the Planet?” In an article framed in the context of Tony Mazzocchi’s proposal for a Just Transition, the author interviewed Steve Garey who, before he retired, was President of Steelworkers Local 12-591 and worked at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes. Garey put it bluntly: “You’re either at the table or you’re on the menu.” Workers, he believes, should have a voice in shaping change. He sees a conversation that starts with “’What’s in it for me?’’ “’What’s harmful for me?’” Then he says, “’…at some point I think you have to get beyond the ‘me’ part, beyond the end of your own nose, and consider what’s the greatest good for the greatest number of working people.” Mazzocchi formulated a sophisticated and visionary solution to the the question posed by Labor Notes and a pathway for getting past our own noses to the greatest good, but as this quote from the article shows, he could also be blunt: “’There’s a Superfund for dirt,’ Mazzocchi used to say. ‘There ought to be one for workers.’”

By Laurie Dougherty, 350 Salem OR.