“Just” Transitions Are Possible, But They Require State Investment

In spite of overt efforts by some energy executives to convince consumers otherwise, the global economy is already in the throes of a transition away from the drilling, refining and burning of fossil fuels. For certain communities — such as the estimated one-quarter of counties in the U.S. with the greatest potential for wind and solar that are existing fossil fuel employment hubs — a reasonably smooth economic transition to a fossil-free economy may be well within reach.

But for many workers, the idea that an “energy transition” is upon us still sounds the alarm. The “zero emissions” of climate policy proposals bring with it the electrification of everything: ditching combustion engines for electric ones in cars, trucks and busses; and equipping houses with heat pumps to replace natural gas furnaces, for instance. And while an aggressive commitment to electrifying all aspects of the economy could create an estimated 25 million jobs in the U.S. by some estimates, it’s a process often understood as “automation,” the repercussions of which those working in industry are no stranger. In the past, automation in workplaces from oil rigs to rubber plants has meant layoffs, school and municipal budget deficits, and in many cases, the devastation of entire towns.

A new report released today by the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) details how working people in the United States have been abandoned by their employers and their elected officials during countless prior economic transitions, and suggests that failing to learn from past catastrophes in the shift away from fossil fuels could lead to significant further social unrest.

We have rarely done a good job of supporting workers and their communities through these transitions,” Michael Leon Guerrero, executive director of LNS, said in a statement. “If we are to move forward on the climate policies we need — we have to assure to the greatest extent possible that workers and their communities will not get left hanging.”

The report, called the Just Transition Listening Project, draws on qualitative data from 100 “listening sessions” with union and non-union manufacturing and industrial workers, including those in the fossil fuel industry, but also public sector workers, educators and other community members living in areas that have already experienced or anticipate some form of economic transition, like a factory sent overseas or the decommissioning of a power plant.

The research is the most comprehensive to date to gauge U.S. labor and community sentiment around the current energy transition, and offers labor, activist and broader community perspectives on how hyper-local challenges and community-envisioned solutions might be balanced with and supported by federal funds and a big picture policy blueprint.

In addition to labor groups, participants include members of environmental justice and other community organizations and span the U.S. geographically, though the West Coast is slightly overrepresented and the South underrepresented. Across each of these groups, 63 percent of participants identified as white, 19 percent as Latinx, 10 percent as Black and 5 percent as Indigenous. The co-authors identify the underrepresentation of Black participants as a “major weakness” in their data and encourage more research centering the experiences of Black workers and communities.

At its core, the report recognizes that current conversations about our energy transition are still rife with misconceptions. “The idea of the working class that we conjure up is the big burly white guy with a hard hat on who’s whistling at you when you’re 25,” one participant told the researchers. But the identities and commitments of those impacted by the transition from fossil fuels to renewables are much more complex. “To have a just transition in this country, to have it after we come out of the pandemic, to have it when we get off of fossil fuels, people who do all that work, caring for children, teaching children, caring for sick people, delivering food” — many who are women of color, the same participant noted — “those people need to be paid a living wage.”

To bring about a truly “just transition,” the report suggests, policy makers must consider innovating in ways that reach far beyond offering a 60-year-old refinery worker a spot in a coding bootcamp when his most pressing concern might be doing whatever it takes to stay on the job so he can keep his health insurance, for instance.

On the contrary, our responses must consider immediate and long-term needs, be holistic, ambitious and participatory.

Preventing Collapse

For over half a century, the General Motors (GM) plant in Lordstown, Ohio — where some listening project participants live or were born — served as the economic pulse of the region. That meant a steady demand for steel from factories in the neighboring Youngstown-Warren area, where mills employed tens of thousands of locals manufacturing materials for nearby assembly, electric and stamping plants.

But in September 1977, on what’s known in the area as “Black Monday,” GM announced that the district’s largest mills would close for good. Two years later, another wave of closures cost the community tens of thousands of additional jobs, and the cascade continued. The last of the plants closed in 2018, leaving 1,600 additional community members out of work, after GM discontinued production of the Chevrolet Cruze. Youngstown’s population plummeted from over 150,000 mid-20th century to just over 65,000 in 2017, Belt Magazine reports.

California State University professor and co-author of the LNS report, Vivian Price, told Truthout the Lordstown collapse and others like it should remain at the forefront of policy makers’ minds. “The thing that touched me was how the closure of the plant wasn’t just the end of the paycheck, it meant the breakup of a community, the breakup of families. Many people [took] the offer of relocation to different places.”

Nearby Youngstown — the closest largest city to Lordstown — is now the poorest city in Ohio, a 2020 analysis by Cleveland.com found. And what happened in the region is the kind of collapse that could follow in oil and mining towns now experiencing job loss. Eight thousand mine workers, the majority employed by oil and gas, were among the latest to lose jobs in February, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. And in the coming years, given the imperfect geographic overlap between towns supported by extractive economies and sites optimal for utility-scale renewable energy projects, communities are likely to face some degree of breakup, as workers leave home for new opportunities.

In Lordstown, the dislocation was traumatic. “I think that’s where a lot of our suicides came from,” a respondent told LNS researchers. Auto plant closures have been linked to increased opioid overdose, according to a study in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. “People just weren’t prepared for that move, that life … they got there, and it was all wrong,” the participant said.

In addition to the creation of “rapid response teams” in every state to address job displacement, like one Massachusetts program the co-authors feature, the report’s recommendations include support for what’s known as the PRO Act, a set of proposed changes to U.S. labor law that would protect the right to organize for all workers, including those currently classified as contractors. The proposed legislation, which is currently before Congress, could aid in preventing the unwinding of communities like what happened in Lordstown, by ensuring that jobs outside of industries in decline — including those that have yet to be dreamed up — might bring with them a similar kind of camaraderie, security, benefits and compensation as coveted union gigs. “We need more good jobs so that everyone can benefit,” Price said.

The PRO Act might also level the playing field for workers given that racial divisions and injustice often exists along union lines. Fracking companies tend to employ more workers of color than other segments of the fossil fuel industry, Price points out, and they also tend to be non-union, which means less pay. “If we don’t think about the margins, the fringes, the non-unionized areas of the fossil fuel industry, then we’re discounting the lives of immigrant workers and Black workers as well as Indigenous workers,” Price said.

More broadly, the legislation might open up the renewable energy industries — now largely non-union — to organizing. “The green sector is like any other new sector … they want to pay as low as they can,” executive director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council, Brad Markell, recently told The Washington Post. “But that just can’t be the way this green economy thing is going to go down.”

Seats at the Table

In spite of the community’s trauma, workers in Lordstown, Ohio, have formed a successful just transition program, as Price and her co-authors highlight in the report.

When GM announced it would shutter its last car assembly plant in 2019, union leadership stepped in. The local United Auto Workers chapter, in collaboration with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), together applied for a grant through the U.S. Department of Labor to establish a “transition center.”

The program they funded was holistic, and the union members in charge were in close touch with workers’ and their families’ needs. The center itself is staffed by laid-off union members, where counseling, job application support, transportation assistance, child care and access to funding for retraining programs — mostly in nursing and HVAC — are available in an old union center that serves as a community hub.

“We pushed for it and we got it,” one worker said of the program. “It wasn’t just government like, ‘Let’s put this thing in there.’”

The report points to six additional exemplary, though imperfect, community-led just transition programs, including a decades-long partnership between a United Steelworkers local and a strategic policy center to organize an electric bus manufacturing plant in Los Angeles County; a BIPOC-led effort to charge polluters to fund reinvestment projects in Washington State; and a six-year employee protection program for out-of-work loggers that included hiring Indigenous workers to restore damaged ecosystems, according to the LNS report. The programs are all led by locals and draw from state and federal funds. While the Washington State project was ultimately voted down, it resulted in the formation of what may be the broadest existing coalition in the U.S. dedicated to a clean-energy future.

The solutions that workers want — which range from wage replacement subsidy programs ensuring that earnings in new jobs match paychecks from prior positions, to more systematic transformations like decoupling health insurance from employment and a federal jobs guarantee — must be part of a national strategy that weaves local initiatives into a more inclusive economy.

“Such a strategy is urgent because the anxiety and anger of workers and communities impacted by unjust transitions is ripe for appropriation by exactly the people who caused the injustices to which they respond,” Price and her co-authors write.