Will Workers Be Left Behind in a Green Transition?


As Congress gears up to craft much-needed legislation to protect the earth from global warming, many American workers are wondering what it will mean for their jobs. They may be wondering even more if they hear about the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s proposal for carbon regulation legislation, The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, released March 31. It is 648 pages long. But Section 424 on "Worker Transition" has only three words: "to be supplied."

 

Unfortunately, "transition assistance" in the past has often meant little more than a funeral for workers and communities threatened by the side effects of globalization, environmental protection and other public policies. Without a clear program to protect workers from the effects of climate protection, the struggle against global warming can all too easily come to be perceived as a struggle against American workers. Workers have often felt threatened by measures to protect the environment. Today such fears are likely to be augmented, especially in a time of soaring unemployment, by the large changes necessary to protect the planet from global warming.

 

Environmentalists have often addressed this challenge by pointing out that a transition to clean energy would create far more jobs than it would eliminate. While that may be true, it entirely misses the point. The fact that some people get new jobs provides little solace for the people and communities who have lost theirs.

 

As Carl Wood of the Utility Workers Union of America put it at this year’s Good Jobs, Green Jobs national conference, "Workers are used to being ground up and spat out by any change in society. In the United States there is no safety net for the victims." He cited mechanics in a southeastern Ohio coal-fired power plant represented by his union whose jobs would be eliminated by the phasing out of coal as a very real example of how climate protection could threaten specific workers even if it produced more jobs in general.

 

Coal miners and their communities are particularly at risk. In a September 2008 op-ed, United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts cited a study showing that the Climate Stewardship Act of 2003 would have reduced coal production by 78 percent by 2025, which would have "just about wiped out the coal industry in southern West Virginia and elsewhere in Appalachia." He added that the more recent Lieberman-McCain bill would have cut Appalachian coal production by 30 percent or more.

 

The current campaign to reduce the use of coal could easily become a poster child for the threat posed to workers by climate protection. But for that very reason it also provides an opportunity for climate protection advocates to paint a picture of themselves as the advocates and protectors of miners, railroad workers, utility workers and others whose jobs and communities may be threatened by climate protection measures.

 

Replacing "to be supplied"

 

Perhaps surprisingly, some of the best ideas for protecting workers and communities hit by the side effects of public policy decisions were embodied in legislation championed a few years ago by Republican Senator John McCain to protect tobacco workers from the effort to reduce tobacco consumption.

 

McCain’s 1997 Universal Tobacco Settlement Act passed out of committee nineteen-to-one but was defeated on the Senate floor. Workers and farmers would have received transition assistance from the fund if "the implementation of the national tobacco settlement contributed importantly to such workers’ separation" from their jobs. Looking ahead to the next generation, the bill also provided education benefits to members of a "tobacco farm family."

 

A similar program should be developed for workers who lose their jobs because of climate protection policies.

 

Rick Wagoner got a cool $23 million for running GM into the ground. Coal miners, railroad workers, coal-fired generator workers and others displaced by climate protection policies don’t expect anything like that. But they should be able to count on a program like the one McCain championed for tobacco workers. And those for whom the program doesn’t work should at least be guaranteed decent pensions with healthcare.

 

Perhaps even more important, the McCain bill provided not just for individuals but for hard-hit communities. It included a $28 billion industry-funded Tobacco Community Revitalization Trust Fund to provide economic development grants over a twenty-five year period to create jobs and business opportunities for former tobacco workers.

 

The same thing could be done now to jump-start the transition from coal and other carbon-intensive industries. The stimulus package includes an estimated $80 billion for programs that could create green jobs. A portion of these funds can be used to make eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and the rest of the Appalachian coalfield a model of job-positive transition from coal to renewable energy and conservation. Green jobs can be targeted at the communities that will be affected by coal production to create local jobs that will provide an alternative source of employment. The statewide network Kentuckians For The Commonwealth has spelled out some of the clean energy solutions; read the details here.

 

A green TVA for the green New Deal

 

But climate protection legislation should go further. During the Great Depression a regional economic development program, the Tennessee Valley Authority, transformed one of America‘s poorest regions by means of massive energy development. Seventy-five years later, the TVA has lost much of its original vision and become a target of environmental protests. But the principle of regional economic development through investment in a new energy source can be applied to the Appalachian coalfields today.

 

A small-scale version of such a post-coal economic development program is poised to begin in the Southwest. The closing of a highly polluting generating station has provided the owner, Southern California Edison, with an estimated $30 million annually in pollution allowances, which can be sold under the US Acid Rain Program. The Just Transition Coalition, composed primarily of Hopi, Navajo and environmentalist allies, developed a plan to use the funds for a transition to renewable energy.

 

The Just Transition plan would direct 30 percent of the pollution credits to local villages to invest in solar, wind and ecotourism; 10 percent to job retraining; 40 percent to alternative energy development and production; and 20 percent to tribal government programs previously supported by coal royalties.

 

Southern California Edison is regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, which has taken the groundbreaking step of ordering that proceeds from pollution allowance sales be put into a special account. It then requested proposals from the Just Transition Coalition for how the funds should be spent.

 

The Hunter Region in Australia is also being proposed as a model for a transition from coal to renewable energy. The Greenpeace-funded study, "A Just Transition to a Renewable Energy Economy in the Hunter Region, Australia," details two scenarios for a renewable energy future.

 

Greenpeace and other environmental organizations have made "just transition" a central part of their program for transforming the region. According to a Greenpeace publication on Hunter:

 

A just transition from coal to renewables requires that the federal government support and protect coal industry workers as coal-fired power stations are phased out. Government support should include providing investment in new industries and infrastructure, guaranteeing jobs and retraining workers so that they can find employment in new green industries. With the right government action, an energy revolution can provide a way forward for coal communities.

 

An imaginative program for a transition from coal to green energy might win surprisingly wide support. In September three-quarters of Kentuckians said they would support a five-year moratorium on coal-fired power plants, and 43 percent backed expanding investment in clean renewable energy.

 

It is a basic principle of fairness that the burden of policies that are necessary for society–like protecting the earth’s climate–shouldn’t be borne by a small minority who happen to be victimized by their side effects. Unless workers and communities are protected against the unintended effects of climate protection, there is likely to be a backlash that threatens the whole effort to save the planet.

 

Joe Uehlein is the former secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department and former director of the AFL-CIO Center for Strategic Campaigns; he is a founder and board member of Ceres and a member of the National Advisory Board of the Union of Concerned Scientists. He is now organizing the Labor Network for Sustainability dedicated to rallying trade unionists for economic, social and environmental sustainability.

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