Our old pal, labor leader Jonathan Tasini penned a voluminous, in-depth study on climate change, Just Transition, a high bar standard for the just transition of workers whose lives will be upended in the process of decarbonization of the economy. At its core, his study really is a bigger debate about "the corrosive nature of capitalism, which," he wrote to me, "at the end of the day, is what workers are constantly fighting-- workers being screwed by the system is hardly a new innovation; it is simply that this debate is more consequential because of the survival of the planet." He looked at this as a great opportunity to challenge the fundamental principles of the economy.
He wrote that Just Transition is a core principle of forward-looking climate change efforts to advance the decarbonization of the global economy while "demanding that, hand-in-hand with the shuttering of the fossil fuel-based economy, a structured policy agenda ensures that workers who lose jobs or incomes because of the shift away from fossil fuels are economically supported, with expansive aid also flowing into the communities whose economic health was entirely or substantially dependent directly on fossil fuel industries or the industries supporting fossil fuel production."
Tasini set forth the general principles for what he calls a "high bar" for Just Transition using the Biden Administration’s transition plans as an entry point to assess the current state of the debate in the U.S. Below is his introduction to an important paper i urge you to read in full.
[I]t is possible, even in the infancy of the Biden Ad- ministration, to juxtapose, on the one hand, the clear outlines of actions candidate Joe Biden promised, and some initial policy commitments since President Biden was sworn into office; versus, on the other hand, the significant long-standing policy and ideological barriers that, if not removed, pose major challenges to any Just Transition, let alone a “high bar” approach. It is also already possible to discern whether there is any indication the new Administration either intends to dismantle those barriers, or understands that barriers even exist.
This paper examines the underlying challenges to a “high bar” Just Transition in the U.S. that arise from three factors:
Past Just Transition efforts have failed because of a lack of money to underpin rhetorical policy commitments;
A “high bar” Just Transition cannot succeed as long as the country is in the grips of an ideological framework that assumes that when wrenching economic changes take place, it is natural that workers will suffer be- cause that is the way the free market has always operated;
A “high bar” Just Transition is not possible without re- making the economic foundations of the country and fixing long-standing, significant economic structural deficits.
In its simplest articulation, the author considers a “high bar” concept ensuring all workers effected by decarbonization be made whole in their incomes and benefits, and for communities to be robustly financed to make up fully for any decline in economic benefits fossil fuel-related activities contributed. To date, there is no “high bar” standard expressed in any significant proposal with real dollars attached to myriad promises, either by the Biden Administration, or other U.S. governmental or non-governmental organizations. Even the most ambitious Green New Deal plan proposed by Senator Bernie Sanders caps Just Transition wage support at five years. Public Citizen, which describes itself as a “non-profit consumer advocacy organization that champions the public interest in the halls of power,” lays out a Just Transition proposal that does not go beyond general statements, calling for funding for local communities and a very modest “Guaranteed income and benefits for at least three years-- preferably five years-- for all affected workers.”
There is no doubt there will be a transition away from fossil fuels. That debate is over. The economics of transition, powered by market decisions (the decline of the price of coal because of pressure from the competitive price of natural gas, for example), and the politics around climate change are already driving a transition.
The question this paper examines is what is the meaning of “Just” within a decarbonization transition? Because that one word-- “Just”-- embodies the crux of a wide variety of philosophical postures that translate into differences over the scale and cost of a transition and, in human terms, what workers’ lives and their communities look like at the tail end of a process that will take place over the next several decades.
In fact, the framework of Just Transition is far from settled in the U.S. or in other countries where the concept is either being debated or has not advanced to an implementation stage. Generally speaking, most Just Transition agendas are bursting with flowery language and well-meaning philosophy, but it is hard to find a single Just Transition plan that does not come up short when turning from rhetorical promises to concrete, measurable guarantees that are attached to a commitment of money for workers and their communities. To date, “high bar” standards for Just Transition are rare-- and those with specific committed dollar figures attached are even rarer.
This paper will argue that the reasons for the under-financing of Just Transition efforts span a wide spectrum, including the failure of climate change advocates to comprehend the challenges workers face-- especially older workers-- when they are forced to enter into the current perilous job market, as well as stiff resistance from the array of interests who, explicitly or implicitly, do not want to consider a “high bar” standard because of general ideological opposition rooted in a refusal to embrace shared sacrifice-- including higher taxes-- as a core value needed to save the planet.
In the United States, the almost-impenetrable barriers to Just Transition, or even understanding what those barriers are, exist because any story told about the failure of the economic system always fails to paint the full landscape and the linkages that make permanent, effective solutions elusive: fundamentally, the debate over climate change and Just Transition is a struggle for power and coming to grips with who wields economic power in the United States, and how the exercising of that power has imposed long-standing, corrosive power relationships between corporations and workers. We cannot compartmentalize this debate by trying to create a Just Transition process that ignores the harsh components of the American economic system built on low wages, gross inequality, excessive executive compensation and a culture of greed among a tiny sliver of the elites.
Economic transitions are not new. This is not the first time workers have faced the gauntlet of deprivation and destitution brought on by rules fashioned by policy makers at the behest of powerful economic interests who use the sweat and blood of workers, then cast off those workers and communities perceived to be no longer useful, leaving regular people to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives with a pittance left in their pockets. In fact, workers have essentially underwritten transitions and subsidized corporate or national policy decisions out of their own pockets through lost incomes, displacement and bleak futures.
This abuse has a long history stretching back to the Robber Barons of the 19th century, through to the coal and steel titans of the early 20th century and, now, continuing into the 21st century at the hands of those corporate owners who are steering the rapidly expanding world of technology.
What is the common thread connecting three centuries of exploitation? A job, whether a type that has existed for decades (for example, a coal miner) or a relatively new job (for example, installing solar panels) is not inherently a “good” job or “bad” job for a worker. Not too long ago, in the early part of the 20th century, the industrial jobs people bemoan are vanishing today and wax romantically about-- in auto, steel, and other heavy manufacturing-- were miserable, low-paying, dangerous jobs that would by contrast, make today’s low-paying Wal-Mart jobs seem relatively benign.
What changed in the early 20th century was unionization: unions turned low-paying industrial jobs into middle-class, relatively safe jobs. That was even more true for non-white workers, especially for African Americans who belong to unions at a higher rate proportionate to their workforce representation. Moreover, African Americans have high rates of participation in industries that will be significantly affected by decarbonization efforts, including utilities, coal, petroleum, and transportation.
Today, any job-- even one at Wal-Mart-- could be a great job, if unions were widespread. Modern janitorial jobs in New York City, for example, were dangerous and low-paid occupations until the Service Employees International Union organized tens of thousands of janitors, turning the jobs into solidly-paid jobs and, not insignificantly, transforming those united workers into a powerful political force. The data is clear: the decline of unionization-- and, therefore, the decline of collective bargaining-- has been a major factor in the undermining of wages throughout the economy, and, thus, the weakening of middle-class living standards.
That must be part of the calculation of Just Transition: it is inconceivable to speak seriously about a “high bar” Just Transition or even a middle-of-the-road solution, if broad, deep unionization is not part of the plan. Yet, the principle that unionization is central to Just Transition, not a secondary element, is either not well understood by well-meaning climate change advocates, or, more obviously, quite well-understood by corporations who will promulgate reams of promises to “go green” but will maintain a hard-nosed anti-union posture. As the paper will outline, the Biden Administration’s positions are chock full of commitments to create unionized “good-paying jobs.” However, the unwillingness to challenge economic power, or even to articulate the obvious truths about economic power in America, is the key reason the many well-intentioned climate change advocates offer insufficient, general Just Transition plans: they are themselves corseted by a narrow scope of economic vision and ideology embedded in a national culture that has been built and maintained over many generations. Most environmental leaders have never been through a pitched battle to organize a union. So, when a large company commits to “go green,” climate change advocates celebrate the announcement, embracing the company-- without examining a company’s posture of anti-union behavior which subsequently translates into lower wages for workers. Amazon is perhaps the best example of the dynamic: in 2019, Amazon committed to be carbon neutral by 2040 yet it spends millions of dollars on aggressive anti-union tactics.
These shortcomings are not unique to the United States. In Victoria, Australia, a recently released plan by the Labor Party-run state government for transition in the timber industry imposes tight caps on income support for workers losing their jobs, which, as one top union official explained, not only is grossly insufficient, but was imposed on union members with no negotiations with the union and provides for relocation retraining and assistance for impacted communities that falls far short. In Canada, a federal government task force looking at phasing out traditional thermal coal-fired electricity by 2030 recommends wage “top-offs” of up to 90 percent of previously earned income-- but only for up to two years for workers who go back to work in lower-wage jobs.
This is a conversation the U.S. political class, including the president, is loath to pursue because it raises a challenge to the elites (read: campaign donors) who shape and control the contours of the economy. So it would be a mistake to structure any Just Transition by solely calculating dollars and cents.
This paper comes at an opportune moment to consider expanding the narrow framework of how we look at a bigger economic vision for Just Transition. The COVID-19 pandemic unleashed governments, along with central banks, to take unprecedented fiscal actions to replace incomes obliterated when nation after nation had to shutter economic activity because of the virus’ spread. In the U.S., the dual actions of massive fiscal intervention by Congress and monetary policy by the Federal Reserve Board injected large sums of money into the economy on a scale not seen before-- and those steps were even accepted by free market, small government conservatives, albeit reluctantly, and with a good number trying to reduce the economic stimulus needed. Globally, during a one-year pandemic arc, countries poured $13.8 trillion (13.5 percent of global Gross Domestic Product) into relief-- more than four times the relief injected to support people during the Great Recession sparked by the financial crisis of 2008.
There is a growing realization-- even a majority consensus globally-- that leaving our fates to markets and a hands-off, shrunken government has disastrous consequences and, conversely, that effective, expansive government intervention and action is needed when facing a massive crisis-- a category clearly appropriate for the climate change crisis. Just Transition, then, in a world ravaged by COVID-19, should reinforce the mindset that large-scale financial support, coordinated and disbursed by governments, with large corporate financial contributions and the participation of citizens, is a key element of moving the planet to a sustainable place, and should be carried out without hollowing out the livelihoods of millions of workers. In the U.S., as this paper will explore, COVID-19 harshly illuminated the untenable status of the American safety net-- the wobbly unemployment insurance system, the lack of paid sick leave, and a reckless disregard by employers for keeping their workers safe on the job-- all of which makes a successful Just Transition unlikely and, as a result, feeds the understandable wariness among workers well-versed in the shortcomings of the American social benefits system.
In other words, the core question facing Just Transition is fundamental: can it succeed without a major re-envisioning of economic power and the dominance of free market capitalism? An honest assessment of climate change has to conclude that the threat to the planet is principally a direct outcome of the post-WWII economic system. That is, the same forces of free market capitalism that have driven down wages, hollowed out communities globally, shifted jobs to countries where people labor for slave-wages, and a concerted effort to destroy unions, are the same forces that have brought the planet to the brink of irreversible ecological collapse.