The Just Transition: Clean Air and Good Jobs

ACORN International Environment Veterans Wade's World Workers

            Marble Falls     The conundrum over the last several decades, as the reality of the impact of climate change has become impossible to ignore, is how do we create a just transition from the current economy to a cleaner, greener future?  Talking to Rutgers Professor Todd Vachon on Wade’s World, he reminded me that the term “just transition” for this difficult, but critical, quest originated in the early days of the Steelworkers initiative with the Blue-Green Coalition, linking unions and environmental organizations.  There’s no question about the ends, it’s the ways to get there that continue to be the problem.

Vachon in his new book, Clean Air and Good Jobs:  US Labor and the Struggle for Climate Justice, provides no miracle cures or quick and easy routes to find this Holy Grail.  He minces no words in articulating the continuing divisions between construction unions and existing unionized fossil fuel workers in refineries and plants who don’t want to lose family-supporting jobs, and the largely public and service sector worker unions that want cleaner air and a better environment where they live and work.  The argument that building solar and wind farms provide good jobs is true, but only in the construction stage, because few workers are needed to run and maintain the operations once they are built.  Of course, a chemical plant or refinery also involves thousands of workers in the construction but then are run largely by technicians at computer monitoring screens and maintenance workers in the hundreds.  The rifts in the house of labor have been particularly pronounced in the recent controversies over building new pipelines in Minnesota and elsewhere, with the trades clamoring to get the job done and other unions joining protestors in opposing the lines.

Retraining is complicated as well.  Not everyone coming off the line with a high school education can end up as a computer programmer or web designer.  People have to work to live and although the new boss may be as bad as the old boss, the new job likely won’t pay what the old job offered.  Then there’s location, location, location.  Someone coming out of the hole after decades in the mines won’t necessarily find the replacement job or any job anywhere near where they are living in the holler.  Mobility is difficult.  Workers and their families can’t be easily transported to where employers are desperate for more workers, and to repeat, where there are labor shortages tends to be in the service sector where wages still largely suck, and even if they don’t stink, they are still not family-supporting in the main.

I raised the question of retrofits for private housing stock, a campaign that ACORN has been pursing in France, Canada, and other countries.  Tens of thousands of jobs for carpenters, electricians, plumbers, glaziers, and other trades could be employed with good wages.  Vachon was less excited about this, though he didn’t disagree.  He even conceded that my point about healing the division within the house of labor might be easier by separating the trades in a different federation, as not the first time he’s heard the idea.   Though a robust US retrofit program could be vital to just transitions being forced by climate change, the unspoken reason this is not at the center of labor’s program is that this kind of work on residential homes is almost totally unorganized around the country, despite some efforts here and there on new construction boom areas like Phoenix at different points.  The trades want and need the jobs from the big buildings and big projects and have largely abandoned residential construction and maintenance to non-union companies and independent, sometimes even unlicensed workers.

Just because this transition is hard does not mean it can be ignored.  The longer we wait to wrestle with this these issues, the deeper will be the divisions not only between labor and environmentalists, but between all of us in our own communities.  The one thing certain is that as hard as it is, it will be easier to handle now, than it will be when it is inevitable and too late.