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Just Transition and Extractive Industry Workers

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Union Caucus, January 26, 2021

In some ways it might be easier to establish dialog and find common ground with resource extraction workers (on issues such as climate change, just transition, and the Green New Deal) than we think. In other ways it may prove more difficult than we expect. That’s not as contradictory as it may sound, however:

First, let’s acknowledge that we’re primarily discussing decarbonization of the energy system and the economy, particularly fossil fuel capitalism, specifically coal, oil, and gas.

We’re discussing entire supply chains, from exploration and extraction to transportation and refining, to distribution, power generation to marketing and sales.

Extraction includes all forms of mining.

Transportation includes rail, road, ship, aircraft, and pipelines. It also includes storage, distribution hubs, and control centers.

Refining is a highly specialized and labor as well as capital intensive process.

How it might be easier than we think:

Most of the jobs involved in the aforementioned supply chains are not directly related to fossil fuels themselves:

For example:

  • Exploration (ie search for new “deposits” could instead be repurposed for siting renewable energy sites;
  • Offshore oil rig workers could be retrained as offshore wind power technicians (and many of the ancillary jobs, such as transportation of workers to and from sites, dispatching workers (or power), clerical work, etc. is directly transferable);
  • Transportation of goods and commodities can be utilized to transport alternative goods and commodities (eg grain rather than coal);

Where jobs may not be directly transferable, they can be retained for the repurposing or decommissioning of infrastructure or the restoration of damaged ecosystems. Such efforts often require years or decades, thus providing enough job-years for mature workers (often those with the highest seniority, wages, and benefits anyway) to last until retirement, or at least, allow sufficient time for just transition;

Failing that, many of these jobs can be made much “greener” without decommissioning, if a wholistic approach as opposed to an all-or-nothing approach is utilized, and transition efforts focus on the “low hanging fruit” (such as retiring older, more polluting facilities first, etc.);

Some processes, like oil refining might continue, but for the purposes of medical needs (for example) rather than production of combustion of fossil fuels for energy. Alternatively, while it’s not 100% green (at least not at first), some of these refineries could be repurposed to produce hydrogen (and the refining process itself can be “greened”, by replacing gas or coal fired heating with solar, etc. on-site);

Speaking of hydrogen, much of the fossil fuel supply chain could fairly easily be repurposed for hydrogen (and production of hydrogen could be made strictly “green”, meaning no coal, oil, or gas (other than for lubricants). Hydrogen may be a good alternative storage medium for batteries, including Li-ion.

As for the wages of skilled workers in the fossil fuel extractive supply chains, those that aren’t transferable to other skills, jobs, etc (even in the same supply chain, worksite, or even employer), let’s keep in mind the following:

  1. When people speak of $80,000 annual wages (plus benefits) or even higher, like low six figures, generally these are not average entry level wages; these are more senior employees;
  2. In most cases, the more senior level employees—especially those represented by unions—are least likely to face transfer, layoffs, furloughs, and/or termination. They’re also likely to be closer to retirement age;
  3. Job losses (if any) can also be achieved by attrition of more senior employees;
  4. Entry level wages are likely to be closer to median wages in green / renewable industries;
  5. A robust just transition plan should address wage and benefit differentials as well as allow for union organizing in new industries.
  6. We should not fall into the capitalist trap of giving into feelings of resentment towards well compensated skilled union employees rather than working to build strong unions and a labor movement capable of raising the standards and working conditions of all other workers (unionized or otherwise);
  7. It’s entirely possible that some of these (putatively) well paid employees might be open to shorter work weeks (with no loss in hourly wages or benefits), though there’s no real reason why they couldn’t simply demand shorter work time with no loss in overall wages to reduce the amount of person-hours engaged in fossil fuel extractivism (or other destructive industrial practices, for that matter).

In some ways it may be more difficult:

In some ways, however, it may prove much more difficult (at least initially) to establish dialog and find common ground with resource extraction workers:

Facts don’t change attitudes. There’s a lot of deeply held cultural beliefs (many of them stoked by the capitalist class when and where it suits them) or the Republican Party (which isn’t either mutually inclusive or exclusive to the former, but does tend to align itself much more closely with fossil fuel extractive capitalism than the Democrats). Even though the climate movement(s), ecosocialists, green unionists (and the like) no doubt have the potentially affected workers’ best interests at heart and in mind far more so than their capitalist employers, there’s often few or no extant bonds of trust between the workers and activists (even if some of the latter are union members), and establishing that trust can be painstakingly difficult;

Even though an affected worker might suffer no material loss from a transition, particularly a genuinely just transition, there are intangible losses that can occur:

  1. Many unions have legacy programs, and often employers honor them (as much as equal opportunity laws allow), such that the children of long time employees can easily follow in their parents' footsteps. So it’s not unlikely that a worker sees their job as not only essential to their own future, but to their children’s and children’s children’s futures, (and so forth and onward);
  2. Many workers see their specific job, particularly if they’ve held it for most of their career, as part of their identity, and consider its loss, even if made whole through a fair transition as a blow to their dignity (and that is especially true if they are a legacy as described in the previous point);
  3. Additionally, there’s a substantial degree of machismo involved in extractive industrial labor as well as building construction (a phenomena sometimes described as “petro masculinity”). While this is not a laudable tendency by any means, the fact is that it exists and represents a challenge and a barrier to get past. It further complicates matters that environmentalism and clean tech are sometimes (for good as well as ill) identified with feminism, including eco feminism. Personally, I find the latter a positive thing, but for male dominated heavy industry labor, this is often looked down upon as a form of weakness and emasculation, a form of toxic masculinity that the capitalists, climate denialists, and right wing politicians (especially those like Donald Trump) exploit to the hilt);

Historically, especially under capitalism, fair transitions have been promised, but rarely delivered, especially after the political horse trading that is typical of liberal capitalist “democratic” legislative politics takes its course (and workers’ concerns are often one of the first things sacrificed);

Many putatively “green” jobs (at least the “green” jobs that get most of the hype, like renewable energy equipment installers, etc) are low wage non union jobs. That said, there are millions of “green” jobs not traditionally hyped as such (like public transit workers, woodland fire fighters, farm workers, recyclers, building efficiency workers, and many more) that are unionized (or at least have better working conditions), but those aren’t necessarily proposed as elements of a “just transition”.

While all of the above challenges aren’t insurmountable, they’re made more challenging by the predominantly capitalist economy and the lack of a sufficiently organized militant and (practically, at least) anti capitalist labor movement necessary to collectivize and realize the potential power of the working class to serve as a countervailing force against capital, with the ultimate aim of abolishing capitalism altogether.

How do we get past these roadblocks?

Fortunately there are real world examples of just transition programs, albeit on varying degrees of limited scale, that can serve as models. Many of these are available on the IWW Environmental Union Caucus website:

Some specific, notable examples:

What would some demands / provisions of a just transition agreement look like? (Keep in mind that this is not a “one size fits all” situation. Agreements might vary from specific situation to situation, and much of this depends on the collective power of the workers—sometimes combined with community support—relative to the bosses):

(There’s no implied ranking of desirability of choices in the following list)

  • All choices to be offered in order of seniority;
  • First hired, last laid off;
  • Early retirement, with no loss in benefits;
  • Transfer to similarly leveled skill positions within the company in the same or nearby locations;
  • Retraining for similarly leveled but differently skilled positions within the same company in the same or nearby location;
  • Transfer to a lower skilled position, but with no loss in wages or benefits;
  • Shorter work hours with no loss in wages or benefits (thus allowing more workers to share fewer job-hours);
  • Company pays relocation expenses if employee is transferred to different region;
  • Company pays for employee retraining and reskilling;
  • Company pays full scholarship and living expenses for employee to earn advanced degree;
  • Company provides employee with a grant to start their own business;
  • Company offers a lump sum, no less than a minimum period of time reasonable for employee to find new employment;
  • (in the absence of a “Medicare for All” national health plan), company pays employee medical expenses until reemployment.
  • Also, in all such cases, the amount of layoffs or reductions as well as the rate over a given time period should be negotiated to minimize the impact (and allow for normal rates of attrition or allow senior employees to retire / transfer if possible).

Obviously (in isolated cases) these demands assume little change in the dominant capitalist economy (but, at the same time, slightly diminish the stranglehold of capital over the working class), but combination with many other, similar just transition campaigns linked with new union organizing at new companies, ongoing workplace struggles, community mobilizations that directly (or even indirectly) challenge capitalism (such as a robust, grassroots Green New Deal movement), these combined efforts can form the basis for a truly revolutionary, prefigurative movement that begins the process of dismantling capitalism.

No doubt, if such struggles accelerate, the terrain and the scope of the struggle will evolve (and not necessarily in predictable ways). Such is the nature of dialectics and class struggle.

These struggles won’t be easy, but we can’t let their seemingly overwhelming first impression be the shadow that frightens us into fatalism and inaction. We must push forward, in spite of these challenges.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

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