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‘Just transition’ bill for oil industry workers exposes labor rift

By Jesse Bedayn - Cal Matters, February 17, 2022

A leading environmental lawmaker has proposed a bill that would create a state fund to support and retrain thousands of oil industry workers as California tries to phase out fossil fuel production.

The idea of guiding California’s 112,000 oil industry workers out of their current field and into other careers is often referred to as “just transition,” and is considered by policy researchers a necessary step to counter job losses as the state strives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

But even with a Democratic supermajority in the state Legislature, such a proposal faces an uphill battle because it’s pitting unions against unions.

Community and environmental groups say the state should start moving half the industry’s workforce out of oil fields, refineries and plants now in order to meet California’s goal of cutting 40% greenhouse gas emission by 2030. But a union that represents a portion of these workers has opposed efforts in the past. 

The State Building and Construction Trades Council of California – known as the Trades – which represents labor groups that include Ironworkers, electrical workers and Teamsters, worry about losing good-paying jobs. Last year, The Trades opposed a bill that would have prevented oil drilling near schools and communities, citing job losses. 

This time, however, the Trades is being countered by another group of unions including steelworkers, municipal workers and teachers. Although the current bill doesn’t specify an amount, those unions hope the state will dedicate $470 million annually for wage subsidies and training to help workers move into the growing green energy sector. 

Trades leaders say that beginning to dismantle the industry now will only push workers into lower-paid jobs. Instead, Trades officials say, the state should invest in big-ticket infrastructure projects such as high-speed rail and offshore wind projects that will create comparable jobs to what workers have been doing for decades.

Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi’s bill exposes a rift among labor unions on how the state should address the transition to a green economy at a time of growing income inequality and fewer well-paying jobs for middle-class workers. 

It also puts labor’s main organizing body, California Labor Federation, in an uncomfortable position after Steelworkers requested that the organization convene “labor to labor” talks on the subject. Both sides say talks haven’t happened yet.

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