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The past and future of Harlan County

By Vincenzo Blandini - Organizing Work, August 2, 2019

I wrote a review of the movie “Harlan County, USA” not too long ago. It was, frankly, a painful experience for me. I truly hoped to not be writing about Appalachian coal country, and much less Harlan County, Kentucky, for some time. I’ve long since moved on from the coal industry, but it still pains me whenever I read news of some tragedy among my brothers and sisters in darkness.

On July 1, Blackjewel LLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In the balance are nearly 1,700 employees’ livelihoods across Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Wyoming. Immediately upon filing for bankruptcy, Blackjewel closed many of the mines it operated and workers had their paychecks bounce. The mineworkers had their hard-earned wages stolen from them, both from their paychecks and from their retirement and benefit plans. Some miners have even reported that their 401(k) contributions haven’t been properly credited for months. The miners are owed nearly $12 million in wages and $1.2 million in retirement contributions. This bankruptcy doesn’t appear to be disrupting recently ousted CEO Jeff Hoops from building a $30 million resort in West Virginia, however. 

In fact, this outright lack of responsibility from the coal bosses is business as usual. In 2012, Patriot Coal filed for bankruptcy. The United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) responded with huge concessions in employee pay and benefits, as well as cutting $130 million in retiree healthcare and benefits that were already promised. Their taste buds already whetted for concessions, and facing harsh market conditions, the coal bosses went to bat again in 2015. Patriot Coal again declared bankruptcy and auctioned itself to Blackhawk Mining. As part of the purchase, Blackhawk Mining refused to honor the terms of the mineworkers union’s contract. Blackhawk Mining abandoned Patriot’s nearly $1 billion of healthcare and pension obligations to the mineworkers, as well as $233 million in environmental cleanup costs.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, and Blackhawk Mining has declared a restructuring through bankruptcy which, if the recent past has told us anything, will almost certainly be paid for through robbing the mineworkers who did all the actual work. Indeed, the majority of coal mined in the U.S. is done by companies that have declared bankruptcy at least once (and usually more times) since 2015 alone.

For years, the coal industry has been declining dramatically in the face of the massive boom in natural gas extraction and renewable energy sources, as well as a huge drop in demand for coal as a result of the all-but-extinct use of coal for comfort heating in both the residential and commercial market. As a result of this, the coal companies have taken reckless action to lower their operating costs, in order to try and stay relevant in a market with cheap natural gas and renewables whose cost is steadily decreasing. They did so through automation of mine work, as well as pushing more and more for open-pit mining (which is much cheaper to operate and much more automated). They’ve done so through extracting concessions from the growingly jaded and out-of-touch United Mineworkers of America. Finally, they are now doing so by brazenly refusing to pay their bills. The mine operators are playing business like it is a child’s lemonade stand, and the miners who have sacrificed so much already are paying the bill against their will and at great personal cost. Truthfully, this behavior is no less than highway robbery.

Similar to the decline of the coal industry has been the decline of the populations it operated in. Harlan County was a sparsely populated place before coal mining started there in the early 20th century. By the 1940s, 75000 people lived there. Today less than 27,000 do so. The number of mineworkers employed in the county dropped off from more than 13,000 to less than 800 in the same period. The average lifespan of a Harlan County resident has actually gotten shorter between the 1980s and now, and they live on average ten years less than the average American. Unemployment in Harlan is double the national average. A similar story can be told across Appalachian coal country.

Against this backdrop, miners affected by Blackjewel’s bankruptcy heist in Harlan County, Kentucky are putting their collective foot down. The bankruptcy has left nearly a quarter of Harlan County miners out of work. For five days now, a group of miners has occupied the railroad tracks leaving from a mine. They are blocking a train loaded with coal (the train was only allowed to pass after it abandoned its load). Coal that they worked to get out of the ground. Work that they haven’t been paid for. Blackjewel intends to have its cake and eat it too: it intends to keep making money while the miners go without their pay. The group of miners blocking the rail say that they aren’t leaving until they get paid. “No Pay, We Stay” is their motto, and if they are successful in keeping that coal from being shipped to a buyer, then they may just get what is rightfully theirs.

By all accounts, nearly all of Harlan County is fired up about this madness. Even their politicians, heartless wretches that they are, have been pressured into showing up to the occupation to voice their support. 

The Just Transition for Coal Workers Can Start Now. Colorado Is Showing How

By Rachel M. Cohen - In These Times, July 24, 2019

This past May, Colorado’s Democratic governor Jared Polis signed a series of new environmental bills into law, with the enthusiastic backing of the state’s labor movement. Legislation ranged from expanding community solar gardens to establishing a “Just Transition” office for coal-dependent communities.

Organized labor in Colorado hasn’t always been an ally in the fight against climate change, but beginning in 2018, a Democratic messaging bill that called for 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 forced local unions to start having some tough conversations.

“Republicans controlled the Senate, so the bill had no chance of passing, but it forced the conversation on our end as to what do we need to do to get behind these bills in the future, instead of just blocking them or delaying,” explained Dennis Dougherty, the executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO, which represents approximately 165 unions representing more than 130,000 workers. “It was really the first time we asked ourselves, well what’s our game plan?”

In February 2018, Colorado activists launched a state-based affiliate of the Peoples Climate Movement, a coalition of community, faith, youth and environmental groups focused on promoting an equitable response to climate change. Dougherty, who worked for years as a federal mediator before joining the labor movement, soon became co-chair of the Colorado coalition. “This was the first time labor has really stepped out in leadership on climate,” he told In These Times.

What followed were a series of organized talks between unions and environmental groups. With resources from its parent organization, the Peoples Climate Movement Colorado even hired a skilled facilitator from the Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University to help guide its conversations. The work culminated in a Climate, Jobs and Justice Summit last September.

Democrats won a majority of seats in the state Senate after the 2018 midterms, giving them trifecta control over Colorado politics, and the ability to pass many climate-related bills this year. Those bills included two pieces of legislation advocates hope can serve as a model for climate, jobs and justice organizing in other states.

One is HB-1314, which establishes a Just Transition Office in the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The first-of-its-kind office, which will have both a dedicated staff and an advisory committee of diverse stakeholders, is charged with creating a equitable plan for coal-dependent communities and workers as the state transitions away from fossil fuels. The goal is to mitigate the economic hardship that will accompany this energy transition. A draft plan is due by July 2020, and by 2025, the state will start administering benefits to displaced coal workers, and provide workforce retraining grants to coal-transitioning communities like Pueblo, Larimer, Delta, Morgan and others.

Internationalising the Green New Deal: Strategies for Pan-European Coordination

By Daniel Aldana Cohen, Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, and Thea Riofrancos - Common Wealth, 2019

Climate politics are today bursting to life like never before. For four decades, market fundamentalists in the United States and United Kingdom have blocked ambitious efforts to deal with the climate crisis. But now, the neoliberal hegemony is crumbling, while popular climate mobilisations grow stronger every month. There has never been a better moment to transform politics and attack the climate emergency.

When the climate crisis first emerged into public consciousness in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were consolidating a neoliberal doctrine that banished the most powerful tools to confront global heating— public investment and collective action.

Instead, neoliberals sought to free markets from democratically imposed constraints and the power of mass mobilisation. Thatcher insisted that there was no alternative to letting corporations run roughshod over people and planet alike in the name of profit. Soon, New Democrats and New Labour agreed. While the leaders of the third way spoke often of climate change, their actual policies let fossil capital keep drilling and burning. Afraid to intervene aggressively in markets, they did far too little to build a clean energy alternative.

Then the financial crisis of 2008 and the left revival that exploded in its wake laid bare the failures of the neoliberal project. An alternative political economic project is now emerging—and not a moment too soon. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put it, keeping global warming below catastrophic levels will require “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” In other words: public investment and collective action.

Fortunately, movements on both sides of the Atlantic have been building strength to mount this kind of alternative to market fundamentalism. On the heels of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, Bernie Sanders’s 2016 Democratic primary campaign breathed new life into the American left and its electoral prospects. Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party, spurred by a vibrant grassroots mobilisation, gives those of us in the U.S. hope: if New Labour could give way to Corbynism, surely Clintonism can give way to the left wing of the Democratic party. In the U.K., drawing on tactics from the Sanders campaign, Momentum has developed a new model of mass mobilisation to transform a fossilised political party. It’s restoring the dream that formal politics can be a means for genuinely democratic political organising. In turn, U.S. leftists are learning from Momentum’s innovations.

The vision of the Green New Deal that has taken shape in the United States in the past few months is in many ways a culmination of the U.S. left’s revival. The Green New Deal’s modest ambition is to do all that this moment requires: decarbonise the economy as quickly as humanly possible by investing massively to electrify everything, while bringing prodigious amounts of renewable power online; all this would be done in a way that dismantles inequalities of race, class and gender. The Green New Deal would transform the energy and food systems and the broader political economy of which they are a part.

Read the report (PDF).

Colorado: Support a Just and Equitable Transition via Securitization

By Julia Prochnik - Natural Resources Defense Council, April 24, 2019

Utility securitization can be a prescription for lowering energy costs and reallocating funds previously committed to expensive fuels and reinvesting them in lower cost clean energy infrastructure. Securitization is also a useful financing tool to help fund a Just and Equitable Transition to clean energy infrastructure.

Securitization is a financing tool that has existed in the financial sector for decades and is a special type of utility bond offering that gets funds from private investors at a very low interest rate. It can be used to replace more expensive capital and costs that utilities pass on to customers.  Securitization provides a lower cost to customers. 

Legislation is needed, in Colorado and elsewhere, to guarantee a regulated dedicated rate and an unavoidable charge with Public Utility Commission oversight to ensure that the bonds are paid in full.  This dedicated rate along with other conditions allow for high credit score on the bonds to get the lowest interest rate from investors and therefore the lowest costs for customers. 

For example, when a utility says they need to securitize something, they are looking into refinancing their costs of raising capital at a secured lower bond rate, just as you would with decreasing interest charged on a credit card. The regulated utility can then repurpose the money raised into a variety of cleaner operations and transition funds. 

A Just and Equitable Transition builds from the indigenous and labor movement to create a just transition.  Adding equity expands the policymaking to include diverse community voices and help make change livable for all impacted.  

A Roadmap to an Equitable Low-Carbon Future: Four Pillars for a Just Transition

By J. Mijin Cha, JD, PhD - Climate Equity Network, April 2019

The signs that the climate crisis is already happening are clear. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report detailed the evidence from more than 6,000 studies that found that over the past decade, a series of record-breaking storms, forest fires, droughts, coral bleaching, heat waves, and floods have taken place around the world in response to the 1.0 °C of global warming that has taken place since the pre-industrial era. These events, and the losses associated with them, are expected to become substantially worse with 1.5 °C of warming currently targeted by global climate agreements, and far worse if these agreements are not effective. Without major cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, this warming threshold could be reached in as little as 11 years, and almost certainly within 20 years. Even if such cuts were to begin immediately, reaching this threshold would not be prevented, only delayed.

Any chance of staving off even worst impacts from climate change depends on significant reductions in GHG emissions and a move from a fossil fuel- based economy to a low-carbon economic future. While this transition is fundamentally necessary, the challenges it poses are great. Every aspect of our economy and our society is dependent upon fossil fuel use – from the reliance on electricity provided by fossil fuel power plants to the tax revenue local communities receive from fossil fuel extraction and facilities to the jobs held by those working in an industry that may keep their incomes high but often puts their communities at risk. The imprint of fossil fuels is so deeply embedded within our way of life that ceasing its use will require a fundamental shift in how we procure and use energy.

The good news is that this shift is possible—and California is already on a path to a low-carbon future. In addition to several ambitious climate targets, in September 2018, then-Governor Jerry Brown signed an executive order pledging the state to achieve carbon neutrality no later than 2045. As the world’s fifth largest economy, the commitment California made to reduce greenhouse gases can provide a pathway to a low-carbon future that could lay the groundwork for others to follow. But to get there, we need to aim even higher than California’s already ambitious goals.

Transitioning away from fossil fuels must be done more quickly and also in a manner that protects workers and communities economically dependent on the fossil fuel industry. Transitioning is also an opportunity to include those who have historically been excluded from the jobs and economic benefits of the extractive economy and expand the populations who have access to future jobs and economic opportunities. As we move to a low-carbon future, environmental justice communities should be prioritized for job creation and renewable energy generation. Without protecting displaced workers and expanding opportunities to other workers, transitioning to a low-carbon future will replicate the mistakes and inequalities of the extractive past and present.

Read the report (PDF).

International action on Just Transition: what’s been accomplished, and proposals for the future

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, September 27, 2017

Just Transition – Where are we now and what’s next? A Guide to National Policies and International Climate Governance  was released on September 19 by the International Trade Union Confederation, summarizing what has been done to date by the ITUC and through  international agencies such as the  ILO, UNFCCC, and the  Paris Agreement.  It also provides short summaries of some transition situations, including the Ruhr Valley in Germany, Hazelwood workers in the LaTrobe Valley, Australia, U.S. Appalachian coal miners and the coal mining pension plan, Argentinian construction workers, and Chinese coal workers.  Finally, the report calls for concrete steps to advance Just Transition and workers’ interests.

The report defines Just Transition on a national or regional scale, as  “an economy-wide process that produces the plans, policies and investments that lead to a future where all jobs are green and decent, emissions are at net zero, poverty is eradicated, and communities are thriving and resilient.” But the report also argues that Just Transition is important for companies, with social dialogue and collective bargaining as key tools to manage the necessary industrial transformation at the organizational level.  To that end, the ITUC is launching “A Workers Right To Know” as an ITUC campaign priority for 2018, stating, “Workers have a right to know what their governments are planning to meet the climate challenge and what the Just Transition measures are. Equally, workers have a right to know what their employers are planning, what the impact of the transition is and what the Just Transition guarantees will be. And workers have a right to know where their pension funds are invested with the demand that they are not funding climate or job destruction.”

The ITUC report makes new proposals. It calls on the ILO to take a more ambitious role and to negotiate a Standard for Just Transition by 2021, carrying on from the Guidelines for a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies forAll  (2015).   The ITUC also states “expectations” of how Just Transition should be given greater priority in the international negotiation process of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), so that:  Just Transition commitments are incorporated into the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of countries; Just Transition for workers becomes a permanent theme within the forum on response measures under the Paris Agreement, and Just Transition is included in the 2018 UNFCCC Facilitative Dialogue. It also calls for the launch of a “Katowice initiative for a Just Transition” at the COP23 meetings to take place in Katowice, Poland in 2018, “to provide a high-level political space”.  Finally, the ITUC calls for expansion of the eligibility criteria of the Green Climate Fund to allow  the funding of Just Transition projects.

Just Transition – Where are we now and what’s next? is a Climate Justice Frontline Briefing from the International Trade Union Confederation, with support from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and is based upon Strengthening Just Transition Policies in International Climate Governance by Anabella Rosemberg, published as a Policy Analysis Brief by the Stanley Foundation in 2017.

Canada, the World Bank and International Confederation of Trade Unions announce a partnership to promote Just Transition in the phase-out of coal-fired electricity

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, December 13, 2017

Canada’s Environment and Climate Change Minister is back on the  international stage at the One Planet Summit in Paris, which is focusing on climate change financing – notably phasing out  fossil fuel subsidies, and aid to developing countries.  In a press release on December 12,  Canada announced a partnership with the World Bank Group to accelerate the transition from coal-fired electricity to clean sources in developing countries, stating: “This work also includes sharing best practices on how to ensure a just transition for displaced workers and their communities to minimize hardships and help workers and communities benefit from new clean growth opportunities. The transition to a low-carbon economy should be inclusive, progressive and good for business. We will work together with the International Trade Union Confederation in this regard.”   The World Bank Group announcement was briefer : “Canada and the World Bank will work together to accelerate the energy transition in developing countries and, together with the International Trade Union Confederation, will provide analysis to support efforts towards a just transition away from coal.”  The ITUC Just Transition Centre hadn’t posted any announcement as of December 13.

Other Canadian partnerships announced in a general press release: a Canada-France Climate Partnership to promote the implementation of the Paris Agreement through  carbon pricing, coal phase-out, sustainable development and emission reductions in the marine and aviation sectors; Canada was selected as one of five countries for a new partnership with the Breakthrough Energy Coalition led by Bill Gates; and Canada , along with five Canadian provinces, two U.S. states, and Mexico, Costa Rica and Chile, signed on to the Declaration on Carbon Markets in the Americas, to strengthen  international and regional cooperation on carbon pricing.

The World Bank, one of the organizers of the One Planet Summit, made numerous other announcements – including that it will no longer finance upstream oil and gas developments after 2019, and as of 2018, it  will report greenhouse gas emissions from the investment projects it finances in key emissions-producing sectors, such as energy. Such moves may be seen as a response to the demands of the Big Shift Global campaign of Oil Change International, which  released a new briefing called “The Dirty Dozen: How Public Finance Drives the Climate Crisis through Oil, Gas, and Coal Expansion  on the eve of the One Planet Summit.  Over 200 civil society groups also issued an Open Letter   calling on G20 governments and multilateral development banks to phase out fossil fuel subsidies and public finance for fossil fuels as soon as possible, and no later than 2020.  Signatories include Oil Change International, Les Amis de la Terre – Friends of the Earth France, Christian Aid, Greenpeace, Reseau Action Climat – Climate Action Network France, WWF International, BankTrack, Climate Action Network International, Global Witness, 350.org, Germanwatch, Natural Resources Defense Council, CIDSE, and the Asian Peoples Movement on Debt and Development.

In Canada, Environmental Defence is collecting signatures in a campaign to stop fossil fuel subsidies , stating  “ Together, federal and provincial governments hand out $3.3 billion in subsidies every year for oil and gas exploration and development. In 2016, Export Development Canada, a crown corporation, spent an additional $12 billion in public money to finance fossil fuel projects.”

Progress at COP23 as Canada’s Minister pledges to include the CLC in a new Just Transition Task Force

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, November 21, 2017

An article in the Energy Mix reflects a widely-stated assessment of the recently concluded Conference of the Parties in Bonn: “COP23 Ends with solid progress on Paris Rules, Process to Push for Faster Climate Action” :  “It was an incremental, largely administrative conclusion for a conference that was never expected to deliver transformative results, but was still an essential step on the road to a more decisive “moment” at next year’s conference in Katowice, Poland.”  A concise summary of outcomes  was compiled by  the  International Institute for Environment and Development, including a link to the main outcome document of the COP23 meetings – the Fiji Momentum for Implementation .  The UNFCCC provides a comprehensive list of initiatives and documents in its closing press release on November 17. And from the only Canadian press outlet which attended COP23 in person, the National Observer: “Trump didn’t blow up the climate summit: what did happend in Bonn?” .

What was the union assessment of COP23? The International Trade Union Confederation expressed concern for the slow progress in Bonn, but stated: “The support for Just Transition policies is now visible and robust among all climate stakeholders: from environmental groups to businesses, from regional governments to national ones. The importance of a social pact as a driver to low-carbon economics means we can grow ambition faster, in line with what science tells us. ”  The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) also expressed disappointment, reiterating the demands in its October  ETUC Resolution and views on COP 23  , and calling for a “Katowice plan of action for Just Transition”  in advance of the COP24 meetings next year in Katowice, Poland.

The biggest winner on Just Transition was the Canadian Labour Congress, who pressed the Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change outside of formal negotiations at Bonn and received her pledge for federal support for the newly-announced Just Transition Plan for Alberta’s Coal Workers –  including flexibility on federal  Employment Insurance benefits,  and a pledge that  Western Economic Diversification Canada will  support coal communities.   Importantly, “Minister McKenna also announced her government’s intention to work directly with the Canadian Labour Congress to launch a task force that will develop a national framework on Just Transition for workers affected by the coal phase-out. The work of this task force is slated to begin early in the new year”, according to the CLC press release “  Unions applaud Canada’s commitment to a just transition for coal workers” .  The background story to this under-reported breakthrough  is in the National Observer coverage of the Canada-UK Powering Past Coal initiative, on November 15 and November 16.  Unifor’s take on the Task Force is here .

Just Transition for the coal industry is expensive – but cheaper than failure to address the needs

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, September 5, 2017

July 2017 saw the release of  Lessons from Previous Coal Transitions:  High-level Summary for Decision-makers , a synthesis report of case studies of past coal mining transitions in Spain, U.K., the Netherlands, Poland, U.S., and the Czech Republic – some as far back as the 1970’s.  Some key take-aways from the report:  “Because of the large scale and complexity of the challenges to be addressed, the earlier that actors (i.e. workers, companies and regions) anticipated, accepted and began to implement steps to prepare and cushion the shock of the transition, the better the results”; “the aggregate social costs to the state of a failure to invest in the transition of workers and regions are often much higher that the costs of not investing from an overall societal perspective.” While the level of cost details varies in the case studies, it is clear that costs are significant.  For example, the case study of Limburg, Netherlands states that the national government spent approximately 11.6 billion Euros (in today’s prices) on national subsidies to support coal prices and regional reconversion, in addition to  several 100 million per year in EU funds. “One estimate also suggested that in the Dutch case, all told, regional reinvestment in new economic activities also cost about 300 to 400 000€/per long-term job created.”  Limburg is also cited as “remarkable for the relatively consensual nature of the transition between unions, company and government.”  (see page 10).

The Synthesis report and individual case study reports of the six countries are available here . These are the work of the Research and Dialogue on Coal Transitions project, a large-scale research project led by Climate Strategies and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) , which also sponsors the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project.  Future reports scheduled for 2018: a Global report, and a Round Table on the Future of Coal.

Just Transition — Part 1: The Kingdom of Coal

By Chris Silver - DeSmog UK, October 30, 2018

In this first of our new series 'Just Transition, from Fossil Fuels to Environmental Justice', we look at the history of energy in Fife, and begin to mine the prospects for a more sustainable future to meet our climate crisis.

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