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Beyond a Just Transition

Beyond "Just Transition"

By Dr Eurig Scandrett - The Jimmy Reid Foundation, December 3, 2021

Introduction

It is no use simply saying to South Wales miners that all around them is an ecological disaster. They already know. They live in it. They have lived in it for generations. They carry it in their lungs… you cannot just say to people who have committed their lives and their communities to certain kinds of production that this has all got to be changed… Everything will have to be done by negotiation, by equitable negotiation, and it will have to be taken steadily along the way. Otherwise, you will find … that there is a middle-class environmental group protesting against the damage and there’s a trade-union group supporting the coming of the work. Now for socialists this is a terrible conflict to get into. Because if each group does not really listen to what the other is saying, there will be a sterile conflict which will postpone any real solutions at a time when it is already a matter for argument whether there is still time for the solutions. Raymond Williams (1982/1989)

The idea of ‘Just Transition’ (JT) has gained traction in recent years. With its roots in the union movement at the end of the twentieth century, it has developed into a concept with diverse and contested meanings. This engagement with JT has created spaces within the urgent policy areas of climate change mitigation to address potential job losses and the disproportionate impact up on the poorest communities, and more positively, to work for the generation of good quality, unionised jobs and greater social equality in a green economy. This is a fast-moving and often technical area of policy development. In Scotland, the Just Transition Commission (2021) reported in May 2021 after meeting over a period of two years, and relevant technical and policy reports are published with increasing frequency.

This paper is not a detailed contribution to these debates, on which others are more competent to comment, although it will inevitably touch on these. The paper aims to take a somewhat longer-term and more abstracted view of JT. It asks what do we mean by ‘Just’ and to what are we expecting to ‘Transition’ to? It argues that, in the discussions over the meanings of JT, the collective interests of workers, low-income communities and the environment are central, and require mechanisms to facilitate challenging dialogues between these interests.

There is an inevitable tendency, in developing positions on JT, to seek common ground between the two principal social movements that have driven JT debates: unions and environmental NGOs; or else between different unions or different industrial sectors. This process of seeking common ground can lead to a dilution of principle on all sides, a common denominator that all can live with, but with which none is entirely satisfied. While the process of negotiating common ground is a necessary and useful process for practical purposes, and a process at which the union movement is particularly adept, this paper argues that JT also provides the opportunity for a deeper dialogue in which all key stakeholders – the environment and working-class people who are either dependent on or excluded from the current unsustainable economy – can seek to incorporate the principles of the others. There are areas where the union movement and the environmental movement disagree. These areas of disagreement could be seen as potentially fertile grounds for deep dialogue in order to seek meaningful and lasting resolution.

This paper is, therefore, not intended to reflect the policy of any union or environmental group, but rather constitute a contribution to a debate within these movements and outwith them as well. It is, in places, designed to challenge. Indeed, it makes the case that the union and environmental movements can best learn from one another by being willing to be challenged by each other. All social movements reflect the interests of their participants, members, opinion formers and supporters and are contingent upon the social and political conditions in which they are acting. This is a strength, but also leads to ‘blind spots’ which are best addressed through collective self-reflection and challenges in solidarity from comrades in the struggle.

It is argued here that JT provides an opportunity to explore, for example, the tension well known in unions between representing the immediate interests of members and the long-term interests of the working-class; and in the environmental movement between the disproportionately educated, white, professional middle-class membership of the NGOs and the communities most directly affected by environmental devastation.

As has been recognised in some of the debates about JT, the idea can be located in a radical working-class tradition which, in Britain includes defence diversification, the East Kilbride Rolls Royce boycott of Chilean engines, the Lucas Aerospace Alternative Plan, the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in, amongst others. JT can be more than a mechanism to address climate change, for it can also be a process which can be applied to transitions of many kinds that the labour movement and the left more generally have long advocated: the transition to a more democratic economy, more equal society and socially beneficial system of production, distribution and exchange. The paper, therefore, argues that the union movement, along with environmental and anti-poverty movements would benefit from going ‘beyond’ just transition.

Wind and solar companies perform poorly re labour and human rights

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, November 17, 2021

On November 1, the Centre for Business and Human Rights Resource Centre released the 2nd edition of its report: the Renewable Energy & Human Rights Benchmark 2021 Report. Although the report notes some improvements from the inaugural 2020 edition, the Centre states that the “ overall results remain profoundly concerning, with companies scoring an average of just 28%.” In the past 10 years, the Centre has recorded over 200 allegations linked to renewable energy projects, including land and water grabs, violation of the rights of Indigenous nations, and the denial of workers’ rights to decent work and a living wage. Only 2 companies in the survey guaranteed the right to a living wage.

The wind and solar sectors accounted for 44% of the total allegations of abuse. The Key Findings for the Wind and Solar sectors report includes analysis, and makes recommendations for corporations and investors. For corporations, the key recommendation is: “Set a clear and urgent goal to implement human rights and environmental due diligence in operations and supply chains, alongside access to remedy, with special emphasis on land and Indigenous rights risks.”

The Challenge of Building a High-road Electric Vehicle Industry with Anti-union Employers

Alabama Miners Are Still on Strike After 8 Months

By Nora De La Cour - Jacobin, November 8, 2021

Last week, more than 500 coal mine workers picketed in New York City, joined by a diverse army of other labor movement members and supporters. The mine workers, who extract coal for steel production, are now in the eighth month of their strike against Warrior Met Coal in Brookwood, Alabama. Their aim is to force Warrior Met to restore the pay, benefits, and schedules they had before their previous employer, Walter Energy, declared bankruptcy and auctioned off its assets in 2016.

On Thursday, the mine workers marched to the headquarters of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager and Warrior Met’s biggest shareholder. After the rally, five United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) members and the union’s president, Cecil Roberts, sat down in the street and refused to move. The six were handcuffed by the New York Police Department and arrested for their act of civil disobedience.

The striking workers brought their picket to the middle of Manhattan because they have been barred from gathering outside the Brookwood mines. On October 27, a Tuscaloosa County circuit judge issued a temporary restraining order stopping all UMWA picket activity at Warrior Met. The injunction, which has been extended through November 15, blocks strikers from gathering within 300 yards of any mine entrance or exit.

That’s a huge restriction. As Haeden Wright, president of the UMWA auxiliary for two of the striking locals, explained to Jacobin, moving the pickets three football fields back from the mines “could put you on a completely separate road from Warrior Met property.” In in an interview with Jacobin, labor scholar Steve Striffler called the restraining order “an unconstitutional act that effectively takes away the miners’ right to free speech and assembly at the conflict’s most important sites.”

The injunction is the apparent product of an aggressive campaign by Warrior Met to spread the misleading narrative that UMWA members are engaging in violence and vandalism on the picket lines. Labor journalist Kim Kelly reported that Warrior Met hired the public relations firm Sitrick and Company to “neutralize the opposition” and “reframe the debate” around a strike that has garnered local and national support despite embarrassingly insufficient coverage from the corporate media.

Exploitation of Workers in DR Congo Taints Electric Vehicles

By Arthur Svensson - Industri Energi, November 8, 2021

The acceleration of electrical vehicles (EV) production is crucial for the transition to a low-carbon economy, yet it appears to be linked to serious labour rights abuses. New research released today reveals dire conditions, discrimination and extremely low pay at some of the world’s largest industrial cobalt mines operated by multinational mining companies in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cobalt is considered an essential mineral in the lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles. Over 70% of the world’s cobalt is extracted in Congo.

Cobalt is everywhere. It is a silvery-blue mineral used in the rechargeable batteries that power our mobile phones, laptops and tablets, and in larger quantities, the electric vehicles that will soon dominate our roads. It is a strategic mineral in the plan to decarbonise and move away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. Accelerating this switch is one of the priorities to tackle the climate crisis and industry experts forecast that electric vehicle sales will skyrocket in the next 10 years. This will require a dramatic increase in cobalt production. The booming demand for cobalt has a dark side, however.

The 87-page report"The Road to Ruin? Electric vehicles and workers’ rights abuses at Congo’s industrial cobalt mines” by by corporate watchdog Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID), and Centre d’Aide Juridico-Judiciaire (CAJJ), a Congolese legal aid centre specialised in labour rights, exposes a system of widespread exploitation. Congolese workers at five industrial mines in Congo where cobalt is produced: Kamoto Copper Company (KCC), Metalkol RTR, Tenke Fungurume Mining (TFM), Sino-Congolaise des Mines (Sicomines) and Société Minière de Deziwa (Somidez) were interviewed for the research. They said they received very low pay and were subjected to excessive working hours, degrading treatment, violence, discrimination, racism, unsafe working conditions, and a disregard for even basic health provision.

Some workers described being kicked, slapped, beaten with sticks, insulted, shouted at, or pulled around by their ears. Others reported severe discrimination and abuse at Chinese-operated mines. One worker said, “Our situation is worse than before. The Chinese come and impose their standards and culture. They don’t treat Congolese well. This is new colonisation.”

Mine Workers from Across Appalachia Arrested Outside BlackRock Headquarters in NYC

Refuse workers take strike action during COP26 climate talks

The Road to Ruin? - Electric vehicles and workers’ rights abuses at DR Congo’s industrial cobalt mines

By staff - Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) and the Centre d’Aide Juridico-Judiciaire (CAJJ), November 2021

Cobalt is everywhere. It is a silvery-blue mineral used in the rechargeable batteries that power our mobile phones, laptops and tablets, and in larger quantities, the electric vehicles that will soon dominate our roads. It is a strategic mineral in the plan to decarbonise and move away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy. Accelerating this switch is one of the priorities to tackle the climate crisis and industry experts forecast that electric vehicle sales will skyrocket in the next 10 years. This will require a dramatic increase in cobalt production.

The booming demand for cobalt has a dark side, however. The Democratic Republic of Congo, one of Africa’s poorest nations, holds the lion’s share of the world’s cobalt reserves. In 2020, 70% of the world’s cobalt was extracted from within its borders with tens of thousands of workers labouring in large-scale industrial mines to dig up the ore. Multinational mining companies that own many of Congo’s mines, eager to demonstrate their “green” and “responsible” credentials, say they produce “clean” and “sustainable” cobalt, free from human rights abuses, and that their operations contribute to good jobs and economic opportunities.

This report, based on extensive research over two years, paints a very different picture. It shows dire conditions for many Congolese workers in the industrial mines, often characterised by widespread exploitation and labour rights abuses. Many workers do not earn a “living wage” – the minimum remuneration to afford a decent standard of living – have little or no health provision, and far too often are subjected to excessive working hours, unsafe working conditions, degrading treatment, discrimination and racism.

In recent years attention has mainly focused on Congo’s artisanal mining sector, partly because of the risks of child labour it creates, whereas the conditions for workers in the large-scale industrial mines have gone largely unnoticed. This report examines workers’ rights at Congo’s industrial mines where the large majority of cobalt is coming from, producing some 80% of the cobalt exported from the country (in contrast to the 20% produced in artisanal mines).

The findings presented in this report are based on detailed research over 28 months by UK-based corporate watchdog Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) and the Centre d’Aide Juridico- Judiciaire (CAJJ), a Congolese legal aid centre specialised in labour rights. The research team carried out extensive field research in and around Kolwezi, a mining town where many of Congo’s cobalt and copper mines are located. It is informed by 130 interviews of workers and former workers at five mining companies, as well as interviews with subcontractors, union representatives, lawyers, Congolese local authorities, medical staff and industry experts.

Read the text (PDF).

Puerto Rican Electrical Workers Union Fights Privatization of Island’s Grid

By Ángel Figueroa Jaramillo - Labor Notes, October 26, 2021

The people and workers of Puerto Rico are suffering the consequences of the privatization of our electricity system, which has been handed over to a new company, LUMA Energy, a subsidiary of Houston-based Quanta Services and Canadian firm ATCO.

Our union, UTIER—the Puerto Rico Electric and Irrigation Industry Workers Union—has been fighting for months against the disastrous contract that the Puerto Rican government signed with LUMA to operate our electricity grid for the next 15 years.

Privatization has dismembered the electrical system’s workforce in a transparent attempt to break up our union. LUMA was not required to hire employees of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA)—the public company whose assets were privatized. Nor did LUMA comply with the existing collective agreements between PREPA and its unions. Instead, LUMA offered reduced benefits and job protections.

LUMA began its contract on June 1 with only half the number of employees PREPA previously had, many of them are untrained and unfamiliar with our electrical system. The result has been ongoing outages and customer service debacles. If a major hurricane had hit Puerto Rico this summer, the outcome would have been much worse.

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