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Robert Pollin

What It Will Take to Build a Broad-Based Movement for a Just Transition: Environmental and labor organizers reflect on hard-won lessons

Images and words by David Bacon - Sierra, August 31, 2022

In 2020, Washington State passed the Climate Commitment Act, and when it went into effect on January 1, 2022, Rosalinda Guillen was appointed to its Environmental Justice Council. The appointment recognized her role as one of Washington's leading advocates for farmworkers and rural communities.

Guillen directs Community2Community Development, a women-led group encouraging farmworker cooperatives and defending labor rights. She has a long history as a farm labor organizer and in 2013 helped form a new independent union for farmworkers, Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Guillen agreed to serve on the council but with reservations. She feared that the law's implementation would be dominated by some of the state's most powerful industries: fossil fuels and agriculture. 

"Its market-based approach focuses too much on offsets,” she says. “Allowing polluting corporations to pay to continue to pollute is a backward step in achieving equity for rural people living in poverty for generations." Just as important to her, however, is that while the law provides funding for projects in pollution-impacted communities, it doesn't look at the needs of workers displaced by the changes that will occur as the production and use of fossil fuels is reduced.

The impact of that reduction won't affect just workers in oil refineries but farmworkers as well. "The ag industry is part of the problem, not just the fossil fuel industry," Guillen says. "They're tied together. Ag's monocrop system impacts the ecological balance through the use of pesticides, the pollution of rivers and clearing forests. As farmworkers, this law has everything to do with our miserable wages, our insecure jobs, and even how long we'll live. The average farmworker only lives to 49 years old, and displacement will make peoples' lives even shorter." 

The key to building working-class support for reducing carbon emissions, she believes, is a commitment from political leaders and the environmental and labor movements that working-class communities will not be made to pay for the transition to a carbon-free economy with job losses and increased poverty. But the difficulties in building that alliance and gaining such a commitment were evident in the defeat of an earlier Washington State initiative, and the fact that the Climate Commitment Act lacked the protections that initiative sought to put in place. 

In Washington State fields, at California oil refineries, and amid local campaigns around the country, this is the big strategic question in coalition building between the labor and environmental movements: Who will pay the cost of transitioning to a green economy? 

Some workers and unions see the danger of climate change as a remote problem, compared with the immediate loss of jobs and wages. Others believe that climate change is an urgent crisis and that government policy should protect jobs and wages as a transition to a fossil-fuel-free economy takes place. Many environmental justice groups also believe that working-class communities, especially communities of color, should not have to shoulder the cost of a crisis they did not create. And in the background, always, are efforts by industry to minimize the danger of climate change and avoid paying the cost of stopping it. 

Workers, Look Out: Here Comes California’s Phony Green New Deal

By Ted Franklin - Let's Own Chevron, July 14, 2022

California politicians never tire of touting the state’s leadership on climate issues. But how much of it is bullshit, to borrow the Anglo-Saxon technical term recently popularized by former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr?

Some East Bay and SF DSAers got very interested when we learned that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) was holding a one-day hearing on a 228-page draft plan for California’s transition to a green future. The 2022 Scoping Plan Update, to be adopted later this year, aims to be the state’s key reference document to guide legislators and administrations in remaking the California economy over the next two decades. We turned on our bullshit detectors and prepared for the worst. CARB did not disappoint.

The state is currently committed to two major climate goals: (1) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and (2) to achieve “carbon neutrality” by 2045. These are hardly adequate goals in the eyes of science-based climate activists, but California officialdom is taking them seriously, at least seriously enough to commission a state agency to map out a master plan to reach them.

And there’s the rub. Charged with the outsized responsibility of devising a roadmap to a Green California, CARB’s staff came up with a technocratic vision that caters to the powerful, seems designed to fail, and pays virtually no attention to workers whose world will be turned upside down by “rapid, far- reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” required to limit global overheating to 1.5ºC. Despite copious lip service to environmental justice, CARB’s draft also ignores the critiques and questions put forward by CARB’s own Environmental Justice Advisory Committee (EJAC), assembled to give CARB input and feedback as the state’s master plan takes shape.

“The state’s 20-year climate policy blueprint is a huge step backward for California,” commented Martha Dina Arguello, EJAC’s co-chair and executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles. “The plan on the table is grossly out of touch with the lived reality of communities that experience suffocating pollution and doubles down on fossil fuels at a time when California needs real climate solutions.” 

The idea that an air quality regulatory agency like CARB could come up with a viable plan for a societal transformation on the scale of the Industrial Revolution is absurd on its face. To do this without extensive involvement of labor would seem to doom the project entirely. Yet CARB plowed ahead without any significant input from labor. Result: the only union mentioned in CARB’s draft plan is the European Union.

We searched the draft plan in vain to see if it addressed any of the key questions from labor’s point of view:

What is the green future for California’s workers? How shall we provide for workers and communities that depend on the fossil fuel economy as major industries are phased out? What would a green economy look like, what are green jobs, how can we create enough good green jobs to meet demand, and what public investments will be required?

Instead of answering questions like these, CARB’s draft plan promotes a bevy of false solutions to reach California’s already inadequate targets. CARB’s depends on the state’s problematic cap-and-trade carbon trading scheme as well as carbon capture and storage (the favored scam of the oil industry) and hydrogen (the favored scam of the gas industry). The draft gives the nod to 33 new large or 100 new peaker gas-fired power plants. Missing: cutting petroleum refining, oil extraction, and fracking; banning new fossil fuel infrastructure; degrowing military and police budgets; and committing more resources to education, mass transit, healthcare, and housing. Instead of proposing an economy of care and repair to replace the old fossil fuel economy, CARB offers electric cars and more pipelines.

Far from providing a roadmap to a green future, CARB has come up with California capitalism’s most ambitious response yet to the radical ecosocialist Green New Deal that the world needs and we are fighting for.

Multiplying Labor's Power

Are Refinery Workers Climate Enemies? - Part 2

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Union Caucus, May 25, 2022

For context and background, see part one, here. Unlike the first installment, this second response has ommitted the comments that preciptated it, for the sake of clarity, as well as the fact that the author tried to echo the rebutted points in the response. It should be noted that only one individual has expressed outright opposition to showing solidarity with striking refinery workers. It's a foregone conclusion that the overwhelming majority of the IWW does not share this one individual's view.

First of all, let me be clear: my position is that humanity must collectively phase out burning fossil fuels for energy, transportation, and locomotion as rapidly as possible.

That said, nobody seriously believes we can collectively cease burning fossil fuels in a single day, so the likelihood is that the burning of them will continue for some time (I aim to make that as little time as possible).

Regardless of how long it takes, no oil refinery is going to simply shut down just because large masses of people, even 3.5% of the population demand it. It’s not even technically possible, let alone economically or politically possible. Most of the Environmental Justice and Climate Justice organizations (other than a few ultra-sectarian extremists) get this, and they’ve crafted their demands accordingly.

While there’s a degree of variation among the various organizing, most of them call for the following:

  1. No new extraction of new fossil fuel sources;
  2. Rapid phase out of existing fossil fuel sources;
  3. Managed decline of the existing fossil fuel supply chain;
  4. Just transition for any and all affected workers in the entire fossil fuel supply chain;
  5. Repurposing of equipment for non fossil fuel burning purposes;
  6. Bioremediation of damaged ecosystems across the extraction supply chain;
  7. Reparations for the affected communities and tribes.

Supporting refinery workers involved in a strike is not in any way contradictory to the above demands.

Webinar: Investing in Workers for a World Beyond Fossil Fuels

Are Refinery Workers Climate Enemies?

By an anonymous ex-member of the IWW (with a response by Steve Ongerth) - ecology.iww.org, April 28, 2022

Editor's Note: Since Monday, March 21, 2022, the workers at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California, members of the United Steelworkers Local 5 have been on strike and picketing the facility after voting down the company’s latest contract offer, which workers say contained insufficient wage increases and demanded cuts in union staffing that focused on health and safety in the refinery. The bosses have responded by bringing in scabs (including managers from other Chevron facilities). Meanwhile, USW Local 5 members have been picketing the refinery 24-7, and have been, at times, joined by members of the local BIPOC and/or environmental justice community. After IWW EUC cofounder and long-time Bay Area IWW General Membership Branch member, Steve Ongerth, brought a call for solidarity with the striking workers to the April branch meeeting, a disgruntled member (who has since resigned from the organization), sent the following letter to the branch (name deleted for privacy reasons).

Message from a Disgruntled (former) Member:

I’m sorry to say how disappointed I am in the IWW. I’m a relatively new wobbly and although I believe in standing in solidarity with fellow workers it seems at some point lines must be drawn.

As I’ve read through these last emails about the USW Local 5 and the call to action for us to stand with them as they strike, many questions come to mind. The first one is what if fellow climate activists, many of whom are wobblies were to implement a protest blockade to stall production of this refinery in defense of the environment? I wonder if those refinery workers with whom we are picketing would come outside and join our protest line? I also wonder if they would be interested in the invitation to join the 2022 Global Climate Strike that you forwarded to us? In both cases I assume it is reasonable to conclude they would not.

As wobblies, where do we draw the line? What if oil pipeline workers go to strike for hazard pay because a tribal nation, whose land the pipeline is planned to cross blocks safe access to thier jobsite in protest of the poisoning of thier waterways? Would the IWW Environmental Caucus also put a call out to picket with those Union workers? We draw the line when it comes to police unions who’s membership is hellbent on beating and imprisoning people protesting civil injustices. Why are we supporting refinery workers? This makes no sense. Iunderstand that just about every industry is to some degree tainted with These workers primary job is to process and prepare for market the product that’s catapulted us into the current global warming apocalyptic meltdown!

Green Unionism on the Chevron Richmond Refinery Workers Picket Line

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Union Caucus, April 15, 2022

Since Monday, March 21, 2022, the workers at the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California, members of the United Steelworkers Local 5 have been on strike and picketing the facility after voting down the company’s latest contract offer, which workers say contained insufficient wage increases. The bosses have responded by bringing in scabs (including managers from other Chevron facilities). The strike has gotten a good deal of media coverage:

However, the capitalist (and progressive) media have mostly missed some important details.

First of all, the striking refinery workers and their elected union leaders continue to emphasize that their issues extend beyond narrow bread and butter issues, such as wages and benefits. A major concern that they continue to articulate is that Chevron continues to try and cut unionized safety jobs and refuses to hire sufficient workers to safely and adequately staff the facility. Workers have complained of 12-hour days and six-day workweeks. All of these deficiencies not only risk the health and safety of the workers, but the surrounding, mostly BIPOC communities as well. Worse still, they have adverse environmental effects, a problem that hasn't been lost on the striking workers. As stated by USW Local 5 representative, B.K White:

“If we had more people and could get a better pay rate, maybe our members wouldn’t feel obligated to come in and work as many as 70 hours a week to make ends meet. We don’t believe that is safe. (that and the use of replacement workers) is at the detriment of the city of Richmond and the environment.”

Even less noticed by the media has been the presence of environmental justice activists (including, but not limited to, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Communities for a Better Environment, Extinction Rebellion, Fossil Free California, Richmond Progressive Alliance, Sierra Club, Sunflower Alliance, Sunrise Movement, and 350), various socialist organizations (including DSA in particular), and members from the nearby front-line BIPOC communities, who have joined the pickets in solidarity with the workers, something the workers have also not hesitated to point out. Indeed, in spite of the fact that many environmental justice activists and community members are harshly critical of Chevron's role in turning the city of Richmond into a capital blight infested sacrifice zone, they recognize that the workers are not their enemies nor are the latter responsible for the damage done by the company. On the contrary, many recognize that the unionized workforce is one of the best mitigations against far worse capital blight (it bears mentioning that there has also been a good deal of support and picket line presence from rank and file workers and union officials from many other unions, including the AFSCME, IBEW, IWW, ILWU, SEIU, UFCW, and the Contra Costa County Central Labor Council).

Such seemingly unlikely bonds of solidarity, though delicate and, at times, fragile didn't arise out of thin air, but, in fact, have resulted from years of painstaking grassroots organizing.

Nationalize the U.S. Fossil Fuel Industry To Save the Planet

By Robert Pollin - American Prospect, April 8, 2022

Even as Vladimir Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine proceeds and concerns over the subsequent high gas prices proliferate, we cannot forget that the climate crisis remains a dire emergency. The latest report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the most authoritative source on climate change research—could not be more explicit in reaching this conclusion. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres described the report as a “file of shame, cataloguing the empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world.” This follows several equally vehement studies in recent years, as well as those from other credible climate researchers.

If we are finally going to start taking the IPCC’s findings seriously, it follows that we must begin advancing far more aggressive climate stabilization solutions than anything that has been undertaken thus far, both within the U.S. and globally. Within the U.S., such measures should include at least putting on the table the idea of nationalizing the U.S. fossil fuel industry.

Solving the Climate Crisis with Nuclear Energy Won’t Work

By Robert Pollin - Dollars & Sense, March/April 2022

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is—as of this writing, in late March—an ongoing calamity. As of now, it is impossible to predict how it might end, and what all its costs will be. We do know, as of now, that many thousands of people are dead, and millions of lives are being wrecked.

In addition to these most brutal consequences, the war must force us to rethink many issues that—with no exaggeration—reach to the core of how we can envision future prospects for life on earth. I will consider only one such question now. That is: What role should nuclear energy play in advancing a workable global climate stabilization project?

In the initial phase of its invasion on February 24, the Russian military seized control of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which is located about 60 miles north of Kyiv in Ukraine. In 1986, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union, Chernobyl was the site of the most severe nuclear power plant accident in history. An explosion blew the lid off one of the plant’s four operating nuclear reactors. This released radioactive materials into the atmosphere that spread throughout the region. Despite this disaster, the other three reactors at Chernobyl continued operating until 2000.

The other three reactors did cease operating in 2000. And the site still houses more than 20,000 spent fuel rods. These rods must be constantly cooled, with the cooling system operating on electricity. If the system’s electrical power source were to malfunction, the spent fuel rods could become exposed to the air and catch fire. This would release radioactive materials into the atmosphere. Once released, the radioactive materials could again spread throughout the region and beyond, as they did in 1986. This is a low-probability but by no means a zero-probability scenario.

On March 3, the Russian miliary also took control of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, the largest in Europe. According to a March 4 report on NPR, “Russian forces repeatedly fired heavy weapons in the direction of the plant’s massive reactor buildings, which housed dangerous nuclear fuel.” All military actions at or near the plant create further danger of the plant’s operations becoming compromised. As with Chernobyl, this could then lead to radioactive materials being released into the atmosphere.

Nuclear disasters at both Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia are therefore active threats right now. In addition, the war is compromising the security systems that operate to protect both sites. The fact that both sites have become combat zones means that they are more vulnerable to attacks from non-state actors, including terrorist organizations of any variety. The aim of such organizations in breaching security at Chernobyl or Zaporizhzhya would almost certainly include gaining access to materials that would enable them to produce homemade nuclear weapons. At the least, they would be positioned to threaten the release of radioactive materials.

California Climate Jobs Plan Continues to Gain Union Endorsements

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Union Caucus - March 11, 2022

The California Climate Jobs Plan, popularly known as "the Pollin Report"--which has been described as a "sholvel ready just transition/Green New Deal" plan--and was immediately endorsed by nineteen California based labor unions, including three United Staeelworkers Union locals which primarily represent refinery workers upon its unveiling has since gained the support of many additional unions. The following unions (so far) have since endorsed the plan (knowing that while the plan isn't perfect, it's at least a step in a positive direction):

November 2021:

  • Inland Boatmen's Union (IBU), SF Bay Region (an affiliate of the ILWU)
  • Railroad Workers United
  • IWW San Francisco Bay Area General Membership Branch

February 2022:

  • International Lonshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Northern California District Council (NCDC)

The council is composed of delegates from the following ILWU Locals:

  • ILWU Local 6 (Bay Area Warehouse)
  • ILWU Local 10 (Bay Area Longshore)
  • ILWU Local 34 (Bay Area Shipping Clerks)
  • ILWU Local 75 (Bay Area Dock Security Guards)
  • ILWU Local 91 (Bay Area “Walking Bosses”)
  • ILWU Local 14 (Eureka; combined)
  • ILWU Local 18 (Sacramento; ditto)
  • ILWU Local 54 (Stockton)
  • Bay Area IBU (already endorsed individually)
  • and the pensioners from all of the above.

However, the NCDC's endorsement does not automatically mean that each of its constituent locals have individually endorsed the plan.

The more unions that endorse and take an active role in motivating the proposal either by lobbying at the California state level, engaging in public actions to promote the goals of the plan, or even engaging in workplace actions (whereaver relevant and practiceble), the greater chances the plan has of being realized.

(That said, it should be noted that this is not an IWW organizing project, although IWW members have been active in securing additional union endorsements).

A sample resolution (a copy of the text adopted by the SF Bay Area IBU) is available here.

Download the plan - here.

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