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Green Class Struggle: Workers and the Just Transition

By Gareth Dale - Green European Journal, June 12, 2024

Inspiration for decarbonising industry and creating green jobs is within the hands of those already facing precarity in today’s economically unstable times. A resilient history of workers’ initiatives overcoming redundancies, alongside recent activist, trade-union, and workforce collaborations, provides concrete examples for empowered transitioning.

In 2023, when Europe was blasted by a record-breaking heatwave named after Cerberus (the three-headed hound of Hades), workers organised to demand protection from the extreme heat. In Athens, employees at the Acropolis and other historical sites went on strike for four hours each day. In Rome, refuse collectors threatened to strike if they were forced to work during periods of peak heat. Elsewhere in Italy, public transport workers demanded air-conditioned vehicles, and workers at a battery plant in Abruzzo issued a strike threat in protest at the imposition of working in “asphyxiating heat”. 

One could almost say that the Ancient Greeks foretold today’s climate crisis when they euphemistically referred to Hades, god of the dead, as “Plouton” (giver of wealth). The reference is to the materials – in their day, silver, in ours, fossil fuels and critical minerals – that, after extraction from the Underworld, line the pockets of plutocrats. Modern society’s plutocratic structure explains the astonishingly sluggish response to climate breakdown. The much-touted green transition is barely taking place, at least if the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases is taken as a yardstick. These continue to rise, even accelerate, and likewise the rate of global heating. The transition remains in the grip of powerful and wealthy institutions that – even if we leave aside motivations of avarice or greed for status – are systemically constrained to put the accumulation of capital above the habitability of the planet.

Against this backdrop, the politics of transition is class struggle beyond that of workers defending themselves and their communities against weather emergencies. That is part of the picture, of course. But class struggle is, above all, evident in the liberal establishment seeking to displace transition costs onto the masses, even as it presides over ever crasser wealth polarisation. From this, resistance inevitably flows. The question is, what form will it take? 

Some takes the form of an anti-environmental backlash, instigated or colonised by conservative and far-right forces. While posing as allies of “working families”, they denigrate the most fundamental of workers’ needs: for a habitable planet. Some takes a progressive form, the classic case being the gilets jaunes in France. When Emmanuel Macron’s government hiked “green taxes” on fossil fuels as a signal for consumers to buy more fuel-efficient cars, the rural working poor and lower-middle classes, unable to afford the switch, donned yellow safety vests and rose in revolt. Although France’s labour-movement radicals joined the cause, they were unable to cohere into a political force capable of offering alternative solutions to the social and environmental crises.

Our Strategy for Avoiding Total Catastrophe

By collective - Earth Strike UK, October 2023

Our mission is to achieve a world in which humanity is not in constant competition with itself or with the environment, to halt the rapid deterioration of our biosphere and to live in a world that is not on the brink of ecological collapse. In order to do that we must end capitalism and all other forms of oppression and exploitation which are the cause of injustice and threaten the stability and viability of our environment.

We believe that collectively we have the ability to bring about that better world through the power of organised labour and the application of industrial action. Through strikes, occupations and other forms of industrial action over environmental issues in our own workplaces we can have a direct, tangible impact on the trajectory of our climate. By employing those same tactics on a massive scale, across industries and across countries, we can launch a direct challenge to capitalism and the institutions that are driving the climate and ecological crisis.

With this in mind, we aim to promote, support or initiate general strikes for the climate nationally and internationally, as well as employ industrial action in defence of the climate more generally, and to create foundations of solidarity and mutual struggle on which we can build a better and more sustainable society.

However, organising a general strike for the climate is no easy task. We could simply set a date and call a strike but without a broad base of support, a mandate given by all of the people actually striking, it is unlikely that enough people would be willing to take the risk and participate. To be able to build a general strike that is actually effective there are a few things that need to happen first. It is not enough to simply mobilise, first we must organise!

There are several conditions that need to be met for a general strike for the climate to become a viable option in the struggle for climate justice. These conditions do not necessarily need to be fulfilled directly by Earth Strike UK. Our aim is not to be the banner under which all action should be taken, but to facilitate and encourage action that moves us towards a general strike. In fact, it is better if these conditions are fulfilled by a variety of groups, organisations and movements working independently and in parallel with one another, as this will lead to a more broad, dynamic and robust movement. There are several elements to our strategy.

None of them are mutually exclusive and any action that reinforces one is likely to reinforce others. Importantly, each strand of our strategy is also an end in itself; each will individually improve the world in a tangible way, even if they can’t all be brought together to materialise a general strike.

Download a copy of this publication here (PDF).

Environmental Justice Equity Principles for Green Hydrogen in California

By various - California Environmental Justice Alliance, October 13, 2023

We represent heavily polluted communities throughout the State of California. Our communities border oil refineries, gas-fired power plants, industrial farming operations, fossil fuel extraction facilities, waste processing centers, ports, transportation corridors and other polluting operations. These cumulative sources of pollution cause a wide range of adverse health outcomes in working class communities of color. Our communities share a common fence with facilities and operations that emit toxins, foul smells, and noise and cause nuisance impacting people’s quality of life at all hours of the day and night.

The State of California intends to expand the use of hydrogen as a fuel, and to this end, we offer these guiding principles, which are essential to respect and protect our communities.

The following principles represent our collective values and positions to support communities as hydrogen energy is utilized across the state.

These principles were developed in 10 workshops and learning sessions for environmental justice partners across California between March and September of 2023. The learning sessions examined the current science, including risks, benefits, and unknowns, and shed light on each stage of the hydrogen cycle, including production, delivery, storage, and use. The workshops allowed our organizations to discuss different perspectives, build consensus, and reflect on how hydrogen may impact our communities. 

We adamantly oppose all non-green hydrogen proposals and projects. We insist that new projects protect communities first and do not perpetuate the injustices that polluting infrastructures impose on fence-line communities today. Each stage of the hydrogen life cycle—production, delivery, storage, and end use—can present unique risks and harms to environmental justice communities and to all Californians.

Discussions about building new green hydrogen infrastructure must involve the community, and its members should be meaningfully engaged. Siting green hydrogen infrastructure should also take into account the cumulative impacts of environmental justice communities and the risks associated with hydrogen.

Our Green Transition May Leave Black People Behind

By Rhiana Gunn-Wright - Hammer & Hope, Summer 2023

I’m an architect of the Green New Deal, and I’m worried the racism in the biggest climate law endangers our ability to get off fossil fuels.

This summer, the earth raged. Fires in Maui and Canada, floods in Delhi and Beijing, heat everywhere — this is the beginning of the climate impacts scientists have long predicted, and the U.S. is unprepared in terms of everything from infrastructure to public health. And if I’m honest, I raged, too. Never in my life have I wished more to be a cyclone, blowing away everything in my path, or an earthquake, shaking everyone to their core until they take seriously the concerns of Black and Indigenous frontline communities.

August marked a year since the Inflation Reduction Act passed, arguably the most significant climate legislation in U.S. history. But the racist compromises and the marginalization of Black people and their demands that facilitated the bill’s passage have seeped into the climate movement, sowing division and narrowing discourse in ways that not only threaten to keep Black people at the bottom of a new green economy but also undermine efforts to address thornier issues, such as who owns energy resources or how to navigate conflicts about resource distribution and land use, questions that money alone cannot answer.

Fossil fuel layoff: The economic and employment effects of a refinery closure on workers in the Bay Area

By Virginia Parks, PhD and Ian Baran - UC Labor Center, April 26, 2023

On October 30, 2020, the Marathon oil refinery in Contra Costa County, California, was permanently shut down and 345 unionized workers laid off. We surveyed (n=140) and interviewed (n=21) these refinery workers to document their post-layoff employment experiences. The findings in this report focus on these workers’ post-layoff job search, employment status, wages, and financial security. The Marathon refinery’s closure sheds light on the employment and economic impacts of climate change policies and a shrinking fossil fuel industry on fossil fuel workers in the region and more broadly.

In the aftermath of the refinery shutdown, workers were relatively successful in gaining post-layoff employment but at the cost of lower wages and worse working conditions. At the time of the survey, 74% of former Marathon workers (excluding retirees) had found new jobs. Nearly one in five (19%) were not employed but actively searching for work; 4% were not employed but not looking for a job; and the remaining 2% were temporarily laid off from their current job. Using standard labor statistics measures, the post-layoff unemployment rate among Marathon workers was 22.5% and the employment rate was 77.5%. If workers who have stopped actively searching for work were included, the post-layoff unemployment rate was higher at 26%.

Former Marathon workers find themselves in jobs that pay $12 per hour less than their Marathon jobs, a 24% cut in pay. The median hourly wage at Marathon was $50, compared to a post-layoff median of $38. A striking level of wage inequality defines the post-layoff wages of former refinery workers. At Marathon, hourly pay ranged between $30 to $68. The current range extends as low as $14 per hour to a high of $69. Workers reported benefits packages comparable to their pre-layoff Marathon benefits.

Workers found jobs in a range of sectors. The single most common sector of re-employment was oil and gas, where 28% of former Marathon workers found post-layoff jobs but at wages 26% lower than at Marathon. These lower rates of pay stem from loss of seniority and non-union employment. The utility sector (electrical power, natural gas, wastewater management) was the second most common sector of re-employment. Workers reported that utility jobs were a good fit for their skills, reputed as “good jobs,” and highly sought after. The median hourly utility wage was $41. The third most common re-employment sector was chemical treatment. Less than half (43%) of all post-layoff jobs were unionized.

Overall, workers reported worse working conditions at their post-layoff jobs, even in higher wage jobs. Workers described hazardous worksites, heavy workloads, work speed-up, increased job responsibilities, and few opportunities for advancement. Above all, workers cited poor safety practices and increased worksite hazards as the most significant and alarming characteristics of degraded working conditions.

Workers had difficulty finding jobs that matched their skills when searching for work. They emphasized two primary frustrations: 1) employers’ lack of knowledge about refinery work and refinery workers’ skills and 2) workers’ inability to prove their skill or experience through certifications or a verification process.

Nearly all workers (91%) would consider job training. Approximately half (49%) said they would enroll in a job training program, 42% responded “maybe,” and 9% said they would not. Workers aged 40 to 49 reported the greatest willingness to enroll in training followed by workers aged 30 to 39. Hesitation was highest among workers over the age of 50. Workers’ most prevalent concerns about training were cost, needing to earn while training, and training program length. Many workers were apprehensive about the efficacy of training. Workers were uniformly uninterested in going back to school to earn degrees.

Workers reported increasing financial insecurity after the layoff. A full third of all workers described that they were “falling behind financially” a year following the layoff compared to only 3% before the layoff. Nearly one-third of all workers took early withdrawals from their retirement accounts to make ends meet following layoff. Most re-employed workers did not move to find jobs, likely associated with the high rate of home ownership among Marathon workers (81%). Many expressed deep anxieties about their long-term ability to make mortgage payments.

Laid-off workers are highly motivated to put their skills and experience to use in new jobs, in new sectors. They require coordinated assistance to transition successfully into new jobs and for the region to retain them. Our research findings identify four critical types of assistance that workers need most. First, third-party skill certification would facilitate more efficient and accurate skill matching between jobs and workers in the labor market. Certification would help workers communicate, and verify, their skills to new employers. Certification would aid employers who are unfamiliar with the refinery sector make better decisions about assessing their workforce needs in relation to the skills of former refinery workers.

Second, workers require targeted job search assistance that focuses on a broad scope of strategies, including effective job search techniques, resume and online profile preparation, and career counseling. Both workers and job counselors require an up-to-date and nuanced assessment of jobs and industries to which refinery skills transfer.

Third, a fair and equitable transition for workers out of the fossil fuel sector depends upon a robust economic development strategy that generates new jobs comparable in quality to the jobs these workers are leaving behind. Successful transition requires both transition assistance and high-road job growth. One without the other will leave workers, and the region, behind.

Lastly, regional economic development strategies aimed at reducing fossil fuel dependency must account for the adverse financial impact these strategies will have on workers and their families. Loss of income will invariably result. A just transition for working Californians needs to include financial support, in the form of cash assistance or wage replacement, to cover losses in wage income.

Download a copy of this publication here (PDF).

Here’s How We Escape Climate Apocalypse

Our Power: Offshore Workers’ Demands for a Just Energy Transition

By Rosemary Harris, Gabrielle Jeliazkov, and Ryan Morrison - Our Power, March 6, 2023

Over the past two years, we’ve come together with offshore workers to build demands for a just energy transition. These workers developed 10 demands covering training and skills, pay, job creation, investment and public ownership.

We surveyed over 1000 additional offshore workers and over 90% agreed with these demands. This plan is comprehensive in scope, transformative in scale and deliverable now.

Below you will find a series of resources setting out the demands and the paths we can take to turn them into reality.

We need a rapid transition away from oil and gas that protects workers, communities and the climate. But the government has no plan to phase out oil and gas production in the North Sea.

Oil and gas workers are ready to lead a just transition away from oil and gas, but they are caught in a trap of exploitation and fear created by oil and gas companies. Working conditions are plummeting, just as profits, prices and temperatures are soaring.

The UK and Scottish Governments must listen to workers to make this transition work for all of us. These demands lay out a comprehensive plan, which includes:

  • Removing barriers that make it harder for oil and gas workers to move into the renewable industry.
  • Ensuring safety, job security and fair pay across the energy industry.
  • Sharing the benefits of our energy system fairly, with public investment in energy companies and communities.

Workers have told us what they need for a just transition, now we need to work with them to make it happen.

Read the report (PDF).

Fighting California’s fires requires carceral reform and a Just Transition

By Ray Levy Uyeda - Prism, September 28, 2022

Fires fueled by climate crisis expose the intersecting injustices incarcerated people face and the comprehensive reforms needed for a Just Transition:

Fall is a tough season for Da’Ton Harris, a wildland firefighter who spends multiple weeks at a time attempting to tamp down fires without hoses. Harris and his crew of 20 other firefighters with the Urban Association of Forestry and Fire Professionals, where he’s a superintendent, are responsible for cutting down a forest to its soil so that, theoretically, there’s less fuel to burn. It’s a critical job, especially as climate change continues to dry up California’s forests and prolong the summer heat, which now overlaps with increased winds during typical fall months—creating a ripe environment for wildfire. 

Many firefighters have been at the front lines of these dangerous jobs while being incarcerated, but policies block them from being hired by municipal fire stations after their release because they have conviction and felony records, despite the growing need for more firefighters to combat intensifying wildfires.

California legislators are starting to acknowledge this reality. In 2021, a state law went into effect that may make it easier for firefighters who were trained while they were incarcerated to expunge a felony conviction from their record, which is needed to gain the required licensing to become a municipal firefighter. Harris, a staff member at Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program (FFRP), which helps formerly incarcerated people find jobs, went through the expungement process this year.

“With me being able to get this off my record, I can try to head back to school to work for a paramedic license, so I can work closer to home,” Harris said. He lives in Victorville, California, with his wife and five children, and he said that he’ll be able to go to his son’s baseball games and maybe even help coach the team. The expungement, he said, will change everything.

Advocates say the change in the law is a prime example of the progress that needs to happen around felony records and removing employment restrictions for those who’ve been arrested or incarcerated. However, others warn that reforms to a system that is restrictive by design won’t bring about the justice needed to address climate change-induced wildfires or change the way a conviction record can shadow someone long after they’ve served their sentence. 

While incarcerated wildland firefighters are tasked with combating the consequences of climate change, justice-involved community leaders and grassroots activists say that the intertwined issues of climate change and retributive policies of incarceration deserve a deeper look that questions the efficacy of piecemeal solutions to systemic issues. They also echo a call for a Just Transition, a union term for shifting the workforce away from harmful industries to those that don’t risk climate and ecological balance.

Industrial Policy Without Industrial Unions

By Lee Harris - The American Prospect, September 28, 2022

In August, as President Biden signed the CHIPS and Science Act, pledging to build American semiconductor factories, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker posed on the White House lawn, flanked by the chief executives of vehicle companies Ford, Lion Electric, and Rivian. Thanks to billions of dollars in federal and state investments, Pritzker said, his constituents could expect a manufacturing revival, and “good-paying, union jobs.”

Illinois is refashioning itself as a center for electric vehicle (EV) production and a cluster of related industries, such as microchips. The state just passed the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, its flagship industrial-policy plan, and has passed MICRO, a complement to federal CHIPS subsidies. Pritzker is hungry for Chicago to host the upcoming Democratic convention and take a victory lap at factory openings.

But he may have to trot out non-union autoworkers at the ribbon cuttings.

Ford, a “Big Three” union automaker, boasts that the F-150 is a “legendary union-built vehicle,” but battery production is being outsourced to non-union shops. Bus producer Lion Electric is under pressure to use organized labor, but has yet to make public commitments on allowing a union election without interference. Electric-truck startup Rivian, which is 18 percent owned by Amazon, has been plagued by workplace injuries and labor violations. Illinois’s attorney general recently uncovered a scheme to renovate its downstate plant with workers brought in from Mexico, who were cheated out of overtime pay.

Democrats are giddy about the arrival of green industrial policy. With last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law, CHIPS, and the new Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), Congress has poured money into setting off green growth. The main messaging behind this policy is that government investment can create attractive jobs, and a new political base, by manufacturing the clean technologies of the future.

If you squint, you could almost mistake the IRA’s robust Buy American provisions for worker protections. They are often mentioned in the same sentence. But while new spending is likely to onshore manufacturing, it largely lacks provisions ensuring that those new jobs will adhere to high-road labor standards, let alone that they will be unionized.

Instead, the political logic of the bill is a gamble. The energy sector is still dominated by oil and gas. To accelerate the transition, it will be necessary to create large countervailing industries. After decades of offshoring, the first aim for green manufacturing is to make sure that it happens here at all. The IRA alone could produce as many as nine million jobs over the next decade, according to an analysis by University of Massachusetts Amherst and the labor-environmental coalition BlueGreen Alliance. Many of those jobs will be in old Democratic strongholds where the party is now hemorrhaging support, like mining in Nevada and auto production in the Midwest.

Supporters hope that once new green jobs are created, a mass labor coalition could follow. As Nathan Iyer, an analyst at the climate consultant RMI, told the Prospect in a recent podcast, “It’s hard to have a workers-based movement, and build workers’ power, if there are no workers.”

Biden Promised “Good-Paying Union Jobs,” But It Will Take Organizing to Get Them

By Leanna First-Arai - Truthout, September 27, 2022

Since the historic and controversial Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) was signed into law in August, the economy has begun showing early signs of shifting and recalibrating beneath our feet. Honda Motor Company and LG Energy Solution have announced plans for a lithium ion battery plant, with their sights on Ohio; hiring has ticked up at a small business in Texas that builds wind and solar power plants; and the state of Connecticut is soliciting applications for millions in funding for community-led climate adaptation plans in anticipation of IRA funds to come, plus funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law signed last year. The IRA set aside $369 billion in climate and energy spending, which researchers estimate will translate to 9 million jobs over the next decade.

But as cities, states, nonprofits, industry groups and corporations all scramble to sweep up a slice of that funding, the degree to which these jobs will live up to being the Biden administration’s promise of “good-paying union jobs” remains to be seen. So too does whether and how those positions will be made available to the frontline and fenceline communities of color that have suffered the most from decades of disinvestment, pollution and manipulation at the hands of the fossil fuel industry, as well as to those working in the industry itself.

“Having that stuff in the federal bill is great, but unless we are organizing to bring these things into reality, it’s not going to happen,” said Rick Levy, president of the Texas AFL-CIO at a Climate Jobs Summit earlier this month. Levy warned that Republican-led state officials and contractors could be wary over accepting clean energy grants and tax breaks from the federal government, given the labor protections and training stipulations the money is contingent upon.

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