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Just Transition: Just What Is It?

A Joint Report by Labor Network for Sustainability and Strategic Practice - July 2016

We are now one-sixth of the way through the twenty-first century and well into the greatest economic transition ever experienced — one that will dwarf all that came before this one. This transition includes energy, creating a carbon-neutral economy, communications, manufacturing, transportation, health care, waste management, and more.

This transition has already produced road-kill with many thousands of workers thrown on the scrap heap and disintegrating communities — with no help in the offing for them. So many individuals and groups are now asking how we organize society, our economy, and our politics in such a way that our institutions serve the people, rather than capital.

The “just transition” frame is being used by an increasing number of organizing networks, grassroots organizations, groups affiliated with organized labor, and environmental organizations. This report aims to assess the notion of just transition, how it is being used, what kinds of ideas and approaches are surfacing for short and long-term strategies, and what kinds of relationships groups are developing in pursuit of a just transition. Its purpose is to open a broad and respectful discussion about the varied ways the “just transition” frame is being used, and whether they can contribute to a shared vision of how to make the transition we face a just transition.

This report is based on 17 interviews conducted between October, 2015 and March, 2016 by Christina Roessler, accompanied at times by Joe Uehlein and Richard Healey. Interviewees were offered the opportunity to revise their quotations and their revisions are included in this draft. This report represents a preliminary effort based on a limited number of interviews and a small amount of additional research. Leaders were interviewed from the following groups:

Organizing Networks

  • Climate Justice Alliance
  • GreenWave
  • National People’s Action
  • New Economy Coalition

Grassroots organizing

  • ALIGN: The Alliance for Greater New York
  • Asian Pacific Environmental Network
  • Buffalo PUSH
  • Kentuckians For The Commonwealth
  • Movement Generation


  • BlueGreen Alliance
  • Labor Network for Sustainability
  • Oregon AFL-CIO


  • North Carolina League of Conservation Voters
  • Sierra Club

Part I, “History,” briefly lays out the historical background of the “just transition” frame.

“1. Backstory: Jobs with Peace,” based on original historical research, traces the idea of a planned transition from its early roots in the GI Bill of Rights, which helped millions of veterans transition from World War II to peacetime education and employment, through proposals from the Cold War-era peace movement for planned conversion from a military to a peacetime economy.

“2. Superfund for workers” summarizes the development, initiated by Oil Chemical, and Atomic Workers leader Tony Mazzocchi, of a plan initially called “superfund for workers” but soon dubbed “just transition,” to provide “a new start in life” for workers threatened by environmental policies.

“3. Environmentalists and just transition” describes the adoption of the concept by parts of the environmental movement.

“4. Just transition: Just a fancy funeral?” describes the resistance that developed to the “just transition” idea within much of organized labor.

“5. Climate justice,” describes the adoption of the term “just transition” and its reinterpretation by the environmental justice and climate justice movements.

Part II, “Analysis,” explores some of the efforts to utilize “just transition.”

“6. Using the language of just transition” illustrates some of the ways that just transition language is currently being used.

“7. Unifying vs. divisive effects” lays out interviewees comments on the impact of just transition language on different groups and their relationships.

“8. Policies” presents a preliminary sketch of policies advocated to realize just transition objectives.

“9. Just transition in practice” presents seven mini-case studies of efforts to embody just transition ideas in concrete social experiments.

The “Conclusion” presents a few reflections.

“Just Transition Core Elements” presents a list generated by an LNS/GPP Just Transition meeting in Washington, DC April 29 of people who were interviewed for the report.

This report represents a collaboration of the Labor Network for Sustainability and the Grassroots Policy Project. The project manager and interviewer was Christina Roessler. Support has been provided by the One World Fund and by the Chorus Foundation.

Read the entire report here, or download a PDF version of this report.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.