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What It Will Take To Build a Broad-Based Movement for a Just Transition

Unity between labor and environmentalists are forged by fighting for local projects, as well as broader initiatives. Many environmental justice groups believe working-class communities shouldn't have to shoulder costs of a crisis they didn't create.

Photo by David Bacon,

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. 

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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. 

Photo by David Bacon


In Washington State, a missed opportunity  

Washington has been a battleground over these ideas, a bellwether in the national debate over how to make a truly just transition. Guillen is part of a statewide coalition among workers, unions, communities of color, and environmental justice organizations that was formed to campaign for an initiative that sought to establish the ground rules for such a just transition. Similar coalitions are growing in other states as well. 

According to Jeff Johnson, former president of the Washington State Labor Council and Guillen's longtime political ally, "We have an existential crisis that is social, political, and racial, in addition to climate. And we know that the impact of climate change will hit those communities who had the least to do with causing it." 

That understanding led Johnson, Guillen, and their allies to put the Carbon Emissions Fee Initiative on the Washington ballot in 2018. It would have charged polluters $15 per metric ton on the carbon content of fossil fuels sold or used, including in the production of electricity generated or imported in the state. While carbon tax bills have been introduced in other states, the initiative was unique because it would also have set up a fund guaranteeing workers income and benefits if they lost jobs in the transition.

The group that drafted and then campaigned for the measure included environmental justice organizations that did health mapping to show its benefits. Other environmental advocates documented its impact on clean air, water, and forests. Initiative backers brought in Native American nations, guaranteeing that they would have free, prior, and informed consent over the use of their land in any carbon reduction project.

As labor council president, Johnson sought to build support from unions by emphasizing the needs of workers. "A just transition is not just a retrofit," he says. "We have to build in labor standards for public expenditures, with apprenticeship and local hiring agreements to give access to people who've been locked out. It has to include project labor agreements, buying from vendors with clean standards in terms of both carbon content and labor."

The initiative was vastly outspent by industry, however. Fossil fuel corporations bankrolled an opposition budget of $31.5 million, while supporters raised $8 million. Johnson's council gave $150,000. His request for official endorsement of the initiative got support from 62 percent of the delegates to the state labor convention, but it needed two-thirds, and so the state labor council didn’t endorse the measure. The failure reflected the fact that the state's building trades unions were firmly opposed, alleging that the initiative would cost jobs. In the general election, the alliance between industry with its huge expenditures and the building trades was enough to defeat the initiative, 56 to 44 percent.

The loss dramatizes a basic strategic problem confronting the developing labor-environmental alliance. Sections of the building trades have close relationships with industry, as do some environmental organizations. Those relationships make unity difficult around big steps to address climate change, and industry can deploy huge financial resources to defeat those steps, as it did with the initiative. Johnson cautions that within labor's ranks, the just transition approach was supported by almost two-thirds of Washington unions. "The initiative got 1.3 million votes, and at least 250,000 came directly from union members, and over 500,000 if we count their families."

Johnson's own political perspective challenged the ideas of union members from the beginning. He brought speakers to labor gatherings to talk about racism and immigration, in addition to climate change. "We have to reach our members and not fear talking with them honestly," he urges. "We have to break the historic weapon that's been used to divide us." 


Building unity

Derrick Figures, the Sierra Club's labor and economic justice director, has a similar perspective. "We work with activists, especially in largely brown and Black communities, who aren't included unless we struggle for it," he says. His office assists and coordinates the activity of over 100 organizers that the Sierra Club has assigned to climate justice work. "They are often people who come from affected communities," he notes, "and they spend a lot of time building relationships on the ground. We need to build an army of organizers, working on both labor and climate change."

Coalitions between labor and environmental groups, Figures believes, are forged through fighting for local projects, as well as broader initiatives. He points to several agreements in which those organizers have provided research, resources, and organizational support for concrete gains. "We have a community benefit agreement, for instance, in Alabama and California for the manufacture of electric school buses," he notes. “Our Clean Transportation for All team, alongside Jobs to Move America, helped provide training to activists and joined unions in pushing for this."

These are not small goals. According to one report, replacing every gasoline or diesel school bus with a vehicle-to-grid electric one "would create a total of 61.5 GWh of extra stored energy capacity—enough to power more than 200,000 average American homes for a week ... power output equivalent to over 1.2 million typical residential solar roof installations or 16 average coal power generators." 

The Sierra Club, along with Earthjustice, the Center for Biological Diversity, and CleanAirNow KC also sued Postmaster General Louis DeJoy over contracts to purchase gasoline-powered instead of electric trucks for the US Postal Service’s 190,000-vehicle fleet. That lawsuit partnered with others that included the United Auto Workers. It put the environmental movement in alliance with unions in the plants that build the vehicles as well as unions representing the postal workers who drive them, who've fought DeJoy since Donald Trump appointed him.

Figures himself was formerly on the staff of the American Federation of Teachers. "Our clean transition teams work alongside labor on modernizing school buildings, for instance," he says, "and then partner with the AFT on developing curricula for children that's not so focused on the need for fossil fuel. Our theory of change is that any transition has to start with workers and communities." Labor-environmental coalitions, he believes, "have to develop permanent relationships between unions and environmental and just transition groups and move beyond a transactional way of working." 


Organizing in the refineries

In Los Angeles, David Campbell, secretary treasurer of United Steelworkers Local 675, believes that building relationships and coalitions among union members and environmental activists depends on winning support among rank and file workers. And he's doing this work in one of the most challenging arenas, among his union members in the huge Southern California oil refineries, one of the largest concentrations of oil processing in the country. The Chevron complex in El Segundo, among several in Los Angeles where Campbell's union represents the workers, is the largest on the West Coast. It processes over 276,000 barrels of oil per day. 

According to Campbell, "Refinery workers are open to new ideas, but they're also terrified that they'll lose a job that can pay $150,000 to $200,000 a year for a high school graduate. That's why we start by simply asking them what they think will happen because of climate change. Our members could see change coming when the pandemic started and people stopped buying gas. They saw the ads for electric vehicles during the Super Bowl. So we ask them what they think California will be like when the state converts to zero-emission vehicles. We ask them what they need. The answer has to come from them. And the same with the question about who are our allies."

Workers are suspicious of false promises. Campbell remembers bitterly the jobs lost when the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect at the beginning of the 1990s. "We were promised that the Trade Readjustment Assistance program would provide training, but there was no job at the end," he says. "So now we want something way beyond hollow promises."

To give workers more information, the union needed a study about the impact of transition away from fossil fuels. Local 675 was among the labor groups, including the California Federation of Teachers, that asked Robert Pollin to write A Program for Economic Recovery and Clean Energy Transition in California. "Using it, we concentrated on building a coalition of unions in manufacturing and the public sector, with environmental organizations," Campbell says. "We pushed in the legislature and governor's office for a just transition that would meet California's climate goals and create a million new jobs."  

California is one of the most ambitious states on climate action but also one in which the oil industry holds enormous power. For refinery workers, that corporate power is felt very directly, on the job. Local 675 therefore applied for and received a foundation grant to train in-plant organizers to counter company efforts to stir up fears of job loss. "I can't go into the refinery and have conversations about climate change and transition," Campbell explains. "I'm escorted by a management person everywhere I go, and that chills any discussion. We need our rank and file members to be the organizers in the field—inside organizers, who can talk to workers on the job."

United Steelworkers leaders don't have illusions about the power of industry or its opposition to changes that threaten profits. To Campbell, "this is an industry that has overthrown national governments [as BP helped to do in Iran in 1953], so we need real power if we're going to fight with it. They won't take our proposals lying down. We have to mobilize our rank and file and look for allies. That's how we'll build political power."

Mobilizing communities outside the gates 

Alliances outside the refinery gates start with a clear understanding about who the workers are inside them. The stereotype of an oil worker is a white man, but the demographics of the oil workforce have changed. According to Campbell, white men are still the largest racial group, but not the majority, among workers in LA-area oil refineries. The union has significant numbers of women, and Latino, African American, and Asian/Pacific Island workers. "In addition, most of our members live in the community they work in, which means they're exposed to all the emissions that come from the plant," he says. 

The relationship between refinery workers and members of the community around them is the basis for a coalition being built in Richmond, California, where a Chevron refinery explosion 10 years ago led to 15,000 city residents seeking medical treatment. “The 2012 fire had a big role in creating a generation of young people who are looking at the status quo and saying, ‘Enough is enough,’” says Alfredo Angulo, member of the Richmond Listening Project

The fire led many community activists to reach out to workers in the refinery itself. Marie Choi, communications director for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, helped organize a march to the refinery gate on the anniversary of the disaster. "Ten years ago, when the refinery exploded, it was the workers who had to go through the flames," she emphasizes. 

Earlier this year those same workers, members of United Steelworkers Local 5, went on strike. "We were on their picket line every week," Choi recalled at an August 6 rally at the plant gate. "They were on strike over safety, to prevent future incidents like the one we're remembering today. That's common ground we share. The reality is that the transition is underway already. Unless we work together, we won't get the things we need—cleanup for the toxic site, safety nets for the workers, or gap funding for public services." 

Connie Cho, a staff attorney at Communities for a Better Environment, says, "We need a plan for a full, coordinated phase-out of oil refineries by 2045, so that we can put in place a strong safety net for fossil fuel workers, invest in developing healthy local economies with good family-supporting jobs, and clean up toxic sites. If we wait until the industry is on its deathbed, we’ll be too late.” 

Unity at the grassroots 

That sense of urgency has infected other unions in the Bay Area as well. Starting in 2016, activists in the Alameda Labor Council (the county that includes the cities of Berkeley and Oakland) began participating in the upsurge of protests over climate change. In 2017, the People’s Climate March led to organizing a labor/environmental climate convergence at the hall of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 595, in its zero-pollution building. More than 200 people came.

Michael Eisenscher, a founder of US Labor Against the War and a former delegate to the council, was one of its organizers. "We put the issue of just transition on our council's agenda," he recalls, "and talked about what it would require." Eisenscher and his coworkers organized a caucus that had official status in their labor council, and others were set up in nearby Contra Costa and San Francisco Counties as well. 

Many participants sought a comprehensive analysis of the sources of climate change. "We wanted to make the connection between US foreign policy, militarism, and environmental issues," he says. "The military produces a large share of carbon emissions, and it defends the oil industry internationally in a struggle over the global control of resources." 

Activists then organized an independent committee, Labor Rise for Climate, Jobs, Justice, and Peace. Others participated in forming the Labor Network for Sustainability, a national advocate for a labor policy based on the ideal of a just transition. As in Washington State, however, some building trades unions took a different approach. According to Eisenscher, industry proposals for carbon capture and storage were presented as an alternative to mandated limits on emissions. 

Building labor support for a just transition obviously isn't a smooth road. Eisenscher, Johnson, and Campbell all agree that winning rank-and-file support is the key to coalition building based on rank-and-file mobilization. But, they wonder, is progress fast enough? 

"We have less and less time," Johnson warns. "I'm not a doomsayer—that if X doesn't happen, we'll all die. In reality, as the crisis gets worse, the poorest people in the world will pay the price, migrating and looking for a safe place and something to eat. Climate change will become a leading cause of death. So our tactics have to change dramatically. We have to get into the streets and be willing to go to jail. We have to get truly progressive candidates elected. We must be committed that no one will be left behind." 

In Los Angeles, veteran labor/climate organizer Veronica Wilson agrees. "But while it's inspiring to see young people 11 or 12 in the streets, it's terrifying at the same time. They're using tactics the labor movement has prided itself on—disrupting meetings and going into the streets. And where are we?" she asks. "We still have a huge base of thousands of members, but incrementalism doesn't do it." 

Wilson also warns that in coalitions with environmental justice organizations, especially those with younger activists, "We have to be willing to stand behind, not try to dominate. We have to listen to Native voices in particular, accepting that they and others outside our ranks have the knowledge and understanding we need."  

And in dealing with their own members, unions need patient education to help them understand the systemic sources of climate change, job loss, and the basic problems workers face. "Given our dire situation, it's hard to do. Convincing people that our economic system contributes to all this can be too much to take on all at once. But we can't continue on the same path if we want to change the structures that are killing people on this planet."

[David Bacon is a California journalist and photographer, and the author of In the Fields of the North/En los Campos del Norte (University of California Press).]

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