Trade unions have the potential and the responsibility to advance a “just transition”

The idea of ​​a “just transition” emerged as an absolute requirement for any progress towards a clean energy future. An energy transformation will impact workers in the fossil fuel industry, but will also affect regions and communities differently. A just transition must be designed to ensure that the benefits of greening the economy are widely shared and that no worker is left behind.

Norman Rogers, a 20-plus-year worker at a Southern California refinery and second vice-president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 675, also sits on the joint health and safety committee and the refinery negotiation. In this interview, Rogers shares his thoughts on the principles and goals of just transition and how we might get there.

CJ Polychroniou: “Just transition” is associated with environmental transition, in sectors such as chemicals or energy, even if it now extends to other areas such as health and development. Can you speak from your experience as a refinery worker and union organizer about what the notion of just transition entails and how it is used in relation to workers in the fossil fuel industry ?

Norman Rogers: The term “just transition” is closely linked to the labor movement. Tony Mazzocchi, a trade unionist with the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) union, coined the term because it related to dangerous, toxic and potentially deadly chemicals to which its members were exposed. The idea then, as it is now, is to find other ways to meet the needs of the products produced and the health and well-being of the workforce he represented.

Today, the shift to renewable energy, increased use of electric vehicles and even steel made without the petroleum coke (petroleum coke) from the refining process is expected to have a profound impact on the number jobs in the fossil fuel industry. Knowing what the future holds and the serious repercussions that will ensue, and planning for that outcome, is what the call for a just transition is all about.

As a labor organizer representing fossil fuel workers in today’s atmosphere, the philosophy behind a just transition is to ensure that no worker is left behind in the transition to a clean energy economy. . Everyone should be taken into account, whether they are at the end of their career, at the start of their career or at any point in between. This fight must be won if the transition to a sustainable future is to be achieved. To the extent that we fail to do so, we will fail to build the community of allies necessary for the task at hand.

A just transition is said to be absolutely essential for effective climate action. Why is this so and what role can trade unions play in addressing the challenges of global warming?

A just transition is essential because, ultimately, decisions to address climate concerns will ultimately be made in the voting booth, and as people see their jobs disappear, with no alternative, their vote [will] be to maintain the status quo. There has to be a way for these people who are about to lose their jobs to find other careers. And it goes beyond people working in oil fields and refineries to people who build mufflers, engine blocks and transmission cases.

As we make the transition to the new economy and our focus on being ‘just’, we must also ensure there is justice. The new jobs that come online and the allocation of resources must be made available to all; the announced sustainable future must include all stakeholders: fossil fuel workers, riverside communities, indigenous peoples, the underemployed; they all need to be considered as we move forward. The benefits of a decarbonized future must be shared by all and the framework we build to achieve this is integral to any success we hope to achieve. A just path to a decarbonized future is absolutely essential for an environmentally sustainable economy. The costs of achieving a green economy should not be borne by those who have suffered and been excluded by the injustices associated with industrialization. I quote my father when I say, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”

A successful transition can only be achieved through social dialogue, consultation with those most directly affected by a decarbonized future, and the recognition that there may be more than one path forward. Trade unions have a key role to play as the shift to a green economy has such a fundamental impact on the lives of workers. Unions have the potential, the responsibility, to advance the cause of a just transition. They must help ensure that workers and the communities in which they live receive fair treatment. The labor movement has a long and rich history of fighting for a fair future for workers; it must be the same now as we move towards a decarbonized future.

The unions are divided on the Green New Deal. Some unions support a transition away from fossil fuels, while others seem to express apprehension, anxiety and fear at the prospect of a transition to clean, renewable energy sources. However, the prevailing view seems to be that ’employment versus environment’ is a false dichotomy, a false choice. How do you and the union you represent approach the issue of “jobs versus the environment”?

Undoubtedly, there are a lot of divisions when it comes to climate concerns but, to some extent, the view of climate concerns is almost debatable considering the changes taking place. If one follows the number of television commercials for electric cars over the course of a weekend, it becomes clear that the landscape is changing, and these are changes that mean a drop in demand for fossil fuel vehicles. Add to that that in California, new fossil-fuel passenger cars will no longer be sold after 2035. It should be noted that many other states are taking similar action. With this, the jobs vs. environment debate becomes unproductive given that the focus should be on how we ensure that jobs become well-paying union jobs.

New jobs are coming and with them, new labor is needed. The number of jobs associated with the clean energy economy already outstrips those in the fossil fuel industry, and with forecasts that these jobs are set to grow even further, we can help bury the ‘jobs versus jobs’ debate. environment” by guaranteeing these new jobs. are good jobs that support families and communities in a way that today’s fossil fuel jobs have for nearly a century.

From a practical perspective, what would a just transition model actually look like?

For me, a just transition model must include income support for workers during the transition. In addition, strong and well-funded training and retraining programs with a clear pathway to access the new jobs generated are needed. With jobs ahead, strong collective bargaining must be part of the picture. Likewise, as we start from scratch, sustainability tools for economically disadvantaged communities must be incorporated so that everyone benefits from what is to come. The list should of course be expanded to include specific government policies aimed at building in strong social protection measures for those at risk of losing their jobs and the unemployed in communities affected by the challenges and threats of global warming.

What are the best strategies for creating lasting alliances between work and the environment?

The main strategy I can suggest is that we need allies wherever we can find them, and there is a language and a type of discussion that exists when we talk to allies. There has been a lot of demonization about the fossil fuel industry and those who work in it. You have to understand that these people who hold these jobs are people who do the right thing; they have put roofs over their families, food on the table and supported the communities in which they live. And everyone, everyone benefited from the fruits of their labor, whether it was skipping a flight for an overseas vacation or road trip or the syringes that deliver the vaccines to help fend off the coronavirus.

We are now being told that the right thing to do is that we lose our jobs, jobs which in many cases have been multi-generational and, after decades of collective bargaining, have become well-paying jobs. If we can move to a place where there is an acknowledgment of these concerns, it creates a space where the discussions that need to take place about the way forward can take place. The goals of addressing climate challenges and the realities of people’s ability to provide for their families and communities need not be “us or them,” neither proposition . It’s a chance for us to see how well we can listen and how smart we can be with what we’ve heard.

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