Unions Have the Potential and the Responsibility to Advance a “Just Transition”

The idea of a “just transition” has emerged as an absolute requirement for any progress toward a clean energy future. A energy transformation will have a significant impact on workers in the fossil fuel sector, but it will also have a different impact on regions and communities. It is essential to make sure that everyone benefits from greening the economy and that no worker is left behind.

Norman Rogers, a 20+-year-old employee of a southern California refinery, is second vice president of United Steelworkers Local 675 and serves on the Joint Health and Safety Committee and Negotiating Committee. Rogers shares his thoughts on the principles and aims for a just transition and how to get there.

C.J. Polychroniou: “Just transition” is associated with the environmental transition, in sectors such as chemicals and energy, although it is now moving into other areas such as health care and even development. Can you speak from the perspective of a labor organizer and refinery worker, what the concept of just transition is and how it is being used to connect with workers in fossil fuel industries?

Norman Rogers: The term “just transition” is very much linked with the labor movement. Tony Mazzocchi (a trade unionist with Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers union, OCAW) coined the term to refer to the life-threatening, toxic, and dangerous chemicals to which his members were exposed. The idea was to find alternative ways to meet the demands of the products being manufactured and to ensure the well-being and welfare of his workers.

The shift to renewables, increased use of electric vehicles, and steel made without petroleum coke (petcoke), are all set to have a significant impact on the number fossil fuel industry jobs. The call for a just transition is about knowing the future and the serious consequences that will occur and planning for them.

As a labor organizer representing fossil-fuel workers in the current environment, the philosophy behind a just transformation is to ensure that no worker is left behind when transitioning into a clean energy economy. All workers must be taken into account, no matter their age, starting out, or at the end. If we want to see a sustainable future, this fight must be won. We will not succeed in building the community of allies necessary to accomplish the task.

It’s been said that a just transition is absolutely essential for effective climate action. What role can trade unions play in addressing the challenges of global warming and why is this so?

A fair transition is essential, because the final decision to address climate issues will be made at the ballot booth. To the extent that people see their jobs as being eliminated, they will vote. [will]It is to keep the status quo. It must be possible for people who are going to lose their jobs to find other career opportunities. This extends beyond oilfield workers and refineries to include people who build transmission housings, engine blocks, and mufflers.

As we transition toward the new economy and the attention we give to it being “just,” we must ensure there is justice as well. The new jobs that come online and the allocation of resources must be made available to all; the sustainable future being touted must include all stakeholders: fossil fuel workers, fence-line communities, Indigenous people, the underemployed — they all must be accounted for as we move forward. A decarbonized future is a shared benefit that must be shared by all. The framework we set up to make it possible is an integral part to any success we wish to achieve. A decarbonized future requires a just path. This is crucial for an ecologically sustainable society. People who have suffered the injustices of industrialization should not have to pay the costs of a greener economy. I quote my father when I say, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”

Social dialogue, consultation with the most affected by a decarbonized world and acceptance that there may be multiple paths to success are key to a successful transition. Given the fundamental impact of the green economy on workers’ lives, unions have a critical role to play. Unions have the responsibility and potential to help make the transition just. They must ensure that workers and the communities where they live get fair deals. Organized labor has a long and rich history of fighting to ensure workers have an equitable future. The same must be true as we move toward a decarbonized world.

The Green New Deal has divided labor unions. Some trade unions support a transition away fossil fuels while others express anxiety, fear, and concern over the possibility of transitioning to clean, renewable energy sources. However, the prevailing view seems to be that “jobs vs. the environment” is a false dichotomy, a false choice. How do you and the union you represent look at the issue of “jobs vs. the environment”?

Without a doubt, there is a great deal of division in regards to climate concerns but, to a certain extent, one’s view of climate concerns are almost a moot point given the changes taking place. It is easy to see that the landscape is changing. This means that there will be a decrease in demand for fossil fuel-powered vehicles if you look at the number of ads for electric cars on television over the weekend. In California, no new fossil-fuel-powered passenger vehicles will be sold after 2035. It is worth noting that there are many other states making similar moves. The debate about jobs vs. environment is no longer productive. Instead, we should be focusing on how to make union jobs good-paying.

There is new work coming, and with it, a new workforce. The number of jobs associated with the clean energy economy already surpass those in the fossil fuel industry, and with the predictions these jobs are set to further increase in number, we can help bury the “jobs vs. environment” debate by ensuring these new jobs are quality jobs that support families and communities in ways that the current fossil fuel jobs have for close to a century.

What does a just Transition Model look like from a practical point of view?

My personal opinion is that a just transition model must include income assistance for workers during the transition. Solid, well-funded training and/or retraining programs, with clear pathways to new jobs, are essential. Strong collective bargaining must be part of the picture for the new jobs. Similarly, as we start from scratch, sustainable development tools for economically disadvantaged communities must be incorporated so everyone benefits from what’s to come. This list should be expanded to include government policies that aim to integrate strong social protection measures to protect those at risk of losing jobs and those who are unemployed in communities affected by global warming’s challenges and threats.

What are the best strategies to create lasting labor-environmental alliances

I can suggest the following strategy: We need allies wherever they are found. There is a language, and a type discussion, when we speak with allies. There has been a lot of demonization in relation to the fossil fuel industry, and those who work there. An understanding is needed that those folks working these jobs are people doing the right thing; they have put roofs over their family’s heads, food on the table and supported the communities in which they live. Everyone, Everyone Their labors have been a boon for everyone, whether they are hopping on a plane to go on an overseas vacation or taking a roadtrip or the syringes used to administer the vaccinations to combat the coronavirus.

Now, we are being told to quit our jobs. Many of these jobs are multigenerational and have evolved into well-paying jobs after decades of collective bargaining. If we can find a place that recognizes these concerns, it creates an environment where the discussions about a way forward can take place. The goals of meeting climate challenges and the realities of people being able to support their families and communities need not be the “us or them,” either/or proposition it is being made out to be. It is a chance for us to see how well we can listen and then how clever we can be with what we’ve heard.