For A Just Transition
Prepared Text Of Presentation to the Labor & Environmental Coalitions Workshop at the Rebuilding Labor’s Power conference, April 12, 2008

by Bill Onasch

The scientists have done their job. Overcoming enormous political pressures, the scientific community has forged a consensus that economic activity is the primary culprit in the climate change crisis that is the most serious challenge human civilization has yet to face. They have also developed proven technologies for alternative ways of producing and using energy that could pause the global warming doomsday clock and allow us to start repairing at least some of the damage we have inflicted on our biosphere. And, they have become increasingly insistent about the urgency of this crisis, warning that each day of delay in effective countermeasures results in more irreparable environmental destruction that is already causing unwelcome impact on millions and could ultimately make civilization as we know it unsustainable for future generations.

But scientists don’t run the world. They lack the power to implement the actions indicated by their science. That power, of course, is largely in the hands of the global corporations, and their hand picked politicians, who have profited greatly from environmental destruction. They are reluctant to even tinker with their good thing, much less accept the massive, fundamental economic changes required to tackle the global warming crisis, and a host of other environmental challenges.

That is why, even though many companies now try to project a green image, little progress has been made. Some of their touted environmental solutions–such as the food to fuel programs–in fact actually make things worse. We cannot rely on the global captains of industry and commerce to do the right thing.

Those of us at this conference are well aware that the mainstream leadership of our unions are dedicated to futile attempts at “partnership” with these corporations and their twin political parties. This usually, with a few honorable exceptions, extends to environmental issues as well. Even some of the more progressive of these unions are just as fearful as the employers of change in the economic status quo. They are eager to embrace pipe dreams of clean coal, ready to believe nuclear power is now safe, see urban sprawl as vital to their future, and are prepared to drill and dig in ANWR, Yellowstone, or wherever else the earth may be hiding fuel sources.

So it is no wonder that so many in the working class, including the organized, are fearful and confused about needed economic response to global warming. If existing jobs are eliminated because of environmental needs will there be other jobs to replace them? Will I have the skills needed for alternative “green jobs?” And, if I do get such a job will the pay and benefits be sufficient to maintain a middle class living standard?

If we can’t give credible positive answers to those questions then workers legitimately worried about their family’s future will grasp at the “junk science” offered by many bosses and politicians--parroted by too many union officials--either denying that global warming exists, or asserting that it is the product of natural forces over which we have no responsibility or control.

So if we are to rebuild labor’s power–not to mention saving our planet as we know it–us troublemakers have to come up with a plan for green conversion that protects the interests of working people. An essential component of this plan is the concept of Just Transition. Tony Mazzocchi introduced the Labor Party to this perspective and it became an important part of the Labor Party program.

It calls for the creation of a new worker-oriented environmental movement — a Just Transition Movement. All workers with jobs endangered by steps taken to protect the environment are to be made whole and to receive full income and benefits as they make the difficult transition to alternative work

And the cost of this Just Transition Income Support program will be paid for by taxes on corporate polluters.

Last year, our Labor Party chapter in Kansas City participated in a coalition building the first Step It Up event. In addition to Sierra Club folks some of us in the ATU had worked with in the past there were some church environmental justice committees and unaffiliated students involved. They were pleasantly surprised to see “labor” participating and they invited me to speak at the main rally. After making clear that no one, not even me, could speak for all labor I accepted their invitation and addressed a crowd of about 400 on Just Transition. The biggest applause of the day came in response to one line from my little talk, “We think those who have profited from decades of poisoning our environment should pay to help their former workers become productive in a sustainable economy.”

I also reminded them that in 1942 all auto production in this country came to an abrupt halt. But no auto worker stood outcast and starving as a result. The government took over the planning and direction of converting those plants to other uses, retained and expanded the workforce with their union contracts intact, and achieved an historic industrial success.

Now that, of course, was production for war which we don’t need today. But we can use the same methods to confront an even more formidable foe than German and Japanese imperialism–global warming. Through social planning with governmental power at its disposal, we can put industry to work making solar panels, wind turbines, rebuilding the new power grid, constructing new transit systems and laying new passenger rails, retrofitting our homes and workplaces to make them energy efficient–and much more. There’s no lack of work in a green conversion. And using the “make whole” principle we can take what we need from the polluting rich to get things going.

I believe we can win working people to such a perspective and we will find allies such as those we used to call tree huggers, and those dealing with environmental justice issues in our urban core, and family farmers, and students who want to apply what they have learned in to action.

I will conclude as I did at the Step It Up rally: Great social change, such as required to halt and reverse the forces changing our climate, has always been the product of great mass movements. We need to leave here today determined to educate, agitate, and organize in our communities, workplaces, and campuses for a Just Transition movement and not rest until we have accomplished our mission to save this planet.

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