A Just Transition: Workforce Development and Jobs for a New Clean Economy

We know that the climate imperative in front of us is to transition as rapidly and comprehensively as possible from a fossil fuel based economy to a global economic system that runs on clean energy. Among the thornier questions involved in this shift is how the bold new economic visions for this large-scale transformation can support working-class families whose livelihoods are currently tied to the fossil fuel-based economy.

“Just Transition,” is the phrase frequently invoked as the answer to this question. In this panel from Bioneers 2019, four leaders answer the question, “What does a Just Transition Mean?” They outline the need for and progress towards proactive labor policies to ensure an equitable future for families and communities. With:

This is an edited transcript from a panel hosted at the Bioneers 2019 Conference.

VIEN TRUONG: I’d love for us to start with a basic question: How do we understand what Just Transition is? 

LARRY WILLIAMS: Every community has their own specific set of challenges so communities will also define what a just transition looks like to them.

Larry Williams

People are surprised to hear that Just Transition originated in the labor movement. For some workers, “Just Transition” means their job is going to get taken away. 

Some communities and families depend on jobs within the fossil fuel industry or resource extraction in general. The question we must answer to create a just transition is: How do we end the exploitation of our planet while ensuring that we’re not putting the livelihoods of communities and families at risk in the process? 

SARAH WHITE: I think that we tend to think about Just Transition in a very narrow way as the impact on resource-dependent communities, framed as, “What happens in California to oil and gas workers if we become carbon neutral?” And that is a big question.

But we also have to ask it as a larger question for the entire transition to a low-carbon economy: How do we transition into a carbon neutral economy in a way that is just? How do we ensure that workers whose jobs may be going away or transforming are included – but also all of those people who’ve been excluded from the economy right now are also included? What does it mean to build a new clean economy that includes people who have been excluded from opportunity in communities which have borne the heaviest burdens of climate change to date? It’s not only energy sectors either. We’re talking about a transition that looks at jobs in sectors including land, water, waste, industry, transportation, health, education and more.

Sometimes I hear language around Just Transition and I worry that people think we’re simply going to take these dirty jobs and swap them out for new green jobs. The labor market does not work like that. Ultimately, it is looking at an entire diversified economy, and how we build it, and how we bring people onto it.

I define Just Transition much more broadly than most. A Just Transition is about building a clean economy with an equity lens.

LARRY: When I hear transition, I ask: Transition from what? If you read W.E.B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction, you know that after slavery, reconstruction was a failure. Reconstruction was supposed to be an effort to move from a slavery-based plantation economy to a worker-ruled democracy. Today, we still see African Americans without jobs, doing labor in prison creating solar panels. If we’re not careful, we can risk repeating this history. 

VIEN: Larry, can you talk about the work that you’re doing, whether with the Sierra Club or union based or other places? How do we actually create more opportunity and access to communities that have not been part of the conversation?

LARRY: In order to have the skills necessary to build this new economy, for well-paid high-road jobs with health insurance and transferable career prospects, you need to have a base of training. 

This comes with challenges because clean-energy partners are very skittish about the labor movement. They believe that costs are going to be higher if their workers are unionized. But a workplace that invests in its employees will have consistent productivity and low turn-over; in the long run, you’ll actually spend less money. We put our livelihood into the work we do so we need to think about sustainability. Wages have been stagnant for the last 60 years despite productivity rising and despite the wealth of the rich going up.

Sarah White

SARAH: Part of my job is figuring out how to get the timing right so that we have the workforce we need to build this new economy, but we do not do what we did 10 years ago, which was to train a bunch of people for jobs in an imaginary green future, which did not arrive on time, and so did a disservice to a lot of people by training them for jobs that didn’t exist or jobs in a dead-end industry, career-wise. We don’t want solar sweatshops – just because it’s green doesn’t mean it’s good. 

We have an equity and climate jobs agenda in California, and one piece of that is looking specifically at how to build training partnerships across the sectors I mentioned earlier, including energy, transportation, land, water, waste, housing, etc. The answers come from working regionally and locally, from communities. The answers are not handed down by the state, no matter how much experience we have. 

VIEN: Larry, you are talking about “high-road jobs” – good pay, benefits, can support a family. I can imagine that if I were hearing about developments that might be a threat to my job, I would be scared. What are you hearing in your conversations with labor members? What should we know about where the anxieties are, and what kind of solutions they’re hoping to hear from us?

LARRY: If we’re being honest with ourselves about our movements, they’re all borne out of exclusion. Whether it’s women, people of color, Indigenous people, these movements started as exclusive movements and that can be found true today. 2017 was the first year that three out of four people who joined a union were under the age of 35. As the country becomes more diversified, so is union membership. One of those ways we’re working to get leadership to reflect that diversity is by organizing, educating people to know that they have a fundamental right to join a union. Some of the work entails challenging the white supremacy that has historically barred people from joining these unions and becoming leaders.

If the labor movement is successful in making the transition to a more inclusive formula, the problem will solve itself, because we realize that we literally can’t build a movement for a just economy without building a movement for environmental justice, racial justice, etc.

VIEN: We are now dealing with a country that is very divided, and some argue that this last Trump election was the backlash against where our future economy was headed. Especially in coal country where they feel like they are being left behind. 

Vien Truong

I will say that when I was CEO and president of the Dream Corps, I used to have a team called the Love Army. Our first campaign was to fight with United Coal Mine workers and because we didn’t confront them with the blame of pollution, we were able to work together to actually make calls to the Congress and successfully got 22,000 coal mine workers healthcare and pensions.

It wasn’t about helping the companies, it was about helping the people – that’s what this Just Transition is about. How do we make sure that we always keep in mind that it’s real people that we’re fighting for? 

Demond, I want to turn to you. You have perhaps the hardest job right now in crafting the Green New Deal, and everybody’s paying attention to it. I bet you have a bunch of people who are coming in and wanting to help you – “help you” – with thinking about various components, various parts of the economies. How have you been navigating unions, diverse communities and government interests? How are you navigating the balance of that in the crafting of this new deal?

Demond Drummer

DEMOND: We’ve always believed that the Green New Deal was bigger than one politician, one organization or one movement. It’s a movement of movements. We see our role as the “taking-it-all-the-way flank of the movement. We are going to advance the most aggressive and bold visionary version of what the Green New Deal can be. 

I don’t want people to walk away thinking that New Consensus is the one organization working on the Green New Deal. We’ve seen a number of groups take on the Green New Deal and pour their values and vision into that frame and that’s become part of a national conversation we find ourselves in the center of. 

There are people starting Green New Deal movements and conversations in local communities, in states – the list goes on and on. This is a national conversation, and we need to treat it as such. Everybody should be working on The Green New Deal.

VIEN: I completely agree with that. I want to close by saying how much I appreciate the work that you all are doing. Thank you all for giving an empathetic ear to people who need it. I hope that you lead with compassion in the spaces that you are operating in. I thank you for helping us fight for a just and sustainable future. 

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