Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Green-Collar Workers: Does Just Transition Mean the End of Job Blackmail?

Does tackling global warming mean petrochemical industry workers will lose their jobs? The fight between jobs and the environment is at least as old as the environmental movement, and probably as old as the industrial revolution.

Jim Young writes about a movement that is coming up with a solution to this never-ending debate in an article in Sierra Magazine: "Just Transition"
That conversation has been going on for some time–and has led to a bold plan to reconcile environmentalists with workers who are frightened and angry at the prospect of job loss. Called Just Transition, it advocates financial support, health care, and retraining for employees displaced by environmental regulation, and would be funded by a tax on pollution. One recent transition proposal calls for two years of full, unconditional wage replacement and up to four years of full-time training or educational benefits, stipends for another two years for those who remain in training, health insurance, and retirement contributions
And it's not pie in the sky. Not only are there historical precidents in the GI Bill of Rights and a fund established in the 1950s in the European Coal and Steel Community, but environmentalists and unionists are working together today to make Just Transition a reality:
Just Transition emerged in its latest version from the Blue/Green Working Group, which includes the United Steelworkers of America, District 11; the Service Employees International Union; and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE!). It is led on the environmental side by the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists. They have been building on an idea that originated with the late Tony Mazzocchi, the visionary leader of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union. In 1973, Mazzocchi enlisted support from environmentalists to help OCAW wage a successful strike–he called it "the first environmental strike"–over health and safety issues at Shell refineries in four states. "We were working with this sh--," Mazzocchi once explained, "but we didn’t even know its name."
The principle is simple, according to Les Leopold, director of the Labor Institute in New York City. Leopold calls for a "Superfund for Workers:"
"The basis for Just Transition is the simple principle of equity. We ask that any worker who loses his or her job during a sunsetting transition suffer no net loss of income. No toxic-related worker should be asked to pay a disproportionate tax–in the form of losing his or her job–to achieve the goals of sunsetting. Instead these costs should be fairly distributed across society." Leopold also lamented unions that were "allowing corporations to convince workers that environmental protection can only cause job loss and that there is simply no alternative path."
In fact, say Just Transition backers, environmental protections can produce job gains
In the United States, some persuasive new evidence discredits the old jobs/environment split. For example, a study initiated by the Blue/Green Working Group found that a program with a carbon tax could curtail U.S. release of CO2 by 27 percent by 2010 and 50 percent by 2020. Combined with money recycled through reduced taxes on wages and growth in new energy technologies, the program could create 1.4 million jobs in 20 years, while substantially reducing reliance on imported oil.
All the good arguments in the world won't make it an easy fight when workers are faced with losing their jobs and communities losing their industries. But ultimately, is there a choice?

Read the whole article.