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Green-Collar Workers

Debating issues from arctic drilling to fuel economy, labor and environmentalists are often at odds.

But a bold new plan could help reconcile the differences.

by Jim Young

An imposing fortress of the "carbon economy," ConocoPhillips’s Bayway refinery produces more than 8 million gallons of fuel oil every day. The biggest refinery on the East Coast, it also exhales more than 390 tons of toxic chemicals into the air around Linden, New Jersey, each year. It has smeared the tides that slosh through the Arthur Kill, a mile-wide stretch of brackish water between Linden and Staten Island. In 1990, almost 570,000 gallons of oil spilled from a ruptured underwater pipe that connected the refinery to a nearby plant, then owned by Exxon. But Bayway’s pollution is not confined to the immediate vicinity. When those 8 million gallons burn, they will emit 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide, a major contributor to global warming.

To move beyond this suffocating predicament, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups have long argued for a switch to clean power sources such as solar, wind, or tidal. Excess power would be stored as hydrogen fuel electrolyzed from water. Instead of cars fuming in gridlock, hydrogen vehicles and sleek electric trains would speed us across a smog-free landscape. It’s a vision that inspires comfort and hope.

Unless you’re a worker like Curt Greder, the local Teamsters president at Bayway, or the 625 union members he represents–or like millions of other Americans whose livelihoods depend on the extraction and use of coal, oil, and natural gas. Any meaningful action to slow global warming could cost them their jobs. It would be like "pulling all the teeth out of our heads," says Greder. Standing on the Atlantic City boardwalk during a break from a union meeting, the ponytailed 48-year-old continues in his booming voice as if hanging tough at the bargaining table: "If you take my job away, I want to be paid for life. Is that a lot to ask?" he says. "You bet it is–but it’s where the conversation starts."

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. The proposal estimates its cost would average $122,000 per worker, or about 150 percent of the average amount lost by a dislocated worker. The tax–on fossil-fuel production and energy-intensive manufacturing–plus a small surcharge on nuclear and hydroelectric power, would be phased in over a five-year period, increasing to $50 per ton of carbon emitted, roughly equal to 13 cents per gallon of gasoline.

Although the plan sounds idealistic, it has two powerful–and practical–precedents: The GI Bill, in the United States, and a fund established in the 1950s in the European Coal and Steel Community that has provided economic relief and retraining for hundreds of thousands of displaced steelworkers and coal miners during periods of overproduction.

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."

Mazzocchi’s genius was to bring environmentalists and scientists together with workers. Starting in the 1960s, he led coalitions that established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1970, blew the lid off the industry cover-up of the health hazards of asbestos, catalyzed the antinuclear movement by raising awareness of Karen Silkwood’s epic battle against the Kerr-McGee nuclear plant, and pushed enactment of "right to know" legislation giving workers and citizens the right to information about toxics on the job and in the community.

He first conceived of Just Transition as a "GI Bill for workers." The idea reflects Mazzocchi’s own use of that program to get back on his feet after seeing combat in Germany in World War II. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, as the GI Bill was formally known, covered 15.4 million returning veterans and provided a living wage and tuition for up to four years. Then, as now, there weren’t enough decent jobs to go around. The law extended grants to millions who had never dared dream of higher education. It sent 2.2 million GIs to college and graduate school, and another 3.5 million to trade schools and other educational programs.

At the time, critics claimed the program was too expensive. Yet it is now viewed as perhaps the best human-resources investment ever made. A 1998 congressional study found that, for every dollar invested in the GI Bill, the government and economy reaped at least $6.90 in economic growth and taxes.

Two Mazzocchi protégés and labor activists, Les Leopold and Brian Kohler, say the "coming out party" for Just Transition was in 1995, when Leopold, director of the Labor Institute in New York City, made a presentation before the International Joint Commission on Great Lakes Water Quality. There was serious discussion about a phaseout of toxic organochlorines–and jobs in the chemical manufacturing sector looked like they would either be lost immediately or phased out in a process called "sunsetting."

The speech was an impassioned plea for mutual understanding, explaining why workers "cling to toxic jobs." Calling for the establishment of a "Superfund for workers," Leopold declared, "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."

Such an all-or-nothing stance risks triggering an "unjust transition," says Kohler, national representative for health, safety, and the environment for the Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union of Canada. A classic example is the phaseout of leaded gasoline, he explains. "We had workers making leaded additive, and we knew 20 years ahead of time they were going to sunset the product. In the end, all we were able to negotiate was a severance package. If that’s the best we can do, we failed. If we spend our last dying breath defending the indefensible–whether it’s lead in gasoline or something else–when the inevitable change occurs we won’t have any political credibility with which to defend our members."

Part of the problem, says Leopold, is that environmentalists within the labor movement amount to a silent majority. "You have a very small number of workers and unions vociferously fighting against the environment," says Leopold. "But labor as a whole is more pro-environment than the public at large." A poll done in 2002 for the Sierra Club in Michigan bears this out. The survey revealed that 88 percent of United Auto Workers households favored tougher automobile fuel-economy standards, compared with 74 percent of the general public. Another poll showed that 69 percent of union households thought more jobs would be created by developing alternative energy than by drilling the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

"For labor to move in a new direction, the debate has to be opened up instead of shut down," Leopold says. "Just Transition offers a hope to break through corporate domination of public opinion. Can we dare to imagine that our employment is not tied to the energy industry? Is it possible to have something like the GI Bill that is independent from these corporations that are destroying our jobs?"

By 1997, the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union officially endorsed Just Transition. The Communications, Energy, and Paperworkers Union also endorsed it. In 2001, the Service Employees International Union, the largest union in the United States, issued an official energy policy that included a call for Just Transition.

In Canada, theory may soon become practice. Last year, the country’s largest union of energy workers and the Canadian Labour Congress strongly backed the government’s signing of the Kyoto Protocol, committing the nation to targeted reductions in CO2 emissions. As in the United States, Canadian opponents of the pact focused their attack on alleged job losses. But Canadian unions made Just Transition for displaced workers a condition of their support for the agreement. Kohler’s union even organized an intensive lobby effort, hosting "Kyoto forums" across the country culminating in a public commitment by the environment minister to a transition program for workers. "The impacts on workers and their families should be kept very much in mind," noted Hassan Yussuff, secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress. "And Just Transition has to be a central part of the Kyoto implementation plan."

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. The jobs gain would mainly spring from economic growth made possible by savings in energy costs, which would more than offset the costs of the carbon tax and the new technologies. Previous research concluding that a carbon tax would lead to a decrease in jobs and growth failed to account for the benefits of recycling money raised by the tax, according to the authors of the Blue/Green study, James Barrett, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute and now with the Democratic staff of the congressional Joint Economic Committee, and J. Andrew Hoerner, director of research for the Center for a Sustainable Economy. Nor did the earlier studies factor in growth from energy efficiency and reduced taxes on wages.

While projecting job increases, the Barrett-Hoerner study doesn’t sidestep the sobering threat of future job losses that troubles workers like Curt Greder. Coal mining would take the biggest hit: If Just Transition’s carbon-tax proposal were adopted, mining jobs would shrink from approximately 87,000 in 2000 to 12,000 in 2020–with additional related reductions bringing railroad employment down from 229,000 to 125,000. Oil refineries like Greder’s Bayway would see employment dwindle from 125,000 to 76,000.

United Mine Workers president Cecil Roberts reacted to the study by saying that carbon taxes "would virtually eliminate employment in the coal mining industry" and be "devastating to rural coalfield communities." There is also painful uprooting. For example, Bellaire, Ohio, hometown of the union’s director of governmental affairs, Bill Banig, has long depended on coal and oil. "There are no alternative jobs in that area," says Banig. "They just don’t exist anymore. If mining disappears, I have nieces and nephews who are going to have to move far away. All Just Transition does is provide miners with a nice funeral."

But mining jobs are already being eliminated, even without action on global warming. The coal industry is poised to cut jobs by almost half, to approximately 46,000 by 2020. New, sometimes environmentally destructive mining methods are replacing labor with technology. "Mountaintop removal" uses enormous machines to literally gouge away land to get to deeply buried coal, instead of using human labor to dig it from underground shafts.

To overcome obstacles to Just Transition, its proponents want unions to team up with environmentalists, educate workers about the technical and fiscal realities that lead to job losses, and challenge what Mazzocchi called "the corporate-written rules of the game" that threaten both the environment and jobs.

"Unions have always tried to give collective strength to the individual worker’s economic demands. Just Transition turns the power of the collective voice to social goals as well," says David Foster, cochair of the Blue/Green Working Group and director of Steelworkers District 11, representing 45,000 workers from Minnesota to Washington State. "An important aspect of such programs in the future will be to help create new, unionized industries based on sustainable industrial activity. Imagine a coalition that engineered a unionized green-energy industry in the United States. That would be powerful."

As part of an alliance with the steelworkers, the Sierra Club Board of Directors has passed a resolution calling on the Bush administration to guarantee pension and health benefits for retired steelworkers. And the Club has teamed up with the garment workers union UNITE! to ensure that workers and communities are protected when commercial laundries handle linens and clothes contaminated by toxic substances. The Sierra Club is also collaborating with the steelworkers in several districts and the Labor Institute on a series of workshops on climate science, the economic impact of environmental action, and Just Transition policies. Each meeting will be run by a Club member and a steelworker, and include participants from both labor and environmental groups. Such collaboration, says Foster, is critical. Neither movement by itself, he warns, can effectively thwart "attacks on labor rights, health care, the deliberate stalemate on climate change, or the promotion of trade agreements that threaten both jobs and the planet."

Other green efforts continue on the labor side. The Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in California, New York, and New Jersey has completed a modest number of solar installations and is accessing state subsidies for the work. UNITE! is a financial partner through Amalgamated Bank of New York, which the union owns.

Despite such promising developments, no one pretends a blue-green marriage will be easy. "It has been seven years of difficult discussions," says Dan Becker, the Sierra Club’s Global Warming and Energy Program director, and cochair of the Blue/Green Working Group. There have recently been some jolting ups and downs in the relationship. The Teamsters union joined environmentalists in opposing World Trade Organization proposals that would harm the environment, but along with some other unions, it has supported the oil industry’s drive to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And last year, the UAW, often an environmentalist ally, helped the auto industry defeat a Senate bill mandating stricter fuel-economy standards.

Juggling the pressures of a looming contract fight and post—September 11 security concerns at the refinery, Curt Greder is unconvinced about the short-term need to cut oil production. But he is nonetheless eager to talk about whether Just Transition makes sense as part of a long-range solution to global warming.

"If we’re going to make a 180-degree turn, and if what we want is as clean an environment as possible, the cost of that may be prohibitive, in both jobs and dollars," Greder says, echoing the Mine Workers president. "You’re talking about human tragedy in regions dependent on oil."

But unlike his counterparts in the coal industry, Greder does remain open. "Transitions may be necessary," he says. "I mean, we either pollute the earth or we don’t–where’s the choice?"


Jim Young is a freelance writer based in Montclair, New Jersey.

More Information
To learn about Just Transition, contact the Sierra Club Partnerships Program at (202) 547-1141.

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