Workers and Communities Say No to Bearing the Burden of Change
Call for a Just Transition to Climate Security

By Jeremy Brecher

Economic Change Is Threatening Workers and Communities

American workers and their communities are facing historic economic transitions. Our current economic transition is a transition to growing hardship and injustice.

Coal, oil, and gas workers face closures of their industries and jobs, which cannot compete with increasingly cheaper renewable energy, and because of public demand for phasing out fossil fuels to protect the climate. Further, the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic pressures are triggering massive and irreversible downsizing of many industries and permanent job losses for millions of workers. Growing economic and political inequality is aggravating discrimination, job degradation, insecurity, and permanent impoverishment. One measure of the threat is the increase in the number of “deaths of despair” in recent years—whether by suicide, or alcohol or opioid use—that have contributed to an unprecedented decline in life expectancy in the U.S. for each of the last four years.

While many of these problems have been long-festering, we face them today in a new context. 2021 has started with new national political leadership in both the White House and Congress. President Joe Biden and the Democratic congressional leadership have promised to address the climate crisis, the crisis of racism, and the crisis of job loss and economic insecurity and inequality. At the same time, we face a violent, racist right-wing insurgency fueled by workers’ loss of economic security in the past and fear of loss in the future. Increasingly visible devastation from climate change is generating a new commitment to climate protection, which makes protecting the wellbeing of workers and communities still more pressing. The human need and political demand for an economic recovery that will “build back better” opens new opportunities to address climate protection, worker wellbeing, and social justice in a different and more favorable context.

Let Worker and Community Voices Be Heard

The Labor Network for Sustainability ( strives to build a labor climate movement. We provide a voice within the labor movement for policies that are ecologically sustainable while also advancing the movement for good jobs and a “just transition” for workers and communities who have been hurt by the effects of climate change and by the transition to renewable energy. For more than a decade, we have been proposing and advocating strategies for protecting working people from the threats of change as well as taking advantage of the opportunities change presents. We recognize that economic transition is both inevitable and already underway. We believe that workers and communities must play a role in shaping this transition.

To help develop more adequate responses to the economic transition threatening workers and communities, LNS and partner organizations launched the Just Transition Listening Project (JTLP). Between May and October of 2020, an Organizing Committee conducted over 100 in-depth “listening sessions,” typically lasting an hour or more, with workers from dozens of unionized and nonunionized industries; union leaders; members of frontline communities, including environmental justice communities, communities of color, and Indigenous communities; and leaders from labor, environmental justice, climate justice, and other community organizations. The purpose of these interviews was to capture the voices of workers and community members who have experienced, are currently experiencing, or anticipate experiencing some form of economic transition.

We believe that those who are most affected by our current economic crisis must be included in discussions about how to address it. This report presents the findings of our research with communities, analyzed by a team of academic experts. The first part examines the transitions that people have experienced. The second part describes how those affected have built common visions and strategies for change. The third part focuses on solutions.

Transition: Just or Unjust?

The Just Transition Listening Project made one thing clear: the history of economic transitions in America is a history of injustice and failure. For the most part, in the face of economic change, working people have been abandoned by their employers and their government. Participants told stories of paper mill closures in Maine, rubber plants in Texas, aerospace factories in California, auto plants in Michigan, and steel mills in Pennsylvania. In each of these and many other situations, workers and communities have been treated as disposable.

Our interviews revealed how various economic changes have devastated working-class life and communities. For example, one person described how globalization has contributed to transitions without justice over the last few decades: “I personally don’t think GM wants to be in the vehicle producing business in the United States. And I don’t think that means they are not going to be building vehicles, but I think they’re going to be building vehicles in Mexico and China.” While the Trade Adjustment Act (TAA) was supposed to protect workers against the destructive effects of free trade agreements, many interviewees scorned both the difficulty of accessing the program and its failure to provide pathways to jobs equivalent to those they had lost.

Automation and other technological changes pose additional threats to workers’ livelihoods. A grocery store worker and union member, for example, pointed out the impact of ongoing technological developments in the grocery industry, such as automatic checkout equipment, designed to minimize labor.

Labor policies such as subcontracting and replacing regular with contingent employment likewise threaten workers’ economic and physical wellbeing. Trade unionists portrayed such contracting out as a significant threat to the security of their members, removing union protections, driving wages down, and producing unsafe working conditions by employing an inexperienced and inadequately trained workforce.

Interviewees were well aware of the impacts of these attacks on working people and their communities. Loss of livelihood was front and center in their comments. Additional impacts were more subtle, but still devastating. When a major plant or other employer closes, workers lose their jobs, and local people become impoverished or are forced to move elsewhere. This often has a devastating impact on community identity as there may be a breakdown in intergenerational continuity within the workplace, the family, and community institutions such as religious, cultural, and political organizations. Further, there is increasing recognition of social consequences: violence, family breakdown, mental health impacts, and more. Local employers are frequently major local taxpayers as well, and their closing often devastates the tax base, which in turn can undermine a range of local institutions, including schools, municipal governments, and community service providers. The loss of a major local employer also reverberates in loss of customers for small businesses and loss of support for religious, service, and other community organizations.

All these issues are aggravated for workers and communities that have been subject to discrimination and oppression. Interviewees from African American, Latinx, Indigenous, immigrant, and other marginalized groups frequently pointed out that for them, attacks on working people were not exceptional results of industrial change, but rather the norm even in times of prosperity and stability. Many in these groups had been excluded from access to better jobs or from any employment at all. Their communities were burdened by lethal pollution due to environmental racism, and deprived of healthcare, transportation and other services available to more privileged communities. Indigenous Americans were subject not only to discrimination but to denial of treaty rights that would have provided community security and alternative pathways to economic well-being.

The history of unjust transitions has generated a growing demand for just transition, a set of policies and practices that will provide favorable livelihoods and ways of life for those who might otherwise be thrown on the economic scrapheap as well as those who have historically been blocked from such opportunities. Alternatives to economic devastation have been offered by local workers and communities, national legislation, and academic studies and reports. This research and experimentation provides a strong starting point for programs to build a future for those who might be forced to bear the cost of change that is necessary for the wellbeing of all.

Economic change is inevitable, and some changes are necessary to realize common benefits such as climate protection, and to correct the injustices currently imposed on those who face discrimination in the economy, and pollution and deprivation in the community. The alternative to a just transition is not to maintain the status quo but rather to suffer the cruelty and hardship of an unjust transition.

The nuclear fueled Diablo Canyon Power Plant—in San Luis Obispo County, California. Photo: Marya from San Luis Obispo, USA, Wikimedia (Creative Commons)

Toward Just Transitions

While a variety of public policies were supposed to have provided transition assistance to displaced workers and impacted communities, they have often been so inadequate that workers have considered them more of an insult than an aid. One interviewee spoke with scorn about plans like the one that would turn coal miners into computer programmers. Neither the skills required nor the locations of work made sense in terms of real people and real jobs. Even if some workers found jobs by moving from Appalachia to Silicon Valley, the abandoned coal towns would continue to die.

A far more carefully planned, better resourced, and individually adapted approach is necessary to prevent devastation to people and communities. Proposals for just transition need to concretely address workers’ concerns about how they will keep a roof over their heads and feed their kids. Marginalized workers are in particularly acute need of deliberate policy strategies that create pathways to new jobs and healthier communities, which are frequently blocked by underlying injustices such as discrimination in hiring practices and concentrated environmental pollution.

Many workers, however, are understandably suspicious of proposals for transition. To them, “transition” means that they will lose their job. Despite any promises that may be made, they see little evidence that transition will result in a job with comparable wages, job security, or union protections.

One important reason for skepticism is that efforts to implement just transition have been largely invisible. For years there have been virtually no national initiatives to address the devastating economic changes that are already underway. Our research indicates that work has remained at the local and state levels, where we have identified a variety of models addressing various aspects of a just transition. These efforts involve creating policies to counter unjust transitions, and organizing and aligning workers and communities to implement those policies.

Some of these efforts represent a local response to threats that local employers will be shut down. For example, when it became apparent that the Huntley coal-fired power plant in Tonawanda, New York, was likely to close, utility workers in the plant found their livelihoods threatened (see Case #3). So did public school teachers as local education funding depended considerably on the power plant.

Initially these groups were not in alignment. As the president of one local union pointed out,

Organized labor and environmentalists and municipal politicians are normally in these silos, and they’re operating in such a way as to protect their own interests or to promote their own interests. And these silos can create barriers. So, where you could have colleagues working together, you actually are competing.

In this case, a report on the impending demise of the power plant rallied utility workers, teachers, environmentalists, and local political leaders to overcome their divisions, develop a transition plan, and win funding to implement it. Unions funded training for community “transition delegates” who went door to door for two years. They hired a lobbyist and worked with elected leaders to establish a statewide fund available for towns experiencing fossil fuel closures. The community based environmental group then led a massive “re-visioning” process involving hundreds of townspeople to project what kind of development they would like to see in their town and how they would like to see the money spent to help the town grow sustainably. The workers whose plant shut down were all able to make a transition without having to go on unemployment.

This experience provided part of the inspiration for New York to pass the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act that in 2019, which provided a fund of $45 million to help other towns pursue a just transition. This case is not unique; for example, when the state of California decided to close the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, environmental organizations worked with the unions representing plant employees to ensure that all workers would get alternative jobs or, if they preferred, acceptable provision for retirement (see Case #4).

One aspect of a just transition is providing for individual affected workers. In 2019, when GM announced it was closing a car assembly plant in Ohio, the United Auto Workers (UAW) local won funding from the Department of Labor for a Transition Center (see Case #5). The Center helps with applications for support programs, retraining and jobs, and for paying for schooling, tools, and transportation. Programs are tailored to individual and specific workforce needs. In Massachusetts, a Rapid Response Team composed of state unions and government agencies assists unions and workers experiencing layoffs or downsizing. The team helps workers access National Emergency Grants and Trade Adjustment Assistance, develops layoff aversion strategies, and assists dislocated workers through retraining and job searches. Members of the team emphasized to interviewers that their work is effective in considerable measure because Massachusetts has a relatively strong safety net.

Auto Assembly Line. Photo: Vyacheslav Bukharov, Wikimedia (Creative Commons)

In the absence of federal support, states are beginning to develop broader and more proactive just transition programs. In 2019, faced with the impending closure of coal mines and coal fired power plants, Colorado passed one of the nation’s first just transition laws. It instituted an Office of Just Transition and a large advisory board with funding for the director and a mandate to find more funding in the future (see Case #1). At the end of 2020 the office submitted a Just Transition Action Plan “to help workers continue to thrive by transitioning to good new jobs, and to help communities continue to thrive by expanding and attracting diverse businesses, creating jobs, and replacing lost revenues.”

One of the most imaginative plans for just transition policy was the Washington Initiative 1631 (see Case #2), designed to provide support for workers negatively impacted by the transition away from fossil fuels, including full wage replacement, health benefits, and pension contributions. Wage insurance would pay any difference between re-employment wages and the wages workers had been earning in the lost job. The Initiative would also provide retraining costs, peer counseling, job placement services, relocation expenses, and priority hiring in the clean energy sector. It would be funded by a fee on carbon pollution expected to generate more than $2 billion over five years. A public board including government agency officials, a tribal representative, academics, business representatives, and a representative of the environmental justice community would oversee the investments. A minimum of 35% of all investments would be allocated to benefit pollution-burdened environmental justice communities; 15% would assist lower-income populations in urban and rural communities in transitioning to a clean energy economy; and 10% of investments would require formal support from a tribal government. Activity on tribal lands would require Free Prior and Informed Consent. Initiative 1631 was narrowly defeated by massive opposition from fossil fuel companies: Exxon alone spent over $30 million for anti-Initiative television ads in the last days of the campaign.

Just transition needs to not only create jobs, but also ensure that both new and existing jobs are good jobs and that all workers can access them equitably. This report includes several case studies where union and community initiatives achieved just that.

In New York City in 2013, the Teamsters union joined with the labor-community coalition ALIGN to start the “Transform Don’t Trash NYC” campaign to improve conditions for sanitation workers and address community impacts of sanitation policies. Sanitation jobs may be defined as environmental or “green” jobs, but they often involve inadequate wages and unsafe and onerous conditions. In 2019, after six years of organizing, the coalition won a Commercial Waste Zones Law designed, as a coalition organizer put it, to “ensure that commercial waste workers would be treated with dignity and respect and allow for them to be able to have not only good paying jobs, but also safety in their workplace, security in their jobs.” The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy organized a similar “Don’t Waste LA” coalition which won a “Zero Waste in LA” city ordinance aimed to divert 90% of waste from landfills while improving conditions for recycling workers and drivers. In both instances, a move toward zero waste and 100% recycling was central to worker, community, and climate gains.

Proterra Electric Bus Demonstration. Photo: Eric Wheeler, Metro Transit, Flickr (Creative Commons)

The advocacy and organizing group Jobs to Move America has developed and is implementing a plan to incentivize government procurements to support domestic manufacturing, local hiring, and the right to union representation (see Case #6). In Los Angeles County, United Steelworkers Local 675, working with Jobs to Move America, organized Proterra and other electric bus manufacturing companies. In addition to winning their first union contract in 2020, they negotiated a Community Benefits Agreement that commits the employer to hire from marginalized communities, and opens the way to manufacturing jobs for displaced refinery workers.

The Climate Jobs Campaign, which originated in New York state and then spread into Maine, Texas, Illinois, and Connecticut, is organizing to ensure that addressing climate change provides “the opportunity to create lots of good union jobs by investing in renewable energy.” They seek to expand support from building trades and other unionists for climate protection by advocating both for more climate jobs, labor standards, project labor agreements, and community benefit agreements to ensure that climate jobs are good jobs. Several building trades leaders in the Northeast spoke about the job opportunities associated with the coming of the offshore wind industry, and others on the West Coast and in the Southwest mentioned the possible expansion of commercial-grade solar, although rooftop residential solar was widely seen as a low-paying option that created few skilled trades jobs.

The Need for National Public Policy

As workers and their communities have been increasingly devastated by unjust transition, the federal government has not only failed to correct that injustice, it has in fact followed policies that increase the threat while dismantling the labor and public policy activities that might have mitigated against it. The COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic dislocation, and the rise of militant anti-democratic political forces all expand and intensify the threats of unjust transition. However, the election of a president who campaigned on creating millions of good jobs for climate protection opens new political opportunities for supporting not only the climate but also hard-hit workers and communities.

While the local and state campaigns and policies described in this report have frequently helped win better terms for transitions, they have rarely been able to halt plant closings and other sources of worker and community devastation. For this, national action is required. National just transition policies should be an integral part of broader “build back better” programs designed to address the U.S.’s economic and social crises in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

People interviewed by the JTLP offered many suggestions for national public policy to support just transitions. Such policies include guaranteed employment, income maintenance, universal healthcare, retirement for those who wish it, education, mentoring and counseling, and support for affected communities and small businesses.

The development of such policies could start by substantially improving existing programs. They could, for example:

  • Expand and improve the TAA program to include climate and other dislocations and enhance program funding, eligibility, and benefits.
  • Strengthen unemployment insurance benefits, both in terms of wage replacement rates and duration of benefits, to maximize the effectiveness of TAA programs.
  • Decouple health insurance from employment.
  • Create or reinstate union and government rapid response teams in every state to address job displacement and mass layoff situations.
  • Update labor laws to even the playing field for workers who wish to form unions and bargain collectively with their employers.
  • Create incentives in public bidding processes to prioritize hiring of workers from historically marginalized communities and those displaced from the fossil fuel industry.

Solar and wind farms, Desert Hot Springs, California. 2019. Photo Credit: Vivian Price

Interview participants, however, often stressed the need for more holistic just transition programs. For example, a just transition requires an intergenerational vision of the future for children of workers and community members. A just transition should respond to immediate crises and provide proactive guarantees of security for all, whenever they are confronted by the forces of change. Transition protections may need to start with workers and communities affected by climate change policies, but ultimately, they should include all those threatened by economic change whether from automation, globalization, or other causes. They must counter injustices and provide pathways forward for those in fossil fuel and other industries facing job loss, and for those who have been systematically excluded from such jobs in the past. Just transition should address not only loss of jobs and livelihoods, but the need for greater social cohesion and solidarity.

The failure to provide just transitions for workers facing economic change is characteristic of economic policies and structures that treat the accumulation of private profit as more important than the lives and livelihoods of human beings. The struggle for just transition is part and parcel of a larger struggle to prioritize the protection of people: their environment, their climate, their jobs, their livelihoods, and the equality and justice of their treatment.