By Jeremy Brecher,
Senior Strategic Advisor, LNS Co-Founder

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To protect against catastrophic global warming, the United States is preparing to rapidly reduce the burning of fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas. As we transition to a climate safe economy, many people ask, “What about the workers who will lose their jobs in fossil fuels and other polluting industries?” Here’s how those workers can be protected.

Photo: Nov. 7, 2020, Minneapolis, Minn. Credit: Lorie Shaull, St. Paul, Minn. Wikimedia Commons

Much of the resistance to climate protection lies in a deep fear that, whatever promises may be made, workers who lose their jobs will just be thrown on the economic scrapheap. Making sure that workers and communities are not left behind in the process is a crucial part of securing a climate safe future, yet the United States has rarely done a good job of managing major shifts in regional and national economies.[1] Protecting workers and communities from the unintended side effects of such changes is often referred to as a “just transition.”

Just transition efforts are already under way at the local, state, and national level. For example, the Colorado Just Transition law created a Just Transition Office in the Department of Labor and Employment. Once the program is funded it will administer benefits to coal transition workers to enable them to support themselves and their families and to access and complete education and training, resulting in being hired for high-quality jobs. And it will make grants to eligible entities in coal transition communities that seek to create a more diversified, equitable, and vibrant economic future for those communities.[2]

In the first days of his administration, President Joe Biden issued an executive order which included the establishment of an Interagency Working Group to “coordinate the identification and delivery of Federal resources to revitalize the economies of coal, oil and gas, and power plant communities; develop strategies to implement the policy set forth in section 217 of this order and for economic and social recovery; assess opportunities to ensure benefits and protections for coal and power plant workers; and submit reports to the National Climate Advisor.”[3]

There is strong support for such an effort. For example, the day before Biden’s executive order, 13 groups from historic coal mining areas like West Virginia, Kentucky, and the Navajo Nation in Arizona called for immediate creation of a White House Office of Economic Transition.[4]

Fortunately, there are ways to provide alternative jobs, livelihoods, and community resources when fossil fuel burning is reduced.[5] But to realize a just transition the federal government will have to play a lead role both in terms of resources and policy. President Biden’s proposed American Jobs Plan, based on his Build Back Better agenda, recognizes that confronting the climate crisis must be done by creating good paying, union jobs in a broad spectrum of industries. But it does not yet include an adequate plan to protect the workers it may adversely affect. It will take action by Congress, as well as executive action by the Biden Administration, to make a just transition a reality.[6] It will require ways to:

  • Protect individual workers
  • Protect communities
  • Create jobs
  • Pay for a just transition

Protecting workers and communities is an integral part of protecting the climate that must be built into climate policy from the start.

Protecting Individual Workers

Photo: President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the G.I. Bill in the Oval Office. From left: Bennett “Champ” Clark, J. Hardin Peterson, John Rankin, Paul Cunningham, Edith N. Rogers, J.M. Sullivan, Walter George, John Stelle, Robert Wagner, Scott W. Lucas, and Alben Barkley. June 22, 1944. Wikimedia Commons

Climate policy must provide a just transition for workers who lose jobs in fossil fuel-related industries. Such a program is often compared to the “GI Bill of Rights” that provided education and training, loan guarantees for homes, farms, and businesses, and unemployment pay for veterans returning from war. This program was first established in 1944 for returning veterans of World War II and has been revamped repeatedly since. It was critical for the economic boom that followed World War II and for the ability of returning veterans to integrate back into American society. A similar program is needed today for those who are displaced from their jobs through no fault of their own.[7]

Workers harmed by climate protection policies should receive full wages and benefits for at least four years; up to four years of education or training, including tuition and living expenses; and decent pensions with health care for those ready to retire. The opportunity for individuals to access higher education and advanced training will also mesh with the need to develop new labor force capabilities for the emerging green economy.

A crucial element of a just transition is wage replacement, also known as wage insurance or wage differential benefit. A possible model is the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, which provides wage insurance for workers whose income is reduced because of the impacts of trade policy. TAA wage insurance has limitations, however. It applies only to workers 50 years and older; the federal government covers no more than 50 percent of a worker’s reduction in wages; and this support is capped at $6,000 per year for two years.

Two recent state plans point the way toward improving this approach.

The Washington State Initiative 1631, narrowly defeated in 2018, would have established a worker-support program for bargaining unit and nonsupervisory fossil fuel workers who are affected by the transition away from fossil fuels to a clean energy economy.[8] It would have provided full wage replacement for every worker within five years of retirement; wage replacement for every worker for each year of service up to five years; and wage insurance for up to five years for workers reemployed who have more than five years of service.

The Colorado Just Transition law, passed in 2019, provides a “wage differential benefit” defined as “supplemental income” covering all or part of the difference between an individual’s previous employment in a coal mine, coal-fueled electrical power generating plant, or the manufacturing and transportation supply chains of either, and new employment or supplemental income during job retraining. Currently, a bipartisan bill to allocate $15 million in ‘seed money’ is advancing through the Colorado General Assembly.[9] Fully funding the benefit will require additional resources from federal or other sources.

Protecting Communities

Above: A quote from worker interviewed in the Labor Network for Sustainability’s “Workers and Communities: A Report of the Just Transition Listening Project.” Lordstown is also featured as a Case Study in the report, highlighting the fervent organizing of the United Auto Workers local in Ohio who “pivoted to creating a transition plan for the members, ranging from 1500 who had gradually been laid off to another possible 1800. GM offered people jobs if they relocated, but ‘a good 30 percent’ did not want to break up their families or tear up their roots.”

Climate policy needs to ensure the economic transformation of communities and regions that are dependent on fossil fuel production and use.[10]

Community just transition plans can learn from the highly successful process that helped local communities adjust to the disruption and job shifting that resulted from the closing of military bases under the Base Realignment and Closing Commission (BRAC), a program that ran from 1988 to 2005 and that the Pentagon is hoping to revive. Communities near closing military bases were provided a wide range of federal assistance, including planning and economic adjustment assistance, environmental cleanup, Community Development Block Grants, and Community Service Grants.

Workers dislocated by base closings also received extensive support. The Department of Defense itself provided advance notification of a reduction in force; pre-separation counseling; a hiring preference system with federal agencies to re-employ qualified displaced DOD employees; and financial incentives to encourage early retirement of those eligible. Workers affected by base closings were also eligible for help under National Emergency Grants, “Rapid Response” programs, comprehensive assessments and development of individual employment plans, and job training.

Communities and individuals adversely affected by climate protection policies could be similarly targeted for assistance from such existing programs as the Department of Labor’s Rapid Response Services and the National Emergency Grants of the DOL’s Employment and Training Administration, as well as funding for economic development and industrial efficiency and modernization from the Departments of Energy and Commerce.

There has been at least one effort to apply such an approach. Starting in 1992, the Department of Energy (DoE) eliminated 47,700 contractor personnel at 13 major sites as a result of downsizing the nation’s nuclear weapons complex. The DoE conducted a Worker and Community Transition Program that provided grants and other assistance for communities affected by the shutdown of nuclear facilities. The goal was to assist displaced workers and provide economic recovery and diversification assistance to the affected communities. The program was budgeted for $200 million in 1994, declining to $25 million in 2001. A nuclear test site in Nevada, for example, was repurposed to demonstrate concentrated solar power technologies.[11]

The Obama administration’s Power+Plan for Appalachia illustrates an approach to regional just transition that was greeted enthusiastically by Appalachian social justice groups including the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development and Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. While not nearly sufficient in terms of the scale of investment, this proposal for the first time put a just transition for workers in fossil fuel-related industries on the national political agenda. The Power+Plan included:

  • $1 billion over five years to restore lands and waters degraded by decades-old mining and to support related sustainable development projects.
  • $56 million to invest in job training for laid-off miners and to support economic development efforts in Central Appalachian mining communities. This figure includes an additional $20 million in job training for miners and power plant workers; an increase of $25 million for the Appalachian Regional Commission’s annual budget, to be directed at “communities most impacted by coal economic transition”; $6 million more to the Department of Commerce for “place-based regional innovation efforts,” including grants to economically distressed communities; and $5 million more for the EPA’s brownfields program to help communities deal with the closure of coal-fired power plants.
  • $3.9 billion over 10 years to shore up health and retirement benefits for many retired miners.

Congress partially funded the Power+Plan and the Appalachian Regional Commission has provided $150 million to programs under the Plan. It has been touted by the Biden administration as a possible model for addressing the economic needs of Appalachia. [12]

The Colorado “Just Transition” law shows how such an approach might be implemented at a state level. It provides grants to eligible entities in “coal transition communities” that seek to create a “more diversified, equitable, and vibrant economic future” for those communities.[13] “Coal transition community” is defined as a municipality, county, or region that has been affected or will be affected by the loss of fifty or more jobs from a coal mine, coal-fueled electrical power generating plant, or the manufacturing and transportation supply chains of either.[14] The plan will require federal funding for implementation.

Creating Jobs

Above: Charlie Sandoval of United Steelworkers Local 675, who was also interviewed for “Workers and Communities in Transition: A Report of the Just Transition Listening Project” and who spoke at the Congressional Briefing (part of the Build Back Better and #BuildBackFossilFree series) on March 26, 2019. Based in Southern California, Charlie worries each day that a transition to a job in the renewable energy sector would mean below poverty-level wages, a lack of benefits and few worker protections.

A central part of any just transition program is creating new jobs. While job creation is not just an issue for workers displaced by climate policy, but for the entire economy, we will focus here on programs specifically designed to help workers and communities affected by the transition to climate-safe energy.

Generally, jobs should be made available in the locations where workers are or want to be, using their existing skills and providing comparable wages and conditions. Employers must retrain and find jobs for those affected; give them priority for new jobs; provide economic benefits that allow not only a decent livelihood but a start on a new life; ensure decent retirement benefits for those who choose to retire; and invest in local communities to provide them a future beyond fossil fuels. All jobs programs should create good jobs that include a living wage, healthcare, employer neutrality to union organizing, project labor agreements, and other worker protections. All impacted workers and communities should be included in a deliberative process and have a voice in shaping transition plans.

Alternative jobs can be provided not only in renewable energy but also in other work the public needs; they should be provided not only where existing jobs are lost but where potential fossil fuel jobs are not created because of climate protection policies. For example, the Labor Network for Sustainability[15] study, “The Keystone Pipeline Debate: An Alternative Job Creation Strategy,” laid out how more jobs could be created by renewing water and other pipeline infrastructure than by building the Keystone XL pipeline for tar sands oil.[16]

Protecting threatened workers and communities dependent on fossil fuel jobs needs to start before devastating economic disruption begins. Public policy should establish community and worker protection funds to collect money in advance to replace taxes and fees paid by fossil fuel facilities and to invest in good jobs in affected communities. It should target investments in fossil fuel energy communities designed to create jobs before or at the pace that fossil fuel jobs are declining.

The LNS study “Beyond a Band-Aid: A Discussion Paper on Protecting Workers and Communities in the Great Energy Transition” by Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research proposes a fund designed to protect communities and workers directly affected by an energy transition proactively–before the damage occurs.[17] It would replace taxes or fees paid by fossil fuel plants and create good jobs in affected communities before the old ones are lost. The training would be for the jobs that are being created, not some hypothetical jobs that may or may not materialize. The plan includes:

A community and worker protection fund (CWP Fund). The fund would collect money in advance to replace taxes and fees paid by fossil fuel facilities and to invest in good jobs in affected communities.

Advance investment in job creation. The CWP Fund, in cooperation with other private and public sources, would make targeted investments in fossil fuel energy communities designed to create jobs before or at the pace that fossil fuel jobs are declining. Examples would include:

  • Exporting renewable energy
  • HVAC conversion
  • Decommissioning facilities
  • Economic diversification

Beyond a Band-Aid” also lays out a variety of ways to pay for these proposals. They include:

  • Levying a modest carbon fee or tax
  • Eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks
  • Setting aside funds for decommissioning facilities
  • Leveraging other investments with the CWP Fund

Federal programs can support such local and regional programs. For example, a plan proposed by Jay Inslee and Elizabeth Warren would establish a dedicated “Restoration Fund” to create new skilled union jobs in environmental remediation and construction – cleaning up the sites polluted by fossil fuel companies throughout the country, and especially in low-income and disadvantaged communities. This program would hire local workers, and would supplement, and not replace, existing resources like the federal Abandoned Mine Land Fund. Jobs for reclamation and restoration would be required to pay prevailing wages and to allow workers the opportunity to organize. The potential scale of such a program is indicted by the need for oil well remediation: As of 2016, the EPA estimated that there were 3.11 million “abandoned” oil and gas wells across the U.S., of which 69% (2,150,000) are “unplugged.”[1]

Employer Responsibility

Employers who close plants should be required to take responsibility for the workers and communities who have produced their profits. They should:

  • Negotiate a jobs agreement with unions representing affected workers.
  • Find jobs for affected workers who want them.
  • Ensure job retraining for those who need it to fill new jobs.
  • Provide decent pensions with healthcare for workers who are not provided other jobs and who do not opt for retraining.
  • Create jobs restoring the site.
  • Reutilize facilities to replace losses in the tax base.
  • Fund job-creating community economic development.

Colorado’s recent “Just Transition” law creates a Just Transition Office which requires that an electric utility proposing to retire a coal-fueled electric generating facility shall submit to the Office a workforce transition plan at least 90 days before the retirement of the facility. Senator Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal proposal establishes “priority job placement for any displaced worker.” It also provides employers with tax credits to incentivize hiring transitioning employees. In order to ensure that workers who are displaced by climate policies are able to find meaningful employment, it provides the Work Opportunity Tax Credit to employers who hire them.

Making It So

Making a just transition program for workers a central feature of executive action and congressional legislation on climate could make the difference between worker support for effective climate protection and a never-ending battle over “jobs vs. the environment.” It could unify climate and worker concerns around a program of protecting jobs by protecting the climate. And it could ultimately serve as the leading edge for a more universal program to provide workers and communities a safety net against the wider insecurities of our live-at-your-own-risk economy.

To realize those ends, advocates of climate protection in Congress will have to agree that adequate provisions for just transition will be included in any climate legislation and won’t be bargained away or left unfunded.

[1] See J. Mijin Cha, Vivian Price, Dimitris Stevis, Todd Vachon and Maria Brescia-Weiler, “Workers and Communities in Transition: Report on the Just Transition Listening Project,” Labor Network for Sustainability.

[2] “Colorado, United States: State-Level Planning for a Just Transition from Coal,” Just Transition and Equitable Climate Action Resource Center, World Resources Institute.

[3] For more on what such a task force might do see Jeremy Brecher, “Obama Needs a Just Transition Taskforce,” February 28, 2011.

[4] James Bruggers, “Coal Communities Across the Nation Want Biden to Fund an Economic Transition to Clean Power,” Inside Climate News, January 26, 2021.

[5] For a review of recent legislative and other actionable proposals for just transition at local, state, and national levels see Jeremy Brecher, “No Worker Left Behind: A briefing paper for trade unionists,” Labor Network for Sustainability.

[6] For an explanation and history of the term “just transition,” see Jeremy Brecher, “Just Transition: Just What Is It?”

[7] For an extended review of just transition policies to protect individual workers see Jeremy Brecher, “A Superfund for Workers: How to Promote a Just Transition and Break Out of the Jobs vs. Environment Trap,” Dollars and Sense, November/December 2015.

[8] For the Washington state initiative measure spelling out just transition policies see “Initiative Measure No. 1631.”

[9] Chase Woodruff, “Republicans called Colorado’s just-transition office for coal workers ‘Orwellian,’ Now they want to boost its funding,” Colorado Newsline, May 10, 2021.

[10] For case studies of communities that have developed their own just transition programs in response to threatened closing of local facilities see “The Huntley Experiment”; “Diablo Canyon Shutdown Protects Workers and Communities”; “We Knew Big Changes Were Coming to our Industry”; “Jobs Beyond Coal.”  

[11] See “Overview and Summary,” FY99, Office of Worker and Community Transition, Office of the Secretary, U.S. Department of Energy

[12] Congressional Research Service, The POWER Initiative,” November 20, 2019. For additional proposals for just transition in Appalachia see and links therein.

[13] Jeremy  Brecher, “No Worker Left Behind; Protecting Workers and Communities in the Green New Deal. A Briefing Paper for Trade Unionists.”

[14] For a broader economic plan for Colorado, see Robert Pollin, Jeannette Wicks-Lim, Shouvik Chakraborty, Tyler Hansen“A Green Growth Program for Colorado,” PERI, April 14, 2019.

[15] The mission of the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) is to engage workers and communities in building a transition to a society that is ecologically sustainable and economically just. We work to foster deep relationships that help the labor movement engage in the climate movement and the climate movement understand the economics of climate change and the importance of organized labor as a key partner in confronting the climate crisis.

[16] Kristen Sheeran, Noah Enelow, Jeremy Brecher, Brendan Smith, “The Keystone Pipeline Debate: An Alternative Job Creation Strategy,” Economics for Equity and Environment and Labor Network for ‘Sustainability.

[17] Arjun Makhijani, “Beyond a Band-Aid: A Discussion Paper on Protecting Workers and Communities in the Great Energy Transition,” Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and Labor Network for Sustainability.