Just transition on the road through Paris

By BILL ONASCH

The world market for cars and trucks is booming. So are profits in most of the industry. Unionized auto workers in the U.S. have been properly focused the past few months on contract negotiations with General Motors, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler that determine their wages, benefits, and working conditions for the next four years. (An article elsewhere in this paper reports on their status as this edition went to press.)

But, in the long run, this most important sector of manufacturing is—or at least should be—doomed. The growing proliferation of personal vehicles for transportation—overwhelmingly fueled by gasoline, ethanol or diesel—is incompatible with urgently needed efforts to stop the rise in global warming that is altering our climate and threatening the very biosphere essential to human civilization.

Road transportation is second only to electricity generation in carbon emissions that are the principal cause of climate change—27 percent of the global total, still over 20 percent even in the United States, despite many EPA regulations.

Yesterday’s fad of “green” agrofuels did little to clean the air, while driving up the price of corn. Hybrids too have produced almost negligible benefits. “Clean diesel” results so recently hailed as the Next Big Thing were achieved by cheating on tests. The restricted range of the best plug-in electrics limits their utility to mostly short local trips—and their climate-friendly potential is only fully realized when their charger taps electricity generated by non-fossil sources.

The bottom line is that car dependency has to be left behind on the Road Through Paris.

Just transition

Socialist Action supports the principle of Just Transition, long advanced by sectors of organized labor. Whenever jobs are eliminated to advance social goals, society is obligated to assist affected workers. When the now dormant Labor Party was founded at a 1996 convention of 1400 labor activists, they included in a well rounded program of reforms:

“The Labor Party calls for the creation of a new worker-oriented environmental movement—a Just Transition Movement—that puts forth a fair and just transition program to protect both jobs and the environment. All workers with jobs endangered by steps taken to protect the environment are to be made whole and to receive full income and benefits as they make the difficult transition to alternative work. The cost of this Just Transition Income Support program will be paid for by taxes on corporate polluters.”

As it is even clearer today that millions of present jobs must be eliminated as we restructure an ecologically sustainable economy, Just Transition must move to center stage.

Some whole industries will need to be shut down as soon as possible. That certainly is the case with the extraction and processing of fossil and nuclear fuels. Coal miners, for example, will need to be prepared for new skills—and possibly relocated—as this dirtiest of all fossil fuels is replaced by clean, renewable energy sources.

As we leave climate-wrecking fuels in the ground, we must not leave any worker behind in a wrecked community. Nor will we have to. The restructured, democratically planned economy we envision will be the biggest creator of new jobs in human history.

Just conversion

There’s no use for coalmines if coal can’t be burned. But some industries complicit in climate change can be converted to sustainable use. There are at least 900,000 jobs directly tied to the auto industry just in the USA. We should fight to save every one of them. But that doesn’t mean saving the corporations—or even the product line. There are some big historical lessons that can guide us—along with even some more recent efforts in the United Auto Workers.

In January 2007, I was invited to speak at a unique gathering—a Labor & Sustainability Conference in St. Paul. It was hosted by UAW Local 879, representing workers at Ford Twin Cities Assembly—slated for closing in 2008, with its Ranger pickup-truck work offshored to Thailand

The state-of-the-art St. Paul plant, which had gone through numerous retoolings and renovations since its 1924 opening, had a rare asset. All of its electricity was zero-emission hydroelectric—directly supplied by its very own dam on the nearby Mississippi River. The union was proposing that instead of demolishing the plant, Ford should turn it over to the workers as a publicly owned facility to build cleaner buses needed by the regional transit authority. This sensible, practical option won wide public support.

The conference was endorsed by a number of unions, academics, and elected officials. While not formally sponsored by any mainstream environmental groups—or even the Blue-Green Alliance—it attracted a good mix of dozens of labor and environmental activists for two days of panels and workshops, always followed by discussion, of the Ford workers’ proposal as well as other sustainability issues.

In my remarks, I reminded them that such conversion had once been successfully carried out. In April 1942, all auto production in the United States came to an abrupt halt, and no more cars were built for nearly four years. Truly Big Government had taken charge of virtually the entire economy to produce for war. No autoworker lost their job due to conversion of their plants to building planes, tanks, and jeeps. In fact, their numbers and hours of work reached unprecedented heights.

It was a triumph of industrial mobilization. But its production was geared to inflict massive death and destruction—certainly not something we want to promote today.

Instead, I posed the rhetorical question, “But can’t such plants, along with their workers, be converted to serve a new green economy? As a matter of fact, one proposal for using the plant across the street being abandoned by Ford is to build clean mass transit vehicles—and we need a lot of those if we are serious about Global Warming.”

Unfortunately, Ford, and the local capitalist political Establishment, who were understandably hostile to the worker initiative, were able to quash the conversion despite its popular support. Success along these lines will first require a restructuring of the labor movement as well—on the community and political levels as well as the shop floor.

Meeting the new challenges of climate change will succeed only if we revive the old class-struggle traditions of the only force with both the interest and power to take on the climate-wrecking ruling class—the working class.

Getting workers on board

Some progress is being registered. Prominent climate movement leaders such as Naomi Klein, author of the best-seller “Capitalism vs. the Climate, This Changes Everything,” are now promoting Just Transition. This demand is the centerpiece of the program of the growing Labor Network for Sustainability (http://www.labor4sustainability.org/).

And even some mainstream unions—such as the Service Employees International Union, Amalgamated Transit Union, and National Nurses United—have started mobilizing their members for climate actions.

As Socialist Action joins the worker contingents traveling the Road Through Paris, this newspaper will provide news and analysis of the fight for Class and Climate Justice—a struggle we can’t afford to lose.

Photo: Trade unionists march in Quezon City, Philippines, in November 2015. From http://www.sentro.org.