A just transition to sustainable jobs

feb-2017-wind-powerBy BILL ONASCH

The Trump administration wasted no time before launching a veritable blitzkrieg on all fronts in pursuit of an “alt-right” America First agenda. But resistance has been swift and massive.

In addition to various movements mobilizing we also heard from scientists. Agence France Presse (AFP) reported: “Comments by U.S. President Donald Trump on nuclear weapons and climate change have helped make the world less safe, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warned … moving its symbolic ‘Doomsday Clock’ 30 seconds closer to midnight.”

This heightened warning by atomic scientists about two overarching crises closely followed an announcement by climate scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that, for the third consecutive year, 2016 had been the hottest since record keeping began in 1880.

Trump replaces an Obama administration that offered token gestures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are the prime culprit in heating our planet, while at the same time also promoting fossil-fuel expansion through destructive fracking of gas and oil.

Now, the 45th president has dismissed global warming as a job-killing hoax perpetrated by China to sabotage the American economy. Rather than presenting any of his signature “alternative facts” to bolster this fantastic conspiracy theory, he has focused on the job-killing argument. Jobs are a big and legitimate concern of the working-class majority.

Making nice to some unions

Largely overlooked in all the turmoil was Trump’s duplicitous reach-out to sectors of trade-union leadership, promising to save and create middle-class jobs. He invited AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, and Teamsters president James P. Hoffa to the White House to celebrate his canceling of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal negotiated by President Obama.

All unions and environmental groups had strongly opposed TPP for good reasons. Like NAFTA and other such regional agreements, TPP is more about the unrestricted movement of capital across borders than trade. Trumka and Hoffa endorsed Trump’s action.

Trump also summoned leaders of several construction-based unions to unveil his plans to create jobs by rebuilding infrastructure and reviving the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline projects.

Of course, there’s plenty that needs to be done to repair or replace dangerous bridges and tunnels, deteriorating water and sewer lines, aging rail and urban mass-transit systems, and many more projects that have been long neglected through “deferred maintenance” imposed by austerity budgets.

The head of the Ironworkers union was cautiously enthusiastic: “The Ironworkers union applauds Donald Trump’s infrastructure program. We have to have a sustainable maintenance program that recognizes that the existing bridges need to have ongoing maintenance, and quite frankly politicians in both parties have done us a disservice.”

The brother will likely see more disservice. Trump’s scheme, still being fleshed out, is no grand plan for useful public works—as is sorely needed. Ronald A Klain, who headed Obama’s “shovel ready” project to stimulate jobs during the height of the Great Recession, wrote in a Washington Post Op-Ed piece, “Trump’s plan is not really an infrastructure plan. It’s a tax-cut plan for utility-industry and construction-sector investors, and a massive corporate welfare plan.”

The initial list of Trump’s proposed projects supports Klain’s assertion. As in many cities, the Water Services Department in my hometown of Kansas City cannot keep up with even major leaks in water and sewer lines, some dating back to the 19th century. But the sole KC project on the preliminary list is a refurbishing of passenger terminals at Kansas City International airport to facilitate more efficient security.

The unions expecting to get such work should keep in mind that the Davis-Bacon Prevailing Wage law—enacted during the Hoover administration—which has long guaranteed union jurisdiction on public projects, is targeted for repeal by Congress.

The expansion of the 200,000-mile network of pipelines will exacerbate climate change and inflict major environmental damage. Leaks are inevitable. Over the past decade, 38 million gallons have polluted land and water.

The proposed Keystone Pipeline (KXL) would move not oil but bitumen—a hydrocarbon often used as an ingredient in asphalt. It is mined in the Tar Sands of Alberta and injected with chemicals to create a sludge suitable for flowing through the pipeline to special refineries that convert it into a synthetic oil. Unlike oil, bitumen is heavier than water and when it leaks into rivers and streams it does more damage by sinking to the bottom. It is the dirtiest fuel on the planet. Mass protests by climate activists pressured Obama to consign the project to purgatory.

The Dakota Access Pipeline would transfer shale oil extracted through hydraulic fracturing (fracking) from the Bakken in North Dakota to also special refineries in Illinois. Bakken oil has a very high methane content. Methane is a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. It also makes the oil much more volatile. Currently Bakken oil is shipped by rail and there have been numerous fiery, sometimes deadly transport accidents.

Once KXL is completed, the owners expect to operate it 24/7 with only about 35 regular employees. If DAPL is ultimately completed one way or another, it too will provide only a few dozen long term maintenance and inspection jobs. But a substantial number of rail jobs will be lost once the pipeline is flowing—creating an overall net loss of middle class union jobs.

Some unions not welcomed

Those pointedly not invited for a White House chat with the Denier-in-Chief include such major unions as the Service Employees International Union, Amalgamated Transit Union, and National Nurses United. Those unions have made a good start in educating and mobilizing their members around climate issues. They built mass actions around KXL and DAPL with member participation and material contributions. NNU nurses cared for those peaceful protesters at Standing Rock injured by police pepper gas and rubber bullets.

These unions are affiliated to coalitions like the Labor Network for Sustainability (www.labor4sustainability.org) in North America, and the global Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (unionsforenergydemocracy.org). This labor wing of the climate justice movement understands the working-class majority is the only force with both the material interest and potential power to defeat capitalist climate wrecking and replace it with a sustainable economy.

These climate-conscious unionists realize that overcoming the threat of job loss is task #1 in winning over workers. They have revived and adapted the long promoted principle of Just Transition. In a nutshell, this means when workers lose their livelihood for the good of society, society must guarantee their living standards and, if necessary, provide retraining and relocation expenses until they find suitable new work.

This principle can apply to many areas, such as the armaments industries and workers in the billing and advertising branches of health insurance companies. The required restructuring of the American and world economy to stop global warming short of global disaster will mean eliminating and replacing tens of millions of jobs.

Just Transition is a necessary first step in unifying the struggles for class and climate justice that can secure a peaceful, democratic, sustainable future. The working class needs to lead the discussion and the planned implementation of this goal that is indispensable to the survival of human civilization. Socialists such as Socialist Action and our sister parties of the Fourth International have much to contribute to this fight that we cannot afford to lose.

Photo: Sue Ogrucki / AP