By Laurie Dougherty
Mazzocchi understood that to protect workers, nearby communities and the Earth itself, these toxic workplaces needed to change and in some cases close altogether
I began studying the changing nature of work and asking:
The roots of Just Transition were in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW), the same union that represented Anacortes refinery workers then, before merging with the Paperworkers union which later merged with the United Steelworkers.
What would a Just Transition look like? A Superfund for workers? A GI Bill for workers? That’s how the late Tony Mazzocchi, the visionary OCAW leader described it in the 1990s. Members of OCAW and its successor unions work in some of the most dangerous and environmentally damaging situations. (Thirteen people have died in explosions at Anacortes refineries, seven at Tesoro in 2010 and six at what is now Shell, in 1998.) Mazzocchi understood that to protect workers, nearby communities and the Earth itself, these toxic workplaces needed to change and in some cases close altogether. He also understood that such profound changes would put workers’ livelihoods in jeopardy and drive a wedge between labor and environmental activists who were fighting the same predatory corporate system.
Tony Mazzocchi, visionary OCAW labor leader & founder of Just Transition. Photo from uswtmc.org
Mazzocchi devised, and OCAW endorsed and promoted, the program that came to be known as Just Transition. Funding, as he saw it, would come from a surcharge on toxic substances and a tax on international financial transactions. The fund would maintain wages and benefits for workers until they could find new jobs with comparable compensation; and would pay for education and training as well as relocation expenses for those who chose to move. After OCAW merged with the Paperworkers union in the late 1990s and Mazzocchi died of cancer in 2002, Just Transition lost its main champions in the labor movement.
March and rally, August 9, 2014, for the final day of ”Our Power” Convention in Richmond, Ca. Photo from Our Power Campaign
But Just Transition was always meant to include communities that were polluted and exploited by toxic industries; and it was those communities who kept the idea alive. The Our Power Campaign – Communities United for a Just Transition is an alliance formed to hold polluting companies responsible for the damage they have done; to close and clean up toxic facilities; and to regenerate local economies with renewable energy and healthy and sustainable enterprise. The Just Transition Initiative is a central organizing principal of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, one of the founding communities of the Our Power Campaign. Black Mesa, based in the Navajo Nation, has several goals: that Peabody Energy close and clean up two coal mines on land sacred to the Navajo People; to close nearby coal-fired power plants that pollute the Navajo reservation and replace them with solar energy; and to develop a healthy and sustainable local living economy.
Now that Peabody has filed for bankruptcy, Black Mesa and others impacted by Peabody operations are demanding that the bankruptcy court create a Just Transition Fund to protect workers and communities.
(There’s a petition to the court you can sign at the end of this article “Why Peabody’s Bankruptcy Requires a Just Transition” by Jenny Marienau, US Divestment Campaign Manager for 350.org.)
Richmond, California, another Our Power Campaign community, is fighting to prevent the infamous Chevron refinery from handling tar sands and other dirty domestic forms of crude oil. There have been numerous fires and explosions a this refinery that injured workers and sickened nearby residents with noxious fumes, Led by the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) and Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), Richmond is “working to create a new, clean, green, democratic and equitable economy.” Richmond, whose residents are predominantly people of color, was from 2007-2015 the largest US city with a Green Party Mayor. She is now back on the City Council after reaching term limits as Mayor.
A 2012 explosion at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California, nearly killed a dozen workers who got out just in time, and sickened 15,000 residents — labornotes.org Photo: Greg Kunit
Our Power emerged from the Climate Justice Alliance (CJA) of frontline communities and allies united for a Just Transition away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable local economies. CJA partners with 350.org and other other organizations to promote the “Divest-Reinvest in a Just Transition Iniitative” to use funds divested from fossil fuel companies for investment in healthy democratically-controlled local economies.
There’s a Superfund for dirt. There ought to be one for workers.
One of the goals of the Labor Network For Sustainability, founded In 2009, is to change the narrative from “jobs vs the environment” to ”a Just Transition for workers.” LNS educates workers and environmentalists about each others’ concerns and challenges. In an arfticle describing Break Free, labor historian and LNS Co-Founder Jeremy Brecher drew on recent court cases demanding that the government protect the right to a stable healthy climate as a public trust, and on cases that defended civil disobedience as necessary to prevent great harm from climate change.
It’s only fitting, as Just Transition becomes a key goal of the movement for climate justice, that Tony Mazzocchi be remembered. Last fall in an article headlined “Tony Mazzocchi Lives: Blue-Green Organizer Takes Up ‘Just Transition’ Mantle,” Counterpunch interviewed Alex Lotorto, an anti-fracking activist in the shale gas region of Pennsylvania who is also a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. Lotorto understands clearly that Just Transition isn’t only about going from dirty to clean energy, but that it’s about creating and sustaining healthy economies in which workers and their communities can thrive. Lotorto envisions a Just Transition that would offer jobs based on the needs and resources of the region, for example, in recycling facilities, farming and food processing, sustainable forestry, and clean-technology-based manufacturing, as well as renewable energy.
Bringing it all back home: In the wake of Shell No actions in the Pacific NW, Labor Notes wanted to know “How Do We ‘Change Everything’ without Pitting Workers against the Planet?” In an article framed in the context of Tony Mazzocchi’s proposal for a Just Transition, the author interviewed Steve Garey who, before he retired, was President of Steelworkers Local 12-591 and worked at the Tesoro refinery in Anacortes. Garey put it bluntly: “You’re either at the table or you’re on the menu.” Workers, he believes, should have a voice in shaping change. He sees a conversation that starts with “’What’s in it for me?’’ “’What’s harmful for me?’” Then he says,