Just Transition is Inadequate

Matt C.

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced the Green New Deal in 2019, it understandably excited many people. Unlike many other proposals, here was a resolution that combined reaching zero greenhouse gas emissions with addressing the immiseration of the working class. Although in some ways inadequate (portions of it pointed towards public-private partnerships, leaving too much up to the private sector), it explicitly infused a class perspective with an environmental one. It acknowledged the greatest income inequality since the 1920s and proposed “guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the [US].” All things considered, it was a positive development.

Unfortunately, the current Green New Deal Platform Amendment falls short of offering a working-class, anti-capitalist politics. Mask making and distribution and People’s Community Gardens don’t pose a real threat to capitalist-class power, nor do they strengthen the power of the working-class in any tangible way. Instead, we need to focus on building working-class power through strategically building relationships with the workers who would be most impacted by shuttering the fossil-fuel industry and place clearly articulated demands on the American state to respond to the crisis with a pro-worker agenda. My proposed amendments point us in that direction.

Any serious Green New Deal agenda must include the workers in a position to be most impacted by potential layoffs. This is not merely an arbitrary or moral position. Workers are central to a class analysis because they are the only actors in a capitalist system capable of bringing the entire system to its knees; they are also capable of bringing the Green New Deal to its knees if we don't approach it in a measured way. Thus, we must begin to build relationships with workers in the oil industry.

This of course will not be an easy task with off-the-shelf solutions; it will require deep strategizing that requires thinking very broadly. It should include rank-and-file organizing within the building trades and operator’s unions and offering strike support, should that opportunity arise. It must also be woven into our other campaigns, such as Medicare for All. The way that the multi-employer healthcare plans operate is a bit too complex to lay out sufficiently in this article, but suffice to say, passing Medicare for All could make the  $15-20 per hour currently allocated for healthcare costs available for increased wages, supplemental unemployment benefits from the union, or other expansions of the social safety net.

Other possibilities lie in pursuing specific policies, such as energy policy, that would benefit these workers. While perhaps controversial among leftists, a push to build more nuclear energy power plants would create many jobs for these workers and could perhaps be pursued alongside a more long-term goal of shutting down the refineries because it could offset the potential unemployment generated by the latter. If done thoughtfully, it could also create important, positive relationships between labor and the DSA. 

The language of Just Transition is inadequate. Ensuring that every worker has a job with good wages and benefits is integral to the success of any broader Green New Deal Pursuit. To that end, the DSA should prioritize job guarantee for all legislation. (This was also included in the original amendment.) This should include pursuit of expanding public sector employment, perhaps something on the scale of the Works Progress Administration, to bring unemployment to zero.

The DSA must identify specific industries that displaced workers might enter. We should prioritize unionizing workplaces and developing a rank-and-file strategy in those industries. The only effective way to respond to the criticism that environmentalists are going to eliminate good-paying union jobs is to fight for good-paying union jobs in other sectors.

Finally, the DSA should push for an increase in unemployment benefits and increased taxes on the rich to fund them. Unemployment benefits have not increased in California since 2005, when the maximum weekly benefit became $450. To provide workers with a real safety net, the maximum weekly benefit amount needs to increase to $900 per week. This is an ambitious goal, but not a far-fetched one. States like Massachusetts and Washington have maximum weekly benefit amounts of $855 and $844 respectively.

Workers are at the center of a socialist politics for a reason. They should be at the center of a GND politics as well. I hope you find this argument persuasive and vote in favor of my amendment.

In solidarity,

Matt C.