As Trump slashes and burns his way through environmental regulations, including the Paris Accord, he continues to bet that political polarization will work in his favor. Not only are his anti-scientific, anti-environmentalist positions firing up some within his base, but those positions are driving a deep wedge within organized labor. And unbeknownst to many environmental activists, they are being counted on to help drive that wedge even deeper.
Trump already has in his pocket most of the construction trades union leaders whose members are likely to benefit from infrastructure projects – whether fossil fuel pipelines or new airports or ...... paving over the Atlantic. His ballyhooed support of coal extraction has considerable support from miners and many utility workers as well.
But the real coup will come if Trump can tear apart alliances between the more progressive unions and the environmental community. Trump hopes to neutralize the larger Democratic-leaning unions, including those representing oil refinery workers and other industrial workers. That includes the United Steelworkers, a union that has supported environmental policies like the federal Clean Air Act and California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, and has a long history of fighting with the oil industry – not just over wages and benefits but also over health, safety and the environment.
To get from here to there, Trump is hoping that environmental activists will play their part -- that they will become so frustrated by his Neanderthal policies, that activists will stage more and more protests at fossil fuel-related facilities, demanding that they be shut down in order to halt global climate crisis.
Oil refineries present a target-rich arena for protest. On the West Coast they are near progressive enclaves and big media markets in California and Washington. Yet many who live in fence line communities would like the refineries gone, fearing for their own health and safety. Most importantly, they are gigantic symbols of the oil plutocracy that has profiteered at the expense of people all over the world.
But from Trump's point of view, nothing could be finer than for thousands of environmentalists to clash at the plant gates with highly paid refinery workers. Such demonstrations, even if peaceful and respectful, set a dangerous trap for environmental progress. Here's why:
1. Demonstrations at oil refineries will drive those workers into the arms of their employers and towards Trump.
For the past 40 years unionized oil workers have struggled against the oil industry to protect their health, safety and job security. The work is dangerous: At least 58 people have died at refineries since March 23, 2005, reports the Texas Tribune in partnership with the Houston Chronicle . In 2015, more than 5,200 unionized refinery workers went on strike, a rare event in an era of dwindling union power.
But when jobs are directly threatened by calls for shutdowns, we should expect both the employers and employees to circle the wagons.
2. It's not clear that shutting down U.S. oil refineries will reduce overall carbon emissions.
There are 253 million cars and trucks on the road in America today and the average vehicle age is 11.4 years, reports the LA Times. While the number of plug-in electric cars are increasing, the total number is only about 570,000 as of 2016. By 2030, some projections show that half of all cars will be electric. The other half will still need refined oil. In addition, for the foreseeable future, refined oil products will be needed for a wide variety of chemical processes not related to gasoline. Therefore, it is not credible to argue that demand for refined oil products will vanish if refineries in the U.S. are shutdown.
The fuel for those gasoline driven cars and production processes will have to come from somewhere. The question is from where? A related question is this: what will be the total carbon footprint of refined oil if it comes from far away — e.g. India or South Korea — and if the refining processes in those areas are less clean than in the U.S.?
Such questions require careful research, since different kinds of oil from different places around the world give off different amounts of greenhouse gases during refining; and since long-distance transport by ship, rail or truck emit additional and significant carbon pollution.
Furthermore, in large part because of the struggles waged by U.S. refinery workers, the health, safety and environmental controls at U.S refineries are among the highest in the world. The same could not be said about refineries in India or South Korea, for example.
3. Attacking the livelihoods of oil refinery workers weakens the alliances needed for reduction of greenhouse gases and the transition to a clean energy economy.
But aren't there plenty of labor organizations that already support strong action on climate change? If so, why should we care about these highly paid fossil fuel workers?
The answer relates to how we amass sufficient political power to curb greenhouse gasses. Nearly all of the labor groups that currently support strong action on climate change don't have jobs at risk. They are health care workers, service workers and others who would not see their livelihoods threatened by job loss due the reduction of fossil fuel emissions.
But if oil workers are in alliance with the environmental community, an important political message can be sent. It could show that the workers most impacted by the transition also want a cleaner and more stable environment for themselves, their families and their communities. Such an alliance would bring more resources, organizational muscle and troops to the environmental struggle and it would have the potential to put a dent in the power of the oil executives to rally their employees against environmental protections.
4. Talking about Just Transition and the New Green Economy is not good enough.
But isn't this job fear foolish? Doesn't the new green economy now dwarf the old fossil fuel industries?
Yes, it's true that solar and wind are rapidly growing. But it's very, very hard to make the case to an existing fossil fuel or manufacturing worker that he or she is going to get these new jobs, or that pay and benefits will be anything close to comparable.
In the U.S. there is no just transition program that guarantees the incomes of those who lose their jobs due to needed environmental protections. Given four decades of attacks on organized labor, very few of the new green jobs are unionized or pay anything close to the fossil fuel/high energy jobs.
Creating a just transition program is an important and noble aspiration. But if such a program is to be actually “just,” it will require enormous changes in how our economy functions: i.e. how people get the new jobs and how incomes and benefits follow people during the transition. And it will require an enormously powerful political movement both to halt the climate crisis and protect worker rights.
The late Tony Mazzocchi, a leader of unionized oil workers and other industrial workers in the U.S., invented the concept of just transition. He understood there would be an enormous clash between the needs of the planet and the needs of working people to maintain their hard fought wages and benefits. He predicted decades ago that right wing demagogues would emerge to seize on these fears unless a real transition program came into being.
The key concept of just transition as he envisioned it is "making workers whole." This means that dislocated workers in environmentally sensitive industries would receive full pay and benefits as they transitioned to other jobs. Mazzocchi argued that, at the very least, these dislocated workers should receive four years full pay and benefits, plus free tuition to college or a trade school of their choice, modeled after the GI Bill of Rights following WWII.
If that's what environmentalists mean by just transition, then there is an opening for a productive dialogue. But that opening will only exist if environmentalists first do the math on how we meet continuing demand for gas to fuel our real driving needs, and on whether domestic, highly-regulated production of oil produces less carbon than alternative sources out of state or overseas.
How do we win the struggle to contain the Climate Crisis?
It's hard to make the case that we're winning much of anything right now. Congress and the White House are now ruled by anti-labor, climate change deniers. We have an environmental lunatic as president. Perhaps it's time to review our organizing strategies.
Because both labor rights and environmental progress are in grave danger, we should explore whether an alliance between oil workers and environmentalists is possible and productive.
One way to proceed is bring fossil fuel workers together with environmentalists in educational workshops -- a safe space where together, they can explore these complex issues and opportunities. The United Steelworkers, the Communications Workers of America and the Sierra Club are doing just that in California. In fact, 24 of them are about to be trained to pair up as workshop leaders to run programs together for their respective organizations.
To see teams of unionized workers and environmental activists run workshops on jobs, the economy and climate change might send a powerful message that a new movement can be built. And maybe, just maybe, they can help us all avoid the destructive Trump trap.
(This train-the-trainer project is supported by the Labor Institute's RunawayInequality.org Educational Network which is collaborating with progressive advocates and partners to spread information around the country on how Wall Street and its CEO allies are strip-mining our economy, and what we can do about it. For a report on the pilot labor-environment workshop held in March 2017, see here.)