Shaina Marsden has heard the talking points before: We support working people. We support unions.
But she doesn’t believe them. And why would she?
Marsden, 30, was one of the hundreds of union workers who lost their jobs — good jobs, six-figure-salary jobs — when the East Coast’s largest oil refinery abruptly shut down after an explosion ripped through the South Philly facility last summer. She’ll have to leave Philadelphia, where she’s lived all her life, if she wants to stay in the industry.
“They say they support us — the workers — but there’s no plan for us,” Marsden said last month at the Erin Pub, the bar next to her union hall in Norwood, Delaware County.
To some in her union, it was a group of climate activists called Philly Thrive who were among the biggest hypocrites. Philly Thrive — an alliance of young progressive organizers, or “elites," as Marsden’s former union president called them, and poor black people who said their families were suffering health issues from living near the refinery — claimed to support the workers. Still, they declared victory and celebrated when the refinery was shut down for good.
“There is no ‘just transition,’ ” Marsden said, referring to the term advocates use to describe how workers like her should be supported in the move away from fossil fuels. “It’s shutting us down, putting us out of work, and that’s it.”
What played out in Philadelphia after the refinery’s collapse is a long-standing struggle in the climate justice movement. It’s often framed as a question of “jobs vs. the environment,” pitting climate activists against labor, and these tensions are sure to resurface as concerns about the climate crisis grow and debates about fracking and such projects as the Mariner East Pipeline rage on. But experts say that’s a troubling — and false — choice.
Although there aren’t yet many examples of groups winning a just transition for workers, experts say such solutions are emerging — and they have a much better chance of becoming reality if the two sides work together.
Here’s a look at what happened in Philly and what the city can learn from how things played out differently in other parts of the country.
The conflict in Philly
Last month, when a bankruptcy court judge approved the sale of the refinery complex to a real estate development company that had no intention of reopening the refinery, members of Philly Thrive rejoiced.
“I could dance all over the street,” said Sylvia Bennett, a Philly Thrive member and longtime resident of Grays Ferry, the neighborhood where the refinery is located. Bennett, 75, said she believes her family’s health problems are because of the refinery.
The celebration infuriated Ryan O’Callaghan, the former president of the refinery workers local, who thought that the climate activists were celebrating the loss of hundreds of jobs.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Let’s get off fossil fuels,’ when they don’t suffer the pain,” he said.
The allegations that the activists didn’t care about the refinery workers were painful to Philly Thrive members, who insisted the sacrifices of the workers were not falling on deaf ears.
“They saved the lives of over a million Philadelphians last June,” said Thrive organizer Rachel Merriam-Goldring. “We’re aware of that. We’re deeply aware of that, and the loss of jobs and the challenges of this transition.”
But Merriam-Goldring, 24, also conceded that Philly Thrive didn’t make enough time to develop a relationship with the refinery workers union. Her group, she said, was told by some who were close with the union that the union was not interested in speaking with them because of their stance on shutting down the refinery. Some Thrive members have since been working on one-on-one relationships with the refinery workers, she said.
“It’s slow, vital work,” she said.
Philly Thrive hopes to push for unionized green jobs as the refinery complex gets redeveloped, she said.
O’Callaghan said he was approached by a Philly Thrive organizer once but he wasn’t interested. “It’s kind of hard to sit down with people who celebrated you losing your jobs,” he said.
What a ‘just transition’ could actually look like
Experts who have studied, or experienced firsthand, the interactions of climate activists and labor concede that there aren’t yet many examples of a "just transition” in the United States, which is why workers tend to be skeptical about it. But one victory was scored by a coalition of labor and climate organizers at California’s last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, which will be shutting down by 2025.
The union representing the workers, IBEW Local 1245, partnered with Friends of the Earth and PG&E, which owned the plant, to negotiate an agreement that got workers a 25% retention bonus for staying on until the plant closed and early retirement incentives, as well as a retraining fund for workers and job placement at other PG&E sites.
A “just transition” could also include wages or a portion of wages paid to workers for up to five years after the closure of a site, as well as health-care and pension benefits; extended unemployment benefits; and preferential hiring in the cleanup and repurposing of the site. These are things a union could bargain for, with the backing of the community, including climate activists.
The key, though, according to J. Mijin Cha, a professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles who studies the intersection of labor and climate justice, is fighting for these things before a site is closed.
“In some ways, we already know what will happen,” she said, so it’s possible to plan five or six years ahead. “When we get to the point when we’re in crisis, then workers will always get screwed.”
Why climate activists need a jobs platform
It’s important that climate activists understand that the anxieties workers feel about a “just transition” come from a real place, Cha said.
“We are at a point where there just aren’t that many family-sustaining jobs, especially for folks who don’t have higher education,” she said. “That is something the climate movement could take a moment to understand and absorb.”
It’s why climate activists need to develop their own jobs platform, Cha and Joe Uehlein, executive director of the labor/climate-focused Labor Network for Sustainability, both said. It can’t be an afterthought. And it has to go beyond solar because those jobs, which are largely not union, pay less and have worse benefits than the likes of those at the refinery, which had been strengthened by collective bargaining for decades.
How to bridge the climate-labor divide
Experts consistently pointed to three qualities that could transform the relationship between climate activists and labor into more of a partnership.
Proactive planning. In Tonawanda, a working-class, highly unionized suburb of Buffalo, a coalition of climate activists and labor unions was able to secure a “mitigation fund” from the state to help with the loss of tax revenue caused by the retirement of a local coal-fired power plant. But they had years to plan and build an alliance, as the power plant was going through a slowdown and its effects were already being felt on the town — a luxury that Philadelphia didn’t have.
Relationship building. “It requires trust, real trust, which is something that takes time to build," said Todd Vachon, a former union carpenter and Rutgers professor who is writing a book about the labor-climate movement. "Relationships like this are never forged overnight.”
Strong leadership. Uehlein said how people decide to exercise their leadership makes a big difference. He pointed to Richard Lipsitz, head of the Western New York Area Labor Federation, who played a big role in corralling labor support for the effort in Tonawanda.
Lipsitz said he put his leadership at stake to make sure labor unions could have a cooperative relationship with the environmental movement. Similarly, Rebecca Newberry, who led the effort from the Clean Air Coalition, “insisted that workers couldn’t be left behind,” according to a local report about the Tonawanda coal fire power plant.
Ultimately, Cha said, it’s in the fossil fuel industry’s interest that this division between labor and climate justice continues, that the “jobs vs. the environment” narrative is perpetuated. Lipsitz agrees: “These things are used by our common foes to split us apart,” he said. “And it lets the wealthy get off the hook.”