John Feffer – How Can Workers Ensure the ‘Just Transition’ Is Truly Just?

The global economy is already undergoing its most fundamental transformation since the Industrial Revolution; if workers and trade unions are at the table negotiating the transition, the process has a greater chance of being equitable

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies

Cross-posted from Common Dreams


Making a transition away from fossil fuels is going to require a lot of work. But there’s a real concern that it will also require a lot fewer workers.

All of the workers in fossil fuel industries, for instance, are acutely aware that their jobs are at risk, if not immediately then at some point in the future. Along with automation, the energy transition also threatens to reduce the ranks of those in sectors dependent on fossil fuel, like plastics, steel, and petrochemicals. And unions are particularly concerned that unionized jobs in these sectors will be replaced with lower-paid non-union positions if they aren’t outsourced to lower-wage countries altogether.

In 2023, employment in the fossil fuel sector has rebounded from pandemic lows but hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels—even though oil and gas companies posted record revenues in 2022.

New jobs, of course, beckon in the “clean energy” production of solar panels, wind turbines, and the batteries and other infrastructure necessary to remake the electricity sector. According to the International Energy Agency, this sector actually overtook the fossil fuel sector in 2021. More than half of the job growth in the energy sector in 2022 was in just five categories: photovoltaic, wind, electric vehicles and batteries, heat pumps, and critical minerals mining.

But according to one U.S. study looking at employment figures from 2005 to 2021, less than 1% of workers in dirty industries ended up with “green” jobs. The prospect of new, “clean energy” jobs shimmers in the distance, but for many workers it looks like a mirage.

That’s especially the case in the Global South. Jobs in the new sustainable energy sector are not distributed evenly across the world. China, the European Union, the United States, Brazil, and India have already emerged as employment hubs. But Germany alone has considerably more jobs in this sector than all of Africa.

“One of the issues that still worries a number of workers, especially the ones that are going to migrate from either coal or fossil fuel to clean energy is: Where are the alternative jobs?” says Everline Aketch, the Uganda-based sub-regional secretary for English-Speaking Africa for Public Services International. “They keep saying that the just transition will be able to provide a number of alternative jobs. But the jobs are still not there.”

One of the chief problems has been that the energy transition has largely been corporate-led rather than public-led, and companies prefer to keep labor costs low. “The class warfare between workers and owners is not going to change with the energy transition because capital is always going to be there,” points out Igor Díaz of Sintracarbón trade union in Colombia.

The energy transition also threatens to widen the gap between North and South, with the latter serving as a vast “sacrifice zone” that provides the inputs—extracted in environmentally damaging ways—that the former needs for its “clean energy” products. “Our countries cannot be forced simply to provide the resources of the North,” argues Ibis Fernández of the Confederación Intersectorial de Trabajadores Estatales del Perú. “This is all a new colonialism, right?”

Felipe Diaz, of the Colombian research institute Centro de Innovación e Investigación para el Desarrollo Justo del Sector Minero Energético, agrees. “Especially in Latin America, every government that emphasizes its own sovereignty is sabotaged either internally or externally,” he points out. “The cases have been very, very clear in Uruguay and Brazil. They tried to not depend on other countries, specifically the expansionist model of the United States, but they were literally squashed.”

The stakes could not be higher. The global economy is already undergoing its most fundamental transformation since the Industrial Revolution. If workers and trade unions are at the table negotiating the transition, the process has a greater chance of being equitable. But as the four abovementioned participants explained in the recent seminar Labor and Green Colonialism, sponsored by the Pacto Ecosocial y Intercultural del Sur and the Global Just Transition project of the Institute for Policy Studies, the current corporate-led transition will continue to disadvantage workers and widen the gap between North and South.

Fortunately, other alternatives are emerging.

Worker Participation

Some countries have a tradition of involving workers and trade unions in economic planning. The co-determination process in Germany, for instance, provides workers with a say in company policies and, though trade unions, in government policy as well.

The new government of Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez in Colombia, meanwhile, has established a new tradition of expanding the policymaking circle. “This is a progressive government,” Felipe Diaz points out. “For the first time they want a dialogue with the actors that have historically been displaced and ignored by previous administrations.”

More commonly, however, governments and corporations leave workers out of the decision-making process. “We have been talking about energy transitions that are fair and just and that’s not something that we’ve seen in Peru,” says Ibis Fernández. “The extractive sector is a very precarious sector. There’s a lot of exploitation, and the large multinational country companies are always trying to avoid respecting the rights of workers.”

It’s ironic, Everline Aketch points out, that workers coined the phrase “just transition” only to have “this terminology hijacked by the multinational corporations. And active participation from workers in terms of defining how to move forward with the blueprint is absent. Currently there’s no clear blueprint in terms of how, for instance, Africa and particularly sub-Saharan Africa is going to be able to achieve this just transition.”

It’s not just corporations—governments, too, often pay little more than lip service to workers. “When it comes to the workers in South Africa, for instance, many of them don’t understand what the just transition is all about,” she continues. “The government comes in and says, ‘In the next five or six years, we’re going to actually close some of the mining sector.’ But they’re not explaining to the workers why they are closing the mining sector. And they’re not explaining the provisions they’ve put in place to absorb the workers who will lose their jobs.”

It comes down to a matter of equity and justice, explains Igor Diaz: “Part of justice in this transition process has to do with the involvement of unions, of workers and also the communities in the region.”

Prioritizing the Public Sector

According to the neoliberal model, an unfettered market spurs economic development and the public sector should step out of the way. International financial institutions and powerful governments have for decades urged countries in the Global South to cut government expenditures, reduce government regulations, and privatize government enterprises. Many countries are applying this model to the current energy transition.

“Currently just transitions are being led by multinational corporations whose major interest is actually profit maximization,” Everline Aketch points out. “This transition, which should be led by the government, is currently being overtaken by the multinational corporations, which developed countries and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development are also pushing. In terms of the tenets of justice, energy itself should not only be affordable but also accessible.”

Indeed, the corporate-led development strategy brought countries like Peru to its current economic crisis. “The mining boom is finished, and the precarity of the country is growing,” reports Ibis Fernández. “The state didn’t manage its resources, never redistributed wealth, and took most of the pie. The multinational countries did not address essential rights, did not invest in health and education, did not invest in people and workers so that they would actually have dignified work.”

Everline Aketch agrees. “The same neoliberal policies are still driving the agenda of just transition, which is quite unfair to many developing countries,” she notes. “And the Green financing program is taking the model of structural adjustment programs from the 1980s and 1990s. Those same programs forced many of our countries, including Uganda, to privatize the energy sector and many workers lost their jobs. And there was an almost threefold increase in energy prices after privatization.”

She points out that 70% of Kenya’s energy now comes from clean energy. “But the IMF and World Bank are forcing Kenya to privatize this sector,” she reports. And to qualify for Green financing funds from the IMF, she says that “the Kenyan government is being told first of all to plant trees. This is not fair. To achieve a global just transition, there should be a level playing field. Africa should be provided the policy space to determine how it wants the trajectory of the just transition to take place. We have different levels and stages of development.”

She continues, “To achieve a just transition, Public Services International insists that governments be at the forefront of providing the policy framework and deciding how to generate the money to ensure a just transition and make clean energy accessible for all members of the community including workers.”

Moreover, she adds, “if this just transition is not publicly led, gender inequality will increase, especially in Africa where a majority of women—close to 900 million women—still have to use firewood biomass for cooking.”

Pushing Back Against Green Colonialism

In 2022, as a result of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the number of people without access to electricity increased for the first time in decades—by 6 million people to 760 million across the globe. Most of that increase was in sub-Saharan Africa, where four of five people lack access.

Nearly all of Uganda’s energy mix comes from clean energy like hydropower. “However, despite having the highest energy mix when it comes to clean energy,” Everline Aketch reports, “only 20% of our households are connected to the power grid. More than 600 million people across the continent do not have access to clean energy.”

Access to electricity is only one aspect of the huge disparity between the Global North and Global South when it comes to the energy transition. The latter is increasingly the locus of a scramble for resources similar to the colonial-era rush for riches. “We can add value to our natural resources,” Ibis Fernández says, “and stop what the Global North has condemned us to be, which is raw material exporters with no added value to our products.”

Everline Aketch agrees that the Global South, which is rich in minerals, needs these resources, or the revenues from their sale, for its own transition. “And then there’s the issue of intellectual property rights where most sub-Saharan Africans are not allowed to replicate some of these technologies to add value to their own material,” she adds.

Another issue is the disproportionate burden of dealing with the consequences of climate change that the Global South shoulders. “Africa contributes less than 4% towards the current global carbon emission,” Aketch continues. “We’re the least polluters on the planet. However, we pay the highest price.”

One mechanism that enforces the divide between north and south are free trade treaties, including clauses that allow multinational companies to sue governments for regulatory practices that interfere with the corporate bottom line.

“The worst thing is when these companies leave behind an environmental liability or social liability,” says Felipe Diaz, “and we have to pay them because the companies say that we’re going against their business.”

“We have seen the effects from free trade agreements that really favor international capital more than the nation itself,” Igor Diaz agrees. “And so it becomes necessary to really review those free trade agreements with the United States and with other countries that have caused so many social problems in Colombia.”

The Case of Colombia

The presidential ticket of progressive politician Gustavo Petro and environmental justice activist Francia Márquez won the Colombian elections in June 2022. Later that summer, the new administration stopped granting new licenses for hydrocarbon exploration and canceled fracking pilot projects, promising to wean the country from its dependency on carbon. In 2022, more than half of the country’s exports were oil and coal.

Although contracts to exploit existing reserves will last for another decade, the new government’s pledge potentially jeopardizes the livelihoods of workers in the oil, gas, and coal sectors. “In the middle of the pandemic, the government of Colombia tried to close mining for 18 months,” Igor Diaz reports. “Our union tried to stop this because more than 2,000 workers were given short notice, and they lost their jobs. This generated social chaos.”

He describes his experience representing coal miners. “In the mining company where I worked, there are 10,000 workers and more than the half of them are 35 years old,” he relates. “They’ve been working with us for 15 years. Any adjustment will be traumatic for them because in 10 years they probably won’t have any kind of retirement payment.”

At the same time, he argues that “this is a historic opportunity not only for Colombia but for the whole world. We definitely have to have an energy transition. In some regions there are other labor possibilities. People could work in agriculture rather than mining. We have to stop extractivism and petroleum drilling, but for that we have to look at other productive sectors in society, at the same time improving ecosystems and stopping contamination.”

But as Felipe Diaz explains, multinationals also dominate the renewable energy sector in Colombia. “Before the Petro government took office, the task of replacing fossil fuels was basically given to large multinational companies,” he says. “Today there are 19 different large-scale projects, and 80% belong to our multinational companies. Large multinational countries don’t want an underdeveloped country like Colombia to make sovereign decisions around industry and technology transfer.”

But the current Colombian government has embarked on a different path. In mid-December, the Petro administration announced the formation of Ecominerales, a new state-owned enterprise to produce and sell ore in a way to support the renewable energy industry in Colombia. “This same logic has also been proposed for the oil and gas sector,” Felipe Diaz continues. “The government wants the largest oil companies—Eco-Petrol, which is also state-owned—to have a new business unit when it comes to renewable energy.”

He continues: “That means that the public sector is going to start exercising governance and making demands of those profiting from the energy transition. The ministries that are leading the transition are calling us to help them with information and research to find out the needs of the workers. We’ve never seen this kind of communication before. The idea here is that a Green extractivism is not going to be in the hands of mining companies.”

A major challenge that Colombia still faces is the ongoing insurgency of the National Liberation Army (ELN), a communist guerrilla group, as well as some smaller paramilitaries and narcotraffickers. The stance of the ELN on the energy transition is still largely unknown.

“Do they agree to transition to a clean energy matrix or do they want to keep producing oil and gas as long as it’s a sovereign nation?” Felipe Diaz asks. “There’s been a new escalation of violence with the ELN, and it’s become really difficult to negotiate with them. When they end up taking over resources, it can complicate questions of equity in an energy transition.”

Forging a Path Forward

Colombia offers an intriguing example of a state determined to engage workers and prioritize the public sector in an energy transition. But this progressive administration also represents the culmination of many years of organizing by different sectors.

“When people come together–civil society, trade unions–that is where our power actually lies,” Everline Aketch points out. “Engagement with civil society and feminist organizations is very critical in terms of amplifying the voices not only of women but also showing the implication of neoliberal policies for issues of access.”

In Peru, too, such a mobilization is ongoing. “The unity has to be very wide, for example, with workers in the mining companies and Indigenous people,” she explains. “We are a very diverse country where conservative forces are trying to polarize opinion in many regions. We long ago realized that we had to make an alliance against these uncivilized actors.”

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