Their Just Transition and ours
by Zwelinzima Vavi | Amandla! Issue No. 66 | October 2019
This is a slightly edited version of an input on the Just Transition to the School of Labour and Urban Studies, City University of New York
The discussion we have today is of utmost importance for unions and their allies, and the working class as a whole. The threat of climate change amounts to a planetary emergency.
The forces of capital know there’s an emergency. They hear the alarm bells ringing – hence the Paris Agreement. But they are not capable of responding to the emergency. They cannot control it.
The current policy framework developed by neoliberals more than two decades ago – the so-called “sticks and carrots”, approach aimed at private investors – has been a monumental failure. The dangers of global warming were recognized at the global level thirty years ago, in the late 1980s, and the first Earth Summit took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. During that period the use of fossil fuels has doubled, and emissions have skyrocketed.
Devastating climate events
We all know that this has led to severe problems with the climate. In South Africa, the realities of climate change cannot be denied any longer. In a country with the infamous title of being the most unequal society on earth, we are faced with deepening inequality and the country is 10-20% poorer as a result of human-caused climate change. In just the past year, we have seen a slate of devastating climate impacts which have truly brought home the effects of climate change. In KwaZulu Natal, raging floods washed away homes and roads, killing over 70, displacing nearly 1,500 people, and costing KwaZulu Natal over R1 billion in damage.
In the Eastern Cape, ongoing drought is ravaging the province, leaving many communities without access to water and posing a widespread threat to food security. In August, the University of Fort Hare and Walter Sisulu University had to close due to water shortages. In the Western Cape, the city of Cape Town barely escaped reaching day zero and had to enforce water restrictions which capital used to increase the water tariffs to unaffordable levels for the poor majority. Looking forward, if we do not act on climate change, Cape Town’s drought is expected to become the new norm for the city and droughts potentially will become even more severe.
In broader Southern Africa, our neighbours are also feeling the brunt of climate change. In the space of just one year, Mozambique was hit with not one, but two massive cyclones. Cyclone Idai was one of the worst tropical cyclones on record to affect Africa and the Southern Hemisphere, leaving 1,300 people dead and impacting more than 3 million others. Over 90 per cent of the city of Beira was destroyed. Shortly after, Mozambique was devastated yet again by their strongest storm on record, Cyclone Kenneth, which destroyed 80% of the homes in the Macomia district.
Further inland, Zimbabwe is facing a climate disaster of its own. A severe drought has left much of the country reeling from water shortages. In Harare, over two million people have been left without water access as the city resorted to turning off people’s taps to deal with the water shortages.
Yesterday, at the retreat of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), we heard how Puerto Rico’s entire electricity grid was knocked out by Hurricane Maria. We listened to nurses explaining how climate change disasters have impacted upon the health system here in the United States.
Fight for Just Transition
Meanwhile, countries are not honouring the commitments they made under the Paris Agreement that was negotiated and agreed in 2015. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change Special Report on 1.5 degrees has pointed out that a radical reduction in emissions is needed between now and 2030, to stay within relatively “safe” levels of warming.
We hear much talk that suggests the success of the transition depends merely on sufficient “political will” or “ambition.” On other occasions, it is either stated or implied that the transition to a low-carbon economy is “inevitable,” or even “well underway.” This is completely false. Statements that suggest the transition is “inevitable” are therefore very dangerous. They serve to disarm us.
Now, in recent years, there has been much attention directed towards the concept of “just transition.” Just Transition is in the preamble to the Paris Climate Agreement negotiated at COP21.
The text affirmed, “the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs by nationally defined development priorities.”
Unions fought hard for this language to be included, and it embodies the principle that the transition to a low carbon future will entail disruptions to workers in energy-intensive sectors, but it will also present opportunities – for good jobs with acceptable pay and conditions.
Getting this language in the Agreement was a major achievement, given the fact that the UN climate talks have been almost completely captured by multinational corporations.
Appropriately, the term Just Transition has roots in the U.S. labor movement – specifically, in efforts of the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers Union to negotiate a “Superfund for Workers” when a large chemical facility in New Jersey was closed down in the mid-1980s, because its toxic footprint had attracted opposition from environmental groups and government officials.
More than merely income protection for the plant’s 650 workers, the union also sought a program of government-funded retraining for those displaced by the closure.
OCAW President Tony Mazzocchi, who was from Brooklyn, New York, used the term Just Transition to capture the basic idea that if policy changes threatened workers’ jobs – for environmental protection or disarmament, for instance – those workers should be protected from, or compensated for, any negative consequences.
Just Transition captured
However, today, there is a problem with this “safety net,” view of Just Transition, and it’s this: there is no transition, no shift away from fossil fuels. All forms of energy use are expanding: coal, oil, gas, nuclear and renewable energy – wind, solar and hydroelectric power.
However, the term Just Transition is now being used as shorthand for “yes, yes, we acknowledge that workers might be anxious, but don’t worry!”
When the likes of anti-union Richard Branson and other billionaires use the term Just Transition, it makes me angry.
When South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa, refers to the need for a “Just Transition”, in the same speech where he announced that the national public utility, Eskom, would be broken up or “unbundled” in order to attract private investors, we know the term has been captured, co-opted and corrupted.
Our Just Transition
We, the climate movement and the trade union movement, can no longer afford to endorse the central premises of the so-called liberal business establishment, of the mainstream, “big green” NGOs, and of market-focused think tanks. Some in our various movements have tried that, and it did not work.
We need a different approach, aimed at the working class, the youth and all those who seek real change. We must challenge current arrangements of power, ownership and profit.
Our Just Transition, therefore, starts from the following realities:
- A discussion on just transition should not be separated from the debate on the imperative of development. In South Africa, the central crisis facing humanity is under-development. It is a fact that 38% of the population is unemployed, with 56.4% youth unemployment and 47% of African black women unemployed. Poverty afflicts 63% of the population, and we have two countries in one country – one country mostly white and the other country black with no access to land and property.
A move away from fossil fuels and the carbon economy that does not take into consideration this massive development challenge will lose credibility. Any programme that will worsen this will be resisted in the south and will strengthen the climate denialists like Trump. Workers should not be made to make impossible choices – the choice to continue dying in poverty, the choice of continuing to work in mines that kill them and their families and communities slowly from respiratory disease from inhaling dirty air. Our choice is both our jobs and a right to live in a clean environment! Just transition must deliver both demands! This is the world we must bequeath to our children.
- This struggle for a transition to a low-carbon, sustainable future is far too important to be outsourced to the investor class, CEOs of multinational companies, or governments that refuse to break with the current paradigm of endless ”growth”, the imperative of profit, and the enforced chaos of competition in strategic sectors.
- Protecting distinct groups of workers, which under the current systems of exploitation is very unlikely, will be like trying to unfold an umbrella under Niagara Falls. Capital has failed to drive the transition to a low carbon and truly sustainable economy. This should come as no surprise. Moreover, where changes are happening, the transitions are not just – they are profoundly unjust.
- Acting alongside other social movements – women, youth, indigenous people and other – –unions can begin by explaining that the struggle to protect the climate and our ecosystems will entail a battle for power. Yesterday we were reminded of the undying words of Rosa Luxemburg who said “The fight for climate justice must be feminist, anti-racist and anti-capitalist”.
- That is why we must immediately start to use Just Transition in terms of a profound socioeconomic transformation. This is the only way to achieve “a zero-carbon world.” This is the reason we should advance social ownership of renewables. Energy is a public good and should not be privatised, the same as the provisions of clean air, clean water, public healthcare and education, etc.
“Green Growth” is dead.
It was an ideological proposition, not a serious path to a truly sustainable future.
The pursuit of a truly Just Transition could also serve as an energizing focal point for organizing and mobilizing.
Unions must then develop transformational strategies that are anchored in a paradigm of sharing, solidarity and sufficiency.
This is why, in South Africa today, we are waging an open fight to defend the public utility from privatisation, and we’re developing a vision of a South Africa that undergoes a transition that’s anchored in the protection of workers in the coal and heavy industrial sectors. An economy that relies on coal for 80% to 90% of its electricity cannot go to 100% renewable energy in just a few years. The transition must be negotiated with workers and affected communities, and it must be planned and coordinated between local, provincial and national governments. We hope to have a national general strike in pursuance of these demands.
Moreover, the current way of developing renewable energy – through foreign-owned private companies, so-called “independent power producers” that refuse to produce and hire locally – is not our idea of a Just Transition. Socially owned renewable energy, developed at cost and on a non-profit basis, is the best way to take advantage of SA’s abundant wind and sunshine.
This is perhaps the only way to ensure a Just Transition for workers, and survival for human society as a whole.
Lastly, Tony Mazzocchi saw Just Transition not merely as a “safety net” provision, but as a means of raising more important questions about economic decisions and priorities, to help workers imagine a different future; he also saw trade unionism as a social movement that should stand on clear principles.
Other union leaders often attacked Mazzocchi for his anti-war politics and his criticisms of the oil and nuclear industries (among other things). In his own words, and I hope Richard Branson is listening!
“I have been accused of being a militant. I think that’s a sad reflection of where we are. I thought we would wear proudly the fact that we are militant. I don’t intend to bow before any unjust company, unjust government or tyranny in any form; that’s my role to the last breath of my life. That’s what trade unionism is all about”.
Yesterday we learnt from so many delegates, including from Colombia, Mexico, and in a different way from Brazil and Canada, that this struggle we are involved in has become a life and death struggle. Unionists and climate activists are being killed and huge amounts of money is being spent to discredit their message and workers’ legitimate concerns.
Yet we do not have a choice; we must fight to win this battle for our sake and for the sake of the generations to come!
Don’t moan – Mobilise!
Zwelinzima Vavi is General Secretary of the South Africa Federation of Trade Unions