by Jeremy Brecher, originally published 23 March 2023 on Labor Network for Sustainability’s Stike! Commentaries, accessible here: https://www.labor4sustainability.org/articles/protecting-workers-and-communities-from-below-part-1-on-the-ground/
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Climate protection will create jobs for workers and economic development for communities. But as fossil fuel facilities are closed down there will also be some jobs lost and some communities will lose taxes and other economic benefits. This Commentary recounts what communities around the country are doing “on the ground” to protect workers and local economies from collateral damage from the transition to climate-safe energy. The next Commentary describes what states are doing to include such protections in their climate and energy programs.
The programs that are needed to fight climate change will produce millions of new jobs. Local and state climate programs are already producing tens of thousands of new jobs. But there are two problems. The new jobs are often low-paid, non-union, with few benefits and little job security. And workers, families, and communities that lose jobs as a result of the transition away from fossil fuels often face dislocation and hardships that are not assuaged by the increase in jobs in other occupations and locations.
Consider: On the last day of September 2022 the San Juan Generating Station in the Navajo Nation burned coal for the last time. It was a victory for protection of the climate, the environment, and the health of the Navajo people. But in the five years since the decision to shut the plant was made a quarter of the children at the nearby Judy Nelson Elementary school have left because their parents moved elsewhere to look for work. Judy Nelson reading teacher Denise Pierro said, “They’ve taken the rug out from underneath our feet.” 80% of the property taxes that fund Judy Nelson and other schools in the area come from nearby power plants, mines, and associated businesses. As the scheduled closing approached, the company served workers green chili cheeseburgers as a morale booster alongside a big projection screen that read: “Thank you to all employees at San Juan for your years of dedicated service!”
In many countries welfare state social policies provide dislocated workers and communities economic security and a chance for a new start. Healthcare, housing, education, and income maintenance programs are often generous enough to protect workers from severe hardship. When industrial facilities are shut down, industrial location policies often establish plans and investment for economic redevelopment. These protections can be even greater when governments adopt economic or environmental policies that adversely affect workers and communities. For example, the European Union is providing more than $30 billion for “just transition” programs and investments to support fossil fuel producing regions that may be affected by the European “Green Deal” plan to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
The US has long lagged in such protections. It has little tradition of planning for economic transitions. In the face of economic change workers and communities are often just thrown on their own resources – even when those resources are severely limited. The result is often long-term individual and community decline.
It doesn’t have to be that way. As the end of World War II approached, there was great fear that with the end of war production American workers would be thrust back into the poverty and mass unemployment of the Great Depression. In response the government began a serious effort to plan the conversion back to a peacetime economy. And it passed the “GI Bill of Rights” which provided four years of tuition for college or training programs, home mortgages, loans for business ventures, and income maintenance. Some of these programs, notably mortgage loans, were blatantly racially discriminatory. But the GI Bill of Rights saved millions of demobilized veterans from return to Depression conditions and provided the educational and financial start they needed to become the most upwardly mobile generation in modern US history.
Tony Mazzocchi was a World War II veteran who had gone to college on the GI Bill of Rights and who became a leader of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (now merged with the Steelworkers). In the early 1990s, following the confirmation of fossil fuel-caused global warming, Mazzocchi revived the GI Bill of Rights idea, initially calling it a “Superfund for workers” – a play on the then- recently-established Superfund for toxic cleanup. The Superfund for Workers would provide financial support and an opportunity for higher education for workers displaced by environmental protection policies. That program was soon rebranded with the more positive term “a just transition.” The concept gradually gathered support among trade unionists and environmentalists. It also met considerable hostility from other trade unionists; AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka said dismissively, “Just transition is just an invitation to a fancy funeral.” Meanwhile, the term “just transition” was adopted by climate justice advocates and others to describe a more general social transformation that went far beyond protecting current fossil fuel workers.
As greenhouse gas reduction policies have begun to come into effect, their impact on workers and communities has become an increasingly pressing reality. The purpose of this Commentary is not to delve into the alternative meanings now attached to the term “just transition,” but to present examples of Green New Deal-style programs that are under way at a local level to protect workers and communities against undesirable side effects of climate policy.
Back in 2016 I was asked to give a talk at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth about alternative jobs and just transition for the Brayton Point coal-fired power plant in nearby Somerset. Brayton Point was the largest coal plant in New England. It had been named by the EPA as one of Massachusetts’ heaviest polluters and there was a campaign to close it. There was also great concern about the plant’s 240 workers losing their jobs and other economic impacts like loss of the plant’s $12 million annual property tax payment to Somerset. I recounted experiences elsewhere and what strategies might be used to address these concerns, including background from two other New England coal-fired power plants where I had had similar discussions. The community members were very concerned but extremely pessimistic about either finding new jobs for the plant workers if they were displaced or finding new economic development for Somerset. Plant workers, I was told, would most likely support a conversion to natural gas unless a clean energy alternative was guaranteed to protect their jobs.
Meanwhile, a coalition of environmental groups commissioned a report on “Reimagining Brayton Point.” It proposed converting the plant’s 234-acre waterfront site to a “Clean Energy Hub” combining large-scale battery storage, photovoltaics, a food waste digester, and an offshore wind terminal. It concluded that the Clean Energy Hub scenario provided “a vision of the future that would allow for the restoration of some of the town’s tax revenues, provide clean, reliable electricity for the region, provide jobs and help advance technological innovation, and reduce pollution and other industrial burdens on the town’s waterfront and surrounding communities.”
The plant shut down in 2017 but progress toward that vision was fitful. Commercial Development Inc of St. Louis bought the property, started tearing down the plant, and issued plans for a Brayton Point Commerce Center. But with offshore wind development stalled by the Trump administration, they leased the property for a polluting scrap metal exporting operation. Residents objected, organized, elected a new town government, and in 2022 won a court order shutting down the operation.
Finally, the vision of a Clean Energy Hub began to come to fruition. In May 2019 grid asset developer Anbaric signed an agreement with Commercial Development to build a 1200MW high voltage direct current converter and 400MW battery storage plant at Brayton Point to support the offshore wind industry. And in February 2022 Prysmian Group, an Italian manufacturer of undersea cable, invested $200 million to create a high-tech manufacturing hub to make submarine cables to connect its under-construction wind farms to the mainland power grid. The plant will also have an R&D facility with a first-of-kind in the United States high-voltage test lab.
On July 20, 2022 President Joe Biden visited Brayton Point to announce new climate initiatives. He said,
On this site, they’ll manufacture 248 miles of high-tech, heavy-duty cables. Manufacturing these cables will mean good-paying jobs for 250 workers – as many workers as the old power plant had at its peak.
The Spoon River runs through a rural area in west central Illinois centered between the Mississippi and the Illinois rivers. A century ago the region was made famous by Edgar Lee Masters’ poetic Spoon River Anthology, a once-banned best-selling expose of small town America. Today the region has a 13% poverty rate and an 8% unemployment rate. In August 2019 Vistra Energy informed local officials that the region’s two coal-fired power plants would be shut down in December. The response by local schools, colleges, unions, and other institutions shows how communities can respond effectively to such shutdowns even within the limits of existing government programs.
The two power plants employed 300 workers, most members of the Steamfitters union (part of UA) or the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). They also provided a substantial proportion of the local tax base. Spoon River College, the local community college, received $300,000 annually from the plants’ property taxes. The Canton School District received over $1 million annually.
Faced with losing their funding and with little advance notice to plan, the president of Spoon River College and the superintendent of the school district began meeting with other community leaders to develop a response. Spoon River College partnered with the Regional Workforce Investment Board, whose Dislocated Worker Fund is paid for by the federal government but administered by the states. They developed a Rapid Response program for the 300 power plant workers, who had only 60 to 90 days to find work. Their team met four times with workers on all three shifts to discuss career goals and aspirations. They used the workers’ input to evaluate and redesign their current education and training programs. They held hiring fairs with local employers, open houses at Spoon River College, and programs to connect workers with community resources.
Of the 300 workers laid off in the two power plants, 60% were able, under the IBEW contract, to transfer to another power plant in Illinois. 20% enrolled in a community college or university to increase their skills or change to another career. Of those, the largest number took training to get a Commercial Driver’s License for jobs that were readily available locally. Others were trained for diesel locomotive repair, for which workers were needed at the nearby Burlington Northern repair facilities. Some studied advanced manufacturing techniques in welding and Computer Numerical Control (CNC), skills that were in demand by Caterpillar and other nearby manufacturers. 5% of the workers started their own businesses. Most of the remaining 15% retired, with the rest moving out of state or remaining unemployed.
Vistra Energy agreed to negotiate over local property tax reductions and accepted a step-down plan to cushion the impacts. This meant, for example, that in the first year of shutdown the community college received 60% of its previous year’s payments; in the next year 30%; and in the third year 15%.
The impacts of the Spoon River power plant closings are far from ended. While the property tax step-down will give local institutions some time to adjust, it will not replace their lost revenue in the long run. Even if most plant workers have found new jobs, in the meantime many of their children have dropped out of college or been otherwise adversely affected. And under state law all remaining Illinois coal-fired power plants will be shut down within 14 years, so that workers who transferred to other plants will again be faced with losing their jobs. (Our next Commentary will describe the measures the state of Illinois is planning to take to address such impacts.) But within the limits of existing programs, Spoon River region community action helped ease the transition for workers and other community members.
The Huntley Experiment
The Huntley Generating Station sits on the Niagara River 13 miles from Niagara Falls in the town of Tonawanda, NY, a working-class suburb of Buffalo with a population of 73,000. The Station was Tonawanda’s largest taxpayer and also its greatest source of air and water pollution. About 70 unionized employees worked at the plant – down from 125. In 2015 its owner NRG announced the plant would be closed, and the next year began decommissioning it.
A previous downsizing of the plant in 2008-2012 had cost Tonawanda, its school district, and Erie County $6.2 million, leading to the layoff of 140 teachers, the closing of four schools, and a freeze on teachers’ pay. Anticipating further cutbacks, in 2013 local labor and environmental groups including the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, the Western New York Area Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, and the Kenmore-Tonawanda Teachers Association formed the Huntley Alliance.
The Alliance initially included the IBEW local representing the workers in the Huntley plant, but when a local Sierra Club member organized a protest calling for the plant to be closed Tonawanda political leaders accused the coalition of trying to sabotage the plant and the Huntley union withdrew. The work of the Alliance stopped in its tracks.
A study at the start of 2014 made clear that the Huntley plant was not economically viable and would soon be shut down. That revivified the Huntley Alliance, this time with a greater emphasis on the needs of local workers. The new director of the Clean Air Coalition said, “Always, our key question is, how are we going to take care of our people?” An activist member added, “I was the angry environmentalist” but “I’ve learned we need to take care of both our workers and our environment.”
The union representing Huntley workers declined to join the effort, but the Huntley Alliance pushed ahead with a community outreach program involving a series of public meetings, door-to-door surveys, voter registration drives, and workshops on the economics of the energy industry. According to their surveys, residents’ priorities were:
- keeping schools intact
- creating good-paying jobs
- reconnecting the community to the Niagara River waterfront
- expanding the tax base
- protecting utility ratepayers
- improving public health and the environment
The Huntley Alliance then brought together local stakeholders to prepare a 64-page plan titled Tonawanda Tomorrow focused on transforming the Huntley plant site into a community asset. The work was supported by a $160,000 grant from the Federal Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) program. In all 1,500 people were involved in the process. A town board member and high school teacher observed, “I have never seen a group of people who were so diverse work together.” We had “citizens, businesses, government officials, and environmental activists.” It was “kind of magical.” In 2017 the town government officially adopted the plan. The plan identified funding sources, timeline, and who was responsible for implementation. Town officials convened a team to advise on implementation of the plan but, for reasons that aren’t clear, abandoned it after a year.
Meanwhile, Tonawanda was facing imminent loss of tax base for schools and government services. The Huntley Alliance petitioned the New York State Legislature to provide gap funding and went to Albany to testify for it. In 2016 the legislature passed the nation’s first Electric Generation Facility Cessation Mitigation Program. Local communities throughout New York that are facing power plant shutdowns can now receive payments, declining annually over a seven-year period, to cover lost tax revenue. State funding comes from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which requires payments from polluting utilities throughout the Northeast. The fund has provided $26.1 million in grants to the town of Tonawanda, the Kenmore-Tonawanda Union Free School District, the City of Dunkirk, Chautauqua County, and the Dunkirk City School District. Tonawanda itself received $1.6 million in 2016-2017 and $1.4 million in 2017-18, helping it to maintain essential municipal services.
Liv Yoon, who conducted extensive interviews with Tonawanda residents for her documentary movie A Tomorrow for Tonawanda, concluded,
Partnership and collective action among strange bedfellows — such as labor unions, teachers’ unions, and environmental justice organizations — are ultimately what earned the town the attention of politicians and decision-makers. The alliance demonstrated that the aftermath of the industry closure was an issue that impacted the entire town, not just the employees of the plants. Compared to a specific interest group lobbying in isolation, the alliance meant that the politicians had more reason to listen to this broad range of groups (along with increased risk to lose more votes).
Mt. Tom Station, perched on a steep hillside alongside the Connecticut River in Holyoke, MA, was the last coal-fired power plant in Massachusetts. It has become the state’s largest solar farm. The Mt. Tom story exemplifies a community-centered approach to protecting people from the side effects of transition away from fossil fuel energy – and reaping the benefits of that transition. CBS News headlined its account of Mt. Tom’s transition, “How one small city sowed the seeds for its own Green New Deal.”
Half of Holyoke’s residents were Latino/Hispanic and 30% lived in poverty. Asthma rates from the coal plant were twice the state average – a study found that 28% of Holyoke school students had asthma. A campaign to close the plant started in 2010, led by the local resident group Action for a Healthy Holyoke, with support from organizers from Neighbor to Neighbor and the Toxic Action Center.
I met with members of the group in the basement of a rundown public housing project to talk about how to close the plant in a way that would be positive for the impoverished Holyoke community. They were worried about the health effects of the plant on their families, but many of them had lost jobs themselves and were deeply aware of the harm to livelihoods that might come from closing the plant. When Action for a Healthy Holyoke members met with state and company officials, they demanded not only closure of the plant but protections for the plant’s workers, including a bridge to retirement, transitional jobs and training, and severance packages. While many Mt. Tom workers opposed efforts to close the plant and Action for a Healthy Holyoke was unable to establish an official relation with IBEW Local 445 which represented workers in the plant, a union steward provided an informal liaison between AHH and IBEW.
By 2013 it was clear that the Mt. Tom plant was going to be shut down, but the impact on workers and the community was still to be determined. IBEW Local 445 members demanded to meet with plant officials to provide older workers a “bridge” to retirement benefits, better severance pay, training for new jobs, and transfers within the company. In negotiations with the company IBEW local 445 won nearly all their demands, including:
- Severance packages with two month’s pay for each year of service
- 8 months health insurance
- Full retirement packages
- A bridge-to-retirement program
- Full pension at 55 for workers within 2 years of retirement
- $5,000 scholarships for higher education and job training
Workers were reported to be pleased with the agreement. Clarence Kay, who worked at the plant for 32 years and helped negotiate the settlement, said the bridge-to-retirement was “a really big thing.” Generally speaking, “the company did a pretty good job giving most of us what we needed during such a tough transition.” The one demand that they did not win was to have union workers decommission and transition the plant.
The closing of the plant also threatened the community – for one thing, Holyoke had been receiving $315,000 taxes annually from the Mt. Tom plant. At first the plant’s owner ENGIE North America declined to meet with community activists, but it relented when the activists threatened to hold a press conference outside their offices and city officials pressured them to meet. According to Holyoke mayor Alex Morse, community activists
played a role in being proactive with the visioning of the site. The solar project was already sort of a community-agreed-upon value, a goal that everybody could get behind. And we got ahead of the curve, in that sense, when we started that plan even before the coal plant shut down.
As Mt. Tom’s future dimmed, Holyoke moved proactively to plan for a transition. The city established a Citizens Advisory Group to explore the future of the Mt. Tom site. The state provided a $100,000 grant and the city teamed up with the state’s Clean Energy Center for a “Mt. Tom Power Plant Reuse Study.
More than 200 people participated in the study’s activities over eight months. The study used a mix of public input, coupled with expert analysis, in order to design a set of feasible reuse scenarios. Community outreach activities were held in English and Spanish and included community meetings, mobile workshops, community surveys, and targeted outreach.
The report established the feasibility of using Mt. Tom for a large solar array, possibly complemented by anaerobic digestion, agriculture, and public amenities. After initially standing aloof the plant’s owner, ENGIE North America, partnered with the city-owned utility Holyoke Gas & Energy to provide solar-sourced electricity for the city. Carol Churchill, communications manager at Engie North America, said “We were trying to determine what to put on that site when Mass Clean Energy Center came out with their study.” The land was “very conducive to a solar facility” and “Holyoke was looking for non-carbon sources.” “Everything pointed to solar, so that’s what we ended up installing.”
By 2017, 17,000 solar panels had been installed and were running on Mt. Tom. The next year the company installed three megawatts of battery storage on the site to provide electricity when the sun doesn’t shine. Holyoke’s city-owned utility company, which also uses hydropower from the Connecticut River, now runs almost completely on clean power. Mayor Alex Morse says, “We have an ambition of being a carbon-neutral community. We get closer and closer with each project like this.” The city is continuing to seek job-and-revenue generating investment for the site, ranging from manufacturing to cannabis production.
Don’t Be Roadkill!
These examples show what communities and workers can do to protect themselves against the worst effects of energy transition. The results are far from perfect, but they put people in a position to be more than roadkill thrown on the economic scrapheap.
The closing of major infrastructure like a power plant has a wide effect not just on the facilities’ employees but on local communities, economies, and governments. Because of this impact there is a need for, and the possibility of, diverse constituencies coming together to address the problem collaboratively. Most of the successful efforts at a local level to protect workers and communities have depended on coalitions that brought together groups who had not customarily worked together.
These efforts have developed in the absence of federal programs to integrate protections for workers and communities into the energy transition we are undergoing – let alone the far greater one we need. They show many of the kinds of actions that are necessary to keep the burden of climate protection from being dumped on those who are most vulnerable.
These efforts were made necessary in part by the historic failure of American government to provide an adequate social safety net for anyone who is affected by economic change or personal tragedy. They similarly reflected the US’s lack of an industrial location policy designed to promote investment in hard-hit communities and regions. These local efforts were rarely able to access federal funding and depended on resources scraped together from inadequate local sources. Recently enacted federal programs like the Inflation Reduction Act, if properly developed, can provide additional resources for future efforts of this kind.
Many of these examples were reactive efforts made in response to the looming emergence of local economic catastrophe. Protection of workers and communities in the face of change requires planning and planning requires time. But in most cases law and public policy give corporations arbitrary power to shut down facilities at will with few requirements for notifying and assisting their workers and communities. In many cases these efforts are necessarily making the best of a bad situation.
Since economic change is inevitable, public policy should require that facilities whose closing would threaten worker and community wellbeing not only give adequate advance notice, but fund programs in advance to provide for an acceptable transition.
These local initiatives provide a sketch for the state and federal programs needed to protect workers and communities while protecting the climate. They represent building blocks for the transition policies that are necessary in a Green New Deal. Indeed, they embody necessary elements of what we have called the Green New Deal from Below.
State level action for protecting workers and communities in the energy transition is the subject of the next commentary in this series.
 Susan Montoya Brian, “US shift away from coal hits tribal community in New Mexico,” AP News, October 2, 2022. https://apnews.com/article/business-new-mexico-climate-and-environment-a8235ae76179ee10004f26b0a72fb689
 “European Union’s Just Transition Mechanism: Transnational Funding and Support for a Just Transition,” World Resources Institute, April 21, 2021. https://www.wri.org/update/european-unions-just-transition-mechanism-transnational-funding-and-support-just-transition
 J. Mijin Cha, Vivian Price, Dimitris Stevis, and Todd E. Vachon with Maria Brescia-Weiler, “Workers and Communities in Transition: Report of the Just Transition Listening Project.” Labor Network for Sustainability, 2021. https://www.labor4sustainability.org/files/JTLP_report2021.pdf For the long-term, sometimes multi-generational, impacts of local economic affliction see Howard Botwinick, Persistent Inequalities: Wage Disparity under Capitalist Competition (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018). https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/1200-persistent-inequalities
 “Just Transition: Just What Is It?” Labor Network for Sustainability and the Grassroots Policy Project. https://www.labor4sustainability.org/uncategorized/just-transition-just-what-is-it/ and Jeremy Brecher, “How to Protect Workers While Protecting the Climate,” Labor Network for Sustainability, July 15, 2021. https://www.labor4sustainability.org/just-transition/how-to-protect-workers-while-protecting-the-climate/ For links to other LNS materials on “just transition”: https://www.labor4sustainability.org/just-transition/
 Sarah Jackson, et. al, “Reimagining Brayton Point,” Synapse Energy Economics, March 3, 2016. https://www.synapse-energy.com/sites/default/files/Reimagining_Brayton_Point_15-076.pdf
 “Massachusetts site completes offshore wind port upgrades,” – Renewable Energy News April 2, 2020. https://renews.biz/59470/massachusetts-site-completes-offshore-wind-port-upgrades/
 “President Biden picks Brayton Point site for major climate change speech,” Prysmian Group, https://www.prysmiangroup.com/en/insight/projects/president-biden-picks-brayton-point-site-for-major-climate-change-speech
 “Remarks by President Biden on Actions to Tackle the Climate Crisis,” The White House, July 20, 2022. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2022/07/20/remarks-by-president-biden-on-actions-to-tackle-the-climate-crisis/
 Based on presentation by Curt Oldfield, president of Spoon River College, to “Where to Start? Webinar for Energy Communities Starting a Transformation,” Ok, November 2021. Oldfield presentation starts at 53 minutes. https://energycommunities.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/IWG-Where-to-Start_-Slides-for-Nov-3._FINAL.pdf
 Unless otherwise noted, information in the section comes from “Creating the First National Model For ‘Gap Funding’ In New York,” Just Transition Fund. https://justtransitionfund.org/resources/tonawanda-ny/ and Richard Lipsitz and Rebecca Newberry, “Huntley, a Case Study: Building Strategic Alliances for Real Change,” Labor Network for Sustainability. 2016l https://www.labor4sustainability.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/The-Huntley-Experiment.pdf
 Liv Yoon, “Short Film Captures the Story of a Just Energy Transition in Tonawanda, NY,” State of the Planet, October 10, 2022. https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2022/10/10/short-film-captures-the-story-of-a-just-energy-transition-in-tonawanda-ny/
 Rachel Layne, “How one small city sowed the seeds for its own Green New Deal,” CBS News, March 8, 2019. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/climate-change-how-one-small-city-sowed-the-seeds-for-its-own-green-new-deal/
 Adele Peters, “How a Holyoke, MA coal plant became a solar farm,” Fast Company, January 3, 2019. https://www.fastcompany.com/90286009/this-old-coal-plant-is-now-a-solar-farm-thanks-to-pressure-from-local-activists
 “Mt. Tom Power Plant Reuse Study,” Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, November 2015. https://files.masscec.com/research/MtTomReuseStudyENGLISH.pdf
 Kristin Palpini, “From Coal to Sol! Holyoke’s Mt. Tom Generating Plant is making the switch to solar, but its dirty past lurks,” Valley Advocate, October 31, 2016. https://valleyadvocate.com/2016/10/31/from-coal-to-sol/ This article also includes a vivid description of an “intense” meeting between the owners of Mt. Tom station and 60 community members and environmental activists.
 Chris Teale, “A new lease on life for Holyoke, MA’s former coal-fired power plant,” Smart Cities Dive, January 22, 2019. https://www.smartcitiesdive.com/news/holyoke-coal-fired-power-plant/546447/
 Arjun Makhijani, “Beyond a Band-Aid: A Discussion Paper on Protecting Workers and Communities in the Great Energy Transition,” Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and Labor Network for Sustainability, 2016. https://labor4sustainability.org/files/pdf_06142016_final.pdf