Winning Fossil Fuel Workers Over to a Just Transition

Among the hard problems in tackling climate change is addressing the needs of workers employed by the oil and gas industries. In California, labor and climate organizers are working together to ensure a just transition as fossil fuel production scales down.

A driver unloads raw crude oil from his tanker at Marathon Refinery on May 24, 2022, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (George Frey / Getty Images)

I have a dream. I have a nightmare.

The dream is that working people find careers with good pay, good benefits, and a platform for addressing grievances with their employers. In other words, I dream that everyone gets what I got over twenty-plus years as a unionized worker in the oil industry.

The nightmare is that people who had jobs with good pay and power in the workplace watch those gains erode as the oil industry follows the lead of steel, auto, and coal mining to close plants and lay off workers. It is a nightmare rooted in witnessing the cruelties suffered by our siblings in these industries — all of whom had good-paying jobs with benefits and the apparatus to process grievances when their jobs went away.

Workers, their families, and their communities were destroyed when the manufacturing plants and coal mines shut down, with effects that linger to this day. Without worker input, I fear that communities dependent on the fossil fuel industry face a similar fate.

This nightmare is becoming a reality as refineries in Wyoming, Texas, Louisiana, California, and New Mexico have closed or have announced pending closures. Some facilities are doing the environmentally conscious thing and moving to renewable fuels. Laudable as that transition is, a much smaller workforce is needed for these processes. For many oil workers, the choice is to keep working, emissions be damned, or to save the planet and starve.

United Steelworkers (USW) Local 675 — a four-thousand-member local in Southern California, of which I am the second vice president — is helping to chart a different course, one in which our rank-and-file membership embraces a just transition and in which we take the urgent steps needed to protect both workers and the planet. Along with other California USW locals, we are fighting to ensure that the dream — not the nightmare — is the future for fossil fuel workers as we transition to renewable energy.

Charting a Just Transition for Fossil Fuel Workers

The story of Local 675 is very much tied to its history as a local under the former Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW). The term “just transition” was coined by OCAW member and leader Tony Mazzocchi, who saw the harmful conditions that his members labored under in atomic plants. (One of those members was the chemical technician and whistleblower Karen Silkwood, who died in a car crash in 1974 on her way to deliver documents to the New York Times.)

Mazzocchi envisioned a path forward — a just transition — where workers could find safer employment at the same high wages and good benefits. Mazzocchi’s vision for a just transition emerged out of his broader political work. He helped found Labor Party Advocates (with the goal of forming a Labor Party in this country), and he was a strong supporter of the New Majority Party, the precursor to today’s Working Families Party.

We are doing our best to follow in Mazzocchi’s footsteps by preparing our local for the needed transition to a regenerative economy. If you believe the fossil fuel companies, oil production will remain stable for years to come. That may or may not be the case, so our job — our responsibility — is to prepare our members for what might be next and to fight to ensure that their interests are represented in the transition.

The first step is to get our members and leaders to understand the future of the oil sector. The oil companies hold town halls and informational meetings with workers in which they trot out charts and graphs forecasting that oil demand will remain strong. But when the workers press for specifics, those in charge don’t have a good answer.

For instance, in one town hall, a representative for a multinational oil company working in Southern California put up a chart showing the projected global demand for fossil fuels moving forward. When one of our members asked about what demand looked like for California, they had no answer.

We developed our own clear-eyed presentation, one that emphasizes the need for a transition and gives our leaders and members an opportunity to discuss the trends. But just the fact that the bosses are holding these meetings has been an education for workers. If the company cares enough about the future of oil to educate the workers, then they are obviously worried.

Second, we need to fight for government funding to support fossil fuel workers who lose their jobs during the transition. Los Angeles city and county governments have developed a just-transition task force for extraction workers set to lose their jobs as oil wells close. Both the city and the county passed legislation mandating that oil and gas wells be a certain distance from homes and schools, leading to the closure of a number of wells and subsequent job loss for workers. In December of 2022, that task force released a blueprint for how workers and communities can transition toward a regenerative economy.

Across the state, a dozen unions have joined together in California Labor for Climate Jobs to push for a just transition for fossil fuels. Together, we successfully lobbied the state of California for a $40 million fund for displaced oil and gas workers and a $20 million fund for displaced extraction workers.

Marathon Oil, for example, has already begun converting to renewable diesel, resulting in significant job losses for members of USW Local 5 in Northern California. Job loss is especially challenging for older members who are too close to retirement for retraining. The funds are designed to support workers through retraining programs, early retirement, wage replacement, mental health services, and certification of work experience and training. Implementation is always key, so we are working hard to ensure that local and state governments are getting this money out the door and into the hands of workers as soon as possible.

The funds resulted from a joint effort between labor and environmental organizations, which realized good jobs must be part of any transition to renewable energy. These kinds of coalitions are not always easy to build or sustain. Working together required labor to educate environmental groups on the range of essential goods that come out of fossil fuel production — from vaccines to clothing to household appliances — as well as to organize our own members on the inevitability of change and the need to plan for it. The transition is happening, and we have to be nimble in our response.

Obstacles to a Just Transition

Among the obstacles we are facing is a history of bad US industrial policy, which makes workers skeptical that any transition will actually be a just one. One only need visit Youngstown, Ohio, or Detroit, Michigan, to see the lasting effects of the demise of steel and auto, respectively. Workers in the oil industry do not want to see their towns abandoned and their livelihoods gone with a transition to renewable energy.

Fossil fuel companies pose another hurdle. The fossil fuel industry has money and access. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 27) negotiations in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November 2022, the fossil fuel presence was overwhelming, with over six hundred lobbyists in attendance. The talks resulted in funding for loss and damages among countries that have not contributed to climate change but suffer disproportionately from its effects. This is a worthy goal but one that maintains the status quo with regard to future emissions.

Obstacle three: union leadership — as well as our rank-and-file members — are unsure about how to maintain the gains we have won over so many years. Many members feel affinity to the companies that have provided us with work. The fossil fuel industry has provided steady employment and, through collective bargaining, paid good wages and offered decent benefits. Fossil fuel jobs have launched generations of workers into the middle class and sometimes beyond.

If our employers say all is well, it is difficult to fight them because our members want to keep their jobs. That is exactly what the companies will do right up until the time we are no longer needed.

Beyond Fossil Fuels

The fossil fuel industry has long seemed impervious to change. For over one hundred years, fossil fuels have produced countless products that form the basis for our economy and society, from syringes to cell phone cases, from aspirin to asphalt, from jet fuel to tennis shoes. Fossil fuels have also provided stable employment for generations of workers and a steady tax base for communities across the country. Sons, daughters, siblings, nieces, nephews, and cousins all work in the industry with the expectation that these jobs will continue for the next generation. Some will, but many will not.

The demand for fossil fuels is contracting, and so the industry is changing. Ford is spending almost $4 billion building electric vehicle facilities in Michigan, Ohio, and Missouri. Delta, Southwest, and many other airline carriers have placed large orders for sustainable aviation fuel. Volvo is set to offer only electric vehicles by 2030; the company is also exploring using steel that has no fossil fuel footprint. Finally, General Motors will no longer be making internal combustion engines after 2035 — another hit to demand for fossil fuels. At the same time, oil lobbies are making the case that the industry is indispensable, all the while cutting staff, closing facilities, and moving to renewable fuels — all of which negatively impact our workers.

Our membership is more divided than the rest of the nation on the link between fossil fuels and climate. Some workers realize the need for change to protect the environment; others do not. What we tell these members is that whatever they believe about the climate, the fossil fuel industry is changing, and we need to adapt with it. Talking about demand has allowed us to move the conversation within our membership beyond climate change and toward what we need to do to make sure our folks have good jobs moving forward.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, don’t always take into account the wide-ranging effects of rapidly phasing out fossil fuels. For example, California recently announced plans to reduce crude oil production to 166,000 barrels a day by 2045. Currently, my refinery alone produces 363,000 barrels a day. Refineries across the state produce around one million barrels a day. The plan that’s currently in place doesn’t fully address how we would reduce production so dramatically or what the consequences of doing so would be — including the loss of jobs. The call to action from environmentalists has too often ignored the consequences for families and communities of reducing fossil fuel.

Over the last year and a half, labor and environmental groups in California have begun meeting to better understand each other’s positions and to develop new platforms that take into account the needs of workers, communities, and the planet. As a result, we’ve begun to build alliances that can ensure that our communities continue to thrive as we transition away from fossil fuels. These kinds of alliances are crucial to ensuring that no one is left behind as we plan for a renewable future.