Protecting Today’s Jobs

Coal-retirement advocates often point out that replacing coal with better alternatives is likely to produce far more new jobs in the future. But if your job produces or uses coal, that is indeed cold comfort. How should beyond coal advocates relate to the fact that their proposals may have adverse secondary effects for some communities and workers?

It is a basic principle of fairness that the burden of policies that are necessary for society—like protecting public health and the environment—shouldn’t be borne by a small minority who happen to be victimized by their side effects. Protecting workers and communities from the effects of socially and environmentally necessary economic change is often referred to as a just transition.

In some coal plant transitions, provisions have been made to protect the livelihoods of all or nearly all power plant workers. For example, in the elimination of coal burning at the Blount Street plant in Madison, the union and the company reached a transition agreement under which only one worker has so far been laid off, and in that case with his own consent (See Box: A Just Transition in Madison).

Such provisions are a matter of elementary justice—it is unfair that workers who through no fault of their own happen to work in jobs that need to be eliminated to achieve a social good should bear the burden of that change by losing their jobs. In addition, whenever a worker loses a job as a result of the transition away from coal, that worker may well be held up as a poster child for the idea that coal plant opponents are job killers. For both reasons, clean-energy advocates should insist from the outset that part of any transition away from coal include protection for the well-being of workers whose jobs may be threatened.

To do so, the specific character of jobs in coal-fired power plants must be taken into consideration. The older plants that are prime targets for shutdown are generally labor-intensive, so conversion to natural gas or other alternatives usually means that the number of jobs will be reduced. Utility plant workers are often highly skilled, with quite specific knowledge that is necessary to run their plants safely, which can make it harder to find comparable jobs for them. Our old coal plants, however, have an aging workforce, so in a well-planned transition from coal, many workers will be eligible to retire.

Workers don’t have to burn coal in order to have jobs or livelihoods. The Delaware consent decree, for example, provided that the workforce would be reduced through “retirements, retraining, attrition, and redeployment”—not layoffs (See box: Delaware: Coal to Wind).

About one hundred power plants are owned by independent power producers, often called “merchant” companies, which sell power wholesale to other power companies. But the great majority of power plants are regulated public utilities that sell to consumers.

Most of these are multiplant companies; when one plant is closed, they often have the possibility of finding jobs in other plants for the workers displaced. Many power companies are partnered with others through joint ventures and other networks, providing another avenue to find equivalent jobs for workers who would otherwise be laid off.

Pursuing Just Transitions

In addressing the impact of coal plant closings on current workers, there are several things coal-retirement advocates should keep in mind.

First, remember that you are dealing with a difficult and potentially tragic human situation. In contrast to blocking a new plant, downsizing or shutting an existing plant is not about hypothetical jobs in a hypothetical future; it impacts the lives of real, identifiable women and men. Utility-sector jobs are often secure, well-paid jobs with union representation. Unionized workers at the TransAlta power plant in the state of Washington, for example, made two and a half times the average wage in their county. Put yourself in the shoes of people who you are putting at risk of losing the only decent job they may ever have.

Reach out early to the unions or other organizations that represent threatened workers, and if possible to the workers themselves. You don’t have to start by asking them to support you in eliminating their jobs! Instead, make clear where you are coming from in approaching them: You believe that those who work in coal-producing and -using industries shouldn’t bear the cost of transitioning beyond coal. Find out their real situation and needs; for example, how many workers are close to retirement; what other jobs in the company might be appropriate for redeployment; what is the current practice for negotiating about job changes? Ask them what would be necessary, in the event of a transition away from coal, to protect their livelihoods. (This is much easier to do if you already have an on-going relationship through coalitions that include both environmentalists and trade unionists, like the Blue-Green Alliance. [i] )

If the company is playing a cooperative role in negotiating a transition from coal, you can ask it similar questions. But don’t consider a company to be the spokesperson for its workers. Recognize that workers are entitled to an independent voice accountable to them.

To be perceived as the allies rather than the enemy of current workers, coal-transition advocates should from the very beginning of a campaign include the demand that employers negotiate an employment-transition plan with the representatives of their workers (See “A Just Transition in Madison”). They should insist on this demand at every stage of their campaigns and include it in their proposals, communications, and submissions to regulators and other government bodies. They should demand that regulators and legislators incorporate this requirement in any plan for a transition from coal.

Some energy plants are directly associated with particular coal mines, either ones in the same area or ones owned by the same company, or both. This gives labor unions a further problem in protecting members’ jobs. In Colorado, for example, the shift from coal to natural gas was perceived as threatening the jobs not only of power plant workers, but of Colorado miners—one of the reasons that organized labor initially opposed the shift (See “Colorado: Workers at the Table?”). Similar shutdowns of coal power plants on the Navajo reservation threatened the jobs of hundreds of miners (See “The Navajo Nation”). In Appalachia, the United Mine Workers is a leading opponent of coal-retirement efforts. If miners and others—such as truck drivers and railroad workers—are directly affected by a proposed power plant closing, you can use the same strategy for addressing their right to a just transition that you would for those who work in the plant itself.

A Just Transition in Madison

The importance and benefits of building a long-term relationship between energy industry workers and clean-energy advocates, even though their interests are not always identical, is illustrated by the way Madison, Wisconsin, is transitioning beyond coal.

In 2003 Madison’s Mayor Dave Cieslewicz convened the Mayor’s Energy Task Force and charged it with “making Madison a green capital city and creating a city that is a national leader in energy efficiency and renewable energy that also supports the city’s economic vitality.” One of the members of the task force was the president of Madison’s IBEW Local 2304, which represents workers in the Madison Gas & Electric company. The inclusion of utility worker representatives in the city’s planning process laid the groundwork for continuing cooperation in moving beyond coal in the city’s power generation.

MG&E’s century-old Blount Street power plant in downtown Madison was the largest single-point source of emissions in Dane County and among the most polluting power plants in the Midwest. By the mid-1990s, the company faced spending tens of millions of dollars to modernize pollution controls at the plant.

The plant was also a target of environmental protests. In December 2005 nearly two hundred residents attended a public meeting of the city’s Environmental Commission and complained that it was causing asthma and dangerous ozone levels.

In 2006 MG&E issued a ten-year plan titled “Energy 2015.” The plan would downsize the plant and stop using coal as a fuel source within six years and would increase its use of natural gas, wind energy, energy efficiency, and cleaner coal from more modern facilities. In the longer run it also planned to reduce use of natural gas to less than one-third by 2015.

The company told employees that about seventy jobs would be cut over the six-year downsizing and coal phaseout. Union president Dave Poklinkoski said that fifty-three of them would be union positions. However, the union did not oppose the plan and Poklinkoski noted the value of the extended timeline for the phaseout. “It’s not a sixty-day or a ninety-day notice, it’s a six-year notice. So we think both parties can put our heads together and figure out a humane way to address this.” He noted that the company and the union would discuss how to structure the job cuts as part of regularly scheduled collective bargaining. [ii]

In fact, according to the IBEW local newsletter, the company and the union

reached an agreement in both 2006 and 2009 negotiations for a new contract on an employment and transition policy entitled “Energy 2015 Plan—Blount Employees.” Over the course of the last five years the plan largely successfully addressed IBEW members’ issues, as we went from approximately seventy-three members down to twenty-three. Given our collective history, that’s no small feat. [iii]

Only one person was laid off, and he retired at sixty-one with supplemental unemployment benefits (see “Appendix: A Job-Protecting Labor Agreement”).

In March 2010 MG&E announced that it had converted the Blount St. plant to run on natural gas ahead of schedule. Although the company had warned in 2006 that seventy jobs would be lost, there were only five layoffs when the plant finally converted. [iv] The company also increased its wind capacity from 80 to 418 kW in the previous three years and expanded conservation programs for its customers. [v] However, at the final stage of the transition in 2011 the company announced that four union members would be laid off; the union proposed instead that they be employed to fill positions that would soon be opening in the plant or elsewhere in the company. The issue is currently under negotiation. [vi]

Meanwhile, cooperation between utility worker unions and renewable energy advocates continued in other spheres. In 2008 Gov. Jim Doyle announced that two coal-fired heating plants would be shut down and replaced by cleaner-fueled cogeneration facilities. IBEW local president Poklinkoski stated,

This is a big step toward making Madison a model for an environmentally sound energy future. At the beginning of the process to find solutions for our aging power plants, I agreed with the University that we must take a transformational approach. Indeed, this is the first step toward an energy future where we create energy cleanly, use energy wisely, and provide family-supporting jobs for decades to come. [vii]

In September 2010 a coalition that included union, business, and renewable energy organizations called for building the 150-mile Badger Coulee Transmission Line to carry electricity, largely from renewable sources, from the LaCrosse area to Dane County. The group argued that the line would provide improved reliability, cost savings, and improved access to renewable energy resources, notably wind power from Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas. The group included renewable-energy advocate RENEW Wisconsin, five local utility unions, and the Utility Workers Coalition, representing 28,000 workers in the Wisconsin energy industry. [viii]

When Gov. Jim Doyle, with strong support from renewable energy groups, submitted legislation for a shift to cleaner energy, the bill was framed as the Clean Energy Jobs Act. According to the Journal Sentinel, “supporters say that moving toward more energy efficiency and renewable energy is an economic-development strategy the state needs to take.” A state analysis found the bill would create a minimum of 15,000 jobs over the next ten years, mostly for constructing wind farms and retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency. When the bill was tweaked to provide even more investment in energy conservation, Wisconsin State AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Phil Neuenfeldt wrote,

We are excited about the proposed modifications to the Clean Energy Jobs Act. The working families that we represent appreciate the improvements made to increase and to speed up job creation. The provisions added to allow job-creating conservation and efficiency to count toward the Renewable Portfolio Standard and the clarification to the nuclear language are both positive changes.

Wisconsin has no natural gas, no coal, and no oil. We currently send $16 billion out of our state every year to meet our energy needs.

The Clean Energy Jobs Act will create clean energy that works for Wisconsin, and is made in Wisconsin. This is a huge opportunity to reduce our dependence on foreign fuel and make sure that Wisconsin doesn’t lose green jobs to countries like China.

The jobs created by this legislation are good, family-wage jobs. This is the right choice for the environment and our economy. [ix]

Wisconsin’s labor-environmental cooperation reached a high pitch in 2011 as both movements joined to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s savaging of both labor rights and the environment.

The Base Closing Model

Job reductions often affect not just individual workers but whole communities, and a just transition needs to address those impacts. Coal transitions can emulate the highly successful process that helped local communities adjust to the disruption and job shifting that resulted from the closing of military bases under the Base Realignment and Closing Commission (BRAC). Those communities were provided a wide range of federal assistance, including planning and economic adjustment assistance, environmental cleanup, community development block grants, and community service grants.

Individual workers dislocated by base closings also received extensive support. The Department of Defense itself provided advance notification of a reduction in force; preseparation counseling; a hiring preference system with federal agencies to reemploy qualified displaced DOD employees; and financial incentives to encourage early retirement of those eligible. Workers affected by base closings were also eligible for help under national emergency grants, rapid response programs, comprehensive assessments and development of individual employment plans, and job training programs.

Communities and individuals affected by coal plant transitions could be similarly targeted for assistance from such existing programs as the Department of Labor’s Rapid Response Services and the national emergency grants of the DOL’s Employment and Training Administration, as well as funding for economic development and industrial efficiency and modernization from the Departments of Energy and Commerce.

Just Transition Policies

Transition assistance in the past has often meant little more than an economic hospice for workers and communities threatened by the side effects of globalization, environmental protection, and other public policies. Without a clear program to protect workers from the effects of coal plant closures, the struggle for clean energy can all too easily come to be perceived as a struggle against American workers.

Perhaps surprisingly, some of the best ideas for protecting workers and communities hit by the side effects of public policy decisions were embodied in legislation championed in 1988 by Sen. John McCain to protect tobacco workers and farmers from tobacco control policy. McCain’s Universal Tobacco Settlement bill, which passed out of committee 19–1 but was defeated on the Senate floor, would have created an industry-funded $28 billion trust fund to help tobacco growers, cigarette factory workers, their families, and their communities adjust to the reduced purchase of American tobacco.[x]

Workers and farmers would have received transition assistance from the fund if “the implementation of the national tobacco settlement contributed importantly to such workers’ separation” from their jobs. Several tobacco states subsequently developed their own programs to help with the transition away from tobacco, such as Kentucky’s Bill 611, which allocates half of the state’s tobacco settlement funds for agricultural diversification. Because the McCain bill received such wide bipartisan support, we will reference it where possible in this discussion as an instructive example.

Protecting individual workers

The principle that the cost of policies that benefit society shouldn’t be borne by those who are adversely affected by their side effects was recognized in the Trade Act of 1974 and subsequent programs for trade adjustment assistance, which provide compensatory benefits to workers who lose their jobs as a result of U.S. trade policies. The eligibility requirements, benefits, and administration of trade adjustment programs are widely recognized as inadequate, however.

The eligibility requirements, benefits, and administration of trade adjustment programs are widely recognized as inadequate, however.

A similar but better program can be developed for coal-fired generator workers and others affected by energy transition policies. Specifically, workers who lose their jobs because of coal transition should be eligible for:

  • full wages and benefits for at least three years
  • up to four years of education or training, including tuition and living expenses
  • decent pensions with healthcare for those ready to retire

The opportunity for individuals to access higher education and advanced training will also mesh with the need to develop new labor force capabilities for the emerging green economy.

Protecting communities

The McCain tobacco bill provided not just for individuals, but for hard-hit communities. It created a Tobacco Community Revitalization Trust Fund to offer economic development grants over a twenty-five-year period. They would support:

Business development and employment-creating activities “to provide a more viable economic base and enhance opportunities for improved incomes, living standards, and contributions by rural individuals to the economic and social development of their communities.”

Activities that “expand existing infrastructure, facilities, and services to capitalize on opportunities to diversify economies in tobacco communities that support the development of new industries or commercial ventures.”

Initiatives and technical assistance designed to “create or expand locally owned value-added processing and marketing operations in tobacco communities.”

Preference in employment under the program would be given to former tobacco workers and members of tobacco worker communities.


[i] For information on the Blue-Green Alliance, go to http://www.bluegreenalliance.org/

[ii] Ben Fischer, “Blount St. Plant to Stop Burning Coal,” Madison.com (Madison, WI), January 20, 2006.

[iii] “BGS and the Energy 2015 Plan,” IBEW Local Union 2304 Newsletter, Fall 2011.

[iv] Thomas Content, “MG&E Stops Burning Coal in Madison Plant,” Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI), March 18, 2010.

[v] Madison Gas and Electric, “Energy 2015.”

[vi] “BGS and the Energy 2015 Plan” (see n. 56).

[vii] Sierra Club, “Clean Energy Victory! Madison Moves Beyond Coal.” Press release, August 1, 2008.

[viii] Renew Wisconsin, “Business, Labor, Renewable Groups Support Evaluation of Transmission Line.” Press release, September 29, 2010.

[ix] Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, “Wisconsin State AFL-CIO Welcomes the Improved Clean Energy Jobs Act.” Press release, April 13, 2010.

[x] Universal Tobacco Settlement Act, S. 1414, 105th Cong. (1997).