Originally published in In These Times on July 24, 2019.
This past May, Colorado’s Democratic governor Jared Polis signed a series of new environmental bills into law, with the enthusiastic backing of the state’s labor movement. Legislation ranged from expanding community solar gardens to establishing a “Just Transition” office for coal-dependent communities.
Organized labor in Colorado hasn’t always been an ally in the fight against climate change, but beginning in 2018, a Democratic messaging bill that called for 100 percent renewable energy by 2035 forced local unions to start having some tough conversations.
“Republicans controlled the Senate, so the bill had no chance of passing, but it forced the conversation on our end as to what do we need to do to get behind these bills in the future, instead of just blocking them or delaying,” explained Dennis Dougherty, the executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO, which represents approximately 165 unions representing more than 130,000 workers. “It was really the first time we asked ourselves, well what’s our game plan?”
In February 2018, Colorado activists launched a state-based affiliate of the Peoples Climate Movement, a coalition of community, faith, youth and environmental groups focused on promoting an equitable response to climate change. Dougherty, who worked for years as a federal mediator before joining the labor movement, soon became co-chair of the Colorado coalition. “This was the first time labor has really stepped out in leadership on climate,” he told In These Times.
What followed were a series of organized talks between unions and environmental groups. With resources from its parent organization, the Peoples Climate Movement Colorado even hired a skilled facilitator from the Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University to help guide its conversations. The work culminated in a Climate, Jobs and Justice Summit last September.
Democrats won a majority of seats in the state Senate after the 2018 midterms, giving them trifecta control over Colorado politics, and the ability to pass many climate-related bills this year. Those bills included two pieces of legislation advocates hope can serve as a model for climate, jobs and justice organizing in other states.
One is HB-1314, which establishes a Just Transition Office in the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The first-of-its-kind office, which will have both a dedicated staff and an advisory committee of diverse stakeholders, is charged with creating a equitable plan for coal-dependent communities and workers as the state transitions away from fossil fuels. The goal is to mitigate the economic hardship that will accompany this energy transition. A draft plan is due by July 2020, and by 2025, the state will start administering benefits to displaced coal workers, and provide workforce retraining grants to coal-transitioning communities like Pueblo, Larimer, Delta, Morgan and others.
As part of the legislation, labor unions successfully pushed for language around “wage differential benefits” for those workers who end up in jobs that may pay less than the jobs they currently have in the fossil fuel industry. The Just Transition office would provide “supplemental income” to cover “all or part of the difference” between a coal worker’s old job and their new one.
Dougherty said they pushed for an office precisely because they thought it would be stronger than an advisory board or a task force. “I’m not worried it will be something without teeth,” he said. “There’s also so much groundswell to keep up pressure.”
The second bill, SB-236, includes language to authorize the so-called securitization of coal plants, as a way to hasten their retirement and to bring additional funds to coal-dependent communities. The idea is to allow a utility company to swap its remaining coal plant debt for a ratepayer-backed bond. Twenty other states have bond securitization laws, and they have been used by governments to close a nuclear plant in Florida and a coal plant in Michigan. The twist in Colorado is to use some of the millions of dollars in savings from securitization to reinvest back in workers and vulnerable communities.
The bill sponsor, Democratic State Rep. Chris Hansen, first introduced the idea in 2017. While his bill passed the House, it died in the then-GOP-controlled Senate.
Labor and environmental groups supported the securitization bill this year, though Dougherty emphasized that the savings it could generate would not be enough on their own to fund the kind of just transition they’re looking to see. “We see it as just one funding mechanism for communities and workers,” he said. (A separate bill also passed this year by Colorado lawmakers enables the state’s public utilities commission to distribute some of the securitization savings to vulnerable communities.)
According to the Colorado Mining Association, Colorado is the 11th largest coal-producing state, with six active coal mines, employing a little over 1,200 mine workers. The National Mining Association estimates that nearly 18,000 people across Colorado are employed directly by the state’s mining industry.
For both the Just Transition office and the coal plant securitization bill, leaders say key to passage was a lot of education, research and tough, honest dialogue.
Rep. Hansen, who has a PhD in resource economics and worked in the energy sector before running for office in 2016, said getting his bill passed was a multi-year process of stakeholder engagement. “I also really had to educate my own colleagues about securitization,” he told In These Times. “Some folks in Colorado thought this was a giveaway to the utilities industry, but it’s really the opposite of a bailout because for the securitization to work the companies have to walk away from significant amounts of revenue.”
Rep. Hansen said he’s been trying to be honest with people that major economic transitions are coming, and the best thing leaders can do is proactively plan ahead. “There will be dislocation and disruption but the alternative is to let what we’ve typically had happen in this country which is just kind of a free-fall for transitioning communities with no real help from government,” he said. “I much rather try and prepare then be reactive after-the-fact.”
Within the Just Transition office, Dougherty said labor unions plan to push for the wage differential benefit to cover a transition of up to three years. For example, if someone was earning $100,000 in a coal-industry job, and retrains for another position that pays $60,000, labor wants to see the state cover that difference for several years.
Dougherty said at first unions thought a “just transition” could mean demanding jobs at the same level of pay and benefits that workers are currently earning in perpetuity, but after doing research into the issue and assessing the political realities, they modified their demands.
“We hired someone to research every ‘just transition’ that’s been done across the world,” he explained, adding: “We said, okay, well what can we realistically do at the state level that we think is fair while also not coming out and demanding something that’s never going to happen?”
“I think what happened in Colorado is really, really important,” said Paul Getsos, the national director of the Peoples Climate Movement. “It’s a real example of union leaders who are really willing to educate other union leaders about the issues to see how they can move their institutions forward.”
Getsos added that Colorado’s experience reflects how successful legislative victories are not won overnight. “It takes a lot of relationship building,” he said. “A lot of trust.”