Biden Says He Backs a Just Transition for the Climate Crisis. Advocates Say, “Prove It.”

Originally published in In These Times on June 2.

One of the most difficult problems that political leaders have faced in addressing climate change has not involved the science or technology, but the politics, including bringing key constituencies like energy workers and their labor unions on board. This skepticism and resistance to change is why a so-called ​“just transition” — referring to an ethical and economically secure shift away from a fossil-fuel powered economy — has become so integral to crafting a successful climate plan. 

Figuring out how to provide economic security for both energy workers that have depended on the nation’s fossil fuels and frontline communities has become a leading priority for activists and elected officials alike. The Biden administration, for its part, has thrown its weight behind developing a just transition, though some advocates tell In These Times that federal leaders haven’t gone far enough, or worry the executive branch’s rhetoric won’t deliver real results. Other researchers have called for more careful study of past economic transitions, as well as more firm commitments around social programs such as universal healthcare. 

On January 27, one week after taking office, Biden signed an executive order establishing an interagency working group focused on addressing the economic needs of ​“coal, oil, gas, and power plant communities.” The group, co-chaired by National Economic Council director Brian Deese and National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy, is a collaboration between 12 federal agencies including the labor, interior, treasury and energy departments. 

In late April the working group published an initial report identifying 25 of the most impacted regions for coal-related declines, and highlighted existing federal programs that could provide nearly $38 billion in funding for relief. The report noted that ​“creating good-paying union jobs in Energy Communities is necessary but not sufficient” and stressed that ​“foundational infrastructure investments” including broadband, water systems, roads, hospitals and other institutions would be necessary to economically revitalize these areas. The group also noted that a just transition would require prioritizing pollution mitigation and environmental remediation, like plugging leaking oil and gas wells and reclaiming abandoned mine land. These objectives hold the potential not only for job creation but also achieving environmental justice priorities.

Next steps from the working group include organizing town halls with senior Biden administration officials in affected communities like those in Appalachia, the Northern Rocky Mountain region, the Illinois Basin, and the Mid-Continental Gulf Coast, and establishing a centralized mechanism for distributing federal resources. 

Near the end of its second term the Obama administration launched its own interagency effort to provide grant funding and technical assistance to communities impacted by the transition to renewable energy. Known as the POWER Initiative, the effort was never subject to a formal Government Accountability Office evaluation but a 2019 analysis prepared by the Congressional Research Service determined some of its legacy programs continued to be active and receive annual appropriations under the Trump administration. The Appalachian Regional Commission credited the POWER Initiative for investing over $200 million in 239 projects across Appalachia. Jason Walsh, the executive director of the BlueGreen Alliance, told In These Times that the Biden administration’s effort is ​“the POWER Initiative on steroids.” (Walsh convened the POWER Initiative prior to joining BlueGreen.)

Just infrastructure

Biden also included some measures to support a just transition in his recently released infrastructure proposal, the American Jobs Plan, such as a $16 billion fund that would finance energy workers plugging oil and gas wells and cleaning up abandoned mines. ​“In addition to creating good jobs in hard-hit communities, this investment will reduce the methane and brine that leaks from these wells, just as we invest in reducing leaks from other sources like aging pipes and distribution systems,” reads one White House fact sheet.

The American Jobs Plan also endorses an $100 billion investment in projects such as affordable broadband access and calls for a new $40 billion Dislocated Worker Program at the Labor Department.

Walsh, of BlueGreen, said more is needed to support workers on the legislative front, and that his group has been having ​“an open dialogue” with the administration on how to make those supports a reality. ​“We need to start from recognition that our existing Department of Labor programs are not designed to sufficiently support workers who are dislocated, they just don’t provide enough support,” he said.

Jeremy Richardson, a senior energy analyst at the Union for Concerned Scientists, said he worries the proposed amounts of spending in the American Jobs Plan are too low — and others too vague in their description. With respect to the $16 billion for plugging oil and gas wells, for example, Richardson noted that the plan ​“doesn’t specify the breakdown in cleaning up these sites, but it’s likely that this amount is insufficient to meet the needs.” Other development initiatives were mentioned in the American Jobs Plan, such as the Economic Development Administration’s Public Works program, but without proposed funding levels. Richardson notes the plan is also silent on other important areas relevant to a just transition, like the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund and removing loopholes from our nation’s bankruptcy laws that have enabled corporations to abdicate responsibility to their workers.

Heidi Binko, executive director of the Just Transition Fund, a philanthropic effort focused on helping coal communities, called Biden’s infrastructure plan ​“an ambitious first step.”

Lawmakers in Congress have pushed forward just transition bills that overlap with priorities in the American Jobs Plan. Last month, Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández (D‑NM) introduced an $8 billion bill called the Orphaned Wells Cleanup and Jobs Act. ​“Communities suffer when oil and gas companies abandon their drilling sites and don’t clean them up,” said House Committee on Natural Resources Chair Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D‑NM) in a statement supporting the bill. ​“I look forward to the day when these hazardous sites are a thing of the past.”

In the Senate, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D‑NM) introduced the Schools and State Budgets Certainty Act, aimed at helping states like New Mexico wean off the money they currently rely on from the federal fossil fuel leasing program. (The leasing program accounts for almost a quarter of the country’s annual carbon output and generated nearly $8.1 billion in tax revenue for the federal, state, local and tribal governments last year.

Nicole Ghio, a senior fossil fuels program manager at Friends of the Earth, said while she has some concern with Heinrich’s bill as presently drafted, her group strongly supports the legislative goal of helping states decouple their revenue from the federal leasing program as part of a just transition. ​“We’ve seen what an unmanaged decline of fossil fuels looks like,” she told In These Times. ​“We need to avoid repeating what’s happened in Appalachia.”

What energy workers need

Outside of the proposals made by the White House and in Congress, advocacy groups are helping to highlight the urgency of making a just transition central to any climate and infrastructure plans.

report published in March by the Labor Network for Sustainability, which supports unions in tackling climate change, featured lessons and interviews with more than 100 workers, Indigenous leaders and community representatives about navigating workplace closures, the climate crisis and major upheavals in local economies. The Just Transition Listening Project spotlights some encouraging examples of what a just transition might look like, such as the Redwood Employee Protection Program of 1978, a federal initiative that supported dislocated timber workers. That program provided up to six years of pay, benefits, vacation, relocation and retraining for full-time and seasonal workers and a three-year bridge to retirement for those 62 and over.

The report also highlighted the justified skepticism from some workers that new clean energy jobs would offer comparable standards of living, and it explored tensions between environmental justice activists and union members.

Mijin Cha, an assistant professor of urban and environmental policy at Occidental College and one of the report’s co-authors, told In These Times that it’s important to remember that fossil fuel jobs themselves were not necessarily good jobs when they first came online. ​“We have created a lot of low-paying renewable energy jobs but there’s no reason they have to be,” she said. ​“It’s through worker organizing and worker power that they can become good jobs.” The Just Transition Listening Project endorses passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, federal legislation that would eliminate right-to-work laws, impose new penalties on employers who retaliate against union organizing and establish new rules so that employers can’t delay negotiating collective bargaining contracts. This type of pro-union legislation would help give renewable energy workers more power on the job. 

Still, worker skepticism on quality job creation is understandable, as ​“it took decades and decades of bargaining to make those jobs well-paying and provide pensions,” said Todd Vachon, a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University, and another report co-author. Labor laws today are also much weaker compared to the 1930s, though the PRO Act would help address that.

Common themes that emerged in Just Transition Listening Project interviews included fears over the sustainability of replacement jobs as well as the affordability of healthcare, retirement and education. To ease these concerns, the report authors recommend instituting universal programs like Medicare for All that would help alleviate a lot of the anxiety that sparks opposition to economic transitions. The authors also explored the idea of creating universal transition programs not just for energy workers but also for workers facing dislocation from automation and outsourcing. ​“If we could really provide a robust social safety net, it would make a huge difference,” said Dimitris Stevis, a political science professor at Colorado State University and another report co-author.

Basav Sen, the Climate Justice Project Director at the Institute for Policy Studies and the co-chair of the Energy Democracy Working Group at the Climate Justice Alliance, commended Biden’s team for endorsing the passage of the PRO Act to help workers unionize, but he lamented that the administration and even most Democrats haven’t embraced single-payer healthcare. ​“The fact that that’s not really a part of the just transition conversation shows how lacking in a comprehensive vision the administration and political leadership’s vision is,” he said.

Walsh of BlueGreen alliance said that ideally there would be a generous universal dislocated worker program. ​“I would love to be able to work toward that, though I’m skeptical we’ll get there,” he said. ​“I also want to take advantage of the opportunity we have over the next 4 – 6 months to pass infrastructure legislation and fight hard for energy workers who are most impacted right now.” 

Cha of Occidental said serious gaps still exist in our understanding about how past economic transitions have played out. ​“We don’t really know what happened, where the workers were displaced to,” she said. ​“We have general numbers, but we don’t have good qualitative data and it’s all really incomplete.”

The researchers think Covid-19 has impacted the conversation around a just transition as well, as millions of workers experienced very recent and concrete job losses and disruptions from the pandemic. Following the report’s publication the authors led a congressional briefing for House and Senate staff, and have been in subsequent discussions with some of those offices, according to Labor Network for Sustainability spokesperson Judy Asman.

Asman said her group also submitted recommendations based on the report to Biden’s interagency task force, and presented their findings to Greenpeace International, Last Chance Alliance, and some labor organizations, though she declined to specify which. 

Cha said the important thing for lawmakers to realize is that they don’t have to start from scratch. ​“We know how to meet the immediate material needs of workers so they don’t have to be in crisis,” she said. ​“We know that wage supplements and universal programs can give workers and communities time to develop what they need. We know what people need on a basic level.”

Firefighters Union, A Key Biden Ally, Confronts a Barr Investigation and Trump’s Pardon Power

Originally published in The Intercept on September 18, 2020.

IN AUGUST 2016, Ed Kelly, a young rising star in the Massachusetts labor movement, won his bid to become General Secretary-Treasurer of the International Association of Fire Fighters, or IAFF: the union representing 320,000 firefighters and paramedics across the U.S and Canada. The position is the second most powerful in the union, behind the presidency, which has been held for the last two decades by 74-year-old Harold Schaitberger, a close ally of Joe Biden.

Soon after, Kelly tapped combat veteran Mathew Golsteyn to serve as his chief of operations. The low-key hire came at the recommendation of Kelly’s brother, Greg, who had overlapped in Afghanistan with Golsteyn. But Golsteyn was not just any Green Beret: He had earned a spate of shocking headlines just a year earlier for alleged war crimes, for which he was ultimately pardoned by President Donald Trump in November 2019. In the month following the pardon, Golsteyn joined Trump onstage at a secretive fundraiser for the Florida Republican Party, helping them net $3.5 million in donations.

In 2015, Golsteyn had been stripped of a Silver Star after disclosing in a CIA polygraph interview that he had shot and buried an unarmed Taliban fighter he thought was a bombmaker, and later dug up the remains and burned them in a pit. The revelations roiled the CIA, which quickly notified the Pentagon, sparking a two-year investigation in which the U.S Army concluded in 2013 that Golsteyn had knowingly violated the laws of war. While investigators did not find enough evidence to bring criminal charges, in an internal Army memo previously reported by The Intercept, Golsteyn was reprimanded for a “complete lack of judgement and responsibility” and told he had “discredited” himself and the U.S military.

But in October 2016, just a month after joining the firefighters union, Golsteyn was asked on Fox News if he killed the suspected bombmaker, to which he replied, “Yes.” This new public admission sparked army investigators to quickly reopen their investigation, and two years later charged Golsteyn with murder.

The new probe and criminal charges became a cause célèbre among conservatives, who rushed to Golsteyn’s defense. Golsteyn’s lawyer called the murder charge a case of “political correctness” and following an interview with Golsteyn’s wife in December 2018 on the president’s favorite news program “Fox & Friends,” Trump got involved.

Throughout all of this, Kelly offered unwavering support on social media for his chief of operations and helped fundraise for Golsteyn’s legal defense.

Meanwhile, ahead of what is often described as the most important presidential election in generations, a series of escalating disputes among IAFF leadership have increasingly spilled over into public view. Schaitberger, a key Biden ally, is locked in bitter in-fighting, grappling with leaks to right wing media, and confronting a federal investigation from a Justice Department that’s been unabashed in its willingness to use federal power for the president’s political gain. It comes as Biden is fighting Trump for votes among elderly and white working-class voters, where the firefighters union is a key validator, so much so that Trump has worked hard to undermine the value of the endorsement.

Things heated up earlier this year when Kelly accused Schaitberger of financial impropriety. Schaitberger has been blasted for lavish spending before, but the crux of the new allegations hinged on whether Schaitberger received pension benefits too early; prior to being elected IAFF president in 2000, he served as an IAFF union staffer for 24 years. The elected position and the staff position earn pension benefits from two separate funds, and Kelly charges that Schaitberger drew from his staff pension benefits too soon, in violation of federal law and union rules. The IAFF has pointed to legal counsel it received at the time of Schaitberger’s transition, and maintains they have done nothing wrong. Earlier this month federal authorities launched a criminal probe into the accusations, while the union’s executive board has launched an internal review.

Conservative media outlets have followed along, with the Washington Free Beacon and the Wall Street Journal publishing updates based on leaked union records and board discussions, including a lengthy memo about Kelly’s financial audit. They have framed their stories heavily around Schaitberger’s close relationship with Biden. (When Biden announced his candidacy for the White House in April 2019, the IAFF endorsed him almost immediately, long before any other union.) “Union Probe Finds Close Biden Ally Misappropriated Millions” read the first Free Beacon headline from March. “Firefighters Union Chief With Ties to Democratic Leaders Is Mired in Internal Financial Dispute” read the first WSJ story.Join Our NewsletterOriginal reporting. Fearless journalism. Delivered to you.I’m in

Schaitberger is up for reelection in January and is currently running unopposed, though Kelly is long rumored to want his job, according to members of the union. One IAFF leader from the Midwest, who spoke to The Intercept under the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said they were personally asked by Kelly earlier this year if they would support him in a bid for president.

Kelly, who was pushed by a fellow union member to answer for his own use of funds earlier this week, declined to comment for this story and referred all questions to attorneys at Wiley Rein LLP, the law firm representing the IAFF in the federal investigation. Wiley Rein attorney Robert Walker declined to comment, and Golsteyn did not return multiple requests for comment.

Brian Rice, the president of the California Professional Firefighters, told The Intercept he thought the leaks to the press violate Schaitberger’s entitlement to a fair process, and to him, “it’s nothing more than a veiled coup, a power struggle, aimed at IAFF leadership.”

In June, Rice joined three other state IAFF presidents — Bobby Lee of the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, Robert Sanchez of the New Mexico Professional Fire Fighters Association, and Bryan Jeffries of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona — in writing a statement that their union’s democratic process was disrespected by leaks of “selective” and “incomplete” details to the “historically anti-union” news outlet — referring to the Wall Street Journal — instead of waiting for the union’s review of Kelly’s allegations to finish. “The IAFF’s reputation and power, which took over a century to build, is now at risk of being tarnished by the careless and selfish act of a few,” they wrote.

The Wall Street Journal reported in June that “union records” showed Schaitberger used a company credit card to download content from iTunes in 2017 and 2018. Only individuals at the level of General Secretary-Treasurer have access to those types of records, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the union’s expense reporting system. The outlet also reported on communications among the executive board, a body that includes 16 district vice presidents, Schaitberger, and Kelly.

Past reporting has also relied heavily on longtime critics of Schaitberger, including Frank Ricci, a former firefighter union president from New Haven who now works as a strategist for a conservative think tank, and Eric Lamar, a former Schaitberger aide who now maintains a blog that is sharply critical of his old boss and IAFF leadership. Ricci, a supporter of Trump, told the Free Beacon in March he “stand[s] in full support” of Kelly, who provided “official documents and a cogent argument that support his accusations.”

In a statement to the Wall Street Journal following the announcement of the federal probe, the IAFF said it would cooperate with the investigation and that “this action is part of a continued assault by a handful of individuals trying to tear down the organization for their own self-interest and personal retribution.”

Jeffries, of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, told The Intercept that he and many of his colleagues were not just concerned by the specifics of the accusations, which he said “seem to be blatantly false” — but the timing of them.

“Not only is this happening in an election year for [IAFF] president and secretary-treasurer, it’s also happening in the election year for the president of the United States,” he said. “I can’t prove anything that there are connections but it sure feels like there are some very right-leaning elements within our union who are trying to dismantle the unbelievable vision and work of Harold Schaitberger when all he and IAFF have done has put wins in the win column.”

The union declined to make Schaitberger available for an interview but in an emailed statement provided to The Intercept, the IAFF said it was cooperating with the requests for documents associated with the organization’s staff pension plan, “strongly reaffirms that it did not engage in any wrongdoing [and] we look forward to a swift resolution of the reviews being conducted.”

Trump has made no secret of his ire toward the firefighters union for endorsing Biden, tweeting after the endorsement that he’s “done more for Firefighters than this dues sucking union will ever do” and that the membership of the union actually supported him. Because of that, as well as U.S Attorney General William Barr’s track record of using the federal law enforcement agency to go after the president’s enemies, some, including former Justice Department spokesperson Matthew Miller, have speculated that the federal probe may be politically motivated. The Department of Justice did not return a request for comment.

The launch of a federal investigation followed a written request sent to the FBI by Lamar, who wrote that the union’s leadership “have engaged in an ongoing pattern of defrauding the members while enriching themselves.”

On Tuesday, the day after The Intercept asked Lamar what he makes of those who say his blog posts in support of Kelly’s accusations may be politically driven, Lamar published a new post distancing himself from Kelly, blasting the General Secretary-Treasurer for submitting a $43,000 expense voucher that was late and without proper documentation. In the post, Lamar called Kelly’s action “some mix of immature, unprofessional and reckless.” In a video response published later that day, Kelly apologized for his behavior, pledged to post the receipts in question online, and said his team has “been overwhelmed trying to expose the finances of the IAFF.”

Buried within the new business expense disclosures Kelly published this week existed one notable charge from December 11, 2019: a $74 lunch expense at Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, D.C., listed for him, Golsteyn, and Clint Lorance, another U.S Army soldier pardoned for war crimes by Trump. Lorance was convicted of murdering two Afghan men in 2012, and both Lorance and Golsteyn had appeared at the Florida Republican Party fundraiser with the president four days earlier.