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  • Emilia Aguinaga

Labor Day & Just Transition

May 1st is International Worker’s Day, a celebration of laborers and the working class. Even though in the U.S. Labor Day is celebrated in September, the significance of the May 1st date is rooted in events that took place in Chicago in 1886: the Haymarket Affair. In short, in Chicago on May 4th, 1886, laborers were peacefully rallying for an eight-hour workday and protesting the killing of various workers by the police the previous day. An unknown individual threw a dynamite bomb at the police while they were trying to disperse the protesters. The bomb itself, and the police’s gunfire response resulted in the death and injury of police officers and civilians. The following legal proceedings, in which eight individuals were convicted of conspiracy, resulted in seven death sentences and one 15-year prison term. In the long term, the incident resulted in increased police violence and intimidation and a suppression of workers’ rights. The Haymarket Affair is considered the single event that has most influenced the history of labor in the U.S. and the world.

In my native Ecuador, May 1st is known as “Dia del trabajador” or “Workers’ Day” and traditionally labor groups have taken to the streets to protest unfair working conditions and to demand better pay and better treatment. Throughout the years the protests and demonstrations have varied in size and tone, but through it all the demand for equitable workers’ rights and for the recognition of workers’ social and economic value has remained.

While it may seem odd at first, climate change and labor rights are intimately related. Many of the drivers of climate change, such as extractive economies and means of production, also drive social and economic inequality. The unregulated consumption-oriented and socially unjust economic model under which the (now globalized) world operates is at the root of the world’s food, energy, climate, finance and economic crises. It is imperative that we recognize that we need a systematic change to the economic system that generated these social and environmental crises.

Climate change exacerbates the unequal distribution of the costs and benefits of our current economic system and modes of production and consumption. We are already seeing that the effects of climate change are hitting and will hit vulnerable populations, that have contributed the least to climate change, first and hardest. We need not go too far to find an example: along the Gulf of Mexico it is poor fishing communities that are losing their land to rising sea levels and losing their livelihoods to a warmer and more acidic ocean.

Climate change is a complex issue and it needs to be addressed as such. Mitigating and adapting to climate change will require massive changes at a systemic level as we transition to a renewable energy economy. The impacts and costs of this transition will be unevenly distributed across time and space unless a holistic approach that is rooted in social justice and equity is prioritized. The “Just Transition” framework offers such an approach. Just Transition “can be understood as the conceptual framework in which the labour movement captures the complexities of the transition towards a low-carbon and climate-resilient economy, highlighting public policy needs and aiming to maximize benefits and minimize hardships for workers and their communities in this transformation”[1] .

Thinking about a Just Transition away from fossil fuels and toward a renewable energy economy necessitates that we consider the short-, medium-, and long-term needs of workers’ at local, regional, national and international levels. It requires that we socially stabilize individuals as some communities lose jobs in fossil fuel and related industries and others gain jobs in renewable energy and related industries; as industries move to more climate-resilient places (sometimes crossing international borders); and as climate change impacts community’s social and physical infrastructures (e.g., by forcing communities to disperse, and by negatively affecting transportation and industrial infrastructures). A Just Transition requires respect for workers’ livelihoods and their communities, and accountable corporate behavior.

A Just Transition complements action on climate change rather than promote inaction. A Just Transition framework furthers social justice and equity and minimizes social barriers to the implementation of climate policies by ensuring that the costs and benefits of these policies are evenly distributed, and that these policies address communities’ current and future needs.

On this International Workers’ Day, let us celebrate workers’ value and their rights. Let us remember that the fight for climate justice and equity is intimately related to labor rights and that it exists at all levels (local to international). Let us remember that a Just Transition away from this extractive fossil fuel-based economy towards a sustainable renewable energy economy is possible. And let us remember that whether we are marching in the streets in Ecuador’s highest mountains or in the Gulf of Mexico’s coastal communities we are stronger when we fight together.

[1] Rosemberg, A. (2010). “Building a Just Transition: The linkages between climate change and employment.” International Journal of Labour Research, 2:2, pg. 141.

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