Justice for fossil fuel workers—Pass the Green New Deal
In this Oct. 15, 2014 photo, coal miners return on a buggy after working a shift underground at the Perkins Branch Coal Mine in Cumberland, Ky. As recently as the late 1970s, there were more than 350 mines operating at any given time in Harlan County. Today, there are hardly any. The energy giants and the big banks are preparing to abandon fossil fuel workers as the market shifts toward renewable energy sources. | David Goldman / AP

I write about fossil fuel workers with deep anguish because I’ve lived through the tragedy they are trying to avoid. With my steelworker husband and our children, I lived in the steel towns of Gary, Ind., and the South Chicago area of Chicago when the steel mills were working full blast and neighborhoods were thriving.

We met in Buffalo, N.Y., another steel town, where his extended family still lives. All of us went through the agony of the closing of the steel mills, impoverishment of working people, deserted neighborhoods, destroyed families, grass taking over empty lots right on Broadway. We do not want to see this happen to the fossil fuel workers.

Still, this is the future that the banks and fossil fuel companies are planning for these workers, about 200,000 of them. The banks and fossil fuel companies have become obscenely rich from the hard work of their workers and from the huge subsidies the government gives them. They are getting ready to pick up their ill-got gains and run, while they dump the fossil fuel workers.

Switching from fossil fuels has already begun because of the laws of the capitalist market, economist Jeremy Rifkin explains in his book, The Green New Deal, Why the Fossil Fuel Civilization Will Collapse by 2028, and the Bold Economic Plan to Save Life On Earth. By now, it’s just a smart business decision “given that solar and wind are now cheaper than coal and head-to-head with oil and natural gas, and within just a few years will be far cheaper ….” Rifkin also explains that the marginal cost of renewable energy is zero, given that the sun and the wind do not send bills.

That’s the good economics backing up Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal. Since the new, smart electric grid will be built with public funds, Sanders says, it should be a public utility. Future energy bills would be very low, near zero.

But what happens to the oil and gas workers and coal miners who will lose their jobs? Wait, it gets worse.

Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman calls fossil fuel a “zombie sector” of the economy, “except that instead of eating our brains, it may eat our civilization.” Krugman is referring to President Trump’s refusal to act on the climate change crisis and his support of subsidies to the oil, gas and coal companies.

Krugman explains, the International Monetary Fund “put U.S. fossil fuel subsidies at more than $600 billion a year, or more than $3 million for each worker in the industry.” Since the market value of the industry is only $300 billion, what’s happened to the other $300 billion of public money? We know the workers didn’t get it, so we can guess the companies took it for themselves. That should make us all very angry. Those are public funds and that $300 billion belongs to all of us. At the very least, it should go to the fossil fuel workers.

Happily, Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal prioritizes fossil fuel workers. It is their only hope, just as it is humanity’s hope to save us from climate change catastrophe. Sanders says his plan will “prioritize the fossil fuel workers who have powered our economy for more than a century and who have too often been neglected by corporations and politicians.”

It guarantees “five years of a worker’s current salary, housing assistance, job training, health care, pension support, and priority job placement for any displaced worker, as well as early retirement support for those who choose it or can no longer work.” It would also end unemployment “by creating 20 million jobs needed to solve the climate crisis.”

The Green New Deal is proposed in Congress in the form of H.R. 109. The plan for a green economy and a new New Deal for working families is outlined in the bill, filed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, D-N.Y.

The task is vast. But it’s also so urgent that it will require a national mobilization on the scale of World War II. The H.R. 109 outline is fleshed out and priced in Sanders’s plan for the Green New Deal. Sanders’ Green New Deal calls for reaching 100% renewable energy to meet our electricity and transportation needs by 2030, with complete de-carbonization to follow by 2050, at the latest.

Let’s get the Green New Deal passed. Fossil fuel workers deserve the justice that so many other workers have been denied.


Beatrice Lumpkin
Beatrice Lumpkin

Beatrice Lumpkin is a long time labor activist with laundry workers, steelworkers, and teachers. As a math professor at Malcolm X College in Chicago, she fought to restore the contributions of people of color to the educational curriculum. She has served as a multicultural consultant to textbook publishers and to public schools in Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Portland, Ore. She is the author of “Always Bring a Crowd, the Story of Frank Lumpkin Steelworker” and “Joy in the Struggle, My Life and Love.” Beatrice Lumpkin is an active member of the Teachers Union and SOAR.