By Sean Sweeney and John Treat

The concept of “Just Transition” has become increasingly in vogue in recent years in international political circles. While commonly ascribed to be “transformative” in potential, like any fashionable term it runs the risk of being emptied of content and coopted by arbiters of the status quo. So what really is Just Transition, and why is it potentially so transformative? This is the question the authors set out to answer in this eleventh working paper published under the auspices of our Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) project.

In one of its most thorough treatments to date, Sean Sweeney and John Treat, both of the Murphy Institute, not only define the concept of Just Transition but take us through its history and the various polemics that surround it. Starting with its roots in the U.S. labor movement, the authors trace the development of the concept, from being one focused almost exclusively on workers impacted by environmental policies, to becoming much broader in its call for socioecological transformation at the point of not only consumption but also production.

Core to the authors’ arguments is that a focus by many international unions and other political actors on “Social Dialogue”—which “effectively involves an explicit (and non-negotiable) acceptance of restrictions on its pursuit”—undercuts all of the transformative potential that Just Transition could otherwise imply, and which our planet urgently requires. Rather, they argue for an emerging “Social Power” lens, which is currently “in ascendency across the trade union movement, and is increasingly finding common cause with, and being reinforced by, the energy and creativity of major social movements.”

A Social Power vision of Just Transition must not compromise in its call for an immediate reduction in CO2 emissions. It must be equally clear-eyed in its demand that workers and working class and poor communities not be the victims of the multifold transitions this will require. A Social Power vision of Just Transition must be radically democratic and inclusive, and it must hold at its center a recognition that nothing short of a deep socioeconomic and ecological transition will be sufficient for the challenges our planet currently faces.

Do we have your attention? We hope so, because this is one of the most urgent issues of our time. And this working paper is an incredibly important contribution to ensuring that we understand the stakes of as well as our own capacity to bringing about this socioeconomic and ecological transition while we still have time.