Airbrushing in Just Transition

Dónal O’Driscoll,


The idea of a ‘Just Transition’ is an attempt to bridge differences between environmental and labour movements by seeking to address how workers can be protected as society tries to move away from ecologically destructive industries. As a concept it has been around for close to fifteen years. Despite having clear foundations, in that time the phrase ‘Just Transition’ has taken on a life of its own, in particular among those seeking to avoid antagonizing the labour movement. In this essay  Dónal O’Driscoll examines the origins of ‘Just Transition’ and asks whether it can fulfill those aspirations, or whether it is simply a ‘nice sounding’ phrase allowing campaigners to paper over divisive issues.


The term Just Transition was coined by Californian activists seeking to improve relations with workers in industries affected by environmental campaigns. The original organisation behind the call is the Just Transition Alliance, founded in 1997[i]. However, as a concept, its break-through moment came when the Canadian Labour Congress [CLC] released their 2000 report “Just Transition for workers during Environmental Change”[ii]. This report gave the term ‘Just Transition’ a solid basis within the labour movement.

The strength of the CLC report lies in its strong focus on the needs of workers and its setting out of a blueprint for the process of transition, taking it beyond simple principles. The report prompted the adoption of ‘Just Transition’ as a principle for dealing with climate change by other labour organizations, in particular the International Trade Union Confederation.

At the time the term ‘Just Transition’ was emerging, climate change did not hold the singular position with regards to ecological campaigns as it currently. Just Transition was developed to deal with situations where the needs of the environment and of workers had to be balanced, for example, where regulations ordering the phasing out of production of a particular chemical would result in factory closures, or say, stopping logging would cause job losses.

Since then, climate change has become the dominant issue for ecological activism and, just as significantly, a factor in mainstream political considerations. Given the absence of other formulations, Just Transition has thus been adopted as the de facto method to introducing the needs of labour, a voice not much heard in climate change debates. In the process it has also become tied in with calls for Green New Deals[iii] which, to some degree, address concerns coming from trade unions.

Environmentalists have taken up its cry as a way of dealing with their own fears over the potential clashes of demands with the labour movement. This was particularly true of the Camp for Climate Action and Workers Climate Action (in part a working group within the CfCA)[iv].

The phrase itself has continued on a steady trajectory into the political mainstream, being picked up by NGOs and now being used by governments – most noticeably by Ed Miliband, then UK Minister for Energy, in his speech to the UK Trade Union Congress conference in September 2009[v]. In November 2009, then Business Minister Pat McFadden launched a “Forum for a Just Transition[vi] that would include representatives of business, unions and the government[vii].

Just Transition is also to be found as a core demand in documents from the International Trade Union Congress during the COP15 climate change negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2009 and in other important texts at this conference[viii]. In particular, Argentina and Norway both included a call for a just transition as part of the mandate given to their representatives[ix]. Though not adopted at the COP15 ‘agreement’, it remains a demand on the table.[x]


So what is Just Transition?

Just Transition does have clear definitions, which are set out in some of the early documents – in particular the Canadian Labour Congress report. These are discussed later. However, in most mentions of it (from governments to grassroots organizations) it is principally formulated though the phrase:

a just transition to a sustainable, low-carbon economy

Sometimes “sustainable” is left out. Next to no detail or reference is provided other than this vague sentiment of good intentions. The problem with this amorphous formulation is that it leaves considerable leeway for individuals and groups to interpret it in line with their own narrow desires without having to reference other demands. Every stakeholder in the process can use it for their own purposes without actually challenging themselves to change their behaviour, or anyone else’s for that matter.

Such emptiness means it is being adapted by those seeking to boost green credentials without having to commit to anything. This is probably why it has become so popular with liberal and capitalist organisations. Reducing Just Transition to a slogan that appeals to everyone and anyone is setting the ground for its inevitable co-option.

This tendency is to be found in grassroots campaigns around Just Transition such as the Just Transition Alliance (US), Transition Tour (AU)[xi] or Workers Climate Action (UK).  Transnational networks such as Climate Justice Now! and Climate Justice Action[xii] also use this vague formulation without going into any further detail.

In particular, at the 2008 UK Camp for Climate Action at Kingsnorth a statement was drawn up around the concept of Just Transition[xiii]. The purpose of this was to point out that there was a way forward to unite workers and environmental campaigners, that the relationship between the two did not need to be antagonistic but one of mutual support. This was in response to negative reactions to the Camp from unions both at Kingsnorth and the 2007 camp at Heathrow. While it sought to calm troubled waters by expressing solidarity, there was still little expression of or reference to what Just Transition actually means.

That the idea of a Just Transition has been established seems to be sufficient enough for almost everyone. It gives the impression that governments and grassroots are discussing the same thing. If anything, the real meaning of Just Transition appears to be simply to signify that bridges can be built between environmental campaigners and the labour movement without having to face up to the challenges implicit in this.

While Just Transition has been subsumed into wider calls for Climate Justice, it remains a important part of that general call. Deeper analysis of what it means in practice for all these stakeholders is still needed.


The Demands of Just Transition

There is more to Just Transition than a phrase. There does exist a more substantial set of demands. The sources for these are Wikipedia’s short article on the subject and also the key formulation set out in the CLC 2000 report. The relevant sections are given below. To the best of my knowledge none of these definitions (or ones provided from elsewhere) have been set out in the published documents or cited by grassroots climate change groups, though I am open to correction on this.


There is a concern that significant periods of economic restructuring in the past have often happened in a chaotic fashion leaving ordinary workers, their families and communities to bear the brunt of the transition to new ways of producing wealth. Indeed in the UK, many individuals and communities are still paying the price for the rapid shift away from industrial production over the last 30 years.

Just Transition seeks to prevent such injustice becoming a feature of environmental transition, suggesting that it would not only be morally wrong and socially damaging, but would undermine the credibility of the transition itself and could slow or even halt the changes that must be made. Just Transition recognises that support for environmental policies are conditional on a fair distribution of the costs and benefits of those policies across the economy, and on the creation of opportunities for active engagement by those affected in determining the future wellbeing of themselves and their families.


Just Transition principles

For trade unions, the three core issues involved in a just transition are:

  • Voice – the importance of consultation – between Government, industry, trade unions and others on the economic and industrial changes involved.
  • Green and decent jobs – investment in low carbon technologies, from electric vehicles and wind turbines to carbon capture & storage.
  • New green skills – equipping working people with the skills for a low carbon, resource-efficient economy.


The Just Transition framework makes the case for:

1.   Meaningful environmental transition and sustainable development: Environmental transition is both inevitable and desirable. Environmental degradation is one of the most serious threats facing humankind; all sections of society need to work together to prevent further damage to the planet’s natural ecosystems.


2.   Representation and employee involvement: It is essential that all sections of society have their perspectives voiced, considered and defended in decision-making bodies dealing with environmental transition. This includes representation at a variety of levels, from seats on national policy-making to involvement in more specific local negotiations, such as those surrounding environmentally-triggered plant closures.


3.   Stable employment and long-term planning: A key element in ensuring a Just Transition is the long-term planning necessary to achieve stable employment. This does not just involve keeping individuals in work: it also includes preserving job equity, and ensuring that pay, conditions and health and safety do not suffer as a result of the changes that occur.


4.   Social justice and a fair distribution of costs: Just as support for environmental change is needed from all sections of society, so the costs of that change must fall proportionately on all sections.

5.   Government backing and a united purpose: Achieving Just Transition relies on a high level of commitment from all relevant stakeholders – not least the Government, trade unions and employer federations.

Just Transition for Workers During Environmental Change, Canadian Labor Congress[xv]


  • Just Transition is the flip side of Green Job Creation: when we create Green Jobs, there will be an industrial transition – this means that workers in traditional industries must be protected.


  • Just Transition programs must apply to public and service sector work, as well as resource and manufacturing industries affected by changes in industrial structures and environmental standards


  • While the whole society is responsible for industrial change, the key role rests with workers and their communities, who are the most affected, from one-industry towns to a whole region.


  • Some social groups can be disproportionately affected by industrial and environmental change: for instance, major sources of pollution are often located in poor, minority communities, a case of environmental racism – which gives rise to Just transition.



Just Transition is about many things. It is about fairness and environmental justice. It is about quality employment in an economy based on sustainable production and infrastructure. It is about communities as the focus of Just Transition programs – communities as centres of diverse, labour-intensive industries, with a strong public sector to support them. It is, above all, about alternative employment in a sustainable economy.



Responsibilities for all

  • Society is responsible for change and must share the burden of transition with the workers and communities most affected by change.


  • We owe it to ourselves as workers to create a sustainable economy for our children and future generations.


  • Governments are responsible for sustainable economic policy and the labour market which results from it.


  • Business has a responsibility towards the communities in which it invests – a responsibility to move to sustainable production methods wherever possible and to address the human consequences of unsustainable production – and of closing down or moving on.


  • Environmentalists and communities can join the campaign for Just Transition.


Just Transition is:

  • Fairness:

Just Transition is the fair treatment of workers and their communities when employers close facilities for whatever reason. It is a moral and political imperative.


  • Re-employment or alternative employment :

The prime aim of Just Transition is the continuation of employment without loss of pay, benefits or seniority. Job equity is at least as deserving of preservation as the equity of corporations.


  • Compensation:

Where continuation of employment is not possible, just compensation is the next alternative.


  • Sustainable Production:

Just Transition is essential to the move to more sustainable production methods and the service sector which supports it.


  • Programs:

Just Transition will express itself in a variety of ways, according to the issue, but there must always be a program, suitable to address the environmental change that is about to take place.

An Anarchist critique of Just Transition

The programmes for Just Transition laid out by the Canadian Labour Congress, etc. have the potential to serve as a powerful tool for bridging divides between labour and grassroots environmental movements. These are divisions that demand to be addressed, because capital will inevitably seek to exploit them against the interests of both parties. However, from an anarchist perspective there are pitfalls inherent in Just Transition as it currently stands, which need critiquing. This article complements critiques which have already emerged around  the Transition Town movement[xvi],  the community food movement[xvii] and the climate justice movement itself[xviii] where I have developed my own perspective.

A useful starting point for analysis is that the political background of Just Transition is one of social liberalism[xix]. The environmental NGOs and trade unions which have adopted it work in the confines of this political understanding. The politics of liberalism, socialism and anarchism have overlapping roots so it is not surprising that there are aspects which make it appealing to all three ideologies and give it the illusion of being able to cross political divides.

However, on closer inspection the differences between these ideologies remain stumbling blocks for the unifying potential of Just Transition. Once the liberal origins are recognized, these become far more obvious and explain why liberal institutions such as the UN, governments and NGOs alike have been able to take up Just Transition as a concept, molding it to their needs.

Note, by liberalism, I do not mean the politics of particular parties that incorporate that name or of centrist politics. Rather, I mean the programme of the Age of Enlightenment, which gave rise to a concept of politics free from absolute control and a high degree of primacy to the rights of individuals, and thus to modern institutions such as representative parliaments and welfare states. This is important because the other side of the same coin is the free market which has morphed into capitalism. The entire dominant political paradigm of the West, of the market place and globalization cannot be separated out from liberalism.

Liberalism makes broad claims about emphasizing individual freedoms and holds up representative democracies and systems of laws with the rights they guarantee. However,  anarchism points out that they are underlined by the State’s monopoly on coercive power and the liberal legal biases in favour of property and corporations over individuals. Thus we argue that these freedoms and rights are often illusary and that the liberal system is inherently a system for maintaining a network of privileges in society as a whole.

The toolbox that anarchism brings to the table is one of dissecting relations of power. Starting with this perspective the following sets of problems become apparent in Just Transition.

1) Analysis of Relationships of Power

In Just Transition there is no analysis of power. There is no challenge to the existing hegemony of the capitalist market place, transnational corporations and governments. If anything, there is a requirement in the formulations adopted by the labour movement to engage actively with them. Where Just Transition has been more fully articulated, what is actually being demanded is co-operation from governments – something that is brushed over in the trivial statement about ‘a just transition to a low carbon economy’ noted above. This issue should be particularly important for anti-capitalists and anarchists – as far as the labour movement is concerned, calling for Just Transition amounts to little more than lobbying for government participation or consultation.

2) Technology as a Tool of Capitalism

Coupled with a lack of analysis of power is a lack of analysis of technology. When the politics of ecological protection is reduced to the simplistic narrative of ‘low carbon economies’ there is little scope to reject solutions based on techno-fixes that have, more often than not, negative environmental consequences of their own[xx]. This plays into the hands of the nuclear, agrofuel and mining lobbies whose activities have their own knock-on effects on resource consumption and resource sovereignty. For example, the displacement of populations in the Global South (conveniently geographically distant from Western decision-makers) as their land is turned over to crops for producing agrofuels on behalf of western corporations[xxi]. Furthermore, social reliance on technology is the solution favoured by corporations as it provides another opportunity for them to amass resources and capital at the expense of the lower classes.

3) Greenwash in the name of Sustainability

In the Just Transition model as it stands, it is left to governments and corporations to decide what is ecologically sustainable. This is not something any grassroots environmental movement should accept. The dangers of greenwash are well known; for instance, nuclear power is now being promoted as being a ‘green alternative’ to fossil fuels; genetically modified crops which place farmers in hock to corporations are re-marketed as solutions to famines caused by climate chaos. As it stands Just Transition permits the continuation of corporate agendas in which ecological manipulation is normalised as a solution to climate change rather than a focus on what the planet actually needs. The concept of ‘sustainable development’, being in the hands of western democracies, is itself open to considerable criticism on the grounds of its elusiveness and meaninglessness, and for ignoring the ecological imperatives that underly the need for a Just Transition in the first place – see for example the work of John Foster and others[xxii].

4) Disempowering the Worker

Just Transition in its current formulation is ultimately disempowering as it keeps the worker from a position of control over their future. They are offered a ‘voice’, without necessarily giving power to it. Simply consulting with the workers does not mean that their needs will be served if it is not convenient for the corporation employing them.

Reading between the lines, one imagines the workers resisting the necessary change and then having to bow to pressure. Thus a union is needed to mediate their desires. However, experience has shown, and existing texts corroborate this[xxiii], that unions communicate only their own desires around employment, not any ecological message that might come from the workers, or from their families for that matter.

There is nothing in the principles of Just Transition as currently laid out that steps outside this framework to give the power for change to the worker. For instance, there is no explicit mention of workers being allowed to take over a factory and turn it over to a new form of production which does have an ecological framework. The tools of capital remain in the hands of the bosses.

There is a further irony here, that given how much subsidies factory owners get from governments in the first place they expect yet more pay-out from the public purse to cover the costs of retraining.

5) Prevarication

There is no notion of time or finance in the demands of Just Transition. This puts it in the same category as all the various targets set for cutting greenhouse gases and such like – and leaves it just as useless. It allows for vague demands and responses to be made which give all the right sound-bites, yet offer no real commitment. This will clearly lead to problems as workers in key industries put their job security first in the face of the need for urgent change. While urgency should not be an excuse to increase exploitation or precarity among the workforce, the lack of a transition mechanism should not be an excuse for prevaricating either.

6) Factoring in Resistance from Affected Industries

There are no mechanisms to take into account those who do not wish to change, for example, the demands being made by mining unions to open up more coal mines (citing capitalist inspired messages around future technological developments) or of fishermen refusing to acknowledge the reality of collapsing fish stocks. If this is not acknowledged, it is likely to drive deep wedges between the labour and environmental movements as one or another party has their needs and demands over-ridden by the other (who will no doubt be using the government to back them up).

As it stands, the model is based on the assumption of a process in which environmentalists make a demand, the government passes the necessary regulation and then the environmentalists step back from the entire process while the Just Transition is implemented on the workers, whether they like it or not. At each stage there is only a dialogue between any two of the stakeholders – there is no explicit process for multiple stakeholders to put forward their (possibly conflicting) demands at the same time, encouraging cooperation and understanding. Thus, where there is resistance and antagonism, this particular model has the potential to make these conflicts worse rather than resolving them. To work, there must be multiple points of dialogue among all parties right from the beginning of implementing the process of a Just Transition.

7) Financing Just Transition

All of this may be illusary. Green New Deal programmes present the idea that such transitions are not just desirable, but affordable and possible. This is entirely speculative. It is easy to see why the desire to believe all this is possible is there, but realists must ask if it is actually possible within the current system – one in the middle of a huge financial crisis that still has several years to run (assuming ‘normal conditions’!).

The existing model of Just Transition has all these flaws because it has no inherent criticism of the politico-economic system that created the problems in the first place. The way it is conceived is that transitions will occur because of political pressure on government and corporations,  and governmental power will create the necessary regulations. These in turn force will industries out of business, taking with them the jobs, while in all probability leaving the governments the responsibility to clean up. It will be governments, not corporations who will effectively be responsible for implementing the details of any Just Transition programme on the ground, regardless of how nicely the principles of Just Transition are worded. It is not realistic to expect companies to show this level of ‘corporate social responsibility’ – experience is against us on that one.[xxiv]

Inevitably, for this approach to work it will require increased regulation, in turn allowing the capitalist class to open up divisive avenues of accusation against both labour and environmentalists in relation to job losses, etc., something which will undermine the very links that Just Transition is aiming to build. These pitfalls are opened up in the way that Just Transition is currently worded and invoked. A strategy for social change which relies on those causing the problems seeing the errors of their ways is naïve at best. There is no acknowledgment that capital will resist, a lesson that surely should have been learned by now.

All of this goes to the core problem of Just Transition – it is simply not demanding anything radical. It is effectively business as usual, just waiting to be co-opted by proponents of green capitalism. There is nothing that demands the creation of a radically new world from the ground up or a re-evaluation of society and what is actually sustainable. Just Transition leaves the bosses and capitalism right where they are. In demanding a Just Transition we are in danger of demanding a compensation culture for workers, not change.

Finally, there is a danger of reversing positions here; no longer are grassroots environmentalists seeking to bring their message to the labour movement; rather it opens the door to the environmental movement being co-opted by vested interests within the labour movement at the cost of ecological concerns. As it stands, this is not a mutual dialogue, nor is it a way forward. The challenge for those seeking radical social change as a solution to ecological issues is to define their own concept of a Just Transition. There is a lot of potential for a more coherent articulation of demands that do not betray core beliefs, but can allow incorporation of a wider range of issues than simply maintaining the lifestyles of industrial workers. The challenge now is for grassroots campaigners to formulate this so that effective bridges can be built between labour and environmental movements, rather than the airbrushed versions we currently have.

Conclusions & Future Demands

For Just Transition to work as a concept that genuinely addresses the concerns of both ecological campaigners and workers, it must incorporate two key ideas:

1.    An acknowledgment that social change is part and parcel of Just Transition; and this necessitates a grass-roots / bottom-up set of solutions, not solutions driven by governments, corporations or hierarchical unions. This bottom-up approach needs to include the affected workers and also the communities around them.

2.    Business as usual around resource consumption cannot be part of the solution,  particularly if the Just Transition programme simply sends problems elsewhere. A global ecological sustainability must inform any solutions for it to be meaningful.

These points are too often ignored by the narrow interests of the bosses and unions. What is needed is not sustainability in the narrow terms of capitalism, but for

just transition, led by those affected, to create resilient communities

which care for the ecology that sustains them.

Though I have been very critical of the way the concept of a Just Transition has been used and abused as it currently stands, this does not mean I am against it as a notion. It comes from honest intentions to deal with a very important set of issues we cannot ignore. It is vital that the labour and environmental movements unite if climate chaos is to be tackled without leading to greater inequality and repression.

What has been created to date is an important first step, but as it stands it is incomplete. The current definition should not be allowed to become the de facto standard, because it is not a model that is up to the job. Rather, what is needed is not a rejection, but the development of a new model, one that reflects all joint interests of the grassroots and the radical change that is needed to take place.

[i]       Just Transition Alliance:

[ii]    Canadian Labour Congress, April 2000.

[iii]       See for example the UN Environmental Program call for a “Global Green New Deal”,

[iv]       Workers Climate Action:

[vii]       A briefing regarding the working and progress of the forum by the TUC is available online at though it is clear it has very little to do with climate justice or meeting the needs of workers in a transitioning society, rather securing the future of heavy industry and discussing energy security.

[viii]       Some of these texts are referenced at

[xiii]       Archived at Bristol Indymedia:

[xiv]   ibid. note viii

[xv]       ibid. note ii

[xvi]              The Rocky Road to Transition, Chatterton, P. & Cutler, A. / TRAPESE, 2009,


[xvii]              Ru Litherland, to be published by Reclaim the Fields, June 2011.

[xviii]       The Climate Crisis or the Crisis of Climate Politics, Pusey, A. & Russell, B. 2010;  Climate Justice and its Anti-Capitalist Consequences, “Apocalypse Anonymous”, 2010.  Both available at

[xix]              Political Ideologies, an introduction, 4th Edn., Heywood, A, 2007, Palgrave Macmillan.

[xx]              Technofixes: a critical guide to climate change technologies, Corporate Watch, 2008.

[xxi]       BioFuel Watch, various reports at

[xxii]              The Sustainability Mirage, John Foster, 2008, Earthscan Publications.

[xxiii]       A Green and Fair Future: For a Just Transition to a Low Carbon Economy, Trade Union Congress (UK), 2008,, for example.

[xxiv]       What’s Wrong With Corporate Social Responsibility, Fauset, C., Corporate Watch, 2006

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