In early May, dozens of environmental, labor, and tribal leaders in Washington State, as well as representatives from organizations working on the economic and political needs of communities of color—about 60 of which have coalesced into a group called Front and Centered—gathered in Seattle’s Wing Luke Museum, in the heart of the city’s old International District, for a reception highlighting the Protect Washington Act. Enjoying chicken skewers, egg rolls, grilled mushrooms, lemongrass tofu, and locally produced Steak House wines, the attendees were in a celebratory mood.
The various participants, who came together in an Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy, had spent more than a year hashing out the language of the act, otherwise known as Initiative 1631, a hugely ambitious attempt to tackle both climate change and economic inequity in Washington.
Supported by an economic analysis from a team led by Robert Pollin, of the University of Massachusetts–based Political Economy Research Institute, they crafted a ballot measure that would commit the state to massive reductions in CO2 emissions: 20 million tons per year, which, by 2035, would be 40 percent lower than they were in 2014. The plan would impose a carbon-emissions fee on big polluters—and it would use the resulting billions of dollars in revenue for a rolling series of investments in clean energy and water. The money would be directed to employers with a high-wage, labor-protection model, to be spent on the economic, environmental, and health-care revitalization of communities on the front lines of global warming; on low-income energy-assistance programs; and on both job retraining and wage and benefit protections for workers in fossil-fuel-reliant industries as those industries are phased out over the span of a generation.
The coalition members then hit the streets, easily gathering the 260,000 signatures they needed by early July to qualify the measure for the November ballot.
Their pitch was simple: With money raised from the $15 per-ton fee on CO2 emissions (starting in 2020 and scaling up thereafter), the initiative would create “glide paths” to full retirement for fossil-fuel-industry workers within five years of retiring. For those who had worked in these industries between one and five years, it would provide a year of guaranteed income, health care, and retirement contributions for every year the employee had worked. For those who had worked in the industry for more than five years, it would cover them with a wage-insurance program for up to five years, making up whatever income difference there might be between their old wages in the fossil-fuel industry and their new ones in non-fossil-fuel sectors. All of this, the measure’s architects stressed, would be funded through the carbon-emissions fee.
“We don’t usually have much say in how economic policy is developed,” observes Lynne Dodson, secretary treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council. “This has communities of color, environmental groups, and labor making decisions about the economy of the future. It defines what it means to have a just transition—it doesn’t just mean a couple years of training.”
Tom Geiger, a longtime activist and communications director of the United Food and Commercial Workers, agrees. “It’s about being good for most people or bad for most people,” he argues. “The current reality is bad for most people. This is about a model of hope. But the process by which you get to the details is more important. It’s really about community-based solutions.”
All told, Initiative 1631 represents what some supporters have termed a “Green New Deal,” a policy of economic and racial justice that posits, as its baseline, the need for environmental protections, while committing the state to a more equitable set of economic priorities across the board. If it passes, it will unleash a “virtuous cycle of equity,” in the words of Dujie Tahat, communications director for Front and Centered. Its proponents believe that such a measure is worlds better than I-732, a 2016 initiative crafted by a small group of economists frustrated by the federal stalemate on the issue, which proposed a carbon-emissions fee but provided minimal social-equity investments at the back end. Major groups in both the labor and the environmental movements withheld their support for I-732, which went on to a crushing defeat.
In addition to being a more carefully crafted measure than the 2016 initiative, I-1631 is coming at a more opportune moment for progressive change in the blue states of America’s left coast. The new initiative is certainly in keeping with the spirit of the times: In the wake of President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and his administration’s full-blown assault on environmental standards, West Coast citizens—already burdened by the costs of ever more terrifying forest fires, endangered fisheries, and rapidly rising sea levels—are up in arms about the need to protect the places where they live. The Quinault Indian Nation, for example, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula coast, has already begun to see its ancient burial grounds and sacred sites inundated, and parts of its ancestral homeland around the coastal villages of Taholah and Queets are becoming uninhabitable.
“The Quinault are the most climate-exposed people in the Northwest,” says the tribe’s climate-change adviser, Matthew Randazzo V. Realizing that vulnerability, President Fawn Sharp, a constitutional attorney by training, committed her tribe in 2016 to the campaign for a comprehensive, statewide climate-justice policy. Over the past two years, she’s been instrumental in recruiting tribal nations from across the state in the push for I-1631. “If it passes,” says Leonard Forsman, the elected chairman of the Suquamish tribe, “we will have more resources and money available for projects to improve habitat and create more resilience in our environment.”
Aiko Schaefer, director of Front and Centered, notes that the burdens of climate change are disproportionately borne by the poor and people of color. For these communities, she says, “it’s very much about health and the quality of the air.” Kim Powe, of Puget Sound Sage, a racial-justice-focused activist group based in Seattle, agrees. The environment offers an overarching theme, she says, “but I don’t talk about the work as an environmentalist. It’s an intersectional approach; we’re not just talking about saving the birds and polar bears and those awesome trees.”
That sort of framing has pushed more traditional environmental groups, like the Washington Environmental Council, to rethink how they conceive the issue as well. Speaking in her 14th-floor office, its windows looking out toward the legendary Pike Place Market and the waters of Elliott Bay, the council’s president, Becky Kelley, ponders the broader politics of the moment. The nastiness of national politics, she has concluded, is making people “hungrier” for across-the-board change at the local level, since it is “so clearly not going to be delivered from above.” At the same time, it has made groups like hers realize that the scale of the problem is “too big to tackle alone. We cannot reach our goals without each other.”
Buoyed by internal polling results suggesting that the initiative had a good chance of success, and by an influx of funding from progressive donors, the “Yes on 1631” activists felt they could surpass even California, with its cap-and-trade system and ambitious emissions-reduction targets, and put in place the country’s most all-encompassing environmental-justice and social-equity initiative. The campaign rented an unused chiropractic office in Seattle’s hip, young University District before gathering signatures throughout the late spring and early summer. From this somewhat down-at-the-heels headquarters, a huge, mainly volunteer-driven campaign was launched—and eventually stretched to all corners of the state.
It was soon clear that this was a serious fight for systemic reform, with the petroleum lobby gearing up for an all-out attempt to stop the initiative. As the signature-collection effort was taking off, five leading companies—part of the Western States Petroleum Association—pledged to donate $250,000 to the “No on 1631” campaign.
“There’s not a real plan for how they’re going to spend the money [raised by the carbon-emissions fee],” the campaign’s spokesman, Mark Funk, says of the initiative. “It doesn’t do anything to improve Washington’s tax structure. We will have a broad group of businesses, associations, and citizens who will be involved in the No campaign. We will raise issues about what it may do for jobs and the economy in general. Our working assumption is that it can be beaten.”
To understand why I-1631 has a decent chance of success, despite the millions of dollars that the Western States Petroleum Association and conservative PACs will almost certainly throw into the fight, one needs to leave Seattle and drive north a couple of hours to a little farming community called Sumas, in lush, wild Whatcom County, perched just south of the Canadian border.
Whatcom is remote, its economy divided between agriculture inland and oil refining on the coast. The farming sector, in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, is one of the world’s great berry-growing regions. In the spring, it is ablaze with flowers, every front porch a riot of pinks and purples and delicate sky-blues. It is also, historically, temperate. In recent years, however, as global warming has intensified, the region has been plagued by wildfires.
Last summer, in the midst of a weeks-long heat-and-smog haze created by vast forest fires just north of the Canadian border, Honesto Silva Ibarra, a 28-year-old diabetic migrant laborer from Mexico who was working on the Sarbanand blueberry farm, collapsed on the job. When the farm administrators didn’t immediately take him to a hospital, his co-workers bundled him into a private vehicle and sped him to a clinic. There, he was found to be suffering from extreme dehydration—brought on, in all likelihood, by a combination of the abnormal heat and the long hours without adequate water and food breaks that he and his co-workers were enduring. Ibarra was sent on to a Seattle hospital, but died shortly thereafter. He was the father of two young children,
Ibarra’s death, which spurred a wildcat strike and left lingering bitterness in the local community, was, according to farmworker organizers like Community to Community’s 67-year-old Rosalinda Guillen, directly attributable to global warming. Guillen is a tiny woman who grew up working in strawberry, broccoli, and cabbage fields, moved into jobs with local banks, and became a full-time farmworker organizer in 1986. “It was pretty scary,” she recalls of the fires. “The headlines in the papers were ‘Be careful. If you have health problems, stay indoors.’ We can see on a daily basis the changing climate, because we’re working on the land all the time.”
That message has been resonating: Whatcom County is now second only to King County, which includes the Seattle metropolitan area, in the number of signatures that I-1631’s volunteers gathered. Many residents there were fed up with the labor conditions that Big Agriculture was imposing, and they were appalled by the increased dangers that workers—both those from the United States and those imported on short-term visas from other countries—faced as the environment degraded. That combination of growing labor and environmental consciousness was creating powerful currents for change.
In Community to Community’s colorful third-floor suite of offices in the pretty downtown area of Bellingham, the walls bedecked with immigrant-rights posters, political pins, and paintings of farmworkers, Guillen discusses the issue. Tackling climate change, she says, is inherently about fair economics. “This is what I take to the table when I’m at Front and Centered: the dignity, within our own culture, of being farmworkers. For the first time, we’re going to be part of a policy that will lead us into a future where we’ll be included in an equitable manner.”
Just south of Whatcom, in Skagit County, lives Steve Garey, who headed the United Steelworkers local in the little town of Mount Vernon until he retired a few years back. Garey recalls how he spent most of his career working as a machinist for the county’s two refineries, one run by Shell, the other by Tesoro (now Andeavor). The refineries are still there—two awesome edifices, great temples of industrialism erected on Fidalgo Island, near the northern edge of Puget Sound’s Swinomish Channel—and they still employ many workers, providing an important tax base. Surrounded by chain-link fences topped with barbed wire, the refineries look out onto preternaturally beautiful waters, where great blue herons wade in the shallows. Ships that dock in the deep waters off the northern edge of the peninsula distribute the finished products from these refineries, which serve much of the northwestern quadrant of the country.
Garey is, on the surface, an unlikely supporter of I-1631. A big, burly man, his ginger hair and mustache only slightly dulled by age, he looks every bit the blue-collar worker—which, in the Northwest, used to mean he would likely be engaged in a war of priorities with the environmental movement. After all, a generation ago, labor unions and environmentalists were at bitter odds during the struggle over saving the spotted owl, and throughout the decline of the logging industry. What was good for the one was, more often than not, seen as necessarily bad for the other. In the forests of the Pacific Northwest, as the communities that depended on the timber industry were withering, an animosity festered that has taken decades to heal.
These days, however, there’s a vibrant blue-green partnership in Washington State, and Garey is one of its leading proponents. “If you’re in Texas or Louisiana, this issue doesn’t have political legs,” he argues, sitting in his union hall, the walls of which are covered with photographs of members who, over the decades, have died in refinery accidents. “But in this state, it does. And 1631 not only provides a backup for communities in Skagit and Whatcom counties; it allows us to consider the creation of tens of thousands of new jobs with very high labor standards written into the terms of investment.”
If this big package of reforms passes, it will join—and, as its supporters argue, actually surpass—California’s SB 350 and SB 32 in setting a national template for fair and equitable environmental progress. It will, if successful, further cement a West Coast counternarrative to the antienvironmentalism and cruel, race-to-the-bottom anti-labor policies of the Trump administration.
Garey is realistic enough to know that, as November approaches, the petroleum industry and other fossil-fuel lobbies will throw everything they can against I-1631. They’ll tell workers that it will cost them their jobs, and they’ll tell impoverished communities that it will hinder economic growth.
Yet this retired refinery worker also believes there’s something different about this moment. “This policy is about old people planting shade trees for their grandkids,” Garey says. “This is going to be classic ‘organized people versus organized money.’ It’s not just ‘us and them’ anymore—it’s ‘us and us and us and us and them’ now, and it’s made all the difference in the world.”