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.”