Populist Just Transitions

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Virginia Tech


This dissertation argues that the just transition policy framework may not vivify labor internationalism or erode support for right-wing populists if just transitions are not part of left-wing populist projects. Labor internationalism, which involves labor unions cooperating across borders to pursue common goals, is increasingly important as unions strive to work with their foreign counterparts to influence the international community's urgent efforts to address climate change. Right-wing populism is a growing threat to organized labor and climate protection efforts. Some labor activists hope that advocacy for the just transition policy framework, a set of guidelines for compensating workers in polluting industries who are laid-off as a result of environmental protections, will unite labor organizations from around the world and improve their approaches to international solidarity. Progressives hope that just transition policies will discourage voters from supporting right-wing populist candidates, who are often climate skeptics, out of fear of the job losses that accompany environmentalist reforms. However, I question the assumption that just transition policies, in and of themselves, can serve as solutions to the challenges posed by right-wing populism or overcome divisions within the global labor movement. It is possible for economic nationalism at the expense of global solidarity to continue and for right-wing populists to maintain support in decarbonizing areas where policy makers have indemnified laid-off fossil fuel workers.

Integrating just transition policies into left-wing populist politics could potentially make just transitions more useful for countering the far-right and promoting labor internationalism. This dissertation looks to the political theorist Antonio Gramsci's thoughts regarding the "national popular," which Gramsci's readers often associate with left-wing populism. The national popular entails intellectuals from different fields (such as the academy, journalism, and manufacturing) coming together to modernize patriotism and strip it of chauvinistic nationalism. I point out that the original proposals for just transitions prioritized providing free higher education for the workers laid-off from polluting industries. The just transition framework's stress on higher education has populistic implications. Educators, particularly members of teachers' unions, may practice populism throughout the implementation of a just transition for laid-off coal workers by encouraging the displaced workers to cooperate with knowledge workers to rethink nationalism. If workers displaced from polluting industries rethink nationalism in university settings while maintaining their connections to the labor movement, then these workers may in turn reject far-right politicians and discourage organized labor from supporting trade nationalism.



labor unions, just transition, climate change, populism, internationalism, Antonio Gramsci, Tony Mazzocchi