Going Green: The Labor Movement Steps Up to the Plate

Earth Day

Volume CVIII, No. 4April, 2008

Pat Hackbarth

Fact or myth: You can’t make the shift to a green economy and energy independence without sacrificing good jobs.

Answer: Myth, according to the labor and environmental leaders who gathered in New York recently for the North American Labor Assembly on Climate Crisis.

The growing urgency surrounding climate change has forced both the labor and environmental movements to take a hard look at their historical differences and find common concerns and ways to work together for the benefit of both.

What they found was that environmental sustainability and economic sustainability were so interconnected that in effect you can’t have one without the other.

The event drew a number of major players, including Senator Bernie Sanders (Vermont), who sits on both the Senate Labor and Energy Committees; leaders of numerous U.S. and international unions from Germany to Bangladesh to Australia; and a number of prominent environmental leaders, including Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope.

The global labor movement had announced its intention to occupy a prominent place at the table in solving the climate crisis by organizing the First Global Trade Union Assembly on Labor and the Environment, which met in Nairobi, Kenya in January 2006.

The New York conference was a regional follow-up, sponsored by Cornell’s Global Labor Institute and ten international unions.

And labor has indeed acted as a spur to progress in this massive and unimaginably complex undertaking.

In the wake of 9/11 we heard many calls for an Apollo-type program to quickly move the nation toward energy independence.

Given the glacial pace of the federal government’s response — make that an old-fashioned glacier, before the planet started to heat up and glaciers shifted into second gear! — labor stepped up and created the Apollo Project for Good Jobs and Energy Independence, calling on the federal government to invest $30 billion a year for ten years in a program to develop and build a renewable energy infrastructure, retrofit older buildings to make them more energy-efficient, improve vehicle fuel efficiency, and expand public transit.

Along the way, over three million union jobs would be created, producing an economic stimulus that would repay the government by the end of that time.

And not only would we no longer have to rely on imported oil, but many of our worst environmental problems would be substantially reduced, from carbon emissions to air pollution.

The AFL-CIO, which supports the Apollo Project, has been focused on the idea of a “just transition,” in which no workers are displaced in the process. This approach, while ambitious, may not be entirely feasible.

Bernie Sanders acknowledged that acting boldly on global warming would inevitably result in some economic dislocation.

But he quoted an economist from the World Bank in his estimate that failing to do so would cost the U.S. up to 20 percent of its GNP, the greatest economic downturn since the Depression.

There are many ways in which labor can help minimize this dislocation. One is the fight against globalization, which the AFL-CIO sees as the greatest enemy.

Musicians are no strangers to globalization issues, with pirated CD’s being sold on the street in China and film scores being recorded in Europe.

So we can imagine, for instance, the plight of the workers at General Electric. GE is asking its customers — and its employees — to “Go Green” and buy its compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL’s), which consume far less energy than ordinary incandescent bulbs.

But the CFL’s are made in China. They are in fact asking their employees to put themselves out of a job.

This is the sort of wrongheaded approach to addressing climate change that the Apollo Project seeks to correct.

The United Steelworkers, headed by their firebrand president Leo Gerard, stand as a particularly potent example of what a union can do.

The Steelworkers have long been at the forefront of the battle for clean communities and a clean, healthy workplace. They held their first environmental conference in 1963, long before the first Earth Day. Their early actions were based on pollution and workplace health concerns.

Theater musicians who have dealt with smoke and fog issues know what effect workplace pollution can have.

The Steelworkers have had to fight such extreme forms of pollution as the “death fog” of 1948 that blanketed Donora, Pennsylvania with smog from local zinc and steel plants that killed 20 and injured 6,000.

In recent years Gerard has been working together with the Sierra Club’s Carl Pope to forge an alliance between their two constituencies.

The Blue-Green Alliance, the product of this effort, is working initially in four states — Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington — with large numbers of steelworkers, many now unemployed, to reopen closed steel plants and turn them into wind turbine manufacturing facilities.

Their efforts are already bearing fruit. The Minnesota legislature has voted to bring large-scale wind power to Minnesota, with locally manufactured turbines; and in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, an old steelworks has already been converted to a turbine manufacturing plant.

Gerard’s keynote address at the conference was stirring and visionary.

Other labor leaders were also inspiring: Dave Foster, who heads the Blue-Green Alliance, called the labor movement the “economic conscience of the world.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, promoted the environmental movement as a model for labor because of their “persistence, focus, and having the right on your side.”

Roger Toussaint, who spent time in jail because of his militant leadership of the Transit Workers Union, declared that you can’t make a sustainable world in a society that believes in every man for himself, and that unions have always known this.

Musicians are increasingly coming to know this too.

A society with enough good-paying jobs sounds like a society where more people can afford to go to concerts and clubs, or hire bands for their weddings.

A society with a clean energy supply sounds like a society where musicians and their kids don’t suffer from so many respiratory problems.

A society with good mass transit means more options for getting to the gig and less highway congestion.

Add to that lower fuel bills for those energy-efficient buildings and cars, and it sounds like musicians have more money in their pockets.

Not to mention that a society with a stable climate is one where nations don’t go to war over the availability of drinking water.

Conference speakers made the point repeatedly that unions must engage their members and potential members not just on issues of wages and benefits, but on a broad range of social issues that affect their daily lives. There really is strength in numbers.

Many non-members ask, “What will the union do for me?”

Allying with the environmental movement offers a great two-part answer: It gives you more power to fight for the things that affect the rest of your life, and it brings people from another movement into the fight for good jobs.