Quantcast

Unions and Environmentalists: A Match Made with Difficulty | The Nation

  •  
Madeline Ostrander

Madeline Ostrander

Making sense of weird weather, rising waters and all things climate change.

Unions and Environmentalists: A Match Made with Difficulty


Union workers protest climate change in Richmond, California. (Peter Cochrane)

For many years, the labor movement and environmentalists have tried to maintain a tense affiliation over the issue of climate change.

The Apollo Alliance, a coalition of greens and labor, was launched in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks with a vision for creating jobs and ending dependence on oil through nationwide investments in clean energy. By 2008 and 2009, green hard hats seemed to be an obligatory fashion accessory at environmental demonstrations, and there was great hope that President Obama would usher in a green jobs revolution. Since then, economic growth in the green jobs sector has been strong (faster than the economy overall) but, so far, not as large-scale and far-reaching as the vision originally articulated by Apollo.

And in a tough economy, any promise of jobs can be more compelling for some unions than seemingly abstract questions about climate change. Last year, some labor unions stood conspicuously on the opposite side of the Keystone XL debate from environmental groups, aligning themselves instead with groups with a reputation for union-busting (like the National Association of Manufacturers). (For more, see Sarah Laskow’s analysis in The American Prospect.) In early 2012, the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) walked indignantly away from the BlueGreen Alliance (which is now merged with the Apollo Alliance). “We’re repulsed by some of our supposed brothers and sisters lining up with job killers like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council to destroy the lives of working men and women,” said LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan in a press statement.

So this past weekend, it was noteworthy that a coalition of more than thirty unions and worker advocacy groups turned up at the gates of the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, California, to protest climate change. They joined a crowd of more than 2,500 people to rally for green jobs and a transition away from the fossil-fuel economy. (On Monday, I blogged about the local political significance of holding an anti–fossil fuel protest in a refinery town.)

The protest was organized in part by 350.org, an organization that has coordinated the world’s largest demonstrations against climate change. This summer, the group has been, in a sense, scaling down—it has staged a series of community-scale protests that draw attention to the tangible impacts of both climate change and the fossil-fuel industry. The focus on local concerns appealed to Bay Area labor groups. “I heard over and over from union members…‘My kid has asthma. My aunt went to the hospital when there was a refinery fire,’ ” says labor organizer Brooke Anderson. “A lot of [the protesters were] everyday folks who happened to be union members, saying, ‘Oh yeah, that’s my community too.’ ”

Anderson, who coordinated the protest’s labor contingent for 350.org, saw the demonstration as a “turning point, at least here in…California” from a “labor movement that was divided [on] jobs and environment to a movement that’s united.… The only way to win on either the economy or the climate is to fight for good jobs…that help us roll back climate change.”

It’s hard to know whether the Richmond rally is evidence of an enduring change of perspective among labor groups. California unions and greens have found common cause on a number of issues in the last few years. Most recently, labor and environmental groups joined forces on a campaign launched earlier this year to protest proposals to overhaul the California Environmental Quality Act.

In the big picture, such alliances make sense. Statistically speaking, many environmental regulations ultimately create jobs and produce net economic growth. Moreover, as leaders from the Labor Network for Sustainability wrote in an opinion piece, if global carbon emissions don’t shrink, “America’s workers and workplaces will be devastated along with the rest of our people and the rest of the world.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

But the big, dismal news of climate change or the slow, hopeful trends of the green economy don’t always resonate with individual workers struggling to pay the rent. Economic transitions can be hard on some, even when they help in the long term. The Teamsters knew this when they collaborated with environmental groups on California’s clean trucks program a few years ago. The program, which replaced the dirtiest diesel trucks with more efficient ones, reduced truck pollution at the Port of Los Angeles by 80 percent. Many truckers wanted the regulations—if given reasonable financial means for making the transition. “We see the smoke pouring out of our trucks and we breathe it all day, every day,” one trucker told the Los Angeles Times when the program was being proposed. Labor leaders insisted that the program require trucking companies to hire independent truck drivers, so that the regulations wouldn’t place hardship on drivers who were often underpaid and could not afford new, more efficient trucks. But when the trucking industry sued to stop this requirement, it placed a number of drivers in dire financial straits.

That outcome has, for labor groups, clouded the program’s environmental success, and it’s an example of why unity between greens and labor will always be a careful balancing act. A moment like the Richmond protest can be turning point—when it becomes clear that community, family and health are at stake and that dirty jobs shouldn’t be the only option. It will be up to labor and environmental groups to work together to find practical means to make such economic transitions possible.

How has the Keystone pipeline showdown affected the green-blue alliance?

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.