Unions and Environmentalists: Get It Together!

Unions and Environmentalists: Get It Together!

Unions and Environmentalists: Get It Together!

As the Keystone XL battle has shown, the blue-green alliance is in trouble—and only a deeper kind of solidarity can rescue it.


Demonstrators carry a giant mock pipeline while calling for the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline during a rally in front of the White House in Washington November 6, 2011. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

No one wants to dwell on the faults of a successful campaign. Featuring mass celebrity arrests and dramatic images of thousands encircling the White House, last year’s struggle to halt the Keystone XL pipeline has come to be regarded as a model of progressive activism in the Obama era. But the Keystone campaign also holds a sobering lesson for progressives: The “blue-green alliance” between labor and environmentalists is on life support, and unless it can be revived, this fight may yet be lost—along with many other climate battles down the road.

At the height of the Keystone debate, four unions stood with the titans of the fossil fuel industry to lambaste progressive environmentalists as extremist job killers. The Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) president, Terry O’Sullivan, went so far as to describe unionists who opposed the climate-destroying pipeline as being “under the skirts of delusional environmental groups which stand in the way of creating good, much needed American jobs.”

This January, when President Obama again rejected the expedited construction of the pipeline, O’Sullivan doubled down, saying, “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.”

It was clear who O’Sullivan was talking about: the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU), which had dared to stand with environmental allies against Keystone. O’Sullivan’s vicious attacks on his fellow unionists were not even acknowledged by other labor officials until LIUNA and the building trades unions began running advertisements in Midwestern swing states attacking the president. It was only then that AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka noted the tension, explaining that “unions don’t agree among ourselves.”

By that point, the industry had succeeded in casting the entire house of labor in the Keystone XL camp, with American Petroleum Institute’s Jack Gerard declaring, “We will stand shoulder to shoulder with labor unions that have backed the pipeline, including the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department.” The public perception of unified labor support for the pipeline persists—bolstering the industry’s fearmongering about the threat to the economy posed by environmentalists and their penchant for job-killing regulations, and souring labor’s relations with progressive allies in the environmental movement at a moment when unions are under broad assault and desperately need support.

Why, after decades of talk about the importance of a labor–environmental alliance, can’t the blues and the greens get it together?

* * *

Let’s leave aside, for now, the way that mainstream environmentalism has proven tone-deaf to class issues over the years. It’s equally important to understand that, from Marxists to mainstreamers, few union leaders believe any issue really matters except unions. Joe Uehlein, former secretary-treasurer of the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO, and recently the founder of a new Labor Network for Sustainability (a network of 6,000 grassroots labor and sustainability activists), underscored this point. “When I was putting this new network together, I met systematically with fifteen presidents of major unions in America,” he said. “Of the fifteen I met with, not one said their union should be working on the climate issue. They just didn’t see it as their work.”

This deeply held belief is on some level understandable in a labor movement that is itself staring down extinction. But overcoming this attitude among unionists is more critical by the day, as the planet’s prognosis grows ever more dire. To move past the divisive politics of the Keystone battle, it is imperative that we find a way to build a movement that puts both economic justice and climate action at the center of its demands.

This is not a new challenge. Thirty years ago this year, a book called Fear at Work: Job Blackmail, Labor and the Environment, by Richard Kazis and Richard Grossman, was published in an attempt to get labor and environmentalists to realize that they share common enemies and common goals. Grossman had been running an organization aptly called Environmentalists for Full Employment. The book showed how key institutions of the corporate class sought to destroy both movements through an assault on labor and environmental regulations: “In conjunction with a reinvigorated U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and a long list of trade associations and lobbying groups, the [Business] Roundtable has spearheaded an intense campaign against both recently-won environmental and health rights and older labor protections.” Since its founding in 1972, the Roundtable has been wildly successful in this effort. But labor and environmentalists remain mired in their old mindsets, operating in large part as separate movements with distinct adversaries and goals.

Fear at Work systematically debunks many of the myths still present in today’s debates. “The Reagan administration and its allies have been capitalizing on today’s economic crisis to widen the split between labor and environmentalists over ‘jobs,’ while cynically attacking rights and protections that have been won by both movements. The assault on labor and environmental protections will intensify. As in the past, ‘jobs’ will be the rationalization for new antiworker, anti-environmental policies.” Progressives in 2012 would do well to make Fear at Work a sort of reference guide for how we respond to these tactics. Some of today’s greens might be enlightened by its discussion of why job security is such a fundamental issue for unionists—especially construction unions. Unlike in other unions, construction union leaders represent their members whether or not they are employed. And unemployed members retain all the rights of membership, including voting in union elections for—or against—those leaders.

Kazis, reflecting recently on how the situation has evolved since the publication of Fear at Work, said, “It’s the same picture. The issues are the same, the use of job blackmail is the same, the way over-inflated arguments about job creation potential are the same, wild misestimates of the cost of clean-ups is the same, all the tried and true divide-and-conquer techniques are the same, but what has changed is the relative political power and salience of both movements we were talking about.” Unions and environmentalists, in other words, have lost ground, while industry has triumphed.

Part of the problem is that, although many progressive environmentalists understand that unions are essential to taking on capitalism, most self-identified greens don’t really get the working class. Kenny Bruno, a lead campaigner in the Tar Sands coalition, says, “Most environmentalists do care about jobs, but they are so nervous when they talk about unions and workers that it’s like Mitt Romney talking about money—they don’t know how to express themselves without putting their foot in their mouths.”

In recent interviews, key climate change campaigners celebrated their collaboration with the unions that had officially opposed the Keystone XL. They are right, of course, but there are still only two unions that oppose the pipeline, the ATU and the TWU. And the two transport unions together total one-third of the Laborers Union members—a tiny fraction if you add in the Teamsters and the other two unions campaigning in favor of the pipeline. Yes, Domestic Workers United joined in opposition late in the fall. But while DWU represents hope for a future labor movement, it isn’t a union yet; it has no dues-paying members and is not seen as a union by the house of labor.

* * *

Climate champions like Bill McKibben of 350.org have spoken out for union causes, but most greens rarely endeavor to take up an outright defense of workers, never mind their unions. But to counter the industry’s wedge strategy, climate activists need to build an immediate and just response to the jobs issue directly into their campaign. The anti-Keystone movement should have demanded that millions of dollars go immediately into a mini-stimulus package for climate-related infrastructure work along the same route as the pipeline. This means victory would not have been declared until the 5,000 unemployed workers who shouldn’t be building the pipeline are hired in a one-time stimulus for the exact same workers. It means the “victory lap” would be somewhere in Nebraska at a shovel-ready site with 5,000 construction workers going to work fixing broken bridges, expanding high-speed Internet access into rural areas or fixing up agricultural damage. This would speak to the needs of the 17 percent of workers in construction who are unemployed—a legitimate concern of the labor leaders who have played such a destructive role in this debate.

Despite the amount of airtime given to “green jobs,” neither labor nor environmentalists have committed themselves to a meaningful green jobs agenda. Instead, environmentalists slap the word “job” onto anything they hope to win labor’s support for, and unions affix the word “green” with equally low standards. Uehlein says, “The green jobs issue is a red herring. It’s like unions doing what corporations do when they file sustainability reports; building a nuclear power plant can be called a green job by these standards. This dynamic in labor where we’ve never met a job we didn’t like has got to change.”

* * *

Blue-green enthusiasts are quick to point to recent examples of successful cooperation. Notable achievements include labor and environmental collaboration to improve fuel efficiency standards in autos and support for renewables in the stimulus package. And in Washington State, according to a report by Mark Hertsgaard in Mother Jones, community activists, with the help of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaigners, brokered a deal to close a toxin-belching coal plant—and guarantee that all 150 workers would not lose their jobs. The environmentalists led the effort to expand protections for the workers, and in the end, both sides got what they wanted. Fear at Work outlines two dozen such examples from the 1970s.

But like the famed “Teamster and Turtle” alliance in the Seattle World Trade Organization protests in 1999, these examples of successful collaboration are short-lived and episodic. They are also mostly local. At the national level, polarizing fights like Keystone that leave deep wounds have been the norm.

To halt climate change and create good jobs, two strategies are essential. The first is that we must embrace a new notion of active solidarity at the national level. When unions declare that an issue is life or death, and call on progressive allies to come support them—as they did when public workers were under attack in Wisconsin and Ohio last year—their allies must respond, whether or not they have anything directly at stake, and even if they actually have something to lose. Likewise, when union-sympathizing environmentalists declare that an issue is life or death, the house of labor must show discipline, take on the hard issue internally, and respect that call for solidarity. Keystone XL was the environmental movement’s Wisconsin and Ohio.

This proposal for a new solidarity runs directly counter to O’Sullivan’s statement on March 10, “If there’s legislation or a project that’s good for another union, and my members don’t have equity in the work, I’m going to be supportive or I’m going to say nothing.” This thinking is as outdated as environmentalists ignoring job security. Note to O’Sullivan: everyone on this planet has “equity” in projects that will rapidly advance the onslaught of climate change.

Holding national players accountable to this strategy won’t be easy, but labor unions and environmentalists would do well to take a page from the playbook Planned Parenthood used after the Susan G. Komen Foundation cut off its funding. Planned Parenthood unleashed a grassroots fury against a player in the women’s health movement that had acted against the interests of the broader women’s health movement. By contrast, on January 19 four unions, including the CWA, Steelworkers, SEIU and the UAW, joined the two transit unions in a brief statement “supporting President Obama” in his decision to delay the pipeline, but the statement did not oppose the pipeline and did not challenge O’Sullivan’s behavior. Such timid gestures are insufficient against the ferocious might of the fossil fuel industry.

The second strategy is to build support from the ground up to force changes in the labor movement’s position on these issues, as Uehlein’s Labor Network for Sustainability is doing. Uehlein and his team have studied how during the civil rights era, change came from the base of the unions, not the top. “Where labor is on climate today is where labor was on civil rights in the late 1950s,” notes Uehlein. Similarly, a grassroots rank-and-file strategy worked well over the past decade for antiwar union activists—leading, ultimately, to the AFL-CIO’s call for an end to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The environmental justice movement has long made the connections that expose “jobs versus environment” as a false dichotomy. This movement is working-class and multiracial. It “gets” unions—and knows how to engage in the real organizing that makes lasting change. But since 1991, when 1,000 grassroots activists held the First National Environmental Justice People of Color Summit, where grassroots activists challenged funders to put their money into the base and not the Big Ten green groups, most major funders have instead continued to pour their resources into the national environmental movement, which has invested in poll-tested messaging and communication strategies. Absent organizers holding face-to-face conversations with millions of people, the marketing approach leaves the population vulnerable to the next poll-tested message—the one that comes from BP or Exxon or the Koch Brothers.

The movement to halt Keystone must confront its own weaknesses if it is to achieve lasting victory. The executive director of 350.org, May Boeve, says, “We are running against the oil industry, against the fossil fuel industry, and they are the biggest force in American politics, so even when we had a big victory, barely one week went by before the entire thing was back on the drawing board.” Just eight weeks after Obama’s second rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, the portion that runs from the Canadian Tar Sands to Oklahoma, he announced his support for the second half of the pipeline, the portion that will transport oil from Oklahoma to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. Worse, his speech in Oklahoma outlined his “All of the Above Energy Policy,” which will expand the production of fossil fuels, not curtail it.

The environmental community expresses its disappointment about Obama on climate, while the labor elite grumbles about Obama’s failure to make good on his promise to help unions organize more workers, but neither movement has been successful at creating a base that demands the changes the country desperately needs. Both movements have been devoted to single-issue advocacy, and they share a reluctance to trust that people outside Washington, DC, if given resources, can make change happen.

Lasting change happens when massive numbers of people are moved to shelve their daily lives and create a credible threat to the power establishment. People’s expectations for a better life need to be raised, not crushed, for this to occur. But as Fear at Work made clear thirty years ago, asking Americans to save the planet by killing jobs is a losing strategy. So, too, is asking people to blindly support the corporate class’s agenda of creating jobs that kill the planet and line the pockets of the 1 percent. No strategic failure could be more obvious and better funded.

We need to forge a movement to save the planet and jobs at the same time. The sooner greens and unionists realize this, the better—for them both.

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