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.’ ”