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America's Green-Labor Alliance

Is the choice between the environment and economic justice a false one? Now more than ever before, labor and greens must join forces to stop Bush's assault on the planet.
 
 
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For both environmentalists and trade unionists, the Bush administration has been a disaster. A broad alliance between the two movements-beyond individual campaigns, such as opposition to "fast track" trading authority-has never seemed more essential. Yet as President Bush pushes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as part of a deficient energy plan and promotes an empty voluntary corporate response to global warming, environmentalists and unions are at odds.

The divisions clearly weaken green groups in their fight against anti-environmental policies. They also hurt the labor movement by alienating both important allies and large segments of the public (including strong majorities of union members) that oppose the administration's anti-environmental positions. These "blue-green" tensions further undermine prospects for progressive political victories and for building a broad, popular movement that challenges the power of corporations.

Six years ago, shortly after he took office as president of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney hoped to head off these perils. He wanted to foster an alliance with greens and work out in advance a common labor position on thorny environmental issues. He asked Jane Perkins, formerly both a union official and head of Friends of the Earth, to work as the labor movement's liaison with environmentalists. Perkins pulled together a "blue-green working group" of top staff from several unions and environmental leaders to discuss global warming.

But the Mineworkers and some building trades resisted even talking about possible common ground. Instead, unions opposed to environmental protection policies have struck out on their own, claiming that pro-environment policies-like limiting greenhouse gases or preserving wilderness-will cost jobs. The Teamsters, United Mine Workers and several building trades unions have openly endorsed Bush's energy policy and ANWR drilling.

Despite the failure thus far to cement a national blue-green alliance, significant progress has been made in building relationships and developing local alliances that could form the foundation for continuing work. More progress is likely to come mainly from grassroots and local initiatives as well as the actions of individual pro-environment unions and their leaders, not from the AFL-CIO. The blue-green working group, however, did prove that it is possible for unions and environmentalists to devise a package of policies that can promote clean energy and protect jobs.

In February, leaders of the Service Employees, Steelworkers and UNITE (apparel and textile workers) joined with major environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists and Natural Resources Defense Council, to endorse a study by economists James Barrett, recently with the Economic Policy Institute, and J. Andrew Hoerner of the Center for a Sustainable Economy. "We in the labor movement are not going to make a choice between good jobs and a safe environment," UNITE president Bruce Raynor said on the release of the report. "We're for both."

Barrett and Hoerner propose a modest, steadily increasing tax on the carbon content of energy. Such a plan would reduce use of the energy sources most responsible for global warming-such as coal and oil-by encouraging greater efficiency and switching to less harmful power sources, including renewables like solar and wind. But unlike many other carbon tax proposals, which rely solely on market price signals, Barrett and Hoerner recognize that engineers have already identified a wide range of opportunities to increase energy efficiency-and often productivity as well-using existing technology that is cost-efficient but not implemented as widely as it should be, such as compact fluorescent light bulbs or efficient electric motors.

Barrett and Hoerner's "Clean Energy and Jobs" report proposes a technology policy, tailored to the specific opportunities for greater efficiency in businesses, government and household use, which can both offset some of the costs of the carbon tax and increase efficiency faster than a carbon tax alone. Their proposal would not only promote energy-efficient buildings and mandate higher fuel-efficiency standards for autos and light trucks, but provide tax incentives for super-efficient vehicles and renewable energy production.

But unlike many environmentalists, Barrett and Hoerner take seriously the potential for economic disruption caused by a shift in energy policy, particularly the hardship on lower-income workers who could face higher energy costs. They would phase in the carbon tax over five years, rising to $50 per ton of carbon, or the equivalent of about 13 cents on a gallon of gasoline. At first, under their plan, the majority of the $70 to $80 billion per year in carbon taxes would be returned to individuals by refunding roughly the equivalent of the payroll taxes every worker pays on the first $6,000 of earnings. Gradually more of the tax revenue would go to fund energy efficiency programs and less to tax credits. For most households, energy costs would be cut faster through efficiency improvements than energy prices would rise from the carbon tax.

The economists project that the carbon tax combined with this mildly progressive tax-refund program would slightly increase overall employment and have a small positive-or at worst neutral-effect on economic growth. But fossil-fuel and energy-intensive industries, they argue, could face short-term competition from businesses in countries that don't impose carbon taxes or set tough pollution standards. To deal with those problems, Barrett and Hoerner propose that importers of energy or energy-intensive materials (like steel or aluminum) would have to pay "whatever taxes or emissions-permit fees would have been required had the products been produced in the U.S." (Such border adjustments are already used in the United States and Europe and are permitted under World Trade Organization rules.)

Overall, the result of such a policy shift would be dramatic environmental progress, modest economic gains and much greater national energy security. Barrett and Hoerner calculate that U.S. carbon emissions would decline by 27 percent in 2010 and by half in 2020. By 2020, gross domestic product would grow by six-tenths of a percent above what it would have otherwise, creating a net gain of 1.4 million jobs and reducing the rate of decline in manufacturing jobs. Real wages would rise, income inequality would decline slightly, and household energy bills would shrink. At the same time, oil imports would drop below the level now forecast by an amount a little larger than the total current U.S. purchases from OPEC countries. Over two decades, the savings would amount to more than six times the estimated oil that could be pumped from ANWR.

Barrett and Hoerner acknowledge that jobs would decline in some industries, especially coal mining and electric utilities (but not most energy-intensive manufacturing like steel). They propose that displaced workers should receive at least two years of full income and benefits and up to four years of full-time training or education (or a longer duration of income support for those workers near retirement). Communities would also receive $10,000 in economic development funds for each job lost under their plan. Carbon taxes would finance this "just transition."

"I think that [this report] means that if folks with good intentions get together and stick with it, they can figure out solutions to problems that address everyone's concerns," says Perkins, who is leaving the AFL-CIO policy staff to work at the George Meany Center. She hopes the report will trigger a debate within the labor movement, and the blue-green working group has sponsored workshops in states from New Jersey to Montana to let local labor and environmental leaders discuss the issues. Perkins thinks that change will come by developing such links between the movements. "If we don't do that at the grassroots level," she says, "you're never going to change anything."

Although it may be too late for such a grassroots movement to push the ideas in the report in this year's congressional debate, there is growing receptivity in Washington to linking "just transition" adjustments to future energy legislation.

Even if big-picture agreement on issues like energy and climate change are elusive, there are plenty of other opportunities for blue-green cooperation. For example, Perkins says, a company is poised to open a 700-employee wind energy equipment manufacturing plant in Portland, Oregon-if Congress approves wind energy production tax credits. UNITE and the Sierra Club are joining in a program to install solar rooftop panels in California. In a growing number of cities, labor and environmentalists are working together to fight sprawl as a threat both to unionization and the environment.

Steelworkers district director David Foster helped create a labor-environment alliance in the Northwest around a common fight against anti-labor and anti-environment polices of Maxxam Corporation. That experience led the union to advocate alternative energy sources for aluminum smelters in order to reduce reliance on hydropower that threatens salmon. "A healthy environment is essential to a healthy economy," he says.

Yet more unions need to turn to their allies for research and understanding of these issues, not to corporations and politicians that oppose them on nearly every other issue (as labor organizer Ray Rogers and educator Harry Kelber argue in a new effort to turn unions against ANWR exploration.) While Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao had nothing to offer labor on its key concerns when she met with the AFL-CIO executive council in late February, she did make clear that the administration's foremost request of labor was support for Bush's energy plan-and pointedly thanked Teamsters President James Hoffa for his endorsement.

The Teamsters contend that ANWR drilling will create nearly 750,000 new jobs, but an analysis of the decade-old, industry-sponsored research behind those figures by the Center for Economic and Policy Research shows that the assumptions are deeply flawed and oil from ANWR actually would generate less than 50,000 jobs for the U.S. economy. (Some labor insiders think that Hoffa's high-profile support for Bush's energy plan is part of the union's strategy to eliminate federal supervision, which was recently reduced).

Similarly, although the UAW has joined industry in resisting higher car and truck fuel efficiency standards, a Union of Concerned Scientists study concludes that increasing fuel economy to 55 miles per gallon would yield 100,000 new auto industry jobs by 2020, while saving consumers-who obviously include workers who are union members-$28 billion a year.

By adopting the perspective of industry and Republican strategists who have no concern for workers, unions or preserving good domestic jobs, the labor unions that abandon environmental allies are also abandoning their own members. By nearly 2-to-1, union members oppose drilling in ANWR, according to a poll conducted late last year by the Wilderness Society. Over the past decade, workers and union members consistently have expressed strong support for environmental protection in opinion polls, according to sociologist Brian Obach, even when it poses risks to jobs.

Even UAW members support higher auto efficiency more strongly than the general public. In a January poll, 84 percent of UAW members in Michigan favored requiring all cars and light trucks to get 40 miles per gallon within 10 years. While the union organized rallies to oppose higher standards, UAW members overwhelmingly rejected the argument that environmental regulation would raise car prices and cost jobs. The choice between the environment and economic justice is a false one. Both are possible. Both are necessary. Both are threatened if the alliance of the labor and environmental movements fails.