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Enough Blue-Green Bickering

Labor organizers and environmentalists often bump heads over energy issues. But with Bush and Cheney in the White House, the two must make friends and focus on their mutual opponent.
 
 
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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 when President Bush pushed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as part of a deficient energy plan and promoted an empty voluntary corporate response to global warming, environmentalists and unions were 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 rather than rely solely on market price signals, Barrett and Hoerner propose that government directly encourage technologies that would increase energy efficiency and offset part of the cost of the carbon tax, such as energy-efficient buildings codes, higher vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, and tax incentives for super-efficient vehicles and renewable energy production.

Unlike many environmentalists, Barrett and Hoerner take seriously the potential for economic disruption to low-income families and workers in certain industries that would be caused by a shift in energy policy. They would phase in the carbon tax, rebating much of it to working families. To avoid unfair competition from countries that don't reduce global warming gases, they would require importers of energy or energy-intensive materials like steel to pay equivalent taxes or fees as U.S. producers, and they would provide generous income support and full-time education to displaced workers, like coal miners, and their communities. Overall, they conclude, the result of such a policy shift would be dramatic environmental progress, modest economic gains and much greater national energy security.

"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 wind energy production tax credits are included in the energy bill that comes out of the House and Senate conference, as is likely. 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.

In their lobbying for Bush's plan, the Teamsters contended that ANWR drilling would have created 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 have generated less than 50,000 jobs for the U.S. economy. The Teamsters may seem misguided to rely so heavily on industry research, but many labor insiders think that Hoffa's high-profile support for Bush's energy plan was largely 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.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing. He recently received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.