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Keystone XL Opponents Need a Jobs Program

The Keystone campaign was a great success, but environmental advocates must still convince the public that they care about jobs.

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There are a host of reasons to oppose the pipeline, from protecting native people in the tar-sands region to avoiding spills into a critical aquifer to preventing a catastrophic increase in climate-changing carbon emissions. But none of them will cut much ice with people who start from the assumption that jobs are simply more important right now than the environment.

The neglected half of the job for environmental advocates is to ourselves become the voice for job creation. We need to develop robust programs to put unemployed pipefitters, teamsters and others back to work. The prerequisite for every environmental campaign should be a plausible and detailed jobs program. The sustainability movement must be a voice for workers, students and others who want to both save the earth and promote appropriate economic development. Our goal must be to transform the debate from “jobs vs. the environment” to “our credible jobs program vs. the climate deniers’ fraudulent ones.”

Where should those proposals come from? As the six labor unions that opposed the KXL pipeline permit  pointed out, one source can be the jobs programs that Republican politicians are currently blocking in Congress, like the Restore the American Dream for the 99% Act, which would  boost employment by almost 2.3 million jobs in 2012 and almost 3.1 million jobs in 2013; the extension of the Highway Trust Fund, which would create hundreds of thousands of jobs and provide for critical infrastructure repair; and initiatives to fund jobs for teachers, firefighters and police. It’s time for the environmental movement to put the spotlight on the way climate-denying politicians are crying crocodile tears over a few hundred or thousand jobs while blocking millions of jobs unemployed American workers could be hired to do right now.

Other proposals can come from environmentally friendly projects that also create jobs, like the transition from coal to wind energy now underway in Delaware, or efforts to renew water infrastructure in California.

As Trumka of the AFL-CIO recently remarked, “We are headed ever more swiftly toward irreversible climate change — with catastrophic consequences for human civilization.” Addressing that means “every factory and power plant, every home and office, every rail line and highway, every vehicle, locomotive, and plane, every school and hospital, must be modernized, upgraded, renovated, or replaced with something cleaner, more efficient, less wasteful.”

Our job is to translate that vision into concrete proposals that provide an alternative to destructive KXL pipeline projects seductively packaged as jobs programs.

If we fail to become the voice for both the planet and workers, our movement risks losing the support of increasing numbers of workers, unions and their political allies. The fossil-fuel industry and its allies know that working families are likely to prioritize bread-and-butter issues over environmental protection, especially in recessionary times. Right-wing forces are counting on the “job killing” message to drive ordinary Americans into the arms of the climate-denying Republican Party. Together, environmental and labor movements can defeat them by presenting a better jobs program to American workers — one that addresses the climate and economic crises at the same time.

Brendan Smith  is a cofounder of  Voices for a Sustainable Future  and oysterman. He has published two books and his commentary has appeared in the Atlantic, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the Nation, and Jeremy Brecher’s new book  Save the Humans? Common Preservation in Action  addresses how social movements make social change. Brecher is the author of more than a dozen books on labor and social movements. He currently works with the Labor Network for Sustainability.