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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.

Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline are taking a well-deserved victory lap. The Obama administration’s decision to reject TransCanada’s pipeline proposal — at least for now — represents an historic win for the environmental movement, and reveals the potency of the emerging alignment between the environmental, anti-corporate, Occupy, and other movements.

Real strides were also made to bridge the divide between environmental groups and unions. While Republicans relentlessly attacked environmentalists as “job killers,” groups like, Sierra Club and NRDC reached out to unions early and often, and as a result,  six labor unions came out in support of President Obama's decision to oppose the permit. Not since the “ Battle in Seattle” have we seen such diverse and robust coalitions.

But the Keystone campaign also exposed the perennial Achilles’ heel of those who are fighting against climate change: We are often painted by our opponents and perceived by the public as caring more about the environment than we do about jobs. In a  press release titled “U.S. Chamber Calls Politically-Charged Decision to Deny Keystone a Job Killer,” the Chamber of Commerce said President Obama’s denial of the KXL permit was “sacrificing tens of thousands of good-paying American jobs in the short term, and many more than that in the long term.” And its messaging worked, with the media repeating the jobs vs. environment frame again and again. NPR’s headline was typical of many: “ Pipeline Decision Pits Jobs Against Environment.”

This frame also resonated with the public. A recent  Rasmussen Reports poll found that 59 percent of likely U.S. voters believe that creating new jobs is more important than environmental protection. Twenty-nine percent disagree and say protecting the environment is more important. That frame was directly reflected in their  opinions about the pipeline. In a poll taken January 19-20, 56 percent of likely voters think the pipeline will be good for the economy and favor building it. Only 27 percent are opposed.

Keystone opponents responded to the “job-killer” attack by undercutting TransCanada’s inflated employment numbers. They pointed out that the State Department estimated the pipeline would produce only  6,500 jobs, most of them temporary. Cornell University’s Global Labor Institute released a  study [PDF] showing that Keystone XL may generate no more than 50 permanent jobs when the work is done.

But showing that fewer jobs would result than proponents have claimed is only half the job. That’s not enough to win over the hearts and minds of workers who have been struggling for decades under the weight of stagnant wages and unemployment. From a worker’s perspective, Keystone jobs were good-paying union jobs in an economy that increasingly offers up only minimum-wage service work.

And opponents’ argument that the pipeline offered up only temporary jobs shows a lack of understanding of the industry — virtually all construction jobs are temporary. But rather then substandard  Walmart jobs, these temporary jobs come with healthcare, pensions and middle-class wages. As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka explained, “We need to be honest that mass unemployment makes everything harder and feeds fear … we cannot have a trust-building conversation about [Keystone] unless opponents of the pipeline recognize that construction jobs are real jobs, good jobs.”

However inflated TransCanada’s employment figures, the promise of several thousand well-paying jobs represents a glimmer of hope in a dismal economy. And opponents of the pipeline appear to be snuffing out that hope. We need to honor the fact that jobs are central to workers’ identities and aspirations.

Environmentalists often respond to charges that their policies are “job killers” with research demonstrating that investment in solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy and conservation creates far more jobs than equivalent investment in fossil fuels. This is a well-documented fact, but a hypothetical future job doesn’t put food on an empty table today. In fact, we’ve had discussions with union officials who strongly supported climate protection legislation — but simultaneously argued heatedly for the Keystone XL pipeline as a source of immediate jobs for their desperate members.