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Labor and Environmentalists Must Work Together to Build a Real Green Jobs Agenda

To move past the divisive politics of the Keystone battle, we must build a movement that puts both economic justice and climate action at the center of its demands.

The following article first appeared on the Web site of The Nation . For more great content from the Nation, sign up for its e-mail newsletters here.  

No one wants to dwell on the faults of a successful campaign. Featuring mass celebrity arrests and dramatic images of thousands encircling the White House, last year’s struggle to halt the Keystone XL pipeline has come to be regarded as a model of progressive activism in the Obama era. But the Keystone campaign also holds a sobering lesson for progressives: The “blue-green alliance” between labor and environmentalists is on life support, and unless it can be revived, this fight may yet be lost—along with many other climate battles down the road. 

At the height of the Keystone debate, four unions stood with the titans of the fossil fuel industry to lambaste progressive environmentalists as extremist job killers. The Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) president, Terry O’Sullivan, went so far as to describe unionists who opposed the climate-destroying pipeline as being “under the skirts of delusional environmental groups which stand in the way of creating good, much needed American jobs.”

This January, when President Obama again rejected the expedited construction of the pipeline, O’Sullivan doubled down, saying, “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.”

It was clear who O’Sullivan was talking about: the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU), which had dared to stand with environmental allies against Keystone. O’Sullivan’s vicious attacks on his fellow unionists were not even acknowledged by other labor officials until LIUNA and the building trades unions began running advertisements in Midwestern swing states attacking the president. It was only then that AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka noted the tension, explaining that “unions don’t agree among ourselves.”

By that point, the industry had succeeded in casting the entire house of labor in the Keystone XL camp, with American Petroleum Institute’s Jack Gerard declaring, “We will stand shoulder to shoulder with labor unions that have backed the pipeline, including the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department.” The public perception of unified labor support for the pipeline persists—bolstering the industry’s fearmongering about the threat to the economy posed by environmentalists and their penchant for job-killing regulations, and souring labor’s relations with progressive allies in the environmental movement at a moment when unions are under broad assault and desperately need support.

Why, after decades of talk about the importance of a labor–environmental alliance, can’t the blues and the greens get it together?

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Let’s leave aside, for now, the way that mainstream environmentalism has proven tone-deaf to class issues over the years. It’s equally important to understand that, from Marxists to mainstreamers, few union leaders believe any issue really matters except unions. Joe Uehlein, former secretary-treasurer of the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO, and recently the founder of a new Labor Network for Sustainability (a network of 6,000 grassroots labor and sustainability activists), underscored this point. “When I was putting this new network together, I met systematically with fifteen presidents of major unions in America,” he said. “Of the fifteen I met with, not one said their union should be working on the climate issue. They just didn’t see it as their work.”

This deeply held belief is on some level understandable in a labor movement that is itself staring down extinction. But overcoming this attitude among unionists is more critical by the day, as the planet’s prognosis grows ever more dire. To move past the divisive politics of the Keystone battle, it is imperative that we find a way to build a movement that puts both economic justice and climate action at the center of its demands.

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