Environment

Union Heavy Embraces Green Energy as Crucial Vision for the Future

A new alliance is forming between the labor and environmental movements, beginning with United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard.
A glistening wind turbine stands outside the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland -- the city where the world's first electricity-generating windmill was built in 1888. The new machine weighs 26 tons and has kept 40,000 pounds of climate-changing carbon dioxide emissions out of the atmosphere.

Gazing skyward, United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard was impressed. "Twenty-six tons!" he marveled, mentally calculating how many manufacturing jobs that equaled -- before he learned that this particular machine was built in Denmark. "That seems pretty dumb," Gerard said. "We figure out how to make it work. And then someone in another country makes something of it and ships it back to us."

The scene occurred last fall, when Gerard, 60, was on a three-day, three-state barnstorming tour with Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope. The two men were trumpeting their joint interest in clean-energy solutions at events in St. Paul, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Columbus, and Philadelphia. They encouraged elected officials to support wind and solar power and energy efficiency as ways of creating jobs, pumping up the U.S. economy, and fighting global warming.

Standing side by side, Gerard and Pope are a study in opposites -- Gerard is enormous beside the short, slim Sierra Club leader. Gerard is brash; Pope is circumspect. One is from a small town in Canada, the other from a big city in the United States; one went to night school, the other to Harvard University. "Leo is about as different from me as anybody can be," Pope says, "except in the way he thinks."

Gerard's United Steelworkers union -- the largest industrial union in North America, representing 1.2 million workers in the United States and Canada -- has been fighting for clean workplaces and communities since the 1960s. It helped pass landmark U.S. legislation regulating air and water pollution and toxic waste, as well as "right-to-know" laws, which require companies to tell the public how much pollution they are releasing. "We need to put an end to the lies, the myths, the hysteria, that say you can have either a clean environment or good jobs," Gerard says. "You can have both, or you have neither."

When Gerald was growing up, his father worked as a miner in Ontario, Canada. Inco, the company that owned the mine, also ran an adjacent smelter that was the dirtiest in North America. The eldest of five kids, Gerard grew up in an Inco town, lived in an Inco house, and went to an Inco school. When sulfur fumes from the smelter wafted through his home, his father would say, "That's the smell of jobs." Gerard ran track in high school and says he was 16 years old "before I realized you didn't have to suck in sulfur while you were running."

Gerard's father belonged to a miners' union and held shop-steward meetings in the family basement. His mother served sandwiches and coffee while Gerard sat on the basement steps, taking it all in. He describes himself as an "irreverent" youngster, impatient with high school. "The stuff they were teaching me was how to have a good memory. I resented the system because I thought it marginalized people," he says.

At 18, Gerard went to work at the smelter. "After a few years I decided that I'd like to do something different," he says. "So I started going to night school. There was a part of me that wanted to be an economics professor." When he was offered a basketball scholarship to attend college full-time, though, he sat down and did the math.

"I was making half-decent money. At the end of four years, I would have been about 25 grand worse off if I accepted the scholarship. So I said to hell with it," he says. "I figured it would take me eight years to get my education through night school, but so what. All that time I'll be earning money."

That was the plan, but in 1977, the Steelworkers offered Gerard a job doing fieldwork based in Toronto. "And there you go," he says, ticking off a series of union jobs that eventually led to his election as United Steelworkers president in 2001. Instead of teaching economics, the irreverent kid who had yearned to become a professor was in a position to change the economic future of North America.

The full name is such a mouthful -- the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union -- that Gerard's union is simply called the United Steelworkers (USW), for the people who founded it in 1942.

This diverse group is deeply engaged in the key issues facing U.S. and Canadian workers: healthcare, pensions, and "offshoring," the trend toward moving North American industries and jobs overseas. It is also working for broader, longer-term goals such as worldwide standards to protect industrial workers, worker-friendly pension-fund investments, and the union's ground-floor membership in what the Steelworkers see as North America's emerging clean-energy economy.

While promoting the union's causes, Gerard can be intimidating. Once when it was his turn to speak at a steel company's shareholder meeting, the lights suddenly went out. "This is no time to be f -- -ing with the lights," he barked. "Get them back on or somebody's going to beat the sh -- out of you." Suddenly the room brightened, and Gerard was able to say his piece.

Another time Gerard encountered an armed guard at the entrance to a contract-negotiating session. "Why are you here?" Gerard recalls asking. "I was hired for protection," the man said. "I went berserk," Gerard says. "I told him, 'I'm not turning my back on you and that gun. Tell your boss I'll meet him over at the Holiday Inn. If he's not there in half an hour, I'm leaving.'" In a few minutes, the meeting reconvened at the new venue.

Gerard took a softer approach at a 2001 meeting with three of President George W. Bush's top lieutenants: Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, and Commerce Secretary Donald Evans. The administration knew he wasn't a friend -- the union had backed Al Gore the year before. But steelworkers are concentrated in the battleground states of Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, and, as reporter Steven Greenhouse explained in a June 2001 New York Times article, "Aspirants for national office ignore his union at their potential peril."

Cheap steel imports were on Gerard's mind that day. Since 1998, 18 U.S. steel companies had filed for bankruptcy and 23,000 workers had lost their jobs, partly because of steel coming in from overseas. Gerard introduced eight laid-off workers to O'Neill, Zoellick, and Evans: "I want you to see the human face of your inaction," he recalls telling Bush's men. "I want you to see a 50-year-old guy who two weeks ago was able to feed his family and two weeks from now won't be able to."

A few months later, the president imposed tariffs on foreign steel -- a major victory for Gerard. But Bush eventually withdrew the tariffs in response to complaints from multinationals and the World Trade Organization, and the bankruptcies and job losses have continued. Says AFL-CIO president John Sweeney: "Gerard is leading the union through some of the most troubled times American manufacturing has ever faced."

On the first day of their clean-energy tour, Gerard and Pope met with media, workers, environmentalists, and the Twin Cities mayors at the United Auto Workers Hall in St. Paul. Across the street is the sprawling plant that once provided 2,000 high-paying jobs making Ford Ranger pickups. Ford turned down workers' entreaties to convert it to building high-mileage hybrid vehicles and announced the plant's closure in 2008. Gerard was not pleased. "Don't tell me that a car made in America can't get 30 or 40 or 50 miles per gallon," he said. Gerard and Pope's appearance made the local papers that day, as did the alternative they support: converting the old Ford plant into a wind tower and turbine factory.

That night, at a gathering of labor activists and environmentalists in Minneapolis, Gerard railed about national politics. "We're living in an upside-down society where even Richard Nixon would look like a liberal," he said. "You want to make a list of thieves? Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, and Duke Cunningham -- Old Dukie Boy. What did they do? Put your mind back. Don't get amnesia."

When a woman in the audience yelled, "Don't forget Abramoff!" Gerard shouted back, "Abramoff? That son of a b -- -- will be swingin' pretty soon." Looking slightly sheepish, he added, "My language gets a little salty when I'm upset. But, sisters and brothers, this isn't about us anymore. This is about the kind of future America deserves to pass on to its kids and grandkids."

After a standing ovation, Gerard sat down, put his hands in his lap, and bowed his head. The fireworks were over. At that moment, in soft brown trousers and a neatly pressed blue Steelworkers shirt, he looked more like an altar boy than a gladiator. When the rank and file approached the stage, he rose for a hearty round of backslaps and hugs. "I'm glad he's on our side," one woman said.

Two days later, enthusiastic steelworkers thronged a lawn near Independence Hall in Philadelphia. A banner proclaimed "The Road to Energy Independence: Renewables Now!" next to a photograph of two children walking near a wind turbine, with Old Glory waving in the background. Gerard, Pope, and Pennsylvania governor Edward Rendell (D) were lined up to speak. As Gerard approached the microphone, some of the steelworkers in the audience chanted, "Le-o! Le-o! Le-o!" Smiling fondly, he said, "You guys embarrass me."

Gerard married his high school sweetheart, Susan, 38 years ago. When he's on the road, he calls her every day. She was the superior athlete in high school, he says: "She's a bit more of everything than I am -- more militant, more impatient, more environmentally friendly." He's also on the telephone almost daily with his two twentysomething daughters, Kari-Ann and Meaghan.

Says the Steelworkers' Ohio chief, David McCall: "He's a big, heavyweight teddy bear."

Although the barnstorming tour focused on clean-energy jobs of the future, the union is still working hard to clean up existing workplaces. "Roughly 60,000 workers die each year in this country from workplace accidents or from diseases caused by workplace chemicals," says union environmental specialist Diane Heminway.

Steelworkers remember the "death fog" from local zinc and steel plants that blanketed Donora, Pennsylvania, in 1948, killing 20 and injuring 6,000. They learned from the time the Provo, Utah, mills shut down for six months during a labor dispute in the 1980s, and hospital admissions for children with pneumonia, pleurisy, bronchitis, and asthma declined by half. More recently, a mill in Pueblo, Colorado, was releasing so much pollution inside the plant that "our members couldn't see their hands in front of their faces," says Heminway. A Steelworkers lawsuit in 2000 forced the company to invest more than $25 million in pollution-control equipment.

In 1990, the Steelworkers published a 34-page manifesto called "Our Children's World." Its message was simple: "We cannot protect Steelworker jobs by ignoring environmental problems." Ahead of its time, the report also warned of the "catastrophic consequences" of global warming. When the document was presented at the Steelworkers' annual meeting, it was not an easy sell.

Some of the workers from the coke ovens (where the raw material for steel is processed) feared that too much environmental purity could threaten their jobs. "Some guys from Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Gary tried to storm the stage," Gerard recalls. "But we went at them. We said if you don't clean up, you won't be there. And if coke isn't there, the steel mill isn't there."

"We don't say there is never a jobs-versus-environment conflict," says Michael Wright, the Steelworkers' director of health, safety, and environment. "Conflicts may exist, but fighting cleanups is not the way to solve them. Our job is to find solutions that protect both jobs and the environment."

More recently, the union's environmental policies have been questioned by some members of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union (PACE), which merged with the Steelworkers in 2005. Paper workers, including loggers and mill workers, are still smarting over environmentalists' efforts to protect the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s. They don't think much of the Sierra Club's stand against commercial logging in national forests either.

Gerard is undaunted by such squabbles. "We aren't going to be united with the environmental movement on every issue," he says. "But we are going to be united 80 or 90 percent of the time. Let's work on that unity rather than let our enemies exploit the divisions."

Pope admires the Steelworkers as one of "maybe a dozen large organizations in this country that actively promote small-d democracy -- the idea that ordinary people, given information, can make better decisions than the elites." The union encourages its members to participate in the political process by staffing phone banks and walking precincts, and even excuses its staff from ordinary duties on election day, when the organization goes on "hot idle" (a term that usually refers to a steel furnace on hold).

Gerard sees his alliance with the Sierra Club as a step toward a new political majority. "There's a vacuum of leadership in this country," he told a group of Club leaders last year. "The Democratic Party has lost its way. Carl and I are forming a strategic alliance, getting people to talk with each other."

Both Gerard and Pope were delighted with the outcome of last fall's election: a congressional majority that is far friendlier to both their causes. In February, they reunited in Washington, D.C., to meet jointly with the newly elected Democratic senators. "These guys wanted us to help them develop clean-energy legislative proposals," Pope said. "This is part of their vision of how to get the country moving again."

More heartening news followed. In late February, the Minnesota legislature passed a law that will bring thousands of megawatts of wind power -- and a blast of new jobs -- to the state's windy rural areas. The Twin Cities mayors set up a joint green manufacturing commission, backed by their economic development offices, the Steelworkers, the Sierra Club, and a local paper mill. And Pennsylvania is now a clean-energy hub, with Spanish wind-turbine maker Gamesa establishing three plants on the site of an old U.S. Steel works in Bucks County.

Gerard's dream of a thriving U.S. clean-energy industry has moved a few steps closer to reality. He is not surprised. "We are not promoting some kind of fuzzy, left-wing, feel-good stuff that Rush Limbaugh will love to attack," he says. "This is sound social and economic policy. This gives my grandkids a shot."
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