Members of the Sierra Club, the nation's oldest and largest grassroots environmental group, will receive ballots this month to elect their board of directors, and with that vote will cast their views in the most contentious immigration battle of the year.
Immigration is not a new debate for the Sierra Club. In 1998 the membership voted overwhelmingly to stay out of the issue, restating that the most effective way to deal with the impact of population on the planet is to reduce levels of American waste and to raise the global status of women.
But for some, tackling immigration is a moral imperative, and their quest to bring the Sierra Club into the debate has resulted in a slate of board candidates with significant ties to right-wing groups.
Former President Robert Cox, a communications professor at the University of North Carolina with deep ties to the environmental justice and labor movements, is a leader in the organization's effort to fight off this "hostile takeover attempt" through an unprecedented public education campaign called Groundswell Sierra (www.groundswellsierra.org).
"The far more effective way of slowing the growth of population worldwide is by addressing women's access to healthcare and family planning, and by building economic sustainability for the world's poor," Cox says. "As long as people are driven from their home countries by hunger or political strife we will see migration, period."
Although many who support Sierra Club's involvement in immigration policy are concerned about the environmental effects of population, Cox says, "We're concerned by a darker side of the movement."
The national board of the Sierra Club received a letter in October 2003 from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) alerting it to efforts by right-wing racist organizations to encourage their members to join the Sierra Club and back anti-immigration candidates. SPLC traced the effort to a 1996 memo written by anti-immigration leader John Tanton, who stated that although "the Sierra Club may not want to touch the immigration issue ... the immigration issue is going to touch the Sierra Club!"
The three immigration-control candidates running for the board have interlocking ties to organizations funded by Richard Mellon Scaife, a leading conservative who funds the Heritage Foundation and other groups that have written the playbook for President Bush's attacks on the nation's environmental laws.
The Sierra Club is vulnerable to this type of attack because, unlike most national environmental organizations, the entire board is elected by its 750,000 membership. Three immigration-control advocates won seats on the board in the last two elections: Paul Watson, Doug Lafollette and Ben Zuckerman. If the three candidates backed by Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization are elected this year, the immigration-control faction will have enough votes on the 15-member board to move the issue.
Watson says efforts to gain seats on the board are "being blown out of proportion." Watson was a founder of Greenpeace who went on to create the Sea Shephard Conservation Society, a direct-action organization responsible for ramming and sinking numerous illegal fishing vessels.
"I'm not here to represent people, people are well represented," Watson says. "I'm here to represent non-human species and ecosystems."
For Watson, immigration is simply a matter of numbers. Too many people in the United States leaves no room for the habitat he wants to protect. "I don't allow any human politics to influence my decisions," he says.
But Cox says the Sierra Club can't ignore politics. "We have come so far in raising questions of environmental impacts on people in our work with labor and communities of color. As a result we have forged partnerships with a broader progressive coalition in America." This coalition is partly responsible for the club's growing political effectiveness, he says, and "all of that is now at risk."
Even if none of the candidates is elected, Watson says the immigration-control faction has won. "It's a fait accompli," he says. "The goal was to make the Sierra Club get the national press to write about immigration. And look what you're writing now."
Adam Werbach is the executive director of the Common Assets Defense Fund and a member of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. He is a former president of the Sierra Club, a position to which he was elected at the age of 23.
A vote for exploration of Alaska's National Wildlife Reserve is a vote for environmental responsibility, Jerry Hood, Local Alaska Teamsters leader, said on July 31, 2001.
When the Teamsters announced support for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to create jobs, many commentators claimed that the nadir of the relationship between environmentalists and the labor movement was reached. Halting drilling in ANWR is the No. 1 defensive priority of the largest environmental organizations in the country, and creating new jobs is the top priority for many labor unions.
This public rift was exactly what the Bush administration sought.
Republicans understand the importance of finding wedge issues between labor and the environment, given the roughly 16 million union members in the United States and the 11 million or so members of environmental organizations. If these two groups joined together to support an agenda for working families that included ecological protection, the president is well aware he could find himself out of a job.
The right has historically and famously exploited obvious cultural differences between the movements to undermine a unified progressive agenda: Environmental organizations are largely inhabited by upper-class whites with post-graduate education, while labor appeals to more diverse blue-collar interests. And this divisive tactic resonates most effectively during bad economic times -- which, not surprisingly, this Republican agenda creates.
Yet, an alliance should be a natural outcropping of these two groups. Not only are their memberships consistently more liberal than the rest of the public on social issues and support a strong role for federal involvement in restraining corporate greed, but recent research by renowned economist Ray Perryman demonstrates that protecting the environment has a positive impact on jobs and job creation.
Mending the break
Although labor and environmental groups have partnered in the past to enact critical legislation -- support by the Steelworkers was crucial to passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970, for instance -- a portion of the blame for Republicans' success nonetheless falls on the movements themselves.
"Trade unionists get so concerned with protecting jobs that are right there that they don't look at how many jobs get created by cleaning up and preventing polluting activity," says Al Zack, veteran leader of the United Food and Commercial Workers.
Bracken Hendricks, executive director of the Apollo Alliance, a labor-environment partnership calling for a $300 billion investment in clean-energy jobs, says environmental leaders, too, have done a lousy job explaining how solid environmental policies have long-term benefits to everyone -- including those outside the movement. "I think the environmental movement has made the assumption that people understand their goals and issues and will therefore be willing to sacrifice for them," Hendricks says. "I don't think the environmental community has done a good enough job of making it clear how environmental issues really are issues of social justice, unfair burdens and real costs to real people."
The result, says Joel Rogers, director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy -- an institute that supports initiatives that are good for workers and the environment -- is that "workers are treated like road kill and the environment is treated like a sewer."
Recent events, however, demonstrate that such rifts are getting more difficult to create -- even during bad economic times.
A majority of labor unions didn't join with the Teamsters in backing the president's energy initiative that included drilling in ANWR. Leadership against the measure was particularly strong from Leo Gerard, president of the Steelworkers, and Andy Stern, president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU). And environmentalists and unionists have joined together in battling issues of globalization -- most spectacularly during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle where members of both groups were attacked equally by an out-of-control police force. The empathy that moment created came to bear last year during FTAA protests in Miami, in which police efforts to divide the groups again were unsuccessful.
"There are always going to be breaks on issues like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge," Zack says. "The fact that labor didn't follow the Teamsters in lockstep is a tribute to the labor movement."
Toward a Blue-Green Alliance
Among the best-known efforts to build a labor-environmental coalition began when AFL-CIO President John Sweeney took charge in 1995. He understood that labor needed support of environmentalists to pass his working families agenda and quickly convened a high-level dialogue involving heads of the two movements.
The discussion ended up focusing on the Kyoto Accords on global warming, the major issue on the environmental agenda at that time. Sweeney appointed Jane Perkins to front the effort. She was an obvious choice: Perkins was former president of Friends of the Earth and a former business agent for SEIU.
In retrospect, the focus on climate change may have been the wrong initial effort for this group. While many environmental issues have clear benefits for job creation, the transition needed for climate change will undoubtedly lead to the loss of jobs in some sectors, like coal mining. Instead of proposing to move society toward high-wage, nonpolluting jobs that are good for workers and the environment, the discussion frequently fell to how to transition workers out of their areas of employment.
The miners, utility workers and building trades were skeptical throughout the dialogue. Some were not convinced that global warming was the problem being described, and they wondered if there was going to be a backroom deal with the Clinton administration that would harm their interests. More profoundly, they questioned whether they should spend their members' dues on a project that might shut down their industry.
The reaction was understandable. Although a shift from a carbon-based economy will have a net positive effect on employment, the most highly unionized industries are frequently the oldest that require the most change.
The new Apollo Project seeks to bridge the challenges this early effort faced. The Alliance, backed by 17 major labor unions and leading environmental organizations, is endorsing a $300 billion investment in clean-energy infrastructure that would create 3.3 million good union jobs, in which workers would be set to the task of retrofitting America's energy infrastructure -- including building super-efficient buildings and expanding the American hybrid car industry.
Both sides win in the exchange.
The Apollo Project would have the effect of lowering carbon dioxide outputs and other pollutants in the United States, the main cause of global warming. And the jobs, characterized by high rates of innovation, training, compensation and worker involvement, would increase profit margins by commanding a premium in the marketplace.
Thanks to events like the Seattle WTO protests and other trade-related actions, the labor and environmental movements are creating deeper personal ties that will allow future collaboration. The challenge now is to find distinct projects that lead society toward high-end jobs and keep the movements immune from wedge issues like drilling in ANWR.
The rift the Bush administration created on July 31, 2001, won't easily heal. There are legislative staff members in both the labor and environmental movements who have not spoken since the vote. But instead of focusing on division, both sides should embrace new initiatives like the Apollo Project that will create good jobs and lead toward a sustainable environment.
Without each other, the labor and environmental movements will find themselves constantly on the losing end of the global economy. Together, 27 million strong, they can't be stopped.
Adam Werbach is the executive director of the Common Assets Defense Fund and a member of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. He is a former president of the Sierra Club.
When I was 8 years old, I was given a petition to take around to my fellow kindergarteners to oust James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under President Ronald Reagan. My friends took out their big kindergarten pencils, signed their names and joined over one million Americans in opposing Watt's attempt to destroy our public lands.
The petitions worked. The day President Reagan fired James Watt was the day the modern environmental movement was born. It was a shot over the bow -- a sign that the people of the United States claimed the public lands, and that politicians who threatened those lands would do so at their own peril. Millions of Americans joined organizations like the Sierra Club in order to keep a watchful eye over future administrations and ensure that public lands would not be sacrificed for oil and gas development. James Watt openly attacked the values of conservation for future generations. No Secretary of the Interior since his time -- Democrat or Republican -- has dared do the same.
Until now. The heartwarming platitudes of our current Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, are attempts to distract attention from the Administration's Wattian agenda. Spearheading this agenda is Deputy Secretary of the Interior J. Steven Griles. Griles -- referred to as the chief operating officer of the department by President Bush -- meets frequently with White House officials. His agenda is every bit as radical as James Watt's, and he has a personal financial stake in leasing our public lands for oil and gas development. Griles is a "former" oil and gas lobbyist who still receives $284,000.00 a year from his old firm, National Environmental Strategies.
During his confirmation hearings, Griles signed a recusal document promising not to lobby on behalf of his former clients. According to documents obtained using the Freedom of Information Act, however, he has lobbied on behalf of those clients to loosen regulations surrounding coalbed methane development in the Rocky Mountain West. Coalbed methane development threatens to waste over one trillion gallons of public water in the arid West pollute groundwater and destroy animal habitats.
Further violating his recusal, Griles has met with numerous former clients and business partners associated with issues from which he supposedly recused himself. Time and time again, the deputy secretary has favored industry demands over environmental protection. He has allowed -- and is continuing to allow -- public land to be used by private interests for private gain. Once depleted and spoiled, the bulk of this land will be incapable of being restored to its original condition, or anything close.
During the Reagan administration, Griles was involved in selling 17,000 acres of federal land to a private company for $42,000, well below market value. Several months later, the buyers resold the land, and turned a $37 million profit.
Griles is up to his old tricks again, and environmentalists and Democrats aren't the only groups he has angered. Even the mainstream organization, Republicans for Environmental Protection, is unhappy with the Bush Administration's environmental policies, many of which have been engineered and executed by Griles. In fact, when the Republican organization graded the Administration on its environmental record in eight issue areas, the Administration received six D's, a B-minus for farm policy and an F for energy policy.
The Inspector General from the Interior Department has been dragging his feet in the investigation of these dealings. Clearly it's time for American citizens to take matters into our own hands. The land that's being sold, depleted and destroyed in the name of private profit is our land, after all, not Griles'.
Just like James Watt, J. Steven Griles has repeatedly violated the public trust in order to benefit a select group of private companies and individuals. He thinks no one's paying attention, but he's wrong. It's time to launch a new petition drive to fire Griles. Twenty-two years after James Watt was fired, there is a new generation of kindergarteners to lead the way.
Adam Werbach is the former president of Sierra Club. For more information on the petition, visit firegriles.com.