This is the second entry in a series examining the relationship between environmentalists and labor unions.
It was 1967. United Auto Workers executive board member Olga Madar went to Congress on behalf of her union and asked the federal government to curb air pollution by putting tighter emissions regulations on the auto industry. The testimony she gave could have easily come from any major environmental group at the time:
“We make little progress when we find that the gains in better health are negated when the worker leaves the plant and finds his community’s living environment polluted…” she said. “[There is] an air and water pollution problem of such magnitude that it has caused some of our leading social thinkers and scientists to conclude that we are in the midst of a struggle of life and death.”
Such strident defense of environmental issues was not unusual among the era’s leading labor leaders. From UAW President Walter Reuther to AFL-CIO Legislative Representative James F. Doherty, the 1960s and early 70s saw a barrage of union officials making the connection between workers’ rights and environmental activism.
Today, however, one is more likely to hear about an insurmountable rift between environmentalists and unions in the US.
Obama’s decision on whether or not to permit Keystone XL, for example, was seen as a difficult choice because, as Sheldon Alberts of Canada’s National Post wrote, “he risks alienating elements of his own political base no matter what decision he makes.” “Environment vs. jobs” had become so pervasive that observers were now slipping in proxies: “environmentalists vs. labor”.
There was ample evidence for this, of course. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, United Association of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters, the International Union of Operating Engineers all expressed support for the pipeline. The largest contingent of pipeline supporters at the final State Department hearing in October 2011 was members of the Laborers’ International Union of North America.
Environmentalists pointed to alliances with the Transport Workers Union of America and the Amalgamated Transit Union on the matter, but coalition-building between enviros and labor has been happening elsewhere too.
Days after that State Department hearing, environmentalists were meeting with oil workers with Louisiana’s United Steelworkers District 13 to discuss the “future of oil”.
“It wasn’t as confrontational as I would have expected,” said Rob McCulloch, Legislative Advocate for Transportation and Transit Issues at the BlueGreen Alliance, the organization that sponsored the event. Both sides saw common ground in fighting for workers’ health and against the replacement of their jobs by contract workers.
The BlueGreen Alliance has been putting together such meetings at the local level for years and McCulloch said it’s a great way to break the ice, build relationships and trust and ultimately create unassailable coalitions that can win on policy issues. When he visits Congress, “they pay more attention because we’re not a special interest group. We’re representing their constituents,” he said. Speaking for environmental groups or labor alone just doesn’t carry as much weight with lawmakers.
Still, there’s potential that remains untapped. After the failures of the Employee Free Choice Act in 2009 and the American Clean Energy and Security Act in 2010, the limits of their partnership, at least on the federal level, became apparent.
There are also some issues that the two sides simply won’t see eye-to-eye on. Coal mining in Appalachia, for instance (save for mountaintop removal). McCulloch said it’s easier to start with the things you agree on to get comfortable working with each other.
Jenny Brown of Labor Notes recently wrote about the ways that 2012’s climate change impacts have strengthened the Blue-Green relationship:
The 185,000-member National Nurses Union came out against the [KXL] pipeline in early February , joining the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers Union.
“It’s easy for us to take this position,” said Jill Furillo of the 37,000-member New York State Nurses Association. “Our members are on the front lines of seeing the effects of the environmental crisis.”
After Hurricane Sandy, New York nurses not only took care of those injured in the storm, they also evacuated patients from hospitals crippled by loss of electricity, carrying critically ill patients down dark stairwells when rising floodwaters wrecked elevators and backup generators.
In 2010, Grist’s David Roberts wrote that ‘Environmentalism’ can never address climate change and the argument still stands. Climate change will impact every sector of society and we can only build a movement if a broad constituency is embraced. A strong union presence at tomorrow’s Forward on Climate rally (the largest in US history) indicates this growth may be occurring.