For Unions, Green's Not Easy
by David Moberg
The Nation magazine, Feb. 21, 2000
Amid a crowd bearing signs protesting dolphin deaths, genetically
modified corn and human rights abuses in Chiapas, John Goodman
waited patiently in the cold early-morning Seattle drizzle last
November. A middle-aged Steelworkers union member who had been
locked out of his job for nearly a year at Kaiser Aluminum, he
would soon be leading a march of these protesters to block downtown
streets before the opening session of the World Trade Organization.
His banner depicted a rapacious Charles Hurwitz, the chairman
of Maxxam Corporation, his arms flattening a forest and crushing
a factory as his hands grasped a pot of gold-representing his
threat to both labor rights at Kaiser and through his control
of Pacific Lumber, the endangered Headwaters forests of Northern
California. "Today environmentalists and labor are together,"
Goodman explained. "It's the people against the corporations."
The week-long WTO protest more firmly linked labor rights,
environmental protection and democracy to public discussion of
the global economy. It also showcased a tentatively emerging "blue-green
alliance" between blue-collar workers and greens, an American
counterpart to the European "red-green" alliance of
labor, socialists and environmentalists. Since his election as
president of the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney has nudged the labor movement
into more-and more mutually respectful-coalitions with environmentalists
and other social movements. "No one of us alone can do the
task we have to do on important issues," Sweeney said recently.
Yet for all the good will on both sides, the vaunted blue-green
alliance is still fragile. Unprecedented discussions between labor
and environmentalists began in 1997 at Sweeney's instigation,
but they recently broke down over global-warming policy, one of
the key environmental issues of coming decades. And the debate
around the WTO revealed key differences between labor and environmental
interests that any such alliance will have to confront.
Unions want trade rules and sanctions to protect internationally
recognized labor rights, such as the right to organize, but there
isn't a similarly clear set of procedural environmental rights
(though the Sierra Club is now working on defining them, including
the right of affected communities to know the environmental impact
of proposed projects). While most greens consider the existing
WTO "working group" on the environment to be a dismal
failure, international labor is still pressing for a labor-rights
working group. More fundamentally, the AFL-CIO and global labor
federations hope to use bodies like the WTO to bring some social
justice to the world economy, whereas many environmentalists want
to roll back the WTO, not give it new responsibilities.
As the prospects for meaningful reform of the WTO dim, however,
a growing number of voices within the labor movement are calling
for comprehensive restructuring of all the global economic institutions.
"I don't believe the WTO as it is now can be amended,"
concludes Steelworkers president George Becker. "The whole
thing needs to be scrapped and started all over."
Moreover, the political lesson that cooperation brings power
may prevail over policy differences. "It's absurd to think
the environmentalists can fight for a sustainable economy without
labor rights or for us to ignore environmental issues," argues
Mike Wright, the Steelworkers' director of health, safety and
environment. "We'll win together or lose together, so we
sure better work together." Strategists on both sides now
weigh the value of the coalition itself in policy decisions. "A
lot of the big players recognize the muscle that comes from togetherness,"
says Dan Seligman, director of the Sierra Club's Responsible Trade
Campaign. "I sense participants shaping positions to protect
that unity." Still, it remains to be seen whether the two
groups will forge a unified movement strong enough to weather
the fierce resistance it will inevitably face and to win the difficult
While US unions and environmentalists have had much-publicized
clashes over issues like nuclear power and logging practices,
they have also recognized where their interests have converged,
as in the fight against NAFTA. Although a rift emerged when some
national environmental groups endorsed NAFTA after side agreements
on labor rights and environmental protection were added at the
last minute, the grassroots fair-trade coalitions that were the
heart of the anti-NAFTA campaign survived the defeat and continue
to be a source of strength. The blue-green coalition, abetted
by anti-globalist Republicans, beat back Clinton's bid for fast-track
trade negotiating authority in 1997. Then, as part of an international
movement coordinated through the Internet, US environmentalists
and labor helped derail talks on the Multilateral Agreement on
Investments. The campaign against the MAI presaged the WTO protests,
attacking proposed rules that would deregulate global capital
and give multinational businesses greater power to undermine democratic
national decision-making. The international labor movement demanded
inclusion of language protecting workers' rights, but the experience
with NAFTA and the interaction with environmentalists and other
critics of MAI eventually persuaded the AFL-CIO to reject the
agreement. The prospect of widespread popular protest in the United
States and other countries helped bring the talks to an end-at
least for a while.
Meanwhile, across the country, unions and environmentalists
U have worked closely together to mount campaigns against individual
companies that they are fighting for different reasons. The Steelworkers
from Kaiser Aluminum who marched in the WTO protests, for example,
were instrumental in forging the new Alliance for Sustainable
Jobs and the Environment last year. After a decade of give-backs
under the firm's new owner, Hurwitz's Maxxam Corporation, Kaiser
workers went on strike in September 1998. Hurwitz brought in scabs-including
laid-off-workers from Pacific Lumber, where Maxxam had initiated
aggressive logging of ancient Northern California redwoods. When
the strikers offered to return, Kaiser locked them out.
After a Steelworker began investigating Maxxam, an Earth First!
activist visited the strikers, telling them about a public hearing
on Pacific Lumber's logging plans. Wary initially about linking
up with reputed "ecoterrorists," Don Kegley, a 47-year-old,
third-generation Kaiser worker, changed his mind as he read about
the Pacific Lumber battle on the long ride to Humboldt County.
A big, imposing man, Kegley took the floor before hundreds of
nonunion loggers paid to show up by Pacific Lumber. "I told
them Charles Hurwitz was the common enemy," overcutting the
forests and speeding up work at aluminum plants to pay takeover
debts, says Kegley. He sat down to a standing ovation.
As a dialogue developed between local environmentalists and
the Steelworkers, they tried to accommodate each other's priorities.
Union members persuaded environmentalists to use union printers;
greens persuaded the union to use recycled paper. Steelworkers
district director David Foster even climbed up a redwood tree
to meet with Julia Butterfly Hill, who recently ended her two-year
tree-sit against Pacific Lumber. At one meeting, Steelworkers
discovered that the old guy at the bar was former Sierra Club
leader David Brower, the green movement's "arch-druid."
Kegley said he'd love to have Brower involved. "Not half
as much as I'd love to have you," responded Brower.
The meetings soon bore fruit, in both mutual understanding
and action. Last April the Steelworkers filed suit in California
against Pacific Lumber's "sustained yield plan." Then
in May, union and environmental activists challenged Hurwitz at
Maxxam's annual meeting and won 42 percent of shareholder votes
not controlled by Hurwitz for two outside directors they jointly
sponsored. They hammered out basic principles of unity, launched
the Alliance (with a new magazine and a New York Times ad) and
organized for the WTO.
"The thing that is most important and moving about it
all was that it was driven by rank-and-file steelworkers, who'd
lived inside aluminum smelters all their lives, and their world
was opening up," said Foster. "This was entirely their
idea." Some unions have called him, hoping to build similar
alliances, he said, but "other unions have at times angrily
attacked us" for risking jobs. "They try to discourage
dialogue between unions and environmentalists," he said.
"But the worst environmental outlaws are also the worst in
fighting worker rights."
The old bogyman-that environmental protection endangers jobs-still
holds sway in labor, especially in unions with members in mining
and logging. At the same time, the Steelworkers long ago concluded
that strong environmental laws create jobs in their industries,
and many members of public-employee unions work as protectors
of the environment. In a recent book, The Trade-Off Myth, economist
Eban Goodstein argues persuasively that industry has always exaggerated
the projected costs of environmental compliance-from double to
several hundred times the actual cost. Overall, Goodstein concludes,
environmental regulation doesn't destroy jobs but rather shifts
them-disproportionately to manufacturing and construction, surprisingly-
and accounts for few major layoffs or flights to pollution havens.
Blue-collar jobs are threatened by corporate restructuring, new
technology and capital flight in search of cheap labor more than
by environmental regulation.
et environmental regulations can and do mean the end of some
jobs. Those few workers are unfairly taxed-losing their livelihoods
and a big chunk of lifetime earnings-for widely shared public
goods. Equally serious, fear of job losses-however unfounded-is
a potent corporate weapon against both environmental and union
goals. The real problem is not environmental policies but corporate
irresponsibility and the failure of public policy in the United
States to provide income security for all displaced workers.
Bob Wages, now executive vice president of PACE (Paper, Allied,
Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers), grappled with the issue
for years as president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers
before it merged a year ago with the Paperworkers. Under his leadership
OCAW pushed some of the most aggressively pro-environment policies
in the labor movement, even though most of its members were in
industries with big environmental problems. OCAW/PACE has allied
with environmentalists in fighting major corporations like Crown
Petroleum and BASF, and has assiduously built alliances with the
mainly low-income, minority members of the environmental justice
movement in communities near oil and chemical facilities.
Wages long ago concluded that it would be shortsighted to
fight the corporations on nearly every front, as the union tried
to do, and then ally with them on environmental policy. Such a
switch, he argued, confuses union members, weakens the union and
alienates natural allies. Besides, he said', corporations always
lie about environmental regulations, many of which greatly improve
the health and safety of workers on the job and, at worst, accelerate
the inevitable closure of obsolete plants. With inspiration from
longtime adviser Tony Mazzocchi, Wages has actively promoted the
notion that rather than oppose environmental regulation out of
fear of job losses, unions should fight for a "Just Transition."
Workers who lose their jobs because of public-policy decisions
about the environment should receive full income and health-insurance
support, college or other advanced training and longtime health
monitoring rather than the stingy and ineffective job retraining
or temporary aid provided by previous environmental legislation.
For example, when Greenpeace-as well as the bi-national commission
that oversees the Great Lakes-called for a phase-out of chlorine,
OCAW didn't defend the chemical industry. Instead, it worked with
Greenpeace to devise Just Transition policies for workers and
an industrial policy to speed replacement technologies, both of
which could be financed by a tax on current chlorine users. While
those ideas are far from being implemented, they solidified an
alliance that helped to head off an industry effort to co-opt
labor support. When the International Federation of Chemical,
Energy and Mine and General Workers was seduced into a joint project
with the industry on the future of chlorine, Wages fought to make
Greenpeace part of the project and to demand that the chemical
companies agree not to fight unionization as a precondition of
labor's participation. After about a year, the chemical industry
decided it didn't want to cooperate with labor on those terms.
Still, unions and environmentalists have yet to reach agreement
on one of the toughest issues facing them: global warming. In
1997 Sweeney appointed Jane Perkins, a former union leader and
president of Friends of the Earth, to guide environmentalist-labor
discussions that would develop a more coherent labor strategy,
rather than ad hoc reactions shaped mainly by a few unions with
a strong self-interest in a particular environmental issue Perkins
chose to focus on the contentious issue of climate change, one
of the top priorities for all environmental groups and thus crucial
for the alliance. "It would be difficult [for unions and
environmental groups] to engage in close working relationships,"
warned Sierra Club climate-change specialist Dan Becker, "if
we're fighting on global warming."
The environmentalists welcomed the discussion, and virtually
all have come to support the idea of a Just Transition-at this
stage mainly a concept of robust protection for workers and communities
more than a formal legislative proposal. Environmental groups
have supported transition measures before, though nearly all have
been very inadequate from labor's standpoint. On the other hand,
no union has a strong self-interest in adopting measures to prevent
global warming, and a few didn't even want labor and environmentalists
to talk. The United Mine Workers, for example, sees reduction
of carbon emissions as a death sentence for coal mining and has
thus far driven labor policy on climate change. Official AFL-CIO
positions attack the Kyoto Protocol on global warming for not
setting standards for developing countries like China, raising
the specter of businesses abandoning the United States to take
advantage of less stringent standards abroad. Meanwhile, US corporations
simultaneously tell unions they'll lose jobs to China under the
current agreement and encourage China not to accept any targets
for carbon reduction.
Some unions even question the basic scientific consensus that
human actions are warming the planet in a way that risks serious
consequences. Unions for Jobs and the Environment-a new group
including the UMW; some unions in the cement, utility, rail and
construction industries; the United Food and Commercial Workers;
and the Teamsters-accepts the most exaggerated forecasts of job
loss while disputing predictions of climate change and its adverse
effects. Only unions are members, but UJAE was launched with a
grant and loan from a consortium of coal, railroad and related
businesses that promotes coal use. "There's no evidence that
within this next century anything drastic is going to happen,"
said Ande Abbott, assistant to the president of the Boilermakers.
"As far as human life support, there's no immediate danger
While most environmentalists agree that the Kyoto Protocol
is flawed, these unions use the shortcomings to attack any action
on global-warming-and end up with positions less protective of
the environment than those of big companies like BP/Amoco. Some
labor misgivings with the Kyoto Protocol could be solved with
technical fixes, like rebating global-warming energy taxes for
exports and imposing comparable energy taxes on imports, thus
undercutting capital flight. Although the UMW rejects Just Transition
as a "good funeral," 46 percent of today's coal mining
jobs will be lost by 2006 because of new technologies, strip mining
and other changes. The Kyoto Protocol would likely increase the
loss by another 10 percent. Many environmentalists would support
a Just Transition plan to protect even those miners who lose jobs
unrelated to global-warming policies, but a UMW official dismissed
the idea, telling one enviro, "I don't trust you. Forget
Last spring, speaking for both labor and environmental communities,
Sweeney and Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope agreed that
the global-energy economy was threatening workers' rights and
the environment, and that they were committed to "crafting
together a package of worker-friendly domestic carbon-emission-reduction
measures." But the labor-environment talks Sweeney initiated
ground to a halt in the months before the October AFL-CIO convention,
which did not adopt any environmental position statement even
though conventions in recent years have usually done so. The opponents
of global-warming action, it seemed, had vetoed the progress behind
Sweeney insists, "No one union is going to set the policy
for the federation." But Wages is deeply disappointed with
the breakdown. "I'd rather see an enlightened debate on these
issues," he said. "It's unacceptable to me to base the
position on whose members' jobs are affected. If we simply oppose
things, that means sooner or later something will be imposed on
us, and we'll have done nothing to protect workers." The
issue will come up at the AFL-CIO's executive council in mid-February,
where pro-environment unionists hope Sweeney will endorse a high-level
committee to promote labor-environment cooperation and aggressive
grassroots education of members, an essential step to break the
Washington deadlock and build a lasting blue-green alliance.
Unions in other industrial countries, as well as the International
Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the European Trade Union
Confederation, have been more forward-looking than US labor on
environmental issues: accepting the need for action on both global
warming and a Just Transition, and advocating energy and transportation
policies that are good for the entire society. Even though European
industries have relatively high energy taxes, unions have supported
raising them, with revenue directed toward reducing taxes on labor
and funding transitional programs. The unions are also embracing
new sustainable industries and organic farming as the best prospects
for the future. Although the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers
of Canada represents workers vulnerable to tough climate-change
policies, its leaders support such policies along with efforts
to cushion the transition for workers. "I don't want labor
to be the last defenders of the indefensible in the public eye,"
said national health, safety and environment representative Brian
Kohler, "because you lose your credibility. Then you lose
a lot, like your ability to organize new members" or to influence
government. For example, three years ago, a Canadian loggers'
union fiercely defended an employer's clear-cutting practices,
then was left looking silly and reactionary when the company announced
it was "going green."
If American labor doesn't embrace its closest environmental
allies now on global warming, union members will be the big losers
down the road. "Within the environmental community some folks
view labor as a spent force and say that whether they like it
or not, they have to make alliance with business, Pope explained.
"Then there are those of us who feel that while labor has
had a rough time, it's indispensable. If you want to protect the
environment, you have to have a society that protects people,
and no modern economy does that without a labor movement."
If labor resists adapting to climate change, business will adapt
in ways that leave workers and the public holding the bag. Also,
if unions don't work with environmental groups sympathetic to
their issues, then business-oriented environmental groups will
more likely set the agenda. Some environmentalists, for example,
want the government to give away carbon-emissions permits to businesses,
which could then resell them, capturing all the revenue from higher
prices as private profit. Other greens argue that government income
from an annual auction of the permits should pay for worker protection
and promotion of new transportation and energy technologies.
Even if labor and environmental groups don't adopt identical
positions, they do need to build trust and mutual understanding,
and that won't happen overnight. It will take education of grassroots
members on both sides of the alliance. If labor makes global warming
a top priority, environmentalists should do the same on the right
of workers to organize, argues Sierra Club's Becker. "You
can't ask workers to take environmental actions," he said,
unless environmentalists are willing to help with labor actions."
For US unions and greens, the challenge ahead is not only
sustaining their joint campaign around the new, deregulated global
economy but also shifting the lessons from those battles to both
the global-warming front and the reinvigorated effort to organize
American workers. As Steelworker John Goodman realized in the
Seattle drizzle, it's ultimately an issue of labor and environment
together, the people against the corporations.
David Moberg is a senior fellow at The Nation Institute and
senior editor at In These Times. Research support for this article
was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.