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 battles ahead.

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 there."

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 it."

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 the scenes.

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.

Home Page