Some US labor groups that have long feared environmental campaigns are a threat to jobs are starting to see advantages in going green.
This evolution was clear at last week’s UN climate talks in Poland, where several US labor groups and environmental activists made joint appeals for policies that would promote high-tech renewable energy as the answer to both climate change and job losses.
About 25 representatives of US unions were in Poznan — about twice the number at last year’s UN talks in Bali — representing workers from the electrical, transit, steel, service and other sectors.
“There is a very wide cross-section of American unions that reflects the growing engagement of American unions’ support of climate change policies,” said David Foster, executive director of the Blue Green Alliance.
The group was founded by the United Steelworkers, North America’s largest manufacturing union, and the Sierra Club, the largest and oldest grassroots environmental group in the US.
“There’s a power in the joint vision that we just don’t have functioning on our own,” added Foster, who was a United Steelworkers regional director for 16 years.
The Blue Green Alliance was founded in 2006 and expanded this fall to include three more unions and another green group.
Environmental protection and labor rights have intersected before, especially in past battles to eliminate toxins and other pollutants from the workplace.
But the two sides have also found themselves at odds. Unions have often seen nature lovers as idealists willing to sacrifice jobs for the sake of endangered species. Some coal industry workers remain hostile to efforts that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by closing down coal-fired plants.
But both groups also have felt growing pressure over the past decade because of manufacturing job losses in the American heartland and what they see as an erosion of workers’ rights and weakening environmental protection.
Environmentalists want clean energy — such as wind and solar power — to reduce gases that degrade the environment. It is in their interests that new jobs in the sector offer good pay and benefits in order to win labor’s support for their agenda.
David Hawkins, director of climate programs with the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, attributes the deepening cooperation to the need to fight opponents who say you cannot protect the environment and preserve jobs at the same time.
“They keep on shouting that scare campaign at every opportunity they get,” Hawkins said. “An alliance is a powerful way of sending the message that you can have both.”
Margrete Strand Rangnes, a Sierra Club representative, says environmentalists are also fighting for workers to have stronger protections as a way of protecting whistleblowers who speak out against environmental and other violations.
Some unions see jobs in the renewable energy sector as a way to create a new wave of well-paid jobs that will replace the nearly 5 million manufacturing jobs that have disappeared over the past decade.
Robert Baugh, chairman of AFL-CIO’s energy task force, said his federation still has “some differences” with environmental groups, but that “we also have a lot of common interests.”
As environmentalists push for clean energy policies, he said it was vital that labor get involved to ensure that as those policies are put in place, workers’ interests are not ignored.