It may be difficult to imagine unions and environmentalists burying the hatchet. The high-profile divide over the Keystone XL pipeline is only the latest example of bruising blue and green conflict, fueled by a jobs-vs.-environment push-and-pull. But last week’s AFL-CIO convention, where labor formally embraced new partnerships with the Sierra Club, as well as worker centers and other progressive groups, could herald an opening for stronger labor-environmental alliances.
Earlier this summer, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka announced that the federation would seek to deepen ties with organizations including the Sierra Club, the NAACP and the National Council de la Raza as part of what Trumka has dubbed the start of a new process to “open up” the labor movement in order to regain political clout. Mainstream and conservative media outlets focused their coverage of the news on the backlash from a handful of unions hostile to the idea of giving greens a say in the house of labor. The Wall Street Journal reported that resistance from affiliates had forced the AFL-CIO to “scale back” its plans to formally admit the Sierra Club and other non-union groups.
“Giving people a seat where they have governance, and they don't represent workers—that was a bridge too far for lots of folks," Building Construction Trades Department (BCTD) union President Sean McGarvey told the Journal. McGarvey, whose union has been a strong backer of the Keystone XL Pipeline because of the jobs it will create, also said that the Sierra Club’s attempts to dissuade the AFL-CIO from issuing a resolution supporting the pipeline last year “just highlighted the audacity of people in the radical environmental movement trying to influence the policy of the labor movement.”
Ultimately, a resolution that calls for exploring “new forms of membership and representation” in the AFL-CIO passed with little fanfare at the convention. What’s still unclear is what form new partnerships will take, and whether they’ll do more than pay lip service to the sometimes muddled concept of “green jobs.”
A key aspect of labor’s apparent makeover is a reconsideration of “what counts as a workers' issue,” as Josh Eidelson reported at The Nation. Last week’s convention also saw the AFL-CIO condemn mass incarceration and pledge to fight for workplace protections for transgendered people.
Environmental justice campaigners have long argued that climate change is a class issue. Poor and working-class communities, already on the frontlines of environmental racism, are hit doubly hard by disasters like Hurricane Sandy, which crippled public infrastructure and left tens of thousands unemployed in its wake. But the history of the AFL-CIO as a federation is marked by “a tendency to develop ‘least common denominator’ positions on important issues”—and so far climate change has been no exception, notes a position paper by the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS), a non-profit that seeks to engage rank-and-file union members on environmental issues. While unions that have vocally backed projects like the Keystone XL pipeline and fracking in the Marcellus Shale are in the minority, they’re often able to wield outsized influence within the federation in the absence of a broader commitment to carbon reduction.
If labor is to develop a more robust position on climate issues, LNS’ analysis concludes, change must start at the base of unions, where rank-and-file workers have previously forced shifts on issues like civil rights, immigration and the Iraq War.
But some observers of this week’s AFL-CIO convention worry that the new “community-based strategy” of welcoming in outside advocacy groups is an attempt to substitute top-down alliances for an energized base. John Borsos, the secretary-treasurer National Union of Healthcare Workers, told Eidelson that some of the conversation about new coalitions seemed to be “not talking about a trade union movement or a labor movement, as much as it’s talking about a political lobbying operation.”
Journalist and former Communication Workers of America organizer Steve Early also sees a problem with top-down partnerships. He writes that while community-labor partnerships like Jobs with Justice have forged connections between workers and non-union allies at the local level in order to successfully build broader support for strikes and tough contract fights, “roping together the walking wounded of institutional liberalism inside the Beltway is an entirely different project. It’s also far less likely to produce any discernible results, nationally or locally, other than a few convention-related headlines.”
Grassroots environmental groups see an opening following the AFL-CIO convention, but believe that more voices must be involved in new partnerships. In an open letter to the AFL-CIO released last week, more than 60 climate justice organizations requested a meeting with the federation’s leadership to discuss ways to deepen collaboration, noting that “labor must play a key role in [the climate justice] movement if it is to continue to represent the aspirations of working people, both on the job and beyond.”
The AFL-CIO’s endorsement of collaboration with outside groups is “an important signal that organized labor may be ready to use its muscle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” says Bill Gallegos, executive director of Communities for a Better Environment and a steering committee member of the Climate Justice Alliance, which put together the letter. But political affiliations between big institutional players are “not where the emphasis needs to go,” he notes.
Instead, Gallegos believes that local labor-environmental initiatives that are as deeply blue as they are green can create the momentum necessary for workers to “push their leadership to come correct on certain issues.” One example is the Richmond, Calif. “Refinery Action Collaborative” between the United Steelworkers and local and national environmental groups, which formed in the wake of last year’s devastating Chevron refinery fire (and which I profile in the current issue of In These Times).
Dean Hubbard, director of the Sierra Club’s labor program, says that up to this point, conversations about the form new partnerships will take have remained internal to the AFL-CIO. But he stresses that there are many overlooked examples of successful local collaborations between environmentalists and labor. In Pennsylvania, for example, the Sierra Club has joined with the Utility Workers Union of America to oppose the sudden closure of two coal-fired energy plants announced this summer. While fighting to keep a coal plant open may sound like an odd move for a leading environmental group, Hubbard says that the callous treatment of employees at the plant, who had been working for several months without a contract and were not notified in advance of the closing, discounts the closure as a victory for environmentalists. “One of the things that we’ve learned through our work with the labor movement is that that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do a transition to a clean energy economy,” says Hubbard. “The right way is one where workers and their unions are partners, not pawns in a corporate profit-making scheme.”
There’s a major obstacle to this kind of transformation, however: Environmental groups aren’t the only ones courting labor with the warm-and-fuzzy language of “partnerships.” The energy industry has come calling, too. As AFL-CIO delegates met in Los Angeles this week, American Petroleum Institute (API) CEO Jack Gerard made a nationwide tour of union apprenticeship programs, citing a need for construction and energy unions and the industry to “explore new ways to work together” to fill 500,000 new jobs the industry hopes to create along the Gulf Coast, according to a Telegram.com report. (Among those new ways, according to the report, are new contracts like those adopted by Pipefitters Local 211, which has instituted a no-strike clause and jettisoned seniority traditions). In 2009, the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Department and 14 other unions signed onto the Oil and Natural Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee, billed as “the first time that the oil and natural gas industry and its labor unions have agreed to work together formally.” As I’ve reported previously, these types of partnerships represent a major setback in attempts to build a more durable blue-green alliance. Labor’s ties to the oil industry have in some cases exacerbated conflict with environmental groups over national issues like the Keystone XL pipeline.
This tension is another reason that labor-environmental partnerships may work better from the bottom-up rather than the top-down, The signature example of a successful blue-green alliance (verging, even, on red-green) is the 1973 Shell Oil strike, during which 4,000 members of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) walked off the job to demand safer working conditions. Strikers forged connections with environmental groups, who launched a nationwide boycott of Shell products. Eventually, the four-month-long strike drew active support from other AFL-CIO unions. Since then, labor-environmental alliances have gone through several false starts, but “labor is still the best-organized, best-financed force we have,” says Gallegos. “And social justice unionism is the way to revive it.”