Green activists find new ally in US unions

POZNAN, Poland – Some U.S. labor groups that have long feared environmental campaigns as a threat to American jobs are starting to see advantages in going green.

By (AP)

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Published: Sun 14 Dec 2008, 10:21 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 12:09 PM

This evolution was clear at this week's U.N. climate talks in Poland, where several American 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 U.S. unions were in Poznan — about twice the number at last year's U.N. talks in Bali, Indonesia — 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 United States' largest and oldest grass-roots environmental group.

'There's a power in the joint vision that we just don't have functioning on our own,' added Foster, who was for 16 years a United Steelworkers regional director.

The Blue Green Alliance was founded in 2006 and expanded this autumn 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 American 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 interest that new jobs in the sector offer good pay and benefits, 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's vital that labor get involved to ensure that as those policies are put in place, workers' interests are not ignored.

'The climate crisis and a new energy policy is an opportunity for our country to actually have a strategy about the environment, about manufacturing,' Baugh said. 'We think that by addressing the environmental crisis, we actually can have the opportunity to create good, green jobs.'

Baugh noted, for instance, that there are about 8,000 parts in a windmill — and that his group wants to ensure that American workers will be making them.

The labor leaders who are going green like to cite examples of where green policies have led to job creation.

Pennsylvania, for example, passed renewable energy standards several years ago that persuaded the Spanish wind energy company Gamesa to open up four plants in Pennsylvania, creating 1,400 new jobs making wind turbines.

And last year, about 500 laid-off steel workers were called back to work in two steel plate mills Gary, Indiana, to produce steel for wind turbines.

Foster said unions and green groups have waged joint lobbying efforts nationwide for laws increasing energy efficiency and promoting renewable energies, and they have teamed up for numerous court battles against companies that violate workers' rights and environmental standards.

For example, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club have endorsed the Employee Free Choice Act, a union-backed bill that would protect workers' rights to join unions. The Sierra Club has mobilized members to write to their Congress members to support the bill.

Abraham Breehey, a senior union official, said workers are starting to shake off their belief that green energy spells doom rather than opportunity.

Breehey pointed to the case of a group of Indiana blacksmiths who recently struck a multimillion dollar deal to produce a new hammer for heavy-duty work in building wind turbines.

That "was a light bulb moment, and we realized that there must be more examples where job opportunities on their face might not seem like green jobs but end up being part of the green economy," said Breehey, of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers.

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