When Blue Meets Green How the Labor and Environmental Movements are Making Peace

Perhaps it began in Seattle in 1999, with the epic “Teamsters and Turtles’ alliance to protest a meeting of the World Trade Organization. Unions and environmentalists, at the time seen as an unlikely pairing, united against a version of globalization that, they argued, spurs a “race to the bottom,” encouraging corporations to undercut both worker rights and environmental standards. The Seattle protest itself came out of earlier opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement and to illegal logging in Indonesia. “All were clearly understood as global, both bad for the environment and bad for workers,” says Leo Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers. The Steelworkers and the nonprofit conservation group the Sierra Club are the founding partners of the national Blue Green Alliance. Gerard points to fair trade, healthy workplaces and global warming as key shared issues.

Well before globalization, labor and environmentalists had reasons to work together. Concerns about environmental toxins harming workers and communities have been around for centuries, from miners suffering coal dust exposure, to communities and workers breathing lead- and arsenic-laced air from metal smelters, to children developing leukemia after drinking water that was contaminated by toxic tanneries.

Now the alliance between labor and environmentalists is at the political forefront. This past February, the Blue Green Alliance held the Good Jobs, Green Jobs Conference that announced its power and scope on a national basis. Some 2,600 participants converged on Washington, D.C., to hear speeches by Senators Amy Klobuchar, Sherrod Brown and other members of Congress, as well as Teamsters President James P. Hoffa, plus an array of governors and national union and environmental leaders. Speakers called for a global green New Deal that would rebuild the middle class based on wind, solar, a smart new electrical grid, environmental retrofitting and other innovations. But forging a coalition for real and lasting change remains a challenge.

Eco-model and author Summer Rayne Oakes at a windmill construction site in Abilene, Texas. © Summer Rayne Oakes

Mistrust is part of the labor-environmental relationship, too, in part because of modern environmentalism’s roots in the 1960s and “70s. Teamsters and other union members often clashed with Vietnam protesters and, at that time, saw members of the budding environmental movement as radical and upper class, out of touch with working Americans. More practical concerns increased the tension, notably the belief that environmentalism would lead to job loss. Unions worried, for instance, that clean-air standards would cost companies too much and spur layoffs.

Today’s Blue Green Alliance discounts this argument. Hoffa says, “We have been forced to make a false choice in the past—good jobs or a clean environment. The pundits said that if we wanted clean air, the economy would suffer and jobs would be sent overseas. Well, look what happened—we let the big corporations pollute and the jobs went overseas anyway. But today is a new day.”

Advocates argue that renewable energy jobs will create a substantial new workforce because they are local and cannot be outsourced and because they require a large amount of labor on a sustained basis. This is “potentially exciting for unions, with a lot of jobs in skilled trades like construction or manufacturing,” says Kate Gordon, codirector of the Apollo Alliance, a national green jobs advocacy group. She adds that unions “provide the best training, and are most ready to retool their training, to take changing technologies into account.”

Green job creation is being driven by new federal programs to rebuild U.S. infrastructure while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Notable among these is retrofitting buildings, which account for almost half of global warming emissions according to the U.S. Green Building Council. This will be a huge task that “will do more to create jobs and take carbon out of the atmosphere” than any other initiative, says Gerard. Creating renewable energy is also labor intensive, from production to installation. According to Gerard, a single wind turbine requires 200 tons of steel; building them will keep his steelworkers busy for a long time to come.

The Fight for Cleaner Ports

Attendees at the Blue Green Alliance’s Made In America Jobs Tour. © BlueGreen Alliance

Sustainable jobs won major support from the Obama administration with the economic stimulus bill, signed in February 2009, directing $30 billion toward new energy projects that promise between 3-4 million green jobs. But it began at the local level—at the Port of Los Angeles and the adjacent Port of Long Beach in California. In L.A., port workers and nearby residents have long suffered from high asthma rates and other respiratory diseases as a result of polluted air. “The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the dirtiest in the country,” says David Pettit, director of the Southern California Air Program. “And the highest cancer rates in the L.A. area are at the ports.”

Max Palma, a truck driver for the ports of L.A. and Long Beach for over 15 years, deals with dirty air every day, both on his job and as a Long Beach resident. He has friends whose children suffer from asthma, including one whose child has repeatedly been rushed to the emergency room in the middle of the night.

Conditions were ripe for a labor-environmental alliance. “After talking and meeting, we realized that issues affecting workers and communities are inextricably linked,” says Patricia Castellanos, chair of the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports. Her organization formed in 2006 and encompasses some 40 groups including the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Sierra Club and the Teamsters. The result is the Clean Trucks Program, passed in 2008 and phased to require improved truck fleets by 2012. It requires all pre-1994 trucks to be gone by the end of this year. Paid for largely by container fees, the plan has already led to 4,500 new trucks serving the ports, well ahead of the projected number.

Yet the coalition believes that clean-air standards are not enough. They argue that the assortment of independent contractors serving the ports is not equipped to pay for and maintain clean trucks while bringing decent livelihoods to their families. The current system allows the ports to “rely on underpaid workers,” says Castellanos. Palma believes keeping the truck drivers independent exploits them. That way they have “lower costs; they don’t have to have employees, pay for gas, pay benefits,” he says. Independent contractors are also exempt from government safety regulations. And very few have health insurance. Thus the Port of L.A. agreed to require that independent contractors join larger businesses by 2012. The Port of Long Beach, however, has not adopted this provision.

Installers from Mercury Solar Systems. © Mercury Solar Systems

The Port of L.A. plan has run into legal resistance—including a lawsuit from the American Trucking Association (ATA). Clayton Boyce, the association’s vice president of public affairs, compares the Port of L.A. plan to requiring “bodegas across the City of Los Angeles to all be operated by Safeway.” On March 20, the ATA won a temporary victory when a judge required cessation, followed by a ruling on April 27 against banning independent contractors. Still the ATA was not satisfied; they appealed those parts of the ruling that would allow the ports to require permits, maintenance reports and other standards for trucks, which Boyce considers “bureaucratic red tape.”

Boyce maintains that the ATA supports clean-air standards, and points out that independent contractors still receive subsidies from container fees, allowing them to meet those standards. “Companies and individuals who can’t or won’t maintain their trucks will not stay in business long,” he says. He further argues that unions “have environmental groups in campaigns that don’t involve the environment.” He adds that the primary reason for requiring truck drivers to join larger businesses is because “unions want to get more union-represented jobs. They’re a business, they’re not altruistic, they want dues.”

It is, of course, part of the alliance’s plan to make it easier to unionize truckers, which they see as helping to advance environmental goals. Currently, unionization is virtually impossible, with “16,000 little independent businesses’ according to Pettit. And Castellanos states that many drivers “have received subsidies and still must make choices between paying rent and paying for their truck.” Relying on individuals with financial difficulties will not foster sustainability, says Castellanos; rather, “you need a company making a commitment to port trucking to clean up the community.”

All parties await resolution of the final appeal in the ATA case, which is to be heard this December. With port traffic expected to triple by 2020, the outcome is critical to the economy and the environment.

When Green Jobs Aren’t Good Jobs

Construction workers at the Banner Wind Project in Nome, Alaska. © Western Community Energy

For the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports to serve as a role model, its message about good jobs must be taken seriously. If, at one time, unions saw environmental standards as threatening, good wages are their bottom line. Yet the majority of environmental businesses do not currently pay such wages. As a report by Good Jobs First called “High Road or Low Road?” explains, most wind and solar companies in the U.S. are nonunion and many do not pay a living wage, directly contradicting the Blue Green Alliance’s call for good green jobs. Given that a third of nonunion building jobs pay less than the federal poverty wage, unionization is crucial for green jobs to revitalize the middle class. Instead, explains the report, some wind and solar employers are running “aggressive anti-union campaigns,” and are even offshoring production to China and Mexico.

Gordon calls it a mistake to think that paying low wages for renewable energy production or manufacturing will even the playing field with established fossil fuel energy companies. In fact, most coal-fired power plants and utilities are unionized, as are many other facets of traditional energy production. A more effective way to make renewable energy cost-competitive, says Gordon, is to “put a price on carbon, and invest the proceeds into renewable energy and efficiency projects.”

One of the very few unionized U.S. alternative energy companies is Sharp Solar Energy Solutions Group. A division of Sharp Electronics founded in 2003, Sharp Solar began with worker representation from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). However, says Ron Kenedi, the company’s vice president, they have been extremely competitive with nonunionized solar plants. One reason is that the workers stand behind the products. “IBEW has been an evangelist for solar power,” says Kenedi. “We actually sell products to a group of IBEW contractors to put in union halls and homes. It’s a statement of quality.” Indeed, the IBEW headquarters proudly displays solar panels made in its Memphis, Tennessee, factory.

“A unionized workforce tends to have higher skills and more longevity,” says Lee Smith, managing director of the National Photovoltaic Construction Project (NPCP), which uses Sharp Solar products exclusively. “An experienced crew of unionized workers will outperform nonunion day laborers any day of the week.” Smith adds that an order from Sharp Solar can be filled in a few weeks, while one from China “comes months later.” He also believes that people producing solar panels should be able to “afford to put them on their house.” He mentions Korean autoworkers who ride bikes to their factory. By contrast, at the start of the automobile age, Henry Ford paid his workers decent wages knowing they’d be able to afford cars. “Pay people a decent wage,” says Smith, “and they’ll be able to buy your product.”

“We let the big corporations pollute and the jobs went overseas anyway. But today is a new day.” — James P. Hoffa © BlueGreen Alliance

What’s more, Smith says, if environmentalists “don’t support domestic production and fair wages, labor will turn elsewhere.” To nuclear and coal, specifically, where the workforces are unionized.

One State’s Climate Change Challenge

It’s not just low wages that need to be resolved to maintain a healthy alliance. Old feuds between labor and environmentalists erupted anew in Maryland’s bill limiting climate emissions. The debate was prompted by the threat of outsourcing jobs. The Global Warming Solutions Act set a target of reducing greenhouse emissions 25% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. Local unions worried this would spur a job exodus.

There was “a lot of poor communication last year [when the bill was introduced],” says Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, an organization instrumental in fighting for the bill. “We were talking at cross-purposes.”

The bill was aimed at such areas as “land use, electricity use, recycling and green buildings,” explains Tidwell. Yet, because the 2008 bill did not specify where emissions would be cut, the manufacturing community, including labor, worried about harsh mandates and fought against it. If environmentalists had closely consulted with unions, Brad Heavner, state director of Environment Maryland, believes, “we could have avoided the fight we had.”

Already feeling beleaguered by the decline of manufacturing in Maryland, several unions opposed the bill. Jim Strong of Maryland’s United Steelworkers points to a Baltimore steel mill that has had three owners in the past few years. Strong cites “a perception in our membership that Maryland government wants to eliminate manufacturing and go to a different type of economy.” The state has aggressively supported the biotech industry. The move to high-tech, high-education jobs to the neglect (perceived or otherwise) of manufacturing revived the old mistrust of environmentalism.

In retrospect, Tidwell gives credence to some of these fears. “If it were held to a Maryland-only carbon-reduction mandate,” he says, “a lot of manufacturing would just go to Pennsylvania.”

Despite last-minute negotiations, the unions worried that an important bill needed further consideration and in 2008, the bill went down in defeat. Yet plans were already underway for its resurrection in a form likely to pass. “Basically, we did build relations, understanding each others’ concerns,” says Strong, and negotiations “started the very next day.” Active support from Maryland’s governor, Martin O”Malley, and the Maryland Department of the Environment was crucial. They sponsored a summit that brought business, labor and environmentalists together. Basically, “O”Malley’s people locked everyone in a room and said, “reach a settlement,”” Tidwell explains.

The compromise bill exempts manufacturing from carbon restrictions until 2016. And in April of 2009, the revamped bill, now known as the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act, passed and was signed by O”Malley. It calls for one of the most ambitious state greenhouse gas reductions in the country—requiring the state to cut 25% of GHG emissions from 2006 levels by 2020.

The negotiations changed the atmosphere between the labor and environmental movements in Maryland. “We agree on a lot of issues,” Strong says. “We support clean technology and environmental growth.” Strong also points to wind turbine projects off Maryland’s shore that will use steel manufactured locally. “At the end of the day we need to make steel, cement, bricks. We need to find technology to make these things and reduce greenhouse gases,” he says.

Scaling Up: The Blue Green Alliance and Climate Change

July of 2008 marked one sign of improved labor-environmental relations, when the Teamsters withdrew from the coalition to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). This was a dramatic switch on a key issue. “The solution to our nation’s energy problems is not ANWR,” explains Hoffa. “We cannot drill our way out. We must find a long-term approach by investing in alternative energy sources, which will create good union jobs.”

But the national scheme to cut GHG emissions, now being intensely debated within the Obama administration and among its supporters, has caused some worries in the labor movement. Gordon says he sees “a lot of union support for pricing carbon,” if it’s handled in a way that protects worker interests. In March, four unions and two environmental organizations, the United Steelworkers and Sierra Club among them, endorsed climate-change legislation, an outward sign that the alliance is working. Yet, with the exact scheme undetermined, much of the debate is not taking place in public. The dilemmas of globalization and outsourcing must be dealt with in any agreement endorsed by labor. Gerard, while supporting the idea of a cost on carbon, cautions that it must be structured so that it “doesn’t put North America at a disadvantage.” He points to China’s weak environmental standards.

Gerard argues that the best way to reduce GHG emissions “is global, with all countries working together.” Yet setting national standards holds more immediate promise. Gordon suggests one way this might be done is by charging a price at the border for the carbon cost of a product, effectively an environmental tariff. Countries such as China, India and Germany all have “significant policy behind their own markets,” she says, “so we can’t compete now.” Unless the U.S. is willing to “invest in workforce development and in our manufacturing sector,” she sees the country falling further behind.

Meanwhile, the alliance continues to work on a tough climate change bill. In April, the United Steelworkers and the Environmental Defense Fund launched a series of environmental ads supporting cap and trade, a method of controlling emissions through a market system, where a federal cap on emissions is set and businesses that pollute less can trade credits to heavier polluters, who must buy the credits to meet the emissions cap. The Steelworkers also played a part in negotiations forging the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, new climate legislation that passed the House of Representatives in June 2009 that includes cap-and-trade provisions, renewable requirements for utilities, and incentives for energy-efficient upgrades. By September 2009, Senate Democrats had submitted an even tougher draft version of the bill sponsored by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.). This bill calls for cutting emissions 20% by 2020 and 83% by 2050, includes investments in clean energy and energy-efficient transportation and renames cap-and-trade requirements “pollution reduction and investment incentives.” But with Congress focused on health care reform, quick passage of the bill is not likely.

The worry with such legislation, say labor leaders, is what the steelworkers refer to as “leakage,” the loss of jobs to countries that don’t require carbon reduction and the costs—even short-term costs—that entails. Simultaneously, “leakage” refers to the degradation of carbon caps when production moves to these countries, allowing emissions to continue. In other words: exporting pollution abroad.

Roxanne Brown, assistant legislative director for the United Steelworkers, explains two provisions critical to preventing leakage. Transition assistance to energy-intensive industries, a provision included in the American Clean Energy and Security Act, would “come in the form of rebates for indirect and direct compliance costs and would be pegged to efficiency.” Border measures, the second, and more long-term, provision, would charge for the embedded carbon in products coming into the U.S. from nations without similar policies. It would, for instance, “account for carbon in a ton of steel from China,” says Brown. Opponents of the border provision question whether such charges are allowable under international trade agreements, but Brown believes that if structured correctly, a border measure could “withstand a challenge at the World Trade Organization.”

On June 25, after intense negotiation, the United Steel Workers, convinced that safeguards on jobs were in place, endorsed the bill, which passed in the U.S. House of Representatives the very next day. While the bill undergoes scrutiny in the Senate, the Blue Green Alliance still has reason to celebrate. They held fast, worked to strengthen each others’ positions and won an unprecedented victory. The coalition of labor and environmental leaders has united behind the promise of green jobs. However, the question of scale, of whether and how much these problems should be handled locally, nationally or internationally, remains. The conundrum of globalization that helped spark the current alliance has yet to be resolved.

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