Who Hijacked Our Country

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Healing the Rift Between Labor Unions and Environmentalists

Over the last few decades, one of the Right’s favorite divide-and-conquer tactics has been to drive a wedge between labor groups and environmentalists.

This phony Either/Or dilemma — you can have a job OR you can protect the environment — is just that: phonier than a $3 bill. Rightwing think tankers and smoke-and-mirrors artists have been promoting this myth since the 1970s.

But labor unions and the Green movement were working together at the recent U.N. climate conference in Poznan, Poland. Both groups were pushing for renewable energy as the answer to global warming and the economic meltdown.

About 25 American union representatives were at the conference, representing workers from the steel, electrical, transit and service industries, among others.

David Foster is the executive director of the Blue Green Alliance, a coalition that includes the United Steelworkers Union and the Sierra Club. He said: “There is a very wide cross-section of American unions that reflects the growing engagement of American unions' support of climate change policies. There's a power in the joint vision that we just don't have functioning on our own.”

Workers’ rights and environmental protection have both taken some devastating hits over the past eight years (and the Hit Man hasn’t even left office yet).

David Hawkins, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, talked about the rightwing effort to maintain that fake “jobs OR the environment” dilemma: “They keep on shouting that scare campaign at every opportunity they get. An alliance is a powerful way of sending the message that you can have both.”

The Sierra Club is fighting for stronger whistleblower protections for workers who speak out against safety or environmental violations. And the Employee Free Choice Act is strongly endorsed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club.

(Don’t listen to the rightwing droolbags. Here are the facts about the Employee Free Choice Act.)

Robert Baugh, chairman of the AFL-CIO energy task force, said there are still “some differences” with environmental groups, but “we also have a lot of common interests.”

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

As just one example: a windmill has about 800 parts. Somebody has to manufacture, install and maintain them.

cross-posted at Bring It On!

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Blogger rockync said...

I have never understood what is so complicated about doing business or enjoying your life while still being aware of your impact on the environment and trying to reduce that carbon footprint.
You buy a car and you take care of it; change the oil, take it to the car wash, replace worn tires, etc. If you don't take care of it, it will be junk in no time.
So why not take care of the earth we live on? Don't throw trash out the car window, mulch your leaves, recycle... it should be second nature.

December 14, 2008 at 11:16 PM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

Rockync: I don't think there's anything complicated about it either. I think industry has tried to create this phony "contradiction" between creating jobs and protecting the environment. But I don't think the average person gives it much credence.

December 15, 2008 at 12:09 AM  
Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

First things first. As a general proposition, American business has been on a mission for the past 30 years not to create jobs, but rather to eliminate them. It's been a howling success, too. I'm sure you know who gets to do the howling.

Al Gore has pointed out brilliantly that environmentalism is sure to create all sorts of jobs, including new kinds of jobs. That makes sense.

BTW, for a terrific short example of how American business reacts to being told to improve its products for environmental and other reasons, check out this tale of refrigerators and the soon-to-be appointed Obama energy chief here. It's worth the minute or two it takes to read.

December 15, 2008 at 12:47 AM  
Anonymous JollyRoger said...

the 'tards are reflexively against any form of change, no matter what the costs are to us. Their philosophy is dead, much like their brains are.

I blame the pollution :)

December 15, 2008 at 10:39 AM  
Anonymous Thomas said...

As a manager who often has to deal with several different unions, often with conflicting interests and employment requirements, my experience teaches me that it is both big business and organized labor that have hampered green progress over the past two or three decades.

Unions, as a rule, are not interested in creating new jobs. More of the same jobs, perhaps, but not new ones. The idea that professionals need to continually update their skills and that the technology and methodology of a profession may need to change rarely figures into a union negotiation.

This probably sounds more critical that I intend. I was a union member, myself, for a number of years and, in virtually any squabble between a business and labor, I will side with the workers. This does not change the fact that unions, for the sake of their own membership, need to promote professional education and foster innovation within their own industries in order to insure that those industries remain viable and that those industries can expand, thus employing more people.

Unfortunately, most unions do very little of this. Business and labor take deliberately adversarial positions that don't benefit either.

December 15, 2008 at 12:26 PM  
Anonymous kate said...

Thomas, that is very interesting and you are most likely right.

December 15, 2008 at 3:36 PM  
Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

Thomas raises a good point. I'm quick to defend unions, all the more so because because for the past 30 years they've been deliberately badmouthed, undermined, beaten up and marginalized by the neoconservative right, in both the private and public sectors. Any more, unions are underdogs.

I want unions to catch some breaks, so they can grow, regain parity in power with huge corporate interests, and more effectively look out for working people's interests. Along with that, unions have a responsibility to step up and adapt to the demands of today's workplace.

December 15, 2008 at 3:45 PM  
Blogger Enemy of the Republic said...

I have to say that I am not very knowledgable on this topic, so I won't opine. But I like what S.W. said. I've always been in a union, for good and for bad. When I was in the Chicago Teachers Union, I saw a lot of corruption and it got me very cynical. But now I am part of a union who is really doing battle with the forces of evil, and it reminds me why we need our unions in the first place. Without the union, it's just us who work and the bosses who don't. (You saw Matewan, didn't you?) It's sad when unions have to give consessions or you find out that they are in cohoots with the bosses, but everyone I know who is in a union fares better than those who don't. Just my experience--not the gospel of course.

December 15, 2008 at 4:16 PM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

SW: Very true, that business has been trying to eliminate jobs. That's why it has such a hollow ring to it when business leaders try to pretend they're concerned about jobs. "This proposed regulation will cost American workers their jobs." Riiight.

JR: Maybe that's what happened; the pollution killed their brains.

Thomas: True, unions are corrupt and they're as guilty of self-interest as any other type of organization. They're just a necessary evil, if we want the playing field to be somewhat leveled (or at least not slanted too far to one side). (I've never been a union member myself.)

And it's true that blue collar workers will have to prepare to learn new skills in order to adapt to a changing labor market. Learning one particular job skill and keeping that same job for a lifetime is pretty much a thing of the past.

Enemy: I'm sure some unions are more corrupt and less effective than others, but we need them. The deck is stacked too heavily against working people. It sucks that workers keep accepting reduced wages and benefits while their bosses keep getting larger bonuses and salaries.

December 15, 2008 at 4:36 PM  
Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

enemy of the republic wrote: ". . . everyone I know who is in a union fares better than those who don't."

The impact of unions on their industries and on the overall workplace in America has been studied extensively. One key finding is that all workers in a given industry tend to have better pay, benefits and safer working conditions when even part of that industry is unionized.

That means even workers who don't want to join a union benefit from the fact the union exists, even if it's not in the company where they work.

The impact of unions on how working people fare generally, throughout the economy, is somewhat weaker, but it's still meaningful.

Tom Harper, I doubt there's ever been a time when some corruption wasn't going on in some unions somewhere. I don't believe all or even most of them are corrupt now.

What's needed in unions is the same thing that's needed in our democratic political system. Workers, members, must care, pay attention and, when necessary, fight to keep things clean and honest.

I sometimes think people expect our system should be highly automatic. You know, set it and forget it. Try that and you wind up with Jimmy Hoffa running your union or a Bush/Cheney/Rove/Rumsfeld/Gonzales cabal running your country.

December 15, 2008 at 8:36 PM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

SW: Good point. Put it on autopilot and you end up being led by Jimmy Hoffa or Bush-Cheney.

December 16, 2008 at 1:07 AM  
Blogger Snave said...

Great post, Tom.

S.W. rightly said "That means even workers who don't want to join a union benefit from the fact the union exists, even if it's not in the company where they work." Good point!

I also like what Thomas said about how unions can strenghten themselves through promoting professional education and fostering innovation within their industries. I am a member of the Oregon Education Association, and I believe the OEA devotes time to doing those things for its members when it isn't busy figthing off right-wing attacks from the likes of Oregon ballot-initiative-autobot Bill Sizemore and his sugar daddy Loren Parks... Sizemore is kind of Washington state's Tim Eyman. They are like the booger you just can't flick. It's on your finger, you repeatedly flick it, but it's still there!

I am constantly amazed by how many people who are union workers around the area where I live tend to vote Republican. They vote for right-wing loons who would substantially cut their standard of living, and who would drastically decrease their benefits and workers' protections if they possibly could. They vote for people who politicians who do the bidding of people who don't have workers in mind at all, but who instead think mainly of ways to fatten their own wallets and stay in power.

The Republicans have successfully played industries based on natural resources (such as timber, agriculture and mining) against the "enviros" who would "take their jobs away". Many union workers where I live, whether they are in a teachers' union or are millworkers or whatever, would never consider voting for a Democrat simply because they have been brainwashed into thinking the Democrats "will take away jobs".

If some of the extraction industries for which these people work were regulated a bit more, could things become more viable for the future? Would well-cared-for workers help insure the future of an industry? The workers I know around here all tend to work hard and hold up their end of the deal...

Re. jobs in NE Oregon, sure, there have been some problems in the timber industry with environmental groups asking for more regulation of the industry. I see firsthand how it has put a crimp on the timber industry in NE Oregon... it is tougher to get timber sales approved around here than it used to be. But now that the demand for lumber has gone way down due to the poor economy, it isn't just the environmentalists who are to blame anymore... maybe it's also... gasp... the Republican party???

Without harping on it too much (because "now is a time when we should all be working together"), I would like for those of us on the left to find ways to illustrate to people working in timber, agriculture and mining that the Democrats are not necessarily their enemy. Some leftist policies have probably been unhelpful to the livelihoods of some of these hard-working people, but on the other hand I am sure there have been plenty of instances where right-wing policies have caused problems that are just as bad. Let's find out which policies those are, and do some education!

Unions in the upper Midwest may tend to largely vote Democrat, but not necessarily out here in Red State land. I think the left also needs to do some campaigning for unions and for what makes them good, but also in a way in which they can connect with disaffected rightwing workers. We might never be able to get around the "family values" hokum with some who tend to vote GOP, but over time, ground could be gained.

December 16, 2008 at 3:36 PM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

Snave: Thanks. Good description of Tim Eyman and Bill Sizemore.

It's just stupefying how many working people have been brainwashed into voting against their self-interest, because the people who are on their side are "commies," "treehuggers", "less patriotic," "don't have values." This rightwing propaganda has been oozing into schools, workplaces and the media for decades. It'll probably take decades to un-brainwash the public.

It's true that jobs get lost because of timber and mining being regulated. But the only alternative is to let these resources be completely used up, and then we have a wrecked environment AND no jobs. But for every job lost, there should be a replacement job rebuilding the infrastructure, working in renewable energy, etc. I think the days of having the same job for 30 years and then retiring are going to be over, for blue- and white-collar workers alike.

December 16, 2008 at 9:40 PM  
Anonymous kate said...

Tom, I agree, the days of being in the same job for 30 years is over. Being able to relearn and being flexable are becoming more and more vital. I've been a Teamster member for 23 years and, at least in my small part of the world, they are realizing unions have to change and be flexable as well. It cannot be us against them. If we are to survive AND flourish we have to work together.

December 17, 2008 at 10:33 AM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

Kate: Very true; we have to stop the "us against them" and start working toward common goals. And yes, the days of working the same job for 30 years and then retiring are over. Like it or not, everybody needs to keep updating their job skills, and they have to be in tune with which job fields are growing and which ones are fading away.

December 17, 2008 at 12:52 PM  
Anonymous Bee said...

Know why the republicans in the Senate didn't want to give the Big3 a bailout? They wanted smack the UAW again, make it even weaker, and hopefully destroy it completely. Republican ideology abhors unionism, as it is against their grain for workers to have any benefits, any decent pay, and any say at all in how they live their working lives.
I'm all for the Free Choice act. I would LOVE to see Walmart unionized. SW Anderson makes some excellent points about workers industry-wide benefiting from unionization of any other portion of that industry.
And no, I don't think it's so difficult either to see that alternative energies can create an entire new, dynamic industry - and we could have it centered here. America could once again be the center of ingenuity and technology, instead of the sorry example of a service economy we have become.

December 17, 2008 at 4:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Harper said...

Bee: Yup, that's the reason. Aside from smashing those commie labor unions, some of those redneck senators are snubbing Detroit so they can help the foreign/non-union automakers that are located in their own states (Tennessee among others).

How convenient.

From what I've read and heard about renewable energy, it's going to be developed, and soon. If our country keeps dithering, other countries will do it first and we'll be left biting the dust (again).

December 17, 2008 at 5:31 PM  

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