Collaboration in the Future

A look at labor-environmental collaboration in the future

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Climate Change and Environmental Threat

No doubt both cooperation and conflict will continue, but the reasons for collaboration grow ever stronger:

Climate and other threats to the environment grow ever greater, and there is no way to protect jobs without protecting the environment. The impact of global warming on American workers and workplaces is laid out in a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Climate Change in the United States: The Prohibitive Costs of Inaction.” After reviewing effects on flooding, hurricane intensity, tourism, public health, water scarcity, shipping, agriculture, energy and infrastructure stress, and wildfires, the study concludes, “If global warming emissions continue unabated, every region in the country will confront large costs from climate change in the form of damages to infrastructure, diminished public health, and threats to vital industries employing millions of Americans.” To see what this means in one state see “The Impact of Climate Change on Work and Working People in Maryland” by the Labor Network for Sustainability.

To win political support, environmental protection measures will have to address the concerns of working people by promoting full employment and incorporating protection for workers who will otherwise be hurt.

The rise of the “Tea Party Right” with its ideology of dismantling both labor rights and environmental protection, threatens both movements and therefore requires close cooperation.

Corporate domination of politics is turning into corporate demolition of democracy; all who depend on democratic government must hang together or they will surely hang separately.

More broadly, both movements have a deep common interest in restoring the public good as a basis for policy, rather than crude individual and corporate pursuit of greed.

There are many areas in which unions and environmentalists are cooperating right now and where cooperation can be expanded at the local, regional and national level. They have often collaborated, for example, to support Renewable Energy Standards that require power companies to use an increasing proportion of renewable energy, thus reducing pollution while creating new jobs in an expanding renewable energy industry. In a number of states environmental organizations have recently given important support to unions in their fight to keep collective bargaining rights. The Blue-Green Alliance and the Labor Network for Sustainability have come out in support of the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gasses. LNS has also supported the new Mercury rule and many other EPA initiatives. Unions and environmentalists are working with a wide range of other organizations in the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards to raise awareness of the threats to our system of safeguards and serve as advocates to ensure that lawmakers do not engage in rolling back standards that protect the environment, workplace safety, financial security and other regulatory protections.

Then there are issues that are potentially divisive, but for which mutually acceptable solutions can be worked out. An example is the compromise over acid rain protection described above.

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Keystone XL demonstration, White House,8-23-2011

The fight over the Keystone XL pipeline designed to carry Canadian Tar Sands (Bitumen – the dirtiest fossil fuel) from Alberta Canada to ports in Texas resulted in one of the highest-profile labor-environmental conflicts in history. In summer 2011, more than 1,200 people were arrested at the White House in protests asking President Barack Obama to deny a permit for the pipeline. The building trades unions supported the pipeline while two transportation unions,  two domestic worker organizations, and a nurses union opposed it. The AFL-CIO eventually endorsed the pipeline as well. The struggle over the pipeline has become the most visible environmental issue in the country.

Finally, there are issues where creative approaches can open whole new areas for cooperation. For example, the West Coast ports campaign brought together unions, environmentalists, and local residents in a winning coalition around forcing port managers to de-casualize the trucking workforce, simultaneously making it possible to impose environmental regulations and to turn horrendous contractor jobs into good union jobs.

Trade unionists and environmentalists who meet together can ask: What are the areas where we can engage in cooperation right here over the next two years? What is our common agenda? What are our areas of cooperation and conflict here in this state? How can we move forward together?