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Blue-Green Alliances


Last week, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka addressed the United Nations Investor Summit on Climate Risk. He made a couple of important points.


And to those who say climate risk is a far off problem, I can tell you that I have hunted the same woods in Western Pennsylvania my entire life and climate change is happening now—I see it in the summer droughts that kill the trees, the warm winter nights when flowers bloom in January, the snows that fall less frequently and melt more quickly.

Even so, some will ask, why should investors or working people focus on climate risk when we have so many economic problems across the world? The labor movement has a clear answer: Addressing climate risk is not a distraction from solving our economic problems. My friends, addressing climate risk means retooling our world—it means that every factory and power plant, every home and office, every rail line and highway, every vehicle, locomotive and plane, every school and hospital, must be modernized, upgraded, renovated or replaced with something cleaner, more efficient, less wasteful.

Taking on the threat of climate change means putting investment capital to work creating jobs. It means building a road to a healthier world and a healthier world economy–one less dependent on volatile energy prices, one where many more of us have the things that modern energy makes possible.

But of course, as Trumka notes, fighting climate change on the ground is deeply complex:

Now, some people’s response is to demand that we end all coal production now—they say “End Coal.” Never mind that such a thing is simply not going to happen—there is no substitute now for metallurgical coal and if we stopped burning coal this afternoon and cut the power in the U.S. grid by 50 percent, as Mayor Bloomberg advocates, he’d be reading handwritten memos by candlelight this evening. Given that reality, it’s important to think about how that slogan is heard in places like my hometown of Nemacolin, Pennsylvania.

Nemacolin lives on coal—the coal mine my grandfather and my father went down to every day of their working lives, the power plant the mine feeds, the rail lines that carry coal to other plants. When these folks hear “End Coal,” it sounds like a threat to destroy the value of our homes, to shut our schools and churches, to drive us away from the place our parents and grandparents are buried, to take away the work that for more than a hundred years has made us who we are.

So why, in an economy without an effective safety net, would the good men and women of my hometown and a thousand places like it surrender their whole lives and sit by while others try to force them to bear the cost of change.

Trumka goes on to state that in the transition to a green economy, working-class people need to be the first consideration, not the last. That can be easier said than done. As Ken Ward notes, the United Mine Workers, Trumka’s home union, has not exactly articulated a very clear environmental critique of the coal industry. The coal is running out in many Appalachian mining communities and the UMWA sees itself attacked from all angles, even if evils of mountaintop removal are obvious. It hasn’t even expressed strong stances against companies on worker health, by which it could define an environmental program even if it can’t fight to end mountaintop removal.

This gets to the complexities of the blue-green alliance, or the coalition between labor and environmental groups to craft policies that builds a unionized and sustainable future. There are clear areas where labor and environmentalists should have a common agenda–green technology, worker health, pollution. But there are equally clear lines that demarcate where the two groups can and can’t work together, particularly in extractive industry unions. My book-in-progress explores how logging unions in the Pacific Northwest organized around environmental issues, broadly defined. In the 1970s, a strong blue-green coalition (though I don’t believe the term had been invented yet) existed in the Northwest, with logging unions allying with environmentalists to keep workers safe and force timber companies to comply with the era’s new environmental regulations. But this was fraying at the same time it was peaking. The International Woodworkers of America had long criticized the timber industry’s unsustainable cutting, but when the rubber met the road and environmentalists in the 1970s and 80s were demanding increased wilderness areas and the protection of the last remaining old-growth stands, how could they vote their own members out of work? Especially when their union was coming under attack from so many other sides, with mills shutting down left and right?

The lesson from both the Northwest forest and Trumka’s coal miners is cultural. In the end, cultural divides shouldn’t stop anyone from promoting environmental positions with as much vigor as possible. But there is something very real about the resentment engendered when so-called outsiders (a term that can mean so many things) demand the end of an extractive industry without much thought into where workers are going to go. Even though those jobs are probably going away anyhow, it gives business a convenient target to direct workers’ ire. Of course, I don’t have any great answers about how to avoid this problem except to build understanding between the two constituencies, hoping that alliances over keeping workers’ bodies safe and air and water clean lead to stronger connections that allow environmentalists and labor to build toward understanding on the more intractable issues.

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