At its just-completed Executive Council meeting, the AFL-CIO issued a new “Statement on Energy and Jobs.” While the statement is broadly in line with past AFL-CIO policy, it is worth close examination by those concerned about our twin crises of climate and economy.

To evaluate the significance of this statement, it is important to understand the current context. Superstorm Sandy and other extreme weather events, rising sea levels, pervasive devastating drought, and other effects of climate change are hitting America here and now. But attempts to establish climate protection policies continue to be stymied by rightwing ideologues who deny that global warming even exists.

At the start of his second term, President Obama has begun talking about the necessity to address climate change. With legislation blocked by Republicans in the House of Representatives, the Obama administration is turning toward regulation of power plants by the EPA as its most effective means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile, groups concerned with climate protection have turned to direct action to oppose new pipelines, shut coal-fired power plants, and encourage divestment from fossil fuel companies. At the same time unions are under devastating attack by the right wing, which is eliminating labor rights that have been established for half a century or more. And workers continue to face devastating unemployment rates – rates that remain at depression levels for construction workers, African-Americans, and other important groups.

The new AFL-CIO statement begins by calling for a “comprehensive energy policy” with the objectives of “creating jobs” and “addressing the threat of climate change.” Linking these objectives can potentially provide a frame for constructively addressing the climate and jobs crises.

The statement mentions global warming and climate change four times. It clearly accepts their reality and the need to reduce the greenhouse gases that are causing them. However, like past AFL-CIO statements it does not endorse the targets for ghg reduction that climate scientists have said are necessary to prevent still more devastating climate change.

The statement strongly endorses at the outset the importance of energy efficiency in climate protection. “Any serious effort to tackle climate change must begin with ensuring we use a range of tools, including policy incentives and technology, to make our economy more energy efficient and by doing so to minimize greenhouse gas emissions from all of these sources.”

However, the statement continues the AFL-CIO’s acceptance of an “all of the above” energy system: “It is clear that for the foreseeable future our nation will continue to use a wide range of energy sources-including both traditional sources like coal, oil and natural gas, and newer sources like wind, solar and nuclear.” Without rapid reductions in the use of some of these energy sources, however, the necessary cuts in climate-destroying ghgs will be impossible and, indeed, their continued growth will be inevitable.

Five of the nine paragraphs in the statement address energy transportation infrastructure, focused primarily on pipelines. They support “the expansion of our pipeline infrastructure and a much more aggressive approach to the repair of our more than 2.5 million miles of existing pipelines.” They call for immediate steps that can be taken by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration around which “business, labor, and the environmental community can unite” to “make business more efficient, create good, skilled jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The statement is important in part for what it did not say. The currently most prominent environmental issue in the US is the Keystone XL pipeline. Up till now unions have been divided on the issue. A coalition of building trades unions have strongly supported building the KXL and have excoriated its opponents outside and inside the labor movement. A less numerous coalition of unions have opposed the pipeline or urged the AFL-CIO to stay neutral, which until now it has done. This time it was widely rumored that the Executive Council would endorse the KXL pipeline. But the “Statement on Energy and Jobs” as posted on the AFL-CIO website did not even mention the Keystone XL pipeline.

Some will no doubt take the endorsement of expanded pipeline infrastructure as a tacit endorsement of KXL. The Laborers’ union (LIUNA) immediately sent out a message on Twitter stating, “America’s Building Trades Unions are pleased that the AFL-CIO Executive Council today approved a resolution in support of a comprehensive energy policy that includes the expansion of our nation’s pipeline infrastructure, including the Keystone XL pipeline.” However, a careful reading of the statement indicates that the AFL-CIO has not taken a position on the KXL pipeline. It calls for “expansion of our pipeline infrastructure. But the definition of “infrastructure” according the Oxford dictionary is “the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g. buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society or enterprise” — hardly an apt description of the KXL pipeline.

While in the past organized labor has sometimes been ambivalent about the idea of a “just transition” to a new energy economy, fearing that it might justify the loss of existing jobs, the new statement embraces the idea of a just transition to protect workers from bearing the cost of a changing mix of energy sources. While it does not oppose regulation restricting greenhouse gas emissions, it argues that “Without a comprehensive, legislative approach to energy and jobs, there is no way to make the necessary investments in new energy technologies that can create new good jobs, to provide a just transition for workers and their communities that will be harmed due to changing energy sources and technologies.”

Those like the Labor Network for Sustainability who support both climate protection and worker rights and employment should take special note of several aspects of this statement:

  • Despite pressure from some unions, organized labor as a whole has avoided a head-on battle between labor and environmental movements that seemed to be looming over the Keystone XL pipeline. Environmentalists should recognize that this was not necessarily the easy path for organized labor, and should treat this as an opportunity to respond with strong support around other labor concerns.
  • The AFL-CIO statement puts strong emphasis on expanding jobs through energy efficiency. The environmental community should renew and expand its commitment to cooperation around this goal.
  • The AFL-CIO has clearly decided to emphasize pipeline infrastructure as an objective. While some pipelines may be environmentally hazardous or lock us in to destructive fossil fuels, environmental groups should consider supporting the statement’s call for “a much more aggressive approach to the repair of our more than 2.5 million miles of existing pipelines” and advocate for other forms of job-creating infrastructure, such as renewal of our water infrastructure and electrical grids and transmission systems for solar, wind, and geothermal energy.
  • Environmental and climate protection advocates should develop concrete plans to protect those workers harmed by a changing energy economy through just transition policies. Such measures should be included as basic elements of all proposed climate protection legislation. Until such legislation can be passed, regulation should be combined with aggressive public policies – similar to those for workers affected by the BRAC military base closings – to ensure a just transition for workers and communities adversely affected by the changing energy economy.
  • The statement’s clear recognition that energy industry employment patterns will change -due not just to regulation but to economic and technological change – should bring the demand for a just transition to the fore of organized labor’s program. It provides an opportunity for unions to help draw together local, regional, and national alliances around a vision of future economic reconstruction for hard-hit communities – and our hard-hit country.

Labor’s future lies in helping lead a movement to build a new economy that sustains working people’s livelihoods and well being by making our economy sustainable. That vision will only be compelling for the American people if it is clearly presented as the alternative to national and global climate catastrophe.