by Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith

At the start of 2011, as the energy corporations, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the Tea Party right launched their assault on environmental protection and the EPA, it looked like public opinion and organized labor might just be swept along. Instead, much of the public and the labor movement have rallied in support of EPA and environmental regulation. The result has been a standoff on legislation to decimate EPA authority to protect the environment. But whether it will be possible to prevent the backdoor effort to gut the EPA by cutting its budget hangs in the balance.

In a March 14 article titled “EPA Tangles With New Critic: Labor,” the Wall Street Journal reported that “several unions” are demanding that the EPA “soften new regulations” that “could put thousands of jobs in jeopardy.” It noted an analysis by the United Mine Workers saying that proposed EPA regulations could put 250,000 jobs at risk in the utility, mining and railroad sectors. It cited a letter from a coalition including Boilermakers, Mine Workers, and Utility Workers to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson saying that a a tightening of standards on ground-level ozone would “have a significant impact on our states’ workers.”

The article also described a “delicate alliance” developing between the Boilermakers, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and American Electric Power Company, “one of the nation’s top coal burners.” It described a meeting held at request of the CEO of AEP with the president if the IBEW and Rep. Fred Upton, the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a leading opponent of the EPA that discussed “concerns about the impact of new EPA regulations.”

While the article gave the clear impression that labor was turning against the EPA, it did acknowledge, “not all unions take a dim view of the EPA’s moves.” It cited the Plumbers and Pipe Fitters, whose general president said that the EPA’s mercury rule could create thousands of jobs for workers who build and install pollution control equipment.

But in fact, union support for the EPA goes far beyond that and is growing.

On March 15, the day after the Wall Street Journal article, the BlueGreen Alliance, a union-environmental coalition backed by ten major unions, issued a statement supporting “the actions by the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act” and urging Congress to “reject efforts to weaken this authority.” Their release on the statement was headed, “BlueGreen Alliance brings Together Unions and Environmentalists in Support of EPA Efforts to Protect Public Health and Safety.” It noted that, complemented by clean energy policies, regulations will create jobs and increase America’s economic competitiveness.

The BlueGreen Alliance includes the Steelworkers, Communications Workers, Service Workers, Laborers, Utility Workers, American Federation of Teachers, Transit Workers, Sheet Metal Workers, Auto Workers, and United Food and Commercial Workers.

Endorsing the statement, Michael Langford, president of the Utility Workers said, “With the right policies and investments that help America’s industries retool, including the rapid deployment of clean energy and technology assistance for maintaining good jobs, we believe the EPA measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will position the United States to compete in an ever-cleaner and more efficient 21st century economy.”

Michael J. Sullivan, president of the Sheet Metal Workers, said “Our members are making buildings healthier and more efficient. They understand the importance of clean air. With responsible action by the EPA on the Clean Air Act, we will make America cleaner and more competitive.”

Service Employees president Mary Kay Henry said, “We have to get moving on common-sense solutions to improve the environment and to improve the public health of workers and our communities. Regulating greenhouse gasses, along with these common-sense policies, will do that while also creating good jobs and launching the U.S. to the head of the pack in a race for the global clean energy economy.”

The BlueGreen Alliance is actively organizing to defend the EPA. The agenda of its Pennsylvania State Summit of labor and environmental leaders noted, “Without Federal comprehensive climate legislation, the EPA is tasked with enforcing the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. We must defend the authority of the EPA. Our labor and environmental partners are working together to ensure that this is a win win situation for cleaning up the environment; preserving jobs; and creating job opportunities in a clean energy economy.”

On March 17, three days after the Wall Street Journal article appeared, the UAW gave a stirring defense of EPA regulation before a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Legislative Director Barbara Somson told the Committee, “What our experience shows us is that the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles under the Clean Air Act is good for our industries and good for American jobs.”

The regulation of mobile sources, she went on to say, “has been a ‘win-win’ that results in greater oil independence for our nation; a cleaner, healthier environment for ourselves and our children; and an increased number of jobs in the auto sector.” The new technology required to meet tailpipe emissions standards “represents additional content on each vehicle” which requires “more engineers, more managers, and more construction and production workers.”

According to the UAW, programs that increase the fuel efficiency of vehicles are already creating substantial numbers of jobs. The Department of Energy’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Incentive Program, for example, has made five loans that are already responsible for supporting 40,000 jobs. Tens of thousands of additional jobs are expected from the program’s incentives for advanced vehicle batteries, which are expected to help boost the US from 2 percent to 40 percent of the nations production. The UAW says such success depends on “the regulation of tailpipe emissions under the Clean Air Act” and that “the continuing recovery of the automobile industry in the United States has as its foundation the regulatory certainty of these tailpipe emission standards.”

UAW legislative director Somson concludes,

The members of the UAW are also citizens who are deeply affected by the environment in which they live and raise their families. They are concerned about the effects of human-induced climate change for themselves and for future generations. The benefits to human health and welfare flowing from the regulation of greenhouse gasses under the Clean Air Act are substantial and have decided positive economic effects.

Another endorsement comes from Hector E. Sanchez, Executive Director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, a constituency group representing Latino workers from both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win Federation. On April 4 he co-signed a letter from the National Latino Coalition on Climate Change, of which he is Vice-Chair, to Senator Mark Udall calling for the upholding of the Clean Air Act. The letter pointed out that Latinos are more likely to live in counties with high air pollution. It asked Senator Udall to oppose “any measure that would block or delay the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from doing its job to protect all American from life-threatening air pollution.” The result of proposed amendments restricting EPA authority would be to “exacerbate poor health outcomes in the Latino community.”

While the attack on the EPA has received considerable support from business and the Tea Party, the evidence strongly argues against a groundswell of opposition to the EPA within labor, other than from unions like the Mineworkers that have long questioned its approach. In fact, far more unions appear to have joined the pushback in support of the EPA.

It is also doubtful that the public has accepted the charges that the EPA is a rogue agency or that its regulations hurt jobs. A poll conducted for the American Lung Association by a Democratic and a Republican firm and released February 16 found that three out of four voters support the EPA setting tougher standards on air pollutants and fuel efficiency. Two-thirds oppose Congressional action that impedes the EPA from updating clean air and carbon emissions standards. 69 percent believe that EPA scientists, rather than Congress, should set pollution standards.

The Wall Street Journal article quoted a labor official saying that if EPA regulations cost jobs in Pennsylvania and Ohio, the Republicans would blast every Democratic lawmaker with it. However, another poll raises doubt that public opinion has accepted the anti-EPA message in those states. A survey of the presidential battleground states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan conducted by Hart Research Associates and released March 28 found that almost two-thirds of voters there want the EPA to set greenhouse gas standards for industrial facilities. According to a memo accompanying the poll, “By large margins, voters of all political parties trust the EPA more than they trust Congress. Democrats trust the EPA over Congress by 77% to 11%, independent voters do so by 63% to 12%, and Republicans by 48% to 28%.” Voters oppose Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s proposal to block EPA regulation of greenhouse gasses for two years by exactly two-to-one.

The failure of powerful opposition to EPA regulation to emerge among labor and the public may be partially responsible for the narrow defeat in the Senate in early April of Mitch McConnell and James Inhofe’s legislation that would have blocked the EPA from regulating greenhouse gasses. Three other anti-EPA bills, including Jay Rockefeller’s two-year ban on EPA regulation of greenhouse gasses were defeated by much greater margins.

The attempt to gut the EPA has now moved to the far murkier arena of the budget debate, where anti-EPA forces can act with far less scrutiny from a pro-EPA public. In the just passed continuing resolution that will fund the government until September, the EPA budget was slashed by 16 percent. All funding for NOA’s climate science service and for the White House energy and climate change adviser was eliminated.

No doubt the struggle over the EPA will continue around both its authority to regulate to protect the public’s health and environment and around its future budget. Advocates for the EPA should feel confident that they will struggle to protect it with the backing of the public and much of organized labor. Indeed, the successful defense of EPA authority may prove to be a turning point in the struggle for policies that protect people and the planet.