Some unions dissented early from AFL-CIO climate policy. In 1990 the Steelworkers, America’s largest and most diversified manufacturing union with a strong history of environmentalism created an executive board committee on environmental issues and issued a policy statement saying that global warming “may be the single greatest problem we face. Some have compared its possible consequences to the aftermath of nuclear war.” The union cooperated with the Sierra Club and some other environmental organizations to oppose the WTO and demand that trade agreements include enforceable labor and environmental standards – an alliance made famous by the 1999 Battle of Seattle.
A pioneer in promoting a new energy strategy as a means to create millions of new jobs has been the Apollo Alliance. Starting in 2004, it brought together labor, business, and environmental leaders to promote a “clean energy revolution” inspired by the vision and technological achievements of the Apollo space program. Its local and state coalitions have won renewable energy and fuel standards, appliance efficiency standards, building retrofit programs, climate change legislation, new clean energy funds, and green collar job training programs in dozens of cities and states. While originally focused on “energy independence,” the Apollo Alliance gradually came to include “cutting carbon emissions” at the core of its mission.
In 2006, the Sierra Club and the United Steelworkers initiated the Blue-Green Alliance under the banner of “Good Jobs, A Clean Environment, And a Safer World.” This “strategic alliance” would focus on “those issues which have the greatest potential to unite the American people in pursuit of a global economy that is more just and equitable and founded on principles of environmental and economic sustainability.”
Linking jobs and the environment, Steelworker president Leo Gerard said, “Secure twenty-first century jobs are those that will help solve the problem of global warming with energy efficiency and renewable energy.” Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope added, “Our new alliance allows us to address the great challenge of the global economy in the twenty-first century”“how to provide good jobs, a clean environment and a safer world.”
A few other unions joined the appeal for climate protection. In many cases, whatever their view of global warming, they saw a potential self-interest in climate protection measures. Members of the Sheetmetal workers, for example, produce a substantial proportion of solar panels, and the union has been a supporter of solar energy for decades. It wasn’t hard to see that climate protection would require a huge expansion of solar energy capture – and of Sheetmetal worker jobs.
At the end of 2006, the AFL-CIO formed a new Energy Task Force and began to engage with the issue in new ways. Its 2007 report, Jobs and Energy for the 21st Century, acknowledged that “human use of fossil fuels is undisputedly contributing to global warming, causing rising sea levels, changes in climate patterns and threats to coastal regions.”
Meanwhile, the international labor movement, represented by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) began taking a strong stand in support of climate protection. The Global Labor Institute at Cornell University in New York City brought together US and international union officials at a “North American Labor Assembly on Global Warming.” Twenty U.S. trade unionists joined the ITUC delegation to the global climate change conference in Bali”“a first. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney told the UN Summit on Climate Risk,
“The global labor movement is proud to have been among those who called for decisive action at Bali”¦ Global warming means global depression, food and water shortages and drowned cities. I have stood in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward and seen that future.”
The AFL-CIO Executive Council issued a statement March 4 [2008?] on “greening the economy” that said, “It is time for our nation to take bold steps to meet the 21st century challenges related to climate change.” “Global warming is a working families issue,” said AFL-CIO president John Sweeney at a press conference this spring to announce a $1 million Green Jobs Center at the National Labor College.
This change is also reflected in the approach of individual unions. A year ago, no other union was part of the Steelworkers’s Blue-Green Alliance with the Sierra Club. Today the alliance includes the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the Laborers International Union of America (LIUNA), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) and the Teamsters (IBT).
One of the most startling shifts was the Teamsters’ conversion to the climate protection cause, punctuated by President James Hoffa’s that the union was pulling out of the coalition that supports drilling in Alaska’s ANWAR, after being enthusiastic supporters for years:
“Global warming is for real. Air pollution is killing people and making our children sick. And you know what? We share some of the blame. In the past, we were forced to make a false choice. The choice was: Good Jobs or a Clean Environment. We were told no pollution meant no jobs. If we wanted clean air, the economy would suffer and jobs would be sent overseas. Well guess what? We let the big corporations pollute and the jobs went overseas anyway. We didn’t enforce environmental regulations and the economy still went in the toilet. The middle class got decimated and the environment is on the brink of disaster. Well I say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! No more false divides. The future, if we are to prosper as a nation, will lie in a green economy.”
Many forces promise still further change. Labor, like the rest of the world, is confronted with the new science showing that the climate crisis is even worse than anticipated and the abundant evidence of new catastrophes. Concern with global warming and initiatives to address it are growing forces within the labor movement itself and among the progressive communities it needs as allies. The Obama administration has adopted a radically different approach to global warming; labor needs a strong alliance with the Obama administration and stands to benefit from many of its programs. The labor movement also faces questions about its own future, as unification negotiations proceed between the AFL-CIO and Change to Win.
Part of labor’s involvement reflects the concern that has grown among many constituencies as melting ice caps, burgeoning wildfires and devastating floods demonstrate the immediate threat of climate change. At Sweeney’s press conference, Mark Ayres, head of the union’s building trades department, endorsed green jobs as good policy and good for labor. “But there is a more important reason” to fight global warming, he said, showing the audience a photograph his granddaughters.