Advocates for sustainability, under assault from climate deniers and drill-baby-drillers, are struggling to protect the earth from global warming, desertification, extinction of plants and animals, and other looming threats. Why should they also be concerned about the escalating attack on America’s labor unions?
According to a recent New York Times report, many governors and state legislatures are now seeking “far-reaching, structural changes that would weaken the bargaining power and political influence of unions, including private sector ones.” While much of the attack is spearheaded by Republicans, many Democratic politicians are joining in the charge.
Here are some examples:
— Legislators in ten states are planning to introduce legislation to prevent private sector unions from requiring members to pay dues or fees.
— Sixteen state legislatures are considering laws to prevent unions from spending money on political activities unless it comes from individual members who have agreed to “opt in” for such expenditures.
— According to the Columbus Dispatch, newly elected Ohio governor John Kasich is proposing to take away the right of state-financed child care and home care workers to unionize. He says of teachers, “If they want to strike, they should be fired.” He wants the right to pay construction workers less than union pay scales on public contracts. And he even wants to ban binding arbitration for government employees. Former governor Ted Strickland points out that the state’s workers, far from making extravagant demands, voluntarily agreed to forgo raises and take ten unpaid furlough days.
— According to the Green Bay Press Gazette, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker announced he wants to “end collective bargaining for nearly all public employees.” He also “updated emergency plans and alerted the National Guard just in case” they are needed to “ensure state services aren’t interrupted.” The Press Gazette headlined the article, “Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker says National Guard ready for any unrest over anti-union bill.”
“In the long run, if these measures deprive unions of resources, it will cut them off at their knees. They’ll melt away,” said Charles E. Wilson, a law professor at Ohio State University. Sustainability activists may be tempted to say, well, why should we take time off from trying to avert global catastrophe to concern ourselves with what is happening to the unions? After all, aren’t unions just concerned with the narrow interests of their members? Aren’t they just about getting some folks a bit more of the pie? And haven’t they opposed or stalled action on many issues important to sustainability? But before they come to that conclusion, sustainability advocates should consider:
1. Organized labor is the most powerful force for fighting conservative ideology. If unions “melt away,” American politics will be totally dominated by a combination of corporate greed, right-wing media, and tea party extremism.
2. Despite occasional elements of discord, the alliance of labor, environmental, and sustainability movements has been crucial ever since the first Earth Day in supporting and passing environmental legislation. It will continue to be crucial in the future.
3. The right-wing strategy is to divide progressive groups that should be natural allies, and play them off against each other. For example, they are attempting to drive a wedge between private sector and public sector workers. Similarly, they constantly harp on the theory that environmental protection will destroy workers’ jobs “” while implying that workers have no interest in protecting the environment.
4. The most promising strategy for reviving popular support for sustainability policies is a program to create full employment by creating millions of green jobs protecting the climate and the environment. Organized labor has been a major supporter of green jobs. If unions “melt away,” so will a major pillar of support for environmental policies that create jobs.
5. Unions are far more likely to support sustainability policies if in their hour of need they receive support from sustainability activists. The support of groups like the Sierra Club for right-to-organize legislation played a significant role in encouraging unions to support climate legislation, for example. It helped to persuade the Teamster’s to reverse its position on Arctic drilling and pull out of the coalition that supports it.
6. Even when they differ on particular issues, unions are the most important allies of sustainability activists in the political arena. Unions recently spent more than $200 million to defeat candidates who are threatening to break the labor movement. In virtually all cases they are the very same candidates who are trying to gut environmental protection policies and who claim global warming is a myth. Even on the minimal basis of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” sustainability activists should be try to keep organized labor from being “cut off at their knees.”
The defense of the rights of workers to organize, bargain collectively, and take concerted action is taking place right now at every level from the White House, to state legislatures, to city councils. It is very much a struggle for the hearts and minds of citizens, workers, and community members. Which side the sustainability movement is on in that struggle will help determine how significant a role the labor movement will play in building a sustainable future.