by Joe Uehlein

Sometimes a decision forces you to think deeply about what you believe in and how you act on those beliefs.  It was like that when the climate protection leader Bill McKibben asked me to sign a letter calling for civil disobedience to block the building of a pipeline designed to carry tar sands oil from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico.  Opposing the pipeline might strain ties with unions that I’ve worked with and been part of for my whole adult life.  And yet the pipeline might be a tipping point that could hurtle us into ever more desperate acceleration of climate change.  Amid these conflicting pulls, what should I do?  Having lived at the confluence of trade unionism and environmentalism, what’s the right course of action ““ what has my life’s work meant?

I was born into a union family.  My dad worked in the steel mills in Lorain, Ohio and was a founder of the Steelworkers Union. My mom had been an organizer in the Clothing Workers Union in Cincinnati. I grew up near Cleveland and I walked the picket line with my dad during the 1959 steel strike.

My own trade union life began the day I walked through the factory doors at Capital Products Aluminum Corporation in Mechanicsburg, PA.  I was 17 years old, and I joined the United Steelworkers of America.  That summer I engaged in my first strike.  The following year Hurricane Agnes pounded the mid-Atlantic states; Central Pennsylvania was devastated, and the mill was flooded out.  So I joined the Laborer’s Union and went to work on construction.

That’s where I first learned something about working on pipelines.  I worked building the Texas-Eastern pipeline as it wound its way through the rolling hills of Central Pennsylvania.  Small teams of operating engineers, pipefitters, and laborers traveled across the state doing work we enjoyed and that we understood to be useful and important.  (We didn’t know then what we know now.)  It was a great job and I was a member of a great union, Laborer’s Local 158.  We formed friendships and shared a solidarity that touched us all deeply.

On another job building a railroad bridge across the Susquehanna river, a buddy of mine got fired by a hubris-filled college kid.  (The kid’s dad owned the construction company so the kid had been made chief foreman over all laborers.)  We struck and shut the job down.  The operating engineers, carpenters and ironworkers supported us.  Without that support we would have lost, but we won and my brother laborer was hired back.

These jobs helped me pay my way through college.  They also taught me a lot about solidarity and trade unionism, and helped launch me on a life-long pursuit of workers rights and jobs with justice, first as a local leader and eventually as an official with the AFL-CIO.

I grew up along the banks of Lake Erie and I learned at a tender age about the possibility of human threats to the environment.  I was there when they posted the signs telling us to stop swimming in the lake and stop eating the fish.  I’d already eaten hundreds of Lake Erie Yellow Perch and swallowed more of that lake water than I care to think about.

I also learned early about the potential conflict between protecting labor and protecting the environment.  In the 1970s I worked on the concrete crew during the construction of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, and my local union put out a bumper sticker that read “Hungry and Out of Work?  Eat an Environmentalist.”

Since then I’ve devoted much of my life trying to bridge the gap between labor and environmental movements.  I’ve argued that both share a common interest in combining economic and social sustainability with environmental sustainability.  I’ve argued that “jobs vs. the environment” is a false choice.

Climate catastrophe

During my years with the AFL-CIO, I served on the UN commission on global warming from its inception in the mid-1980s thru the “˜90’s. I worked for many years to persuade the American labor movement to recognize the threat of global warming and to become a leader in addressing it.  I witnessed how the labor movement — and our country — ignored the science and opposed efforts to reverse global warming.  I’m glad that’s been changing  (Since that time much of the country, including much of the labor movement, has recognized the reality of global warming and supported green jobs that help reduce it.)

We’ve wasted more than two decades that could have been spent dealing with the problem.  We’ve already warmed the Earth by nearly one degree Celcius (C), causing floods, heat waves, forest fires, loss of food production and spike in food prices, stronger storms, the loss of glaciers, arctic ice, permafrost, and snow-pack, and much more.

The best science tell us that the carbon we’ve already put in the atmosphere will raise global temperatures by two degrees C (almost four degrees F) from pre-industrial levels even if we stop putting carbon in the atmosphere today.  And this is very, very bad news for the planet and its people.  We can, however, stop the increase from going to four degrees C, or seven degrees Fahrenheit (F), which would mean massive eco-system collapse ““ if we radically cut the carbon we are putting in the atmosphere.

The Keystone XL dilemma

Bill McKibben’s letter pointed out that burning the recoverable oil in the Alberta tar sands by itself would raise the carbon in the atmosphere by 200 parts per million (ppm).  It wasn’t hard to figure out that this would increase the 390 ppm carbon in the atmosphere today by more than half.  Indeed, it would increase the gap between the current level and the safe level of 350 ppm five-fold.

The letter called the pipeline “a fifteen hundred mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.”  It quoted the leading NASA climate change specialist Jim Hansen saying that tar sands “must be left in the ground.”  Indeed, “If the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially game over” for a viable planet.

It sounded like a pretty compelling case.  But there was another letter that made the question harder for me. It was a letter from the General Presidents of the Teamsters, Plumbers, Operating Engineers, and Laborers unions, the last of which helped give me my start as a kid.  Their letter enthusiastically supported the Keystone XL project, saying it will “pave a path to better days and raise the standard of living for working men and women in the construction, manufacturing, and transportation industries.” It will allow “the American worker” to “get back to the task of strengthening their families and the communities they live in.”  I’ve dedicated 35 years of my life to those goals.

Their position reflects the absolutely critical need for jobs. The Keystone Pipeline will provide a lot of good jobs.  (A company financed study claims it will create 118,000 jobs, though a government environmental impact statement says it will only create 5,000-6,000  and only for the three-year construction period. []  Many would be good paying union, middle class jobs ““ the kind with health care and other benefits.  And that at a time when the official unemployment rate is close to 10 percent and two million construction workers ““ one in five ““ are out of work.

A just transition to sustainability

In the long run, “jobs vs. the environment” is a false choice.  But the Keystone Pipeline reminds us of the painful reality that often, in our real day-to-day lives, there are jobs vs. environment choices with real immediate impacts.

I’ve often pleaded with my environmental and sustainability friends to understand that for me and my family for generations, indeed for all working people, sustainability starts at the kitchen table.  Every day we seek decent work so we can provide food, housing, and healthcare for our families and an education for our children.  Any job that does that helps provide for our sustainability.  But what are we to do if those jobs are also building an unsustainable future for ourselves and our children?

There is a solution to this dilemma.  Many of the jobs I had during the years I worked construction involved the kind of work that we need to make the transition to a low carbon economy, from railroad repair to bridge construction.  Today such work can be a central part of building a new energy system, saving our water infrastructure, building a new transportation system, and constructing sustainable cities — everything that’s necessary to halt our destruction of the climate.  We need to ensure that the transition to an economy that protects the climate is also a just transition that protects the livelihoods of those who through no fault of their own may have to pay the price of change.

The labor movement has become an enthusiastic supporter of “green jobs.”  But by and large it continues to support jobs that will lead to climate catastrophe.  There are many things that we should be building ““ but the Keystone XL Pipeline is not one of them.  Every dollar we invest in fossil fuels is not only a dollar that goes to intensify the climate crisis; it is also a dollar that we should instead be spending for the transition to renewable energy.

Labor has been critical of corporate short-term thinking, maximizing profits on a quarterly basis and not looking to the future.  Yet labor is guilty of similar short-term thinking when it comes to decisions related to climate and sustainability.  To be fair here, the job of today’s labor leader is beyond difficult ““ he or she has to balance the needs of workers who pay dues today with those of the future, and people pay dues to unions to protect their jobs.  But the truth is that this short-term thinking is bad for the planet and its people, and equally bad for the future of the labor movement.  As we build a labor movement for the 21st Century our self-interest is best served by building a labor movement that is a part of the sustainability movement.

Recently West Virginians held a March on Blair Mountain to “abolish mountaintop removal,” but also to “strengthen labor rights” and invest in “sustainable job creation for all Appalachian communities.”  I hope those who march to halt the Keystone XL pipeline will also march for labor rights and sustainable ““ and sustaining — jobs.

My decision

My mom and dad were proud of their contribution to building the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), one of the two predecessors to today’s AFL-CIO.  They oftenreferred to the CIO not by its cumbersome real title but as “Community in Operation.”  That broad vision of trade unionism as a force for social good ““ a force for the betterment of all people — was a strong vision in labor’s past, and is what continues to motivate me today.

I believe in worker solidarity.  I believe that today we must expand that solidarity to human solidarity.  We must help each other protect and preserve this jewel floating in space ““ none other like it that we know of.

The famous labor anthem “Which Side Are You On?” comes from the coal mining organizing battles of “bloody Harlan” County, KY.  The question then was, are you on the side of the bosses and the Sherriff, or the side of the workers?  That’s still crucial.  But I believe today we have to expand our worker solidarity to human solidarity; today that means acting together to halt climate catastrophe for all of us.

What I will tell my friends

When Bill McKibben asked me to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, I was concerned what might happen if I did.  I might look like an enemy of every worker who might gain a much needed pipeline job ““ denying them the very opportunity that let me support myself and pay for my own education.  I also feared it would strain my ties with some of the unions supporting the pipeline.  But if I was silent, wouldn’t my silence equal consent to something I knew would be devastating to the planet, its people, and to the labor movement itself?  I was talking the talk, but would I walk the walk?

I’ve decided to walk the walk.  And here is what I will tell my friends about why I am doing it:

To my friends in the labor movement I say:  We can’t build our future by destroying our future.  If labor is to have a sustainable future, it must be as a central player in the sustainability movement.  We must fight for jobs for our members that will truly “pave the way for better days” rather than destroying their and their children’s futures.  Support deep reductions in the burning of fossil fuels, support the measures climate science says are necessary to protect people and the planet, and rebuild the labor movement around the jobs of the future.

To those who might get a job on the pipeline I say:  We’re blocking the pipeline to save your future too.  But I know I won’t be able to look you in the eyes if I and those I am marching with don’t fight to make sure there are decent jobs for you and your kids — building the kind of world we need.

To my friends in the climate protection, environmental, and sustainability movements I say:  We can’t let climate protection make victims of workers who happen through no fault of their own to be in the way of changes that are necessary to protect the climate.  Work with us in the labor movement to better understand that sustainability starts at the kitchen table.  Support full employment policies, support Blue-Green Alliance’s Jobs 21 campaign, support the AFL-CIO’s program for full employment, and fight for a just transition that protects the wellbeing of workers and communities who may be hurt by side effects of climate protection policies through no fault of their own.

And to myself I say: I am marching not against the labor movement but for the labor movement, for the labor movement to be what I have always in my heart believed it to be.  To be the “community in operation” my parents fought for; the labor movement I have spent my life building; the labor movement that makes it possible for working people to fight for what they really need.

The time to begin drastic reductions in carbon emissions is past ““ we haven’t a moment to waste.  So, If not now, when?  If not this issue, what issue?