Labor Advocate Online

A Lingering Odor Seeps Out of the House of Labor
by Bill Onasch

I’m sorry if my uncharacteristically harsh tone in this article is upsetting to some. I tend to get riled when I see conscious attacks on the health of my planet. I also get disturbed when leaders of unions who should know better sell out the interest of the class they are expected to represent. When these two affronts are combined I get downright combative, leaving off the gloves and leaving behind the Marques of Queensberry.

When I first heard of a group calling itself Unions for Jobs and the Environment (UJE) advancing the interests of corporate polluters, I figured it must be another Orwellian name scam like "Right to Work," or Bush’s "Clear Skies" bill. To my horror as one concerned about environmental destruction, and my embarrassment as a trade unionist, I discovered this group was indeed sanctioned by several prominent unions.

They last made a big stink during Bush’s first year in office when they threw their weight, claiming to speak for the whole AFL-CIO, behind opening up the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) to oil drilling. Unfortunately for them, Senate Democrats managed to kill that wanton intrusion by Big Oil. (You can read my ranting about that one by going to: AFL-CIO Takes Big Leap Backwards.)

After that they had to lick their wounds for awhile, and their malodorous presence became part of the background you eventually become accustomed to–much like when we shared the air with the stockyards in my youth. But now they’re back–big time.

Part of Bush’s overall reactionary agenda of rolling back every past gain we have ever won includes weakening modest protections established by the Clean Air and Clean Water acts over the past thirty years. Reneging on the Kyoto treaty helped domestic polluters some. So does having a do-nothing EPA. Still, as long as there are restrictive American laws on the books pesky environmentalists can always sue. That’s why major take-backs like "Clear Skies" are being pushed front and center.

That Big Business is eagerly pursuing another chance for a big juicy bite out of this apple is of course to be expected. Their much needed assistance from major unions however raises some ironies.

• For most of these unions Bush has been evil incarnate and this is one rare occasion where Democrats have actually shown the will to put up a fight.

• Some of these unions–especially the Teamsters–have made common cause with environmentalists around NAFTA and the WTO. They have strongly condemned corporate polluters benefitting from these trade agreements in other lands. They have not shied away from what some might consider nuisance law suits with environmental angles trying to harass corporate offshoring of jobs. But, here they are, arm-in-arm with Big Oil, Big Coal, and the GOP trying to stop their environmental allies from suing and harassing air polluters this side of the border.

• Some unions have been collaborating with environmentalists in efforts such as the Blue Green Alliance, and the Apollo Alliance, taking on American challenges and showing how environmental progress could actually create a net gain in decent jobs. But the Teamsters (including their newly acquired Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers), Boilermakers, IBEW, UFCW, UTU, TCIU, Utility Workers, and the United Mine Workers, move lock step with their employers on rolling back efforts to at least slow down irreparable ecological damage–just as some of them have so often surrendered wages, benefits, and working conditions trying vainly to appease the captains of industry.

These labor statesmen are neither stupid nor ignorant. They all have had a college education. They have staff who know what’s happening in the real world. They are well aware of what science has to say about the very real and urgent menace of global warming and how this threat–and other environmental dangers--is exacerbated by what they propose. Yet they enthusiastically join the bosses in claiming global warming and the like are wild exaggerations of the tree huggers.

That’s because they deeply fear employer threats that even modest environmental measures cost irreplaceable jobs. Since loss of jobs in their jurisdiction means loss of dues money that supports them in the style they believe they are entitled, they see this as a far bigger crisis for them than the greenhouse effect could ever be.

Some of the measures society needs to take to prevent environmental disaster will undoubtedly cost some present jobs–while also creating other new ones. This has always been the case with changing technology.

The Teamsters got their name because they began as a union representing drivers of teams of horses–once the prevailing mode of end user transportation. Except for UPS drivers on Mackinac Island, those jobs no longer exist; they were gradually taken over by motorized trucks. The Teamsters followed their industry–not their horses–and became a stronger union than ever.

Genuine unions that look to promote the interests of the working class can meet the challenge of transforming even whole industries. Relics of unions trying to maintain job trusts for a shrinking pool of workers will eventually become extinct. Where is the cooper’s union today?

The interests of the labor movement and the environmental movement are complementary. The interests of the working class and the employers inevitably clash. The cozy partnership between UJE, major corporate polluters, and the top boss political party is just as foul, just as dangerous as the poison coming out of those coal-fired power plant chimneys.

Unfortunately, just as we have learned we can’t depend on the Democrats to defend our general issues we can’t count on them consistently doing the right thing on environmental questions either. But there is a party that seeks to work for our interests up and down the line–including environmental challenges.

Here’s what the Labor Party has to say:

Build A Just Transition Movement to Protect Jobs and the Environment
This Labor Party affirms its commitment to a clean and safe environment. We all need clean workplaces, clean air, and clean water. But we also need our jobs. We reject the false choice of jobs or the environment. We will not be held hostage by corporate polluters who poison our workplaces and our communities. We refuse this corporate blackmail. Corporations are not interested in either saving our jobs or protecting the environment. But we also know that environmental change is coming. What we produce and how we produce will change as steps are taken to protect people and the natural environment from harm. The Labor Party will support taking such steps if and only if the livelihoods of working people endangered by environmental change are fully protected. Therefore, the Labor Party calls for the creation of a new worker-oriented environmental movement — a Just Transition Movement — that puts forth a fair and just transition program to protect both jobs and the environment. All workers with jobs endangered by steps taken to protect the environment are to be made whole and to receive full income and benefits as they make the difficult transition to alternative work. The cost of this Just Transition Income Support program will be paid for by taxes on corporate polluters

This comes as a breath of fresh air. Someday it will push that musty smell out of the House of Labor.

February 16, 2005