Labor Advocate Online

AFL-CIO Takes Big Leap Backwards
Abandons Environmental Allies to Line Up With Big Oil, Car Companies—and Bush

By Bill Onasch

I’ve been around the block a time or two and am not easily stunned. But I have to admit to a gut reaction of shock and despair when I heard the news that the AFL-CIO gave indispensable assistance to saving Bush’s energy bill in the House. They performed this service by pressuring Democrats to vote against amendments that would have prohibited oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Area and required better fuel consumption for SUVs. 

Of course some in the labor movement—notably the Teamsters—had been pushing Bush’s agenda right along, running television commercials and prompting letter-writing campaigns. They claim to have swayed the votes of forty Democrats who had previously had a weak spot for caribou. 

But the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of the federation’s biggest and most dynamic affiliates, and the home base of President Sweeney, was on record opposing the Arctic drilling. Generally when there is such sharp difference between major affiliates the federation stays neutral. 

Not this time. AFL-CIO legislative director William Samuel told House members “At our 1993 convention, delegates adopted a resolution that, in part, called on the country to `explore the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge for oil with safeguards to protect the environment.' The entire policy ... remains in effect.”

Brother Samuel also put in a good word for the poor car companies threatened with having to modify their SUVs. “Because of their discriminatory impact on domestic production, such proposals could have a serious, negative effect on US production and employment,” Samuel wrote.

The Bush/AFL-CIO energy bill is a big blow to the struggle to save our environment. Not only would it destroy a pristine part of our environmental heritage; it also codifies a reversal of modest past gains in reducing oil consumption. Instead of advancing technology available as an alternative to fossil fuels the Bush/AFL-CIO plan would guarantee more consumption and pollution by more SUVs, more coal-fired power plants. Global warming, acid rain, urban smog are going to get worse.  AFL-CIO members and their families breathe the same air and drink the same water as everybody else. And our grandchildren will share the burden of the environmental heritage we leave them along with the rest of the world too.

These union leaders supporting Bush are clearly hoping to get some jobs out of the deal. We should be concerned about jobs. But the fact of the matter is that despite record levels of auto production and oil consumption union jobs in those industries have declined drastically over the past 25 years.

Pitting jobs versus the environment only guarantees the working class loses, probably on both counts. Instead of sucking up to corporate power Brother Samuel should be pushing for laws, and constitutional amendments to provide for a just transition, to create new good jobs to replace those lost because of environmental impact. And how about fighting for a shorter work week, with no reduction in pay, as has been accomplished in many of America’s European “competitors?”

This new alliance with Bush is not only bad for the environment; it threatens the very survival of the labor movement. American unions represent a tiny and shrinking percentage of the work force. Our traditional bastions have been largely eliminated in the “New Economy.” If we are to be viable we have to reach out to new layers of the working class and build alliances with other movements.

A promising start was made in cooperating with the environmental movement, beginning with NAFTA, and continuing through Fast Track, WTO, etc. Many student youth started collaborating with labor around globalization issues and have gone on to directly support union struggles such as at Harvard, around No Sweat campaigns and more.

I think it is safe to say that virtually one hundred percent of these valuable new allies will feel betrayed by the AFL-CIO’s support to Bush’s attacks on the environment. Labor’s motives and credibility will be questioned by many.

We urgently need a discussion among labor leaders, activists, and supporters about how to contain the damage from this shocking action and how to come up with a new strategy that can both save the environment and provide decent jobs for workers.

August 2, 2001