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Home » Clarion » 2013 » March 2013 » Labor's Sea Change on Climate: Action vs. Global Warming Creates Jobs

Labor's Sea Change on Climate: Action vs. Global Warming Creates Jobs

The call for clean energy is seen as a boost for both employment and the planet.

“Jobs vs. the environment” – for years the two were seen as permanently opposed, with unions coming down on the side of jobs. But today, with climate change ever more evident and the need for action more urgent, many unions are taking the view that investment to curtail global warming is a job-creator.

Auto workers are backing fuel efficiency standards; taxi drivers are embracing hybrids; and transport workers are lobbying for more mass transit while opposing dirty fuels. Nurses are demanding a “Robin Hood” tax on Wall Street, to be devoted to developing safe, green energy. Utility workers, who run power plants, are calling for “a serious commitment to climate change legislation,” which they say will create two million good jobs.

And as the debate over global warming and the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline heats up, Canada’s largest energy union opposes it more strongly than ever, along with most of the rest of the Canadian labor movement.

More Green Jobs

In the US today, investment in renewable energy creates more jobs than investment in capital-intensive fossil fuels. A recent University of California study found that for every million dollars invested, 5.65 jobs are created in solar energy, 5.70 in wind, and only 3.96 in coal.

A study of the 2009 stimulus package noted that investments in public transportation had created 31% more jobs, dollar for dollar, than those in new road construction.

Better preparation for the impact of climate change could also generate jobs, say utility workers. New York’s Consolidated Edison “has cut the workforce to the bone, and they don’t invest,” said John Duffy, national vice president of the Utility Workers Union.

Con Ed’s New York City workforce of 8,500, locked out for weeks last summer in a dispute over pensions, has been winnowed to 7,700.

When a storm like Sandy wreaks havoc on an understaffed, undermaintained system, Duffy said, managers just say, “Whoops, look what the storm did.”

New Tune

After many years of singing in harmony with their Big 3 employers against fuel efficiency, the United Auto Workers has changed its tune, arguing that the recent 2012 regulations will create additional jobs.

Pollution-cutting technology requires “additional content on each vehicle,” said UAW President Bob King, at hearings considering the new corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards. “That additional content must be engineered and produced by additional employees.” In contrast, UAW’s previous president, Ron Gettelfinger, was unenthusiastic about tighter CAFE standards.

In 2012, after King was elected, the UAW joined the BlueGreen Alliance, an effort to unite environmentalists and unions started by the Steelworkers and the Sierra Club in 2006. The Alliance currently includes the American Federation of Teachers (the PSC’s national affiliate), and the Service Employees, Communications, Utility, Food and Commercial, Plumbers, Amalgamated Transit, and Sheet Metal unions.

The Alliance predicts that by 2030, full implementation of the new emissions standards would create 50,000 jobs and cut carbon emissions in half for cars and light trucks.

The promise of jobs in the fossil fuel industry has created splits among unions. The BlueGreen Alliance lost the Laborers Union in the first round of the Keystone XL fight in 2011.

The Keystone XL would run 2,000 miles, carrying a corrosive slurry of raw bitumen from Canada to US refineries on the Gulf Coast. Tar sands mining produces a dirty fuel with a large carbon footprint, and spills are not uncommon.

Hamstrung by disagreement among member unions, the BlueGreen Alliance declined to take a stand on the pipeline project. But the Laborers pulled out anyway, angry that other coalition members had opposed a project they hoped would employ their members, who face stubbornly high unemployment. For the Laborers, the promise of “jobs now” was counterposed to climate impacts later – and “jobs now” won.

TransCanada, the energy company behind Keystone XL, has projected it would create 20,000 construction jobs, while the State Department puts this number closer to 6,000. The company promised construction unions it would hire their members, leading the Laborers – with support from the Teamsters, Operating Engineers, and Plumbers – to lash out at two transit unions that have spoken against Keystone XL.

Many climate activists rate the Keystone XL pipeline as a hinge-point in the battle to lower carbon emissions. NASA Climate Scientist James Hansen, who spoke at a forum at CUNY’s Murphy Institute on labor and climate change, has been a leading pipeline opponent. He warned that exploitation of the tar sands “would make it implausible to stabilize the climate;” if tar sands are in the mix, “it’s essentially ‘game over’.”

With this in mind, making tar sands bitumen more difficult to mine and ship has become a top priority for US climate activists, leading to 1,200 civil disobedience arrests at the White House in Fall 2011. President (and then-candidate) Obama was convinced to delay a decision on whether to OK the pipeline until after the election. The Steelworkers, whose members fabricate pipelines, issued a statement supporting the delay, but didn’t mention climate change.

Keystone XL RE-DO

With the administration again considering Keystone XL, environmental groups marched – with some labor support – on February 17, 2013 in Washington, DC.

The Communications Workers urged members to attend what they called “the largest US climate rally ever,” with the tagline, “Crippling drought. Devastating wildfires. Superstorm Sandy. Climate change is a real threat.”

After the demonstration, the Keystone XL debate reached the highest levels of the AFL-CIO, which tried to make all member unions happy by releasing a vague statement on clean energy, supporting pipelines in general and mentioning that fixing leaky ones would create jobs. The statement’s authors even tried to offer an environmental argument, saying that pipelines are a low-carbon way to ship fuel, compared to truck transport.

The AFL-CIO’s Building Trades Council released a triumphant press release saying the AFL-CIO supported Keystone XL, though, in fact, the federation statement left that project unmentioned.

The 185,000-member National Nurses Union voted against the AFL-CIO’s statement. The nurses’ group came out against the pipeline in early February 2013, joining the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers Union.

“It’s easy for us” to stand for clean energy, said Jill Furillo of the separate 37,000-member New York State Nurses Association. “Our members are on the front lines of seeing the effects of the environmental crisis.”

After Hurricane Sandy, New York nurses not only took care of those injured in the storm, they also evacuated patients from hospitals crippled by loss of electricity, carrying critically ill patients down dark stairwells when rising floodwaters wrecked elevators and backup generators.

While the promise of “green jobs” is a big factor in labor’s greater support for action on climate change, climate-related disasters like Sandy are now affecting their outlook, too.

Jenny Brown is a staff writer for
Labor Notes. A version of this article originally appeared in its March 2013 issue.

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