On Labor Day, How We Can Give Both Workers and Our Environment a Chance

This Labor Day, America is facing a dizzying array of problems, none more acute than the twin crises of how poorly we treat our workers and how appallingly we treat our planet. In case anyone believes these issues are distinct and need to be addressed separately, let's remember some of this year's grisly headlines:

While the environmental and labor disasters at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine, the BP oil rig, and the Kleen Energy natural gas plant have topped the news, the everyday struggles of working people have continued unabated.

Struggles such as the construction worker forced to work more hours for less pay, building outdated structural designs in dangerous conditions. Or the tomato picker breaking her back in a hot, pesticide-soaked field, gathering vegetables destined for a supermarket shelf. Or the factory worker forced into an ever-faster production line that spits out toxic byproducts, putting his health and safety at risk with little or no health care benefits.

These conditions are the reality faced by millions of America's workers. But we do not have to accept them as the cost of doing business in this country. There is a better way.

Years ago, labor and environmental advocates realized that in order to preserve our environment and create jobs in America, investing in a clean energy economy was critical. Today, green jobs are growing, and America's workers must benefit from the full potential and promise of the green economy.

There are a select number of forward-thinking employers already paving the way toward a green economy. They are collaborating with their employees as equal partners, respecting their decision to join unions, and creating good, green, union jobs -- where workers receive family-sustaining wages, fair benefits, safe workplaces, and retirement security.

Green builders such as Oregon-based Gerding Edlen Development are paving the way. Having led the first LEED-Platinum certified renovation of a building on the National Register of Historic Places, Gerding Edlen sees its highly-trained, union workforce as key to its success. As CEO Mark Edlen says, "Union workers bring the skill set, creativity, and workplace safety the company needs to execute such complex projects: that's why Gerding Edlen uses union labor." Not surprisingly, the firm has topped the Oregon Business Journal's annual list of the best green companies to work for two straight years, and has been voted one of Oregon's most admired companies at least four years in a row.

In the agriculture industry, Eurofresh is transforming vegetable production through its sustainable growing practices. Food safety is a top priority at the Arizona-based company, which credits the union-led orientation and training programs for raising production standards. All of its produce is greenhouse-grown, reducing land and water use, and is certified pesticide residue-free -- protecting the health of consumers, workers, and the environment.

Perhaps most exciting of all, the new clean energy economy is bringing good manufacturing jobs back to the United States. United Streetcar, a subsidiary of Oregon Iron Works, is building the first American-made modern electric streetcars in almost 60 years. And the company is doing more than easing congestion and reducing pollution through its streetcars through good, green jobs in Oregon -- its dedication to using U.S. suppliers is reigniting an entire industry. United Streetcar today produces the first modern streetcars to comply with "Buy America" provisions: 70 percent of its trams' components are domestically produced, and the company is striving to use entirely U.S.-made components. As a result, orders with United Streetcar create or save jobs at vendors across America, from manufacturers of fiberglass and flooring to seats and wheel sets.

All of these environmentally-responsible innovators are exciting, and they are made possible by the skill and expertise of America's union workers. Together with their forward-thinking employers, these employees are proving that we can build a win-win economy in which businesses thrive, the planet prospers, and workers share in the success they help create.

This Labor Day, as the country reels from one labor and environmental disaster after another, the United States needs the leadership of pioneering employers like these -- visionaries who recognize that in the 21st century, respect for workers, respect for the planet, and respect for the bottom line are, in fact, one and the same.

Kimberly Freeman Brown is Executive Director of American Rights at Work Education Fund, an educational and outreach organization dedicated to promoting the freedom of workers to form unions and bargain collectively, which just released its new report The Labor Day List: Partnerships that Work.

David Foster is Executive Director of the BlueGreen Alliance, a national partnership of nine U.S. labor unions and two of America's largest environmental organizations -- uniting nearly nine million members and supporters -- that is dedicated to expanding the number and quality of jobs in the clean energy economy.

This article was published originally in The Hill's Congress Blog.