The failure of organized labor and the environmental community to recognize their vital synergistic relationship was put to rest decades ago--or so one thought.
Unfortunately, seven construction unions have forgotten the lessons of the past and in effect revived the discredited industry-inspired rift with their natural environmental allies. The unions have demanded that their mother organization, the AFL-CIO renounce its alliance with an environmental political action committee dedicated to combatting climate change. The dissident unions contend that the environmental PAC's opposition to Canada's Keystone XL oil pipeline, and to the expansion of fossil fuel production in general, jeopardize job creation.
During the early 1970s, industry used the false choice between jobs and environmental protection to divide organized labor and the "green" community, weakening both sides' political clout in the process. Corporate barons' goal was to keep a lid on environmental regulation and the ensuing pollution abatement costs to their bottom line. Environmentalists were portrayed as elitists more interested in preservation of wilderness than human beings.
Sadly, some environmental organizations initially gave credence to this allegation, not out of malevolence, but out of naive narrow focus on traditional outdoor conservation.
As the 1970s progressed, a change in outlook took hold. Union membership became aware of the health threats from their exposure to industrial toxic pollution. They also saw that the environmental movement had broadened its societal mission to include the creation of long term job security under sustainable healthy workplace conditions. The environmental community's activist expansion resulted from among other things, its recognition that it could not win many of its legislative battles without the support of organized labor.
A formidable coalition took shape and has played an instrumental role in influencing Congress and the outcome of national elections.
Today's building trade unions are bucking history for a Keystone Xl Pipeline whose route would threaten Midwest water supplies in the event of a major spill, and whose impact would dramatically set back efforts to reduce polluting greenhouse gas emissions. Ironically, the pipeline would result in at most, some 50 or so permanent jobs. As for fossil fuels in general, renewable energy such as wind and solar has a lock on the employment future, being three times more job intensive.
For the employment disruption that will inevitably occur for some workers in the transition from fossil fuel to predominantly clean, renewable energy, there are answers. Government subsidized retraining programs should be initiated to prepare the suddenly unemployed to handle new technologies. Public works programs should be instituted for rebuilding, repairing, and maintaining the nation's crumbling infrastructure. It is a policy that would go far to correct the job deficit on a long term basis.
The construction unions seem to have forgotten that if ties with environmentalists were ever cut, workers' health and their kids' future quality of life would lose an invaluable ally. Support the AFL-CIO, it's doing the right thing.