Labor and Environmentalists Reenergize The Green Jobs Movement

Derek Pugh

Can something be equally beneficial for both the environment and the economy? Leaders of the nation’s largest environmental organizations and labor unions say yes. This week in Washington, the BlueGreen Alliance will be holding its annual conference, appropriately themed “Good Jobs, Green Jobs.”

Often considered each other’s adversary, both the labor and environmental movements share the same goal of putting America on a sustainable path. David Foster, President of the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation, opened yesterday’s kickoff event by saying that both groups agree “90 percent of the time,” and that they share the same “desire for change.”

Combating climate change while simultaneously creating good-paying jobs is a reality that our country has not taken seriously enough. More than 50 percent of our schools are more than 50 years old, as well as our more than 2.5 million miles of existing pipelines. Retrofitting our schools and repairing our existing infrastructure not only leads to a more energy-efficient country, but also a more prosperous one.

Modernizing and fixing our current infrastructure should be one of America’s top priorities, especially while interest rates remain low and unemployment high. Moving toward a greener economy can rebuild our middle class by providing jobs, better working conditions and a higher standard of living. Showing how the interests of workers and environmentalists intersect, Leo Gerard, president of United Steelworkers, noted, “There is more steel used in one wind turbine than in 100 cars.”

Climate change also burdens taxpayers and is a direct threat to our national security. For example, if the U.S. continues to burn fossil fuels at its current rate, ocean temperatures will increase one degree every 10 years. While this may not seem like a lot, scientist have shown that warmer waters lead to more powerful natural disasters, such as superstorm Sandy. Already, from 2004-2011, more than $80 billion was allocated for disaster relief.

Green jobs are not only more advantageous to our overall economy and future, but also to human needs. Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, said, “environmental rights and worker rights are one in the same.” Members of labor unions are disproportionately put at risk for being exposed to pollutants while working and therefore overwhelmingly support environmental protections. Green jobs allow workers to have clean and safe working conditions. In the U.S., environmental pollutants have already led to higher rates of mortality, and just recently, China acknowledged the existence of cancer villages due to its pollution.

Several panelists discussed the election of 2008 and President Obama’s broken promises of change. While issues surrounding social equality have triumphed over the past five years, economic justice has not. Both climate change legislation and labor laws have failed to see progress as CEO pay soars and banks, once again, get bigger. This is the first time since 1935 that the U.S. has not had a fully functioning National Labor Relations Board, and due to this, the rights of workers are continually threatened.

As the nation struggles to combat climate change and rebuild the middle class, organizations and leaders must not fall for the allure of self-reliance. “They will either knock us off one at a time or all together unless we fight back,” said Gerard at the end of the panel discussion.

Neither the labor nor environmental movements can achieve success without one another. And, the U.S. economy and middle class cannot achieve success without both of them. As progressives, we are all in the struggle for a sustainable and equitable future together.

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