Tackling the jobs vs. the environment myth

March 14, 2013

Michael Ware makes the case that the labor movement and the climate justice movement need to link arms to confront a common enemy.

THE AFL-CIO's boneheaded support for expansion of the U.S. petroleum pipeline network is an implied endorsement of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline--and it perpetuates an oil industry myth that we must choose between good jobs or protecting the environment.

Nothing could be further from the truth--as a pipeline disaster from the recent past illustrates.

On July 25, 2010, a 40-foot segment of a pipeline operated by the Canadian-based Enbridge burst near Michigan's Kalamazoo River, eventually spilling nearly a million gallons of Canadian tar sands "oil." The $1 billion cleanup still isn't complete, nearly three years later--the heavy slurry of tar sands and chemicals needed to make the mixture flow sank to the bottom of the river.

Incredibly, it took 17 hours before Enbridge knew the pipeline had ruptured. Why? Automation. Pipelines require few permanent employees to run them. Enbridge's office in Edmonton saw the pressure drop on the line and, thinking it was a bubble, increased the flow, causing an even worse spill. Eventually, a Michigan utility worker--not anyone employed by Enbridge--alerted the company.

Members of National Nurses United protest the Keystone XL pipeline
Members of National Nurses United protest the Keystone XL pipeline

Since pipelines create so few permanent jobs, one could reasonably question the AFL-CIO's call for an expansion of pipeline infrastructure as even a partial solution to the jobs crisis.

Moreover, given the obvious peril the planet faces from clear-and-present dangers like the tar sands pipeline--climate scientist James Hansen says it will be "game over" if the Keystone XL goes into operation--why would organized labor want to ally itself with one of the world's most backward and life-threatening (not to mention anti-union) industries?

Are some tens of thousands of temporary jobs in construction and manufacturing, lasting no more than two years--and just 35 to 50 permanent jobs--worth this price?

AFL-CIO officials claimed their statement was only in favor of pipeline expansion generally and wasn't an endorsement of the Keystone XL specifically.

But the building trades unions skipped over such subtleties, issuing their own statement right after the AFL-CIO's that championed the tar sands pipeline: "The U.S. construction industry has been mired in a depression for over four years now, and shovel-ready projects like Keystone XL and other energy infrastructure projects are badly needed. Today was a victory for moving this important project forward, and we applaud the Federation for standing up for jobs."

The building trades statement is certainly right about the jobs crisis, which has hit construction workers particularly hard. There are few things worse than unemployment and the pressure it places on those trying to support a family.

But the blame for this lies with the 1 percent--and certainly not with environmentalists opposing pipelines that will carry tar sands oil, any more than with immigrants or al-Qaeda, or any other scapegoat the media or the right wing offer as a distraction.

Faced with twin economic and environmental crises, both caused by the free market, working people have to stand together to confront both. Instead, union leaders are siding with those who have spread the misery of unemployment, and who view the health and well-being of living things as an obstacle to higher returns on their investments.

Perhaps some union leaders think they their members will benefit down the line from the natural gas boom brought on by fracking and U.S. capitalism's drive to restructure world energy markets. According to the International Energy Agency, the U.S. will surpass Saudi Arabia as the world's top oil producer in less than five years. Tar sands oil and fracked natural gas--known as "extreme energy" sources because of the high level of environmental damage caused during extraction--are a central part of the plan.

But it's still extraordinarily short-sighted--to put it kindly--for unions to announce support for a pipeline carrying the world's dirtiest fuel, particularly after a year of record heat, droughts and superstorms.

The climate justice movement has been growing visibly stronger with calls for a green jobs revolution to build an alternative energy infrastructure. Instead of siding with millions of working class people drawn to this vision who desire to see real change that doesn't hurt the planet, the AFL-CIO and the building trades unions are siding with climate denialists, the billionaire Koch brothers and the very people who hate unions the most.

SOME UNIONS in the U.S. labor movement aren't buying into the jobs vs. the environment myth. They see the opposite--that the overwhelming evidence of climate change means working people need to fight now for an immediate transition to a new economy, built by union workers.

By taxing the corporations and the obscenely wealthy, millions of jobs could be created, not only to repair the decaying U.S. infrastructure, but to also to build a decentralized power grid, run by millions of solar, wind, tidal and geothermal installations.

The Transport Worker Union and the Amalgamated Transit Union, with over 300,000 members between them, issued a joint statement opposing approval of the Keystone XL. The unions cited numerous concerns, including the high levels of greenhouse gases emitted in tar sands production, toxic spills, damage to the health of nearby communities, and destruction of vast areas of boreal forest. The statement concludes:

We need jobs, but not ones based on increasing our reliance on tar sands oil. There is no shortage of water and sewage pipelines that need to be fixed or replaced, bridges and tunnels that are in need of emergency repair, transportation infrastructure that needs to be renewed and developed. Many jobs could also be created in energy conservation, upgrading the grid, maintaining and expanding public transportation--jobs that can help us reduce air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and improve energy efficiency.

We therefore call for major "New Deal"-type public investments in infrastructure modernization and repair, energy conservation and climate protection a means of putting people to work and laying the foundations of a green and sustainable economic future for the United States.

National Nurses United (NNU), the largest nursing union in the U.S., also opposes the Keystone XL for its contribution to climate change--which, the union points out, leads to increased spread of infectious disease, and waterborne and food-borne pathogens, and to greater air pollution that causes respiratory aliments.

NNU also noted the high risks of spills: Between 200 to 300 pipeline ruptures occur every year, and the gritty and corrosive tar sands sludge will only increase the possibility of spills, especially if it is run through older pipelines, like the 60-year-old line proposed to carry tar sands oil from Montreal to Portland, Maine.

Despite having jurisdiction over tar sands jobs, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) Union of Canada has gone on record opposing expansion of the tar sands pipelines. The union notes that climate change is a dire threat, and that Canada must move beyond a shortsighted strategy of energy exports and transition to a low-carbon economy. While the call is somewhat nationalistic, the CEP stands with Idle No More in decrying the environmental ruin caused on Native lands by tar sands development.

These unions all note that many more jobs would be created through investments in conservation and alternative energies compared to continuing fossil fuel production. Economist Robert Pollin calculated that 16.8 jobs are created for every $1 million invested in renewables, compared to just 5.2 jobs for fossil fuel investment.

Retrofitting homes and buildings to save energy can be done even more quickly than rewiring the country for renewables. This could create thousands of jobs overnight, especially in the hard-hit construction industry, and the energy savings would be enormous.

The One Million Climate Jobs Campaign in Britain calls for real "climate jobs," as opposed to what politicians refer to as "green jobs." Climate jobs cut emissions and tackle climate change directly. Green jobs could be anything related to nature, but don't necessarily address the problem of global warming.

The campaign cites electricity, transport and heating as the main areas for job growth, and proposes funding projects through taxes on polluters and the wealthy. This uncompromising posture is refreshing, but also reflects the urgency that we don't have the time to play by the rules of "political realism," whereby we limit our demands to whatever the elite can stomach.

An uncompromising stance is something that U.S. labor leaders ought to try out more often.

THE 40,000-strong Forward on Climate rally on February 17 is the latest evidence of the rising climate movement and the widespread anger at government failures to meaningfully address the planetary crisis.

Although organizers of the demonstration acted as if only Republican opposition is impeding Barack Obama from pursuing a green agenda, the size and enthusiasm of the rally, along the with the breadth of opposition to the Keystone XL, has created political space for legislation from Sens. Bernie Sanders and Barbara Boxer.

Their bill would impose a fee of $20 per ton of carbon on almost 3,000 facilities that are responsible for 85 percent of greenhouse gas emissions--and 60 percent of the revenues from the fee would be rebated to the public to offset price rises imposed by the fossil fuel companies. James Hansen, the world's leading climate scientist, first put forward the "fee-and-dividend" idea, but he proposed that 100 percent of revenues from the fee be redistributed.

Both versions merit conditional support from the environmental movement--but we need to recognize as well that the Democratic Party as a whole has shown no signs of wanting to fight for this proposal. The carbon fee proposals are dead in the water given the current state of the two-party system--unless politicians feel the pressure of a truly mass movement.

The two mainstream parties will resist our demands for action on climate change because they run counter to the logic of capitalism. No government run by the 1 percent will want to raise taxes on its own class or impose measures that would hamper its ability to compete in the global economy. The short-term drive for profits will always trump the longer-term logic of planetary survival.

The climate justice movement, the indigenous movement and the labor movement must link arms and recognize a common enemy. Labor has a unique opportunity to rebuild itself by spearheading the fight against climate change--and thereby winning full employment and a much stronger base of members and supporters.

Some unions have accepted the challenge, but we have a long road ahead of us. If you're a shop steward or workplace union representative, or a rank-and-file member, propose a resolution against the Keystone XL. Form a committee on climate change. Reach out to local environmental groups. And if Barack Obama approves the Keystone project, be ready to mobilize your workplace and raise hell.

It's time to take back the slogan "Yes we can" for those who really mean it.

Further Reading

From the archives