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August 31, 2009

Blue/Green — Making It Work Takes Work

Since the first Earth Day events of the 1970’s, progressive labor activists and many environmentalists have dreamed of a grand coalition of blue-collar workers and so-called greens. This coalition would, we hoped, expose the inherent exploitation by market capitalism of the Earth and its inhabitants. After the loss of millions of industrial jobs from North America, several large-scale environmental disasters (Exxon Valdez, Bhopal, Love Canal) and the real threat of global warming the blue green army was ready to march in-step. I wish!

On paper we have all the elements of a broad-based coalition. But we face many obstacles to building a true blue/green movement, including some basic conflicting needs. Sometimes it is what the various partners do well that gets in the way of collaboration and progress: unions must do a good job of representing their members; green businesses, like all businesses, must compete in a tough economy. If we are going to build a movement together, we need to understand that how we do things is as important as any goals we set.

Labor unions in the United States have a long history of fighting to achieve higher standards and then protecting those standards on behalf of their membership. In spite of media attempts to paint it otherwise, most labor unions are effective and well run organizations. The same skills that enable unions to be effective also militate against them engaging what is new.

Most working people feel that change too often comes at their expense. New technologies, for example, are often introduced with new workers and incumbent employees are dislocated. The loss of so many industrial jobs and the arrival of new workers from around the globe have contributed to a growing defensiveness on the part of workers and their union leaders. Today, labor does see in the green economy a chance to gain new manufacturing jobs as well as thousands of jobs retrofitting buildings with green technologies. However when environmental organizations come forward talking about, “new jobs”, many workers hear, “new employees”. The potential for disruption in their lives is an alarm as loud as any global warning.

The business side of the green movement also has needs and self interest. Many of the business leaders of the green movement are highly motivated entrepreneurs who want a better world. That being said, if green businesses are going to be successful they must play in the real economy and the competition does not allow them to ignore costs and pricing.

It is interesting to me to see that many green businesses call for new regulation and local sourcing. These are issues that appeal to organized labor. It is also true that many in the green economy need to protect their investment and pay attention to the bottom line. When we talk about sustainable economies we need to recognize the tension that exists between sustainable wages and benefits (which unions need to defend) and a fair return on investments.

Try as we might to think otherwise, a business is still a business, green or not, and the union is the union. Many union leaders feel strongly that the only, “sustainable” wage is the union rate. Union wage standards are usually achieved over a long period of time to reflect the value of the work being performed. For many green businesses (often start ups) that have no experience working with unionized labor, this can be a real problem. With the federal government making large amounts of money available for weatherization projects we can expect this discussion to become more immediate and sharper. I recently had an executive of a non-profit organization, “explain”, how he had family roots in the United Auto Workers but felt that the union had no place in his affordable housing organization. This exact argument was used by the so-called nonprofit hospital industry against unions in the 1960’s.

Now, add to the equation the environmental justice organizations. These job-conscious, community-based organizations are often left out of the discussion about what should be developed in their communities and get put in a position of having to block projects just to get to the table. More often than not, we are talking about communities of color who have a long history of struggle for civil and human rights. The EJ movement is both the most militant and most reasonable component of the emerging blue/green alliances. Its members are not willing to be left out and will fight to be part of the plan. When at the table, they are, in fact, the most constructive in offering serious proposals to move things along. The best example of this is the role the EJ community has played in New York City in the Mayor Bloomberg’s 2030 Plan. The EJ coalitions supported attempts to get a ”job analysis” of the 2030 Plan. They also were willing to go beyond wage discussions in getting at the sustainability issues. Jobs, job training and apprentice opportunities in the trades were all of concern to the EJ groups.

But life is more than a job! It was also the EJ organizations that pushed the idea that everyone in New York City should live within ten minutes of a park or a playground. They knew that most of the infrastructure was in place because they lived in the communities of the City. It was a question of priorities not resources. Neither business nor labor would have brought that to the table.

The making of a successful green /blue alliance will require that we look at old relationships in new ways and seek new solutions. If we try to pretend that our desire for a new green world will overcome all of the old contradictions all by itself, we will relive the worst aspects of the 20th century. This time around we need a new sustainable economy founded on a commitment to justice, worker rights, a livable planet and real democracy. To achieve it, we need not only to act in new ways and form different kinds of coalitions and working relations, but learn to listen to each other using some old technology: our ears.


Ed Ott has been active in labor for forty years. He is co-founder of Urban Agenda and NYC Apollo and a Distinguished Lecturer at the School of Professional Studies of CUNY. He also consults for On Politics and Labor.

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