What's Next for Blue-Green Relations?

New York’s Consolidated Edison is facing both workforce cuts and demands on infrastructure from stronger storms. Climate change adaptation could add jobs. (photo: Bloomberg)
This is the second entry in a series examining the relationship between environmentalists and labor unions. 

It was 1967. United Auto Workers executive board member Olga Madar went to Congress on behalf of her union and asked the federal government to curb air pollution by putting tighter emissions regulations on the auto industry. The testimony she gave could have easily come from any major environmental group at the time:

"We make little progress when we find that the gains in better health are negated when the worker leaves the plant and finds his community's living environment polluted…” she said. “[There is] an air and water pollution problem of such magnitude that it has caused some of our leading social thinkers and scientists to conclude that we are in the midst of a struggle of life and death."

Such strident defense of environmental issues was not unusual among the era’s leading labor leaders. From UAW President Walter Reuther to AFL-CIO Legislative Representative James F. Doherty, the 1960s and early 70s saw a barrage of union officials making the connection between workers’ rights and environmental activism.

Today, however, one is more likely to hear about an insurmountable rift between environmentalists and unions in the US.

Obama’s decision on whether or not to permit Keystone XL, for example, was seen as a difficult choice because, as Sheldon Alberts of Canada’s National Post wrote, “he risks alienating elements of his own political base no matter what decision he makes.” “Environment vs. jobs” had become so pervasive that observers were now slipping in proxies: “environmentalists vs. labor”.

There was ample evidence for this, of course. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, United Association of Plumbers and Pipe Fitters, the International Union of Operating Engineers all expressed support for the pipeline. The largest contingent of pipeline supporters at the final State Department hearing in October 2011 was members of the Laborers' International Union of North America.

Environmentalists pointed to alliances with the Transport Workers Union of America and the Amalgamated Transit Union on the matter, but coalition-building between enviros and labor has been happening elsewhere too.

Days after that State Department hearing, environmentalists were meeting with oil workers with Louisiana’s United Steelworkers District 13 to discuss the “future of oil”.

“It wasn’t as confrontational as I would have expected,” said Rob McCulloch, Legislative Advocate for Transportation and Transit Issues at the BlueGreen Alliance, the organization that sponsored the event. Both sides saw common ground in fighting for workers’ health and against the replacement of their jobs by contract workers.

The BlueGreen Alliance has been putting together such meetings at the local level for years and McCulloch said it’s a great way to break the ice, build relationships and trust and ultimately create unassailable coalitions that can win on policy issues. When he visits Congress, “they pay more attention because we’re not a special interest group. We’re representing their constituents,” he said. Speaking for environmental groups or labor alone just doesn’t carry as much weight with lawmakers.

Still, there’s potential that remains untapped. After the failures of the Employee Free Choice Act in 2009 and the American Clean Energy and Security Act in 2010, the limits of their partnership, at least on the federal level, became apparent.

There are also some issues that the two sides simply won’t see eye-to-eye on. Coal mining in Appalachia, for instance (save for mountaintop removal). McCulloch said it’s easier to start with the things you agree on to get comfortable working with each other.

Jenny Brown of Labor Notes recently wrote about the ways that 2012’s climate change impacts have strengthened the Blue-Green relationship:

The 185,000-member National Nurses Union came out against the [KXL] pipeline in early February [2013], joining the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers Union.
“It’s easy for us to take this position,” said Jill Furillo of the 37,000-member New York State Nurses Association. “Our members are on the front lines of seeing the effects of the environmental crisis.”
After Hurricane Sandy, New York nurses not only took care of those injured in the storm, they also evacuated patients from hospitals crippled by loss of electricity, carrying critically ill patients down dark stairwells when rising floodwaters wrecked elevators and backup generators.

In 2010, Grist’s David Roberts wrote that ‘Environmentalism’ can never address climate change and the argument still stands. Climate change will impact every sector of society and we can only build a movement if a broad constituency is embraced. A strong union presence at tomorrow’s Forward on Climate rally (the largest in US history) indicates this growth may be occurring.

Book Review: The Great Inversion

Websites like The Atlantic Cities seem to publish new statistics on the Millennial generation's affinity for urban living at least once a week. Articles like The End of Car Ownership; It's Official: Downtowns are Booming; and Will Millennials Stay? Alan Ehrenhalt gives some context and nuance to this 21st century shift in urban thinking by profiling a number of unique American cities on the verge of change in The Great Inversion.

Ehrenhalt's thesis is that the post-war demographic shift is now seeing its inverse with young and affluent (largely white) people moving to the city while immigrants, minorities and poorer people are heading to the suburbs.

Despite this basic premise, the cities and neighborhoods Ehrenhalt visits are all facing unique challenges. There's New York City's Financial District that's seeing an unexpected conversion of office space to residential, but without the mom 'n pop shops deemed vital to a healthy community by famous urbanist Jane Jacobs. There's Phoenix and the suburbs of Denver, CO struggling to redefine themselves as "walkable, transit-oriented" in an era far removed from the post-war sprawl mentality they were born into. And there are places like Philadelphia ("Bostroit") that are thriving in the downtown core but remain crippled under a glut of abandoned buildings elsewhere.

It's clear that the urbanist revival of the past 15 years or so is still struggling to find its footing. Much of the development (in the suburbs especially) seems to capture the facade of city life, but not its heart. Reston Town Center in Virginia, West Hartford, CT's Blue Back Square and the rest of the new crop of polished suburban "downtown centers" seem more eager have people buy things than to foster civic engagement.

There are two factors that Ehrenhalt glosses over to the book's detriment. The first is the role that energy, climate change and resource scarcity play in the future of cities. He cops out by saying he's not an energy policy expert, a frustrating statement considering cities consume 75% of the world's energy and the enormous challenges they face in light of that.

And while race and inequality are part of his thesis, Ehrenhalt says that there's nothing much to be done about segregation by class, that it's "a fact of American life". In this way he brushes aside the idea that equality (or lack thereof) might be the most important factor determining the shape of our cities. Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá (it's difficult not to quote a Colombian mayor these days) puts it best: "A city needs to show as much respect for a person riding a $30 bicycle as it does for someone driving a $30,000 car." American cities just aren't there yet.

Equity and Sustainability in Washington, DC

Elvert Barnes / Flickr
I moved to DC at an interesting time: after years of declining population, the city now has more people than it's had in 2 decades: 617,000. As Grist has pointed out, cities are the new suburbs in terms of desirability. Young professionals don't want the 'burbs they grew up in: they want transit-friendly, lively neighborhoods and DC is seeing the effect of this shift.

But the obvious downside to this trend is that property values rise with desirability, making it harder for low income (and often long-time) residents to stick around gentrifying neighborhoods.

This was one of the major themes that surfaced in tonight's Sustainable DC community discussion on equity. The conversation was charged at times (as a new resident, I mostly sat back and tried to figure out what was going on!), but even the tough topics were satisfying to hear spoken about so candidly.

Segregation in the DC-metro region (blue is white, red is black: WaPo)
In the midst of Mayor Gray's Sustainable DC initiative launched last year (with the intention of making DC the "healthiest, greenest and most livable city in the US"), the city faces some tough stats: an 18% poverty rate, 11,000+ homeless, a 25% unemployment rate in Ward 8 where our meeting was held.

With those kinds of problems, the word "sustainability" certainly sounds a bit elitist, but everyone agreed that's more of a framing and communication issue than a substantive disconnect. At its core and done right, sustainability is about fostering resilient communities and that's something everyone can hitch their wagon to.

The insights from Wards 7 and 8 residents were valuable to hear. They live in a catch-22 situation: frustrated that they have to travel to other parts of the city for work, shopping and healthy food, but weary of developers that might come into their neighborhood to build fancy housing and amenities for rich folks. In either scenario, access to the benefits of a healthy community are out of reach.

It's easy to see why "green" can be seen as a tool of gentrification, but not if diverse voices are given the chance to define sustainability for themselves. As one participant said: traditionally "green" cities like Seattle or Portland don't "feel black". What works for Portland, in other words, is not necessarily what will work for DC, a city with a majority African-American population.

There are also more political and bureaucratic issues: how do zoning and education, for instance, and advisory neighborhood commissioners influence residents engagement with sustainability? What's the best way to communicate Sustainable DC to people? Who are the best local partners to work with?

Dennis Chestnut, a local hero and Director of Groundwork Anacostia, summed up the best way to reach out to underserved communities: "Come with resources, come with an open mind, and listen". Listening is an excellent place to start.

Technology is Not the Answer

I can't count the number of times I've been discussing environmental issues with someone when they offer technology as a solution to the problem - "Just wait for cold fusion!" they say, or "We should ramp up nuclear" or "Electric cars!". Leave it to the innovators.

Ehhhh. Wrong answer.

I've long felt that the problems are deeper than that. That we need to hold up a mirror to ourselves and scrutinize what we find: our culture, our economic systems. I was pleased to discover a film last night at the DC Environmental Film Festival that so succinctly captures this idea, Surviving Progress:


The filmmakers don't offer a prescription, but they do suggest a theoretical way out. Nature is running the human experiment, they say, and it's looking like it might not work out. The problem is that we're running high-tech (and technology obsessed) software on hardware - the brain - that's over 50,000 years old. To make the jump, we have to tap into some collective, innate moral potential. It's a long shot, but wouldn't it be transcendent if we managed to make that leap?

"The Most Fully-Realized American Place"

Last month I reviewed Taubman's new photography book Detroit: 138 Square Miles. In it, Jerry Herron describes Detroit as "the most fully-realized American place", a place created by leaving and forgetting, by immigrating "moment by moment to someplace we hadn't dreamed of yet", a place where we sacrificed the past for material plenty.

My friend Anoop (who used to live in Detroit) recently pointed me to this video which illustrates those ideas in a video format. On the one hand, Michigan occasionally seems like a mundane place to me (as the place we grow up often seems to be). On the other hand, stepping away for awhile, it really is an interesting, almost mythic place when viewed through the lens of industrial history:

North Carolina by Train

I took a trip to Durham, North Carolina for Thanksgiving to visit some friends. The city seems filled with mystical pine forests. I managed to snag a window seat on the crowded Amtrak train down to check out all the interesting rusted detritus of industrial America: piles of glimmering junk yard metal, small towns that had seen better days, abandoned and abandoned-looking factories, rail cars full of coal, clear-cut fields. Taking a train ride is like peering behind the curtain of our manufacturing infrastructure.

My seatmate happened to be reading a new book on environmental economics (The End of Growth by Richard Heinberg). This guy must be cool, I thought, and after striking up a conversation with him, discovered I was sitting next to NPR newscaster Paul Brown. I love travel serendipity!