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.

Another One Bites the (Coal) Dust

On my way to an Anacostia Riverkeeper event at the unique Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens this morning, I passed by PEPCO's Benning Road power plant in NE DC, which was shut down two months ago. Such closings are part of a national trend: US power generation from coal dropped nearly 20% in just one year, mostly due to cheap natural gas prices (which, unlike "all-of-the-above" boosters, I'm highly ambivelant about, but that's another story).


The plant shut down on June 1, but coal cars are still lined up next to the Minnesota Avenue Metro station:

Burning toxic rocks for energy? How passé.


Of the power plant's lasting legacy, the Sierra Club has this to say:
The big issue is the possible PCB contamination of the soil on this 70-acre site and the leaching of those chemicals into the groundwater and the river it abuts. Many of the homes in this section of the city require sump pumps to remove water from basements flooded by underground creeks. We have recently heard that the water entering these homes comes with odd odors. Though only anecdotal for now, our coalition and local community leaders are beginning to mount an environmental health study to determine if residents are being directly exposed to toxins in the water. 
Via Clean Water Action:
The plant, which only operates ten to fifteen days per year during periods of peak energy demand, will be officially closing in 2012. However, Benning Road will remain a major threat to public health until 100 years of pollutants and toxins are thoroughly mitigated... It will be important for citizens to be active in pressuring the DDOE to complete a timely cleanup. For too long we have accepted that the reality of the Anacostia is pollution and poor health for communities downstream.

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.

Women and Climate Change in the Developing World

January's DC EcoWomen speaker was Suzanne Ehlers, President & CEO of Population Action International. Ehlers had a lot to say about the importance of women's reproductive rights in general, but also the connection between women's rights and environmental issues. She pointed us to this recent video produced by PAI about the ways that climate change is effecting women's lives in poorer regions of the world where access to natural resources is a daily struggle.

Book Review: Detroit: 138 Square Miles

There are many haunting images in this gargantuan photography book by Julia Reyes Taubman, but the one that devastates my dad is a picture of two disintegrating steam Bob-Lo boats docked next to a US Steel plant in west Detroit. For nearly 100 years, the boats carried generations of Detroiters to Bob-Lo Island amusement park on the Detroit River. I vaguely remember riding in one myself as a kid - if there was anything exotic and exciting about living there, that was it.

To my dad, the abandonment of these boats is nothing less than the desecration of our elders. The rusting stacks, the ghostly white sheets hanging off the sides: these images are hard to look at for someone with affectionate memories. That the boats are now docked next to a steel manufacturing plant is weirdly insulting.

Photos of abandoned Detroit, aka "ruin porn" are pretty cliche at this point. Everyone's seen a photo of the empty Michigan Central Railroad Station or crumbling ceiling in some old factory. On the other hand, it's hard not to take a photo of abandoned buildings in the city - they're everywhere. Taubman's book contains many pictures of these ruins, but they don't feel like a rehash. The color tones, the sometimes ethereal perspectives seem to come from a place more of empathy and history than exploitation.

The East Side's empty lots (Photo: Taubman)
As an environmentalist, I was drawn to Taubman's photos of heavy industry. From the Marathon Oil tank farm and piles of coal on Zug Island to the Detroit salt mine and Ford River Rouge Plant, there are some epic images of the guts of our country's manufacturing legacy. Even my dad, who's been to some of these sites at ground level was surprised at the extent of the operations in Taubman's areal views.

"US Steel's manufacturing operations entirely occupy Zug Island" (Photo: Taubman)
The book provides visual confirmation of why zip code 48217 was recently identified as the most polluted region in the state. Michigan Radio's Environment Report has been following the expansion of the Marathon Oil refinery (the only oil refinery in Michigan) in the last month, particularly the buy-out offer Marathon's given to people living in surrounding neighborhoods. The expansion would "upgrade" the plant to allow it to process -- surprise, surprise -- tar sands oil from Canada. In Taubman's photos, the refinery's impossible tangle of pipes and smokestacks is fascinating and creepy.

There are people in Taubman's book too, but they are usually overshadowed by their surroundings. For instance, there are a few grainy, snap-shot quality photos of smiling people hanging out in dim bar rooms. After being inundated with images of architectural emptiness, these informal shots feel more weighted than they might be otherwise because we want to know what it takes to live here.

In the introduction, 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. By documenting the results of this driving character, Taubman forces us to question our cultural values.

You've Been Negotiating All My Life

As many expected, the high-level posturing at COP 17 in Durban has been a disappointment - sane people recognize that the 2020 date proposed for a legally binding deal for carbon reduction simply doesn't match the urgency that the scientific findings are demanding of us. Those who point this out, notably the youth contingent most effected by these negotiations, are being led away in handcuffs. Here are two videos from today, the first of Anjali Appadurai was just posted on the 350.org Facebook page and is worth the viral treatment:


And here's video of the protest this morning:


Talks were expected to conclude today, but have run over until a negotiation can be reached. The Guardian has been keeping a succinct play-by-play of developments at COP 17.