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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Teamsters and Turtles

Air Date: Week of May 4, 2001

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Transcript

CURWOOD: Labor and environmental activists marched together again recently in Quebec to protest the prospect of a free trade area of the Americas. The event drew comparison to the 1999 demonstrations in Seattle, when the group's partnership was dubbed the Teamsters and the Turtles. At the same time, though, the Teamsters, along with some building trades unions, came out in favor of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The environmental movement, of course, has largely opposed oil extraction in ANWR. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum joins me now. She's been speaking with key players involved in the so-called Blue-Green Alliance to find out how they're dealing with this apparent contradiction. Hi there, Anna.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Hi, Steve.

CURWOOD: Now, what does it say about the state of the Blue-Green Union that the teamsters did come out in favor of drilling in ANWR?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, Steve, it actually doesn't say that much that wasn't already clear. The fact is, when it comes to labor and environmental groups seeing eye to eye, some issues like trade are pretty easy and others cause a lot more friction. But both groups have been trying to focus on the positive here, and they'd probably say that the divide on ANWR doesn't take away from the consensus in Quebec on the FTAA Treaty.

CURWOOD: So what were they calling for there in Quebec?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: If any kind of trade accord is going to go forward, these groups want to see strong labor and environmental protections built in. As it stands now, though, they're trying to block the treaty altogether. And they'll do that by trying to stop what's called fast track negotiating authority. Fast track basically makes it much easier for the president to push a trade accord through because it bars Congress from amending it. They can only vote yes or no. And this is how NAFTA was passed in 1993. Labor and environmental groups have opposed it ever since, and, for the most part, they've been pretty successful in defeating it. Now President Bush, of course, is looking to gain fast track in order to push FTAA through, but once again the Greens and Blues are putting up a pretty united front. And without fast track, it's unlikely the trade treaty will go forward.

CURWOOD: Okay, Anna. So, they have agreed on trade. But as you say, that's kind of the easy stuff.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Right. If you want to talk tough there is plenty to talk about. And there's probably no issue that's tougher for environmentalists and labor groups to agree on than climate change. Even so, there's been a strong effort from folks on both sides to try and engage on the issue and see if they can find some kind of common ground. This actually started out with several environmental groups sitting down with the AFL-CIO itself. But the Federation has so many member unions that were in such different places with regard to climate and carbon issues, they couldn't really build any kind of consensus to move the talks forward. So that kind of fell apart. But there were a few unions who wanted to see the talks continue. These include the steel workers, the service employees, and this has grown into sort of an informal working group that's dubbed itself, kind of predictably, the Blue-Green Alliance.

CURWOOD: And so, what have they discovered in the way of common ground?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, the first thing they agreed on was that they couldn't agree on Kyoto. So instead, they've been asking themselves the question: How do we reduce carbon in a way that doesn't hurt workers? The key concept here is referred to as just transition. And they've been developing an economic model that uses tax policies and technology incentives to protect workers through a shift away from fossil fuels. Keep in mind, this isn't a new idea. Just in the last decade we saw Northeast fishermen paid to stop fishing. Now, Maryland tobacco farmers are being paid to stop growing tobacco. And in the 1970s, when California's Redwood National Park was created, a program was put in place to provide benefits and retraining to the loggers there who lost their jobs. But, Steve, whatever the specific policy solutions, I think it's significant that both sides in this discussion say they're making progress simply by starting to trust each other. One negotiator for the Sierra Club told me, before this process, he'd go around talking about, you know, win-win answers to the problem of climate change. And he said these talks have made him realize "oh, well it's really not quite that simple if we reduce our carbon output." Unless we're very careful, there are going to be people who are going to lose out there.

CURWOOD: So where would these potential losers fit into this Blue-Green Alliance?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, that's the big question, I think. You have to consider the workers who stand to lose the most from a shift away from fossil fuels. Auto workers, Teamsters, the big industrial unions. And the best example here are probably the United Mine Workers. They've been threatened already by mechanization and a sharp decline in the number of jobs out there, and they argue that this idea of a just transition, however good it sounds in theory, is simply not realistic. That the legislation needed to make it work just isn't going to happen. They say they are in favor of making coal cleaner. But you know, one mine worker told me he'd heard an environmentalist recently compare clean coal technology to the idea of a clean cigarette. So from his perspective, the environmental groups haven't taken miners seriously, they haven't addressed their concerns, and it looks like unless they do, there isn't going to be a real dialogue here.

CURWOOD: So, where do things go from here? I mean, beyond climate change and trade, what's ahead? What's on the horizon for these labor and environmental groups?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, there's an interesting conversation just beginning around the issue of toxic chemicals. Specifically, an organization called Health Care Without Harm has been talking with chemical workers about phasing out the use of polyvinyl chlorides in health care. And it's certainly too early to call this a coalition yet, but just a couple weeks ago the umbrella group that represents the largest number of chemical unions in the world agreed to meet and talk about what this kind of transition might look like.

CURWOOD: Sounds pretty rosy to me.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Well, I wouldn't say that. Remember, a lot of what we're talking about still exists largely on paper. And there are plenty of examples where labor and environmental groups are working together and losing. Just in the past couple months, they opposed the nominations of Gail Norton, John Ashcroft. They also rallied against President Bush's decision to block what are known as the responsible contractor rules. And they spoke out against the reversal of the new ergonomic standards. And these are lost battles. Last year, don't forget, they lost a big one with the Clinton administration over Most Favored Nation trading status with China. So you know, critics call this a marriage of convenience. And it's true; when it comes down to it, we are not talking about a movement here. These are two movements with distinct responsibilities, just trying to find places where they can come together. But there's definitely growing recognition within both camps that they probably need each other if they want to win. And don't forget, they've been working together in one form or another since the first Earth Day. I'd say they're in it for the long haul.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum. Thanks so much, Anna.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Thanks, Steve.

 

 

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