Big Labor Partnering With Green Groups to Increase Political Power

In recent years, labor officials have begun to encourage union collaboration with environmental groups. That effort reached a turning-point this summer when the United Steelworkers Union and the Sierra Club announced a “strategic alliance.” The two groups promised to work together to steer federal, state and local taxpayer dollars, as well as tax subsidies and regulatory mandates, to alternative energy projects. Advocates of this so-called “Blue-Green Alliance” claim it will create a win-win situation. Will the partnership mirror the once-powerful coalition of labor unions and leftist ideologues of the last century?

American labor unions have long looked for opportunities to work with far-left groups in American society. In the 1930s and 1940s, industrial unions made common cause with Socialists of all stripes, including members of the Communist Party, and in the 1960s and 1970s, union “reformers” opposed to the leadership of AFL-CIO President George Meany cultivated “partnerships” with left-wing community activists and anti-Vietnam War political militants. Big Labor has always valued political teamwork with groups on the left—and no more than now, as labor senses that its power is on the wane.

Seeking Converts

These days, labor unions are eager to work with radical environmental organizations. The environmentalists seek converts to their utopian vision of man’s subordination to nature. They hope union clout will help them coerce the private and public sectors to adopt policies embodying their ideals. But the unions are working with environmentalists for something far more tangible: They want more taxpayer and worker money. Unions are looking at environmental groups from the standpoint of their own self-interest, which they need to disguise. They have concluded that it’s helpful to associate with green groups that claim to represent the best interests of the public and “the planet.” The Greens can demand that workers be paid “prevailing wages” and be given “cardcheck” and “neutrality” legislation to make it easier for labor organizers to unionize workers. With support from environmental groups, labor unions also can use union member dues for political candidates and causes. Unions think a Blue-Green coalition can work: Greens get to feel less blue about the environment, but the blues get to line their pockets with green.

On June 7, 2006, United Steelworkers Union President Leo Gerard and Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope issued a joint statement. The 850,000-member Steelworkers Union, the largest private sector manufacturing union, was entering a “strategic alliance” with the 750,000-member Sierra Club, the largest U.S. grassroots environmental organization. Together the two would create a historic “Blue-Green Alliance.”

Three Key Issues

A press release laid out its policy and political priorities: “The USW and the Sierra Club have worked jointly on issues of mutual concern for many years, including the Clean Air Act, trade reform and corporate responsibility. Currently, the two organizations have joint projects in 15 states. The new alliance will build on these existing programs and focus initially on three key issues:

  • global warming and clean energy;
  • fair trade; and
  • reducing toxins.

The work will begin in four states: Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Ohio and Washington—with plans to expand into at least 10 more states in the next two years.”

Of the three issues, “fair trade” is obviously one on which environmentalists and labor unions can agree. Both groups misunderstand how economies generate and distribute wealth, and both have distorted ideas of fairness. Moreover, unions oppose the labor market competition that free trade brings.

Since the early 1980s, unions have concentrated their political attacks on international free-trade agreements, especially those with developing nations. While they did not derail these treaties, their determined opposition to NAFTA, GATT, the World Trade Organization and the

recent U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement made the negotiations very difficult and created room for later mischief.

Many of the major environmental groups also opposed the free-trade agreements. Proponents of environmentalism typically suspect trade with poor nations because they assume economic development will despoil the pastoral beauty of societies that seem somehow “closer” to nature despite their rampant poverty. Of course, under-developed societies are usually environmental disaster areas. Improvements in air and water quality require the increased wealth that free trade generates.

Eyeing Federal Grants for Unions

More intriguing are the other two policy initiatives selected by the Steelworkers and the Sierra Club: “global warming and clean energy” and “reducing toxins.” At first, it’s not apparent what interest organized labor would have in these issues of science and technology. Indeed, the images of industrial work are at odds with green activism.

But the unions know what’s at stake: money—federal grants and union dues.

The work of environmental “cleanup” is almost 100% funded by government grants. In 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency spent nearly $8 billion on clean water, drinking water, brownfields, clean diesel, water infrastructure, superfund cleanup sites and the repair of leaking underground storage tanks. State and local governments spend billions more.

The goal of organized labor is to funnel as much “cleanup” money as possible to facilities and workers that are under union control. The income stream of taxpayer dollars—it’s actually more like a Niagara of money—will indirectly benefit labor unions. Moreover, new plants and spending on cleanup sites require new workers who can be targeted for union organizing drives. A typical union will collect an additional $3.5 million in union dues annually for every 10,000 new workers that it organizes.

Unions’ Anti-Business Campaigns

Unions need environmental groups to be complicit with their campaigns. Environmentalism gives union “corporate campaigns” against American businesses an added credibility. Unions are known to have a direct interest in attacking a company, but when an environmental “public advocacy” group says the same things, its voice conveys a message of civic awareness.

Consider the booklet titled “Securing Our Children’s World: Our Union and the Environment” that was published in June by the United Steelworkers. It explains why union members should welcome an alliance with the Sierra Club: “Hybrid and other clean cars [which require remodeling plants and equipment], public transportation [virtually all of which is in unionized closed-shops], efficient heating and lighting systems, and clean renewable power plants [new facilities that can be organized] are the keys to our energy freedom … In the last five years, Blue-Green Alliances have emerged in more than a dozen states, taking on initiatives such as … corporate campaigns against rogue USW employers like AK Steel, Kaiser Aluminum, and ASARCO. Building coalitions to gain strength for progressive causes should become a top priority for our local unions.”

Blue-Green Politics

The statements of any Blue-Green coalition effort tend to address issues of public policy. But the real concern is almost always politics.

One earlier Blue-Green partnership, the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, was a more explicit political coalition of labor unions and environmental groups. Formed in 1999, its list of the “top ten” worst corporations, which included Wal-Mart and Cintas, was a thinly veiled assault on non-unionized corporations. In election years 2006 and 2008, it is inevitable that unions and environmental groups will politically collaborate. They will work together to exploit public fears about the environment.

One key issue: the price of gasoline. Although gas purchases are still low as a percentage of disposable personal income—a median-income family of four spends only a little more than 5% of its income on gasoline—a quick rise in gas prices consistently polls as one of the biggest irritants to likely voters. According to an August 2006 Newsweek poll, Americans trust Democrats over Republicans on the issue by 52% to 25%. This is a particularly vulnerable metric for the GOP since so much of its voter support base is made up of exurban family voters who drive long distances to commute to work and engage in family activities.

Another concern is the war in Iraq. The same Newsweek poll gives Democrats a trust advantage on this issue of 45% to 39%. This is not a large margin, but Republicans should have better results after all the emphasis they have put on national security. Many Americans instinctively know that the War on Terror and the war in Iraq have introduced a “risk premium” into the price of oil. However, they are still susceptible to wild charges that oil companies are war profiteers.

The Blue-Green Alliance of the Sierra Club and the United Steelworkers will exploit these political faultlines. The alliance has identified target states that coincide with Democratic Party political interests in 2006 and beyond. That’s no surprise. Union money—at least $5 to $10 billion each year—flows to the Democratic National Committee, liberal 527 groups and the “member communications” budgets of Democratic politicians.

Despite its many benefits, Blue-Green alliances are potentially dangerous for labor unions already struggling with declining membership and clout. They have the potential to alienate union leaders from their core constituency—union members.

To take on Big Labor over the next several years, critics of forced unionism must be ready to respond to false charges that link worker exploitation to allegations of corporate-sponsored environmental disasters. Fortunately, websites like and challenge these claims.

Americans also must be reminded that unions are allying their organizations to groups favoring population control. Many environmental groups want to reduce the human population to satisfy the purported demands of almost every other plant and animal species on earth. The alliance of labor unions and environmentalism is a losing combination. In particular, Americans living in the exurbs who are disenchanted over gas prices and the quagmire in Iraq need to know whether unions are making common cause with groups that will worsen the conditions that so frustrate them.

Finally, American workers are hungry for public policies that give them real hope. Environmental extremism and more government spending will not create new jobs. If unions endorse the junk-science claims of environmentalism instead of wealth creation and private ownership, they must be called to account.

Marriages of Convenience

The “working class”—a concept developed by opponents of modern market-based economies—spurred the creation of the first labor unions. Karl Marx gave the idea a special twist in The Communist Manifesto of 1848, when he imagined the formation of a powerful class of proletarians who, he predicted, would foment a political revolution against their capitalist overlords. In Europe in the 19th and 20th Centuries, the alliance of union organizations and Communist ideology was frequently unambiguous. But in America, labor unions typically rejected Marxist political theories and they opposed Soviet communism during the Cold War. However, American labor unions have still absorbed many of the concepts and catch-phrases of the Left: their scorn for business, their attack on profits and the profit-motive, and their visions of worker solidarity.

American labor unions are always on the look-out for political allies. Despite their belief that only they could adequately represent workers, unions always have shown an eagerness to work with other special interest groups—as long as union interests were served. A short history of union alliances makes this apparent.

Nativists, Socialists and Democrats

The first successful American association of trade unions was the Knights of Labor, which flourished in the 1870s and early 1880s. It was also the first to forge an alliance with non-union groups with a separate political agenda. Besides making demands for more pay and shorter working hours, the Knights supported monetary reformers who wanted paper money, also known as “greenbacks.” The Knights, who hoped greenbacks would create monetary inflation to depreciate worker debts, backed the “Greenback-Labor” party, whose 1880 party platform also called for an income tax. Political demands like these signaled the direction Big Labor would take over the next hundred years.

In 1886, as the Knights of Labor fell into decline (a victim of internal disputes and suspicions of Masonic influence), Samuel Gompers formed the American Federation of Labor. Its first alliances were with nativist advocates of immigration restriction who wanted to keep out or expel Chinese and Central European immigrants. In recent times the AFL-CIO has changed course, and it is following the lead of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and its president, Andrew Stern. Most labor unions now support looser immigration laws as a way to reverse the inexorable decline in union membership. But for much of its history, the AFL-CIO allied with anti-immigrant groups because it believed restrictionist immigration policies would dry up the labor pool and drive up wages.

While the early AFL was nativist and anti-immigrant, other unions sought out radical and foreign partners. The Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies,” was formed in 1905, and it quickly allied itself with the most extreme anarchists of the age. Meanwhile, Eugene Debs led the rival Socialist Party of America. The Socialists favored participating in the American political system—in order to dismantle it. They favored abolishing the Senate and the presidential veto power. Inspired by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, labor, anarchist and socialist radicals vied with one another over which tactics would lead to the withering the state and the creation of a proletarian paradise.

It was during the New Deal that the current alliance between organized labor and the Democratic Party was forged. President Franklin D. Roosevelt rewarded the unions with passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, and the unions rewarded him by delivering 75 percent of union household votes to his reelection in 1940, not to mention channeling millions of dollars in campaign contributions and get-out-the-vote volunteers to subsequent Democratic party election campaigns. “Clear it with Sidney,” a popular anti-FDR slogan of the 1940s, is what FDR is supposed to have said whenever his aides brought him a labor-related proposal. It referred to Sidney Hillman, chairman of the CIO Political Action Committee, and represented the President’s deference to his union allies.

Labor unions may be at a tipping point. Ironically, the unions that denounce corporate profits hold a single trump card: their own enormous financial wealth. Every year, union coffers take in billions of dollars in dues collections and they receive billions more by administering union pension funds. But union density, the portion of the workforce that is unionized, has plummeted. Today just one out of 12 private-sector workers is represented by a union, and that number is falling. Unions are increasing their membership only in the public sector—and gains among government employees are insufficient to make up for private-sector losses. Where can unions find support? Their opportunities to organize the national workforce are slim and getting slimmer.

To preserve their waning power, labor unions have to create at least the appearance of widespread support. Without organizing prospects or membership numbers, unions have been forced to compensate by building coalitions with other special interest groups. Some of these coalitions deal with public policies (e.g., trade and health care) that would concern union members (although usually union officials are on the wrong side of the issue). But too often unions have signed up for all manner of political and social causes unrelated to the representation of their members. The reason for these alliances is clear: Unions need to be seen to represent larger numbers of supporters than their own organizing campaigns can muster.

Consider the campaign of the Coalition of Labor Union Women. It demands “contraceptive equity.” Apparently, that means requiring health insurance plans that cover prescription drugs to also cover contraceptives. Then there is the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists. It opposes the war in Iraq. The Labor Council for Latin American Advancement opposes Social Security personal accounts. Pride at Work wants sexual orientation to be a protected class under civil rights laws. In her book, Betrayal, Linda Chavez, President Bush’s original choice for secretary of Labor, reports on other peculiar demands made by labor unions. They have included marijuana legalization, statehood for the District of Columbia, forcing the Boy Scouts to admit atheists and homosexuals, abortion rights, participation in the United Nations, a nuclear freeze and gay marriage.

These issues have little to do with representing union members. However, by supporting the political demands of diverse special interest groups unions preserve the appearance of political clout. When union officials march beneath the banners of other protest groups, they feel strong and united—even if their own members aren’t marching with them.

Odd Leftist Coupling

Unions and environmentalists at first seems like an odd coupling. It’s hard to imagine any common interests between a coal miner and a conservationist, a construction worker and a protesting tree-sitter, an autoworker and a recycling enthusiast. Indeed, unions and environmental groups have been political opponents. For instance, some unions support the so-far unsuccessful drive to permit natural resource exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. They know that drilling for oil and natural gas will create jobs, and they will probably be union jobs.

The emerging relationship between labor unions and environmentalism is likely to strengthen. The character of modern leftist politics demands it. Politics has put these two into a symbiotic relationship, and the bonds between them are apt to become increasingly tight and intertwined, as strong as those that propelled labor unions toward socialism in the early years of the last century. This emerging alliance has implications for domestic and international policies affecting labor markets.