Enviro groups align with unions in fierce state labor battles

Most Americans view the intense political protests in Wisconsin through an apt but narrow prism: unions versus the governor and his allies. Yet many environmentalists are standing by labor's side in the fray at the state capital.

"We need to stand together to support the people who work every day to ensure that the air we breathe and the water we drink is safe," Shahla Werner, director of the Sierra Club's Badger State chapter, wrote to her members this week about the public employees who have thronged the Madison Statehouse in frustration with Gov. Scott Walker (R).

"These are the folks who connect us to the outdoors at our state parks and forests, and protect threatened and endangered species and the habitats they depend on," Werner wrote.

The union members are mobilized against a budget bill that Walker touts as necessary to close the state's $137 million deficit for this year but most workers view as an attack on labor rights. The bill's broad limits on collective bargaining have drawn the most attention -- but for environmental advocates, the battle in Madison represents a chance to defend their priorities while striking a blow for the middle-class "green jobs" that are often little more than a talking point on Capitol Hill.

A similar dynamic is playing out in Indiana, where Democratic state legislators have followed their Wisconsin counterparts in fleeing to Illinois in an attempt to stop legislation limiting union organizing from coming to a vote. Whether or not the bonds between labor and environmentalists undergo long-term strengthening in the wake of the Midwestern protests, the moment appears ripe for gains by the Blue-Green Alliance, a five-year-old partnership between the two Democratic-leaning camps.


Environmental groups in the Alliance, including the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters (LCV), are working through their local chapters to add green-minded protesters to the ranks in Wisconsin. When the standoff began heating up last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists joined leaders of the United Steelworkers and Communications Workers of America unions in releasing statements of solidarity with the protesters.

For David Foster, a 17-year veteran of United Steelworkers who now leads the Blue-Green Alliance, the Wisconsin standoff crystallizes the contrast between "two very different views on what raises the common good in an industrialized society."

Supporters of Walker's bill, as well as similar state and federal efforts, are "part of an extremist right-wing orthodoxy that says the free market ought to govern everything, from the environment to labor markets," Foster said in an interview.

"There's another very different view that markets are imperfect and society benefits from regulations that we put on them, both to improve the environment and to improve living standards and the power of organizing for working people," he added.

Walker and his supporters sometimes evoke free-market rhetoric in urging labor groups to, as the governor put it yesterday at a news conference, "make a sacrifice" by curtailing some of their generous benefits in order to avert a deeper fiscal crisis.

Beyond ideology, however, the Wisconsin budget bill poses tangible threats to both labor and environmentalist priorities. Limiting collective bargaining in the state's $20 billion forest-products industry could torpedo several companies' certification by the independent Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), thus imperiling their contracts with sustainability-minded national vendors, according to several Democratic legislators.

In addition, green groups are pointing to prerequisites for federal transit funding to argue that limiting collective bargaining among that industry's workers could jeopardize as much as $50 million in Washington aid for Wisconsin bus and rail systems.

"We're already looking at transit cuts, and those [lost dollars] would be devastating," said Werner of the state Sierra Club in an interview. Her group is now pushing for passage of an amendment that would exempt transit workers from collective bargaining limits, one of at least 100 proposed changes to the budget bill that remains in limbo as Democrats continue their out-of-state work stoppage.

Anne Sayers, program director at LCV's Wisconsin chapter, pointed to a third provision in the budget bill with negative ramifications for environmentalists: language allowing the governor to convert press secretaries and liaisons at the state agriculture and natural resources departments into politically appointed positions.

After green groups narrowly lost a fight last year to restore the natural resources directorship to an independent post -- a proposal vetoed by Walker's Democratic predecessor -- extending political sway over state environmental planning would be an even more stinging setback, she added.

"This is a rare moment in history when a proposal is so bad, has such sweeping repercussions, is being done in such a thoughtless way, that everyone is united right now," Sayers said in an interview.

Brothers in arms, or for now?

The alliance's work to forge ties between unions and environmental groups is playing an ever-greater role in Democratic messaging, as two sectors that often comprise the party's strongest supporters align their sights on "green jobs" in retrofitting and other clean-energy industries. But whether the Wisconsin and Indiana protests can smooth over the roadblocks to further collaboration remains an open question.

Bowden Quinn, conservation coordinator at Sierra's Indiana chapter, said he would join union protesters at the Statehouse today to show support from environmentalists. Recalling his recent attendance at United Auto Workers meetings and his work with labor on the Grand Calumet Task Force, a partnership between United Steelworkers and conservationists aimed at cleaning up the Indiana river of the same name, Quinn said unions and greens have "definitely been converging" on key issues.

"More and more we see a commonality in our positions, that the Blue-Green Alliance and the steelworkers are supporting us because they see jobs are in renewable energy and energy efficiency," Quinn said in an interview. "It's been kind of slow progress ... but I really like the progress we've made."

Nonetheless, the Midwest is also home to a divisive debate over increased importation of Canadian oil sands that has split unions and environmentalists. While the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, AFL-CIO's Plumbers and Pipefitters, and Laborers International Union of North America have endorsed the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline between the United States and Alberta, deeming it a potent job creator, green groups of all stripes are blasting the project as a threat to ecological and public health.

Sayers, of the LCV Wisconsin chapter, said the current protests are "as far as we can look" in terms of future partnerships with unions. Locals, she added, "are not thinking about this as a union issue ... for everybody I've met, it's a very personal issue with direct impacts on everyone."

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