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February 16, 2011

Why Green Is Also Blue

Growing up in New Jersey, I was a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen (still am), and I've had the pleasure of seeing him perform live more than a few times. Years ago, Springsteen would typically kick off his encores with a pitch for a local food bank and end with his homespun credo: "And remember: Nobody wins unless everybody wins."

Believe it or not, that phrase actually became a political issue in the 2009 gubernatorial race in NJ. Chris Christie, who professed to be a Springsteen devotee (apparently without listening to his lyrics), took issue with the Boss's call for fairness and equality. Now, as governor of New Jersey, Christie has cut pensions, laid off teachers, and seems to delight in antagonizing union workers who are struggling to make ends meet in these turbulent times.

I'm typing this as I fly home from Washington, DC, after a couple of days of meetings with environmental, labor, and other progressive leaders. Many of us, particularly in the labor and environmental movements, face similar challenges. Just as green groups and public-health leaders are fighting against attacks on environmental and public-health protections that have been in place for more than forty years, so too are America's workers trying desperately to prevent rollbacks on their rights to collectively bargain for fair wages and a safe workplace.

I'm proud of the Sierra Club's role in forging a tighter bond between the environmental and labor movements. We call it the Blue Green Alliance, and it's a natural fit, because hard hats and tree huggers share fundamental goals and values, including the right to safe and healthy working conditions and the creation of good clean-tech jobs in America and abroad.

Dirty-energy corporations and their political allies share different goals and values. But it's still shocking to see Tea Party-backed governors like Christie and Wisconsin's Scott Walker union-busting with the enthusiasm of a coal-company kingpin. Walker and the state's Republican-controlled legislature in Wisconsin plan to summarily strip almost all of Wisconsin's public employees of their right to organize and bargain collectively.

Walker's excuse is that Wisconsin (like a lot of states) has a budget deficit. But rather than work with public employees to figure out a solution, he wants to silence them forever. The money he saves will come out of the paychecks of dedicated public servants who are already earning less (4.8 percent less, in fact) than their counterparts in the private sector.

Why should environmentalists care? Martin Luther King, Jr. put it best: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." If America's workers lose their voice, then corporate polluters will have won a giant victory and all Americans will end up paying a price.

If you need an example, here's a spectacular one: Last year's Deepwater Horizon oil explosion began as a workplace health and safety incident in a nonunion work setting. It turned into the worst environmental disaster in our nation's history. If the 11 workers who were killed had been members of a strong union, their lives might have been saved -- and the oil spill itself might never have happened. We know that unionized workers are more likely to sound the alarm about workplace hazards -- and so do the companies they work for.

That's why Wisconsin Sierra Club activists were among the 10,000 people who turned out in Madison to protest Governor Walker's union-busting yesterday, and it's why the Club will continue working closely with our brothers and sisters in the labor movement to build a stronger, more equitable America that protects the health of our communities, creates clean-energy jobs, and advances policies that help working families across the country. That's an America where everyone does win.

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