Hey Mr. Green,
Since when did the Sierra Club start taking up union issues? My yearly dues say, “Stick to the environment," but I recently got a message from the Club urging me to support the Employee Free Choice Act.
–Paul in Richmond, California
The Sierra Club's position on the Employee Free Choice Act is based on the need to build green alliances and coalitions to promote a green economy. Many unions have been strong advocates for safety standards to protect their members from toxic substances and pollutants. In these industrial situations, the health of a union's workers coincides exactly with the goals of the environmental movement. Moreover, the growth of a green economy will be much stronger if it offers well-paid, safe jobs that union protection can provide.
The Employee Free Choice Act would allow employees to choose to unionize a workplace by simply by signing cards rather than going through an election process. It’s well-known that employers can intimidate or even fire pro-union workers during elections to decide on unionization, causing unions to lose. This is why Free Choice legislation is so important to labor. Seems to me that's not asking for much.
Alliance with unions is not something new for the Sierra Club. In the early 1990s, for example, the Club (and some other major environmental groups) allied with labor in opposing the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA). They rightly predicted that outsourcing jobs to countries with weak environmental laws would amount to outsourcing pollution.
More recently, the Club has been joining with unions like the steelworkers in the Apollo Alliance, which is pushing for major government support of clean energy. In advocating for green projects, the unions have common cause with environmentalists because it in the unions' interest to create jobs in this area. (The mere fact that installing alternative-energy equipment can't be outsourced is something both groups can take comfort in.)
Beyond these specific issues, because the unions generally support pro-environmental political candidates, stronger unions generally promote stronger environmental policies. The depressing rise of anti-environmental policies since the Reagan administration is, in my opinion, related to the decline in union membership. In the mid-1950s, 35 percent of the workforce was unionized. By 1983 it had dropped to 20 percent, and now stands at 12 percent. It's also likely that erosion of union membership is one of the causes the oft-bemoaned demise of the middle class. What this means for the green economy is simply that the typical homeowner has less to spend on green technologies.
Having said all this, I'm realistic enough to understand that tree-huggers and construction workers aren’t gonna be smooching inside the cabins of earth-moving machines any time soon. Environmental interests can crash head-on with union interests, as, for example, when construction unions push for development and road-building that environmentalists oppose, or when autoworkers were as gung-ho for producing gas-guzzling SUVs as their bosses were. Such differences are bound to occur because the unions' foremost concern is jobs and income for their members. But even where there is serious discord, if environmentalists move closer to unions, they will be in a much better position to enlist union backing for green projects. Despite inevitable clashes between environmentalists and unions, in the long run, stronger unions will beget stronger environmental policies.