Can Democrats Bridge the Divide Between Environmentalists and Unions?

Incoming progressive lawmakers may be optimistic about a green-blue alliance, but environmental and labor leaders don’t seem interested in making any compromises.

Democratic Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
AP Photo/Charles Krupa
Dec. 18, 2018, 8 p.m.

Many Democrats on Capitol Hill are bullish—at least publicly—on a rapprochement between heavy-hitting labor and environmental groups as the incoming Democratic House prepares to push an aggressive green agenda.

But some leaders of those groups, as well as experts in the field, say the focus in the coming months may rest more on self-preservation.

Amid the Trump administration’s anti-regulatory fervor, both constituencies are fighting tooth and nail to advance their agendas and protect past successes. And that may bode poorly for a loftier, longer-term vision of consolidated ranks.

“It feels like the world of a potential green-blue alliance, as they are often called, has faded a bit,” said Erik Loomis, an author and professor at the University of Rhode Island who studies labor and environmental history.

“Labor and environmentalists are both deeply struggling under the Trump administration,” Loomis added. “They’re both focused on their own issues that are obviously of great importance.”

Progressive advocates, like firebrand soon-to-be House member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are pushing a Green New Deal that calls for organized labor taking a role in a renewable-energy transition.

Democratic leadership, however, appears to be doing little to resolve differences in the historically fraught relationship between the labor and environmental movements. And that tension is alive and well in at least some corners of the labor community.

Laborers’ International Union of North America president Terry O’Sullivan on Tuesday blasted the Green New Deal and environmentalists' calls to “Keep It in the Ground,” a catchphrase for a halt to fossil-fuel development.

“If it walks like a duck, if it quacks like a duck, if it smells like a duck—it’s a duck. To me, Green New Deal is just a regurgitation of 'Keep It in the Ground,'” O’Sullivan, speaking alongside a top U.S. Chamber of Commerce official on a conference call, told reporters. “We’ll work with anybody and everybody, and we’ll fight with everybody that we have to.”

LIUNA, which launched in 1903, now represents roughly a half million construction workers. In recent years, O’Sullivan has grabbed headlines for scrapping with environmental groups over pipeline projects such as Keystone XL.

The conference call Tuesday highlighted a Chamber of Commerce report released on the same day. The report argues that environmental activism has canceled or delayed 15 fossil-fuel projects in recent years, dinging the economy for $91.9 billion and costing 728,000 jobs.

O’Sullivan said a climate select committee in the House, one of the top priorities of the Green New Deal, “scares the heck” out of him.

“There’s no comparison between jobs on pipelines [and] cracker plants versus wind and solar,” the longtime union leader said. “We do wind and solar, but they come nowhere near the labor-intense nature of pipeline construction and energy projects.”

“Crackers” are large industrial plants that process ethane, a component of natural gas, into ethylene, which in turn is used to produce plastics. Natural gas powers a growing number of U.S. homes with electricity, but the fossil fuel is also a critical ingredient in plastics manufacturing.

Loomis and other historians say the once close and collaborative relationship between the labor and environmental movements turned fraught in the mid-1970s amid a fierce economic downturn. That crisis sparked the enduring, albeit fiercely debated, narrative that environmental protections cost jobs.

And now, some members of the Democratic Party, which has traditionally relied on labor and environmental constituencies to win elections, are starting to sound alarm bells.

“A lot of work remains to be done. That’s going to be the crux of our ability to save the future of our species: Can we bring together labor with the environmental movement to break from the carbon paradigm?” Rep. Jamie Raskin, one of about 15 House Democrats to formally endorse the Green New Deal, told National Journal.

Raskin appeared to put the onus on labor leaders like O’Sullivan.

“The labor movement wins when it acts like a prophetic voice for all of society, rather than just a special interest,” he said. “Labor leadership here is in an amazing opportunity for the labor movement to redesign its political brand and its future.”

Other Democrats are pushing a common argument that the green economy offers a range of high-paying jobs that will provide a boon to working families.

“I would reject the term 'tension,'” Sen. Sherrod Brown, the Ohio Democrat who boasts some of the largest campaign contributions from labor groups in Congress, told National Journal. “I just don’t see the conflict. I understand there needs to be negotiations and discussions.”

The Service Employees International Union has publicly backed the Green New Deal, but virtually no other traditional labor groups have followed suit. Asked about whether inroads are being made elsewhere, Ocasio-Cortez spokesperson Corbin Trent said, “We’re just in the big stages of this. We’re trying to get a select committee going.”

The Trump administration is forging ahead with the most ambitious rollback of environmental regulations in the history of the country, from restrictions on power-plant emissions to regulations over water quality and chemical safety.

Meanwhile, the administration is taking a similar approach to labor policy. The Labor Department in 2017 effectively killed an Obama-era overtime-pay rule, and the Trump administration argued in litigation to remove employee rights to class-action lawsuits. The Supreme Court sided with the administration earlier this year.

But despite the Green New Deal’s call to “deeply involve national and local labor unions,” observers say that hasn’t been the case so far.

“[Unions] don’t necessarily care what it is they’re building, and they’re more than happy to build green infrastructure if those are going to be union jobs,” Loomis said. “But are environmentalists, as part of their articulation for this new economy, making it explicit that they are going to fight, not just for jobs, but for union jobs? And that’s something that I don’t think they’ve done a very good job at.”

To showcase the lack of a coherent political message, other influential Democrats are steering clear of the labor and environmental divide. Incoming House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, who has gotten heat from environmental groups for criticizing the idea of a climate select committee, refused to speak on the topic.

“I’m not getting into that,” Pallone told National Journal. “I don’t want to discuss it. You’re getting too political.”

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