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March 2012, Week 2

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Mon, 12 Mar 2012 21:44:43 -0400
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Dirty vs. Green Jobs: Labor's Keystone Dilemma 

by Brendan Smith and Jeremy Brecher

Submitted to portside by the authors

These are tough times to be a construction worker in
America. While other sectors of the economy are showing
signs of life, the unemployment rate in the
construction industry is getting worse, not better -
rising from 13% to 16% in January.

It is against this backdrop that the titanic struggle
over the Keystone XL pipleline is being waged. On one
side are unions such as the Laborers International
Union of North America and the United Association of
Plumbers & Pipefitters, who support the pipeline
because they believe that it will create thousands of
high-wage jobs for their members. On the other side are
environmentalists and others who believe the pipeline
will hasten the climate crisis, threaten our water
supplies and increase oil prices.

The fallout from the conflict has been significant.
When six labor unions joined the Sierra Club and other
environmental groups in support of President Obama's
decision to oppose the permit last month, LIUNA
President Terry O'Sullivan accused the coalition as
being "job killers," and withdrew his union from the
BlueGreen Alliance.

Inside Washington, this divide over Keystone appears
insurmountable -- especially since the  "jobs vs.
environment" debate has been played out repeatedly for
decades. But outside of Washington, the very same
unions that support the pipeline are down in the
trenches fighting for a transition to a green economy.

LIUNA, for example, has created OptiHome, an alliance
of skilled workers and certified contractors working in
the energy efficiency sector. The program includes
training and job placement, and has been effective at
bringing a new generation of workers into the green
economy. One of these workers is Tahlia Williams, a
30-year-old single mom had been interested in
construction work for a long time but saw it as "man's
work" and was unsure how to break into the industry.
But after Tahlia completed LIUNA's weatherization
training program she was quickly hired as an energy
efficiency mechanic by the Community Environmental
Center - the largest residential weatherization
contractor in New York City. According to Tahlia, she
is "proud to be working to protect our environment,
while at the same time helping fellow residents save
money on their energy bills and enjoy a more
comfortable home. This is about a better future for my
family, for New York homeowners, and for everyone!"

LIUNA's green jobs agenda has also helped grow the
union. They negotiated a card check agreement with
Conservation Services Group, a company which conducts
nearly a half million home energy assessments annually
for utilities and energy efficiency organizations
nationwide, reaching more than 2 million homes in the
last 25 years. And LIUNA recently chartered a green
local designed for workers specializing in
weatherization and other green jobs. Green Jobs Local
58's first round of recruits graduated from LIUNA's
training center this month and are earning $14 an hour
with benefits. To fund the program, LIUNA joined forces
with local environmentalists to pass the New York Green
Jobs Financing Law that provides funding for
residential weatherization work.

Another building trades union that is riding the green
wave is the United Association of Plumbers &
Pipefitters. UA created the nation's first union
"sustainability office" in the country, which is
developing three new "green" craft-specific
certifications: Green Plumbing/Pipefitting, Green
Sprinkler Fitting, and Green Heating, Ventilation, Air
Conditioning and Refrigeration (HVACR). UA has also
been driving a "Green Systems Training Trailer" around
the country to educate members and the general public
about the importance of energy efficiency.

So despite their support for the Keystone pipeline, on
the ground in cities and towns around the country
building trades unions are at the cutting edge of green
economic development. These green success stories show
that the green jobs path for LIUNA and other
construction unions is not a "pie-in-the-sky" promise
-- these jobs are shovel-ready and offer a secure
future for their members. It is also significant that
some of these unions have stepped out in front at the
international level by joining environmentalists around
the globe fighting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
LIUNA, for example, was one of three unions in the U.S.
to support science-based targets and timelines for
carbon reduction at the 2009 climate summit in
Copenhagen.

But here is the problem: For environmentalists, the
Keystone battle has called into question unions'
commitment to addressing climate change, which is the
primary rational for green jobs and energy efficiency
programs. Some unions are trying to play both sides of
the fence: siding with fossil fuel companies and
Republicans for new coal plants, pipelines and
refineries; while simultaneously teaming up with
environmentalists for green jobs programs. Keystone has
laid bare this contradiction.

The Keystone campaign has also put a strain on labor's
relationship with Occupy -- a movement seen by unions
as a powerful new ally. Indeed, LIUNA's own homepage
features a statement that "LIUNA Backs Occupy Wall
Street Movement. In November the Building Trades
launched the Jobsforthe99.com website and began running
ads in newspapers and radio along the pipeline route,
using the rhetoric of Occupy and the 99 percent to push
for construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. In
response, the main governing body of Occupy in New York
issued a statement of disavowal: "The leadership of the
unions behind this campaign have made a public alliance
with the oil industry and Tea Party funders...We must
dissociate from this attempt at co-optation by the 1%
to preserve our movement as the 99%."

The last decades have shown that partnering with the
right wing and corporations has been a devil's bargain
for workers, whereby companies use unions to push for
environmental deregulation and subsidies for
carbon-intensive projects, while simultaneously funding
"right-to-work" and other anti-union campaigns. This
unholy alliance has crippled unions' ability to
organize workers and laid the foundation for a private
sector unionization rate of less than seven percent.

Unions and environmentalists agree on most issues -
ranging from living wages and health care to corporate
greed and green job creation --  and there is consensus
that defeating the right wing agenda requires
solidarity of the 99%. With this in mind, it's time for
labor and environmentalists to sit down and hammer out
plan for putting union members to work rebuilding our
country and protecting the planet. None of us can build
a sustainable future alone.


Brendan Smith is co-founder of the Labor Network for
Sustainable and senior fellow at the Progressive
Technology Project. His commentary has appeared in The
Atlantic, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Nation,
CBS News.com, YahooNews and the Baltimore Sun Times. He
is a graduate of Cornell law school. Contact him at
www.bsmith.org.

Jeremy Brecher's new book Save the Humans? Common
Preservation in Action addresses how social movements
make social change. Brecher is the author of more than
a dozen books on labor and social movements, including
Strike! and Global Village or Global Pillage, and the
winner of five regional Emmy awards for his documentary
movie work. He currently works with the Labor Network
for Sustainability.

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