THE LAST FEW DECADES have not been kind to the folks who brought you the weekend. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are around 16 million Americans on union rolls today. That figure is fully two million fewer folks than were members of labor unions in 1983, an astounding stat considering there has been an increase of more than 40 million in the number of waged and salaried workers in the United States over that period. Today just 12 percent of the workforce carries a union card, down from 20 percent at the kickoff of the Reagan economic boom.
Over the last quarter century the unions lost serious ground. The loss of labor’s influence in the econ-omy is even more pronounced when breaking down the numbers between public and private sector unions. The private sector union rate is less than 10 percent today. Labor’s numbers overall have been inflated by the proliferation of public sector employment at all levels during the steroid era of big government.
Simply, private sector unions don’t matter much to Americans anymore. To the extent Americans think of them, they are reminded of entities whose intransigence has helped draw Detroit and the airlines to the brink of fiscal disaster. A recent Pew Research Center survey on Americans’ political values and core attitudes found that respondents’ views on labor were dimming, with only 53 percent of independents saying they consider labor unions necessary to protect working people. In 2003, 76 percent agreed with that view.
Looking for help as they drown in a sea of political irrelevance, labor heavyweights like the Teamsters, the AFL-CIO, and the Service Employees International Union have reason to believe the Obama administration will throw them a green lifeline. President Barack Obama has promised to use his office to fundamentally transform America’s energy economy, transitioning Americans away from fossil fuels and creating millions of so-called green jobs in the process.
The new green economy Obama routinely invokes holds some hope for private sector unions to slow, if not even halt and reverse, their stunning declines. Obama pledged during the campaign to spend $150 billion to create green jobs, and his administration promises to spend billions more on a host of infrastructure upgrades and other energy-related stimulus projects.
Attempting to capitalize on that environmental commitment, organized labor is latching on to the green jobs movement with gusto. In August, a coalition of labor unions joined with environmental organizations to launch a 50-stop tour visiting 22 states to pressure Congress to pass cap-and-trade legislation. “If you make real things that will reduce our carbon footprint, and create good family-supporting jobs in America, that ought to be the direction this country is going in,” said Leo Gerard, the international president of the United Steelworkers, announcing the Made in America Jobs Tour. “I’ve had enough of Wall Street throwing up on my shoes because they pigged out at the candy store.”
THE MADE IN AMERICA jobs tour is just the latest push by labor to advance Obama’s energy and environmental proposals. The new labor secretary, Hilda Solis, not only is a darling of the unions, she also sponsored green jobs legislation while a member of Congress. The shock troops at the various green jobs summits and rallies held around the country in support of the Obama energy agenda are, ironically, often the same union activists who (at the direction of union officials) performed a lot of the volunteer campaign work for Hillary Clinton in her presidential run against Obama.
What is organized labor’s incentive for going green? For unions, it seems a lot less about saving the planet than about saving (or at least enriching) themselves. With the federal government pledging to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on energy related projects, labor sees a chance to grab a significant portion of that money as well as to ensure that future green energy manufacturing and other green collar employment are union jobs.
“Global warming is a working families issue,” said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney at the Good Jobs, Green Jobs national conference in February just a few short weeks after Obama took office. That event—co-sponsored by a number of prominent labor unions along with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club in a partnership called the Blue-Green Alliance—brought more than 2,000 labor and environmental activists to Washington to set parameters for a massive government employment program under the banner of saving the planet. Gerard called the event “the working-class and progressive movement’s Davos.” The fledgling Obama administration sent Environmental Protection Administration chief Lisa Jackson to pump up the troops, while United Nations Undersecretary General Achim Steiner and others talked up the notion of an emerging “Global Green New Deal.”
On the first day of the Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference, organizers cut off the program at noon so that attendees could flood Capitol Hill just as Congress was fleshing out the stimulus bill. President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act into law two weeks later, and it contained a treasure trove of items from Big Labor’s wish list. One was a provision that applies Davis-Bacon wage mandates to all construction projects funded by the law, including the $25 billion appropriated to green the nation’s schools and federal office buildings. It also applied Davis-Bacon to the Department of Energy’s weatherization efforts, for which ARRA coughs up $5 billion. On top of that, Congress required that iron and steel used in ARRA-funded projects be purchased in the United States, providing lots of work for American steel and ironworkers who have been watching orders go overseas to lower-cost producers.
But that’s not all labor wants in the new green economy. The federal government will spend billions of dollars to subsidize alternative energy production from wind, solar, biomass, and other industries. Those industries are already ramping up to hire new employees. Labor bosses want to ensure that these jobs pay union scale. Too often, they claim, green jobs pay too little. “We did a survey of every job currently being called ‘green’ by employers, and found the majority of them didn’t pay enough to support a family of two,” said Terence O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America. “Every worker building a green product should be able to afford a plug-in hybrid car.” If the government is footing the bill for renewable energy, labor leaders figure, then it can demand that workers be paid what unions for years have called “a living wage.”
The brass ring on labor’s green carousel would be to push the federal government in the direction of green protectionism, levying carbon tariffs against products from low-cost, no-carbon-curbing countries. Energy Secretary Steven Chu naively mused during a hearing about “level[ing] the playing field.” Those comments set off fears of green trade wars. Yet with the strong backing of the Blue-Green Alliance, congressional sponsors of cap-and-trade legislation were considering such a provision as they tried to pass a global warming bill this summer.
THE GOOD JOBS, GREEN JOBS CONFERENCE reinforced the old adage about politics making strange bedfellows. Washington’s Omni Shoreham Hotel was packed with the odd mixture of hardened steelworkers and other union toughs rubbing elbows with the effete eco-cadres from the professional environmental movement. The grizzled shot-and-a-beer types filling the hotel’s lobby and meeting rooms might have a slight degree of common cause with the Birkenstocks-and-granola crowd when it comes to the federal government redirecting billions in taxpayer cash to green programs. But that’s about all they have in common. On Walden Pond is very far from On the Waterfront.
It’s anybody’s guess how long this curious partnership will last. While there are some overlapping interests among the unions and environmentalists, at least on the surface, those interests quickly diverge. The tensions at play soon become apparent.
The Greens want to use the power of Big Government to support and prop up industries and technologies that have a tough time on their own. The clean energy sources loved by environmentalists have significant cost disadvantages compared to fossil fuels and nuclear power. The great Green challenge is to figure ways to narrow that spread, and anything adding to the cost of renewables makes it that much harder to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
The unions’ interest lies in guiding the national enthusiasm for government-sponsored environmentalism in a direction that pays their members high wages and adds numbers to their rolls. That means gaming the rules so that the unions take a cut from the bundles of cash Washington plans to spend. And that means even higher costs than those that would arise from moving toward expensive renewable energy without union add-ons.
While Greens and Big Labor might huddle together in an odd alliance of fellowship and comity in Washington, relations are not as smooth outside the Beltway. Workers at a Clipper Windpower production facility turbine plant in Iowa, for instance, rejected efforts last year by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to organize. Labor leaders grumble about similar rejections at green manufacturing facilities elsewhere.
Still, the national environmental groups appreciate the help from labor in pushing Washington to spend more and more taxpayer money on green energy projects, and are happy to return the favor. That’s why the Sierra Club proudly hung an enormous banner on the front of its headquarters announcing its support for the Orwellian-sounding Employee Free Choice Act (a.k.a. Card Check), another union priority.
What does eliminating the secret ballot in union organizing elections have to do with the environment? Not a damn thing. Welcome to the new green economy.