Leo Gerard is central casting's idea of a labor leader: tough and big. Really big -- 6 feet 2 inches tall and barrel-chested. He's just the kind of guy you'd expect to be the president of the United Steelworkers. So what's he doing palling around with Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope?
"Good jobs and a clean environment are important to American workers," Gerard proclaimed last year. "We can't have one without the other." The occasion was the kickoff of the Blue/Green Alliance, a joint project of the Steelworkers and Sierra Club to promote "Good Jobs, A Clean Environment, and A Safer World." Pope describes the effort as "one of the most important initiatives undertaken by the environmental movement in decades." To underscore this point, last November he and Gerard barnstormed through Minnesota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, spreading the word that clean-energy technologies and conservation can yield millions of new jobs.
Gerard is hardly the first labor leader to join forces with the environmental movement. A generation ago, United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther asked, "What good is another week's vacation if the lake you used to go to is polluted?" But to Reuther, then leading a UAW at the peak of its strength, environmentalism was one more cause a socially responsible union ought to be supporting. To Gerard, it's more than that.
Gerard is outraged by melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and killer hurricanes -- but he sees these catastrophes through a trade unionist's eyes. The overarching issue for him is corporate accountability. Companies that belch out greenhouse gases are driven by the same avarice that he first saw when he started work as a nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario. He argues that a more democratic economy would create jobs that don't endanger the environment. And, if the Steelworkers believe in anything, it's creating jobs.
Though still one of the country's largest unions, the United Steelworkers (USW) has been hemorrhaging members for years. By some counts, barely 30,000 of the USW's 850,000 members now work in the nation's depopulated steel industry. To make up for that loss, the union has engineered a series of mergers that have taken it far beyond the largely shuttered mills of Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Gary. Today, you're as likely to find USW members working at oil refineries, paper mills, or tire plants -- industrial venues that neither provide the kind of job security they once did (not, for instance, with Goodyear's U.S. employees compelled to compete with Chinese tire workers who earn 56 cents an hour), nor point the way to a conspicuously cleaner environment.
Gerard has responded to the double challenge of disappearing middle-income jobs and the advent of global warming by linking the two causes. Under his leadership, the Steelworkers have become the principal union backer of the Apollo Alliance, a coalition promoting a 10-year, $300 billion crash program to develop clean-energy alternatives. Apollo's analysts argue that three million new U.S. jobs could be created by building wind turbines, making buildings more energy efficient, and designing other kindred projects. In creating a new progressive gospel that links labor and enviros, Gerard has built an alliance of genuine strategic importance to the Democrats -- most especially because the two constituencies' current disagreement over congressional efforts to mandate fuel-efficiency standards could drive them farther apart. Long a force for labor solidarity, Gerard has become a force for Democratic solidarity as well.
The 21st century didn't get off to an auspicious start for the steel industry. By March 2003, according to research by Robert Bruno of the University of Illinois' Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations, 37 U.S.-based steel companies, prompted chiefly by soaring imports and retiree benefit costs, had filed for bankruptcy. At the time, one LTV leader mused, "In this market, our members could work for nothing, and it wouldn't do any good." As if to test the point, Cleveland-based LTV Steel demanded that the USW sign off on $1.3 billion dollars in wage and benefit cuts. Gerard's response was to end-run LTV management altogether: He presented the steelmakers' anxious creditors with an asset protection plan that rivaled anything the company produced. Impressed, the creditors agreed to elbow aside LTV's negotiators and bargained a new contract directly with the Steelworkers. The company has since changed hands and shed most of its workforce, but many of the original LTV employees are still on the job -- with their USW contract. However, even the cleverest bargaining strategies can't get around the fact that faced with globalization, the agreements negotiated by unions will continue to look less like contracts than terms of surrender.
Gerard thinks the USW can change that equation. The way he sees it, the Steelworkers' best option is what he calls "new unionism" -- a combination of unabashed populism and internationalism similar to the politics of the New Democratic Party, the labor-backed party in his native Canada. To oppose the "neo-liberal" economic policies of the Clinton era, Gerard revamped the USW's political action program, an operation that had long done a better job producing bumper stickers than producing votes. He not only pumped new money and technology into the Steelworkers' election efforts, he also created a new structure outside the control of local union leaders to identify and train USW activists -- a gutsy move in a union whose internal politics could hardly be called tame.
Like other labor leaders, Gerard has also opted to globalize his union by forming alliances with its foreign counterparts -- unions that represent employees at the same global companies where USW members work. But he's taking the USW's globalism one giant step farther, negotiating a merger of the USW with the newly-formed Unite, Great Britain's biggest union -- a move that would create an organization with 3.7 million members on two continents. The new union, should the negotiations prove successful, would be the first of its kind -- the first genuinely transnational union.
Of all his initiatives, though, Gerard's effort to bring unions and environmentalists together may prove to be the most important.
During the heady days of the 1999 Seattle demonstrations against the World Trade Organization, environmentalists were thrilled by the notion that a grand coalition with organized labor had finally come to pass. As one protest sign read: "Teamsters and Turtles, Together at Last." Since Seattle, however, "at last" has not meant "permanently." There wasn't an herbivore in sight when, in 2002, Teamster President Jim Hoffa, together with the leaders of the Carpenters, Seafarers, and the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department, welcomed President Bush to Teamster headquarters to receive his thanks for backing his plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. "This energy bill that we're working on is a jobs bill," President Bush told the assembled leaders. "Jobs so that men and women can put food on the table!" It was the kind of appeal anti-environmentalist politicians often make to union leaders. The kind that usually works.
Few of the conflicts between the labor and environmental movements have been as intense and long lasting as the duel over energy policy that first took shape after the 1973 Arab oil embargo and the quadrupling of world petroleum prices. In the 1970s, the fight was chiefly over nuclear power: a dream come true for legions of construction workers, the embodiment of evil to environmentalists. One byproduct of that brawl was the effort of groups like the newly formed Environmentalists for Full Employment to find common ground in the development of solar and other alternative energy sources. They argued that two and a half times as many jobs could be created through conservation and the development of solar power than through nuclear power. In 1978, with the support of the Carter administration, Earth Day leader Dennis Hayes tried to jump-start a movement for renewable energy by organizing the now all but forgotten Sun Day. The effort had the support of the UAW and the Sheet Metal Workers, but drew only a tepid response from the rest of organized labor. It wasn't that unions wouldn't talk about energy or were even averse to reaching to their left to do it. Through the 1980s the Citizen Labor Energy Coalition declared jihad against the oil industry, but the topic of energy and the environment remained off-limits. That's where the issue stayed until the election of John Sweeney as head of the AFL-CIO in 1995.
Seeing environmentalists less as adversaries than as potential allies, Sweeney hired former Friends of the Earth President Jane Perkins to bind up the old wounds and give the labor federation a greenish tint. In addition to her unassailable credentials as an environmentalist, Perkins had been a leader of the Service Employees in Pennsylvania. She seemed like a natural to lead the effort, until she plunged forward with plans to gain labor movement backing for the Kyoto accords. It was a miscalculation, to say the least. The United Mine Workers saw the agreement as the kiss of death for the coal industry, and other industrial unions argued that Kyoto would encourage more U.S. manufacturers to make the move to China, which was exempt from the agreement. Sweeney quickly pulled the plug on Perkins' program. Enter Leo Gerard.
As one of the few union presidents elected directly by his rank and file, Gerard's embrace of the environmental movement might seem a risky move. However, he is probably much more in sync with workers than more traditional labor leaders are. Pollster Celinda Lake has monitored attitudes about protecting the environment and finds that blue-collar workers are greener than many believe. "Working-class families share the same concerns about global warming as everyone else," she says. "They understand that responding to it will require big changes."
Anyone who wants to see Gerard's idea of what those changes can look like doesn't have to go any farther than Cambria County, Pennsylvania. It's home to Johnstown, a legendary steel town where steel production has fallen from a highpoint of two million tons of steel annually to its current level -- none at all.
At first glance, Cambria County seems like one more rust-bowl outpost that crawled out of the wrong side of the 1980s. However, that was before Gamesa, the Spanish wind turbine maker, opened its $50 million factory last year in Ebensburg. It now employs 240 workers. Another new Gamesa plant in Fairless Hills outside Philadelphia is even bigger and is expected to eventually employ more than 500 workers. Though Gerard demurs from taking credit for Gamesa, it's no secret that what helped clinch the deal was the state's commitment to have 18 percent of Pennsylvania's electricity come from clean technologies by 2020. That commitment wouldn't have happened without the support of the USW. Perhaps the best measure of the Steelworkers' role in helping Gamesa settle in Pennsylvania is the fact that the company did everything but roll out a red carpet when the union's organizers came to call. In June Gamesa's workers in Ebensburg and Fairless Hills ratified their first United Steelworkers contract.
Of course, opportunities like Gamesa don't come along often, which is why Gerard became the key backer of the Apollo Alliance. Gerard understood that Apollo could not only be a vehicle for the creation of green jobs, but could also become the big tent for labor and environmentalists. Bracken Hendricks, the founding executive director of the alliance, recalled, "When we started, there was no one talking about clean energy as a jobs issue and no one building a constituency for it among labor. It is both a political and an economic fact that if we want to win the fight on climate change, we have to do it in a way that also builds a stronger economy and more opportunity for workers."
Gerard quickly set about making Apollo into a labor-enviro joint venture. Though the USW wasn't the first union to endorse it, Gerard's passionate support for Apollo gave it the credibility it needed in labor circles. The Machinists joined the effort. So did the powerful and generally conservative International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Others were tougher sells. The Laborers, Operating Engineers, and other construction unions historically had a big stake in building nuclear power plants, but each came to back Apollo. Perhaps most important of all, Gerard helped Apollo win the support of the Mine Workers, the principal backer of the wildly anti-Kyoto Unions for Jobs and the Environment.
One by one, labor leaders began to buy Gerard's argument that Apollo was labor's best bet for ensuring that U.S. workers would become the beneficiaries, not the victims, of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Gerard's backing for Apollo not only won it the support of the AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Council but also helped it gain the endorsement of its Building and Construction Trades Department and, eventually, the AFL-CIO itself.
Apollo supporters can point to some victories in promoting clean-energy projects at the state and local levels. However, the real test of the coalition will soon come on Capitol Hill. Now that Democrats control the House of Representatives and, more or less, the Senate, blue and green voices are being heard again in Washington. However, they're not exactly saying the same thing.
Convinced that it's only a matter of time before some kind of global warming plan is enacted, unions and environmental groups are quickly lining up behind an array of different proposals. Organized labor's preferred response to global warming is S. 1766, the Low Carbon Economy Act of 2007, sponsored by Sens. Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, and Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican.
Bingaman's proposal would institute a "cap and trade" system, one of a handful of free market responses to social problems that actually seems to work. It would create a trading system where coal-burning utilities, refineries, and other big greenhouse gas producers would buy and sell permits allowing them to pump carbon dioxide, CO2, into the atmosphere. The tens of billions of dollars the federal government would make by auctioning off credits to companies that wish to produce more greenhouse gases than the permits allow would go to finance new clean-energy technologies.
Bingaman's bill isn't the only plan that would create a cap and trade system, but its supporters say it is the one best geared to protecting jobs. They argue that with its emphasis on funding technology to help finance the reduction of CO2 emissions from coal-burning power plants, the bill would throw a lifeline to thousands of utility workers and miners whose livelihoods would otherwise be on the chopping block. Rather than boost auto fuel-efficiency standards, long anathema to the UAW, the plan would generate money for expanding the use of ethanol and retooling U.S. auto plants to build more fuel-efficient cars.
Little wonder that the AFL-CIO, the USW included, has been urging senators to sign on to the bill. However, environmentalists say that there's a problem with Bingaman's plan: It won't work. Sierra Club lobbyist Dan Becker called the bill worse than doing nothing at all. The Natural Resources Defense Council was only slightly more enthusiastic, noting that the plan did seem to be something of a step forward. In a way. Kind of.
The principal criticism of the Bingaman bill is that its goal of restricting projected 2030 U.S. greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels doesn't go far enough. The policies the bill would enact, its critics say, would keep the price of carbon too low to drive a new generation of low-carbon technologies into the market. In this way, Bingaman's bill might help protect existing jobs, but at the same time, it would reduce the incentive and means to create new ones. Environmentalists also dismiss Bingaman's suggestion that increasing ethanol use is an alternative to boosting fuel-economy standards. "Increasing ethanol use will absolutely cut emissions," one senior House staffer remarked, "but imagine how much deeper the cuts could be if we increased CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] standards, too."
The global warming proposal that has won plaudits from environmentalists is the Safe Climate Act of 2007 (H.R. 1590), a plan by California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman that would create a cap and trade system geared to slashing greenhouse gas emissions a whopping 83 percent by 2050. Waxman's plan, hailed by the Sierra Club as "the most aggressive" global warming legislation, would set a national passenger car emission standard as tough or tougher than California's and require that 20 percent of U.S. electricity come from renewable sources by 2020. Sens. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent, and Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, have introduced an equally ambitious proposal in the Senate: the Global Warming Pollution Reduction Act (S. 309). Both plans promote a switch to clean energy and could still ease the impact on workers if the auction of pollution credits is used to create jobs.
Though it's likely that some kind of deal will eventually be struck, environmentalists are in no rush to compromise. Sure, they say, Congress could pass a mediocre bill now, but, given the current rate at which the planet is heating up -- and the enormous investments required to stop it -- there simply may not be another opportunity for tweaking. In the words of Emily Figdor of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, "the science demands ambitious goals."
Privately, some of Bingaman's union supporters concede that the legislation falls short of what's necessary to stem global warming, but they stress that it's the best that can be done without dividing organized labor. Still, they're plainly feeling stung by the criticism. The environmentalists "are feeling their oats," one union official said. "They think they have much more of a mandate than they really do."
It's too soon to judge whether the battle over global warming will shatter the alliance Gerard has helped to build, but it's already testing it. On June 27, MoveOn supporters picketed the Ypsilanti, Michigan, office of Rep. John Dingell, where they branded the powerful chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce a "dinosaur" and "throwback" for opposing an increase in CAFE standards. When supporters of the group showed up at Dingell's office they were met by four times as many UAW demonstrators (including the union's president, Ron Gettelfinger) who slammed the MoveOners as insensitive to U.S. workers.
Episodes like the one in Ypsilanti plainly have some Democrats worried. The last thing any of them want going into the 2008 elections is a family feud over global warming. Ironically, fear of such a split seems to be generating more support for Apollo's policies than they've ever had before, as presidential candidates race to support the only energy plan labor and environmentalists agree on. "The irony," one political consultant noted, "is that because Democrats are scared shitless about getting on the wrong side of the AFL or the enviros, they are falling over themselves to back [Apollo]."
"After the election, any one of them will be able to say that they have a mandate to sink money into this," he added. "The only question is whether the labor guys and environmental people are going to keep from killing each other long enough to hold them to it."
All seem to agree that cannot happen without Leo Gerard. "In the strength of his commitment, Leo's unique in both the labor and environmental movements," said Apollo founder Hendricks. One environmental leader put it in stronger terms: "He is absolutely indispensable to holding this together." In this respect, Gerard, like Reuther, has become one of a handful of U.S. labor leaders with a base of support much broader than, not only his own union, but even organized labor. Should he succeed, he will be, in the words of one activist, "a great American -- even though he's Canadian."