Labor, environmentalists play on the same team

By Nick Bart, in People's Weekly World,
18 January, 1997

"We want to work with labor," said the state leader of the Sierra Club. "And we want to work with labor after Nov. 5 also." With each statement I was stirring my coffee faster and faster. Whew! And at this lunch meeting I thought this was going to be my line to push!

There's much to be excited about out of the 1996 election concerning the environment and environmental movement. The united actions of labor and environmentalists on the state, congressional district and town level need to be assessed as we plot the course for the coming period.

Environmentalists participating in the dramatic victory ousting "little Newt" Gary Franks from Connecticut's 5th Congressional District have no illusions. It was Labor '96 that framed the campaign's issues, mainly economic ones. And when Sierra Club officers, grassroots environmentalists and trade unionists met, for the first time ever here, where did it occur? It was, not at a temporary Democratic Party office, but at a union local's headquarters.

Where did this recognition of joint self-interest arise from? Two sources. For a number of years, state and regional labor/environmental conferences have searched for areas of agreement. Connecticut had just such a gathering in 1993. But surely the withering attack on both labor and the environment in Congress the last two years had been a galvanizing force.

Lead by labor, joint actions were many. And they were actions. Raids on Frank's newly released autobiography book signings attracted the police ... and the media. When a "lost chapter" was written by area trade unionists, they asked environmentalists to contribute.

Then when Franks was silly enough to invite Newt Gingrich to speak at a local hotel, which was not honoring its contract with hotel workers, the people's movements quickly organized. The labor-led rally included remarks by the state director of the Sierra Club and the distribution of the pamphlet, "People and Nature Before Profits."

A "Meet The Candidates" night featured a panel of workers including a trade unionist asking environmental questions. A joint press conference was held with the Democratic candidate and the national president of the Sierra Club. Letters to the editors of local papers, organized by labor, included environmental themes. And on it went.

Did differences crop up between these two movements during the course of the campaign? Of course. There were difficulties convincing Nader supporters of the danger to the country if the right captured the presidency. Labor and others objected to Nader's non position on Proposition 209 in California. Environmentalists looked with askance at the United Mine Workers objection to the Berlin Mandate (call to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to stop the acceleration of global warming).

These certainly were expressions of differences. The point is no one allowed those differences to divert the focus of both labor and environmental movements to seek common electoral ground here.

When environmental groups in one town met to share information and goals, the president of the central labor council and other Labor '96 activists attended. It was not unusual to see Nader and Clinton supporters working side by side to oust Franks.

On five separate occasions in one town, environmentalists and other activists carried, door-to-door, Sierra Club voter guides exposing Frank's anti-environmental record as well as a similar guide supporting Clinton on the presidential level. Their in-depth pamphlet, "Take the Money ... .and Run - how money and politics mixed in the 104th Congress and the environmental consequences - was distributed among both labor and environmental activists.

Also propelling the national environmental groups is the upsurge in grass roots environmentalism, many times attached to no national organization. An editorial meeting with a local newspaper, also a first, had representation from both groups.

How did this translate in local electoral struggles? Without the advantage of exit polls, it is difficult to assess which issues/movements had the most effect.

In the same town referred to above, Franks was beaten by 1,100 votes. Clinton/Gore won by 1,400 votes. Was it just a "coattail" effect?

Focusing on a state representative race tells us more. This race covered just about the same territory as the congressional race in the town. The Clinton democrat, who consistently refused to take pro-labor/environment stands, lost by 700 votes! The cooperation between the movement is continuing. A recent local rally for open space heard from a Labor '96 union leader. An upcoming meeting with the new congressman, will feature labor and environmentalists together.

The opportunity for a higher level of cooperation between these two movements is there for the making. But around what issue(s)? As labor grapples with the complexities of the global economy, dovetailing this with protection of the global environment is a natural.

The AFL-CIO has designated an officer to coordinate environmental affairs. Let's look at the possibility of a national labor/environment conference on the global economy/environment. We must now switch gears. Major differences with Clinton democrats such as around Option 9 on old growth forests and approaches to pollution as a "business" opportunity must be spelled out. We must now accent the positive with the Green Party. A joint Labor/Green electoral effort in election year 2000 would certainly be an exciting prospect!

-Nick Bart is an environmental activist from Connecticut.

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