Labor and Environment: “Joined at the Hip”

April 29, 2013
Jeff Deyette
Director of State Policy and Analysis

Since its launching in 2006, the Blue-Green Alliance (BGA) has united some of the largest and most impactful unions, environmental, and science-based organizations in an effort to accelerate the transition to a clean and prosperous energy economy. As proud members of the BGA, the Union of Concerned Scientists was well represented at their annual Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference in Washington, DC last week. My colleague and UCS Kendall Fellow Jeremy Richardson was an active participant and logged the following report:

As a scientist concerned about climate change, and with a brother working in the coal mines of northern West Virginia, I often find myself in the unique position of having a foot in both the “green” (environmentalist) and “blue” (labor) worlds. So I was excited about attending and presenting at the BGA’s Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference. As I headed to the opening session, I wondered whether I would be out of place without a tie at a conference in DC, and I was relieved to see most of the audience in jeans and polo shirts—I felt like I’d come home!

eremy Richardson - Good Jobs Green Jobs

Convener Jeremy Richardson and panelist Eric Mathis during the workshop on April 17, 2013.
Photo credit: Stonestreet Creative.

As part of my Kendall Fellowship research on West Virginia, I organized a workshop called “Building a Sustainable Future for the West Virginia Coalfields.”  The session drew considerable turnout, and I moderated a rich discussion on success stories from heavily coal-dependent communities.

Our panelists were Bob Brown from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and Eric Mathis, City Commissioner from the City of Williamson, WV. Bob is program manager for AFT on an effort called Reconnecting McDowell, a comprehensive, long-term effort involving well over 100 partners (including BGA) that seeks to empower local residents in realizing solutions to McDowell’s persistent problems, ranging from poverty and underperforming schools to drug abuse and lack of infrastructure. Eric is founder of a project called Sustainable Williamson, which is seeking to “redefine the economic landscape of coal country” by focusing on six components of sustainability that include not only a diversified energy portfolio and job skills training but also healthy communities and food systems. Attendees were engaged throughout the 90-minute session, and many remarked to me afterward that they felt inspired by the positive stories emerging from the state.

UCS president Kevin Knobloch participated in a panel discussion in the opening plenary. And several other UCS experts also participated in workshops, including Rachel Cleetus speaking about climate impacts and Josh Goldman discussing oil savings. UCS Senior Energy Analyst Mike Jacobs has also blogged about his perspective of the conference.

I was inspired by both green and blue leaders who all stressed the importance of working together both to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change and simultaneously to create good, high quality jobs for American workers.

Notable was a rousing keynote presentation by AFL-CIO president Richard L. Trumka. Rich called for us all to work together to address the “twin crises of climate change and joblessness.” A former coal miner himself, Rich condemned Patriot Coal Company, which declared bankruptcy and is seeking to be relieved of its health insurance obligations to some 10,000 retired coal miners, saying the company “stands for everything wrong in our country.” And he applauded a joint letter by United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts and two prominent environmental leaders, Van Jones and Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins—unlikely but powerful allies in the fight for fairness for workers. Patriot bankruptcy proceedings continue to unfold. Rich closed his address by calling the environmental and labor movements “joined at the hip” and stressed that only by working together can we address the serious challenges we all face. That sentiment hit home for me, as someone with a personal stake in both.