Can Club, Labor Agree on Global Warming Fix?
by Jenny Coyle
Sierra Club President Robbie Cox was still on a high from his recent 10-day tour of
the country when Planet senior editor Jenny Coyle interviewed him in August. During his
trip he served on panels with George Becker, president of the United Steelworkers Union,
and other labor leaders at the National Democratic Convention in Los Angeles, and later
spoke with environmental-justice organizer Jessy Cadenas about partnering with Latino
groups in Southern California.
Then, at the One Sierra Club meeting in Albuquerque, N.M., Cox heard from Montana
activists about their work with faith communities. Back on the East Coast, along with
Amnesty International leaders, he met with Mexico's president-elect, Vicente Fox, to
discuss environmental and human-rights issues.
For Cox - who also served as Club president from 1994 to 1996 - forming
partnerships with non-traditional allies is the most vital work the Club is doing, and he
is in the thick of it. As an example, he and other environmental leaders have been meeting
with top labor representatives in an attempt to craft a comprehensive strategy to curb
global warming - one that all parties can support. Cox is hopeful, and says he can't
overstate the enormous potential of such an agreement.
Planet: A common thread in your 20 years of activism with the Sierra Club
is a fervor for empowering volunteers - the grassroots. Why is that so important to you?
Cox: Newt Gingrich and his agenda forced us to move beyond Washington,
D.C., politics and reconnect with the grassroots in order to hold our political leaders
accountable. In 1995 we launched Project ACT, a program designed to help chapters and
groups recruit, train and support activists who would take responsibility for planning the
Club's priority campaigns. Our approach was to get all areas of the organization -
conservation, the media team, fundraising and others - to integrate their campaigns and
focus on winning real victories, and in the process strengthen the organization.
We also knew it was important to move beyond our own membership base and talk with the
communities around us, forming broader coalitions with labor, faith communities, hunters
and anglers. This work has been propelled to new levels by our environmental-justice
activists. John McCown in Georgia was a pioneer in introducing us to this work, and now
we've got a substantially funded program with organizers in Memphis, Washington, D.C.,
Detroit and Los Angeles.
Planet: A lot of people think of the Sierra Club as a bunch of hikers who
want to protect wild places. Let's face it, that's where our roots are. Do we belong in
the ring on issues like environmental justice and global trade?
Cox: First of all, two of our four national priorities - the Wildlands
Campaign and the Campaign to End Commercial Logging on Federal Lands - are traditional
public-lands issues. But we certainly belong on the playing fields of environmental
justice and global trade. Our understanding of "environment" has evolved since
the 1960s, when Rachel Carson and others showed us how our actions were affecting not only
the environment "out there," but the human environment as well. It became
imperative to work on cleaning up our air and water. More recently, we've realized the
importance of working with people on the front lines. "Environment" must include
where people live and work, and where their children play - a vision that was made clear
to me in 1991 at the People of Color National Environmental Leadership Summit, the first
national gathering of activists from low-income communities and communities of color.
Listening to residents who live near Superfund sites gave me a new appreciation for
their struggle, and I understood the larger significance of building partnerships with
them to advance our own agenda. These coalitions are not always easy. The Club's
membership is largely middle-class and white, and we've had to learn to appreciate, and to
work across class and racial differences to establish partnerships.
In the long run, the Sierra Club cannot develop the political power and influence it
needs to advance our core agenda without broadening our own base of support and allies.
Planet: You've been involved in some groundbreaking work to do just that
with labor leaders. What's the focus of these discussions?
Cox: AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and representatives from other
unions in the AFL-CIO have committed to begin a conversation with the Sierra Club and
others to see whether we can come to an agreement on ways to curb global warming.
First, we're asking labor to join with us in developing an environmental solution to
the challenge of climate change. We have to convert from a fossil-fuel economy and move to
cleaner energy sources.
Second, there must be reciprocity in any agreement. If we're asking labor to support a
policy that puts jobs in jeopardy, we need to commit to policies that minimize the impacts
on workers and their families. In other words, there must be no perverse incentives in
solving the environmental problem. We simply cannot export U.S. jobs and U.S. pollution
overseas. We've got to think through the tax system to ensure that tax incentives
encourage industry to move in a clean direction without sacrificing their base in the
United States. We must support labor if labor is to work in solidarity with us on the
Third, we must be willing to support a "just" transition for workers who are
affected. Although we're all interested in busting the myth that saving the environment
necessarily costs jobs, there are certain sectors - coal mining, for example - that will
be adversely impacted. These workers must receive economic support, education, re-training
and priority in new hiring for new energy fields.
As long as we remain divided politically, a larger corporate agenda remains
unchallenged. But, if labor and environmentalists can reach agreement on a comprehensive
solution to global warming, it means we can face policy makers with a united front -
ranging across transportation, manufacturing, electric power utilities, construction - and
make it in their best interest to think more environmentally. Although this will not occur
in the next one to two years, I am hopeful. The potential is enormous.
Up to Top