Enviros shun autoworkers


A scene I'd like to see:

The CEOs of the Sierra Club and other Big Green groups standing up in Congress and calling for financial help for the autoworkers in GM, Ford and Chrysler.

Haven't seen it, though. And that's a problem in itself.

The silence from environmentalists is one reason why they often struggle politically.

We all know the U.S. auto corporations are begging Congress and the Bush Admin for a couple of dozen billion dollars. It's chump change anymore, compared to the public trillions we're shoveling into mismanaged Wall Street banks, amid the global economic meltdown.

If the auto corporations don't get help, one or more will declare bankruptcy. Their industry will shrink more than it would outside bankruptcy. There are reasons to ignore their pleas for help. Like the ailing banks, they've had bad leadership. Their fat-cat top executives resisted regulations on tailpipe emissions and fuel efficiency. They stalled or killed projects to develop electric cars. They spent their advertising budgets on pushing stupid products -- macho gas-hog pickups and SUVs -- and lobbied to get tax breaks for customers who bought them.

There are also millions of reasons to help the auto corporations, under requirements that they reform their operations. Those reasons are people -- unionized workers in the auto corporations and other workers in related companies.

In many news stories and conversations, the autoworkers are portrayed as part of the problem. Their unions have leveraged pay and benefits up to the top-of-the-scale for blue-collar jobs, and some aspects of that seem excessive. But in general, it's certainly respectable for unions to press for better conditions for workers. And unions have responded to the crisis by giving up some ground on pay and benefits.

For months, center stage nationally, the auto CEOs and union leaders have been wrestling with politicians, economists and pundits. The workers need allies, in the political and news discourse.

And what do we hear on this issue from leading environmentalists? Nothing. At least, nothing center stage. The enviros seem to be focused entirely on what they want from Congress and President-elect Barack Obama: progress on green issues. Quietly, they've even lobbied against the auto corporations (and workers), because of the grudges about anti-green actions by both.

Back in the era when the modern environmental movement began to get traction -- the 1960s and 1970s -- enviros often allied with blue-collar workers. They worked on each others' issues -- passing laws for worker safety and fair compensation, pollution control, coal-mine reclamation, etc etc etc. There was a strength in cross-bracing the environmental movement with the labor movement.

Earlier this year, the labor movement played a crucial role in getting Obama elected president. The unions spent hundreds of millions of their dollars -- dues paid by union members -- backing Obama's campaign, and provided legions of union members as grass-roots campaigners.

Obama is also the environmentalists' candidate. So right now, the enviros owe the labor movement a sincere thank-you.

But the environmental movement -- represented by the leaders of the big groups -- turns its back on the plight of the autoworkers, a few weeks after the election.

It's the latest sign that the environmental movement, as a whole, thinks it's strong enough to stand on its own, without many of its old allies. It's also a sign that few professional enviros have any significant experience working blue-collar jobs, so it's difficult for them to relate to people like autoworkers. It plays out often in the West, against loggers, miners and ranchers. (I've written about the problem before, in depth, in a long essay that's sometimes used in political science classes.)

Critics of the environmental movement often hurl insulting adjectives at enviros: Self-righteous! Self-interested! Arrogant! Class-biased! The silence from the enviros on this high-profile worker issue only reinforces the negative perceptions.

It would cost the enviros little if they came out strongly in support of the autoworkers. They'd have to put aside their conflicts with the auto corporations and spend a bit of their immediate political capital, that's all. They could easily talk about how to reform the corporations while keeping the workers employed.

Just by making a prominent gesture toward the workers, the enviros would demonstrate that they can be concerned for others' issues. It would gain them long-term political capital.

The best way to make allies is to reach out to people who need help, when you have the advantage and you don't have to reach out.

Too bad the enviros squander this great opportunity.

Don Olsen
Don Olsen
Dec 11, 2008 12:28 AM
I used to think it was financially irresponsible to print up trillions of dollars to give to constituents.

But why not just give me the money and I'll go out and buy a new Camaro or maybe a Mustang ... Perhaps a Dodge Charger?

People first
Brian Helfrich
Brian Helfrich
Dec 11, 2008 10:43 AM
The big eco groups should always help people make a living by starting small green businesses and job training. Give 'em a real alternative to working at FU, Inc. People who are struggling financially don't give a damn about the environment.
Why are Enviros always to Blame, Ray?
Dec 20, 2008 10:25 AM
Ray, It seems to me that you are often quick to blame enviros for problems that don't seem to have anything to do with enviros.

For example, didn't a few years ago you basically blame enviros for not doing anything about the death and destruction caused up in Libby, MT at the hands of corporate-bad-guy WR Grace? This, despite the fact that MEIC and other enviros devoted significant time, energy and effort to help the folks up in Libby and generate interest from politicians and the media.

Isn't an enviro largely credited with alerting reporters at the Seattle PI about the tragedy happening to the people of Libby? And didn't the MEIC try to alert others for years?

Is it the enviros fault when politicians and the media ignore us? Where was High Country News' stories during the 80s or early 90s about the tragedy occurring in Libby? Should HCN share some blame? Where was Libby's native son Marc Racicot when he was Governor of Montana from 1993 until 2001?

So now you take on the environmental movement for failing to stand with the Big Three auto companies and their workers as they asked for $20 billion or so to basically just get them a few months further down the road...before they end up declaring bankruptcy anyway.

Ok, but I'm curious as to what, in your view, the Sierra Club or the environmental movement should have specifically done in this case? Seems like nobody wanted a bailout that included any talk of the Big Three doing things different to help put America on a clean, green and sustainable future. In fact, for a while when it seemed like Congress would pass the bailout for the Big 3, the loan money was going to come out of the funds set aside for more green cars, just further adding salt to the wound.

Don't get me wrong, I have serious concerns about the environmental movement and especially the way the Big Green Groups operate. However, it seems to me that you blaming enviros for Libby and now the situation facing the Big Three (which are getting their bailout anyway) is off the mark.

P.S. Ironically, the recent film by High Plains Films (which was a spin-off from enviro group The Ecology Center) titled "Libby, Montana" ("a journey into the world of a hard-working, blue-collar community that exemplifies the American Dream gone horribly wrong") has done as much as anything to ensure that the people of Libby get justice and that the tragedy done to them at the hands of WR Grace is not repeated anywhere else.