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.

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