Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline are taking a well-deserved victory lap. The Obama administration’s decision to reject TransCanada’s pipeline proposal — at least for now — represents an historic win for the environmental movement, and reveals the potency of the emerging alignment between the environmental, anti-corporate, Occupy, and other movements.
Real strides were also made to bridge the divide between environmental groups and unions. While Republicans relentlessly attacked environmentalists as “job killers,” groups like 350.org, Sierra Club, and NRDC reached out to unions early and often, and as a result, six labor unions came out in support of President Obama’s decision to oppose the permit. Not since the “Battle in Seattle” have we seen such diverse and robust coalitions.
But the Keystone campaign also exposed the perennial Achilles’ heel of those who are fighting against climate change: We are often painted by our opponents and perceived by the public as caring more about the environment than about jobs. In a press release titled “U.S. Chamber Calls Politically-Charged Decision to Deny Keystone a Job Killer,” the Chamber of Commerce said President Obama’s denial of the KXL permit was “sacrificing tens of thousands of good-paying American jobs in the short term, and many more than that in the long term.” And its messaging worked, with the media repeating the jobs vs. environment frame again and again. NPR’s headline was typical of many: “Pipeline Decision Pits Jobs Against Environment.”
This frame also resonated with the public. A recent Rasmussen Reports poll found that 59 percent of likely U.S. voters believe that creating new jobs is more important than environmental protection. Twenty-nine percent disagree and say protecting the environment is more important. That frame was directly reflected in their opinions about the pipeline. In a poll taken Jan. 19-20, 56 percent of likely voters think the pipeline will be good for the economy and favor building it. Only 27 percent are opposed.
Keystone opponents responded to the “job-killer” attack by undercutting TransCanada’s inflated employment numbers. They pointed out that the State Department estimated the pipeline would produce only 6,500 jobs, most of them temporary. Cornell University’s Global Labor Institute released a study [PDF] showing that Keystone XL may generate no more than 50 permanent jobs when the work is done.
But showing that fewer jobs would result than proponents have claimed is only half the job. That’s not enough to win over the hearts and minds of workers who have been struggling for decades under the weight of stagnant wages and unemployment. From a worker’s perspective, Keystone jobs were good-paying union jobs in an economy that increasingly offers up only minimum-wage service work.
And opponents’ argument that the pipeline offered up only temporary jobs shows a lack of understanding of the industry — virtually all construction jobs are temporary. But rather than substandard Walmart jobs, these temporary jobs come with health care, pensions, and middle-class wages. As AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka explained, “we need to be honest that mass unemployment makes everything harder and feeds fear … we cannot have a trust-building conversation about [Keystone] unless opponents of the pipeline recognize that construction jobs are real jobs, good jobs.”
However inflated TransCanada’s employment figures, the promise of several thousand well-paying jobs represents a glimmer of hope in a dismal economy. And opponents of the pipeline appear to be snuffing out that hope. We need to honor the fact that jobs are central to workers’ identities and aspirations.
Environmentalists often respond to charges that their policies are “job killers” with research demonstrating that investment in solar, wind, and other forms of renewable energy and conservation creates far more jobs than equivalent investment in fossil fuels. This is a well-documented fact, but a hypothetical future job doesn’t put food on an empty table today. In fact, we’ve had discussions with union officials who strongly supported climate protection legislation — but simultaneously argued heatedly for the Keystone XL pipeline as a source of immediate jobs for their desperate members.
There are a host of reasons to oppose the pipeline, from protecting native people in the tar-sands region to avoiding spills into a critical aquifer to preventing a catastrophic increase in climate-changing carbon emissions. But none of them will cut much ice with people who start from the assumption that jobs are simply more important right now than the environment.
The neglected half of the job for environmental advocates is to ourselves become the voice for job creation. We need to develop robust programs to put unemployed pipefitters, teamsters, and others back to work. Indeed, the prerequisite for every environmental campaign should be a plausible and detailed jobs program. The sustainability movement must be a voice for workers, students, and others who want to both save the earth and promote appropriate economic development. Our goal must be to transform the debate from “jobs vs. the environment” to “our credible jobs program vs. the climate deniers’ fraudulent ones.”
Where should those proposals come from? As the six labor unions that opposed the KXL pipeline permit pointed out, one source can be the jobs programs that Republican politicians are currently blocking in Congress, like the Restore the American Dream for the 99% Act, which would boost employment by almost 2.3 million jobs in 2012 and almost 3.1 million jobs in 2013; the extension of the Highway Trust Fund, which would create hundreds of thousands of jobs and provide for critical infrastructure repair; and initiatives to fund jobs for teachers, firefighters, and police. It’s time for the environmental movement to put the spotlight on the way climate-denying politicians are crying crocodile tears over a few hundred or thousand jobs while blocking millions of jobs unemployed American workers could be hired to do right now.
Other proposals can come from environmentally friendly projects that also create jobs, like the transition from coal to wind energy now underway in Delaware, or efforts to renew water infrastructure in California.
As Trumka of the AFL-CIO recently remarked, “We are headed ever more swiftly toward irreversible climate change — with catastrophic consequences for human civilization.” Addressing that means “every factory and power plant, every home and office, every rail line and highway, every vehicle, locomotive, and plane, every school and hospital, must be modernized, upgraded, renovated, or replaced with something cleaner, more efficient, less wasteful.”
Our job is to translate that vision into concrete proposals that provide an alternative to destructive KXL pipeline projects seductively packaged as jobs programs.
If we fail to become the voice for both the planet and workers, our movement risks losing the support of increasing numbers of workers, unions, and their political allies. The fossil-fuel industry and its allies know that working families are likely to prioritize bread-and-butter issues over environmental protection, especially in recessionary times. Right-wing forces are counting on the “job killing” message to drive ordinary Americans into the arms of the climate-denying Republican Party. Together, environmental and labor movements can defeat them by presenting a better jobs program to American workers — one that addresses the climate and economic crises at the same time.
Jeremy Brecher’s new book Save the Humans? Common Preservation in Action addresses how social movements make social change. Brecher is the author of more than a dozen books on labor and social movements, including Strike! and Global Village or Global Pillage, and the winner of five regional Emmy awards for his documentary movie work. He currently works with the Labor Network for Sustainability.
Brendan Smith is a cofounder of Voices for a Sustainable Future. He is a Brooklyn-based green artist and oysterman. He has published two books and his commentary has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Nation, and CBSNews.com. He is a graduate of Cornell Law School.