Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Workers in the Global Environment

By Laurie Dougherty

This article is from the July/August 1999 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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In 1988, I was recalled to work at General Electric Appliance Park in Louisville, Kentucky, after a four-year layoff. This was not the first long layoff and, as always, getting called back unleashed a complex emotional response. I felt a great rush of relief to be delivered from a series of miserable, low-paying jobs and mounting piles of overdue bills. But I was humiliated that, once again, I hadn’t found that perfect job, once again I jumped when GE snapped its fingers.

I was assigned to Building 4, "Refrigeration Components." As jobs went at Appliance Park, this was a good place to work. Building 4 was in the middle of a long and messy restructuring process — moving some work to a nonunion plant and automating production lines while still recovering from a major design screw-up. Workers were transferring to other buildings right and left. As an incentive for workers to stick out the transition, GE raised pay in Building 4. The new systems replaced a lot of people with robots, but it was easier work than the traditional assembly line. And, we got all the overtime we could handle. Despite mixed emotions, I settled in to recover from years of personal fiscal austerity.

But there was a new complication in the emotional mix — environmental disaster on a global scale. Building 4 works on the parts that enable refrigerators to refrigerate, components that circulate the chemicals that withdraw heat from inside the unit and disperse it outside. The refrigerant used at the time was Freon, one of the most prominent chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) — the class of chemicals responsible for depleting the ozone layer that shields the earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation.

When I went to work in Building 4, the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depletion was in the final stages of negotiation. No thanks to GE, I was aware of the Montreal Protocol and its implications both for the environment and the appliance industry. From the company I saw only brief mention in the building newsletter of the "challenges" of meeting conflicting government regulations to reduce energy usage and end CFC use. (Substitutes for freon under consideration were, according to the industry, less efficient and would need more electricity to work effectively.) Later, in an interview with the plant-wide newspaper, a GE executive claimed he had sleepless nights over ozone depletion.

The company was not so passive in its outward stance. The appliance industry lobbied fiercely against the Montreal Protocol. GE’s internal indifference and external opposition to the resolution of a major environmental crisis was typical for a company that tops the list of Superfund sites. Ozone depletion was a nonissue among plant workers. Among the workforce, jobs were the only concern. Appliance Park has lost thousands of jobs since I first worked there in 1974 and continues to do so. Building 4 itself has been half empty since GE moved compressor production to a nonunion plant in 1984. I cannot recall any comments from the union about ozone depletion. Once the agreement was passed and the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 scheduled the phase out of CFCs, GE redesigned its evaporators to comply with new requirements. The company played on the workers’ anxiety for all it was worth. Management put the cost of getting evaporators from another source on the table and demanded that the union meet or beat that price in order to keep evaporator production at Appliance Park.

The union won that round, but now, 10 years later, all refrigerator production at Appliance Park is at risk. New energy requirements will become effective in the next few years and GE will have to redesign and retool for a more energy-efficient refrigerator. The union proposed a plan that would cut $30 million from production costs. They are still waiting for a response from the company.

After my experience at Appliance Park (I got laid off in 1991 and never returned), I was not surprised when Pacific Northwest loggers fought against measures to protect old-growth forests or when the AFL-CIO opposed the Kyoto Treaty on global warming. These positions are disappointing, but the issue of jobs versus the environment is not simple to sort out. Recent studies indicate small net job gains from environmental regulation and regulations can open opportunities for jobs in new, environmentally friendly industries. [see D&S "Does Preserving the Earth Threaten Jobs" by Eban Goodstein, May/June 1997.] For workers, however, the critical question is not what is the net economic effect of "regulation," but rather, what will happen to my job? This question speaks to a profound anxiety about loss of livelihood and loss of control — an anxiety that is well grounded in the realities of today’s global economy.

The dangers of corporate environmental recklessness are also grounded in reality. More and more labor groups recognize this reality and are attempting to define an agenda that both protects the environment and ensures that workers do not pay a disproportionate part of the costs of transition to an environmentally sound economy. The Work and Environment Initiative (WEI) at Cornell University investigated union efforts on environmental issues. Their report, "Labor and Climate Change and the Environment," published shortly before the December 1997 Kyoto conference on climate change, found that while the labor movement is concerned with protecting its members’ jobs, many unions are also deeply concerned about the environment and struggle to reconcile both issues. Workers are, after all, human beings who have to survive on this planet.

Among those most aware of environmental issues are unions involved in environmentally "dirty" industries such as the United Auto Workers. In a particularly forward-thinking resolution, adopted in 1991, the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) called the destruction of the environment potentially the greatest threat to our children and the destruction of the Earth’s resource base a serious threat to the economy. Putting this philosophy into practice, in April the Steelworkers filed suit against the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection challenging the sustained yield plan of the Headwaters Forest agreement with Pacific Lumber. In the press release, USWA spokesperson Jon Youngdahl stated that the plan "authorizes unsustainably high harvests of old growth timber and fails to consider the long-range economic impacts of these unsustainably high harvests."

According to Youngdahl, steelworkers began reaching out to environmentalists in Humboldt County, California, when they realized that the same corporation (Maxxam Corporation) owned both Pacific Lumber and Kaiser Aluminum. Steelworkers have been engaged in a protracted struggle against Kaiser, while environmentalists have long challenged Pacific Lumber’s destructive forestry practices. Youngdahl also pointed out that, while the desire to build mutual support against a common enemy forged the initial connection between USWA members and environmentalists, the Headwaters lawsuit goes beyond specific labor disputes to put into action the Steelworkers’ long term commitment to sustainability.

Testifying before a hearing on the Sustained Yield Plan, steelworker Don Kegley of Local 338 in Spokane, Washington made a link between the deterioration of Kaiser’s record of environmental responsibility since it became part of Maxxam and the danger that another Maxxam company would squander the resources of the Headwaters Forest. Kegley also articulated the link between preserving forest resources for the long term and preserving jobs: "Without the forest, our culture will crumble and worse, our planet will die. And there are no jobs on a dead planet." In May, the USWA and environmental allies took their fight to the Maxxam board meeting.

The Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW), now merged into the Paperworkers, Allied Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers Union (PACE), has been one of the most environmentally active unions around environmental issues. OCAW was the union involved in the Karen Silkwood case (made famous in the movie Silkwood), and has long fought for health and safety on the job. Because they deal with dangerous and environmentally hazardous substances in their workplaces, this union’s leaders and members have a heightened consciousness of the ecological impact of their jobs. They have also suffered heavily from deindustrialization in the last few decades and are well aware that workers often bear the brunt of change. Several years ago OCAW proposed a Superfund for workers that would be used to ease workers’ transition to more environmentally friendly industries. The Superfund idea has evolved into a campaign for a "Just Transition," and under that banner has begun to reverberate throughout the labor and environmental movements.

Les Leopold of the Labor Institute in New York City, a consultant to OCAW — and now PACE — on environmental issues and himself a PACE member, views "Just Transitions" as a far-reaching program along the lines of the G.I. Bill following World War II. To his mind, it can provide a model for managing workplace change resulting from both environmental mandates or the next generation of technology. The key is to provide security and options for workers to move to a new stage of life and work. Older workers may choose to retire early and should be able to do so without loss of income. Other workers may accept subsidized pay to move to lower paying jobs. Still others will return to school to gain up-to-date skills and embark on new careers.

The concept of a "just transition" is not confined to the workplace — it embraces communities which suffer both from environmental hazards and economic loss when plants close. One of PACE’s most promising programs, from Leopold’s point of view, is building connections between the union and the environmental justice movement. Minority communities are particularly harmed by being close to polluting factories, yet are generally denied the benefits of the high-wage jobs in these industries. PACE is bringing its members together with representatives of the Ponco tribe in Oklahoma, neighbors of oil refineries in southern California, and residents of other endangered communities to develop appreciation of each other’s fears and frustrations.

The recent merger that formed PACE is a pivotal event, and is being closely watched by those who care about the emerging Blue Collar-Green Alliance. The merger directly confronts the Paperworkers’ — which are traditionally defensive about environmental protection — with the proactive, "do the right thing," stance of OCAW. According to Leopold and also PACE Communications Director, Lynn Baker, the merged union will continue the "Just Transitions" programs initiated by OCAW.

The AFL-CIO itself has taken up the struggle for a Just Transition and is actively seeking relationships with environmentalists. Soon after taking office, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney appointed Jane Perkins as Environmental Liaison. Perkins has one foot in both labor and environmental worlds. She has been an officer in Service Employees International Union (SEIU) locals, an activist around the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant disaster, and was executive director of the environmental organization Friends of the Earth.

Climate change now tops Perkins’ agenda. The United Mine Workers (UMW), a stronghold of the new AFL-CIO leadership, put climate change on the AFL-CIO’s table with resolutions, statements and rallies protesting the Kyoto agreement. UMW members feel especially threatened by initiatives to reduce coal in power generation. Rather than lock horns with environmentalists over specifics of the Kyoto agreement, Perkins set out to find topics both labor and green groups could discuss productively. Three topics emerged: exploring green technologies on a sector by sector basis; "Just Transitions"; and developing countries. In April of this year, at a two day meeting at the AFL-CIO conference center, Carl Pope, head of the Sierra Club, and Bob Wages, now a PACE official who was a long-time proponent within OCAW of environmental initiatives, were chosen to take the lead in developing a joint strategy on climate change.

The AFL-CIO fears, not without reason, that less stringent caps on carbon emissions in developing countries (at least until the next round of talks), will give them cheaper production costs and, therefore, an advantage in global markets. Although many corporations indeed shift production to low-wage countries in search of lower costs, Ed Cohen-Rosenthal of Cornell’s WEI believes that energy costs in the United States will remain comparatively low even when complying with Kyoto requirements.

Developing countries have legitimate grievances with the developed countries which emit the overwhelming majority of greenhouse gases. The standard of living in wealthy countries reflects generations of industrialization, relatively free of environmental restrictions. In the report issued by WEI, Boyd Young of the (then) United Paperworkers International Union argues that it is wrong to regulate only one part of the world. He notes that applying climate change controls to developing countries will provide incentives for them to develop clean energy technologies and reduce the need to retool at a later date. However, the same report summarizes findings of the European Union (EU) Environmental Council which point out that the costs of implementing clean technology are prohibitive for developing countries. The EU Council calls for the developed world to conduct the necessary research and development and to fund vehicles for financing technology transfer to poorer countries. The AFL-CIO’s Perkins hopes to involve labor and environmental activists from many countries in putting together a strategy for reducing carbon emissions while protecting workers at the same time.

The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), and the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC) issued a joint statement to the November 1998 Buenos Aires conference on climate change. The ICTU and TUAC are sympathetic to the dilemmas faced by both developed and developing country workers. Their statement calls for immediate participation on the part of developing countries in reducing carbon emissions, but also states that: "Industrial countries should provide substantial financial and technical assistance as a means of enabling developing countries to adopt binding targets within the context of differentiated goals and long-term implementation strategy." The ICFTU and TUAC claim that the failure to confront employment issues is a major weakness of the Kyoto climate change treaty. But dislocation of workers in energy-intensive sectors of the industrialized world is not the only problem they cite. Workers will also suffer from the failure to check global warming since 70% of the world’s population lives and works within 60 kilometers of seacoasts. With global warming on the rise, and ocean levels with it, the potential exists for 60 million environmental refugees by 2030.

Labor organizations point out that workers’ knowledge can help create environmental solutions; they know production technology and are in a good position to suggest changes that reduce energy waste and introduce cleaner production options. Many unions, particularly in Europe where there is a tradition of worker participation in decisions affecting workplace conditions, have conducted eco-audits. In these programs, workers evaluate the environmental impact of the materials and techniques they use and recommend ways to reduce waste and institute cleaner processes. The Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees developed a program called The Way to 6E—A Practical Model for Sustainable Workplaces, a blueprint for involving all workers in developing workplace improvements in ergonomics, economy, ecology, emissions, efficiency, and energy.

WEI research confirms the value of worker participation in workplace decisions. In a recent study of toxics, they found that businesses with employee participation programs release fewer toxic substances into the environment than businesses without such programs.

Other programs try to involve communities to reduce pollution that harms both workers and neighborhood residents near industrial sites. The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, based in the high tech industry’s stronghold, has been a major force in focusing public attention on environmentally unsound practices of the electronics industry.

A recent story in Sierra, the 500,000 circulation magazine of the Sierra Club, described the emerging connections between labor and environmentalists as the "coalition that gives corporate polluters fits." The article points out that OCAW, a strong advocate of environmental safety on and off the job, always connected threats to the environment and to workers to the same culprit: corporations. Its "Just Transitions" project is exactly the kind of program that can cut the Gordian knot entangling the issues of jobs and the environment. It demands that the economic burdens of greening industry be shared fairly among all economic actors and has the potential to build a powerful new Blue-Green Alliance to fight for that agenda.

Resources:"Labor, Climate Change and the Environment," Work and Environment Institute, Cornell University; David Moberg, "Brothers and Sisters – Greens and Labor: It’s a Coalition That Gives Polluters Fits," Sierra (Jan./Feb., 1999); International Confederation of Trade Unions, various documents at; Labor Institute, 853 Broadway, NY, NY 10003, 212-674-3322; Good Neighbor Project, PO Box 79225, Waverly, MA 02179, 617-354-1030,; Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, 760 N. First Street, San Jose, CA 95112, 408-287-6707,
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