Democrats are salivating at the prospect of a 60-vote majority in the Senate, enough to override a veto and other procedural hurdles. They will almost certainly gain a commanding majority in the House. But environmentalists should realize the answer to their problems isn’t that simple. Sixty Democratic votes would not be enough to break through the Senate’s decade-long impasse on climate legislation.

The debate over the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act in May and June this year showed that a senator’s party affiliation is less important than the nature of their state’s economy. Ten Democratic senators from the Midwest and South wrote a public letter to Environment Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on June 6 expressing concern that the bill would cause “undue hardship on our states, key industrial sectors and consumers.” In particular, they worried about “uncertainty in predicting the costs” and the need to “help … regulated industries … reduce emissions as they transition from an old energy economy to a new energy economy.” They asked for price relief for families and demanded that the final bill “ensure a truly equitable and effective global effort that minimizes harm to the U.S. economy and protects American jobs.” The BLW bill did include billions in “transition assistance” for workers and carbon-intensive industries, but the 10 senators didn’t consider it enough. Now, in the midst of the financial meltdown this fall, such economic concerns loom larger than ever.

Without these swing Democrats and some moderate Republicans, the U.S. will never take serious action on climate change. To get 60 votes and move serious climate legislation through Congress, “greens” need to pay attention to their “blue” colleagues. The unions represent important blocks of organized voters with ties to senators, but they also provide key potential partners for environmentalists in gaining a workable alliance on this issue.

A More Climate-Friendly Union

After the failure of the BLW bill, I did interviews and research to find out how major labor unions stand on the climate issue. Despite early resistance, nearly all have moved significantly over the past two years toward recognizing the links between addressing climate change and creating good-paying jobs in the next phase of America’s economy. Each of the major unions has somewhat different positions, but many of them could be addressed in the next round of climate legislation.

The Boilermakers and the building trades (like plumbers and plasterers and electricians) realized early on that a serious piece of legislation to transition the U.S. to a new economy would require huge numbers of government contracts to build the new infrastructure. New green buildings require skilled craftsmen, and a national effort to insulate the old buildings has the potential to create massive employment in their trades. They therefore early sought and got “prevailing wage” clauses (the Davis-Bacon Act) in the BLW bill, a point specifically mentioned in President Bush’s June 2 letter explaining why he would veto it. When Boxer’s office called a press conference outside the Capitol on that same day, it was these unions that stood behind her and the bill’s other authors.

The United Steelworkers have been working for years with the Sierra Club in a “Blue Green Alliance,” and in the process have grown fairly supportive of the cap-and-trade concept. They’ve recognized that it takes a lot of steel to make a huge modern wind turbine and the powerlines to move its electricity. The BLW bill contained a huge prize for both the unions and their industry: the potential to protect some U.S. firms through a “border adjustment” on the price of incoming goods. In this model, if a good from another nation required more energy to produce than it would have in the U.S., its price would be adjusted upward at the border. The Steelworkers’ leader in the Blue Green Alliance, Dave Foster, has often pointed out that Chinese steel requires three times as much carbon to produce as U.S. steel. Still, the Steelworkers did not end up publicly supporting the BLW bill for several reasons, including because it lacked a “safety valve” for heavy industries in case carbon prices rose too high. The union, which is now extremely diverse with workers from the cement, plastics, paper, and chemicals industries, also wanted more emissions credits given out free to energy-intensive industries to help them adjust to a cap-and-trade system.

The United Auto Workers opposed BLW more actively, with “a more complicated list of concerns,” as Paul Joffee of the National Wildlife Federation put it. In particular, the UAW wanted federal laws to supercede any state laws, like California’s strict auto-emissions rules. With the U.S. auto industry so insecure right now, the union is in a largely defensive position.

Bill Banig of the United Mine Workers union was highly skeptical of politicians’ pledges to help workers in carbon-intensive industries find new jobs. “Any talk I’ve ever heard about a ‘just transition’ is really nothing but a fancy funeral. … We’ve never seen a transition program that helps a 50-year-old coal miner. Put yourself in his shoes.” The United Mine Workers opposed BLW, but supported a competing bill by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), since it had slow start-up, relatively loose carbon caps until 2030, and a safety valve. The UMW and the coal-mining firms don’t expect much-vaunted carbon-capture-and-storage technology to be technologically feasible for at least 10 to 15 years, so they fear any plan that lacks time and big government research funding to develop carbon sequestration.

Since it acts by consensus only, the AFL-CIO was deadlocked on BLW. The union set up an Energy Task Force in 2007, which pointed out that “reliable and affordable electrical energy, is the lifeblood of the manufacturing, transportation, construction and service industries” and argued that we must “maintain diversity in the electric utility industry, by retaining all current generating options, including fossil fuels, nuclear, hydro and renewables, to ensure a stable, reliable and low-cost supply of electricity for the United States.” In spite of these words of caution, the AFL-CIO is beginning to merge the competing views of its members into creative solutions and recognize the substantial job possibilities that will come with a major piece of legislation like BLW.

The Perfect Is the Enemy of the Good

Science and common sense suggest we need an aggressive climate bill, but if one passes that is not built with strong consensus and participation by unions and progressive companies, we will see a massive backlash from industry, with workers at their sides.

The 2008 version of Boxer-Lieberman-Warner was never seen as very serious beyond the environmental community — it was viewed as a “dress rehearsal” for the real effort at climate legislation that will come in 2009. Whether it comes as one omnibus bill like BLW or piecemeal in several bills, now is the time to craft climate legislation the whole country can get behind. In doing so, environmentalists need to pay attention to the needs of workers, their industries, and their states, and come together on a workable, truly American solution to climate change — one that will help Americans who might otherwise be hurt as we push toward a cleaner, low-carbon economy. These people are not “special interests,” they are American middle-class workers looking at a terrifying future and wanting to replace it with a humane one.