Organized labor and environmentalists — engaged in an on-again-off-again flirtation for years — may finally be getting to third base.

Greens and blues are shaking things up.

Photo: iStockphoto.

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Last week, Carl Pope, head of the Sierra Club, and Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers (USW) union, announced the formation of the Blue/Green Alliance, linking the nation’s biggest industrial labor union with the nation’s largest environmental organization. Their motto: “Good jobs, a clean environment, and a safer world.”

“The Blue/Green Alliance is one of the most important initiatives undertaken by the environmental movement in decades,” said Pope at the launch event. Gerard said the creation of good jobs requires sound environmental strategy: “We cannot have one without the other.”

The alliance already has “in the millions,” according to its director, David Foster, a longtime USW member; that includes grant money from foundations and funds the Sierra Club and USW are committing from their own budgets. The money will be spent on legislative lobbying, supporting political candidates with strong records on both labor and the environment, and doing educational outreach. At the start, efforts will be focused in four key states — Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington — where there are large numbers of both Sierra Club members and USW members, and where state officials have already shown notable interest in promoting clean energy.

The alliance’s main goals will be boosting clean-tech markets to create jobs, pushing fair-trade policies to aid American workers, and fighting for tougher restrictions on toxic chemicals.

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Color Adjustment

Greens and blue-collar workers in the U.S. have often been at loggerheads: Unions such as the United Auto Workers and United Mine Workers of America have earned anti-environment reputations for blocking progress on tougher fuel-economy standards and advocating resource extraction on wilderness lands.

At the same time, there have been notable collaborations between labor and environmental activists, from the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle to local campaigns against common corporate foes such as the tire manufacturer Firestone and Ravenswood Aluminum. Said Foster, “Invariably the companies with the worst labor rights had significant environmental violations.”

In recent years, enviros and some labor leaders have canoodled over federal-level goals, finding common cause in D.C.-based groups such as the Apollo Alliance, which promotes the creation of jobs through growing clean-energy markets.

But these have been only baby steps in the effort to forge a broader political alliance that has both a substantive agenda and sufficient funds to carry it out. “The alliance represents a huge step,” said Dan Lashof, deputy director of the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council, who has been working to build bridges between environmentalists and labor unions for over a decade. “It takes the blue-green efforts from mostly local ad hoc initiatives to a genuine and powerful partnership.”

A More Perfect Union

The alliance has given rise to some unexpected policy endorsements — USW has agreed to support mandatory carbon caps and oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the Sierra Club has agreed to support policies such as the Employee Free Choice Act, which would expand workers’ rights to organize.

Foster told Muckraker that this union of strange bedfellows is the harbinger of a new kind of progressive strategy. “We were born in different classes, for the most part — blue-collar workers on one side of the fence, environmental activists on another — but today we rely on almost exactly the same constituency to support our agendas,” he said. “The Bush victory in 2004 made it very clear that green and blue values are under attack by exactly the same source.”

Added Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club’s global-warming program, who is working closely with Foster to devise the alliance’s strategy: “Part of what we want to do is reinvigorate the progressive cause. We want to change what is politically achievable in this country.”

While Becker says that USW is on the vanguard of pro-environment unions, he senses a shift in sensibility throughout the labor movement: “An increasing number of industrial workers are beginning to see that they more than anyone bear the brunt of poor environmental strategy. After all, as Leo [Gerard] often says, the first exposed to pollutants and toxins are the people inside the plants, the second are their families, who live nearby. Then comes the rest of America.”

Even UAW President Ron Gettelfinger seems to be seeing the light, though he’s more worried about jobs than toxins. Earlier this month, he published an op-ed in The Detroit News that called on automakers to produce “greener vehicles” and “do more to address environmental issues.” Gettelfinger didn’t go so far as to call for meaningful improvements to fuel-economy standards, but he articulated precisely the argument for them: “Unless we act, America’s industrial base will continue to decline as the engines of tomorrow are built in Sao Paulo, Shanghai, and Shimoyama. We can avoid that grim future if we make smart choices now.”