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Improving the Environment While Creating Jobs

Rich Egger

Corporations and mainstream media often repeat the “jobs vs. the environment” angle to situations, but that’s a false choice.

Instead, the discussion should start with “the need to build a sustainable economy with good-paying jobs … while reducing the threat of climate disruption here and around the world,” as the Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs says.

When President Obama on June 2 announced a new Environmental Protection Agency rule cutting carbon emissions from power plants 30-percent by 2030, opponents immediately – and wrongly – complained about job losses. Joblessness, pollution and the future of energy are huge problems, but the nation’s coped with such massive needs before.

Indeed, Jeremy Brecher, author of “Global Village or Global Pillage: Economic Reconstruction from the Bottom Up,” commented, “Just as the New Deal in the Great Depression of the 1930s put millions of unemployed people to work doing the jobs America’s communities needed, so today we need a ‘Green New Deal’ to rebuild our energy, transportation, building and other systems to drastically reduce the climate-destroying greenhouse gas pollution they pour into the air.”

The standard story is imposed on many proposals, from Illinois and many states coping with “fracking” to the Keystone XL pipeline. Media often frame this as a “jobs or environment” choice, but that’s misleading.

Brecher continued, “To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, if God had intended some people to fight just for the environment and others to fight just for the economy, he would have made some people who could live without money and others who could live without water and air. We all need a livelihood and we all need a livable planet to live on. If we don’t address both, we’ll starve together while we’re waiting to fry together.”

Still, Laborers President Terry O'Sullivan and Building Trades President Sean McGarvey have criticized Obama’s previous announcement that his administration will delay a final deadline for federal agencies to comment on the Keystone XL pipeline. Keystone's owner, TransCanada signed a Project Labor Agreement with several unions, claiming the project would create tens of thousands of jobs at a time when more than one of every nine construction workers is unemployed. Opponents say the number is wildly exaggerated.

Meanwhile, the National Nurses United labor union is against the pipeline, saying workers should build “green” projects instead. And in Canada, both the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers unions – which represent workers in the tar-sand oil fields and refineries – also oppose it.

Bill Knight

The Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs involved a variety of unions, community organizations, religious groups and environmentalists to find common ground around decent jobs and a clean planet, and, nationally, the BlueGreen Alliance with the Steelworkers and Sierra Club, released a report, “Workers, Communities, and the Clean Energy Economy; Working Together for a Future That Works,” and involved the Communication Workers, Utility Workers and the United Auto Workers.

UAW president Bob King said, "UAW is proud to have worked with our environmental allies and President Obama to achieve landmark fuel economy standards that will save consumers money at the pump, cut carbon pollution, and create more than half a million new jobs. It is time for us to come together around a bolder vision and a strategy that can end the economic and environmental abuse of our planet and its people.”

Are there win-win solutions?

Two studies from the Labor Network for Sustainability offer hope – and practicality.

The first, “Jobs Beyond Coal: A Manual for Communities, Workers and Environmentalists,” found that in several cases, unions representing workers in coal-fired power plants have supported the planned closing of their highly polluting workplaces – because environmentalists and government officials worked with them to ensure a “just transition” in which workers livelihoods and the needs of their communities were addressed.

The other study, “The Keystone Pipeline Debate: An Alternative Job Creation Strategy,” written with assistance from the Economics for Equity and Environment group, says that more jobs for pipeline workers could result from fixing failing water and sewer pipelines than from the oil pipeline project.

Communication Workers Senior Director George Kohl said, “Smart investments to save energy and resources, with a sharp focus on green technology and manufacturing and high speed broadband, will produce real benefits in terms of the quality jobs workers need to maintain and improve their standard of living. Our 21st century economy must create sustainable communities and good jobs that support working families.”  

Contact Bill at; his twice-weekly columns are archived at

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.