August 4, 2006  Volume 107 Number 16

Labor, greens come together

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

If unions could join forces politically with environmental groups, what could they achieve together? Maybe good jobs and a clean environment?

Neither camp has close ties to the majority party in Congress right now, but state by state, such an alliance has potential, leaders in both movements say.

In June, the 850,000-member union United Steelworkers and the 750,000-member environmental group Sierra Club announced the formation of a “Blue-Green Alliance” to work on a joint political agenda.

“Good jobs and a clean environment are important to American workers,” said Steelworkers President Leo Gerard in a statement accompanying the announcement. “We cannot have one without the other.”

The Steelworkers have a history of working with environmentalists dating back to the 1970 passage of the Clean Air Act, and are a part of several other such alliances.

One that shows potential is the Apollo Alliance, founded in 2003, which has been endorsed by 20 environmental groups, 19 international unions, and 10 state federations and central labor councils of the AFL-CIO. Apollo brings together business and community groups as well, who are interested in its focus on public investment in energy conservation and alternative energy.

Apollo takes no position on nuclear energy, which green groups oppose, or action to limit global warming, which some labor groups have yet to endorse. Instead, it sticks to a unifying agenda all sides can agree with: energy independence, energy efficiency, clean energy, and good jobs.

Rich Feldman, Apollo coordinator for the state of Washington, says people who are concerned about global warming are already on board with Apollo’s proposals, while those who aren’t still see the value of weaning the U.S. from dependence on foreign fuel supplies.

Apollo takes its name from the Apollo project, the challenge laid down by John F. Kennedy that America could send a manned vessel to the moon within a decade if it put its mind to the task. Similarly, say Apollo Alliance founders, America can found a new era of high efficiency and renewable energy if it’s willing to invest in it. Apollo says developing bio-fuels, wind, solar and other new technologies could create 3 million new jobs in the agricultural economy, construction and industry.

In Washington, an active Apollo chapter helped pass legislation this March to require that diesel and gasoline sold in the state contain minimum percentages of biodiesel and ethanol. The bill was fought hard by petroleum companies, but passed with bipartisan support. The law took effect July 1, and the goal is for gas to contain at least 2 percent ethanol and diesel to contain 2 percent biodiesel, within two-and-a-half years. Those requirements would rise to 10 percent and 5 percent respectively when the state Department of Agriculture determines that there’s enough seed-crushing and feedstock capacity in Washington to meet demand. Bio-diesel is diesel fuel produced from renewable resources, including recycled cooking oils, animal fats, and soybean and canola oils.

Thanks to the demand created by the law, Seattle-based Imperium Renewables expects to break ground in early September in Grays Harbor on one of the largest biofuels plants in America. The work will be done by a union-signatory general contractor, JH Kelly, and construction will take about a year. The $40 million plant is slated to create 250 to 350 jobs during construction and 50 permanent jobs once it’s running. The plant will manufacture biodiesel using palm oil from Malaysia and soybean oil from the United States.

The Portland City Council passed a local ordinance July 12, without any prompting from the Apollo Alliance or other groups. Commissioner Randy Leonard, a former Fire Fighters Union leader, authored the ordinance. The ordinance requires that within a year all gas stations within the city limits offer gasoline that includes 10 percent ethanol. In addition, all diesel sold will have to include 5 percent biodiesel.

The Apollo Alliance is looking to build momentum in Oregon, and is assigning a full-time organizer, Jeremy Hays, to the task. Oregon AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Barbara Byrd says discussions are under way about whether to start a formal chapter of the Apollo Alliance in Oregon. Backers would hope to develop a legislative agenda in the next few months.