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How unions and environmental groups are finding common ground

More than 300 union plumbers from cities across Michigan came to Flint this February to volunteer to replace faucets and filters.
Tracy Samilton
Michigan Radio
More than 300 union plumbers from cities across Michigan came to Flint this February to volunteer to replace faucets and filters.

You know how they say politics makes strange bedfellows? Well, sometimes the environment does, too.

Leaders from the United Steelworkers, the Sierra Club, the Utility Workers Union and the National Wildlife Federation, among others, recently got together for a meeting of the BlueGreen Alliance: blue for labor, green for the environment. After 10 years of this partnership, labor and environmentalists are more friends than enemies.

Plumbers and pipe fitters

When you think of an environmental hero, a plumber might not be the first person who comes to mind. But the BlueGreen Alliance gave its “champion” award this year to the union representing plumbers and pipe fitters.

The big reason: people like Harold Harrington, of the United Association local 370 in Flint, Michigan. He says during the lead in water crisis there, his members volunteered to go door to door and replace faucets and water filters in people’s homes.

“We replaced 650 faucets, just because the filters wouldn’t fit the old faucets. And they’re carbon filters, so they do remove lead,” he says.

Leaders in both the environmental and labor movements say the country could prevent more public health disasters like Flint, if old infrastructure is fixed or replaced -- like leaky drinking water pipes, and natural gas pipelines. And at the same time, the repairs would create jobs.

Michael Brune is executive director of the Sierra Club. He gives the example of new regulations in California to fix old gas pipelines. They were passed in response to a four-month leak of methane - a potent greenhouse gas - in Aliso Canyon, in southern California.

“And there will be lots of jobs and there will be a cut in the pollution from these pipelines,” says Brune.

Common ground... but still some disagreements

This is where environmentalists and labor unions agree - fixing infrastructure helps both their causes.  But there are still areas where they disagree.

“At the same time, we can’t rely on fossil fuels, and so have to begin to get off of natural gas and all fossil fuels,” Brune says.

And it’s that stance that turns some unions, especially representing construction workers, against environmentalists. They want the jobs from the extraction and transport of fossil fuels.

Remember the hotly contested Keystone XL pipeline, proposed from Canada through the western U.S.? Environmentalists fought against it, but labor and construction unions wanted the pipeline, for the jobs. Sierra Club’s Brune isn’t worried.

“Disagreements abound in life,” he says. “What we’ve found through the BlueGreen Alliance is that on most of the issues, we have a strong affinity and an ability to work through our disagreements.”

One area where they don’t have a problem is growth in the green energy sector.

Just days before this Blue Green Alliance conference started in Cleveland, the U.S. Department of Energy announced it would give a local nonprofit $40 million dollars to build the country’s first offshore, freshwater wind project in Lake Erie.

Harriet Applegate is a leader with the AFL-CIO in Cleveland.

"It used to be that it was 'those nasty environmentalists' and I think that's a sea change."

“So that’s going to allow that project to go forward with a bang, and that’s a big, big deal,” she says. “It’s going to be new; freshwater wind is a new thing, so I’m confident there’s going to be lots of jobs.”

Applegate says projects like this help change labor’s attitudes toward environmental groups. She says even coal workers are coming around.

“I know the utility workers, officially and unofficially, do not blame the environmental movement for the closure of the coal plants. That is definitely different than the old days,” says Applegate. “It used to be that it was ‘those nasty environmentalists,’ and I think that’s a sea change.”

The unions are now tying their futures with those environmentalists, and jobs they bring: retrofitting buildings, making solar panels, and wind turbines.

Julie Grant is a reporter with the environment news program, The Allegheny Front.