The union movement is turning green. Not with envy, but with an escalating sense that the nation must work to address climate change and that we must be part of the effort to create good jobs that also are green jobs.

Last December, an unprecedented delegation of unionists traveled to Bali, Indonesia, for the U.N. climate change conference. Of the 90 union delegates, more than 20 were from North America.

Roger Toussaint, president of Transport Workers (TWU) Local 100 in New York, was one of them. He explained the need for union involvement this way:

We have to rise to the challenge of climate change by making it a key priority for our unions. A trade union agenda, rooted in the organized strength of workers and day-to-day engagement in affected communities, can help transition our society to a low-carbon future. This will bring “green” employment in such areas as public transportation, which is critically important now and in the years ahead.

I firmly believe all leaders of America’s working people must take immediate steps to familiarize themselves and their organizations with the issues involved and figure out the obligations of their appropriate job sectors. Nationally, the union movement must take the lead in shaping policy and legislation needed in this area. We need meaningful engagement and decisive action. We are on borrowed time, but the chance to make our mark on the process is there for the taking.

Earlier this month, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney addressed the Investor Summit on Climate Risk where he said investors, workers and government must come together to create a stable climate and a strong global economy that creates good jobs.

The global economy cannot prosper unless we secure a stable climate and sustainable sources of energy. Global warming means global depression, food and water shortages and drowned cities. I have stood in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward and seen that future.

Al Gore also spoke at the one-day meeting, sponsored in part by the United Nations Foundation and including more than 450 investor, financial and corporate leaders, who together control more than $20 trillion in investment capital.

Next month, unionists will take part in the "Good Jobs, Green Jobs: A National Green Jobs Conference," to share best practices about revitalizing our manufacturing sector, driving green building, promoting safer chemicals and realizing the economic benefits of global warming solutions. We will be joined by environmental and public health advocates, policymakers, business leaders and others who will launch a nationwide discussion on the benefits of a new green economy. The location of the March 13–14 conference at Pittsburgh’s David Lawrence Convention Center highlights the group’s commitment: It’s the only entirely green convention center in the country.

Unions increasingly are taking concrete steps toward making the connection between good jobs and green jobs. Here are just a few examples.

  •  The United Steelworkers (USW) and the Sierra Club have formed a “blue-green alliance” to work for good jobs and a clean environment. The alliance is focusing on three issues: global warming and clean energy, fair trade and reducing toxics. USW President Leo Gerard says the union movement’s vision of addressing global warming challenges global policies that allow corporations to make huge profits by buying and trading the rights to emit carbon "without ever addressing the basic inequalities in our global economy."  
  • The USW also recently released a report, DuPont and Greenwash, the first in its series of “Greenwashing” reports. The report notes that while DuPont touts its environmental image, its products are likely to dramatically impact global warming as greenhouse gases when they are disposed and used. It also finds the emissions from those products could be enormous, possibly canceling out or exceeding DuPont’s touted reductions in greenhouse gases from its facilities. The USW report says the company refuses to disclose the climate impact of those products.
  • Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) President Warren George has called on policymakers to invest in mass transit systems to reduce greenhouse gases:

    We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, or create new infrastructure from scratch (although the infrastructure needs a lot of work). The machinery is in place. We the skilled workers are in place. All we need is the political will to provide the funding and the insight and incentives.

  • In November, the AFL-CIO—together with the Apollo Alliance––convened a meeting of workers’ pension trustees and money managers to discuss opportunities in clean-energy technologies. Through the Apollo Alliance, the AFL-CIO and some affiliated unions such as USW, seek to create jobs with a public investment in sustainable energy such as hydrogen fuel systems and related transportation, construction and manufacturing.
  • The Oregon AFL-CIO and its affiliated unions have been engaged in moving an agenda of renewable energy and good jobs by coordinating the activities of the Oregon Apollo Alliance. In October, Oregon AFL-CIO convention delegates passed resolutions on climate change and jobs and  set up a task force of affiliated union leaders to help examine its impact on our members and implications on its policy work.

Last year, the AFL-CIO endorsed the Low Carbon Economy Act of 2007. Introduced by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the bill set a goal of reducing the nation’s carbon emissions by at least 60 percent by 2050.

Electrical Workers (IBEW) President Edwin Hill said the legislation offered an effective approach to address climate change while allowing our economy to grow.

The fact that this bill is the only climate change legislation that also addresses the problems of international participation in emissions control makes it unique.

The AFL-CIO Energy Task Force last year issued a report which said in part:

It is time for our nation to take bold steps to meet the 21st century challenges related to energy policy. We believe our nation should embrace a balanced approach that assures abundant, affordable energy supplies, creates good-paying jobs for American workers, improves the environment and reduces our dangerous dependence on foreign oil.

In focusing on our core issue, family-supporting jobs, we in the union movement provide unique insight into an as-yet little explored facet of addressing climate change. There’s still much work to be done, and part of that involves educating our members.

Barbara Byrd, secretary-treasurer of the Oregon AFL-CIO, was among our U.S. union delegation to Bali. As Byrd notes:

We recognize the Western states will be enacting far-reaching policies in the next few years, and we believe the union movement must be at the table to debate with other stakeholders how best to craft climate change legislation.

We will need to educate our own members as well, sothey will not only understand the complicated technical issues, but also so they will feel the urgency that drives the work of the labor delegates in Bali.

But we’ve taken big steps forward—concrete action as well as countering what USW President Gerard accurately describes as the myth of incompatibility between unions and the environment.

Says Gerard:

We need to put an end to the lies, the myths, the hysteria that say you can have either a clean environment or good jobs. You can have both, or you have neither.