by Dan Hamburg
Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times!" must be ringing in Al Gore's ears. Gore, who wrote in 1991 that "we must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle of civilization," is scrambling for the support of major environmental organizations. The man who reveled in his endorsement from the AFL-CIO last year is today taking jabs from union officials threatening to bolt the Democratic Party tent.
For the past eight years, the Clinton/Gore administration has tried to have it both ways -- cheerleading the onslaught of globalization while hanging onto their traditional allies. But the endgame may not be far off.
"One moment, presidential candidate Gore is telling the labor movement that he believes human rights, workers' rights and environmental protections should be included in core trade agreements," fumed United Auto Workers President Sam Yokich recently, "the next, Vice President Gore is holding hands with the profiteers of the world and singing the praises" of the China trade deal.
Without the active participation of organized workers and environmentalists, Al Gore may well lose the presidency. The lackluster efforts of these two groups were largely responsible for the post-NAFTA election debacle of 1994 in which the Republicans took over the House of Representatives for the first time in nearly half a century. But more than the Gore candidacy may be at stake here. The globalized corporate economy is driving workers and environmentalists toward an embrace that seemed unlikely just a few years ago. As this relationship develops, it has the potential to rally a broad-based movement that could transform American politics and the market-driven logic that undergirds it.
One sign of this transformation emerged in May 1999, at a Maxxam Corp. shareholders' meeting in Houston, when Don Kegley of the United Steelworkers of America and David Brower of Earth Island Institute were introduced. Over drinks, they conceived the formation of the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, which brought together forest activists and Kaiser Aluminum workers in their joint struggle against Maxxam CEO Charles Hurwitz.
A few days later, in a document dubbed the "Houston Principles," environmental and labor leaders decried the "huge price tag" that has come with the past two decades of wealth accumulation by corporations and America's most affluent citizens. In a relentless drive to maximize profits, they claimed, corporate leaders "too often regard working people, communities and the natural world as resources to be used up and thrown away." Traditionally a supporter of the Democratic Party, organized labor has become exasperated by a succession of trade agreements, from NAFTA to establishing permanent normal trade relations with China, all championed by a Democratic president. While creating enormous new opportunities for investors, these agreements undermine wage and job stability for millions of American workers. Many environmentalists, also traditionally Democratic, are severely disenchanted after eight years of Clinton/Gore compromise on carbon emissions, logging, endangered species and more.
It's noteworthy that major unions, including the United Auto Workers and the Teamsters, and environmental organizations, such as the Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club, are considering breaking with the Democrats to endorse Green Party dark horse Ralph Nader for president. The California Nurses Association has already endorsed Nader.
While leaders in environmental and labor politics may yet fold and go for Gore, the links between environmental and labor organizations at the grassroots level is clearly on the rise. There are a number of reasons for this, according to Michael Eisenscher, an electrical workers' organizer who helped form the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition two decades ago.
"Both groups are becoming less parochial in their perspectives as the interconnectedness of things becomes more clear," he said. He also points to shrinking numbers in the ranks of organized labor, now less than 15 percent of the total workforce. In Contra Costa County, building trades workers have teamed up with the Sierra Club and the Greenbelt Alliance to keep developers in check. "There was a time when building trades people automatically supported development and saw environmentalists as obstacles to prosperity," said Aram Hodess, an official with Plumbers Local 159 in Martinez. "Now we're recognizing that we are most effective when we work with environmental and community organizations for responsible growth."
The anti-WTO protest in Seattle last year was a major turning point in bringing workers and environmentalists together on a national level. Televised images of "Turtles and Teamsters" marching in the streets together became the symbol for a heightened level of opposition to corporate predations against both the global environment and the worldwide fortunes of working people. Subsequent protests over the past six months, in Washington, D.C., Davos, Switzerland, and most recently at the Organization of American States convention in Windsor, Ontario, have solidified the relationship.
The near-term success of the alliance between workers and environmentalists may depend largely on the fortitude of their leadership. If leaders like Yokich of the UAW and George Becker of the United Steelworkers merely talk about their dissatisfaction with the current direction of major party politics, progress could be slowed. Gore didn't help his case last month when he named Commerce Secretary William Daley, the administration's top lobbyist for Senate passage of the China trade bill, as his new campaign manager. Steelworkers spokesman Gary Hubbard commented that Gore seems "not to understand how strongly working people feel on the trade issue."
Teamsters President James Hoffa called Gore's decision "a slap in the face." At a press conference with Nader recently, Hoffa called on the Presidential Debates Commission to allow both Nader and Patrick Buchanan to participate. "Who really wants to see a debate between Gore and Bush?" Hoffa asked.
Environmental organizations should ask the same question. Their willingness to settle for half a loaf from the Democrats may work for fund-raising appeals but recently led Brower of Earth Island to accuse Sierra Club leadership of "fiddling while the planet burns."
Meanwhile, the Sierra Club's top hired gun, Carl Pope, continues to defend Gore as, at worst, the lesser of evils. But even if the presidential election of 2000 goes by without a hard stand by labor and environmental leadership against the Democrats, the die seems to be cast.
The early capitalists were the iconoclasts of their day. They had to create a new logic, a logic of the market organized around profitability, in order to end their subordination to the landed gentry. This logic brought about the Industrial Revolution and the spectacular wealth of a small percentage of the Earth's people today. However, for workers and environmentalists, not to mention the majority of the world's population, it is becoming increasingly anachronistic. Corporate capitalism, especially in its globalized form, is fostering economic and social inequalities that are intrinsically unstable in a democracy. Even more ominous, because it involves the very survival of our species, is the current order's inability to deal with the multiple environmental crises.
Our challenge today is to forge a new logic, a logic that defines what it means to be a free human being in the modern world. Without doubt, economic concerns will remain key; however, they'll take their place among a larger constellation of concerns. Instead of just making economic sense, things will have to make environmental sense, social sense, human sense. The alliance of workers and environmentalists is an essential step in this transformative process.
July 10, 2000 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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