Union members discuss how to save the planet

ST. PAUL, Minn. (PAI) — Saying the future of the planet is at stake, union members and their allies gathered at a Labor and Sustainability Conference here Jan. 19-20 to discuss strategies to address the climate crisis and promote healthy development.

Organizers of the conference included members of United Auto Workers Local 879, who will soon lose their jobs when Ford Motor Co. shuts down its Ranger truck plant in St. Paul. The plant is run on hydroelectric power from the Mississippi River. It’s one of the few green manufacturing facilities in the nation.

Conference events were held in the training center adjacent to the plant and at the Local 879 hall across the street.

The Minnesota conference is just the latest development in what has become a stronger alliance between organized labor and environmental groups in the last decade, where unions push job creation in environmentally friendly ways.

Led by the Steelworkers, unions are pushing a 10-year, $300 billion plan to invest in new U.S. plants to create environmentally friendly products, such as hybrid cars and solar panels. The Apollo Alliance would also bring new high-paying factory jobs to areas of the U.S. hard hit by the loss of 3 million manufacturing jobs — half of them unionized — since 1999. Minnesota workshop topics included proposals for future green manufacturing at the Ford plant, the campaign for zero greenhouse gas emissions, conversion to wind power, effects of climate change on the region and confronting corporate globalization.

The theme of the conference was “a just transition from our present fossil-fuel economy to one that is based on clean, renewable energy,” said Local 879 Health and Safety Director Lynn Hinkle. “This rests on the notion that we can have both a healthy environment and good-paying union jobs in a green economy.”

Author Jack Rasmus, a former union organizer who has done extensive research on global warming, outlined the scope of the crisis in his keynote address. The frozen Arctic Ocean could be completely melted by 2040, and scientists say Greenland is melting twice as fast as previously predicted, Rasmus said. Massive ice melts will cause major climate changes and create a cycle of heavy rainfall in some areas and drought in others.

As sea levels rise, it’s estimated 300 million people will become refugees as coastal cities are submerged around the world. Many species of animals and plants also are threatened by the climate changes.

In addition to the human and environmental cost, global warming would have huge economic cost — as much as 20 percent of the world’s total economic production, or nearly $10 trillion, Rasmus said. That’s more than the economic cost of World Wars I and II and the Great Depression combined, he explained.

While the projections are bleak, the good news is that many people are waking up and starting to act, he added. “The reality is so overwhelming now that the tide has turned” and “there’s a new political phase opening up” in Congress and at state and local levels, Rasmus said.

Unfortunately, proposals in the past GOP-run Congress focused almost entirely on creating incentives for businesses to cut emissions, such as the “cap and trade” approach that lets companies sell environmental “credits” if their production falls below carbon dioxide emission limits, he added. The Bush administration’s Environmental Protection Agency also favors “cap and trade” plans. That practice, now used in Europe, has done little to reduce emissions because the limits are not stringent enough, Rasmus said.

Barbara Kucera writes for Workday Minnesota.