Blue-collar union leaders—already furious over the Obama administration’s scuttling of the Keystone XL pipeline and Hillary Clinton’s vow to shut down the coal industry—took another hit earlier this month, when the Democratic Party announced the formation of For Our Future PAC, a voter-turnout initiative in partnership with billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who has long waged war against projects that the trade and construction unions hoped would create jobs. The New York Times portrayed the reaction to Steyer’s involvement in the new $50 million super PAC as a “rift between labor and environmentalists” within the Democratic Party, but that’s nothing new: trade unions and environmentalists have long been at odds. The real news was that much of the rest of the labor movement—led by public-sector unions—had agreed to work with Steyer, highlighting the ever-widening divide between blue-collar labor groups and their public-union counterparts. That split has already driven some trade unions into the arms of Republican candidates, and may account for some of the support Donald Trump gets in polls from working-class voters.
Blue-collar unions have been fighting for decades against the anti-growth environmentalist regulatory agenda. In the late 1970s, autoworkers’ unions and environmentalists faced off over the Carter administration’s efforts to enact clean air standards. The unions worried that a rapid introduction of tighter emissions controls would raise car prices and cut sales, forcing layoffs. Construction unions battled in vain for more than a decade to gain approval for Westway, a giant highway along the West Side of Manhattan; environmental opposition snuffed out the project in 1985. In 1992, when current AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka was president of the United Mine Workers, he implored the Green movement to stop killing jobs and instead work with unions toward a cleaner coal industry. “Our union’s first priority is not retraining laid off coal miners—it is saving those jobs,” he said.
Now, however, Trumka is singing a different tune, and trade unions consider him off key. Trumka is leading the AFL-CIO into greater and greater cooperation with environmentalists. His main allies in the Steyer effort are public unions—including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—who increasingly call the shots in the AFL-CIO. Another major public union, the National Education Association, while not part of the AFL-CIO, is also participating. That’s raised the hackles of blue-collar unions. “A growing trend within the Federation seems to be to minimize the importance of Building Trades jobs and our members’ livelihoods in the pursuit of a coalition strategy with outside organizations that has produced mixed results at best and disastrous at worst for our members,” wrote the heads of seven trade unions to Trumka about the Steyer initiative.
For Our Future PAC is the second major alliance between unions and environmentalists to infuriate blue-collar labor groups. Several unions, including the AFT and the Service Employees International Union, joined environmentalists to form the BlueGreen Alliance to lobby for funding for alternative-energy projects. Optimistic that the effort could produce jobs for their members, the Laborers International Union joined the group, only to be betrayed in 2012, when the Alliance came out against Keystone. “Unions and environmental groups that have no equity in the work have kicked our members in the teeth,” said Laborers International president Terry O’Sullivan. “And anger is an understatement as to how we feel about it.”
Democratic elected officials’ support for environmental regulations has also enraged some private unions and prompted them to support GOP legislators instead. Though AFSCME made Wisconsin governor Scott Walker its Number One target for defeat in 2014 (unsuccessfully), several trade unions lent financial support to his reelection bid after the Republican eased mining regulations to allow new projects to get started. No Democratic state legislator in Wisconsin sided with him in that effort. Republican Ohio governor John Kasich similarly won support for his reelection from the state’s 90,000-member building and trades council, thanks to his efforts to boost infrastructure spending. Perhaps most successfully, New Jersey governor Chris Christie gained the endorsement of two dozen blue-collar unions for his 2013 reelection bid. One crucial factor was his opponent Barbara Buono’s long record of allying with environmental groups, which prompted one Jersey union leader to call her Green supporters the “biggest enemies of any construction worker not only in the state of New Jersey but in the entire United States.”
The Steyer-funded PAC is designed to defeat presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, but the increasing influence of environmentalists within the Democratic Party may be pushing some blue-collar voters to Trump. In March, the Boston Globe reported on a poll of Massachusetts residents that showed that Trump was drawing support from a broad array of likely primary voters, but doing particularly well among union households. A survey earlier this year of nearly 1,700 likely voters in blue-collar Pittsburgh and Cleveland neighborhoods found 38 percent backing Trump, compared with 22 percent for Hillary Clinton and 12 percent for Bernie Sanders. Even Trumka has acknowledged the trend: “Donald Trump is tapping into the very real and very understandable anger of working people,” the labor leader said in March.
Trade union leaders may remain wary of some GOP candidates because they support causes like right-to-work laws that unions traditionally oppose. But right-to-work, which allows workers to opt out of union dues and fees, doesn’t smother jobs; research shows that it often boosts investment and hiring. By contrast, environmentalists increasingly promote policies that seek to limit or even shut down economic expansion, especially in energy and manufacturing.
Pundits are fond of pointing out how Republicans who don’t share Trump’s views face a tough choice. But blue-collar workers confront equally hard choices—and not only this year—as environmentalism begins to dominate the party that once championed the working class.
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