Foster at conference on sustainable development

Labor-Environmental Coalition Building

the necessary alliance

Interview with Dave Foster by Jeff Ditz

The one year old Blue-Green Alliance is a joint project of the Sierra Club, the nation's largest and oldest grass roots environmental organization, and the 1.2 million member United Steelworkers. "This alliance," a founding statement says, "will focus its resources on those issues which have the greatest potential to unite the American people in pursuit of a global economy that is more just and equitable and founded on principles of environmental and economic sustainability."

(In the US a labor & environmental coalition is called Blue-Green (for the 'blue collar' of manufacturing workers). In other countries a working class oriented environmentalism is Red-Green (and in those places Blue-Green is a Green-Social Conservative coalition.)

Alliance Director Dave Foster has been a Steelworker member for 31 years and is the former Director of USW District 11 covering most of the western US. The Advocate met with Foster during the recent USW Health, Safety and Environment Conference in Dearborn.

The corporate press tells us it's 'jobs versus the environment' but that's not true. What has happened to help build bridges between these two movements?

Before it seemed we could work together on specific projects or have disagreements about some economic development thing. It's taken changes in union status in this country and the play of global economics to make it a necessity to work together. The multi-national trade agreements and multi-national governing economic structures like the WTO did that.

It got to a point where labor and environmentalists had no choice but to make common cause against that economic structure. That structure has made it very, very hard for labor to continue with collective bargaining as we knew it, and for environmental organizations to continue with environmental regulation and progress as they knew it.

What both movements have in common is this sense that improvement in society is made by there being a common regulatory framework that is fair to all and provides an opportunity for all.

We are really the two big forces in the country that believe in that and are willing to take that long view of society so it's our obligation to figure out how to work together. We have some sense of a society based around common good and we have to articulate that vision.

Environmental people have to work for a living and union members have environmental interests but what about the idea that there are cultural differences between labor people and environmentalists?

There's a lot of diversity in the blue-collar unions now but I think there's some truth in the common stereotypes that blue-collar union members have different educational levels, different lifestyles from environmentalists. We're high school educated and have jobs where we get our hands dirty. They're white collar, college educated.

But the union membership in the Sierra Club is about what it is in America generally, about 10-15%.

Around 1997 I ran a district conference where I wanted to introduce Carl Pope, the head of the Sierra Club, to District 11. District 11 has a lot of miners, manufacturing workers, aluminum smelters, steel, big tire plants. District 11 covers states with mostly small industrial towns. So people with outdoor lifestyles; a lot of hunting, fishing, a lot of gun ownership.

I introduced Carl and he got polite applause. Then in the first moments of his speech he said 'I want to tell you about the membership of the Sierra Club.' He talked about how lot of Sierra Club members fish and 25% are gun owners and have hunting licenses. There was an audible sigh of relief and everybody sort of sat back and said okay we can listen to this guy. He's not an NRA basher.

I always remembered that. So even though there are obvious cultural differences I don't think they're anywhere as deep as people tend to think they are. That's generally the case with human beings; when you get them sitting down and talking to each other you find there is more that binds them than divides them.

When Steelworkers and Sierra Club members get to know each other they figure out pretty quickly they have largely common values.

Organizationally unions and environmental groups are different. A lot of environmental activism is very local and community based. Unions are highly centralized. How do those differences play out in your work?

The Sierra Club has an organizational style that very deliberately tries to put power into the hands of local volunteers. Members act as the spokespeople to represent the organization when it takes a public stand on an issue, when testifying in front of a legislature, or doing outreach to other constituency groups.

And that's not generally the style of the CIO unions or one the labor movement is particularly comfortable with. We grew up in a culture of fighting big oligarchic organizations by creating centralized organizations that could concentrate power.

In recent years unions have become more sophisticated and realized that to compete for public attention, even for our own members attention, we have to promote volunteerism and the involvement of rank and file members.

I think the Sierra Club is farther ahead than most unions in terms of being able to use their members to communicate their message. I think that's something we can learn from them - to operate from a principle of member involvement at a higher level.

Now I do think the Steelworkers have done a huge amount in the last 15 years, it's a very different organization than when I joined it 31 years ago. More decentralization, heavy emphasis on membership involvement, and a recognition that no policy program is going to work without having its origin and support from rank and file members.

How did you come to the decision to give up a District Directorship and everything that goes with it for this work?

You realize that all you're doing is looking in the rear view mirror driving sixty miles an hour down the freeway and you're not going anywhere. Some of my colleagues were maybe a little puzzled about why I would do this; but I'm more interested in the challenges that I think have the potential of producing real change than I am in challenges that I don't necessarily think are going to end up there.

When I left the Steelworkers I was serving on eight different creditors committees of bankrupt companies trying to representing our members and trying to save retiree health insurance and pension benefits. Obviously doing that and doing it well makes a difference in the lives of people you're working for. I was happy and proud to be doing that.

On the other hand I could pretty well predict that continuing to do that I'd be on twelve bankruptcy committees, some people's lives would be less badly impacted than they would have otherwise, but nonetheless they were going to lose an awful lot of what the union had spent a couple of generations trying to build up.

It seemed to me there was an awful lot of other work to be done to try to figure out how to position the American labor movement and progressives generally to win some big meaningful generational fights. One of the jobs that needed to be done was to figure out how to bring the labor and environment together and give them a vision around global economics that has a chance of having resonance with the broad American public and nobody was doing that.

I had a particular history and set of relationships that would allow me to do some things so it was a pretty easy decision. I've found this rejuvenating and a lot of fun and an opportunity to work with a lot of really interesting and really smart people and to challenge them and they've challenged me. I think its helped move some of the political debate along. When leading environmentalists got together and talked on the issue of global warming and I wasn't in the room nobody talked about the impacts on labor, on workers and domestic production and a whole lot of things that I think are going to be pretty critical to all of our futures. So being able to take both labor and environmental credentials into that discussion has been pretty important.

Have you encountered much resistance within the Steelworkers for what is a rare kind of coalition in this country?

Surprisingly little in the sense that people think it's a bad idea. The fact that our union was so decimated by trade and trade issues so early had a really deep impact on the way the union looked at everything else around the world.

You know we lost 10,000 members in my District in six months in one particularly bad period. I did a little analysis and there was no case that even one of those lost jobs had anything to do with environmental regulation. Every single one had every thing to do with global trade and global economic competition.

I think the leadership of the Steelworkers union understood, after the experiences between 1990 and 2005, that we had a whole lot more in common in trying to figure out how to build an effective fair trade movement in this country than we did in squabbling with environmentalists over stopping pollution in plants. And the real prize was building a coalition with them that would allow us to start defeating these trade agreements and developing a new model.

We worked very hard in 1999 over the WTO protests. We made it a major project in District 11 for eighteen months. We brought a huge number of members and staff from all over the US and Canada. That was a defining moment in terms of the unions' view of its relationship with the environmental movement. After that everybody thought that this kind of alliance in one form or another was something that had to happen.

From 1991, starting with the Ravenswood corporate campaign and going on down, there has continuously been one or another major fight against a great multi-national corporation that can be measured in years and every single one of those has had a major environmental component and major involvement by one or another environmental group. The steady evidence that we could get major meaningful support in struggles with big global corporations from the environmental movement likewise led the leadership of the union to believe this is kind of fundamental to who the union is and what it had become in the last part of the 20 century.

Each merger that has come along has sparked a renewal of this discussion. But they were pretty limited in a sense because there weren't any great histories of conflict. But there were certain questions and people wanted to get oriented.

The merger with PACE has been a little more complicated, primarily on the paper side. That's a union that didn't have the same history of involvement.

Earlier this year the Steelworkers and Sierra Club filed for the first time a joint labor environmental objection on a trade case with the Department of Commerce. It's on a case involving the import of products of pre-coated paper which is this fancy paper you use to make catalogs and corporate reports.

Some of our paper mills are being closed down as a result of the import of this paper manufactured in China. All of it from timber being logged illegally in Indonesian rain forests. So the environmental concern about this is that the Indonesian rain forest is one of the primary defenses against global warming and its being lost at a rate of the size of the state of New Jersey every year. On top of that it's being done illegally. And the China paper mills undercut paper prices in the United States. We filed this joint complaint with the Department of Commerce and asked that the US government put an economic value on the illegal logging in Indonesia and then sanction those imports accordingly. We were joined by one of the paper companies that's been affected.

We put out some materials about this - the connections between illegal logging, trade, and the destruction of the environmental standards in this country; and have taken that around to all of our paper locals. It's given them a very different view about what the loss of jobs in the paper industry is.

In this country there's been a popular mythology about the loss of jobs in North American paper industry is all about restrictions on logging and the Endangered Species Act. We've produced evidence that it doesn't have a damn thing to do with that. It has to do with global paper companies looking for the cheapest source of fiber and the cheapest source of fiber is in Brazil, it's in Indonesia; the cheapest sources of labor are in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America. That's what's causing the loss of jobs.

This is all tied up in a global system of labor economics and environmental standards and we need to fight this thing together.

I think that's how you work through those kinds of issues: a very detailed educational program.