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DC conference showcases labour-eco recovery team that puts Canada to shame
Washington, DC – To call it good timing is perhaps an understatement.
I’m in Washington at the Good Jobs, Green Jobs Conference (February 4-6), and it’s a sellout crowd of 2,500 enviro experts, green business people, justice activists, a ton of trade unionists and, yes, community organizers.
They are revelling in the power of their new place in the political matrix of a country that is both forced into and blessed with the job of reinventing itself.
Crisis and renewal are a heady combo, and the Marriott Wardman Park ballroom is supercharged. It’s just the second-ever major gathering of this new Blue Green Alliance, but there is swagger in its step. The lineup of governors, senators and newly appointed high-placed officials here is just one sign that the Obama admin values the friendship.
“Green jobs are no longer a concept,” says Lisa Jackson, new African-American head of the Environmental Protection Agency and eco super-star. “They are very much a reality. Green jobs are a driving engine for recovery.” Talk about regime change.
It feels like crazy good karma that the conference is taking place while at this very moment, just blocks away in the Capitol Building, the Senate is working its way toward passing the sweeping new stimulus plan.
This assembly has already spent a day strutting its new green jobs partnership through the Hill to support the Obama plan, which will fund enviro energy infrastructure, energy efficiency for government buildings and those with low incomes, and the science and technology education a green shift requires.
Together, Obama claims, these initiatives are “making a down payment on the green economy,” an idea echoed in the subtitle of the conference.
Canada seems so very far, far away.
It’s only day two and this new movement has already garnered lobby brownie points big time for being in the right place at the right time. But of course, it’s no accident.
“It was deliberate planning. We believed it was important for us to be in Washington, DC, during the first month of the new administration, to take this message directly to Congress,” says former Steelworkers staffer and Blue Green Alliance executive director David Foster.
You have to give ’em points for visionary thinking. This whole cabal is the dream child of Foster, his Canadian buddy Leo Gerard now international president of United Steelworkers, and Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club.
“About three and a half years ago, Dave, Carl and I met in some greasy spoon and talked about how we would bring the environmental and the labour movements together,” says Gerard. “We signed a one-page document where we agreed to create the Blue Green Alliance.
“Then we went on the road to see if we could raise money, and we met with skepticism in some circles. Well, we’ve showed the whole country now, and maybe the whole world, that you can bring workers together with environmentalists and community activists. And you can chart a new course for a new day.”
The movement’s creation myth gets some added juice from Teamster prez and alliance member James Hoffa, who sums up the mood of the gathering with the simple observation that “Obama is the real deal.”
He says the eco light bulb went off for him during anti-globalization protests 10 years ago. “Teamsters and turtles came together in the Battle of Seattle,” he says. Then mutual respect slowly evolved into new policies. “Teamsters no longer support drilling in ANWR [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge],” he says to a wild ovation.
But of course there are issues that loom for a new movement as heterogeneous as this. They can be more or less summed up by the simple words “clean coal” and “nuclear.”
This will be a hurdle for a new alliance, says Margie Alt, exec director of Environment America. “I know we will have differences,” she says. “We need to hang in and work this out together.”
There are those who will be holding labour’s feet to the fire on this one, though. Take native activist and writer Winona LaDuke. “Our native communities are very interested in this movement. We did not like the last energy economy,” she says.
“Two-thirds of uranium waste from nuclear power plants is on Indian territories. Also, one-third of all western low-sulfur coal and the biggest dam projects on the continent flooded our communities out. I remember the late 70s and early 80s, when they wanted 1,000 nuclear power plants by the year 2000. And they don’t have them. That’s because of us!”
Indigenous people, she says, do not want to see a retooling or repackaging of the nuclear industry as a way to address climate change.
“And we do not want to see anything called ‘clean coal,’ because the only way you can sequester carbon forever is to leave it where it is, which is in the earth. We cannot fracture our movement on these issues,” she says.
Perhaps the true rising sun of the movement is Van Jones, founder of Green for All, which bridges issues of the environment and issues of the ghetto. “Green jobs, not jail” is one of his inspirational slogans.
His infectious vision of inclusiveness contains the inner landscapes most politics ignores. That spirit may well be the saving grace of this emerging alliance.
“I want to take it a little bit deeper,” he says. “This is a profound movement. When you realign politics, that’s the first step. Then you get to reinvent the economy. And this dynamic inside the green jobs movement is an attempt to express every day, not just in the thin political arena but in the thick guts of the economy, the unity of purpose, of solidarity among people of all colours and classes. This old economy that hurt the people, and hurt the planet – we’re done with that now.”
And in this moment, it all seems possible.
Native activist Winona LaDuke
Green For All founder Van Jones