Lawrence Solomon: How Trump shattered the alliance between environmentalists and Big Labour

(June 9, 2016) The stage is set for a knock ‘em down, drag ‘em out fight with Donald Trump making an unapologetic play for the hardhat vote and Hillary Clinton promising to “put coal miners out of work” and all but eliminate fracking.

A woman holds up a sign for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during a rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong.

A woman holds up a sign for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during a rally for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong.

This article, by Lawrence Solomon, was first printed by the National Post

To the dread of environmentalists, the jobs-versus-environment debate is on once again, but with big differences. In past decades, environmentalists were politically weak and sought succor from their powerful fellow travelers on the left — Big Labour. In recent years, environmentalists — President Obama, Silicon Valley and Hollywood in tow — have had the upper hand, and didn’t need to court labour, or show it much deference. If anything, the labour movement has been on its back foot, paying lip service to the needs of the environment to avoid being labelled Neanderthals.

In the past, both labour and environmentalists strove to soft-pedal their differences, neither wanting to diss their ostensible allies and lose support among their own constituents for dividing the progressive movement. Now, the gloves are coming off, and polite talk has grown rare. The stage is set for a knock ‘em down, drag ‘em out fight with a decisive showdown in the November election. In the corner for the environment is Hillary Clinton, who earlier this year announced that she would “put coal miners out of work” and all but eliminate fracking. In the corner for labour — and especially for the blue-collar jobs that have been out of favour — is Donald Trump.

“We have to win the general election. We cannot take Hillary Clinton anymore,” Trump told a cheering crowd of 13,000 in West Virginia’s coal country, where he kicked off his general election campaign last month after his last Republican rivals conceded defeat. “You can’t take it folks. You’re gonna have your mines closed, 100 per cent.”

Trump’s unapologetic play for the hardhat vote — “We’re going to get those miners back to work … They are going to be proud again to be miners” — is not only fueling resentments between blue-collar workers and environmentalists, it’s also dividing Big Labour.

Last month, Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the 500,000-strong Laborers’ International Union of North America wrote to Richard Trumka, president of AFL-CIO, American’s largest union federation, “to express our anger and frustration regarding the AFL-CIO’s plan to establish a Super PAC with billionaire job-killer and environmental extremist Tom Steyer.”

“(Steyer) and his anti-energy, anti-job, anti-growth cronies will be dictating how funds flowing from union coffers are spent … we’re not about to hold hands, sing Kumbaya, and support positions that threaten the jobs, livelihoods, and economic health of our dues-paying members, or of our brothers and sisters in the AFL-CIO. Our primary responsibility as union leaders is to our members, and any individual or any organization that has a problem with that is no friend of the labor movement.”

Sullivan’s spitting-mad letter, written shortly after it became certain Trump would lead the Republicans, boiled over with resentment at the way AFL-CIO — which is now dominated by government employees — decided “to sell out to a billionaire who not only has little or no stake in our movement, our members, or their work; but who has actively fought against our members’ interests.” Sullivan’s letter was co-ordinated with a letter to Trumka from seven presidents of building trade unions also expressing dismay “that the AFL-CIO has now officially become infiltrated by financial and political interests that work in direct conflict to many of our members.”

As did Sullivan’s letter, the letter from the seven presidents signaled an irreconcilable split. “Compromising our core mission as trade unionists sworn to advocate for the economic well being of our membership as a trade off for a perceived short term political gain is utterly disappointing and and cannot be supported by the undersigned organizations.”

Trump’s unapologetic play for the hardhat vote is fueling the resentments

Both letters to Trumka expressed outrage over harm to workers in the fossil fuel industries from climate change policies. This is an open sore, one that Trump is expertly working, and is now a central issue in the presidential campaign. Where Clinton and the Democrats have taken an increasingly anti-fossil-fuel stance, promising to bring the weight of government regulations down on the industry, Trump and the Republicans have been unambiguously pro-fossil fuels, promising to scrap regulations, undo the Obama climate change legacy and thwart the horrors that would be yet to come.

“She’s declared war on the American worker,” Trump said of Clinton. “She will shut down energy production across this country. Millions of jobs, and trillions of dollars of wealth, will be destroyed as a result.”

Trump has the blue-collar vote, and likely the vote of their union representatives, for good reason. As the presidential race unfolds, and heated rhetoric further inflames passions, the divide between the greens and blue-collar workers can only intensify.

Ten years ago, environmentalists and unions formed the Blue Green Alliance, on a “common belief that building a clean energy economy will create good jobs, reduce the carbon emissions that cause global warming and make America more energy independent.” They should have called it an “oil and water” experiment, having only proved that, when dealing with extremist policies dictated by climate change economics, jobs and the environment don’t mix and may, in fact, be explosive.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe. Email:

About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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