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What do Labor and Environmental Activists Have in Common?

Jeremy Sprinkle
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"A lot. And we need to work together to achieve mutually progressive goals."

Essay by Avram Friedman

At the urging of Kendall Hale, a Canary Coalition board member, I attended a labor rally in Asheville on Sunday, July 17 and felt completely at home with the spirit of solidarity and community that ran as a continuous thread of urgency through the words of each speaker, the nodding and sometimes verbal agreement of those listening and the general air of involvement that permeated the air at Pack Square.

The labor movement is at its roots the source of all social progress achieved in our country. It is working women and men using their collective personal power to achieve a better standard of living, descent wages, health care coverage, better educational standards, equal opportunities, more fair distribution of the wealth in our nation.

Environmental activists employed by and volunteering for grassroots, non-profit organizations are working people as well, often serving the community with minimal salaries and little or no job benefits. As with those who organize for labor, the work of the environmental activist benefits something greater than himself or herself as an individual. Environmental justice, better health, cleaner air and water, and a generally safer environment are goals that improve the lives of all working people.

There is no conflict between a healthy environment and a thriving economy that provides living wage jobs, universal health care, high quality education and social justice. It is becoming increasingly clear that the process of improving our environment will involve the emergence of a new industrial revolution that promises an abundance of steady, sustainable employment for skilled and unskilled workers in the fields of clean, safe, renewable energy, energy efficiency, clean transportation, sustainable agriculture, progressive education, progressive health care, progressive economics, advanced economical housing, the development of new environmentally sustainable building and industrial materials, fuels, and systems. The list of changes for the betterment of our environment, and the jobs these changes will bring, is almost limitless.

Along with the need to organize to achieve the policy changes that will improve our environment and bring about this new industrial revolution there will also be the need to organize and ensure the sustained economic parity of Americas working women and men. The new industrial revolution needs to be accompanied by a new age for the labor movement, a re-awakening in which union membership grows to near universality and working people once more gain the voice and power they deserve, having the ability to negotiate for fair wages, secure pensions, adequate health care coverage and family leave time.

Advocates for labor and advocates for the environment face the same adversaries who disproportionately influence government policies to the detriment of the public interest for the purpose of ever higher profits for the few. The same corporate money and influence distorts legislative agendas, hindering labor from organizing and marginalizing environmental concerns.

It makes sense for members of the environmental community to join labor in demanding collective bargaining rights for state employees so they can achieve a quality of life that sets a standard for the private sector. It also makes sense for labor to join environmental advocates in the demand for state energy policy to be geared toward furthering energy efficiency, renewable energy transformation, public transportation development, better building code standards and better enforcement of environmental regulations. These issues and many others bring common benefit to all, including good jobs and better job security, better health and a cleaner, safer environment.

The voice of labor first gained prominence in American politics by building "links on the chain." In other words, different factions were brought together to form a powerful coalition. In recent decades some of those links have eroded and fragmented this vital chain. It's time to start assembling a new, more current and resilient chain that addresses the issues of our fast evolving economy and environment. Labor and environment need each other and should go hand-in-hand in mutual support as links on this new chain.

Avram Friedman is the Executive Director and one of the founders of the Canary Coalition (, a Clean Air advocacy organization in Western North Carolina. He can be reached at [email protected] or 828-631-3447.