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Breaking Free

Can the Climate Movement Break Free From the 'Jobs vs. Environment' Debate?

By Kate Aronoff - Common Dreams, April 30, 2016

For two weeks this May, organizers across 12 countries will participate in Break Free 2016, an open-source invitation to encourage “more action to keep fossil fuels in the ground and an acceleration in the just transition to 100 percent renewable energy.” Many of the month’s events — pulled together by 350.org and a slew of groups around the world — are set to take place within ongoing campaigns to shut down energy infrastructure, targeting “some of the most iconic and dangerous fossil fuel projects all over the world” with civil disobedience.

The Break Free site’s opening page invites viewers to “join a global wave of resistance to keep coal, oil and natural gas in the ground.” And that’s where some unions have taken issue.

The United Steelworkers, or USW, this week released a response. “Short-sighted and narrow-focused activities like 350.org’s ‘Break Free’ actions,” they write, “make it much more challenging to work together to create and envision a clean energy economy.” Three of the locations targeted — in Pennsylvania, Indiana and Washington — are USW-represented refineries. The union argues that, despite record growth in renewables, the economy will continue to be reliant on fossil fuels for some time. “Shutting down a handful of refineries in the United States,” they say, “would lead to massive job loss in refinery communities, increased imports of refined oil products, and ultimately no impact on global carbon emissions.” Rather, refineries and their workers should be brought into the clean energy economy.

The statement ends arguing that, “We can’t choose between good jobs or a healthy environment. If we don’t have both, we’ll have neither.” In more familiar terms, Breaking Free — for the USW — sounds like a case of jobs versus the environment.

While similar releases are standard fare for other unions, the 30,000-member USW is one of the country’s most progressive — even when it comes to environmental issues.

“People assume that because we’re an industrial union that our leadership doesn’t care about the environment,” Roxanne Brown told me. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Brown is the assistant legislative director at USW, and emphasized the union’s long history of work on environmental issues. The USW hosted a conference in support of air pollutant regulations in the late 1960s, early on rejecting the kind of weaponized jobs versus environment rhetoric that has cropped up around the Keystone XL pipeline and other extraction fights.

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