Unions Ditch Principles to Back Energy Bill

Since John Sweeney ascended to the presidency of the

A.F.L.-C.I.O. almost six years ago, he has sought to improve American

unionism-to transform labor from a narrowly self-serving special interest into

a broad, active movement for social, economic and political reform. Rejecting

the conservatism of the old labor barons, Mr. Sweeney has consistently reached

out to immigrants, students, clergy, environmentalists and other potential

allies. This daring break with institutional culture hasn’t fulfilled all the

unrealistic expectations evoked by his rise, but it was at the very least a

sign of life among the moribund.

On the evening of Aug. 1, much of Mr. Sweeney’s good work

was undone when the House of Representatives voted to pass the Bush

administration’s energy bill, thanks to a relentless campaign by lobbyists from

the Teamsters, the United Auto Workers and the building-trades unions, among

others. Only a few weeks ago, that noxious legislation-with its billions in

corporate welfare for the oil and coal industries, its encouragement of

drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and its hostility to

conservation standards-was thought to be dying, if not dead. Labor’s clout

whipped dozens of Democrats who otherwise would have voted no into approving a

bill they all know is wrong.

How ironic it was to see lifelong union enemies such as

Republican boss Tom DeLay, who have complained so bitterly about the political

power of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., depending entirely on labor lobbyists for a victory

that was otherwise beyond reach. Few sights in recent years have been more

appalling than the press conference where the reactionary Texan locked arms

with a smiling Teamster lobbyist, vowing to “crack the back of the radical


The payoff to the labor chiefs was a quiet guarantee, tucked

away in the Bush bill, that the construction sites despoiling the Alaskan

wilderness will favor organized labor. This

amendment represented a major lapse

from right-wing orthodoxy for conservatives like Mr. DeLay, who oppose

the right to organize, the minimum wage and every other advance working people

have achieved during the past century. Pragmatism outweighed principle on both

sides of this deal.

There was little reason to expect better from Teamsters boss

James Hoffa Jr., whose leadership of his father’s union has evoked the era when

the Teamsters cozied up to the Nixon Republicans. More troubling by far was the

Teamster chief’s success in persuading Mr. Sweeney to endorse the Bush energy

bill. When the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s legislative director explained this decision by

pointing to an Alaska-drilling resolution approved by the pre-Sweeney labor

leadership in 1993, he only proved how rapidly his organization could revert to

its worst old habits.

The U.A.W., traditionally among labor’s more idealistic

organizations, behaved exactly like the Teamsters, their longtime adversaries

in the movement. Their worry was that

higher fuel-efficiency requirements would reduce demand for sport

utility vehicles and cost union members their jobs.

Jobs are always the

justification when union officials sign up for an idiotic proposal. The latest

instance is the endorsement of the national missile-defense boondoggle by the

Machinists Union, an organization that once preferred housing and schools to

useless weapons. Mr. Hoffa happily anticipates construction of many more

nuclear-power plants, perhaps imagining his drivers transporting radioactive

waste across the countryside.

It all brings to mind a bitter quip that used to circulate

among environmentalists: If the government ever decided to put up concentration

camps, they joked, the unions would eagerly welcome the creation of so many

new, well-paying jobs.

That rapacious

image-exaggerated but not entirely unfounded-was among the negative perceptions

that Mr. Sweeney set out to erase after he took control of the labor

federation. He consulted with national environmental organizations. He spoke

out for global environmental standards. And now he’s acted as if all those fine

words had never been uttered, with destructive consequences for his admirable


Surely Mr. Sweeney understands, even if Mr. Hoffa does not,

that the future effects of this legislation will be as destructive to union

families as to everyone else on the planet. No great vision is required to

realize that a conservation ethic must prevail if there’s to be a future worth

living for. A union card won’t protect anyone against airborne coal

particulates or global warming or urban smog.

Not all the blame for this debacle belongs to labor. The

liberal Democrats who knuckled under have earned their fair share of shame.

More importantly, the Democratic leaders who were defeated by the defection of

their own members ought to ask themselves an obvious question: Why have they

failed to promote their own energy policy as a jobs program? Ever since the

first oil crisis almost three decades ago, copiously documented studies have

proved that conservation generates much more employment than exploitation.

The public, including union members, is ready to hear that

message. And the Democrats, if they hope to defeat the Bush bill in the Senate,

shouldn’t hesitate to proclaim it. Unions Ditch Principles to Back Energy Bill