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.
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.