Climate Change and the Democrats

J. Scott Applewhite/AP Images

Young climate crisis activists protest in the Capitol office of Democratic House Leader Steny Hoyer in support of the Green New Deal. 

This article appears in the Summer 2019 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

I’ve seen the face of a Democratic Party civil war, and it’s not pretty.

As an 18-year-old staffer for the presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy, I was at the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The images that form the popular memory of that convention are of the what-do-we-have-to-do-to-end-this-damn-Vietnam-War kids in the streets being countered—and clobbered—by Chicago cops running amok. But by mid-’68, the conflict between the antiwar kids and many of their elders reflected a whole series of increasingly bitter differences not just of belief, but also of identity—and not just in Chicago’s streets but inside the convention hall as well. To the cops, to the Daley machine that controlled them, and also to many of the convention delegates, from organizations like Daley’s or from George Meany’s AFL-CIO, the antiwar legions were a bunch of coddled upper-middle-class kids who’d managed to evade the draft, and their elders who’d coddled them. Correspondingly, those kids and their elders viewed the party’s old guard—the pols, the cops, and the unions—with an understandable fury.

These divisions were perhaps most intensely felt within the broad labor left. In 1964 and ’65, all wings of that left had worked for landmark civil rights and Great Society legislation. Vietnam sundered whatever strategic unity and dispositional comity had held that left together, as most unions maintained a hawkish posture toward what many middle-class liberals and the young regarded as a disgraceful, murderous debacle. Richard Nixon owed his narrow victory over Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election, and some of his non-narrow victory over George McGovern in 1972 (in which the AFL-CIO went neutral), to those Democratic divisions.

This Era of Bad Feelings persisted at least for the next 20 years, as such younger Democratic leaders as Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, and Jerry Brown viewed labor with disdain, while a number of the old-line unions viewed the rise of newer social movements—the women’s movement, the environmentalists, and others—with suspicion and occasional rage. The centrist Democrats who intermittently held the White House—Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, particularly—pretty much ignored labor. It took decades until time, changing circumstances, and the emergence of new issues healed these rifts—and also opened new ones, such as the division on the regulation of finance between Wall Street Democrats and progressive ones.

Today, the potential rift over decarbonization is just one of several that could damage the Democrats going into the 2020 election. The policy differences between the Sanders-Warren wing of the party and more centrist Democrats—particularly many traditional big-money donors—are very real. The particular peril posed by the politics of the climate crisis is that it could pit two key constituencies in next year’s election against each other: young voters, whose turnout levels may depend on the party’s embrace of the Green New Deal, and blue-collar workers in Midwestern swing states that may go Republican if those workers’ support for Donald Trump remains at 2016 levels. Worse yet, the cultural differences between these two groups could pit them against each other well beyond 2020, just as the split occasioned by the Vietnam War didn’t subside when that war ended.

For which reasons, healing this rift must be a top priority for Democrats, most especially for their presidential candidates. Recognizing this, some leading candidates—Jay Inslee, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden, for starters—have come forth with decarbonization plans that link the Green New Deal with the creation of high-wage blue-collar jobs.

That’s a necessity, because the intraparty divisions today have begun to echo those of the Vietnam era. Once again, a movement powered by the young is insisting on radical solutions, with the young fearing, quite reasonably, that as they grow older, the planet will grow relentlessly less habitable. Once again, a wing of the labor movement—the heavily male blue-collar construction and fossil fuel unions—is pushing back, insisting that these changes can’t come at the expense of their jobs, families, and communities.

And, as was not the case when the Vietnam War was in question, today both sides are right.


IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG for a backlash against the Green New Deal to form. This March, the AFL-CIO’s Energy Committee, consisting of the presidents of the Mine Workers, the Steelworkers, and of a number of construction unions, sent a letter to Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez saying that the Green New Deal resolution they had authored “is far too short on specific solutions that speak to the jobs of our members and the critical sectors of our economy. … We will not accept proposals that could cause immediate harm to millions of our members and their families.” In California, construction unions have demonstrated against Democrats (including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti) who’ve supported the Green New Deal.

Yet despite this dissonance, this clash shouldn’t turn out to be as politically cataclysmic as the one over Vietnam. By no means is labor united in opposition to, or even apprehension over, the Green New Deal. The national AFL-CIO’s executive council—a larger, more diverse body than its energy committee—hasn’t taken a position on the Green New Deal, and at least one major union, the Service Employees International Union, has endorsed it, as have the Maine and Los Angeles AFL-CIOfederations. The policy proposals from Inslee, Warren, and Biden include plans and funding for transitioning the affected workers into more sustainable endeavors. But to blue-collar workers who’ve seen their nation’s indifference to the destruction of working-class lives and communities, it will take more than position papers, even from the most pro-labor of Democrats, to allay their anxieties. That outlets like Fox News demonize not just the Green New Deal but its sponsors, too—Ocasio-Cortez in particular—only complicates the tasks for Democrats who understand the need for such a policy and for an economic-transition plan credible enough to forestall the furies that the likes of Fox seek to unleash.

Herewith, then, the story of one brilliant Democratic pol who managed to get landmark environmental legislation through Congress that threw thousands of workers out of work—and managed to do it with their support.


BY THE MID-1970S, San Francisco Congressman Phil Burton had established himself as the legislative wizard of American left liberalism. Driven, profane, and altogether overbearing, Burton had managed in his decade and a half in the House to dethrone the Dixiecrat oligarchs who’d chaired House committees by changing the selection process, lead the House opposition to the Vietnam War, abolish the House Un-American Activities Committee, create and fund the program to treat miners who suffered from black lung disease; steer to passage numerous pro-labor, pro-consumer, and welfare rights bills; and get all this and more done by crafting deals with some of Congress’s most reactionary members. (He’d vote for their agricultural subsidies if they backed the bills he sponsored.) “I spent 32 years in elective office and I only met one absolute political genius,” Senator Gaylord Nelson told Burton biographer John Jacobs. “That was Phil Burton.”

Genius or no, in 1977 Burton faced a political conundrum. Jimmy Carter had just become president after eight years of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, and high on Burton’s to-do list was legislation to expand the dysfunctionally small Redwood National Park, which stretched along the California coast north of Burton’s district. With logging companies denuding the hills of redwoods in areas adjacent to the park, in such a way that the redwoods within the park were endangered, Burton’s plan was to have the government purchase the surrounding land, which would greatly enlarge the park—and throw several thousand unionized, well-paid loggers out of work.

The reaction of the loggers, the surrounding community to which their income made an appreciable contribution, and the union movement generally was predictably choleric. Burton’s initial response was to convene a daylong hearing in a hall adjacent to the park, which close to 5,000 furious loggers and locals attended. “[A]t times it bordered on an open riot,” wrote Jacobs. When Burton walked onto the stage, “a loud chorus of boos greeted him and lasted for several minutes.” The environmentalists who testified in favor of park expansion required police protection. The next day, at a second hearing, this one in San Francisco, John Henning, the longtime head of the California AFL-CIO, gave indignant testimony. “Where the hell are the liberals to stand up for our people?” he asked. “What the hell are the jobs they’ll get? Where are they? There are none.” What the loggers felt, Henning continued, “is more than fear, it is a sense of rage and hatred for those who will displace workers. Believe me, Mr. Chairman, I know you are a friend of labor. … Don’t underestimate the passions of the rank and file on this.”

Burton didn’t underestimate those passions, or the justice of the loggers’ claims. Instead, he hired the nation’s most creative labor economist to craft a solution. Nat Weinberg had headed the research department of the United Auto Workers during Walter Reuther’s tenure as president, where he’d helped Reuther devise the closest thing to social democracy in one industry that the United States had ever seen. His signature creation was what Reuther had termed a “guaranteed annual wage”: company-provided payments that added to the unemployment insurance autoworkers collected when the Big Three laid them off due to slackening purchases or plant retooling. It took years of union pressure and Weinberg’s frequent modifications, but by the 1960s, laid-off UAWm embers were able to collect 95 percent of their regular wages when the government’s and the company’s contributions were added together.

In the economy of mid-20th-century America, autoworkers’ layoffs were temporary. What the loggers faced, however, was permanent, and there’d be no money for them coming from the logging companies. What Burton wanted was to create a federal fund for the loggers, not subject to the vagaries of annual congressional appropriations. What Weinberg came up with was a fund that would provide the loggers with the same level of pay and benefits—tax free—they’d received on the job, for a period of six years, unless and until they found other work. For older workers, who were unlikely to find any other comparable work, the payments could extend to 11 years.

Congress had never before enacted anything remotely like this. Burton nonetheless found enough votes to pass it in the House, and while the program was not in the version the Senate passed, Burton had it reinserted in the conference committee. When the bill, thus amended, returned to the Senate for final passage, Burton wanted it to quickly go through before conservatives discovered his logger compensation fund. (Burton was never much for process.) One of his Senate allies, however, South Dakota’s James Abourezk, wanted to speak at length about the redwoods just before the vote would be taken—giving South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, flipping through the bill while Abourezk spoke, enough time to come across Burton’s fund. Furious, Thurmond asked Abourezk to explain why the government should pay the loggers. Improvising on the spot, Abourezk replied, “The federal government has the power of eminent domain. If you take a man’s property, you have to compensate him. What’s more important to a man than his job?”

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Images

Unionized oil workers from refineries slated to close meet with lawmakers from Pennsylvania and Delaware at the Capitol. 

“I guess that’s okay,” said a confused Thurmond, and sat down.

When the bill came to its final vote in the House, members were buttonholed on their way to the floor and urged to vote yes by lobbyists for both the Sierra Club and the loggers’ union. Burton had also worn down the logging companies to a position of neutrality. The only opponents, to Burton’s great delight, were lobbyists for the association of chainsaw manufacturers. The bill became law—one of the first bills expanding or creating national parks that Burton was to get enacted, though he had no affinity whatever for the outdoors. After another feat of legislative legerdemain, which created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), he turned to his colleague George Miller and said, “Isn’t the GGNRA beautiful?”

“Yeah, Phil,” Miller answered. “It’s a nice place.”

“Not the place,” Burton said. “The bill.”


PHIL BURTON DIED, suddenly, in 1983. And while the number of coal miners has been shrinking for decades, they clearly outnumber the number of loggers displaced by Burton’s Redwood Park expansion. There are roughly 50,000 coal miners in the U.S. today, and as of 2015, about another 400,000 workers in support jobs for the industry, according to economists Robert Pollin and Brian Callaci, writingin the Summer 2016 issue of the Prospect. Pollin and Callaci also calculated there were roughly 194,000 workers employed in oil and gas extraction, while another 200,000 worked in refineries and in fossil fuel distribution. For unionized workers, at least, these are well-paying jobs: United Mine Workers members make roughly $60,000 annually, while the Southern California refinery workers who belong to the United Steelworkers (which absorbed the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers some years ago) make about $125,000 a year, according to USW local leader Dave Campbell.

That’s close to one million workers, more or less, who could lose their jobs—many of them well paying—in a fossil fuel–free economy, though support workers for the industry might well find comparable support work in the renewable-energy industry. For the workers actually mining the coal, or drilling for or refining oil, comparable prospects would be dimmer. And while oil refineries are often close to major cities, oil fields and coal mines are usually not. Closing them down generally devastates local economies.

In their article, Pollin and Callaci estimate that the cost of a just transition for fossil fuel workers could run to $500 million a year. Were that transition as comprehensive as the one Burton and Weinberg crafted for the loggers, it might well run a good deal more than that. The Green New Deal plans that Inslee, Warren, and Biden have proposed allot between $150 billion and $300 billion yearly for the costs of building a sustainable-energy system and helping fossil fuel workers either move to this new economy or have their pensions and benefits secured. A substantial chunk of those funds—much more, I suspect, than $500 million—would have to go to the displaced workers.

But it’s not just workers within the fossil fuel industry who’ve expressed apprehension about the Green New Deal. It’s also a number of the construction unions whose members work on infrastructure projects, among them the Laborers (many of whose members work on laying pipelines), the Electrical Workers, and the heavy-equipment operators in the Operating Engineers. These unions have formed alliances with the oil industry that seek to retard the climate change movement. One such group—Common Ground California—is an alliance of that state’s Building and Construction Trades Council and the Western States Petroleum Association.

To labor supporters of the Green New Deal—and there are many—the involvement of the trades with the oil industry is both disappointing and a bit mysterious, since, as Joe Uehlein, the president of the Labor Network for Sustainability, says, “addressing the climate crisis can be a full employment plan for the building trades far into the future. We need to do a better job of making that case.”

For a union like the Laborers, that does so much work laying and repairing pipelines, Uehlein says, installing new water systems to replace a nation of ancient pipelines would create millions of jobs. “The entire system of storm management and the delivery of fresh water needs to be rebuilt,” he says. “Our storm management system was never designed to deal with the current level of rain or the more intense storms we’re now experiencing.” A new water system, a new grid, a national commitment to assembling wind turbines and installing solar panels, he says, will generate “a huge amount of work.” The green-energy infrastructure plans that Inslee, Warren, and Biden have unveiled all call for a range of projects that could employ literally millions of construction workers, and specify that the jobs they create should be high-wage and union.

The commitment of some of the building trades to the current system, however, could enable both the oil industry and the conservative movement to drive a deeper wedge between those unions and the climate crisis activists—and, by extension, the greener-growing mainstream of the Democratic Party. Since the protests over the Keystone XL pipeline, a number of Republican-controlled states have enacted legislation drafted by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to penalize protests at the site of pipelines, and to make those who participate in or even encourage such protests subject to felony charges. (In every state, actually damaging a pipeline is already a crime.) This year, for the first time, that bill was introduced in a Democratic-controlled state—Illinois—and when it was amended to exempt union protests (over wages, working conditions, and such) from its otherwise sweeping prohibitions on demonstrations, the state AFL-CIO endorsed it. It then passed in the lower house, before environmental groups, the ACLU, and other organizations (and, likely, the Democratic representatives who’d voted for it) realized what the bill entailed. The bill has now been pulled from consideration in the state Senate, but its near success illustrates both the conservative movement’s belief that it can deepen the split between at least some of the labor movement and the climate change movement, and the strength of the alliance between some of those unions and the oil industry. “They’re thick as thieves,” one labor leader told me.


THANKFULLY, THEY’RE NOT all thick as thieves. A number of the refinery locals within the Steelworkers have long histories of working with environmental justice groups to try to limit the levels of pollutants in the working-class neighborhoods where refineries are frequently located. In 2006, the national Steelworkers Union founded the BlueGreen Alliance to speed the transition to a cleaner economy—provided it doesn’t entail mass downward mobility for workers in the existing energy economy. As Steelworkers President Leo Gerard wrote in the Prospect earlier this year, “Some USWmembers work at oil refineries in good, family-supporting jobs that enable them to buy homes and help their kids pay college tuition. It is arrogant and unacceptable for out-of-touch policy wonks to suggest that they simply retrain to become non-union rooftop solar panel installers at $19 an hour with no benefits, and that their communities simply swallow the resultant loss in tax revenue and commerce. That’s no kind of ‘just’ transition.”

The plans released by Inslee, Biden, and Warren go a good deal of the way toward creating a transition that doesn’t strand workers in those $19-an-hour jobs. Inslee’s emphasizes legislation to facilitate forming unions, and in conversation with me, he advocated what he called “pricing adjustments that take into consideration the lack of carbon controls in foreign producers,” which is a nicely euphemistic way of saying tariffs on imports like Chinese steel produced in coal-fired plants. For her part, Warren emphasizes a much more serious commitment to domestic production all along the supply chain, which would also be a boon to American manufacturing. Her plan calls for yearly federal purchases of American-made renewable-energy products totaling $150 billion.

In states and cities with no mines or oil or gas fields or refineries, the labor movement has been more receptive to policies like the Green New Deal. In New York state—where, by Pollin and Callaci’s count, there are just 13,000 workers in the fossil fuel industry—a number of unions have worked alongside environmental groups in developing legislation that promotes worker-friendly clean-energy projects (such as mandating that solar-installation workers be paid the prevailing wage of construction workers). In Maine, the state AFL-CIOwas the first group consulted by newly elected state assembly member Chloe Maxmin as she began writing that state’s Green New Deal legislation, which effectively guaranteed that union apprentices would work on the state’s new power grid. The state federation almost unanimously endorsed her bill in March (with some objections from the Machinists, whose Lobster Fisherman local feared that offshore wind turbines could disrupt the lobster beds), and the legislature passed it in June.

Maxmin is a 27-year-old Democrat from a rural district that had been Republican for decades until her upset victory last November; she’d also led the fossil fuel divestment campaign when she was a student at Harvard. She had the Burton-esque smarts to write her bill with labor in the room. “When we talk about transition, we’re talking about opening a whole new economy, and labor should be an integral part of that conversation,” she says. “This is something the political system has largely failed to do.”

The refinery workers’ Dave Campbell would agree with Maxmin’s assessment. “No family will sacrifice themselves for someone else’s family,” he says. “We’ll be willing to make sacrifices if it’s for the future of our children as well as their children. Just transitions have to be very concrete: People on the edge of losing their careers want to know what exactly will happen to them and their families.”

That’s what Phil Burton knew. That’s what Chloe Maxmin knows. If those smarts get spread around enough, we may have a viable Green New Deal yet—and avoid a ferocious generational fight in the labor-left universe.  

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