United Steelworkers' Leo Gerard: Building Alliances Between Labor and Environmental Groups

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Posted Oct. 30, 2013

Interview with Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers union, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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More than 5,000 young people converged in Pittsburgh for the biennial PowerShift conference Oct. 18 through 21, where the focus is on the next generation's response to climate disruption. Pittsburgh is also the headquarters of the United Steelworkers Union. With more than 850,000 members, it's the largest industrial union in North America and includes many workers not affiliated with the steel industry. Leo Gerard has served as the Steelworkers’ union president since 2001, and under his leadership, the union has been a leading advocate of the principle that good jobs and environmental protection can go hand in hand. First, with the Apollo Alliance and subsequently through the Blue/Green Alliance, the Steelworkers Union has allied with the Sierra Club and other environmental groups to pursue common goals, without needing to agree on everything.

Gerard was unable to attend October’s PowerShift conference in person, but sent a video speech laying out some of the union's history and calling for the retrofitting of America’s infrastructure and buildings and allocating more resources toward research and development to address environmental technology gaps. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Leo Gerard after the conference about how he developed his environmental credentials, the current priorities of his union, and the value of working with the PowerShift generation.

LEO GERARD: I grew up in a mining and smelting community in northern Ontario, in Canada. In the '60s, people came to practice they were landing on the moon, because there were parts of the community where I lived where there was literally no vegetation. That happened as a result of, early in the 1900's, where there was smelting by creating mounds of ore covered with clear-cut wood from clear-cutting the forest and setting fire to the wood that would melt the ore and burn off the sulfur and it would get blown along the ground, and because the trees were gone there was nothing to hold the soil so when it rained the soil would wash away so the rocks became granite black rocks. So that was the legacy left. And then growing up and working in that environment, we had an employer who told us continuously that we had to choose between a clean environment and good jobs. Being an activist in the union – I wasn't the leader, I was just a kid, just a participant – but the lead activist on our Health, Safety and Environment Committee challenged that, and the young folks like me went along with that, and what we learned is that we could clean up the environment and still have good jobs.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Leo Gerard, the Steelworkers have been in the forefront of environmental and even climate change activism for decades. Can you give us some highlights?

LEO GERARD: The Steelworkers held the first what would now be called an environmental conference, which was then called an anti-pollution conference, in 1963. Then we participated in numerous programs, including Great Lakes rehabilitation, international acid rain treaty; we had a huge internal debate on the Clean Air Clean Water Act, which we supported. Then in 1991, which seems like a long time ago, our union endorsed a paper at our international convention, where we said climate change was going to be one of the most important issues facing the next generation, in a statement called Our Children's World. Then, about 20 years later, we reissued a paper, Securing Our Children's Future. So for us, the debate over blue-green has been one we've been a leader in, and one of the things we know for sure, if we modernize our infrastructure – that means rail, transportation, bridges, roads, pipelines – if we modernize all that, if we put together a long-term public program of retrofitting our public buildings to the highest degree scientifically possible, we would generate huge amounts of research and development.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What was your message to PowerShift participants?

LEO GERARD: I think the message we were sending is that there are going to be controversial issues that come up, and we shouldn't get ourselves too polarized over those controversial parts of the issues, because we can do huge, huge amounts to improve the environment by simply aggressively, and for the long-term, going after the low-hanging fruit, as I call it, the kind of stuff that I talked about.

BETWEEN THE LINES: How important are these fired-up young people among your allies working to address climate change?

LEO GERARD: I think it's an important group of allies for the purpose of making sure that we understand that climate change is real and has to be dealt with. I would be a little hesitant to...and I support the President's (Obama's) position of we need to be supportive of all forms of energy. I understand the controversy over fossil fuels, but the fact of the matter is that until we can take carbon out of the atmosphere by retrofits, until we can create enough renewable energy, we're gonna need fossil fuels, and the fact of the matter is that one of the things we need to be fighting for is a just transition for those workers that will be affected as we evolve out of that, and we also need to be demanding, as we evolve, we don't stop doing the research to do it as environmentally sound as possible. We should be sitting down and talking about how can we reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a collective basis while at the same time protecting and creating jobs.

For more information on the PowerShift conference, visit wearepowershift.org. For more information on the United Steelworkers Union, visit usw.org

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