Talking Green Jobs with Steelworkers in Gary, Indiana

On Tuesday afternoon, I traveled through the ailing industrial parks of Gary, Indiana to talk with steelworkers in a large union hall. I had come to attend the Made in America rally and to hear union leaders and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson talk about green jobs.

But I also went to listen to workers themselves. The men and women I spoke to made two things clear to me.

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First, they know their jobs are vulnerable. Some are lucky enough to still work at one of the few operating mills, but lay offs loom just around the corner in these tough economic times.

And second, they see a clear path out of this grim picture: legislation that will expand the market for clean energy and generate jobs.

Tom Conway, the international vice president of the United Steelworkers, told the crowd that it takes more than 250 tons of steel to make just 1 single wind turbine. Gary is a steel town, and a shift to renewable energy means jobs security for local workers.

"This is about jobs, jobs, jobs," he said. "And this is about leaving a clean environment for our kids."

The 150 people who came to the rally heartily agreed with Conway. They cheered Conway and all the other speakers on, and they really erupted when Jackson said:

I've seen so many situations where those who oppose change put in terms of making a choice: green in our pocketbook or green in our environment. We know we don't have to choose. It's been offered before. Don't take it this time.

I am no firebrand, but after I spoke, people said they appreciated seeing environmental leaders coming out to where the jobs are at stake, where D.C. policy decisions will make the difference between a pay check and a pink slip.

I am proud to say NRDC has a history of making those connections. The Made in America rally was organized by the Alliance for Climate Protection and the Blue Green Alliance, which brings together unions and environmental organizations. 

But that is just the most recent outgrowth of NRDC's partnership with unions. We have been working with labor leaders for decades.

Stretching back to the 1970s, NRDC was honored to have Tony Mazzocchi join our board of trustees. Mazzocchi was the famous head of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers who brought national attention to workers' "right to know" what dangerous chemicals they were handling on the job, His work led to the passing of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, and inspired people to call him the Rachel Carson of the American workplace. Mazzocchi helped NRDC build strong ties to the labor movement, and his efforts were continued by Jack Sheehan, the legislative director of the United Steelworkers who is still an NRDC honorary trustee.

Mazzocchi once said, "When you build a big movement from down below, regardless of who's in the White House, you can bring about change."

Union members and environmentalists--together with youth groups, business leaders, veterans and others--are building that movement. But right now, their focus is on Congress, not the White House.

The workers I spoke to in Gary expressed frustration with their representatives. Even before the economic crisis erupted last year, they watched one mill after another get shuttered. Now the workers who still have jobs feel even more vulnerable.

But they are also bothered by another challenge: they feel like there is a clear solution to their problem--the clean energy and climate bill that will generate jobs in America--but they aren't sure there senators are listening.

Indiana is home to two critical swing voters: Senators Evan Bayh and Dick Lugar. The workers I spoke in Gary clearly want their senators to move ahead with a comprehensive clean energy bill and to make sure their concerns were addressed in it.

And standing in that union hall, in the shadow of Gary's many silent steel mills, I couldn't imagine why Indiana's senators would pass up the biggest jobs opportunity their state has seen in decades.