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Environmental council and union forge alliance

By Jay Fitzgerald
Globe Correspondent / September 5, 2011

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Union members and environmentalists have not always seen eye to eye when it comes to protecting jobs or preserving the environment. In general, labor wants to preserve employment, even for workers in industries environmentalists say are damaging to our climate and resources, such as coal-powered utilities and auto manufacturing.

Seeking common ground on a variety of issues, the Environmental League of Massachusetts and the AFL-CIO of Massachusetts plan to unveil today a new group called the ELM Labor Council. It is designed to meet regularly and hammer out policy strategies to promote both economic growth and environmental protection.

“For too long, labor and the environmental community have been perceived to be at odds,’’ said George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League. “There have been unnecessary divisions in the past. The trick is to marry up our self interests and work together on areas where we can agree.’’

Robert Haynes, president of the 375,000-member AFL-CIO of Massachusetts, said both groups can find common ground.

“We’re environmentalists at the AFL-CIO, but we’re also interested in jobs and economic growth,’’ he said. “This is a way for us to partner up on a number of issues.’’

Labor analysts say the alliance is an intriguing idea, considering that the two sides have been traditional adversaries in the political arena.

“I don’t think there’s a precedent for this in the US,’’ said James Green, a professor of history and labor studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “It’s a promising initiative on both ends. They’re seeing new opportunities to work together for jobs and the environment.’’

One priority for the council, which may ultimately have a full-time paid staff member, is to develop an agenda for building cleaner-burning power plants.

Environmentalists and rank-and-file union members have clashed in Massachusetts over calls to shut down coal-fired power plants in Salem, Somerset, and Holyoke, with the former saying such plants spew harmful carbon pollutants into the air, and the latter countering that they would lose jobs if the plants are closed.

The key, Bachrach said, is to push for cleaner plants before shutting down older ones, creating jobs to replace old positions.

The two sides can also work on policies to promote mass transit, energy-efficient office and industrial buildings, and other programs that create “green jobs’’ and protect the environment, Bachrach and Haynes agreed.

The new group is modeled on the Environmental League’s ELM Corporate Council, created in 2008 to promote cooperation between environmentalists and corporate leaders. Among the members of the corporate council are Legal Sea Foods LLC, State Street Corp., Millipore Corp., Saunders Hotel Group, Genzyme Corp., and seven other companies.

“It’s been going well,’’ said Rick Heller, general counsel at Legal Sea Foods. While there have been some disagreements on issues, the two sides have worked together when their interests coincide, he added.

Thomas C. Kohler, a Boston College law professor specializing in labor and employment issues, said the union and environmental movements have a lot of class and cultural history to overcome before they can become effective political partners.

The environmental movement, whose roots date to the 1960s, used to be viewed as a “counterculture force’’ by more conservative rank-and-file union members, Kohler said. Labor unions, meanwhile, were viewed as establishment obstacles to implementing aggressive environmental programs.

In Europe, environmentalists and labor have overcome similar class and cultural differences, creating a powerful “green movement’’ that promotes both jobs and a cleaner environment.

But that coalescing of interests has not happened in the United States, Kohler said. “It’s going to be a work in progress.’’