THE environmental movement in North America is gaining an important ally. The United Steelworkers of America are spearheading the move toward broader environmental action beyond the workplace. ``They have really shown the way,'' says Paul Allen of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group based in Washington, D.C. ``If the Steelworkers, who are a smokestack union if ever there was one, are going to adopt a very progressive environmental platform, then there's no excuse for the rest of the labor movement.''
At its recent convention here, the Steelworkers adopted a detailed report calling for increased attention to the environment.
``In the old days, we thought that smoke meant jobs,'' the report states. ``Today, we know better.... We believe that the greatest threat to our children's future may lie in the destruction of their environment. For that reason alone, environment must be an issue for our union. In addition, we cannot protect Steelworker jobs by ignoring environmental problems.''
The report calls for tougher legislation, but the biggest boon for the environmental movement may be the union's bargaining table presence, Mr. Allen says. If the Steelworkers really insist on strong environmental moves during contract talks, ``then we have the most powerful partner we could hope for,'' he says.
Labor has long sought safety and health improvements in the work environment, says Jack Sheehan, the union's legislative director. ``We now have to move into the second phase of environmental controls.''
The second phase, according to Mr. Sheehan, involves planning so that future plants will run cleanly - so cleanly, in fact, that workers will never again have to choose between jobs that pollute or no jobs at all.
The union's environmental push isn't coming just from the top. Several union locals are moving in a similar direction.
At Uniroyal Chemical Ltd. in Elmira, Ontario, for example, striking steelworkers are demanding wage protection during environmental shutdowns and job protection for environmental whistleblowers. The company laid off some 60 workers earlier this year when new emission limits forced the closing of a pesticide-producing plant.
``It's new ground for us,'' says Leo Gerard, the union's Ontario district director. Whistleblower protection could make every steelworker an environmentalist, keeping tabs on a company's environmental practices, he says.
Union locals in northwest Indiana are also setting up environmental committees and becoming more environmentally aware, says Bruce Nissen, a labor studies professor at Indiana University Northwest in Gary. That will improve the public image of the union, he says changing it from a narrow interest group to a progressive organization.
Of course, these long-term gains can't paper over the potential job losses unions face as environmental controls are tightened.
``We in labor are probably in the toughest position'' on environmental issues, says Jay Power, an AFL-CIO lobbyist. During the Clean Air Act deliberations in the US, the AFL-CIO charted a middle course between employers and environmentalists - disagreeing with environmentalists on a second tier of auto emission standards, disagreeing with industry on air-toxics provisions. Mr. Power says the labor movement broadly supported those provisions, even they may eliminate some 15,000 to 20,000 mining jobs, many of them unionized.
The Steelworkers face the same dilemma. The industry's old coke ovens, for example, are heavy polluters and will be hit hard by the air-toxics provisions. The union's top leadership supports these, but some local leaders are wary that coke plants will have to close.