Frequent readers (thanks, Dad) know that I’m an advocate of broad-based progressive moments as the only effective instrument of progressive change. In particular, I’ve used this space to argue that in support of moves within the labor movement towards a broader conception of what it means to sdvocate for the interests of workers, be it native and immigrant workers standing together in the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides, partnership between healthcare workers and patients calling for universal coverage, or SEIU’s strong stance against the Federal Marriage Ammendment as an assault on the rights of its members. As was declared at the first union event I ever attended in New Haven, in response to President Levin’s intimations that Yale’s unions have a broader agenda, “You bet we have a broader agenda.” I’ve also criticized those movements locally and nationally when the broader agenda has proved not as broad as one would hope.
This is a debate that must take place in every progressive movement committed to winning over the next years. The environmentalist movement, as Randy Shaw argued compellingly in his Activist Handbook, is a prime example as well. Looks like former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach agrees:
For example, I’ve been trying to tell my friends at the Sierra Club that the most important battle for the Sierra Club and the next two years might be over public education. That is the battle line over collective activity, interdependence, the values we care about — much more so than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That’s a skirmish along the way that’s not strategic. It’s way off to the side.
The truth is that for the vast majority of Americans, the environment never makes it into their top ten list of things to worry about. Protecting the environment is indeed supported by a large majority — it’s just not supported very strongly. Once you understand this, it’s much easier to understand why it’s been so easy for anti-environmental interests to gut 30 years of environmental protections…Whereas neocons make proposals using their core values as a strategy for building a political majority, liberals, especially environmentalists, try to win on one issue at a time….The serial losses on Rio, Kyoto, CAFE, and McCain-Lieberman were not framed in ways that increase the environmental community’s power through each successive defeat. That’s because, when those proposals were crafted, environmentalists weren’t thinking about what we get out of each defeat. We were only thinking about what we get out of them if they succeed. It’s this mentality that must be overthrown if we are to craft proposals that generate the power we need to succeed at a legislative level.
…There is no better example of how environmental categories sabotage environmental politics than CAFE. When it was crafted in 1975, it was done so as a way to save the American auto industry, not to save the environment. That was the right framing then and has been the right framing ever since. Yet the environmental movement, in all of its literal-sclerosis, not only felt the need to brand CAFE as an “environmental” proposal, it failed to find a solution that also worked for industry and labor. By thinking only of their own narrowly defined interests, environmental groups don’t concern themselves with the needs of either unions or the industry. As a consequence, we miss major opportunities for alliance building. Consider the fact that the biggest threat to the American auto industry appears to have nothing to do with “the environment.” The high cost of health care for its retired employees is a big part of what hurts the competitiveness of American companies…Because Japan has national health care, its auto companies aren’t stuck with the bill for its retirees. And yet if you were to propose that environmental groups should have a strategy for lowering the costs of health care for the auto industry, perhaps in exchange for higher mileage standards, you’d likely be laughed out of the room, or scolded by your colleagues because, “Health care is not an environmental issue.”…Let’s go for the massive expansion of wind in the Midwest — make it part of the farm bill and not the energy bill. Let’s highlight the jobs and farmers behind it. But bring about this sea-change in the way the environmental movement thinks and operates isn’t going to be easy. For nearly every environmental leader we spoke to, the job creation benefits of things like retrofitting every home and building in America were, at best, afterthoughts.
We all have a lot of work to do.