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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Teamsters & ANWR

Air Date: Week of

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With the International Brotherhood of Teamsters lobbying heavily for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, commentator Julia King is wondering what happened to the fledgling alliances between unions and environmentalists.


CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth.

CURWOOD: Despite the recent decline in the price of oil, calls for domestic production of more crude continue to echo in the halls of Congress. ANWR, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, has become the proving ground. In the debate over opening up ANWR for exploration, some of the nation's biggest labor unions are weighing in on the pro-drilling side. It's all left commentator Julia King wondering what ever happened to the Teamsters and the turtles?

KING: Labor unions have a proud history of righting some of capitalism's inherent wrongs. One of those wrongs is the tendency to put the pursuit of profits ahead of almost everything else. From coal mines to vineyards, unions have worked tirelessly to shift attitudes about working conditions and living wages, and to create a balance between profit margins and social justice. For this, they should be applauded. But recently, some unions, notably the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, have taken a giant step backwards with their support for an energy bill that would allow drilling in the Arctic Refuge.

It wasn't long ago that environmentalists and labor marched arm-in-arm in the Seattle anti-trade protests. But the much promised alliance has crumbled on drilling in the Arctic. "What environmentalists fail to realize," said a spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, "is that we are not an environmental organization." Our responsibility is to grow the work force. Drilling, he says, will create almost 700,000 jobs. For some key house members, environmental concerns folded under the labor lobby.

Now, with the weakened economy and the war on terrorism, lawmakers in the Senate are under even grater pressure from drilling proponents to open ANWR, under the guise of reducing dependence on foreign oil. But, for unions, pitting economics against the environment is a dangerous game. If decisions are made based on jobs and dollars, without attention to broader social concerns, then we're back where we started--a place where profits trump everything, including the needs of workers.

Yet the Teamsters are using the same tactics the businesses have used for years: they want to add up the dollars in the Arctic refuge and declare the equation complete. Under any scenario, the oil that's in the refuge is finite. Any jobs that are created by the drilling will eventually disappear. Instead of clinging to old guard energy policies, in an effort to squeeze the last pennies out of an dying industry, unions would be wise to use their considerable political clout to help usher in a new era of clean, sustainable energy production. And if some unions can't see their way to support sustainable long-term energy plans, it's time for politicians to start questioning that sometimes blind loyalty to labor. While this may be a time for cooperation in the nation, it's not a time to turn our backs on wise energy policy.

CURWOOD: Commentator Julia King lives in Goshen, Indiana, and comes to us via the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.



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