J500 Media and the Environment

Pop Your Green Collar by matthewj77

Tension without flexibility.  I’ve been struggling to find the best way to explain the relationship between environmental organizations and the blue-collar workforce, and this is it.  My primary goal in conducting field work for the CEP was to gain an understanding of the relationship that exists between environmental issues and blue-collar interests, as well as the values that exist within the labor sector as they relate to climate and energy issues. 


I had the pleasure of interviewing Wil Leiker, the Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO.  My objective was to focus on the environment, the economy and communication, and Wil was paramount in providing useful information not only from his professional perspective, but personal as well.  Here are the key points from that discussion:


          EDUCATION!  This is the foremost thing that our country must do to bridge the Labor-Environment gap.  Clean energy also requires advanced technical and engineering skills.  Continuing education, recertification and training are required to effectively transition to a renewable energy workforce.

          Today’s blue-collar worker will do whatever he/she has to do to keep his/her job.  Whether it’s working in a coal plant, drilling for oil or building wind turbines, workers will find a way to get the training they need to stay employed.

          Communication is a struggle.  Just as the CEP’s goal is to stand apart from the existing discourse on clean energy by speaking to particular audiences because of the large number of different interests, within the AFL-CIO alone there are over 300 member Locals and Lodges, each of which has a set of values important to each specific group.  Communication between the AFL-CIO and its members on “green” issues is lacking because of this.


I use the term tension without flexibility to describe this relationship because the perception is that environmental organizations are made up mostly of white-collar, upper-class people and labor appeals to more diverse, blue-collar constituents.   Especially now, in questionable economic times, this is an adverse relationship.  I think the current discourse on environmental issues and job creation focuses on the idea of simply transitioning workers out of their current areas of employment rather than moving toward higher paying, clean jobs that will ultimately improve our society.


Matt Johnson



3 Comments so far
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I’m curious as to whether the ALF-CIO as an organization has position on “greening” itself. It seems that a national organization could have a huge impact on the local chapters if it provides/endorses educational and informational material. Did you see any leanings towards this in your interview? (Or will that be revealed in your presentation?)

Comment by susang09

Hi Susan,
It’s interesting that you ask this because I walked away thinking this is group that’s going to be difficult to influence, and the change must come from within. We discussed this briefly, and the answer is no, they are not really “greening” themselves, but this is a great place to start the conversation, and a simple one at that.

Comment by matthewj77

You raise very important points that are, on some level, universal. Consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Until our basic needs are met, we don’t progress to more nuanced positions on social and environmental initiatives – or, as you so astutely say – “Today’s blue-collar worker will do whatever he/she has to do to keep his/her job.”
We have to work to not only communicate but create climate and energy initiatives that authentically fulfill our needs. That is one of the most exciting shifts in this messaging paradigm. We will discuss this in class, but see Van Jones’ work for a preview.

Comment by j500

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