CleanPowerSF: Activists Fail By Attacking Labor

by Randy Shaw on August 19, 2013

After the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission voted 3-2 last week to reject a San Francisco-Shell Oil energy partnership, those on the losing end were furious. The San Francisco Bay Guardian wrote that “Although Shell is a fossil fuel company with a disgraceful human rights track record, progressives and environmentalists stand behind a speedy approval of that contract, because they say it is a crucial first step toward realizing the ultimate project vision of constructing city-owned and operated renewable energy facilities while creating local green jobs. “ But the San Francisco Labor Council opposed the deal, and that group certainly has a larger progressive base than the Bay Guardian. And although both Supervisor David Campos and PUC Commissioner Art Torres stated at the PUC’s July hearing that labor was eager for dialogue, the “progressives” pushing the deal refused. Unlike the recent agreement around CPMC, which succeeded through a community-labor partnership of mutual respect, environmental and community groups took a “my way or the highway” stance toward labor—and predictably lost.

As I wrote on August 5, nobody calling themselves “progressive” should be urging San Francisco to enter into an energy deal with the murderous Shell Oil company. Shell paid $15 million over its role in the killing of heroic Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, and to this day is being targeted by an international campaign of environmental groups for its ongoing refusal to address its environmental destruction in Nigeria.

Yet people who identify as “progressive” backed the deal, arguing that Shell would only have a “small startup role” and that the company could be booted once the program was up and running. It made me wonder if they would also back San Francisco partnering with Wal-Mart on green programs, since labor issues are apparently irrelevant to being “progressive.”

Successful Community-Labor Partnerships

Earlier this year, we saw the culmination of a great community-labor partnership in the agreement reached regarding the new California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) and the rebuilding of St. Luke’s Hospital. The California Nurses Association and National Union of Healthcare Workers worked in close collaboration with community groups, with nobody taking the “my way or else” approach that occurred around CleanPowerSF.

One reason for the CPMC success was that community groups treated their labor allies with respect. In contrast, proponents of the Shell deal attacked labor unions as “fronts” for PG&E, accusing labor of putting corporate interests ahead of that of its members.

Attacking the integrity of labor leaders is not a smart strategy to achieve a “win-win” deal. It is, however, a great way to ensure defeat.

Such attacks are especially foolish for people calling themselves “progressive,” as they are going to need labor’s support on a wide range of future issues. But these type of personal attacks prevent collaborations with labor unions in the future.

The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) has shown time and time again that environmentalists can build mutually beneficiaal partnerships with labor unions. It has played a leading role in RePowerLA, which creates green jobs, reduces energy consumption, and promotes clean power and good jobs.

LAANE is one of the leading progressive forces in Los Angeles and its approach shows how easily the labor-environmental conflict around CleanPowerSF could have been avoided. But as long as many clean power advocates continue to attack labor and ignore the jobs issue, everybody loses.

Randy Shaw is the Editor of BeyondChron. He describes LAANE’s success is his newly released, The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century.

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