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Manufacturing Plant

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

For the past week, the entirety of American politics has seemed to hinge on Pennsylvania--and not just Pennsylvania, but a set of very specific questions about liberals, elitism, and the working-class voters who have long made up the backbone of the state's electorate. The immediate question, of course, is how these voters will react to Barack Obama's now-infamous comments about the alleged bitterness of small-town America. The bigger question, though--the one that has haunted liberalism for more than a generation--is whether Obama, or any Democrat, can put together a permanent progressive majority by reuniting the long-estranged siblings of the New Deal coalition: liberal elites and the working-class voters who, as we are so often told, really really can't stand them.

Perhaps no issue has divided liberalism along class lines as persistently or as cleanly as the environment. For almost its entire existence, the environmental movement has struggled with the perception that its agenda clashes with the problems of working people. Environmentalists know exactly what Barack Obama is going through this week, because for decades they have had to fend off essentially the same charge: that they represent a privileged strain of liberalism.

Will this always be the case? That is where people like Marco Trbovich come in. Appropriately enough, I met Trbovich in Pittsburgh, a working-class town whose economy long revolved around steel mills. Unsurprisingly, the city has never been a hotbed of green sentiment. And Trbovich, a sturdy, third- generation steelworker, doesn't exactly fit the profile of an environmental enthusiast. "There are still a lot of people in Pittsburgh who think the environmental movement killed the steel industry," he explains.

And yet, when I met him, Trbovich was speaking at an environmental conference. The event, co-sponsored by the United Steelworkers (USW) and the Sierra Club, focused on what's now the hottest topic in environmental circles: green-collar jobs. Much of the excitement about these jobs has to do with policy--they seem to represent a way to balance union interests with ecological necessity. But this budding area of employment may also represent something else: the environmental movement's best shot at shedding the snobbish reputation that has dogged it for a full century. If green-collar jobs succeed in transforming the way labor veterans like Trbovich work, they could also succeed in transforming the way many Americans think about environmentalism.

Class distinctions were bred into the green movement from the beginning, as elite families like the Roosevelts and Rockefellers backed early conservation efforts that generally privileged aesthetics over economics. The Sierra Club itself was at first a social organization that arranged outdoor adventures for its leisured members. In 1962, Rachel Carson (who grew up along the Allegheny River just north of Pittsburgh) published Silent Spring to expose the role of chemicals and industrial pollutants in the production cycle, promoting the defense-of-nature model that animates groups like the National Wildlife Federation, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), and the Sierra Club to this day. But, although Silent Spring talks extensively about factories, the seminal text makes virtually no mention of the people working inside them.

Nor have contemporary environmentalists always shown much consideration for working-class needs. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger have critiqued a perennial tone-deafness on kitchen-table issues among environmentalists, accusing them of seeing American prosperity "as the cause of but not the solution to pollution and degradation." Frequently, conservationists have found themselves directly at odds with union interests--and greens haven't been especially careful about whose toes they tread on while pursuing their agenda. As recently as 2004, Sierra Club Global Warming Director Dan Becker scoffed at any attempts to reach across the factory fence. "We're not a union or the Labor Department," he said. "Our job is to protect the environment, not to create an industrial policy for the United States."

Such sentiments haven't exactly endeared greens to the labor movement. Chuck Prinzen, a Teamster for 50 years, describes the divisions on the California docks this way: "Those people that were working inside offices, with their air conditioning and such--we say they have their environment and we have our environment." Labor groups in industries like logging or car manufacturing have spent years fighting the conservation agenda and blaming green victories like the Endangered Species Act for draining jobs in construction and development. By 1997, the AFL-CIO saw fit to campaign against U.S. adoption of the Kyoto Protocols, which it regarded as an economic albatross, and, in 2002, the Teamsters sided with conservative Republicans to push for oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Of course, both groups have consistently endorsed and campaigned for Democrats throughout this period, and there have been occasional moments of synergy, as when greens and blues teamed up to push the Clean Air and the Occupational Health and Safety acts in the 1970s. But "it was easier to do that when the economy was booming," says Les Leopold, a labor historian and co-founder of the Public Health Institute. Since the rust belt began to tighten in the '80s, the character of the relationship has overwhelmingly been one of mutual mistrust and rivalry, with the greens viewed as hostile to the problems everyday people face.

Now green-collar jobs are providing an obvious incentive for compromise. The idea is to bring about the greening of the United States while restocking the beleaguered labor movement with good positions--in both traditional fields (such as building the storkish steel turbines that now dot Pennsylvanian hills) and new ones (like energy audits, efficiency retrofitting, and biofuel production). Initially, however, unions and environmentalists were chary of a partnership. A chief complaint from workers was that green jobs in new, non-unionized industries could sap the influence and membership of existing labor groups. Already, plans for a solar power plant in Fresno, California, have been delayed by challenges from an electrical-workers union irked at having been left out of a contract. Moreover, not all unions are happy about the proposed "sunsetting" of the carbon-based economy. Says Phil Smith of the United Mine Workers of America, "This union cannot be in a position to say, 'It's OK, we're going to stop using coal,' so all the members can lose their jobs and their families can lose their benefits and the retirees can lose their pensions. We're just not going to do that."

But other large unions have begun to view jobs in green industries as an intriguing means of expansion. In 2005, USW leadership reached out to Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. Together, the groups formed a joint organization called the Blue-Green Alliance that's committed to a new industrial policy based on the twin causes of sustainability and job creation. Although USW was the first to bow, the environmentalists "were just waiting to be asked," says former Steelworker Dave Foster, executive director of the Blue-Green Alliance.

There are early signs that the partnership could yield results. At the Blue-Green conference in Pittsburgh, break-out sessions on "Public Sector Transportation Investment" and "Creating Demand for Green Chemicals" demonstrated the wide spectrum of job possibilities in a cleaner economy. A 2006 study showed that 22 different sectors of the U.S. economy contain green-collar work. In Berkeley, these jobs paid more than double California's minimum wage. And, in December, the federal government made a $125 million investment in future green growth. "It's not an earth-science question," says Bracken Hendricks, founder of the Apollo Alliance and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "There's concrete to pour, there's rail to tie, there's major manufacturing and service industry for bringing people into the middle class."

Admittedly, the green economy remains in its infancy, and no one knows whether the hopes of its most bullish promoters will be borne out. But, if they are, it could mean upending entrenched beliefs about what it means to be an environmentalist. True, old stereotypes die hard. "There are people in the Steelworkers who view the Sierra Club as tree-huggers, and there may be those in the Sierra Club that view us as Luddites," Marco Trbovich tells me in Pittsburgh. Then again, no one said that repairing bridges between liberal elites and working-class voters was easy. Just ask Barack Obama.

Dayo Olopade is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.