05/05/2009 01:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mom, What's a Teamster

LAS VEGAS -- We rarely stop to think that the Teamster's union was originally all about teams of mules (and horses). In fact, I learned today, the union was once against trucks because they were a threat to their livelihoods! (I wonder at what age the average child of a modern Teamster member asks their Mom or Dad, "What's Teamster?")

When I visited their annual Unity Conference on Monday with Union President James Hoffa, no one I spoke to could even remember when the last Teamster handled the last team of mules. The union is certainly looking forward: they had a prominent green jobs booth, and three of their major initiatives involve the union taking the lead in modernizing the American economy. The Sierra Club's biggest partnership with them has been the Ports Project, in which the dilapidated contract trucks that circle around the ports of Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland and Newark would be replaced by modern, natural gas powered vehicles run by responsible companies. We got L.A. to adopt the whole reform package; Long Beach came close. Then a federal court overturned the whole effort, so now we'll have to go back to Congress for a fix. But it's remarkable -- labor unions and environmentalists leading the charge for supply chain innovation!

Then there's landfill methane. It turns out that recycling is even more important than environmentalists said, but the most important kind of recycling has received the least attnetion. This would be the recycling of food and yard waste, because these organic materials, dumped in a landfill, produce huge quantities of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is now a significant part of the U.S. contribution to the deteriorating climate. How expensive can it be to equip every American household with a small green bin, like the one the City of San Francisco gives me, for my composting wastes? And while the technology of carbon capture and sequestration of coal plants is a decade or four away, composting is, well, several million years old. Who's resisting? Big solid waste companies that don't want to have to staff up to sort out the organics. And who's pushing for reform? The Teamsters! They've discovered that waste companies, like the San Francisco Bay Area's Norcal, that are willing to do things right environmentally also treat their workers better. It's the Teamsters who are actually educating environmentalists like me on the topic.

Finally, the Teamsters are making a big bet on high speed rail. I would have guessed that with their traditional trucking history they might have even been hostile to rail, but all over the hall are brochures extolling the importance of having the U.S. catch up with the rest of the world in developing a 21st-century rail network.

The venerable union I addressed here in Las Vegas is positioning itself at the cutting edge of a new green economy. Change is indeed in the wind.