"The Things Which Unite Us"

04/22/2013 02:11 pm 14:11:46 | Updated Jun 22, 2013

You could not find a more striking physical contrast that that between AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka and 2013 Goldman Environmental Prize winner Nohra Padilla. Trumka's a big, strongly built son of the coal fields; Padilla a slight, waif-like women from Bogota, Colombia.

But both carry in their fiber the knowledge of what hard, dangerous physical labor feels like -- and how fierce the struggle to get decent treatment and dignity for those who do it has been.

Padilla tells the audience that the world's 15 million informal recyclers -- rag pickers -- "express in our bodies real green jobs... but the earnings we have are hunger earnings." She led the effort to organize Bogota's garbage recyclers into cooperatives that could demand decent treatment. She and her colleagues are preparing to negotiate new contracts with the City of Bogota, as are other members of her network of recyclers in far-flung cities in Brazil, Mexico and India.

2013-04-20-nohrapadilla.jpgPadilla's organizing efforts were inspired, five years ago, by a visit with U.S. unions. She imagined a world in which informal recyclers received equal returns with those received by large multinational waste companies, and she has had to fight off efforts by the elite in Colombia to regain control of the value represented by recycled garbage.

Wages in Colombia are going up: "In the next few years we will keep moving forward, so that our children can not only go to schools but to universities, and to build their own companies to process the materials... If there are no borders for those who exploit, there cannot be borders for those who struggle for justice."

2013-04-19-Trumka.jpgTrumka, whose organization inspired Padilla, champions solidarity in another arena -- domestically -- calling on U.S. unions and environmentalists to embrace "the million things which unite us instead of the few things on which we differ" and recognize that what is required for continued environmental and social progress is a strong, long-term national strategy for jobs and climate protection.

Congress he says, must act, and must act boldly. He mocks the pundits who claim that action is impossible, saying, "A year ago they were equally convinced that a solution to our immigration problem was a political fantasy."

Trumka lays down a searing challenge to the right-wing economic royalists who are funding climate change denial: "We must embrace science, and I am here to say that climate change is real and climate change is dangerous."

Outgoing Secretary of Transportation, Ray La Hood, focuses on his efforts to rebuild America's infrastructure for resilience and climate protection, talking of the enormous investments in high-speed rail to free Americans of their dependence on oil-powered cars and trucks, but also on his "Made in America" initiatives, we should read to create good U.S. jobs, "We will insist on that -- it is the only way we put friends and neighbors to work... and we have also insisted that rather than building our infrastructure over and over again we will build it resiliently so we are ready for the next Sandy."

And he reminds the audience, as Trumka did, that the common ingredient in every country with successful high speed "is a strong commitment and leadership from the national government."

La Hood praises the president for the vision in his 2014 budget, with its $77 billion for infrastructure investment, and $40 billion over five years for rail. But his emphasis on the right of countries to use their own investments to create jobs at home is only sporadically shared by the administration. The Obama Administration recently filed a trade complaint against India, alleging that New Delhi's domestic content initiatives violated the rules of the World Trade Organization. And the administration has yet to launch the kind of real fight for large-scale infrastructure funding that will be required to get action from Congress.

Because, as Senator Sheldon Whitehouse told the Good Jobs/Green Jobs Conference, there is a blunt political reality facing Obama: "The polluters have bought and own the U.S. Congress. And there are only two forces which will force such a Congress to act." One is catastrophe -- as Superstorm Sandy showed, with Congress voting to repair infrastructure only after its devastation dominated the news for weeks. The other is "strong, assertive Executive Branch leadership, leadership which forces corporation to recognize that they cannot hope to deny and delay reform."

It's far from clear that the president has really absorbed at his core the lesson that Padilla, Trumka, La Hood and Whitehouse are laying out -- that it is only the combination of national and global social solidarity with feisty political leadership unafraid to challenge established interests which can solve either our economic or our environmental crises.

But the lessons are everywhere for him to learn from.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope spent the last 18 years of his career at the Sierra Club as CEO and chairman. He's now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that link sustainability and economic development. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber --of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."