06/06/2014 07:18 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2014

Partners for the Future

I was honored to be invited to speak to the United Auto Workers in Detroit at their convention this week. Even though the Sierra Club and the UAW have been working together for years, some people don't know we're natural allies.

Here are some other things you might not know about the UAW:

As far back as 1949, the UAW led the call for building smaller cars that would cost less money and burn less fuel. It also led by being the first major union to support the civil rights movement. It provided the bail money to get Martin Luther King out of that Birmingham jail cell. And it provided more than half of the funding for the 1963 March on Washington.

The UAW was the largest contributor to the first Earth Day back in 1970, and its support went far beyond the merely financial. It was also a major supporter of the fight against apartheid -- when Nelson Mandela came to this country after gaining his freedom, one of the first places he went was to Detroit to thank the UAW.

More recently, the idea for the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing loan program, which provided Tesla with a $465 million capital infusion at a critical time and enabled Ford to upgrade five plants, came not from the government but from the UAW.

Our shared history shows why the UAW and the Sierra Club have a lot in common. But in my speech to the members of the UAW, I also wanted to talk about why the broader labor and environmental movements are natural allies:

"We have shared values. Justice, of course. Fairness, absolutely. But also, the value of responsibility. The belief that we can and we should work together for the common good.

"And let's be honest: Not everybody shares these values. Not everyone believes in shouldering this common responsibility. They tell us that we can't afford to be fair. They try to tell us that we can't afford to do what's right for workers and for the environment. They tell us that there's no way we can meet the challenge of fighting climate change and creating jobs at the same time -- that acting responsibly will cost us jobs.

"Think about it. Why do they say these things? Because they're afraid. They're afraid of innovation that will create jobs, create more fairness and less economic inequality. They fear this kind of change, and they fear the future. And they want to hold back the future for as long as they possibly can."

By the way, that fear came through loud and clear in criticism by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of the carbon safeguards that the EPA announced this week. Fortunately, it's been drowned out by the voices of millions of Americans who are excited to see such a significant step to address climate pollution, as we trade fossil fuels for a future that's powered by clean, renewable energy.

The automobile industry will help shape that future -- as we rethink, reengineer, and start building the vehicles that run on that clean energy. The advanced technology of those new cars will create still more jobs, even as we meet the new 54.5 mpg fuel-efficiency standards. Those are standards that the Sierra Club backed, of course, but they would not have happened without the support of the United Auto Workers.

So, yes, the future is already happening -- but that doesn't mean we can take it for granted. Because there is another, darker trend in this country.

Economic inequality in the U.S. has grown from a gap to a Grand Canyon. Big corporations -- including the biggest polluters on the planet -- have gained immense new power and influence. The richest one percent are grabbing virtually all of the economic rewards, while leaving the rest of us behind.

We can't let them steal our future, too. Our Blue Green Alliance, which unites 14 of our country's largest unions and environmental organizations, is determined not to let that happen. We are committed to reversing the unfair economic policies of the last 35 years that have eroded the rights of workers, driven manufacturing offshore, and lowered union representation. Together, we will spread the good word that investing in clean energy and clean technology generates more than three times as many jobs as does spending the same amount within the fossil fuel sectors.

Years of working on the transition to renewable energy with our partners in communities across the U.S. has taught us this: As we grow our clean energy economy, we cannot rely on the market alone to respect or create healthy communities. It is no consolation to families that have lost their sole means of livelihood or have suffered from years of underemployment to learn that some new jobs were created making solar panels in China, or even in the next state over.

That means we not only need strong and just pollution standards like the one announced this week, we also need policies that create good jobs for affected workers and communities. And we need corporations to treat their both workers and the environment with greater respect.

Only then can we build a future that works for everybody, with millions of good jobs, economic fairness, environmental justice, healthy communities, and a stable climate.