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Transportation: Rubber meets the road for labor/environmental group

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At its inception roughly two years ago, the Blue-Green Alliance was a novel attempt to join two movements that had frequently been at odds – one advocating for workers' rights, the other for environmental protection. Now, with strike talks looming as a result of the local transit union's contract squabble with the Port Authority, that unusual alliance is being tested for the first time in the Pittsburgh region.

Started in 2006 as a nationwide partnership of the United Steelworkers Union (USW), the nation's largest private-sector manufacturer's union, and the Sierra Club, the country's largest grass-roots environmental organization, the Alliance seeks to raise awareness about the job-creating potential of global-warming solutions.

Locally, the group has embarked on some initiatives, including rallies promoting green jobs, but regional representative Hillary Bright says the group has yet to encounter a "conflict issue."

Until now.

As the Port Authority locks horns with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 -- which is seeking increased pensions and wages, as well as improved health care -- the Alliance is trying to figure out what role to play.

"It's a very complicated issue," says Bright. "We want to support the union folks, [but] you have these environmental issues."

Bright says a strike would certainly harm the environment, with more cars on the roads and more carbon dioxide spewing from their tailpipes. "It would have a huge impact on a lot of levels," she says. "We want to see an active transit."

The transit union has been working without a contract since June 30, and state-mandated fact-finding talks between the union and the Port Authority are set to end by Aug. 29. If talks fail, union members could hit the picket lines.

Will the Alliance weigh in on one side or the other?

Since the group has just started looking into the matter, Bright says, there is no consensus yet. The Alliance isn't even sure how to go about formulating a position on the labor issue, or which local and national members to bring in on the decision. "We're not quite there," Bright says. "It depends how complicated [the group] wants to make the process."

Currently, Bright says local Alliance officials are contacting the national campaign and speaking with representatives from the USW and the Sierra Club.

Rachel Martin, regional representative of the Sierra Club, stops short of calling the labor dispute a first major test for the Alliance. But it is, she says, the first time that the group "is really being asked for a position on a local issue.

"We've long been supportive of public transit," Martin says. "We really hope that the Port Authority, the county executive and the transit union will come to an agreement."

While the complex nature of a potential transit strike is a challenge for the Alliance in many ways, Bright says the situation is actually beneficial for the two-year-old group.

"This is a good regional example of something that the Blue-Green Alliance has the potential to have an impact on," she says. "It might be that people look to us for an opinion."

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