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Principles and politics: The story of Paul Wellstone, labor, and the environment

Paul Wellstone was not a social do-gooder who believed in heaven on earth; he understood that, in his words, to “build a better earth on earth” you needed to exercise power by building the coalitions.

Flowers and signatures adorn campaign signs on the walls of the St. Paul campaign headquarters of Sen. Paul Wellstone on October 28, 2002.
Flowers and signatures adorn campaign signs on the walls of the St. Paul campaign headquarters of Sen. Paul Wellstone on October 28, 2002.
REUTERS/Andy King

A bit more than 20 years after his untimely death in a plane crash, I reflect back on Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone’s long-standing efforts to bring together America’s labor and environmental movements to correct the wrongs that the global economy was wreaking on both workers’ rights and environmental standards in our country.

Long before he held elected office, Paul Wellstone was an educator, an organizer and an agitator. It was in that early life that Paul shaped the core of his political beliefs that would later characterize him as an activist first and foremost and someone for whom “the life he led was more important than the words he spoke.”

I grew up in Minnesota politics with Paul, both of us campaigning in the 1989 Fourth of July parades on the Iron Range, home to our state’s mining communities. He was running for the Democratic endorsement in the U.S. Senate race; I was running for director of the United Steelworkers which had long represented iron ore miners, one of the largest unions in the state.

Paul wanted to put the F and the L back into the Democratic Farmer Labor party. I wanted to put the fight back in the United Steelworkers which had lost more than 400,000 members in that decade. When I won my election that November, our largest local union, #1938, representing 3500 U.S. Steel iron miners, became the first labor organization to endorse Paul’s upstart campaign. He went on to win the DFL endorsement and defeated incumbent Sen. Rudy Boschwitz in the fall of 1990.

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For the rest of our political lives, we focused on how the twin themes of protecting workers’ rights and the environment were two of the existential pillars of 20th Century democracy. As the 1990s progressed, it became clear to both of us that neither could survive without the other, and yet division of these two critical movements was more the norm than the exception.

Paul walked more picket lines than most labor leaders I knew. He would read about a strike in another part of the country in the New York Times and pick up the phone and call that union hall to encourage the workers to stand together. He did just that when he read about the Kaiser Aluminum lockout in 1999 for which I was the chief labor negotiator and called a local union hall in Spokane, WA and spoke to Dan Russell, the President of LU #329.

Paul Wellstone was not a social do-gooder who believed in heaven on earth; he understood that, in his words, to “build a better earth on earth” you needed to exercise power by building the coalitions that stood on the economic connections between all forms of injustice and inequality in our society.

Later that year, he was the only senator to join 100,000 union members and their environmental supporters who protested the WTO in Seattle, calling for the introduction of enforceable labor, human rights, and environmental standards in all trade agreements. He, Rep. Maxine Waters and Rep. George Miller were the only members of Congress to attend; he locked arms with me and the rest of the steelworker leadership as we marched for the values we believed in.

David Foster
David Foster
In 2003, the year after his death, the United Steelworkers created the Paul Wellstone Award to honor his legacy which was to be presented to political leaders who lived up to his values. In introducing the award, in Washington, D.C., I said the following.

“Paul Wellstone’s greatest gift to the American labor movement is not to be found among the votes he took on the Senate floor or the picket lines he walked, or the protests he marched with us in.  It is the fact that he demanded of us – of all of us – that we be a better movement.  Not a movement of ourselves or for ourselves. But a movement of vision, a movement of justice, a movement speaking to the downtrodden about a future for all of us. Not a movement of members, but a movement about building membership. Not a movement about protecting America from the rest of the world, but about building American protections for the rest of the world.

“And if we are to take a lesson from Paul’s unfailing optimism, it is to believe that our power to organize, to agitate, never to give in to cynicism are all the tools we need to build a better earth on earth.”

David Foster is the retired director of United Steelworkers, founding executive director of BlueGreen Alliance and distinguished associate with Energy Futures Initiative.