Large conferences are a dime a dozen in Washington. There are scads of hotels and other venues here in D.C. for big events, where ideas and large sums of money change hands on esoteric topics like the National Customer Experience Management Summit. (It’s next week, make your reservations now!!) I spent last Thursday afternoon wandering through the displays and discussion rooms of one such event where the tone, and relevance, were a cut above the norm.

The second annual Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference didn’t just draw a swarm of people, it drew two swarms — two that historically don’t always get along. Organized labor and environmentalists have had a rough go of it over the years. The dirtiest factories that environmentalists haul into court are often the same ones where unions are trying to salvage jobs. Despite lots of rhetoric about balancing a healthy environment and a healthy economy, the conflicts are inevitable. And the corporations engaged in a two-front war against activists from both unions and environmental groups are more than happy to let the two factions fight each other instead.

As members of the Blue-Green Alliance, the Sierra Club, NRDC, and Greenpeace were much in evidence, and they were right alongside the AFL-CIO, the Plumbers and Pipefitters, and the Teamsters. Yes, that’s right, the Teamsters. The union that launched a thousand federal investigations and Tonight Show jokes is on board. A Teamsters booth at the expo touted clean-burning truck fleets for companies like UPS and highlighted the dangers of dirtier diesel-based fleets. For a time, it was a mob scene around the booth, but not the kind of mob scene often associated with the late, legendary Jimmy Hoffa.

Several senators and governors addressed the conference, but in my mind the one who stole the show was Jim Hoffa, Jimmy’s son and eventual heir to the Teamsters throne. As you may know, the Elder Hoffa abruptly and mysteriously departed the Teamsters, and probably life itself, in 1975.

For years, Hoffa the Younger led the Teamsters into an alliance with Big Oil, taking on the green groups on one of their crown-jewel issues: Drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In 2005, Hoffa called ANWR opposition, “A betrayal of working Americans.” Just three years later, he switched sides, leading the Teamsters instead to hook up with the Blue-Green Alliance while declaring, “We can’t drill our way out of this problem.”

Hoffa lit up the crowd on the convention floor, crediting his “constant dialogue with the Sierra Club” in helping him see the green light. He warmly embraced the Obama administration — maybe for their agenda, or maybe for his own: Hoffa hopes Obama will end the 20 year-long federal oversight of the Teamsters as a result of a racketeering lawsuit settlement. Whatever his reasons, it’s a spectacular turnaround, on display in this July 2008 clip from another environmental conference.

Three things were absent at the conference, however: The United Auto Workers, the United Mine Workers, and, apparently, actual green jobs. The United Auto Workers have more immediate problems, and with Obama’s push for better, cleaner cars, they may not be feeling their green love right now. The mineworkers’ membership is dominated by the coal industry, and there’s no amount of technology, kind words, or diplomatic language that can turn coal jobs into green jobs. One conference session laid out the near-impossibility of “clean coal” as a solution that could both save mining jobs and protect the environment.

So where were the green jobs at this conference? Several attendees said that they saw few help-wanted signs, save for a handful of entrepreneurial solar and wind companies in attendance. A row of tables and chairs for on-the-spot job interviews by green employers sat empty for most of the afternoon. The bad economy, it seems, has stopped hiring for jobs of all colors, including green.

It was nevertheless a refreshing sight to see two groups realizing that their natural allegiances outweigh their natural conflicts. Forgive the stereotypes, but there were plenty on both sides: Beefy, buzz-cutted guys in steelworkers’ jackets talking to gangly guys in tweed sport coats. Talking to each other as if they actually lived on the same planet.


Peter Dykstra, the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)