If you didn’t know what blackmail is, David Letterman has probably made you familiar with it by now. Blackmail can be criminal or it can be something as simple as a kid a grocery store saying “if you don’t buy me cookies I’ll scream.”  But what about when business or industry uses the threat of lost jobs to persuade legislators to support or oppose legislation? We’ve heard this kind of thing before; “if this legislation passes, thousands of jobs will be lost.”

In doing some ongoing research on green collar jobs (check our primer) I discovered a new book, Blue-Green Coalitions: Fighting for Safe Workplaces and Healthy Communities by Brian Mayer. The intro of the book is online and worth a read. In it he takes on the topic of “job blackmail.” The term caught my eye. Mayer, citing an earlier study of the beneficial economic impacts of environmental legislation, defines job blackmail as:

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  • …a strategy of intimidating workers into allying with industry by threatening to fire or punish dissenters who complain about working conditions. Environmental job blackmail attempts to refocus workers’ grievances toward environmental activists, blaming their actions and resulting environmental regulations that may come from interests other than the environmental movement for cuts in jobs and growth.

    So there it is, the age old problem of business pushing the panic button when there are efforts to reform or regulate an industry in the interests of sustainability and the environment. Why argue about legislation on it’s merits when you can just say it will “put us out of business?.” That strategy has the added bonus of forcing a wedge between labor and environmentalists.

    Mayer points out that both groups have a basic interest in improving the economy and the health of workers and the environment. But job blackmail divides those interests and takes the focus away from new green jobs that could be created by shifting to a more sustainable economy.  

    How about a recent local example?

    In the 2009 legislative session in Washington, a coalition of green groups supported HB 1614 that would have imposed a fee of $1.50 per barrel of refined petroleum product, which can end up in storm water runoff. The revenue was dedicated to enhance local storm water management and improve the health of the state’s streams, rivers, lakes and the Puget Sound. 

    What was the response of the industries subject to the new fee?

    There are five refineries in Washington which each directly support hundreds of family wage jobs, and create indirect employment in the surrounding communities . . .Despite popular perception, the falling petroleum prices have impacted this industry and we might not be able to absorb these costs and remain in Washington. The tough economic climate should also be considered as this tax is passed down. For example, many bulk users are struggling to continue operations during the credit crunch. Also, this tax might be passed to consumers and increase gas prices by $0.04 per gallon.  Washington trucking will be disadvantaged by paying higher diesel prices. [Emphasis is mine.]


    Wait a minute. Let’s take a close look at their argument. Jobs will be lost because refineries might just have to pick up and leave the state because of the hostile climate for their business. Paying the additional tax would “put them out of business.” But the tax is also going to be passed on to consumers and increase gas prices by $0.04 per gallon?

    They can’t have it both ways. Either they are going to pay the costs of the fee and allegedly go out of business (thus saving consumers the 4 cents), or they are going to pass the costs on to the consumer (thereby sparing their industry from the costs of the fee).  

    It’s classic job blackmail, but with a twist: they portray the legislation as harming both workers and consumers, a concern of dubious sincerity from the oil industry. Their arguments are inconsistent at best and downright dishonest at worst.

    The idea that huge refining businesses have a profit margin that is so small, that what would amount to a 4 cent increase per gallon of their end product would “put them out of business,” strains credulity. And again, those costs would more than likely just be passed on anyway.

    There is nothing wrong with considering the economic impacts of legislation. Jobs can be lost or created based on the decisions of the legislature. The problem with job blackmail is that it takes the focus away from the real issues being considered. Businesses should avoid relying on “you’ll put us out of business” as their rhetorical starting point and legislators shouldn’t listen when they do.