by Bill Onasch
I know I said to expect this mid-week; I’m glad I didn’t specify which week. Cheers.
Our motto is For Class & Climate Justice. Both are of crucial importance—the climate crisis is overarching. In the era of Globalization neither capital nor climate change respect national boundaries. The struggles against both require an internationalist perspective.
Having said that, in this Extra I will focus primarily on movements in the USA. This is not because of some perverse patriotic pride in my country of residence. The American ruling class is by far the dominant culprit in the climate crisis as well as the main perpetrator and benefactor of growing wealth inequality at home and abroad. They also command the most powerful military machine in history, capable of destroying most of humanity within hours. For these reasons I’m convinced the decisive battles in the global conflicts determining the future of our class—and human civilization—will be fought in the USA.
The only class based mass organizations in the USA are our trade unions. They are our First Responders and we need them to get any kind of justice. This is my long promised assessment of the state of the labor movement’s current and needed roles in fighting climate change. Regular readers of the WIR will already be familiar with much of this. But even old hands can benefit from occasional review and repetition.
The Mazzocchi Legacy
About nine years ago, I wrote a review of Les Leopold’s excellent biography of Tony Mazzocchi, The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor. (The Wikipedia article about Mazzocchi is also useful.) I came to know this remarkable leader, who made so many important contributions to various workers’ struggles, only during his final years in his last big project—the Labor Party.
The only chance I had for a substantial one-on-one conversation with Tony was when I met him for breakfast and took him to the airport after a 1994 visit to Kansas City to promote our newly formed chapter of Labor Party Advocates. In the course of our unstructured discussion I happened to mention that I had become interested in environmental issues after reading Rachel Carson’s 1962 best seller The Silent Spring. His facial expression indicated he was not impressed and I asked him why. I didn’t take notes, but basically he said,
Carson did a fine job of exposing the dangers of DDT, the lies of the chemical industry, and the duplicity of government officials. She told us why we were losing all those birds. But she said nothing about the hazards to workers who made the stuff, or sprayed it in the fields, or handled the crops at harvest.
It was a fair criticism of Carson and too many environmentalists. Tony’s dedication to environmental issues came from his recognition, on the shop floor of a cosmetics plant, that workers are the first to suffer the effects of pollution. The union where Tony made his bones—the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers—confronted the full spectrum of environmental dangers in the workplace. He came to believe that labor shouldn’t just be involved in the environmental movement—they should lead that movement.
Tony’s early collaboration with an environmental scientist overlapped with their joint opposition to nuclear weapons. Barry Commoner, an eminent biologist who was also a pro-labor, antiwar socialist, suspected strontium 90 fall out from atmospheric H-bomb tests was being absorbed by grazing cows who in turn passed it on to young children through their milk. But he needed samples to verify his hypothesis. Mazzocchi broadcast an appeal to OCAW members to send their kids’ baby teeth to Commoner–and more than enough responded to prove his case. Commoner’s findings directly contributed to a ban on surface bomb tests.
Tony first became widely known and respected beyond his own union by leading the successful labor political mobilization that won the game-changing Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970—no small feat with Nixon in the White House and George Meany speaking for the House of Labor.
In 1973, when OCAW went on strike against Shell, Mazzocchi helped convince the mild-mannered Sierra Club to support the strikers on the picket lines and through an effective Shell boycott.
The following year Mazzocchi heard disturbing news from an OCAW rep at a newly unionized Kerr-McGee plutonium fuel rod plant in Oklahoma. Karen Silkwood reported many workers were wary of radioactive contamination and that the company had been falsifying records. Tony advised her to cautiously take notes about verifiable discrepancies to build a credible case to take to the Atomic Energy Commission and the news media. This she did, with great courage and competence.
Silkwood herself became mysteriously contaminated at a time when she was assigned to only paperwork duties. A few months later, she died in a suspicious one car accident while on her way to meet a reporter. The union could not convince local authorities to pursue a criminal investigation of Silkwood’s death but her father and children later won a 1.38 million dollar settlement of a civil liability suit against Kerr-McGee for her contamination.
With OCAW’s cooperation, she was further memorialized in the 1983 film Silkwood. Meryl Streep played the title role in a low budget box office success that won numerous Academy Award and BAFTA nominations and Streep was selected Best Actress by the Kansas City Film Critics Circle.
It’s one thing to fight hazards on the job. Every worker can identify with Anne Feeney when she sings, We just come to work here—we don’t come to die. But opposing the environmental damage of the finished goods workers produce is another matter. The bosses have a coercive threat—if you follow the “tree-huggers” they will lead you to the unemployment line.
Mazzocchi had a powerful alternative to the Hobson’s choice of jobs or the environment—Just Transition. The basic underlying principle is that when workers lose their jobs to advance the greater good of society society has an obligation to provide them with pay, and expenses for retraining, and relocation until they can find suitable new jobs.
There are many examples of how this might be applied—workers adding to the overkill stockpile of nuclear weapons; the loss of jobs in the billing and advertising departments in insurance companies, hospitals, and clinics when medicine is socialized; and industries that wreck our environment and climate.
Tony Mazzocchi did not invent this principle but no one did more to popularize it, flesh it out, and demand action to implement it in manufacturing and extraction industries. As the “Founding Brother” of the Labor Party project he made sure Just Transition was given a prominent place in the party’s program. While society as a whole, through government, must be the ultimate guarantor of Just Transition the Labor Party approach was to make those corporations who long profited from environmental destruction pay for not only clean-up costs but also make their displaced workers and affected communities whole during transition.
The Labor Party never directly took a position on the mother of all environmental crises—climate change. Abatement of the processes responsible for global warming will mean entire major industries will have to be shut down or converted to sustainable methods and products. Mazzocchi was certainly aware of this. Collaborators such as Commoner and Ralph Nader were quite outspoken on the topic. Katherine Isaac, his companion in later years, and a leader in the Labor Party in her own right, had once been active in Greenpeace.
But Tony preached a restraint that he usually also followed—don’t propose anything to the Labor Party that you can’t get passed in your local union. This was not intended to deter breaking new ground. In 1996, global warming was under attack as “junk science.” In 1997 the AFL-CIO mimicked the Chamber of Commerce in condemning the first international climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol. President Clinton refused to even submit this timid agreement, signed by Vice-President Gore, to the Senate for a vote.
While some LP affiliates were already recognizing the need for climate action others, such as the United Mine Workers, saw recognition of climate change as a death sentence for coal mining. Mazzocchi believed it was more important to educate around a disputed crisis and try to win over a a majority prepared to act, rather than simply adopting fine resolutions that couldn’t be implemented.
Unfortunately, in 2002, a few months after the Labor Party’s last convention, Tony lost a battle with an untreatable cancer. The subsequent decline of the Labor Party until its induced coma a decade later is another story for another time.
But it too is a part of the Mazzocchi legacy that provides valuable lessons more relevant than ever today. Our unions and protest movements can win important defensive battles but to achieve class and climate justice requires an effective working class party that can take political power. The Labor Party experience means we don’t have to reinvent the wheel to craft a new political vehicle.
The Blue Green Alliance
Unions and environmental groups found themselves on the same side in the fights against NAFTA and the WTO. Such so-called “trade” agreements—actually a global deregulation removing barriers to free movement of capital—have hurt workers, farmers, and the environment in all countries. “Hard hats and tree-huggers” united in mass demonstrations and intense lobbying efforts against what came to be known as Globalization—with little substantive success.
Ten years ago, the leaders of the Steelworkers—who through mergers includes the old OCAW—and the Sierra Club, who today claim a million members, took the initiative to formalize and expand these new friendly relations through the Blue Green Alliance. It is a loose coalition of bureaucracies of unions and what many call Pale Green environmental groups. Their somewhat purposely vague focus is on Clean Jobs, Clean Infrastructure, Fair Trade.
They have failed to get a consensus on all important Clean Energy and there have been some defections—such as the noisy exit of the Laborers after BGA took a stand against the Keystone XL pipeline. Some affiliates, such as the Plumbers/Pipefitters are boosters of the Dakota Access pipeline—now also endorsed by the AFL-CIO—while others like the Amalgamated Transit Union, Communication Workers, and some SEIU bodies have strongly supported the Dakota protests.
The concept of unity of labor and environmental activists is a worthy goal. But BGA falls far short of that objective and is unlikely to ever play that role.
St Paul Ford Sustainability Fight
In 2006, Ford announced it would close its Twin Cities Assembly plant after the then current contract expired the following year. Their Ranger pick-up line was going to a plant in Thailand. Neither the national UAW, nor the Blue Green Alliance whose national organizer was then based in the Twin Cities, had any interest in fighting the closure.
But the Health and Safety Committee in UAW Local 879 came up with some innovative ideas for saving the plant–and the workforce–after Ford’s departure. The plant had a unique asset—it was powered by zero emission electricity from a nearby Mississippi River dam purpose built for Ford. The Twin Cities transit authority was taking bids for production of hundreds of new buses and one bidder wanted to build them in the Twin Cities. It was an opportunity for a conversion of a plant to save Green, good, union jobs.
To build support for this “repurposing,” Local 879 not only reached out to other unions but also environmentalists. They sponsored a 2-day Labor and Sustainability Conference at the union hall January 19-20, 2007. I was invited to speak in behalf of the Labor Party. There was more than polite interest in my remarks about Urban Sprawl and Just Transition. And Ford workers appreciated the reminder that when all auto production was halted in 1942 to convert to war-time needs not a single UAW job was lost and their contract remained in force. The effort to convert their plant to building buses was not pie-in-the-sky.
Unfortunately, even though the sensible proposal from Local 879 won a lot of public support it was vetoed by Ford and the local Establishment—including some “labor friends.” The St Paul plant was razed for sale of the land to real estate speculators. But the ideas and lessons of the struggle could not be so easily erased.
Labor Network for Sustainability
The main instigators of the LNS were Joe Uehlein, Jeremy Brecher, and Tim Costello. Costello passed away soon after its launch and Becky Glass was brought on board the central leadership team in 2010. You can read their impressive credentials here. The unionists, environmentalists, and scholars on the Board they report to are respected and influential in their constituencies.
This is not your typical NGO, letterhead coalition, or social media friends. They educate in order to agitate and organize working class action to confront the greatest challenge humanity has yet faced. They are well grounded in labor history and identify with much of the Mazzocchi legacy—especially Just Transition. While not picking any fights with others, they do not shirk their duty to advance bold new proposals. And while their website is a treasure trove of resources its goal is to prepare activists to get out of the house for live encounters.
In a well-done introductory video, Uehlein says,
“A common thread running through all of our work is the belief that workers are key to building a robust and effective climate protection movement. LNS’s strategy requires that we are able to help the labor and climate movements engage together to build a sustainable future, and one of the most important things about organizing with labor is going to the right union members and leaders at the right time with the right frame.”
To help climate aware workers make these choices a useful, objective profile of a number of national, state and local union bodies is provided on the LNS site.
The video also explains,
“As awareness of the need for just transition strategies grows, our opportunities to advance projects that engage labor and communities and environmentalists together grows as well. In every case, our work includes building job creation strategies into environmental campaigns, and integrating an understanding of the impact of climate into economic justice work.”
I have long heard positive reports from Connecticut readers about LNS implementing this strategy through the Connecticut Roundtable. And there are other state and local examples, including many fights against fracking as well.
LNS also helped mobilize the tens of thousands of unionists who participated in the 400,000 strong 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City. In my opinion, every class and climate conscious worker, student, or retiree in North America should plug in to the LNS in whatever way you can.
I want to close—finally!–on a note of internationalism. LNS is affiliated to a growing, inspiring global network—Trade Unions for Energy Democracy. You can view a list of 52 participating labor bodies from 17 countries on six continents here. The photo above is a TUED panel organized off-site during the Paris Climate Summit last December. I can identify the Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein, insurgent Leader of the British Labor Party Jeremy Corbyn, and Sean Sweeney, director of the Cornell Global Labor Institute in the picture.
TUED has a perspective similar to LNS except for one important advance above what North American unionists have so far raised—they call for socialization of all energy and operating these industries under worker management. They have produced an excellent animated video, aimed at a working class audience, promoting this needed step toward sustainability which you can view here. There are also numerous other useful text and video resources on the TUED site.
We Yanks lag far behind the advances of our union sisters and brothers in many countries on climate action—and most other struggles as well. Our history shows once we decide to move we can go as fast and far as any others. However, there is little time to waste. This is the biggest battle yet, the final deadline for action is unknown, not subject to change, and missing it will mean game over—if not for you and me then our progeny. I’ll end with an optimistic paraphrasing of an old worker’s anthem–
’tis the final conflict, let each stand in their place,
class and climate justice shall be the human race
That’s all for this Extra.
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