Environmentalists And Workers Should Unite

On October 19, 2015 · 0 Comments

eawIn Whiting, Indiana, 1,650 people depend on the Amoco oil refinery for their livelihood. The future is tenuous for those hanging on to well-paying jobs in this industrial region. Another local refinery has already closed its doors, and the once-mighty steel industry is down from 20,000 workers to fewer than 8,000.

“Twenty years ago if you lost your job, you could just walk down the street and find another one,” says Bob Lofton, a board member of Local 7-1 of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, who works at the refinery. “Today it’s tough.”

While Lofton and his co-workers see Amoco as their lifeline, many local environmentalists view the refinery with suspicion. Fires and explosions are not uncommon. The groundwater has been contaminated from oil leaks. And Amoco routinely discharges high levels of chlorides that end up in Lake Michigan, as well as toxic metals such as selenium, arsenic and lead. “This can’t be good for the water or for the animals and people,” says Doreen Carey, executive director of the Grand Calumet Task Force, a grassroots environmental organization.

When Amoco threatened to close the refinery if the state forced it to abide by a new environmental protection law designed to protect the lake, the workers grew increasingly nervous about their jobs.

“The stereotype for labor is that environmentalists want to shut down the facilities and put everybody out of work, without taking into consideration the impact that would have on the community,” says Lofton. “We felt there was a big need to bring the workers, the community and environmentalists into one room to have them look at some issues together and do some problem solving.”

The Grand Cal Task Force was a natural ally for the union to approach. The Task Force has roots in the labor movement and was originally founded by steelworkers worried about contamination of Lake Michigan. Carey says her group, despite its concerns about environmental degradation, does not want to close the refinery down. Currently Amoco has no plans to do so, but is fighting state environmental laws in court.

Together OCAW Local 7-1 and the Grand Cal Task Force decided to host a series of Jobs and the Environment Workshops, using a process developed by the Public Health Institute and the Labor Institute in New York City. The day-long workshops are held in the union hall, and participants equally represent both labor and the environmental community. More than 30 similar workshops have been held around the country.

“We want to sensitize environmentalists about the severe nature of the job crisis and vice versa,” says Les Leopold, director of the Public Health Institute. “The workshops are designed to get people to explore the tensions between them. It gets them to look at the bigger picture and to see they have more in common than they have differences.”

“Unless environmentalists work in a facility, they don’t understand how the plant or how the union operates,” says Lofton. “And the same for union folks who have never been in a grassroots organization. The biggest thing we find through the workshops is a new understanding of each other.”

Participants break up into small groups and are given tasks, such as analyzing the toxic-dependent economy or discussing whether environmental progress is profitable. To aid in these discussions, $N fact sheets are provided so that everyone is drawing on the same information. Each small group must then reach some sort of consensus and report back to the full body.

“People who come with possibly divergent views, through this method, have great discussions about issues that concern all of us,” says Carey, who, along with Lofton, has been trained as a workshop leader. “You’re not just sitting there listening to a lecture. The process requires that everyone participate.”

In some cities, tensions run so high between the two sides, that even getting them to agree to hold a workshop involves delicate negotiations. In May, a workshop held in the San Francisco Bay area between OCAW members working for Chevron and Citizens for a Better Environment took 18 months to set up. “The refinery has been accused of polluting the whole bay and there have been struggles there for a long time,” says Leopold. “There’s a lot of suspicion, but we’ve moved it in a very positive direction.”

The ultimate goal is to find a common economic agenda that will deal realistically with both the massive job and wage loss workers face and serious environmental degradation. “In general, the middle-income, blue-collar working class jobs are being destroyed. That’s the problem we have to address,” says Leopold. “Environmental [regulation] will accelerate that process. We have to face up to it.”

Workshop participants learn that too often new jobs in the “green” economy, such as recycling or pollution control, pay far less than unionized jobs in the toxic-dependent industries. So too does work resulting from the Job Training Partnership Act and other programs proposed to solve unemployment caused by environmental laws such as the Ancient Forest Protection Act.

“This is not an easy discussion to have,” says Leopold. “Many have Pollyanna solutions, not because their intentions are bad, but because they fail to see how deep the economic crisis is.”

“We’ll never agree on everything,” adds Lofton. “But we’ll get a lot more accomplished by working together.”

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