In Search of Solidarity

Will hard times renew historic alliances between environmentalists and labor unions?

  • At the World Trade Organization protest in Seattle, environmentalists in sea turtle costumes marched side-by-side with labor union members

    Joseph Brown/Seattle Post-Intelligencer
  • At the Kennecott Utah Copper Smelter in Garfield, United Steelworkers of America members pictured, from left, Rob Hurst, Lyle West, Wayne Holland, Scott Mullins and Kelly Hansen

    Fred Hayes photo
  • Kennecott Mine

    Fred Hayes photo
  • United Steelworkers of America District 11 Director David Foster and environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill found common ground 180 feet up, in the tree known as Luna. Hill occupied the tree for two years to protect Pacific Lumber's clear-cutting pra

    Photo courtesy David Foster
  • After protesting the WTO summit in Seattle, the Sea Turtles and the Teamsters met again to rally in 2000 in Washington, D.C., against the International Monetary Fund

    Bill Burke photo, Page One
  • Steelworkers wearing "FTAA SUCKS" T-shirts join the Protect the Dolphin contingent at the anti-FTAA protest in Miami last March.

    B. Carey photo, United Steelworkers Press Association

For almost a century, workers at Kennecott Utah Copper have scraped away at the earth, turning a mountain west of Salt Lake City first into a canyon, then into a crater. The open-pit copper mine is so big — almost three miles across and three-quarters of a mile deep — that it can be seen from space.

Each day, about 250,000 tons of rock are pulled out of the mine. That raw ore is then "cooked" at the Kennecott Smelter, whose smokestack has become a Utah icon, standing next to Interstate 80, not far from the shore of the Great Salt Lake.

Steelworker Rob Hurst, who looks like he could crack the smokestack in half on his own, likes to compare the smelting process to "baking a cake." But this cake is baked by steelworkers encased in aluminized suits, gloves, helmets and shields. For anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours at a time, they face 2,200-degree heat, pumping steam into the copper "cake" and melting it down into 750-pound plates or "anodes" that are 98 percent pure copper. These are then sent to the refinery, where the last of the impurities, including gold and silver, are removed.

The work is dangerous, and quite honestly, scary. But for the steelworkers at Kennecott, there’s something more frightening: the thought of losing these well-paying jobs with their benefits, pensions and security.

Now, their fight to keep those jobs, along with a serendipitous series of events, has drawn steelworkers into an alliance with local environmentalists — the last people you’d expect to find cooperating with the employees of one of the largest mines in the world.

In 1989, a multinational mining company, Rio Tinto, bought Kennecott. The company brought with it from Australia an aggressively anti-union reputation, say members of the United Steelworkers of America, and it has since lived up to that reputation in Utah.

Most recently, in June 2003, the company signed a hard-fought contract with the Kennecott Coordinated Bargaining Committee, which represents five unions and 1,300 workers. Just two days later, the company broke the contract and laid off 120 workers at the smelter, ordering security guards to escort them from the premises. Union leaders called the move an act of retaliation for the workers’ involvement with the union.

Many of those workers either retired, or were later recalled to work as copper prices rebounded. But the steelworkers union has continued to wrestle with the company over the violated contract.

A few months after the layoffs, on the morning of Sept. 2, 2003, Sierra Club member Ivan Weber spotted a tiny public notice in the Salt Lake Tribune. According to the notice, the final settlement of a dispute between Kennecott and the state over a 50-square-mile plume of contaminated groundwater would be discussed at a public hearing in eight days.

Weber, who had been involved with the groundwater case since the 1990s, had been paranoid about the settlement since mid-August, he says, when The New York Times quoted then-Utah governor Mike Leavitt as claiming credit for the "completed effort" to clean up contaminated groundwater. As far as Weber knew, there were still plenty of kinks to work out.

To make things worse, he says, it was a lousy "solution." After years of study and legal wrangling, the company had proposed pumping and treating the groundwater, then sending it to four local cities as drinking water. Much to the dismay of environmentalists, hunters and fishermen, the leftover sludge would be dumped into the already-polluted Great Salt Lake (HCN, 4/29/02: The Great Salt Lake Mystery). Kennecott and the state were trying to "fast-track" the settlement, says Weber, and he needed help — fast.

"By 10 a.m., I had the alert out nationally," he says, "and the steelworkers were among the first to respond."

"We were already in the midst of the dispute over the contract, and we were going to use whatever ammunition we could find," says Terry Bonds, District 12 director of the United Steelworkers of America and head of the bargaining committee.

The steelworkers packed the public hearing, making up almost half the crowd, and Weber credits them with getting the public comment period extended. Since then, the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District has withdrawn its permit for the project, and the company is revising its plan.

"Though I guess we have different agendas, we learned that when we get together — green-collar workers and blue-collar workers — we’re stronger," says Bonds.

Today, the coalition is looking into Rio Tinto’s labor and environmental practices in Utah and around the world. "We want to force them to behave responsibly and to be responsible corporate citizens," says Kelly Hansen, a representative with the United Steelworkers of America.

"It’s almost always the case that companies that have a bad environmental record also have bad labor records," says David Foster, District 11 director of the United Steelworkers of America. Foster, who is nothing short of a hero among rank-and-file steelworkers, has reached out a steady hand to environmentalists over the past few years. "Our interests are portrayed as colliding with one another, but there’s nothing further from the truth," he says. "On a practical level, there is such extremism in the corporate world that the opportunities for us to work together are virtually limitless."

Although the opportunities might be limitless, finding the right people at the right time — and the money they need to work with — can be challenging. But the recent rise in corporate power, combined with a presidential administration often seen as hostile to both labor and the environment, is spurring more people to reach out to each other across old battle lines.

Today, the term "environmentalist" may conjure up images of forest defender Julia Butterfly Hill, resplendent atop her redwood tree, or wilderness warrior Dave Foreman, howling before a crowd of wolf-lovers. But in the 1960s and 1970s, environmental activism was played out on the ground where humans, nature and toxic chemicals collided, not in the treetops and the clouds.

Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, warned of the dangers of the pesticide DDT. The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill showed that petroleum products could be dangerous and expensive to clean up. When the residents of Love Canal, a suburban neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y., discovered in 1976 that their houses had been built atop a toxic dump, millions of other Americans began wondering what was underneath their homes and in their drinking water. And the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979 warned people that nuclear threats could originate far from a Soviet missile silo, on soil that was red, white and blue.

It’s only natural, then, that some of the people who led the fight for safe communities were those who worked every day with everything from pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, fertilizer and oil, to asbestos, benzene and plutonium.

One of the leaders in that fight was the late Tony Mazzocchi from Brooklyn, who was a member of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) for 52 years. Mazzocchi’s fingerprints are visible on almost all of the labor successes of the past 50 years: He negotiated contracts dealing with issues from dental insurance to equal pay for women; he lobbied for passage of the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Administration Act; and in 1974, he worked with Karen Silkwood, who was exposing safety violations at a Kerr-McGee nuclear fuel-rod plant in Oklahoma. In 1996, he founded the national Labor Party.

For Mazzocchi, a healthy environment was just as important as a safe workplace. In the 1950s, he helped document the effects of fallout from nuclear bomb testing by collecting baby teeth from mothers working at a cosmetics factory, and giving them to doctors to examine for traces of radioactivity. In 1970, he co-chaired the nation’s first Earth Day celebration.

"His whole idea was to invigorate and activate people against the evils of the world," says Joe Anderson, an OCAW member and the current project director of the Denver-based Labor Institute West, a branch of the Public Health Institute, a New York-based nonprofit that helps people build coalitions. "He knew how to attract young activists, even if they didn’t know they were activists at that point."

There were others who bridged the divide between labor and the environment, including Pat Williams, who represented western Montana in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1979 until 1997. As a member of both the House Labor Committee and the Interior Committee (now the Resources Committee), Williams worked closely with both groups. "(They) came together to lobby Congress for each of their causes," says Williams, now a senior fellow with the University of Montana’s Center for the Rocky Mountain West. "I saw environmental organizations doing minimum wage lobbying, and some labor (groups) supported wilderness legislation."

"Those were exciting times," says Jim Murry, the head of the Montana state AFL-CIO from 1968 until 1991, and a close friend of Williams. Montana’s progressive alliance, which included environmentalists and labor organizations along with farmers, ranchers and low-income groups, helped pass a new state Constitution that listed "the right to a clean and healthful environment" as an "inalienable right" held by all residents. Between 1971 and 1976, Montanans made a bipartisan effort to create what may be the most impressive run of environmental protections any state has passed in such a brief period (HCN, 12/17/01: Bad moon rising).

"Because of that coalition, all disadvantaged people had considerable political influence in the state," says Murry. "We weren’t always in complete agreement, but it meant that the little people had a lot better of a chance of having their voices heard."

But the 1980s ushered in hard times for labor. New technologies meant fewer workers were needed to get the same jobs done, while American companies began outsourcing more jobs to foreign countries with cheap workforces and less stringent — or nonexistent — environmental laws. And as labor’s fortunes unraveled, so did its alliances with environmentalists.

"The tradition started to cool off when globalization really hit," says Les Leopold, director of the Public Health Institute. "With the shutdown of manufacturing firms and investment in other nations, most unions dropped the issue (of environmental protections) because they were so worried about jobs."

Industry only hastened the destruction of these coalitions by blaming environmental laws — and environmentalists — for lost jobs. In Montana, progressive alliances broke down in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when industry drove a wedge between groups that had once worked well together, says Jim Murry.

"Industry was very successful in saying the environmental movement stopped development and mining and timbering in Montana," says Gene Fenderson, executive secretary of the three-year-old Montana Progressive Labor Caucus. "That’s really not true. That job loss was due to technology. U.S. Steel, National Steel, all those big companies are producing as much steel as they ever did. It’s just being done with fewer and fewer workers."

The same is true with coal, aluminum and other metals; in Colorado, for example, coal production has increased dramatically in the past few years — in 2003, the state produced a record 35.9 million tons of coal, a 16.9 percent increase over 2002 — while the workforce has stayed the same, or shrunk.

Environmentalists didn’t help matters by focusing on court battles and national politics, and drifting away from local people and economics. By the 1990s, politics in many Western states had degenerated to divisive squabbles over "jobs vs. the environment." Nowadays in Montana, says Murry, "industry does whatever they want to do."

Even the state’s labor community is split, and nowhere is that more clear than in the once heavily unionized mining industry. The Montana Mining Association has introduced a November ballot initiative that would repeal a 1998 ban on cyanide heap-leaching. The ban, passed by 52 percent of the state’s voters, prohibits mining companies from using cyanide to extract microscopic pieces of gold and silver from tons of ore.

The state AFL-CIO is supporting the initiative, saying that cyanide heap-leaching will create jobs. The Montana Progressive Labor Caucus disagrees. Repealing the ban won’t bring more jobs into the state, and the environmental risks of the process are too great, says executive secretary Fenderson; cyanide spills can destroy rivers and riparian habitat (HCN, 9/29/03: Reweaving the river). "I want to be clear about this," says Fenderson. "We’re not necessarily opposed to gold mining. We’re opposed to the cyanide heap-leaching process."

Regardless, the mining industry is doing its best to convince voters that environmentalists sabotaged Montana’s economy by funding the 1998 initiative. Now, the Montana Mining Association wants to "give the industry back the tools to work with that were taken away by environmental groups in 1998."

In recent years, however, economic globalization has brought some workers and environmentalists together again. Witness the 1999 World Trade Organization summit in Seattle, where some 50,000 protesters took to the streets for five days.

Created in 1995, and currently including members from 147 countries, the WTO sets the rules for international commerce and negotiates trade disputes. It has cited labor and environmental laws as illegal barriers to free trade, and critics say it pits countries against each other in a "race to the bottom," where the most lax environmental and labor regulations reign.

The "Battle in Seattle" was one of the most dramatic protest rallies the U.S. had seen since the 1960s. And there, alongside members of the AFL-CIO, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, United Steelworkers of America, the Paper, Allied-Industrial Chemical and Energy Workers International Union, International Longshore and Warehouse Union and hundreds of local unions, were college students, anarchists, and environmentalists in turtle suits. One sign held by marchers summed up the protests, and their hope for the future: "Sea Turtles and Teamsters: Together at Last."

"Coalition building was happening on every street corner," says Bill Carey, labor co-chair of the Olympia, Wash.-based Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, which was founded in 1999 and co-chaired at its start by environmentalist David Brower and steelworker David Foster. "Trade issues are something both camps were concerned with — NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), WTO, FTAA (the Free Trade Area of the Americas), those are all bad for labor and bad for the environment."

After the protests, there were some victories: President Clinton — partly in order to win labor’s support for Al Gore’s presidential bid in 2000 — came out in favor of levying sanctions against countries that violate workers’ rights. But then George W. Bush became president.

Plainly stated: Bush has been hell on organized labor. In the spring of 2001, Bush blocked strikes by mechanics at Northwest Airlines and United Airlines, invoking executive privilege. The next year, in response to the events of September 11, Congress passed the president’s Homeland Security Act, and gave Bush the authority to block federal employees from forming or joining unions if their jobs are directly involved in the "war on terrorism."

In 2002, when 10,500 dockworkers at 29 Pacific ports with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union threatened to walk out over an unsatisfactory contract, Tom Ridge, head of the new Homeland Security Department, warned union leaders that a strike would be considered a "threat to national security."

Bush is also overhauling the Fair Labor Standards Act, which establishes a number of worker protections, including minimum wage, child labor regulations and overtime pay for workers. At the end of April, the administration announced new rules that will allow businesses to "reclassify" certain workers, making them ineligible for overtime pay, even if they work more than 40 hours per week.

The loss of American jobs to foreign countries is another problem for labor unions and workers. By no means did the outsourcing of jobs originate with Bush: That trend began under President Reagan, and President Clinton accelerated it by signing NAFTA.

But Bush is the most outspoken proponent of outsourcing yet: He supports the Central American Free Trade Area (CAFTA), which would extend NAFTA to Central and South America and the Caribbean, and the FTAA, a trade agreement that would do the same among 34 countries.

Since January 2001, 3.2 million manufacturing jobs in the United States have disappeared, and the number of unemployed and "under-employed" (people who have to work two or more jobs to make ends meet) has risen. If the trend continues, a 2003 study by the University of California at Berkeley estimates that 14 million engineering, professional and technical jobs are at risk of being sent to foreign countries within the next few years.

The Bush administration has proposed reclassifying service jobs, such as those at fast-food restaurants, as "manufacturing jobs" — an apparent effort to disguise the slide in the manufacturing sector. And it steadfastly defends its policy: "Outsourcing is just a new way of doing international trade," N. Gregory Mankiw, chairman of Bush’s Council of Economic Advisors, told the press in February. "More things are tradable than were tradable in the past. And that’s a good thing."

Not necessarily for American workers, however. And as jobs disappear, so do the unions: Over the last 20 years, unions have suffered consistently declining membership. In 2003, only 12.9 percent of all workers belonged to a union, compared with 20.1 percent in 1983, when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking those numbers. The reasons are varied: Some blame the unions for becoming corrupt and complacent, while others accuse corporations — and now the federal government — of making it harder for workers to organize. Still others say the workers are responsible, because they took the unions — and the rights they gained — for granted.

Whatever the reasons, job losses, the decline in union membership and Bush’s hostility to organized labor have meant that more unions are focusing on "bread and butter" issues, such as individual jobs, wages and benefits. That has sometimes meant bad news for the environmental movement, says Les Leopold of the Public Health Institute. "When they’re scared away, unions can be formidable anti-environmental fighters."

Indeed, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters currently supports drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, saying it will boost jobs, and in 2001, the United Auto Workers lobbied Democrats to vote against vehicle fuel-efficiency standards.

But other unions are looking for new allies — and many environmentalists are eager to respond. The "blue-green" alliances, as they are sometimes called, offer a chance for the environmental movement to find new members and partners, and to become more inclusive. "It represents a maturity or an epiphany for the environmental movement," says Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit which has recently joined forces with environmentalists and labor organizers over the issue of global warming. "They’ve come to realize how important it is to care about workers and support policies that preserve and create jobs."

It also means a big step for unions and workers. "One of the problems the union has always had is it isolates itself from people," says Anderson. That’s starting to change, however: "The union started as a social movement" and it needs to get back to that.

But, Anderson says, "That’s a long and brave step for people to take."

Ironically, it’s in the Northwest, where relationships between environmentalists and loggers can be notoriously tense (remember the old bumper stickers that read "Hungry? Out of work? Eat a spotted owl"?) that new alliances are taking root.

In 1998, when steelworkers called a strike at Kaiser Aluminum to protest the outsourcing of 700 jobs to non-union contractors, the company, owned by Maxxam Corporation, responded by locking out 3,100 steelworkers at five plants in Washington, Ohio and Louisiana. Maxxam already had a bad name among environmentalists: Forest activists in Northern California had been fighting another Maxxam subsidiary, Pacific Lumber, for about 10 years.

Once the steelworkers and forest activists found one another, they realized that their interests were more closely aligned than they had thought. Steelworkers came to Northern California to talk to non-union workers at the lumber company about the benefits of union representation. When environmentalists filed a lawsuit against Pacific Lumber, challenging the company’s logging plan as "unsustainable," the steelworkers filed a similar suit, saying that the company’s economic practices were unsustainable.

Since then, environmentalists have had a few victories over Pacific Lumber, including some in court, and the National Labor Relations Board sided with strikers who accused Kaiser of illegally locking them out of their jobs. But both steelworkers and environmentalists have their work cut out for them: Pacific Lumber is still clear-cutting forests and logging redwoods, and the steelworkers have yet to unionize timber industry workers.

Still, the Maxxam campaign gave both groups a chance to get to know one another, says Karen Pickett, director of the Bay Area Coalition for the Headwaters. "When we sat down, and looked across the table from each other, we were struck," she says. "(Maxxam) was just one example of how corporations operate in this country these days. That’s when we started to talk about a larger alliance."

Pickett is one of the founders of the resulting Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment. She now sits on the board of directors with 11 other leaders within the labor and environmental movements, pursuing an agenda outlined after a protest in Houston at Maxxam’s 1999 shareholder meeting. Signed by more than 200 people, "The Houston Principles" outline a common vision for the environmental and labor movements (see story at left).

That alliance has, in turn, spawned others: Two of the leaders within it, forester Tracy Katelman and steelworker Don Kegley, went on to create the North Coast Restoration Jobs Initiative, a coalition of environmentalists, carpenters, engineers, state and local workers and food workers. In the past three years, members have worked together to defeat an effort by Maxxam Corporation and Pacific Lumber to recall Humboldt County’s district attorney, Paul Gallegos, after he accused the company of fraud. They’re also working on issues such as establishing a living wage, creating year-round jobs for seasonal workers, and coming up with a sustainable economic model for Humboldt County, a rural area traditionally dependent on the boom-and-bust timber industry.

"We’re learning to not waste time going into places (in the discussion) where it’s not going to work," says Katelman, "and to instead look at what we can do, to find a positive alternative."

There are also signs of progress on the ground in Northern California. According to a report by the nonprofit Forest Community Research, between 1995 and 2002, restoration work brought $65 million and 300 jobs to Humboldt County. That money came into the region because of federal and state environmental regulations: Endangered salmon needed better habitat, riparian habitat needed to be restored and exotic plant and animal species replaced with native species. The report estimates that there is still at least $150 million worth of work to be completed in Northern California alone.

"The idea is to create high-skill, high-wage jobs in a sustainable industry," says Andrea Davis, restoration jobs organizer with the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment. For workers, that means permanent, year-round jobs that pay well and provide health insurance, she says. For communities, it means cleaner water, healthier forests, sustainable fisheries and a viable economy.

In Montana, an environmental success story may turn into a win for labor, too. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency called for the removal of the Milltown Dam, part of a Superfund complex along the Clark Fork River in western Montana. The project, which will cost $100 million and last 10 years, will bring jobs to the state — and environmentalists say those should be union jobs. Tracy Stone-Manning, executive director of the Missoula-based Clark Fork Coalition, has been meeting with leaders within the state AFL-CIO, and she says, "what we’ve said is ‘if and when you need us, we’ll be there.’ "

That’s only the beginning. According to the EPA, there are 2,189 active Superfund sites in the Western United States. From abandoned mine dumps to dammed and abused rivers, the West offers thousands of projects that could rehabilitate the landscape and create jobs.

"There are, in the West, old scars on the land, from the days of all-out resource extraction," says Pat Williams. "These old insults offer us an opportunity … to put people to work with their hands and equipment, restoring and repairing the landscape. If the leadership is done correctly, (those projects) can heal the rift between environmentalists and workers, and can once again give them cause to work together."

But truth be told, the reality of a grassroots and unionized labor force spreading across the region, replanting unused forest roads, restoring salmon habitat and safely reclaiming Superfund sites, is still a long way off. Without some support from Washington, most of these projects will never get off the ground. At the same time that environmental laws are being weakened, the agencies that enforce those laws, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, have had their budgets slashed (HCN, 5/10/04). When the Superfund budget bottomed out in 2003, Congress refused to reinstate the tax on polluting corporations, which funds the cleanup of the nation’s dirtiest sites.

Faced with the lack of cooperation from Washington, many environmental and labor leaders now say that their most urgent task is to elect a new president, one willing to pledge support to their causes. It’s a goal they believe is attainable: By working together, activists say, the two movements can become a force to reckon with.

Despite its declining membership, labor still represents about a fifth of the electorate. Those who live in union households are more likely to discuss politics, more likely to be registered to vote — and more likely to say they "always" vote in elections, according to the 2000 National Annenberg Election Survey at the University of Pennsylvania.

Even though the war in Iraq and the economy are at the forefront of people’s minds, the environment remains "an integral part of all the issues people say they care about," says Margie Klein, founder and director of Project Democracy, an initiative of the League of Conservation Voters. "We just need to educate people that economic development and the environment are not mutually exclusive."

In fact, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry has latched onto that idea, saying in recent speeches that "jobs are the environment." Kerry has made promises to both communities, saying he’ll overturn recent rollbacks of environmental laws, pursue renewable energy research and technology, and increase vehicle fuel-efficiency standards. Kerry has also promised job creation, a halt to the exportation of jobs, a refusal to go forward with the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and a 120-day review of all current trade agreements.

For progressives, President Bush’s goals are equally clear. "If Bush is re-elected, we’ll go all the way back to the 1890s, a time of no regulation whatsoever," says David Foster. "I simply can’t understand how any American with a conscience is not making this their life’s work for the next six months."

Laura Paskus is High Country News assistant editor.

The following sidebar article accompanies this story:

- Houston Principles of the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment

The United Steelworkers of America, 415-562-2400

Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment, 360-709-9324

Public Health Institute, 917-606-0511

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