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Capital Blight: Alliances Between Workers and Environmentalists Must be Built from the Ground Up

By x344543 - July 12, 2013

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

It's a commonly expressed hope among younger, radical environmentalist activists that Judi Bari's vision of "green syndicalism" (worker lead reorganization of the new world within the shell of the old into a post capitalist, post technocratic, biocentric society) will manifest itself by big AFL-CIO unions--such as the building trades, UMWA, Teamsters, etc., refusing to build or operate the machinery that is destroying the environment, such as the Keystone XL Pipeline or the trains transporting coal, or the ships exporting that coal to China.

They recall the "Teamsters and Turtles" coalition that sprang up during the anti-WTO demonstrations on November 30, 1999 in Seattle; they might mention the Earth First! alliance with the United Steelworkers (at Kaiser Aluminum) against Maxxam the previous year; some invoke the Australian "Green Bans" that saved Kelly's Bush in Hunter's Hill (New South Wales) in the early 1970s, where construction workers refused to construct a building that would destroy one of the last remaining open spaces in that community.

These are all real examples to be sure, but they represent the exception--not the rule--and that realization leaves some wondering why, while others--like Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman--simply write the workers off.

Both views are wrong in my opinion, because both fail to understand the depths of the problem. They might respond by asking how Judi Bari was able to succeed, including co-founding what came to be known as Earth First! - IWW Local #1, made up of environmentalists and timber workers, where others failed, and why others cannot simply replicate her efforts. I am certain others can, but we must recognize what made Judi Bari's efforts so special and unique to begin with: she correctly recognized the union officialdom (not to mention the leadership of the mainstream environmental organizations) as typically being part of the problem and not the solution.

You see, dear readers, capitalism is the root of the problem, and any solution to that problem must look outside of the capitalist context for the solution. Where those placing their hopes in mainstream environmentalists and business unions fail is in understanding how both primarily serve to maintain capitalism above all else and cannot function outside of that context.

Judi Bari understood this very well. Her own experience as a rank and file member of the Retail Clerks Union, and later the Postal Workers Union in the 1970s taught her that the bureaucrats were clearly on the side of management. She even wrote a satirical version of "Solidarity Forever" excoriating the mainstream union bureaucracy called "Aristocracy Forever". Even though she didn't formally join the IWW until a decade and a half later, her most successful actions as a rank and filer came from her use of Wobbly tactics at the point of production. She and her fellow militants learned this not through reading IWW propaganda (though Bari's parents, both closet radicals themselves, did sing her IWW songs as a child), but through their daily struggles on the job.

Bari's critique of business unions continued and deepened when she joined Earth First! and the IWW in 1988. When Judi fought for the Georgia Pacific millworkers affected by a PCB spill in the Fort Bragg sawmill in February 1989, her principal adversary was not the company (though they were certainly adversarial to Bari and the workers), but the AFL-CIO business union, the IWA (mainly because the union was in the business of representing the company).

IWA Local 3-469 representative Don Nelson was the leader of these efforts. Nelson perfectly fit the description of a "liberal" as described by leftist folksinger Phil Ochs: "10 degrees to the left of center in good times, (but) 10 degrees to the right if it affected him personally (Love Me, I'm a Liberal). He helped organize a coalition of unions and environmentalists in Mendocino County to oppose aerial herbicide spraying (opposed by environmentalists and timber workers for various reasons which happened to resonate at the time) by union busting timber corporation Louisiana Pacific in 1985. He also issued a statement excoriating the Maxxam takeover of Pacific Lumber in 1986.

However, he had no direct stake in doing so other than to bolster his image in the eyes of the people of Mendocino and Humboldt Counties. Nelson had at least three goals in these endeavors: (1) making the IWA look attractive to the nonunion P-L employees who sought out the IWA's help in opposing the Maxxam takeover; (2) trying to save face after L-P had busted almost all of its unions (including the IWA) after a long a bitter strike as well as agreeing to a concessionary contract at G-P; and (3) running for Mendocino County Supervisor in the Democratic primary in 1986 (he lost to a more progressive candidate).

When it came down to a choice between engaging in class struggle against the rapacious timber bosses at G-P, however, Nelson ultimately came down on the side of the bosses every time. This was essentially because for him not to do so would have required him to openly oppose the dictates of capital, something he openly professed an unwillingness to do. In response, IWW member and Earth First! activist Darryl Cherney quipped that Nelson should replace the "IWA" on his door with the letters "G-P".

Whenever Earth First! and IWW Local 1 effectively challenged timber capital, Nelson could be counted on to support the capitalists. No clearer demonstration of this can be shown by the union official's support for the employer funded AstroTurf timber industry front groups organized under the umbrella group known as "Community Solidarity" (who were also known as the "Yellows" for their heavy reliance of that color in opposition to the "Green" symbolism of the environmentalists) during Redwood Summer, a season-long campaign of nonviolent demonstrations against corporate strip logging organized by a coalition that included Earth First! and IWW Local #1 that occurred in 1990.

The Yellows claimed to be composed of "regular" people, "taxpayers and family people" (as if to suggest that the Greens were not), timber workers and their families. In reality, though, these groups were dominated by contract logging firm owners whose businesses undercut each other in bidding for contracts from the dominant timber corporations of Humboldt and Mendocino Counties, namely G-P, L-P, and Maxxam. It was even revealed that G-P largely funded the effort.

The goal of the Yellows was to foster the illusion that Redwood Summer was a campaign crafted by "outside agitators" composed primarily of "unwashed-out-of-town-jobless-hippies-on-drugs" (and in the wake of the still unsolved bombing assassination attempt on Judi Bari that occurred on May 24, 1990 right as Redwood Summer was set to begin--an act the FBI blamed on Bari and Darryl Cherney until all of their manufactured evidence fell apart--as "violent terrorists") aiming to disrupt the lives of the hard working timber workers of the region. They also sought to negatively associate a statewide forestry reform ballot initiative called "Forests Forever" (which--though it was the creation of more mainstream environmentalists--was actually fairly decent) with the Redwood Summer coalition. Ultimately they hoped to further the myth that there was an unbridgeable chasm between timber workers and environmentalists, and that the latter were making an already bad situation worse.

And to be fair, Earth First! - IWW Local 1 was also dismissed--and sometimes even undermined by mainstream NGOs like the Sierra Club and Save the Redwoods League, both of whom were afraid that Earth First!'s militant (though non violent) direct action civil disobedience tactics would alienate "middle class" voters and donors thus undermining the Forests Forever ballot initiative. Other Earth First!ers--particularly Dave Foreman--ranged from skeptical to outright hostility to the idea of making alliances with timber workers in the first place, whom they saw as being scarcely different than their capitalist masters. No doubt Don Nelson's willingness to join forces with the Yellows reinforced such thinking. Then again, the rigidity of some environmentalists fed into workers' fears that the environmentalists were indeed their enemies. Meanwhile, the capitalists expertly played the two off of each other and laughed all the way to the bank, profiting greatly as a result if their divide-and-conquer strategy as they've always done.

The Yellows were hardly an accurate representative for actual timber workers, however, and though they did enjoy a sizable membership of rank and file timber employees, their support could accurately be described as "a mile wide, but only an inch deep."

Don Nelson was not particularly loved by the rank and file of the IWA either. After experiencing three years of reduced wages under a concessionary contract with G-P, the rank and file voted overwhelmingly to strike when the company proposed further concessions in 1989. Nelson brought in higher-ups from the international who proceeded to hold a less than democratic "revote" that went against the strike. The workers also resented Nelson's siding with the company over the PCB spill. Finally, they voted thrice to oppose a dues increase demanded by Nelson (who even stooped to red baiting, at one point issuing a leaflet titled, "a vote against the dues increase is a vote for the IWW", as if that had any effectiveness (it didn't)).

Many of the timber workers, most of whom had no union representation, only supported the Yellows out of fear and social pressure, and far more privately agreed with the Greens. Don Nelson and the IWA officialdom however, openly pledged their support with the Yellows.

This is all the more ironic considering the following two facts: (1) much of the strongest support, and the key organizing muscle behind the Yellows came from the contract "gyppo" firms, whose very existence stemmed from the large timber corporations' schemes to prevent unionizing (primarily by the IWW) in the first place. (2) in the few instances where timber workers were represented by a union, even those whose officialdom declared the Greens were their "enemy", during strikes and lockouts, the biggest supporters of the Yellows were recruited as scabs!

Oregon mill worker Gene Lawhorn became a supporter of Earth First! in 1988 during a lockout of his union in a dispute with Roseburg Forest Products when he noticed Earth First!ers joining his union brothers and sisters on the picketlines and Yellows crossing them! The IWA officialdom's willingness to support those who willingly aided the bosses in weakening the organized strength of the unions is a testament to how beholden to capital they truly were.

Don Nelson's willingness to throw the working class under the bus had already been demonstrated however. Just after losing in the primary election for the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors 4th District seat, he refused to support a UFCW picket at a local grocery market in Fort Bragg. He even encouraged rank and file IWA members to cross it, a move that alienated many of his allies and election campaign supporters.

When Judi Bari was bombed and accused of knowingly transporting the bomb that nearly killed her, many people, including many timber workers, came to her defense. Not Don Nelson, however. He issued a statement describing the bombing as typical of the divisiveness that he feared Redwood Summer would cause.

He issued that statement only a week after he had declared environmentalists the "enemy" of the timber workers in response to a vote by the Mendocino County "Forestry Advisory Committee" to endorse tougher regulations. Nelson was on the committee and voted with the minority which was composed largely of Yellows. The majority faction included environmentalists, local landowners, and timber workers supportive of Judi Bari.

One might assume that Nelson was a loose cannon among business union officials, but in fact we wasn't. Paul Moorehead, an official of the Western Council of Industrial Workers (WCIW) called Judi Bari just before the latter was scheduled to speak before a panel on workers and the environment at the Oregon Environmentalism and the Law conference in March 1990. He told her that she was not welcome and that any rank and file worker who spoke to her "would be fired". Bari ignored the threat and allowed Gene Lawhorn to speak, and the latter gave an amazing account of his experience during the RFP struggle and admonished Earth First! to renounce the tactic of tree spiking as a gesture of solidarity to timber workers.

Bari accepted the suggestion and she, along with other Northern California and southern Oregon Earth First!ers (and IWW members) officially renounced the tactic two weeks later (and the gesture was much appreciated by the GP millworkers working with Bari to try and force GP to admit their complicity in the PCB spill).

Timber corporation spokespeople, Yellows, and their supporters dismissed the gesture as "kinder gentler terrorism". Several union officials, such as Irv Fletcher if the Oregon AFL-CIO state labor federation, parroted that rhetoric.

There was one notable exception to the rule, and that was AAWPW Local 67 Vice President Dave Chism, who supported Redwood Summer, but that was due largely to the fact that Chism was also a rank and file worker, a hog tender at the Simpson pulp mill in Arcata.

So how had Judi Bari managed to build support between timber workers and their supposed "enemies" without support from the business union officials?

Judi Bari knew that her real allies were the workers themselves, not the bureaucracies that ostensibly represented them. She knew from her own experiences (as well as her having studied Marxist economic theory) that the union bureaucracies were institutionally integrated into the capitalist system (legally and politically), and that it would be a waste of time to appeal to them to challenge their corporate masters. She worked around and in spite of the bureaucracies, if they even existed (and in most cases, they didn't).

For example, when L-P announced the closure of two of its mills in the region in late 1988 and blamed the closures on environmentalists' lawsuits Bari (and Darryl Cherney) proposed that the company reopen both mills and promise to rehire all of the affected workers, in exchange for the environmentalists dropping the aforementioned suits (in fact, there were no lawsuits; L-P was bluffing and Bari and her allies knew this and made the proposal as a challenge to the company's bluff). L-P had no intentions of restoring the jobs and declined the offer, thus admitting that their accusations were lies.

Darryl Cherney and Judi Bari also wrote a pro timber worker, pro environment, country music themed song called Potter Valley Mill, which the affected workers and their communities greatly appreciated. They even sold cassette singles of the song to raise hardship funds.

Starting in 1989, Bari also helped a half dozen Pacific Lumber workers (at least one of whom, Pete Kayes, joined the IWW) publish an underground newsletter, called Timberlyin' (satirizing the company newsletter, Timberline) which exposed the less than ideal working conditions and unsustainable logging practices imposed by Maxxam corporation who had taken over the (formerly worker friendly--though non-union--and sustainably logged) company in 1985.

In the case of the G-P millworkers, Bari and the rank and file dissidents operated independently of the IWA--largely because the dissident millworkers had tried to work within their union structure and had been blocked at every opportunity--and followed a strategy of minority "solidarity unionism" under the IWW banner instead.

Meanwhile, Judi Bari also pursued justice for the family of Fortunado Reyes, an L-P millworker who had been crushed to death at the Ukiah mill. The company claimed it was a random accident, but Reyes's coworkers were convinced that his death had resulted from intimidation by his boss who had pushed Reyes to ignore the company's safety procedures in order to meet production quotas. Bari didn't let the fact that these workers didn't have an official union to represent them. She again represented the workers as IWW Local 1.

In late 1989, L-P announced the closure of three additional mills (bringing the total to five). Investigative reports revealed that the company's actual reason for doing so was not increasing pressure from environmentalists, but the pursuit of cheaper labor and lax regulations offered in Mexico, where they planned to open a new facility to replace the old ones. Bari and her fellow Earth First! and IWW allies responded by appearing alongside angry timber workers at the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors in April 1990 (AFTER Redwood Summer was announced) to demand that the county exercise its power of "eminent domain" to seize L-P's holdings and operate them in the public interest.

Don Nelson argued that he had thrown in his support for the Yellows because Redwood Summer alienated timber workers, but several timber workers openly declared their support for Redwood Summer and indicated that many others supported it as well (but were afraid to publicly admit it for fear of losing their job). These workers continued to support the campaign in spite of the bombing on May 24, 1990.

After the conclusion of Redwood Summer, voters narrowly defeated the Forests Forever ballot initiative by a margin of less than 5% statewide. A timber industry sponsored counter measure (that the union bureaucrats supported) was soundly defeated by all California voters.

Although the vote against Forests Forever was higher in the eight timber dependent counties in northwestern California, in many of them, the corporate timber backed countermeasure fared worse. Furthermore, the Forests Forever measure fared worst in the six counties not targeted by Redwood Summer.

Still more interestingly, secret documents leaked to the press revealed a plan by timber employer front groups to manipulate rank and file timber workers and use them as spokespeople for the corporate backed countermeasure. The plan was botched when its organizers presumed that Don Nelson and other union officials would willingly pressure their rank and file members to donate money to these efforts. The idea of cajoling workers to surrender even more of their hard earned money to these efforts was too much for even Don Nelson and he publicly protested the idea (but continued to denounce Redwood Summer and Forests Forever).

By contrast, there were many rank and file timber workers (as well as Dave Chism) who didn't appreciate being identified as spokespeople for the campaign against Forests Forever, let alone as spokespeople for the countermeasure weather they were asked to contribute money to either or not. Those that spoke the most openly about this were all allies of Judi Bari and IWW Local #1, in stark contrast to the reactionary positions taken by the business union officialdom.

In spite of these facts, Don Nelson continued to claim that he was a "bonafide labor representative", but it was Judi Bari who was contacted by L-P millworkers Don Beavers and Randy Veach who openly revealed the deplorable conditions that existed in the company's mills in 1991.

It was also Judi Bari who earned the trust of logger Ernie Pardini (himself an eventual IWW member) who courageously supported a community  and environmentalist occupation of the Enchanted Meadow timber harvest cut near Albion in 1992. Pardini's uncle "Mancher" was the owner of the gyppo firm contracted by L-P to log that cut.

Don Nelson compared the Earth First! tactic of tree sitting to terrorism after Judi Bari, et. al. coorganized "National Tree Sit Week" all over the U.S. in August 1989, and claimed it would "alienate" timber workers, but the rank and file dissidents in his own union continued to work with Judi Bari after the campaign. Further, Ernie Pardini himself conducted the first ever tree sit by a logger in defense of forest preservation on Pacific Lumber land in 1993.

After Judi Bari's death from cancer in 1997, the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and Earth First! joined forces to fight Maxxam (because Maxxam also owned Kaiser Aluminum which locked the union out during acrimonious contract negotiations) but the initial spark for this alliance came from the efforts of IWW members and Earth First!ers to further Bari's work. It was this effort which lead to the massive demonstrations against the WTO in Seattle in 1999 where the "Teamsters and Turtles" connection was made, and the so-called "Green-Blue Alliance" sprang from these efforts as well.

Unlike Earth First! - IWW Local 1, however, these later coalitions were run by the bureaucrats and not by rank and file workers, and the results of these efforts have been limited to mild reforms of capitalism that have done nothing to stop the ever accelerating, suicidal runaway train that is capitalism.

That's not to say that the situation is hopeless. Rank and file union workers speak out all the time against the exploitation and environmental destruction caused by the employing class (witness, for example, Jonathan Flanders's recent articles about the recent disaster in Lac Megantic). Sometimes the business unions do take principled stands on wider social issues, including environmentalism, such as the National Nurses' Union march on the Golden Gate Bridge in protest against the Keystone XL Pipeline. The proposed labor contingent (which the Bay Area General Membership Branch of the IWW just endorsed) at the August 3rd "Summer Heat" event at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California is a welcome and hopeful development.

Nevertheless, these are not examples of unions directly challenging the employers on environmental issues or capitalism on a grander scale. While it is true that the United Steelworkers Union has worked jointly with some of the environmental organizations challenging the lack environmental stewardship practiced by their employers, notably with Chevron, such examples are rare--though they are a credit to the class conscious environmentalists of organizations like Communities for a Better Environment and Asian Pacific Environment Network who have made the efforts to connect with the workers.  These coalitions are delicate and have taken years to nurture. It also helps that the union mentioned here is the Steelworkers whose historical connection to Earth First! directly stemmed from the groundwork done by Earth First! - IWW Local #1.

Some would argue that Judi Bari's efforts weren't all that successful either, because timber corporations are as powerful as ever (though not in northwestern California from which G-P, L-P, and Maxxam have all since retreated). This is primarily due to there not enough organizers like Judi Bari to achieve critical mass than any fatal flaw in her methods. Headwaters Forest and Enchanted Meadow still exist due to Bari's efforts, and the Mendocino Redwood Company--while far from perfect (it is, after all, a capitalist business)--is far less exploitative and destructive than its predecessors. The very idea of the reformist Blue Green Alliance wouldn't have been possible if it weren't for the more radical Earth First - IWW Local #1 blazing the trail in the first place.

One reason, in particular, why Don Nelson (and by extension the AFL-CIO in general) so hostile to Judi Bari's efforts was because the latter directly challenged the rule of capital, something the business unions cannot and will not do, as best summed by Don Nelson himself in an interview he gave to Mendocino County Observer editor Jim Shields during Redwood Summer:

"[Judi Bari and her allies] are...anti timber, anti-government, and anti-capitalism. They're pro anything else except capitalism and democratic government. They're basically far over to the left." [Mendocino County Observer, August 3, 1990]

Of course, Judi Bari and the IWW knew perfectly well that capitalism was anything but "democratic" and were Nelson to have examined labor history carefully, he'd have known that the very rhetoric he was using to denounce Bari and the IWW was the same used by the capitalists to describe the labor movement!

You see, dear folk, the labor movement wasn't built by following "the rule of law" which was written to protect the powerful few from the hunger and want of the many. To effectively challenge that power one must challenge capitalism. To stop the destruction if the environment, one must challenge capitalism (which cannot exist without externalities) Earth First! and the IWW know this intuitively. For business unions and mainstream environmentalists to follow in Judi Bari's footsteps, they'd have to become the IWW and Earth First!, respectively, themselves.

I suggest we simply save a few steps. It's less time consuming. The IWW EUC seeks to carry on Judi Bari's work and expand upon it until we win and save our planet from the destruction wrought by the capitalist overlords. If the business unions throw in their lot with us, it will be because we lead the transformation from the grassroots. After all, all meaningful changes in history have happened that way. There is no reason to believe that it will be any different this time around.