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Capital Blight: Common Cause or a Neighborhood "Linch"-Mob?

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, September 19, 2015

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.

Recently, a member of the IWW EUC posted a link to a May 27, 2015 editorial by four anonymous members of the Common Cause anarchist-communist federation, titled, Active Corrosion: Building Working-class Opposition to Pipelines, and I must say, it's very thought provoking. They definitely raise some important issues and ask some pertinent questions, but ultimately their criticisms of the IWW EUC and the conclusions they draw based on that fall far off the mark. Furthermore, although I share many of their criticisms of the environmental movement across the spectrum from mainstream NGO to radical direct-action eco-radical, I find their proposed remedies, while well intentioned, to be insufficient and, quite frankly, formulaic.

Who Misquoted Judi Bari?

Perhaps it's best to begin with their rather shallow understanding of the current orientations within Earth First!. In section II of their piece, (The Lay of the Land), they declare:

There are the assertions of Earth First!-types, as expressed by the organization’s co-founder Dave Foreman that it is “the bumpkin proletariat so celebrated in Wobbly lore who holds the most violent and destructive attitudes towards the natural world (and toward those who would defend it).”

It's interesting that they would reference that particular statement of Foreman's, since it was made almost twenty-five years ago, in a debate with Murray Bookchin, conducted as Dave Foreman was dropping out of the Earth First! movement in response to the latter incorporating class struggle into its radical ecology perspective (due, in no small part, to the influence of Judi Bari whom they so quickly dismiss--but more about that later). Many of Foreman's supporters within Earth First! who held similar views would soon follow within the next few years, and for the most part, most of them never returned to the fold. These days, Earth First!, while far from consistent or perfect on matters of class struggle or workers issues, is significantly more inclusive of them. If one were to read, for example, any of the rather detailed articles by Alexander Reid Ross, and they would see that some Earth First!ers have a fairly deep and extensive understanding of workers' issues. While it is true that there is also a strong primitivist--as well as a persistent insurrectionist--streak within that movement (one that I am often willing to criticize when he deems it necessary), these leanings do not preclude social anarchist perspectives.

Moving on from there, the editorialists opine:

In contrast, there is the commitment of the Wobblies’, otherwise known as the Industrial Workers of the World, Environmental Unionism Caucus to strategize about, “how to organize workers in resource extraction industries with a high impacts [sic] on the environment”, which lacks a broader vision of addressing industries which cannot exist in their current form or at all, if we are to prevent crisis.

Perhaps before making this rather sneeringly dismissive comment, the authors might have--perhaps--read some of the texts and articles on our site,, such as the numerous texts arguing against extractivism, including this statement by the South African Mine and Metal Workers' Union (NUMSA), this article by Jess Grant, or this series of articles arguing against "socialist" apologies for Nuclear Power, including my own pieces (Part 1; Part 2), just to name a few. Better yet, would it have been asking too much for the writers to actually contact us and ask us our opinions on the matter? You'll please forgive us if we regard such lack of due diligence as mentally lazy.

Following that, the authors state:

Both of these sides, however crudely expressed here, left us wanting for their lack of specificity, clarity, and dynamism. In discussions about the culpability of workers in environmental destruction or crisis, we found ourselves sliding between the two dichotomous tropes existing in their purest forms within primitivist and workerist tendencies: they are the evil or noble workers, class traitors or economic draftees. Aside from the obvious oversimplification, these views shed light on a particularly troubling environmentalist orientation to workers that denies their agency.

Upon reading this, I am tempted to ask, exactly what, in any of the materials we posted on our site, would lead them to conclude that the IWW EUC has such a black-and-white view of workers engaged in resource extraction? We've never made any definitive statement arguing this, so why would they impart such opinions to us? One cannot help but sense that the authors were erecting a strawman for their purposes...but more about that later also.

Presently, however, it's necessary to call "FOWL!" on the editorializers gratuitous and sectarian personal attack on Judi Bari, phrased thus:

When organizing workers in environmentally harmful industries is proposed, the name of Judi Bari is necessarily bandied around. Aside from holding some questionable beliefs about femininity, communion with the Earth, and the scientific method, Bari was a dedicated organizer who seems to have been on the right track.

This is an unnecessarily backhanded insult to Bari.  The author's comments on femininity and the scientific method are taken, no doubt, from Judi Bari's ecofeminist statements in Revolutionary Ecology, and the criticisms are made without context or explanation. What are the beliefs that the authors find so objectionable, and why are they questionable? Such details are not given, however. As for "communion with the Earth", having extensively read Bari's writings--for research in my own, not yet published, but still accessible book on Bari's organizing, Redwood Uprising, which, I'm compelled to point out, the editorializers didn't bother to read (because if they had, they'd likely not be so dismissive of her)--and having actually known her and worked with her before she died of cancer in 1997, I am certain that this is reading far too much into her thoughts on such things.

Continuing the authors' comments:

She proposed that environmentalists work with the lumber workers and tried to agitate them against their employers. She argued that the largest threat to the jobs of the lumber workers’ was not environmentalists, but their employers, who would necessarily lay off workers when the clearcut was complete. Most significantly, she argued for community-based struggle over the nomadic nature of Earth First!. Generally we are friendly to all of this. In hindsight however, the issue was not that she was wrong but that she and others had arguably waited until too late in to the struggle for the redwood to lay the groundwork that was necessary for victory. Her arguments were unclear, her strategy was not well-formulated and her organizing was not able to came to fruition before she was singled out and targeted for repression.

Again, the editorial writers simply make matter-of-fact statements, "Her arguments were unclear" and "her strategy was not well-formulated" without elaborating what her arguments were and what her strategy was. Again this is either mentally lazy or deliberately dismissive. Either way, they're inaccurate, and proof of this is evident in their having stated, "she and others had arguably waited until too late in to the struggle" and "her organizing was not able to came to fruition before she was singled out and targeted for repression". First of all, Bari was not the first Earth First!er to suggest an alliance with timber workers (even Dave Foreman, at times, advocated this, and in 1985, three years before Bari even arrived, there was a short-lived coalition of timber workers and environmentalists that fought together to oppose aerial herbicide spraying and union busting by Louisiana-Pacific corporation in Mendocino County), and her efforts didn't end with the car bombing on May 24, 1990 (the "repression" to which the authors allude but don't detail). In fact, some of the strongest alliances between timber workers and environmentalists took place between 1992-93, a full two-to-three years after the bombing. One logger, Ernie Pardini, even did a tree sit! However, the authors don't mention any of these things.

It's not inaccurate to say that these campaigns never reached their full potential, that mistakes were made, and that many failures occurred, but to suggest that these shortcomings stem from inherent flaws in Bari's strategy (which the authors never actually identify), is simply not the case. I have argued (in my book and elsewhere) and will continue to argue that it was Bari's strategic genius (as well as that of her many allies in these campaigns) and thoroughgoing analysis that made these campaigns succeed to the level that they did. The most glaring fault in those campaigns lay not with Judi Bari but with many of the Earth First!ers outside of northwestern California and Southwestern Oregon (often referred to as "Ecotopia Earth First!" or "Earth-First! - IWW Local #1") who obtusely refused to incorporate Bari's class struggle environmentalism into their strategy and often times established road blocks to it within Earth First!. What "Ecotopia" Earth First! lacked wasn't strategy, but numbers.

The Refinery Workers' Strike

Continuing on from there, the Linchpin editorialists offer a similarly dismissive account of the IWW EUC organized environmentalist support for the recent United Steelworkers refinery strikes and pickets, stating:

In February 2015, US oil workers went on strike for the first time since 1982. This strike included over 5,000 United Steelworkers members who walked out of a chemical plant, a cogeneration complex and eleven refineries, together accounting for 13% of the United States’ fuel refinement capacity. This strike has been framed by “green” groups and unionists as a prime opportunity to engage the state, and oil refinery workers, with an environmental agenda. Statements made by from those doing picket-line support have identified this as a chance to engage in “green syndicalism.” Though they are not inherently wrong about the possibly catalytic nature of strikes, and the importance they can play in consolidating struggle from a prexisting movement, providing picket-line support in this context shows a lack of insight regarding the state of their own movement. This opportunistic, magpie-like approach to organizing, which brings to mind “ambulance chasing,” is reactive rather than strategic, and gives few opportunities for the critical work of building long-term organizational structures. The disappointing truth is that the groundwork has not been laid to take advantage of this opportunity.

This comment betrays the authors' ignorance, because in the San Francisco Bay Area, the relationship building and groundwork which they claim "has not been laid", has in fact been laid for years through the painstaking work of groups like Communities for a Better Environment, The Asian Pacific Environment Network, Movement Generation, the Sunflower Alliance, the Richmond Progressive Alliance and others. The writers have obviously not spent any time in Richmond, Martinez, Benicia, or Rodeo, because they would have known that such connections have been attempted (and sometimes made) with the refinery workers by environmentalists and community groups for almost two decades.

Doing such things, of course, isn't easy when the refinery bosses threaten reprisal against anyone they perceive to be an economic enemy, and given the fact that even the smallest environmental regulations have a potentially negative effect on the capitalist profit margin, environmentalists are usually public enemy number one. The employing class therefore goes to great lengths to frame green groups as being little more than "unwashed-out-of-town-jobless-hippies-on-drugs", and all too often the class collaborationist union leadership swallows this Koolaid without question. Even the more (self-described) "progressive" unions like the Steelworkers are inconsistent in their openness to working with environmental activists in coalitions that share an adversarial relationship with the employers (even if the greens have the workers' best interests in mind). In spite of such challenges, the aforementioned groups in the Bay Area have--unlike many big name NGO environmentalists--put a substantial emphasis on class consciousness, no doubt due to the fact that many of the leaders of these groups are working class themselves and reside in frontline communities. Indeed, many of them are predominantly nonwhite.

A perfect illustration of the sincerity of this could be seen throughout the unfolding aftermath of the Richmond Chevron Refinery explosion on August 6, 2012. According to a now well documented report by the US Chemical Safety Board, the fire resulted from Chevron's insistence in sending heavy and dirty tar sands crude through aged corroded pipes. The workers in the refinery had been complaining about them for years, but the bosses ignored these complaints. In each of the hearings that followed, the environmental groups made it a point to emphasize that not only did they demand justice for the 15,000 or so residents who required hospitalization (mostly resulting from the noxious and toxic fumes caused by the fire), they also sought remedies for the workers who nearly perished. Often union USW members would attend these hearings and echo the complaints made by the environmentalists. Many of these environmentalists and many of these union members marched together on the Tesoro picket line in Martinez in march of 2015. It's not as though they didn't already have some preexisting connections.

Yet, the authors write as though these environmental groups suddenly decided to show up, out of the blue--without any warning--and say, "Hey! Steelworkers! We're your allies! Love us!" And they further suggest it was the IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus (at whom they make a gratuitous swipe, by specifically invoking the term "green syndicalism"--as if this author actually said that) who encouraged such "ambulance chasing".

In actual fact, at least in the Bay Area, when it became evident that a strike would take place, the Steelworkers approached the environmental groups first. The initial overtures took place very quietly. For example, at a city council meeting in Martinez, in which members of the local community environmental group attended to oppose the awarding of permits to Tesoro for the conversion of portions of the refinery to accommodate Bakken Crude, Steelworkers also showed up to complain about racism (from the bosses), lack of adequate staffing of safety personnel, and other matters--all of which were contract disputes and would become strike issues. The USW Local 5 members welcomed the support of the Martinez Environmental Group, and soon after that, Steelworkers and environmentalists jointly demonstrated together in Richmond at a Chemical Safety Board Hearing which was intended to determine that agency's final recommendations on potential new policies for preventing refinery accidents.

It's equally important to point out that at least as many of the picketers who weren't striking steelworkers were rank and file members and low level officials from other unions--particularly the California Nurses Association and the IWW, both of whom have been taking strong stands on climate justice--showing solidarity with their striking union brothers and sisters. Would the authors of the Linchpin editorial dismiss them as "ambulance chasers"?

Railcon 15

It's also crucial to mention that at the same time, members of the organization Railroad Workers United (RWU), a coalition of rank and file railroad workers from all 13 or so competing railroad craft unions (to which I happen to belong as a solidarity member, even though I work in the maritime industry), had been planning two conferences to soon take place in Richmond and Olympia in which union railroad workers (RWU members, naturally) would dialog and confer with many of these same environmentalists about finding common ground on the crude-by-rail issue, which is directly related to the mining and extraction of tar sands (it's the volatile heavier and dirtier crude that's causing many of these trains to explode, as in Lac-Mégantic).

The spark that ignited the energy behind the conferences originated with an attempt--in Autumn of 2014--by BNSF to demand concessions from its various railroad unions that would have allowed reduction in train crew sizes from two to one--at first in "limited" instances (if one believes BNSF's rhetoric), and in the end, very likely in all cases. The Lac-Mégantic disaster involved a short-line railroad with a single-employee train. There is extensive evidence that single employee train crews are inherently less safe than two (or more) employee train crews, but General Committee GO—001 of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail & Transportation Workers (SMART)--whose international leadership, incidentally, supports Keystone X-L and tar sands mining, ostensibly because it "provides jobs"--was willing to accept the employer's terms!

RWU members quickly sprang into action and mobilized a nationwide campaign to oppose the SMART General Committee's concessionary offer, involving thousands of railroad workers and union supporters.  Sensing that their struggle represented more than just a simple bread-and-butter union campaign, the principal organizers, led in large part by Jen Wallis, a railroad workers from Seattle who had--not more than two decades ago--been an active Earth First!er (not to mention, a Wobbly) reached out to environmentalists, knowing full well that the latter might be receptive to the concerns of railroad workers fighting to prevent more Lac-Mégantic type disasters resulting from understaffed unit trains.  Their efforts were not ignored, and during the course of the RWU campaign, many environmentalists, particularly those in Jen Wallis's area, offered their solidarity in numerous ways, including passing resolutions of support, mentioning railroad workers' concerns at their rallies, or even demanding that the railroads "cut oil trains, not conductors" on a sign held by Rising Tide activist Abby Brockway as she sat on top of a tripod astride BNSF tracks in Everett, Washington. The solidarity from the environmentalists (and rank and file members from many other unions) didn't go unnoticed or unappreciated by rank and file railroad workers, and on Tuesday, September 10, 2014, the rank and file union members of SMART General Committee GO—001 overwhelmingly voted down a concessionary proposal to reduce train crew size from 2 to 1.

Meanwhile, after more crude-by-rail derailments had occurred in 2013 alone than the previous four decades combined, climate justice activists had been mobilizing across the US and Canada to put a stop to these "bomb trains" (as one anonymous Canadian railroad worker has coined them), but often these activists--while they were quite correct in condemning the practice for its inherent danger not to mention enabling of further extreme fossil fuel extraction and contribution to biosphere killing global warming--were (with few exceptions) overlooking the potential connections they could make with railroad workers over commonly shared concerns of safety.  It was largely due to the efforts of myself, who had been cultivating relations with members of both camps for several months just as the authors of the Linchpin editorial suggest (and a few other green syndicalists) as well as the leadership of RWU that these two groups came together in the first place.  To accuse the IWW EUC (and its fellow travelers) of "ambulance chasing" is at best ignorant, and at worst, sectarian dogmatism. 

The Richmond conference took place just as the refinery workers' strike climaxed, and those of us organizing the railroad conferences in partnership with our environmental allies, reached out to refinery workers and strongly encouraged them to attend the conferences as well, which many did.  The Richmond conference drew over 125 participants, many of them rank and file union workers and environmental activists.  The dialog was fruitful, and while there remains much work to be done to build a truly unified class struggle climate justice movement with a green syndicalist orientation, those conferences did more to advance that cause than anything that has come before it, and as I write this response, a third such conference is about to commence in Chicago.  Meanwhile citizens of Lac-Mégantic (who rightly blame the bosses and not the workers for the disaster) have approached RWU about organizing a fourth such conference there.  At the same time, the climate justice NGO, Forest Ethics is organizing their own conference on crude-by-rail, to take place in November, and has expressed willingness to invite members of RWU to speak on issues of railroad safety, such as crew size, fatigue, and long and heavy trains. All of this was made possible by the green syndicalism that the Linchpin writers would so quickly dismiss. 

A Drinking Game

One is tempted to ask what motivated the four Linchpin editorializers to write such a carelessly researched polemic, and without talking to them (which is somewhat challenging since each of them chose to remain anonymous), one can only speculate. However, there's a rather obvious clue evident throughout the editorial, and that is the political orientation of the authors. A careful search of the article reveals no less than twenty instances of the word "neighborhood" (though sometimes its spelled "neighbourhood" in the British fashion, for unfathomable reasons). I was almost tempted to play a drinking game each time the word appeared (if I had done so, I would not have been able to write this response, however). It's readily apparent that the authors favor municipalist anarchism and/or anarcho-communism over syndicalism. Specifically, they advocate--as opposed to the "opportunistic, magpie-like...ambulance chasing" green syndicalism (or rather, their very shallow and limited concept of green syndicalism)--"revolutionaries organizing communities before imminent threats appear, which would prepare working-class communities for larger battles over regionalized environmental destruction and pollution."

I suppose it never occurred to them that the Sunflower Alliance, to which I belong, is an attempt to do precisely that, and it also should go without saying that one can engage in both neighborhood and industrial organizing, and for the record, the IWW, not being an exclusively or explicitly anarcho-syndicalist union has along history of doing so. I think that both approaches are two very useful tools in the organizer's proverbial Swiss Army Knife. However the Linchpin authors seem to think that there is little merit to any organizing outside of neighborhood organizing, and this is a tactical mistake. One the one hand, they, themselves stress the importance of organizing across supply chains, which extend well beyond single neighborhoods, or even thousands of potentially federated neighborhoods.  On the other, there are instances when the chokepoint simply cannot be isolated to a singular neighborhood (such as a moving train). Other times "neighborhoods" might lack sufficient density to support organizing around a specific chokepoint (such as the Unist'ot'en blockade).  There simply isn't a "one-size-fits-all" approach to organizing, but the four Linchpin authors seem to think that neighborhood assemblies represent the only worthwhile organizational structure.

Jobs and Just Transition

Perhaps the Linchpin authors' most glaring strawman is the notion that we green syndicalists (as well as the environmentalists chasing ambulances on refinery workers' picket lines) seek to "make environmentally harmful jobs more appealing without successfully directing the conversation towards the utility of the job itself" instead of treating these jobs like something akin to the military and the workers as potential recruits that we should proactively and preemptively convince to not take the jobs in the first place. The Linchpin authors' are primarily concerned with the construction of new pipelines, their strategy could easily be applied to other ecologically destructive infrastructure, such as refineries, factories, or chemical plants. 

First of all, I have absolutely no disagreement whatsoever with the proposed strategy of convincing individuals not to take jobs in actually inherently destructive industries (such as weapons manufacturing or nuclear fission power), but these are few and far between, and the resources available to organize an effective network that could turn potential workers away and offer them comparable employment is well beyond the means of any of our disorganized movements at present. Many of the industries that environmentalists, and apparently, also the four anonymous authors would so quickly write off as "inherently destructive" can only be described thus if one has a shallow analysis of capital. The equipment and its use are often entirely different things. A tool can be used for good or ill, and a great many of the "destructive" jobs can be made sustainable, if one looks deeply enough.


  • (1) Who builds, operates, and maintains the infrastructure? In the case of a pipeline, such jobs are usually carried out by skilled trades workers. Anyone with even an ounce of knowledge of the building trades knows that they often work as "journeymen", traveling from location to location to carry out work on construction projects. A worker, tasked to construct a tar sands pipeline could just as easily be tasked to repair an existing water main. Presumably, the editorialists would agree that the latter project has far more utility. Likewise, railroad engineers and conductors primarily operate an engine. They could haul just about anything, including ecologically destructive products--such as Bakken crude--or useful items, such as food, water, medicine, or wind turbine parts (for example).
  • (2) Isn't the infrastructure more than just the end product? Just because operating capital is currently used to manufacture or facilitate ecologically destructive products and activities, doesn't mean that it must necessarily be so. A Factory that makes bombs could be repurposed to make solar panels. Offshore operations designed to facilitate oil drilling could instead help construct offshore wind turbines. On, one can even find an account of striking workers at Lucas Aerospace (in the United Kingdom) in 1976 demanding a transition from building weapons of mass destruction to constructing exploratory spacecraft and solar electric technology instead.
  • (3) Many of the destructive jobs that the Linchpin authors suggest we turn workers away from are in volatile industries anyway, and will disappear as a result of market forces. The much lauded (by the capitalists anyway) extreme energy boom is quickly going bust. The extraction of these, until recently hard-to-get, fossil fuel reserves was only made profitable by the increase in Brent Crude prices to more than $100 US per barrel, which took place in the latter half of the opening decade of the 21st Century. However, after OPEC decided they didn't want to be outflanked by the Western capitalists seeking to undermine their primacy in the fossil fuel market and agreed to maintain high production levels in spite of the glut of fossil fuel sources resulting from this boom, the price of oil fell from a high of $115 US per barrel, in the Fall of 2014, to a low of almost $40, right around the time of the refinery workers' strike in the Spring of 2015 (probably not a coincidence either). While the price rebounded a bit, 100,000s of oil workers have lost their jobs. True believers in extreme fossil fuel capitalism kept predicting a rebound to roughly $75 US per barrel by the end of 2015, but they failed to account for several factors, including the explosive growth of renewable energy sources, the US cutting a deal with Iran, and the collapse of the Chinese commodities market, which caused the price of oil to dip, yet again, in the Summer of 2015 to as low as $37 US per barrel.  While the need to keep 80% of these known reserves in the ground is probably not a major factor in these wild price fluctuations, certainly that will eventually become significant enough to further upset the fossil fuel capitalists' apple cart. Meanwhile, almost 200,000 fossil fuel workers' jobs have disappeared and are not likely to reappear any time soon. At most, our movements would be able to turn away, perhaps 200 per year at most, were we even organized enough to try. It would be a far better use of our time (not to mention far less alienating to the worker) to try and find relief for the workers who've lost their jobs than it would be to try and turn potential new workers away.
  • (4) If, after all the above considerations are taken into account, the jobs that remain and are more stable are still found to be part of an inherently destructive operation, and must ultimately be eliminated, that process won't generally happen overnight. For example, refineries take time to decommission, and even were such an activity possible, even the most rapid transition to a near 100% non-fossil fuel economy will take decades. Most of the workers engaged in such activity will simply retire, and new jobs will not be created in those industries to replace them.  Other jobs are of a particular skill which can be transferred to non fossil fuel operations (such as chemist, pipe fitter, etc.) and can be engaged in other activities.  These concepts are part of what is being called just transition, something that we green syndicalists advocate, and if the writers of the Linchpin editorial had actually bothered to investigate the IWW EUC more thoroughly, they'd have learned this. 

In Conclusion

It's understandible that the four anonymous authors of the Linchpin editorial would want to critically assess the environmental and/or climate justice movement(s). There is indeed much to criticize, including, but not limited to the following:

  • Reformism, particularly by capitalist minded NGOs;
  • Overemphasis on blockadia, particularly by the more insurrectionary anarchist oriented radical environmentalists;
  • Lack of class consciousness, by many of the elements within the green milieu;
  • Primitivism, Misanthropy, and Malthusianism, which--while not largely dominant in Earth First! anymore--still exist in some sectors of the movement;
  • Crypto-fascism, such as promoted by Deep Green Resistance (whose transphobia is merely the tip of the iceberg);
  • Techno-fixing by some, Techno-phobia by others (renewable energy alone won't save us, but wind turbines aren't the bird killers some say they are);
  • Tunnel vision (such as focusing on veganism as the solution to everything, for example);
  • Electoralism (as if the clusterfuck in Greece and the capitulation by the leadership of Syryza is any example);
  • Uncritical Global-South Extractivism by some, Single-minded criticism of same by others (particularly privileged, mostly white, Global North denizens); and much more.

These shortcomings directly result from a lack of class analysis by the various tendencies within the climate justice and environmental movement(s) that exhibit them. A thorough and deep systemic analysis would reveal this. Indeed, this is precisely what the four editorialists seem to be advocating, but--as I have shown here--failing to practice themselves. 

To me the entire editorial reads as a sectarian swipe at green syndicalism from dogmatic anarcho-communists who have a bias against syndicalism in general. If their arguments were intended as a thorough and deep analysis of green syndicalism's (or the IWW EUC's) shortcomings, they were an epic fail.

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