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Eco Wobbles: the Lesser Known Story about the Delta 5 Case

By x344543 - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, January 22, 2016

By now, dear readers, you may have heard about the victory of the Delta 5, but in case you hadn't, here's a short review: In September 2014 five activists, Patrick Mazza, Mike LaPoint, Abby Brockway, Liz Spoerri and Jackie Minchew, entered the BNSF Delta railyard in Everett, Washington, and blocked an oil train with a tripod of steel rods to which they locked themselves. Motivated by frustration about the climate, workers safety and public health from the recklessness of the oil and railroad industries, they stayed on the tracks for eight hours before BNSF police arrested and charged them with trespassing and obstructing a train.

At their trial, during the first half of January 2016, they introduced the "necessity defense." They argued that their actions were not a crime because they were necessary to prevent a much greater harm, climate disruption and the immediate threat of oil train derailments, spills, and explosions.

To establish the necessity of their action the defense brought in expert witnesses to testify about the urgency of climate disruption, the danger from oil trains, railroad industry’s disregard for worker safety and the fact that pollution from trains is already killing people. Their testimony went largely unchallenged by the prosecution. Judge Anthony E Howard, who presided over the case, even expressed some sympathy for the activists, but at the end of the trial ruled that the jury would have to disregard these arguments because the defense had not sufficiently demonstrated that there was no other legal alternative to achieve the same ends. "Frankly the court is convinced that the defendants are far from the problem and are part of the solution to the problem of climate change," Howard said from the bench. But, he added: "I am bound by legal precedent, no matter what my personal beliefs might be." With those very narrow set of instructions, the jury returned with their verdict -- finding the Delta 5 guilty of trespassing, but not guilty of obstructing a train. The obstructing a train charge carried a potentially much more serious penalty.

After the trial was over and the Delta 5 and jury were released three of the six jurors came back into the courthouse, hugged the defendants, and sat with them and their supporters while they were sentenced by the judge.

While the ruling can still be appealed by BNSF, for now climate justice activists are celebrating the ruling as a partial victory, though not a resounding victory, because Judge Howard ruled out the possibility of using the "Neccessity Defense".

What's less talked about, however, is that this case represents another small victory, in this case (no pun intended) a victory for Green Unionism. During the blockade, Abby Brockway (shown in the accompanying image) sat atop a tripod which bore a sign which read: "Cut Oil Trains, Not Conductors - #Greens4Rails" which was in reference to a concurrent rank and file BNSF railroad workers' struggle (aided in large part by the organizers of Railroad Workers United (RWU)) to beat-back a concessionary contract proposal (detailed on ecology.iww.org) which would have allowed for the reduction in train-crew size from two to one employee. This was directly relevant to the Delta 5's blockade, because the latter were concerned about stopping any future disasters like the crude-by-rail train derailment which killed 47 people and devastated the Canadian town of Lac-Mégantic, in which an overworked and poorly trained Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway engineer, Tom Harding, had been the single employee on the train in question.

The rank and file railroad workers' fight against concessions succeeded. The Delta 5's soldiarity with railroad workers (in addition to support from many other enviornmental activists) sent a clear message that these climate justice activists do not blame railroad workers for the careless profiteering of the fossil fuel corporations or the railroad bosses, and see the workers as potential allies. Indeed, partly as a result of such overtures, BNSF whistleblower and railroad worker, Mike Elliot, testified at the trial of the Delta 5 on behalf of the defendants, and though his testimony was ultimately not allowed by the judge to be used as evidence, it still offers a glimpse of the potential strength that both the labor and environmental movements can bring to each other.

There's still much to be worked out in the case of railroad workers and climate justice activists opposed to crude-by-rail, including matters of railroad workers' working conditions and just transition. And far too many railroad workers believe the lies their bosses tell them about environmentalists being responsible for the current downturn in railroad work (which is primarily due to the crash of the shale oil boom and the economic meltdown currently unfolding in China, both of which are typical busts in the boom-bust cycle of the capitalist market). Some initial groundwork took place during three conferences organized by RWU and others last year, called "Railroad Safety: Workers, Community & the Environment". On the heels of the Delta 5 victory, there's no better time to think about continuing that work. An Injury to One is an Injury to All!

More Details about the Delta 5 Case:

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.