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More Green versus Yellow Unionism in Oakland

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, June 26, 2016

Author's note: this article is an update to an earlier piece, titled Green versus Yellow Unionism in Oakland.

Update: The City of Oakland voted 7-0, with one member absent, to ban coal handling, storage, and exports in the Port of Oakland on Monday, June 27, 2016. Over 50 union members supporting the ban on coal were present, and many spke in favor of the ban.

As the No Coal in Oakland campaign comes to its climax, a vote by the Oakland City Council on whether or not to ban the storage and handling of coal exports (originating from coal mined in Utah) through the Port of Oakland, the developers who had hoped to sneak this plan through unnoticed by all, are pulling out all of the stops to try and salvage their failing schemes that have, thus far, blown up in their faces.

(Rather than recap all of the numerous details of this campaign here, readers are encouraged to visit the official No Coal in Oakland site as well as the No Coal in Oakland archives, maintained by members of the Sunflower Alliance, one of the No Coal in Oakland coalition members.)

One of the persistent lies, regurgitated again and again by the developers, is the claim that those of us who oppose coal exports are anti-jobs, anti-worker, and anti-union. This is complete nonsense.

For the record, many of the principal organizers with No Coal in Oakland are current or retired union members themselves. Additionally, a total of twenty-one Bay Area unions have gone on record opposing coal exports through this proposed facility (but these same unions are not opposed to an export terminal itself, or the exports of non-fossil fuel commodities, of which there are several tens of thousand potential options, all of which would create just as many jobs, if not more so, than coal exports).

These 21 unions include two unions to which this author belongs (the Bay Area General Membership Branch of the IWW and the San Francisco Region of the Inland Boatman's Union (IBU), an affiliate of the ILWU).

They also include unions representing workers in the port of Oakland, including the aforementioned IBU as well as ILWU Locals 6, 10, and 34, and SEIU 1021. (For a complete list of those that have pledged their opposition to coal exports, see this page, but note that some of the unions are listed in categories other than "Labor Unions"), and many more.

Furthermore, in September of 2015, the Alameda County Central Labor Council passed a resolution opposing coal exports.

Various union members and officials--in coalition with residents, environmentalists, public health providers, faith leaders, community leaders, small business owners, educators, and students--have spoken out against coal at City Council meeting after City Council meeting. They've lead canvassing efforts to raise awareness about the environmental and public health dangers of coal among Oakland's neighborhoods. They've organized several events to drum up support for the No Coal campaign, including a very successful and well attended picnic and community forum at a neighborhood park on May 21, 2016.

The coalition has demonstrated its dedication to intersectionality by supporting Black Lives Matter, the Anti-displacement coalition, and the Fight For $15 campaigns. The No Coal in Oakland campaign is composed predominantly of working people and working class retirees (though there are some small business people involved in the campaign as well). The coalition members share a commitment to a clean, livable, affordable, multi-ethnic and inclusive Oakland with good paying union jobs.

In fact, the No Coal in Oakland campaign has been nothing short of exemplary in the matter of green unionism.

It is the height of hypocrisy and cynicism for the project developers to claim that the No Coal in Oakland campaign is anti-jobs.

Meanwhile, the supposed "union" and "worker" support for coal exports, in classic yellow unionism fashion, is nothing more than an astroturf front group for the capitalist developers profiteering ambitions. The few unions whose officials support the project (namely the Teamsters and Building Trades) are hardly bastions of democratic, rank and file driven unionism. The Teamsters remain highly divided, with the local leadership (which is largely aligned with Jimmy Hoffa Jr's faction) opposed by a sizable Teamsters for a Democratic Union opposition faction (though this faction has not taken a stand on the matter of coal).

As detailed in the previous installment in this series, Green versus Yellow Unionism in Oakland, the developer has already attempted to create the illusion of grassroots rank and file union member "support" (mostly from non-English speaking Laborers' Union members) for coal exports at a City Council meeting on September 21, 2015, timed deliberately to undermine the Alameda County Central Labor Council's resolution against coal exports, but the attempt failed miserably, as the rank and file workers admitted to the assembled media reporters that they were being used. (The pro-coal developers later also tried the same stunt with a small group of faith leaders--who, as it turns out, has essentially taken bribes from the developer to support coal exports--when a much larger group of faith leaders spoke out against coal).

None of the developer's subterfuge should be surprising, given the amount of dirt and conflicts of interest the No Coal in Oakland campaign has been able to dig up--including the fact that the developer has a direct financial connection to Bowie Resources, the (non union) mining company that will be extracting the coal in the first place, or that California Governor Jerry Brown, himself, has a deeply entwined financial relationship with Phil Tagami, the speculator driving this project. (again, for the sake of brevity, all of these details are left to the readers to explore for themselves on the No Coal in Oakland site).

Furthermore, it's not surprising that the developer is still trying to create the illusion of community and worker support for coal exports.

Just days before the writing of this article, Ms. Margaret Gordon, of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators' Project (another member of the coalition), received the following email message from a supporter of the No Coal campaign:

I bet the (June 27, 2016) council meeting is going to be heated. Over the weekend I saw (unspecified) labor unions using youth to picket the Lake Merit area with pro coal signs. They were promoting $60/ hour jobs and challenging the notion coal dust was harmful.

In all likelihood this union is one of the building trades, if it's actually even a union at all (given the developer's repeated demonstrations of dishonesty), however further investigation by one No Coal in Oakland coalition organizer revealed this "support" to be a sham as well!

I talked to the people holding the signs for coal. They were not in agreement with what their signs said, at least 3 out f the 4 I talked with said they didn't understand why it was a choice between coal and jobs, and why couldn't they ship (or do) something else. One person was a mother of three and spoke a lot about how we shouldn't be putting her kids health at risk for a job, that they always do things like this to this community. One young guy, when I asked him about the sign he was holding, said, 'wait, let me read this, I haven't even read it. I asked them why they were out here', and they said, 'it was through a city council member, a lady whose name (they) couldn't remember, but she was Asian.' Not sure who that person was that they were referring to. Anyway, others I heard talking felt like they were convinced to oppose coal by the strangeness of these sign holders without passion. It just seemed very manipulated. Not to say it won't be a heated meeting, just wanted to put out what I saw at Lake Merritt...

Given the fact that none of the current members of the Oakland City Council are Asian women, this raises still further suspicion, and the aforementioned organizer's account was further corroborated by the account of two more organizers' own experience, which they described thus:

(We) had the same conversations near the Grand Lake farmers’ markets. Several of the people holding signs were strongly against coal and seemed to think that the picketing was against coal as well as for rent control and higher paying jobs. One young man agreed to add the No Coal yard sign to his picket sign and held it up for traffic for a while at least. A woman told us her mother suffered from COPD and she was against coal. Took our leaflet. The pro-coal forces haven’t given up but they have built their real and apparent support on lies. Yes, there will be a lot of nonsense on Monday, but I think it will be transparent to the Council and the media. (emphasis added).

One can only hope. The stakes surrounding this decision are very high. Global Warming continues to worsen daily, and it's clear that the world must transition away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Coal is declining as a commodity due to numerous factors, including a recession in China (one of the potential export markets for the developer's hoped-for coal shipments), a glut of cheap natural gas (no thanks to fracking), the crash in oil prices (which have had a negative effect on commodities across the board), opposition to coal mining and shipments around the globe, and the substantially much more rapid than expected transition to carbon-free energy generation which continues to accelerate (though not yet quickly enough to blunt the acceleration in global warming and GHG emissions). Although the COP21 accords are largely a feel-good greenwashing attempt by the capitalist powers that be to try and create the illusion of action on global warming, many nations and communities are nevertheless taking that as a signal that a global transition away from fossil fuels must occur post haste. Major financial institutions and banks are even refusing to finance new coal development (whether mines or coal power generation facilities), and as a result, the coal barons are facing or have begun to declare bankruptcy. The risks of their "assets" becoming "stranded" grows by the minute and it is likely this stark reality that created the impetus for the coal export proposal initially as well as the developer's continued attempts at subterfuge.

As has been detailed previously, the claims that the jobs to be created by the Oakland Bulk and Oversized exports Terminal (OBOT) depend on shipments of coal are lies. The claims that there is a division between union workers and the community opposition to coal exports are also lies. Therefore, if the reader should happen to attend the special Oakland City Council meeting on the issue of coal exports, or hear about it later and they witness or hear of workers supporting coals, remember, that too is a lie, a lie created in service of capitalist profiteering and a desperate attempt by the coal industry to hold on to their dying empire. Don't believe the hype.

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.