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Capital Blight - Aristocracy Forever

By x344543 - June 12, 2014

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.

When the union leaders' payoffs by the bosses has begun,
There will be no labor trouble anywhere beneath the sun,
For the AFL trade unions and the management are one,
The union keeps us down.

Aristocracy forever,
Aristocracy forever,
Aristocracy forever,

--lyrics excerpted from Aristocracy Forever, by Judi Bari

It happens far too often. Big corporate industrial polluters rape and pillage the Earth, whether by tar sands mining, fracking, mountaintop coal mining, offshore oil drilling, clearcut logging, and more. What's more, much of what they extract they export elsewhere, choosing to remove even the economic benefits of local production from the affected community. These corporations claim to be "good neighbors", but they suck up all the wealth (in the form of profits), and they outsource the costs to the community. And the workers who actually do the labor to produce all of this wealth? Not only are they not paid the full value of their labor, they're often the first to bear the brunt of the toxic pollution and chemical poisoning these companies create in their wake.

It's no wonder that time and time again we witness communities organizing and mobilizing opposition to this state of affairs, often assisted by environmental organizations of various types. What's curious, however, is how often the unions (if the workers in these facilities are fortunate enough to have union representation) defend the companies and even promote the companies' messages--even though it's ultimately not in the workers' interest to do so.

It happens again and again. Here are just a few recent examples:

  • In 2009, 15 unions, including the Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA) the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Building Construction Trade Department (BCTD) of the AFL-CIO, joined the pro-fracking, pro-Keystone XL "Oil and Natural Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee," billed as "the first time that the oil and natural gas industry and its labor unions have agreed to work together formally." - Frack Till You Drop
  • In Maryland, Richmond, Virgina based energy giant Dominion Resources Inc. has successfully pitted Sean McGarvey, the top officer of the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department and Vance Ayres, Secretary-Treasurer of the Washington, D.C. Building and Construction Trades Council against the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) over constuction of the Cove Point LNG export facility - Maryland's Keystone Pipeline Lite Reignites Green vs. Blue Fight
  • In Portland, Maine, the American Petroleum Institute (API) convinced the United Steelworkers Union Local to support their campaign against a waterfront protection ordinance ballot initiative that would have prevented the reconfiguring of an existing gas pipeline, reversing the flow allowing for oil and gas exports thus enabling the process of increased tar sands mining - Small Town Declares All-Out Offensive Against Tar Sands Port; Despite threats of legal action, South Portland, Maine vows to continue their fight against Big Oil in pipeline fight and Democracy Trampled as Big Money Overwhelms Grassroots Campaigns; In Washington and Maine, a flood of corporate cash swings popular opinion on key ballot issues
  • In Western Kentucky, Williams Company and Boardwalk Pipeline Partners who have been trying to construct the so-called "Bluegrass Pipeline" pitted members of various locals of the building trades unions against community opposition to the pipeline - Fracking Pipeline Stirs Controversy in Bluegrass State
  • The United Association of Plumbers, Fitters and HVAC Techs supports reforms that would speed up the federal LNG export-permitting process. Thanks in large part to this swell of pressure from the building trades, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka offered his broad support for gas exports for the first time in January 2014 - Frack Till You Drop
  • The Laborers' International Union of North America; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; North America's Building Trades Unions; the International Union of Operating Engineers; and the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada recently sent a joint letter to the US Senate urging that government body to move ahead with approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline - Unions raise heat on Senate to approve Keystone XL
  • Michael Theriault, Secretary-Treasurer of the San Francisco Building Trades has claimed that "Sierra Club has betrayed its mission and created new threats to the environment," because the environmental organization opposed Proposition B, the "Voter Approval for Waterfront Development Height Increases" measure - SF Building Trades Leader Attacks Sierra Club
  • UAW President Ron Gettelfinger has gone on record opposing electric cars--specifically the Chevy Volt--favoring the current gas guzzling technology "for economic reasons" - UAW Boss Gives Volt The Gettelfinger. The UAW also seems to have a strong preference for Corn Based Ethanol, which has proven to have no significant impact on reducing GHG emissions.
  • In San Francisco, IBEW Local 1245 (in the persona of union business rep, Hunter Stern, specifically) have allowed themselves to be spokespeople for PG&E in service of that corporation's attempts to convince the California state government to pass AB 2145, a law banning Community Choice Aggregations (CCA), which would allow municipalities to create public utility alternatives to the private capitalist monopolies. Most energy experts agree that allowing the private monopolies to remain in place severely limits the deployment of distributed renewable energy, because the latter hastens the death knell of the private utility model altogether - PG&E Answers Questions about Community Choice Aggregation
  • Unnamed union "leaders" (most likely officials from the local building trades council) cornered Carson, California city councilman Albert Robles on April 29, 2014, threatening to support competing candidates in the next election, literally reading from the propaganda talkimg points provided for them by the Western Petroleum States Association (WPSA), accusing those calling for that city to vote in favor of banning fracking of being "outsiders". The irony was that neither the labor union officials nor the representatives from WPSA live in Carson, but the vote to ban fracking lost.
  • Recently, when citizens of Benicia, California, attended a scoping hearing to oppose a plan by the Valero refinery to bring crude-by-rail into that facility (which, given all of the recent accidents involving crude-by-rail trains, is an understandible position to take), Valero mobilized members of the Ironworkers Union to show up en masse in support of the company. The company's and union's leaflets advocating in favor of crude by rail were essentially the same talking points.

Why Does this Keep Happening?

Obviously, the capitalist class knows that their power derives from the consent of the governed, and they can manufacture that consent by dividing and conquering what ought to be united constituencies. Certainly the capitalist press relishes in promoting the idea that environmentalism threatens workers' livelihoods, but is it really the case?

If one strips away the rhetoric and looks at the actual statistics, the answer is a resounding, "no!" Here are just a few numbers:

So what explains organized labor's willingness to swallow the lies and it their own throats? The answer is actually pretty simple, but some clarifications are necessary.

First of all, it's important to point out that generally speaking the opinions being credited to the unions are actually primarily those of the ostensibly elected union bureaucrats, who're often not necessarily representative of the membership's actual consensus.

Sometimes the union leadership will side with the employers--even going to the extent of joining forces with anti-ecological fake astroturf front groups"--in opposing ecological matters, ostensibly for the sake of "jobs", even though these astroturf groups would be the first to cross a picket line given the chance. Former union mill worker and environmental activist, Gene Lawhorn, describes how this process happened in the timber industry during a nasty and bitter strike in the Pacific Northwest between 1987-89:

I got hired by Roseburg Forest Products and relocated to Sutherlin. After eight months on the job I got my third experience of the caring benevolence of the timber industry towards workers when we were forced to go on strike to keep from taking wage cuts amounting $1.50 an hour. In a four month long (and very bitter) strike we ended up taking a $0.60 wage cut (lost) three (paid) holidays, Sunday overtime, and lost vacation time.

It was during the strike that I started to become vocal about environmental issues when I took notice all the cars and trucks that crossed my picket line had one thing in common. They all were displaying the yellow timber industry support ribbon. To many of us who stood on the picket line the yellow ribbon became a symbol of the scabs and the timber industry greed. Even today—a year after the strike—only a small handful of RFP workers will display the yellow ribbon.

The strike became a real eye opener for me, so I began to study the environmental issues. The more I learned the more frightened and concerned I became. The poisoning of the rivers, lakes, and oceans; the pollution of the atmosphere, depletion of the ozone layer, the advancing of the greenhouse effect, and the rape and plunder of the world’s ancient rainforest all alarmed me, and I began to see that all these things are tied to the profit motive mentality which cut our wages. I became fully aware that workers and environmentalists have more in common than workers and employers. For the sake of the great and holy profit motive of laissez faire capitalism workers and the environment are both being exploited beyond their means to cope, especially in third world developing nations.

Unfortunately our labor union leaders have chosen to openly join forces with the timber industry. The ink was barely dry on our ignominious contract when the leadership of the two woods working unions and the two paper working unions along with the longshoreman’s formed a coalition with the timber industry to fight environmentalists’ efforts to get the spotted owl designated as an endangered species, and environmentalists’ rights to appeal timber sales in court. Then the leadership called the organization grassroots. They held a timber-labor rally in Salem on September 8th, which less than 500 showed up. The leadership estimated that 5,000 would show up because the timber industry and the paper industry was giving anyone a day off to attend. Two days before the rally I and a couple of co-workers called a press conference, we denounced the timber-labor coalition as a sellout to workers who just took pay cuts, and asked workers to boycott the rally. The timber-labor coalition caused a lot of bad feeling towards our local leadership within the plant I work at and many other RFP plants.

Secondly, most of the unions listed above are part of the building trades who're notoriously conservative, corrupt, and undemocratic.

John Reimann, a former member of the Carpenters' Union, who was expelled in part due to his efforts to lead a rank and file wildcat strike in 1999 offers his perspective on the anti-ecological nature of the building trades' unions:

As part of their “partnership” with the contractors and developers, the UBC has lead the way in opposing any environmental restrictions in construction, so long as the work is likely to go to a unionized contractors. Occasionally, the UBC leadership will hypocritically join forces with some environmental or community group in opposing construction of a building project...if the proposed contractor is non-union.

Some years ago, residents of (overwhelmingly black) West Oakland joined forces with environmental groups to push the Oakland City Council to partially limit the amount of dioxin (a powerful cancer-causing chemical waste product) into the San Francisco Bay. West Oakland residents were especially concerned because much of the soil in the area is contaminated by chemicals.

On the night of the hearing a representative of the carpenters union appeared to speak. He sought in every way he could to weaken this already-weak initiative. His reason? He was sent there by the International because some paper mills, signed to Carpenter Union contracts, produced dioxin as a waste product and they sent this poison downriver into the Bay. The UBC, you see, was helping protect “jobs for the members” – in reality protecting the profits of the signatory companies.

Who cares if some residents' children have birth defects or they get asthma or cancer? Profits and free markets come first!

The Association for Union Democracy (AUD) has campaigned against the anti democratic nature of and for democracy and transparency within the building trades for decades now, often to the point of frustration.

Part of the challenge in doing so is overcoming the joint union-management gatekeepers that screen potential members in the first place. Usually an individual building trade worker must pass a review before a JATC (joint apprenticeship training council) composed of an equal number of employer and union representatives, the latter of which are preconditioned to collaborate with management from the get-go, thus ensuring "labor peace".

The employing class has gone to great lengths to keep the building trades reigned in, because real estate speculation and the development that goes with it is an essential part of the capitalist economy. It won't do to have the people who do the actual work "standing in the way of progress", so anti capitalist dissident tendencies are systematically nipped in the bud, thus ensuring that the building trades are especially conservative.

Thirdly, whenever the narrative of "jobs" versus "the environment" is raised, the actual truth makes much more sense when one substitutes the word "profits" in place of "jobs".

In fact, most studies show that the lack of environmental standards actually costs jobs (but does result in higher profits for the employer).

A good example of this is the timber industry in the Pacific Northwest. Ever since the environmental movement began calling for restrictions on logging, the timber companies have claimed that these have been responsible for the loss of timber jobs. It's true that the number of timber jobs did decline in this region substantially, beginning in the 1960s, just as the forest preservation movement began to really take off, but in actual fact, the biggest causes of declining timber jobs were automation, raw-log exports, union busting, outsourcing (to competitive, cut-rate, contract logging firms), and depletion of quality standing timber due to over-cutting.

In other words, environmentalist forest preservation efforts had nothing to do with the loss of timber jobs in the Pacific Northwest and--if anything--has probably kept the loss in jobs from actually being worse than they could have been!

Yet, the timber industry has been very effective at controlling the dialog such that the (false) notion that environmental standards and regulations cost jobs has become a notion that many people, including some environmentalists, actually believe to be true!

In many examples, however, the issue isn't the loss of existing jobs, it's the ever hoped for promise of new jobs that entices union spokespeople to go along with the pro-development/pro-extraction rhetoric.

This is no doubt fueled by the desperation many mainstream unions feel due to the long term decline in the density of union jobs (the ratio of union to nonunion jobs). As the US capitalist class has outsourced production to other nations (whose labor and environmental standards are the cheapest and most lax if the capitalists can manage it).

Capital's Control Over Mainstream Labor isn't Unbreakable

In spite of all of the examples of the mainstream unions supporting the employing class in the latter's efforts to profit from environmentally destructive practices, there are times when mainstream unions do challenge the employers.

Evidently, organized labor is not inherently anti-ecological.

Solidarity is the First Step

So how can rank and file community members, environmental activists, and workers build bridges in spits of the attempts by the capitalist corporations to divide and conquer?

First of all, know who the real enemy is. The enemy isn't the workers--even those that support the environment destroying act--it's the capitalist class forces that engage in the act themselves. The workers are often forced, by economic necessity to take whatever job they can, whether they like it or not, whether they agree with how it's done or not.

Secondly, know the issue thoroughly and the ramifications of the contested area deeply, and not just from a superficially "green" angle. Know how the dispute affects the immediate environment, yes, but also know the effects on a macro-scale. Know how it affects economic and political issues on a local as well as regional scale. Chances are very good, in most cases, that there is a lot of common opposition to the resource extracting/manufacturing/exporting corporation that can bring seemingly disparate forces together.

Thirdly, if the workers are represented by a union at all, chances are good that the union represents those workers quite poorly and undemocratically. It may be possible to cultivate relationships with rank and file dissidents who're sympathetic to the ecological concerns of the opposition and it's certainly possible to organize solidarity with the workers' struggles against the company, and--if it sides with management--the union officialdom, as Judi Bari did in northwestern California did between 1988-97.

Fourthly, environmental activists need to be proactive at showing solidarity for workers issues that also have ecological components, even if it's not directly related to an immediate campaign, because it builds solidarity. A good example of this is environmentalists supporting public transit workers involved in labor disputes. Public transit is almost always part of the solution to various ecological problems, including global warming, energy consumption, sprawl, encroachment of urban landscapes on rural areas and wilderness habitat, and more. Transit workers make these solutions possible and they deserve dignity and good working conditions.

Fifth, look for common adversaries. For example:

  • The Railroad and Fossil Fuel industries are doing what they can to oppose stricter regulations on crude-by-rail as well as undermining the working conditions of railroad workers. There are many areas of potential common interest between railroad workers and environmental activists.
  • Another common adversary should be the forces that promote privatization
  • One of the most powerful forces behind promoting fracking, denying that climate change is real, and fighting renewable energy--the Koch Brothers--are the very same who're one of the primary movers and shakjers behind the virulently anti-union National Right to Work Foundation. Certainly environmental activists and community members opposing polluting industies can unite with workers behind opposing this corporate godzilla.

All of these steps can counteract the employers' manipulation of union workers for their own, greedy purposes, but these only go so far.

Capitalism Cannot be Reformed

Ultimately, the root of the problem will have to be addressed, and that is capitalism. As I stated in a previous "Capital Blight" opinion piece, capitalism is inherently anti-ecological:

According to anarchist Gary Elkin, Capitalism cannot be reconciled with the environment due to the problem of externalities, the outsourcing of social costs to the nonprofit gaining masses not part of the capitalist class, which includes all non human species and the ecosphere itself.

Capitalism also cannot be reconciled with these four principles identified by ecosocialist Barry Commoner:

  • Everything is connected to everything else,
  • Everything must go somewhere,
  • Nature knows best, and
  • Nothing comes from nothing.

Finally, in her seminal text, Revolutionary Ecology, Judi Bari pointed out that capitalism depends on profit which--going beyond Marx--is not solely the uncompensated "surplus" labor of the workers, but wealth taken from the Earth and not replenished through natural cycles.

And, as Canadian jurnalist and union activist, Gary Engler, explains in the following video, the unions that most stridently oppose ecological measures are those most beholden to capitalism:

Not only do mainstream "business" unions side with the boss in matters of environmental concern, various unions will side with the boss, passively--and sometimes even actively--when they ought to be supporting their fellow union members! Consider, for example, the recent Transport Workers Union Local 250-A San Francisco Muni bus drivers' "sick out", in which other transit unions and the San Francisco Central Labor Council have chosen to remain mostly silent instead of actively organizing public support or solidarity for the Muni drivers, thus making it much easier for the employing class to foment public opinion against the union and in support of the greedy bosses!

The mainstream unions are therefore incapable of living in harmony with the Earth unless they break with capitalism, but as they're currently structured, those unions are not capable of breaking with capital, so (even though I am not a Leninist, I must ask) what is to be done?

For one thing, environmentalists themselves are as much to blame as the mainstream, "business" unions at furthering the attacks on the environment, as long as they refuse to break with capitalism. AS Judi Bari once said:

One compromise made by a white-collar Sierra Club professional can destroy more trees than a logger can cut in a lifetime.

And there are a great many big environmental NGO's willing to make compromises with corporate polluters.

Environmentalists, unionists, and community activists must therefore embrace anti-capitalism, and they must address the point of production. Environmental organizations--at least locally controlled, grassroots organizations, can help, but ultimately the focal point of class struggle must be tkane up by the workers themselves, and that must be done by revolutionary unions, like the IWW, the CNT, SAC, FAU, and others. The mainstream unions, as they're currently structured and organized simply cannot do it.

However, revolutionary unions will be mostly unable to raid the bargaining units of existing mainstream unions, and unlikely to succeed if they try taking over the leadership of such unions. These strategies have been tried for over a century by commuists, socialists, and even anarchists of various stripes, and almost always have failed miserably.

The revolutionary unions can take some comfort in the fact that the vast majority of the workforce of the world remains unorganized, and addressing that constituency is a good place to start in addressing class struggle in general, but it doesn't address the fact that a good many key extractive and supporting industries are unionized, and the bosses will certainly try to use the officials of such unions to sheppard their rank and file workers into opposing grassroots community opposition to their efforts, even if the "first steps" are taken, but fortunately, there are ways around even that challenge.

Revolutionary unions, like the IWW, allow their members to simultaneously belong to mainstream unions; it's a process known as "dual-carding". The effective strategy is for dual card embers of such organizations to organize the rank and file of their mainstream unions from within as if they're organizing a whole new union, using the solidarity unionism tactics of the IWW if necessary to build actually existing, functioning Industrial Unions, just as the IWW proposes in their "how to" guide, One Big Union. Even if it isn't ultimately the IWW that winds up being this organization, it will have to be an organization like the IWW that abolishes wage slavery so we can ultimately live in harmony with the Earth. That is why we created the IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus: to articulate that message and explain how it can be done.

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