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An Open Letter to my Fellow Railroad Workers

By Jen Wallis - Railroad Workers United, September 4, 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. The author wants to make it clear that her views are not necessarily those of her union, Railroad Workers United, or the members of either.

Dear fellow rails:

On Tuesday, September 2, 2014, five residents of Seattle and Everett working with Rising Tide Seattle, stopped work at a Burlington Northern Santa-Fe Rail Yard in Everett by erecting a tripod-structure on the outbound railroad tracks, directly in front of a mile-long oil train.

Just to be clear, I had nothing to do with the action. Direct actions are the result of affinity groups, who plan these things completely amongst themselves within their own organizations. All I did was share the message of how dangerous one-person crews would be. I'm thrilled that they listened, but I'm actually opposed to most formal coalitions. All of the ones I've been involved with have ended by either imploding because of the hostile factions they inevitably splintered into, or became appropriated by the bureaucrats. I'm more inclined to simply keep lines of communication open between our respective movements, but personally it goes much deeper than that.

Every age has their growing pains. Growing as a society means that those who advocate social or economic change are invariably encumbered with a lot of “isms” or “ists” for their beliefs. More than 100 years ago, and for centuries before that, it was not universally accepted that slavery was wrong. If you believed that it was, you were labelled a “abolitionist”, along with the other colorful labels that went with it. If you helped slaves gain their freedom, you went to jail. Now it is universally accepted that enslaving people is wrong.

100 years ago, it was not universally accepted that women should have the right to vote. If you believed that women had the right to vote, you were called a “suffragist”, along with all of the labels and misconceptions that went along with it. Believing in it often landed you in jail. It was a controversial opinion to be held in that era, but in America, it is now universally accepted.

Just 50 years ago, if you believed that Jim Crow laws were wrong, you were called a “civil rights activist”, along with all of the horrible names that went along with that. If you believed that segregation was wrong, you often went to jail. Now at least it is not directly advocated, though we still have a ways to go.

All of these changes, which are now universally accepted as truths, came about as the result of numerous acts of non-violent civil disobedience and direct actions. The actual legislation came about much later as the result of public pressure.

Climate change is not a myth. It is scientifically proven, and many of the effects of the causes we have made in the last 30 years are irreversible. We have the opportunity to stop the destruction, but we are well past the time to act on it. It’s upon us right now. It is our obligation to our children and their children’s children to stand up and say, “Enough! This is no longer sustainable for our planet!”.

I am a firm believer in “deep ecology”, which means that I believe in the rights of plants, animals, our land, water, forests, and air to exist without any justification required for their existence. Now apparently this makes me an “environmentalist”, along with all of the prejudices and misconceptions that go along with it. I do believe, however, that we have the capacity for preserving our planet and caring for it as the stewards we should be, and not because we are "environmentalists", but because we are human beings who have to live here. I believe that we have the ability to look beyond our short-term gains and focus on the big picture. It will have to be universally accepted, because if it’s not, we will simply cease to exist. We will have given up that right. The earth will endure, but we will not, and maybe that’s how it has to be. I, for one, will not give up without a fight. I’m not afraid of criticism and ridicule any more than the abolitionists or suffragists or civil rights activists were. Like them, I realize how important it is to keep your “eyes on the prize”

I’m not going to wait around until it’s “cool” to be a trade unionist who believes in taking care of our planet first and foremost. I don’t know how much time I have left here in this life, but even if I go tomorrow I’ll know that at least I tried as much as a person can do with their one little voice.

Incidentally, it is fairly acceptable to have this opinion in other industrialized countries. In Canada, for example, the bitumen workers in Canada are against long-term tar sands extraction and the building of the Keystone XL pipeline.

"We're diametrically opposed to the construction of it," said David Coles, president of the Communications, Energy and Paper workers Union of Canada (CEP), which represents 35,000 Canadian oil and gas workers, including thousands laboring in the country's tar sands. "The Keystone XL is not good for the economy, it's not good for the environment, it violates all kinds of First Nations rights."

Coles says the union also opposes "the unfettered expansion" of tar sands extraction, saying "it's not in the best interest of Canada and it's not in the best interest of our members." Coles and members of his staff were arrested in 2011 during a series of sit-ins in front of the White House to protest the pipeline. He says the CEP planned to send a delegation to subsequent rallies opposing the project, but called off plans after U.S. construction unions threatened to picket them.

I had the honor of meeting David Coles and attending his workshop at the Labor Notes conference. He spoke about alliance building with Indigenous Tribes and the Nurse’s Union, who backed his opposition with concrete evidence of how dangerous the expansion of fossil fuels would be for their country. It gave me hope for our own labor movement.

Knowing the difference between right and wrong is difficult to quantify. There is some esoteric place that you have to reach down into, and maybe that requires doing some due diligence and researching why an issue is so important to other people. Maybe you have to start with the people willing to lay their lives for a cause to wrap your head around why an issue is so important. Ultimately, you really just know when something isn’t right. The concentration of the world’s wealth in the hands of a few; the few who get to control all of our collective resources and benefit from them completely with no input from us just feels wrong, doesn’t it? I don’t have an answer to this giant problem, but I believe that getting the labor movement more engaged is incredibly important. Their wealth is completely derived from our toil. Of course we should be involved.

If nothing else, we should be involved, because the same people who think nothing of profit off of the warming of our planet and the polluting of our air are the very same who want to undermine and take away our unions. That sounds like reason enough for me to join forces with our sisters and brothers in the green movement.

The Fine Print I:

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