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Capital Blight: It's Past Time to Get Off the Coal Train.

By Steve Ongerth - April 24, 2013

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.

A recent debate took place on my personal Facebook page regarding the matter of jobs and the environment, and there is little doubt that it will not be the last.

As you may (or may not) be aware, I have been combing various environmental and labor news sources for stories about campaigns where class struggle and environmentalism have some degree of intersection (or conflict, though the latter is almost always manufactured vy the capitalist class). Most of these I have been posting on the new IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus Facebook Page, but since much of that happens while the only means of information transfer is a smart phone, so often, due to the limitations of smartphone apps, I have to engage in some klunky work-arounds, and sometimes that means that certain bits of information wind up on my personal page first, but I digress...

Last week, I happened upon a statement from a BLET engineer downplaying the dangers of coal dust drifting from coal trains passing through the southern part of the Seattle metropolitan area, and I immediately regarded this as the thoughts of a scissorbill and I said as much. That statement drew a response from another individual, a Facebook "friend" (a former Wobbly turned low-level ILWU leader, by the way), telling me that the coal dust issue was overstated, that the Sierra Club--who was leading the opposition to coal trains there--was hypocritical (due to the latter's having accepted donations from capitalist Natural Gas interests), and that I was insufficiently "solidaric" with my (business) union brothers and sisters. He informed me that the Sierra Club was only canvassing well-to-do neighborhoods in the area and completely ignoring those working class neighborhoods closest to the potential route, which--by the way--had far more immediate and far more serious environmental issues.

Since I am a transportation worker by trade (I'm a ferryboat deckhand, iu510 you know), I figured I might have fired before aiming, so I decided to dig a little further (pun not intended) and see just what was up.

I needn't have held my fire.

My sources in Railroad Workers United, some of whom are Wobblies, tell me that this union brother's opinion doesn't reflect their own, and probably doesn't even reflect the opinion of most union rail workers, and that is a hopeful sign.

Furthermore, I know full well, that the whole "jobs versus the environment" argument is a red herring, a lie perpetuated by the capitalist class to divide and conquer differing elements of the working class to keep them from uniting and addressing the actual threat to both job security--essentially seen as a road to human prosperity--and the environment--upon which we humans, not to mention the other 99.9999999-plus percent of all life depends.

This makes sense, if course, since creating divisions among the working class is just one of many ways that the capitalist class privatizes (i.e. concentrates and hoards) the wealth if the world and socializes (i.e. outsources to the working class and the planet) the costs, including strife and conflict.

If one probes deeply enough--though often, one needn't probe very far at all--almost all "environmental protections and/or clean technology costs jobs and negatively impacts the economy" arguments fall completely to smithereens. This particular case represents no exception.

Indeed study after study shows that renewable energy, clean technology, and sustainable (meaning really sustainable, rather than the greenwashed definitions of sustainable as defined by resource extracting capitalists) creates far more permanent and better paying jobs for the greatest number of people than boom and bust, unsustainable, extraction intense enterprises. Knowing this, it's very troubling to hear union workers parroting capitalist rhetoric, particularly on this issue.

Yes, it's true that the Sierra Club has taken donations from the fossil fuel industry, as documented here and here.

It's entirely likely that the Sierra Club is overstating the dangers of coal dust drifting from passing trains or only canvassing in wealthy neighborhoods as described above.

Yes, it's true the coal trains do provide jobs, usually good paying union jobs.

Yes, it's also true that a new coal export terminal could potentially create more good paying, union dock and tug jobs, however:

It's abundantly clear that the export of coal will result in continued use if the resource for fuel (when non fossil fuel alternatives already exist) and increased global warming.

It's also clear that increased rail transportation of both freight and passengers is the wave of the future, and will result in many more good union jobs, even if coal and tar sands are eliminated altogether.

And even if the Sierra Club is wrong to focus on coal dust drifting off of the backs of coal trains and promote natural gas, they are 100% right to protest coal exports.

Finally, given the recent push by EGT to violate the ILWU's Pacific Coast's jurisdiction with the construction if a new grain terminal in the Port of Longview, Washington, and the recent attempt by G-P (owned by the Koch brothers) to bust the IBU, there's absolutely no guarantee that the coal export terminal jobs will be union jobs either, let alone good jobs!

On the other hand, there are plenty of potential jobs to be had in the rail industry merely from increased passenger and freight traffic of non fossil fuel cargo. There are plenty of potential jobs that can be created by the widespread implementation of renewable energy. All of these jobs ought to be union, and a good number of them will be skilled jobs.

The fact that the business unions cannot, or more likely choose not to recognize this reality is a clear indication that they are too closely tied to the capitalist system. For the bureaucrats, this inevitable; the business unions have long been the junior partners in the system, due to a Faustian bargain they made long ago.

For the rank and file, however, there's an alternative. They needn't buy into the capitalist myth that unfettered resource extraction is the only road to prosperity. They needn't swallow the lie that an environmentally balanced society requires an austere hair-shirt existence.

The brother from the BLET can and should get on board a different train.

They could call for the railroads to increase the amount of maintenance performed on existing railroad lines and rolling stock.

They could call for restoring the five person train crews that have been reduced to two (and sometimes only one) in the past half century.

They could call for increased use of freight and passenger rail as a replacement for long distance trucking and private automobile use, thus resulting in more jobs and reduced carbon footprints.

They could call for the electrification of the railroads in the US, which would also create jobs and reduce our collective carbon footprint.

They could campaign for greatly expanded public transit.

The rank and file railroad workers would have a lot of allies, including a vast and growing climate action movement, environmentalists, mass transit advocates, not to mention other workers.

There would not only be support for such action in Seattle, but Western Montana as well, where an unlikely coalition of opposition to a proposed new BNSF rail line along the Tongue River planned specifically for transporting coal for exports to Asia is arising composed of environmental activists, indigenous peoples, and private ranchers. The last group is not usually known for partnering with progressive movements. Think of the transformative power of that movement if the rank and file union members join in!

Considering the systemic attack that unions have been under at the hands of the capitalist class, it is suicidal to continue and partner with it and stand on the wrong side of history.

The future looks bright for rail transport, and renewable energy. It does not look bright for coal or tar sands. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that fossil fuels represent the next financial bubble, set to burst a lot sooner than most people realize. The boom-and-bust cycle, yet another inglorious feature of capitalism, ought to be the final nail in the coffin of the mythical coal gravy train. It's long past time to get off of it fellow workers, because it won't exist much longer.

Indeed, we should call out the Sierra Club and other mainstream enviros for their alignment with capitalism, if nothing else, because there is no such thing as "green" capitalism. The very process of capitalism, the privatization of resources and the outsourcing of costs, inevitably shifts the burden of pollution and mortgaged energy usage away from the capitalist class and onto the backs of the workers and the Earth.

Meanwhile, there really is little hope for the business unions. They, too, have long since hitched their train to the wrong engine, and they are headed for a cliff might fast, and we all know that Casey Jones is gonna keep that junk pile rollin'.

Fortunately, there is an alternative, and that's those of us here in the One Big Union, and we submit that there is no conflict between a healthy environment and a good life, and indeed, we believe that you cannot have one without the other. It's time to take a different train. It's waiting for you at the station. Jump aboard today!

Find out more at An injury to one is an injury to all, and there are no jobs on a dead planet!

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