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Sierra Club and Sunrise Movement react to criticism for toxic workplace cultures

By Adam Mahoney - Grist, August 24, 2021

In a summer dictated by converging climate disasters, two of the nation’s largest progressive climate organizations have been preoccupied with their own crises.

Both the Sierra Club and the Sunrise Movement face criticism for workplace cultures that attempted to cover up episodes of racism and abuse, while the Sierra Club is also facing allegations of repressing acts of misogyny and sexual misconduct. The Sierra Club is facing internal upheaval after a former staff member came forward with allegations of being raped by a “celebrated” Sierra Club employee in the summer of 2020. Meanwhile, the Sunrise Movement, known for its diversity and pivot away from the historically majority-white climate movement, is facing allegations of “tokenizing” its members of color for political advantage. 

The fallout comes at a critical time in their fight against climate-induced disasters and the fossil fuel industry. As leaders in the struggle for environmental justice — which inherently involves defending women and communities of color — their efforts may be thwarted by not supporting these vulnerable groups within their respective organizations. Both groups, aware of the bad optics, are trying to react swiftly.

Earlier this month, Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, which is the largest environmental organization in the U.S., announced his resignation. Sierra Club President Ramon Cruz says the organizational shake-up is part of a years-long process to re-examine how the organization affects its community. “We recognize the impacts of our organization’s history and harm, and we are deeply dedicated to fundamental transformation,” Cruz told Grist. “We are making substantial changes to our policies and committing substantial resources to much needed capacity, and we know that the trajectory for transformation will be a long one.”

Sierra Club Executive Director Resigns Amid Upheaval Around Race, Gender, and Abuses

By Alleen Brown - The Intercept, August 19, 2021

During a summer of extreme heat, wildfires, and floods, the largest environmental organization in the U.S. announced last Friday that its executive director will step down, effective at the end of the year. The resignation of Michael Brune, the head of the Sierra Club, comes amid the fallout of an internal report, the executive summary recommendations of which were obtained by The Intercept, that describes an organizational crisis likely to upend the Club’s volunteer-led structure.

The internal reckoning around race, gender, and sexual as well as other abuse allegations coincided with a more public confrontation with the legacy of the Sierra Club’s once-revered founder John Muir, who expressed racist sentiments and traveled in circles that included eugenicists. Following the racial justice uprisings during the summer of 2020, the Sierra Club disavowed Muir. At the same time, discontent was brewing inside the organization over less symbolic issues, leading to the internal report.

The report, prepared for the Sierra Club by the consulting firm Ramona Strategies, describes a series of recommendations developed as part of a “restorative accountability process,” based on dozens of interviews and hundreds of pages of documentation. The sharply worded executive summary describes how the organization of nearly 900 staff members fostered a culture lacking accountability for abuse and misconduct, especially when it came from the Club’s 4,000 volunteers, some of whom act as managers for the organization’s employees. The report, which was commissioned after a volunteer leader was publicly accused of rape, underlined that employees and volunteers from historically marginalized groups were most vulnerable to abusive behavior.

Simple Solutions Can Safeguard Against Catastrophic Train Events

By Staff - Sierra Club Illinois Chapter, August 10, 2021

“Just because an industry can do something doesn't mean an industry should be doing it!” says Fritz Edler, a veteran railroader and railroad safety activist based in Washington, D.C.

Edler should know: He has broad knowledge about infrastructure, energy, environmental impact, and economics for heavy (freight) and light (passenger) rail in national and international contexts. He also headed the international defense effort for rail workers who were scapegoated after the horrific 2013 Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, volatile oil train wreck.

A special guest at La Coalition's campaign planning meeting in August, Edler shared insights on what the public can do to safeguard against catastrophic train events:

  1. Oppose precision scheduled railroading (PSR). PSR jeopardizes engineer and public safety by encouraging risky industry decision-making and focusing exclusively on lowering the operating ratio to satisfy Wall Street and hedge fund investors. PSR is now the subject of Congressional inquiries. 
  2. Demand sane scheduling and uninterrupted rest time. This will mitigate out-of-control crew fatigue. 
  3. Oppose longer trains. Technological advances allow the operation of longer and heavier trains than ever before, yet safety standards do not address these changes. Longer, heavier trains shift costs to trackside communities in multiple ways. They greatly increase wear and tear on rail infrastructure without requiring increased inspection and maintenance. Longer trains (100+ cars, over 1 mile long) also are significantly more likely to block railway crossings—which inconveniences the public and risks delaying first responders up to 15 minutes.
  4. Require emergency response plans (including fire and hazmat) for all changes in freight traffic, and publicly review the adequacy of the plans.
  5. Demand a minimum of a two-member crew on every train. Some operations require more workers to adequately protect both crew and trackside communities. The optimal number is three to five engineers on a train.
  6. Regulate railroads as the public utilities they have historically been. Limit hedge funds’ power and Wall Street’s involvement in the industry because they promote profits over public safety.
  7. Demand appropriate maintenance and oversight of railroad corridors.
  8. Demand restoration of meaningful whistle-blower protections. These should include significant penalties for evasion and misconduct. Whistle-blower protection is essential for guaranteeing railway safeguards.
  9. Support railroad upgrade efforts that include critical safety and operation improvements for both freight and passenger service. Upgraded railroad crossings are a prerequisite for most expanded and improved rail passenger services and higher-speed freight services—for safety and public convenience. 
  10. Support railroads as a vital part in America's Green Transportation future. Press legislators to support the Green New Deal and high-speed rail legislation, which guarantee the inclusion of rail projects that advance freight and passenger services. 

Last, Edler recommended that the public be skeptical when considering support for new advances in railroading, such as remotely operated trains. It’s important to avoid new problems in an already compromised industry. 

Utah Oil Slick: funding polluters instead of Rural Communities

By Deeda Seed and Adair Kovac - Center for Biological Diversity, et. al., August 2021

Every year Utah receives tens of millions of dollars in federal lease revenues and royalties from oil, gas and mineral extraction as a way to help mitigate the impacts of drilling and mining. Even before scientists linked fossil fuels to the climate crisis, Congress intended this money to be used to help rural communities experiencing rapid growth and infrastructure challenges. The influx of new workers and increased drilling and mining take a toll on communities.

This report from the Utah Clean Infrastructure Coalition shows that, since 2009, the little-known board charged with distributing this public money has funneled more than $109 million to projects that promote or expand fossil fuel extraction in violation of the federal Mineral Leasing Act. That includes more than $2.2 million approved after a state audit found the board was using the public funds improperly.

We examined dozens of public records — including the 2020 audit of the Permanent Community Impact Fund Board by the Utah Legislative Auditor General, meeting minutes, audio tapes and project documents — and found that:

  • Since 2009 the Permanent Community Impact Fund Board, or CIB, has issued $109 million in grants and low- or no-interest loans — all of it public money — to finance road construction, engineering studies, attorney fees and other costs to enable fossil fuel development on public and private land. Beneficiaries include well-connected private firms trying to get approval for the proposed $1.5 billion Uinta Basin Railway.
  • Over the past two years small towns, cities and special improvement districts in two counties have identified more than $60 million for community improvement projects that have not yet been funded. Unfunded projects include water and sewer services, recreation centers, road improvements and public safety equipment. Over this same period, the CIB gave more than $48 million in grants to fossil-fuel related projects.
  • The Utah Legislature failed to oversee the board’s activities. Even worse, in 2021 it changed state law to allow mineral lease revenues and royalties to finance fossil-fuel infrastructure projects, which is illegal under federal law. The new law followed the 2020 state audit criticizing the board’s spending and haphazard decision-making.
  • County governments and local agencies continue to seek public funding for projects that facilitate fossil fuel extraction and enrich private corporations over community needs. Since the audit, Uintah County commissioners approved seeking $39 million in public funds to help a private, Ogden-based oil company build a 640-acre oil refinery in eastern Utah.3 The proposed $1.4 billion Uintah Advantage refinery would have the capacity to refine 40,000 barrels of oil a day, and it may also include a rail yard for the proposed Uinta Basin Railway.

The CIB must stop funding fossil fuel development projects. The Utah Legislature should oversee the board’s grant and loan-making process to ensure it complies with the Mineral Leasing Act, which requires these public funds be used to mitigate harm inflicted on communities by oil, gas and mineral extraction and forbids using the money for economic development. Rural communities should call on legislators to ensure that infrastructure needs are met and public money is spent properly.

As Utah and the western United States experience the devastating consequences of climate change in the form of intense heat, drought and wildfires, it is even more critical that the CIB stop siphoning public funds away from much-needed community projects to finance dangerous fossil fuel extraction that worsens the climate crisis.

Read the text (PDF).

Alameda and Contra Costa Labor Climate Convergence 2021

Transit Equity Network Calls on Congress to Pass Legislation that Truly Supports Accessible, Safe and Equitable Transit in Support of H.R.3744

By Judy Asman - Labor Network for Sustainability, July 20, 2021

The network of transit riders, community organizations, environmental groups, and labor unions responsible for organizing Transit Equity Day annually on Rosa Parks’ birthday to declare transit equity as a civil right have issued an Open Letter to Congress in support H.R. 3744, the “Stronger Communities Through Better Transit Act,” drafted by Rep. Henry C. (Hank) Johnson (D: GA-04) and introduced to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in early June. Twenty-five organizations have signed on to the letter including the Amalgamated Transit Union, Institute for Policy Studies Climate Policy Program, the Sierra Club, the NAACP Niagara Falls Branch, Central Florida Climate Action, Pittsburghers for Public Transit, and the Labor Network for Sustainability.

“We see transit equity as a civil right, workers’ right and climate-justice issue; and are committed to ensuring equitable access to public transit throughout the United States. Expanding public transit can help combat the causes of climate change and also fight economic injustice by providing greater accessibility in marginalized communities and ample training and job growth for transit workers,” the letter says. It adds:

“H.R. 3744, would authorize $20 billion annually from fiscal years 2023 through 2026 in operating assistance to transit agencies to improve frequencies, extend service hours, or add new high-frequency transit service. It also aims to prioritize that service to disadvantaged communities, areas of persistent poverty, and places with inadequate transit services.

“Workers and communities need better access to affordable, reliable public transit to meet essential needs and to help address climate disruption. Our economy will not grow without it. Communities of color will continue to be disproportionately left behind—today, people of color comprise 60 percent of transit ridership. Transit workers will continue to shoulder the pressures that come with infrequent bus service, lack of safety in transition beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, and possible job loss when new technologies are implemented without proper worker training. The Stronger Communities Through Better Transit Act will not single-handedly ensure transit equity; however, it is a critical step in securing a more reliable, safe, and frequent transit future for communities across the country.”

Ramona Strategies: Executive Summary of Recommendations (for addressing Sierra Club internal organizational dynamics)

By Elizabeth Brown Riordan, Katherine Kimpel, and Kathryn Pogin - Ramona Strategies, August 2021

This Executive Summary was prepared by Ramona Strategies to relay the substance of the Recommendations to the broader set of stakeholders that make up the Sierra Club community. Ramona Strategies exercised control over the scope and substance of this Executive Summary at all times.

About the Restorative Accountability Process:

In the summer of 2020, public allegations surfaced that a celebrated former employee and thencurrent Volunteer Leader had raped a Sierra Club employee when he was her boss; others came forward to share similar experiences of inappropriate and degrading experiences with that same man. Those reports prompted not only a targeted investigation of his tenure at the organization, but also this broader Restorative Accountability Process. This Restorative Accountability Process was commissioned to help the organization rise to the challenges that confront it in this definitional moment.

The opportunity to participate in the Restorative Accountability Process was extended by the Club through a series of emails from Leadership directed at both staff and volunteers. No one who expressed an interest in participating was turned away. Most interviews were conducted between September 2020 and January 2021, although a few interviews happened outside of that time frame. Individuals were under no obligation to contribute to the process; however, between unsolicited participants and those organizational representatives to whom we reached out to directly, members of the Office of General Counsel, the Human Resources Department, the Chapter Services Department (also known as “Office of Chapter Support”), the Volunteer Accountability Working Group (also known as the “Volunteer Accountability Process Reform Team”), and some individuals in union leadership spoke with us to explain more about the details of the processes used for complaints, investigations, and resolutions and to explain recordkeeping systems and materials related to prior issues.

Participants in the interviews were not guided to any particular perspectives, conclusions, themes, or narratives; in general, we encouraged participants to share what they thought was important to be known and then we listened. We did not ask participants to comment on information or perspectives shared by others, and we did not engage in cross-examination. However, we did probe for details, and we did listen for corroborating factors across interviews. To the extent that the Process identified individual matters that require investigation and/or further intervention, those individual matters were relayed to the teams that handle Employee and Volunteer Relations (‘EVR”)' in a manner that protects the anonymity of the participants and the confidentiality of the Process but also ensures the organization is attending to those situations.

Read the text (PDF).

As the US Pursues Clean Energy and the Climate Goals of the Paris Agreement, Communities Dependent on the Fossil Fuel Economy Look for a Just Transition

By Judy Fahys - Inside Climate News, June 28, 2021

Perhaps the proudest achievement of Michael Kourianos’ first term as mayor of Price, Utah was helping to make the local university hub the state’s first to run entirely on clean energy. It’s a curious position for the son, brother and grandchild of coal miners who’s worked in local coal-fired power plants for 42 years.

Kourianos sees big changes on the horizon brought by shifts in world energy markets and customer demands, as well as in politics. The mines and plants that powered a bustling economy here in Carbon County and neighboring Emery County for generations are gone or winding down, and Kourianos is hoping to win reelection so he can keep stoking the entrepreneurial energy and partnerships that are moving his community forward.

“That freight train is coming at us,” he said. “You look at all the other communities that were around during the early times of coal, they’re not around.

“That’s my fear,” he said. “That’s my driving force.”

New research from Resources for the Future points out that hundreds of areas like central Utah are facing painful hardships because of the clean-energy transformation that will be necessary if the United States hopes to reach the Paris agreement’s goals to slow climate change. Lost jobs and wages, a shrinking population and an erosion of the tax base that supports roads, schools and community services—they’re all costs of the economic shift that will be paid by those whose hard work fueled American prosperity for so long. 

“If we can address those challenges by helping communities diversify, helping people find new economic growth drivers and new economic opportunities, that might lessen some of the opposition to moving forward with the ambitious climate policy that we need,” said the report’s author, Daniel Raimi, who is also a lecturer at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

Meeting the Paris agreement’s target of keeping global temperature rise “well below 2 degrees C” by the end of the century means Americans must burn 90 percent less coal over the next two decades and half as much oil and natural gas, Raimi said.

And less fossil fuel use will also affect employment, public finances and economic development region-by-region, according to Raimi. In 50 of the nation’s 3,006 counties, 25 percent or more of all wages are tied to fossil fuel energy, he notes. In 16 counties, 25 percent or more of their total jobs are related to fossil energy.

A framework of six essential policies for the U.S. to THRIVE

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, June 3, 2021

A new report by Jeremy Brecher of the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) was released in May. Making “Build Back Better” Better: Aligning Climate, Jobs, and Justice is a cast as a “living document” to provide a framework for discussion by the labour and environmental movements. Common Dreams summarizes it here. Brecher begins by identifying the range of climate-related policy proposals in the U.S.: “There are many valuable plans that have been proposed in addition to Build Back Better. The original Green New Deal resolution sponsored by Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; the THRIVE (Transform, Heal, and Renew by Investing in a Vibrant Economy) Agenda ; the Evergreen Action Plan; the Sierra Club’s “How to Build Back Better” economic renewal plan; the AFL-CIO’s “Energy Transitions”proposals; the BlueGreen Alliance’s “Solidarity for Climate Action,” and a variety of others. All offer contributions for overall vision and for policy details.” 

The contribution of this report from LNS is to frame these policy proposals around “six essential elements” : • Managed decline of fossil fuel burning • Full-spectrum job creation • Fair access to good jobs • Labor rights and standards • Urgent and effective climate protection • No worker or community left behind. The new report links to many of the previous LNS reports which have discussed these elements in more detail.

Labor Network for Sustainability has endorsed the THRIVE Agenda, with its strong emphasis on climate justice. At the end of April, The THRIVE Act was introduced in the U.S. Congress, spearheaded by Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan and Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, and supported by progressive Democrats, environmentalists, and unions. The Rolling Stone summarized the provisions here , stating: “Bold” may be an understatement. While President Biden’s proposed infrastructure plan calls for spending $2 trillion over the next 10 years, the THRIVE Act green-lights the investment of $1 trillion annually. The money would go toward creating an estimated 15 million “family-sustaining” union jobs, rebuilding the nation’s physical and social infrastructure, and cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030.”

The Green New Deal Network has compiled extensive documentation of the economic studies behind the THRIVE Agenda here , based heavily on the work of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), led by Robert Pollin.

Canada’s Climate Emergency Unit seeks to light a spark across Canada

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, May 17, 2021

A report released at the end of April examines the performance and the links between Canada’s oil companies

The Climate Emergency Unit is a newly-launched initiative of the David Suzuki Institute, with the Sierra Club B.C. and the Rapid Decarbonization Group of Quebec as Strategic Partners. The Unit is led by Seth Klein and inspired by his 2020 book, A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, which argues that climate mobilization requires an effort similar to what previous generations expended against the existential threat of fascism during the Second World War. (This is an approach shared with the U.S. group The Climate Mobilization, and others). The stated goal of the CEU is “to work with all levels of government and civil society organizations – federal, provincial, local and Indigenous governments, businesses, trade unions, public institutions and agencies, and industrial/sectoral associations” – to network, educate and advocate for the mobilization ideas in A Good War, to decarbonize and electrify Canadian society and the economy, while enhancing social justice and equity. 

In an article in Policy Options in November 2020, Klein summarizes the four hallmarks of a government committed to an urgent, emergency response:

  • It spends what it takes to win;
  • It creates new economic institutions to get the job done;
  • It shifts from voluntary and incentive-based policies to mandatory measures;
  • It tells the truth about the severity of the crisis and communicates a sense of urgency about the measures necessary to combat it.

Seth Klein was the founding Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in British Columbia, and continues to publish in the CCPA Policy Note , as well as in the Climate Emergency Unit blog, and as a columnist for The National Observer – for example, with “Feds need to treat climate crisis like a national emergency” on April 30.

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