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IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus

Welcome to the IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus

"Judi Bari did something that I believe is unparalleled in the history of the environmental movement. She is an Earth First! activist who took it upon herself to organize Georgia Pacific sawmill workers into the IWW…Well guess what friends, environmentalists and rank and file timber workers becoming allies is the most dangerous thing in the world to the timber industry!"

--Darryl Cherney, June 20, 1990.

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Unions and the Climate Justice Movement

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, October 7, 2015

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.

Where does the union movement stand on the issue of climate justice? The answer to that question is not entirely simple. First of all, it's important to understand the differences between revolutionary unions (most of which are syndicalist--such as the CNT, FAI, SAC--or Marxist--such as NUMSA--in their orientation, or some hybrid inclusive of both and more--such as the IWW) and mainstream reformist unions, such as the AFL-CIO.  For most revolutionary unions, climate justice is an inherent part of the struggle to overthrow capitalism, abolish wage slavery, and create a new society within the shell of the old. For example, the IWW has organized an environmental unionism caucus that dedicates itself to climate justice and other ecological issues. The South African union, NUMSA, is a supporter of Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED)1 and has issued a statement calling for the end to the "Mineral Industrial Complex" (even though they represent mine workers) in favor of renewable energy.

Where the reformist unions (sometimes called "business unions" or "class collaborationist" unions by their detractors) stand varies widely, and to be accurate, some of these "reformist" unions have more (or less) "revolutionary" orientation within the spectrum of the mainstream labor movement. While many still believe that capitalism can be reformed, the evolving realities of capitalism--which is becoming extremely repressive as it imposes increasingly crushing austerity upon the working class--the ever heightening urgency of addressing capitalist induced global warming, and the increasingly impossible-to-ignore realities of police violence, movements like Black Lives Matter, and other social issues are driving many unions to question their adherence to it, beyond the mere rank and file militants within each of them.

One would expect the Building Trades and most heavy industry based unions in the United States, many of which are still largely dominated by white male workers, to be least supportive of climate justice (or even likely to swallow the rhetoric of climate denialism) and conversely expect the service unions, many of which are predominantly composed of women and People of Color to be most supportive of it, and in some cases that's true, but not always! The actual "geography" of where unions stand on climate justice is actually quite complex2, inconsistent, and in some instances contradictory.  Sorting it out completely is well beyond the scope of this article, but it is illustrative to cover some general ground and cite a few interesting examples.

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it

By Ali Tamlit - Red Pepper, October 26, 2017

Today is the 30th birthday of the opening of London City Airport – but there isn’t much to celebrate. Since the airport’s opening in 1987, carbon dioxide levels have increased from 351 parts per million (ppm), around a ‘safe’ level in terms of climate change, to a dangerously high 409 ppm this year.

Politically, discussions around sustainability and climate change were just getting started then, and there was hope that world leaders might find a solution for us. This was 5 years before the landmark 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Now, two years on from the 2015 Paris climate agreement – an agreement that on the surface sets an ambitious target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees – there is little sign of action from any government. Top NASA scientist James Hansen described it as ‘worthless words’ with ‘no action’.

While officials prevaricate, we are increasingly seeing the devastating effects of climate change in more frequent extreme weather events: think of Hurricane Irma which hit the Caribbean last month, or the extreme flooding in Bangladesh, which left a third of the country under water.

But a lot of other things have changed since 1987. Firstly, we’ve learned as people and as a movement that although these numbers matter – parts per million and degrees centigrade – that’s not what climate change is actually about. Very recently, thanks largely to the action at London City Airport by BLMUK, the narrative that the ‘climate crisis is a racist crisis’ has been thrust into the mainstream.

Although extreme weather events are increasing, it’s important to examine who is being affected and who is causing it. London City Airport was a perfect target to highlight this argument. The UK has emitted the most CO2 cumulatively per capita since the industrial revolution, has built its wealth on colonialism and now is one of the centres of global capitalism that continues to extract resources and wealth from countries in the global South. All of this while globally 7 out of 10 of the countries most affected by climate change are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Winterizing is Political

By Nickita Longman - Briar Patch, November 23, 2016

Organizing a camp takes all hands on deck. My recent visit to Oceti Sakowin Camp on Standing Rock reservation was no exception. While police surveillance of the camp goes round the clock, so does the tireless labour and work required to winterize the space with the impending cold.

The evening of November 20 marked perhaps the most violent attack of Standing Rock water protectors by militarized police to date: the Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council estimated that 300 people were treated for injuries and 26 people were taken to hospital. Protectors at Standing Rock are resisting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which is to cross the Missouri River just north of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. It had previously been planned to cross the river north of Bismarck, ND, but it was rerouted to its current path after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined it would threaten municipal water wells.

Protectors defending the Missouri River from the pipeline are not unacquainted with weapons euphemized as “less-than-lethal”: rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and teargas. The most disturbing use of force against the brave souls who are protecting water in Sunday night’s attack was the militarized police’s abuse of water cannons in freezing temperatures. Unicorn Riot reported that a 13-year-old girl was shot in the face by law enforcement; two people suffered the effects of cardiac arrest. Many suffered from hypothermia. With winter quickly approaching, winterization and warmth in the camp is needed now more than ever.

The developed camp houses seven kitchens, a main meeting dome and a mess hall, a medic centre, art spaces, donations tents, two sacred fires, a carpentry shop, a school, and plenty of individualized sleeping quarters. All of these spaces require revamping for the coming cold. Often, that entails insulation and flooring, and indoor propane heating.

The prairie cold in North Dakota is harsh and biting, and many allies and visitors from more temperate climates can be unaccustomed to it. The winterization process is all the more urgent to ensure that all protectors – those from the prairies or elsewhere – are insulated from the elements.

Liam Cain, a trade unionist with LIUNA 1271/IWW EUC, understands that winterizing is part of the long haul resistance. “The folks staying for the winter are inspirational and determined, and coming from Wyoming I recognize the necessity of solid, weatherproof shelter to get through the bitter cold.”

Cain, who has a general background in construction and is also a representative of Labor for Standing Rock, knows firsthand of the efforts required for the winterization process. “We were buying things in bulk – 2×4s, plywood, fasteners, screws,” he explains. Cain went on countless supply runs to assist the process. “Our motive was just to plug in with the people already starting the work and help bridge the gaps.”

In my short time at the camp, I volunteered in a kitchen operated by an Indigenous woman named Rachel. The kitchen recently had insulated flooring installed with the help of Cain and others associated with Labor for Standing Rock, and moving and organizing her space was the next step in promoting a smooth functioning kitchen to put warm food in the bellies of the water protectors.

IWW Member Brenna Cain: Why I Am With Labor For Standing Rock

By Brenna Cain - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, November 3, 2016

Brenna Cain from IWW 610 talks about the importance of defending the human rights of Native Americans and supporting their efforts to protect the Missouri River.

IWW Member Liam Cain: Why I Am With Labor For Standing Rock

By Liam Cain - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, November 3, 2016

I Just got back from a brief but inspiring trip to North Dakota with Labor for Standing Rock. Here Liam Cain from LIUNA Local 1271 / IWW EUC talks about the importance of defending the human rights of Native Americans and supporting their efforts to protect the Missouri River. Mni Wiconi - Water is Life

Protect the Sacred!

Berkeley Protest of Arrests at Standing Rock

Rank-and-File Union Members Join Standing Rock Camp, As Crackdown on Opponents of Pipeline Escalates

By Micheal Letwin and Cliff Willmeng - Labor for Standing Rock, October 27, 2016

Editor's note: IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus cofounder, Steve Ongerth, is also a cofounder of Labor for Standing Rock.

On Saturday, October 29 at 10 AM, union members and supporters are assembling at Standing Rock Union Camp, north of Cannonball, North Dakota. Despite escalating police violence and AFL-CIO leadership support of the Dakota Access Pipeline, pipeline, a delegation of union members from around the U.S. are, at this moment, assembling with signs and banners for a labor procession at Standing Rock camp to join Sioux Water Protectors against Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL.) The procession will be followed by a lunchtime organizing meeting, and by afternoon outreach to pipeline workers, by a delegation from Labor For Standing Rock, comprised of rank-and-file union members and working people.

This effort is being spearheaded by Labor for Standing Rock co-founders Michael Letwin and Cliff Willmeng. Letwin, a former President of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys/UAW Local 2325 in New York City, and Co-Convener of Labor for Palestine, whose online petition in opposition to DAPL has garnered more than 12,000 signers and helped lay the basis for Labor for Standing Rock. In 1973, at age sixteen, he and others were by the Nixon-era FBI under the Rap Brown Act for participating in a relief caravan to the American Indian Movement occupation at Wounded Knee. Willmeng is a registered nurse with UFCW Local 7, and former member of United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 1 in Chicago. He is a leader in Colorado fight against fracking, a rank-and-file labor activist and organizer for the Colorado Community Rights Amendment. Cliff’s work against the oil and gas industry made national headlines when Lafayette, Colorado banned fracking in 2013. He and his daughter Sasha delivered water tanks to Standing Rock Camp after authorities removed the water supply in August.

Labor For Standing Rock was created by rank-and-file workers and union members to mobilize growing labor support for the First Nation's fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The response from working people around the country has been nothing short of staggering. It is clear that the labor movement is no longer content to sit aside while Native American sovereignty is violated, and while land and water are risked. No oil company profits are more important than our rights and environment.

"As a healthcare provider, as a father of two, and as a union member I will be heading up to Standing Rock, said Cliff Willmeng, union member and a co-founder of Labor for Standing Rock. "We will be supporting the First Nations fight against the Dakota access pipeline, to protect the environment for my kids, and as a rejection of the decision of the AFL-CIO support the pipeline."

"Workers' rights are inseparable from indigenous rights, said Michael Letwin, union member and a co-founder of Labor for Standing Rock. "We need decent union jobs that protect, rather than destroy, the Earth -- there are no jobs on a dead planet."

"We at Oceti Sakowin Camp welcome any and all support from our Union brothers and sisters," said Standing Rock Council in an October 13 message to Labor for Standing Rock. "This camp stands to protect our sacred water and support a new energy paradigm, jobs and work in green energy fields. We welcome your support in any ways you feel appropriate, join us in paving a new road to a sustainable future for many future generations."

Labor for Standing Rock and Union Camp are being hosted by Red Warrior Camp, which is made up of Dakota and Lakota people residing within the original Sacred Stone spirit camp on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

Indigenous Resistance Deserves Workers' Solidarity

By Roger Butterfield - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, September 26, 2016

September 15th’s announcement that the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) supports the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) hardly came as a surprise to me, but it definitely didn’t lift my spirits about the present state of organized labor in the US. At a time when solidarity and support is needed for one of the most vibrant and powerful indigenous liberation movements of the decade, the federation asked itself “Which side are you on?”, and spoke its answer plainly: with business and its owners. Any organization committed to an egalitarian society (or the general survival of the human species, for that matter) would condemn the pipeline company’s attacks on indigenous protesters. Any genuine and s trong w orkers’ organization should call on the construction workers to withhold their labor, offer legal support to those that do, and provide what resources it could offer to supporting resistance to scabs and jail support for the protesters.

But the AFL-CIO is not a genuine workers’ organization, nor has it ever committed itself to egalitarianism. It has a long history of excluding workers from its unions (people of color, women, communists, unskilled laborers, and immigrants), only removing these barriers when the culture surrounding and internal to it faced sufficient challenge from workers and the courts. In recent times the federation supported construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, another environmental catastrophe that would cut through not only swathes of indigenous land, but provide very few long-term jobs for construction workers.

The organization’s behavior seems to be driven by a political orientation to securing better day to day working conditions for its already existing union members, without regard for a broader and long-term, liberatory social vision. “Social blindness” (IWW member Helen Keller’s phrase) to the devastation of both environment and persons is the only way federation president Richard Trumka can conceivably justify backing the construction of a pipeline. Opposition to the construction of a climate bomb being built over the graves of protestors’ ancestors is characterized as “hold[ing] union members’ livelihoods and their families’ financial security hostage to endless delay”.

When the federation does release documents detailing a strategy or a vision, they read like Democratic Party talking points. The AFL-CIO has attached itself to and merged with the center of the Democratic Party, becoming an appendage of an ever rightward-shifting parliamentary politics, hoping that electoral action in the form of legislation (eliminating Taft-Hartley, securing anti-discrimination protections for joining a union) will somehow stop or alleviate unions’ declining membership and create a labor rebirth. Or they believe that politicians like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton will fight neoliberal cuts to public services and attacks on union rights, when their “opposition” mainly consists of an alternative public relations strategy for pursuing the policies that best serve business owners. This is more than a failed strategy for workers: it’s a reactionary one that abandons the workplace as a site of struggle and appeals to a more benevolent-sounding wing of the capitalist state.

In fact, the AFL-CIO is acting on the right wing of Obama: thanks to the pressure placed on the federal government to react to the indigenous coalition’s direct actions, the Obama administration has halted all construction on federal land (pending a review of environmental impacts), invited native leaders to formal talks to have a voice in modifying existing laws, and called on the pipeline company to pause construction. Federation President Richard Trumka is calling on the federal government to reverse that decision, and “allow construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to continue.”

In other words, the labor establishment wants to reject the state’s management strategy for public dissent, and instead opt for a more naked form of exploitation of dispossessed people and their environment. This is not “pushing politicians” to adopt policies more beneficial to workers; it’s abandoning any meaningful commitment to the idea that “an injury to one is an injury to all”, and doing the work of business owners for them. As my friend Nick Walter helpfully commented, “This is because at the end of the day the mainstream unions really do believe that the source of wealth is business and commerce rather than the labour of working people.”

The North American working class, particularly the embattled indigenous resistance in North Dakota, deserves better than the bureaucratic and conservative AFL-CIO. It deserves a labor movement inclusive of all workers and exclusive of capitalists and their state’s security forces, one led by the workers themselves and willing to fight for day-to-day changes on the job and to build long-term revolutionary changes in society at large. It deserves a class unionism across all ethnic, racial, gendered, and national lines, ultimately seeking to abolish class society itself.

The IWW joins with prominent labor organizations (National Nurses United, New York State Nurses Association, Communication Workers of America, Amalgamated Transit Union, United Electrical Workers, ILWU Local 19, Oregon Public Employees Union/SEIU Local 503, California Faculty Association, Labor Coalition for Community Action, and National Writers Association/UAW Local 1891) in supporting the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s efforts to oppose the pipeline. As rank and file workers, we must reject any business, union, or labor federation that calls for collusion with the interests of business and action against dispossessed indigenous people.

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