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Communities Unite to Fight Coal in Oakland

By Eric K. Arnold - Reimagine, March 2016

Coal, once the staple of American industrial production, may be on its last legs. With domestic production showing a long-term decline, the fossil fuel’s days appear to be numbered.

According to the most recent annual report [1] of the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2013, U.S. coal production fell below two billion short tons for the first time in two decades; coal mining capacity decreased, as did the average number of coal mine employees, the average sales price of coal, and total U.S. coal stocks. In April of 2015, the EIA projected coal would hit a 28-year low, reflecting significant drops in domestic demand and exports. In August, Goldman Sachs divested itself of its coal holdings; a month later, it issued a gloomy forecast[2] for coal’s future, stating, “the industry does not require new investment,” dashing hopes for a miraculous upturn in the coal market. A report[3] by the Carbon Tracker Initiative (CTI) noted that 26 domestic coal companies have recently gone into bankruptcy proceedings; and coal’s value on the Dow Jones index dropped by 76 percent between 2009-14 (a period when the overall Dow index went up 69 percent).

According to CTI, domestic energy generation has remained flat for the past decade but energy sources have shifted: coal and oil are down, but natural gas and renewable energy are up. America’s largest coal producers are recording annual losses in the billions of dollars, while Chinese coal demand has slumped and new environmental regulations[4] aimed at significantly reducing air pollution and increasing wind and solar consumption are being phased in by the Chinese government. Additionally, all federal coal leasing is currently under moratorium until a comprehensive review can be completed. As the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) noted[5] in its online magazine, OnEarth, “it would be difficult to overstate the industry’s current distress.”

This is scary news for the coal industry, yet a welcome announcement for environmentalists who have waged national campaigns against coal for decades. These desperate times for coal producers have led to desperate measures. Their last hope, it would seem, is to increase coal’s export capacity by transporting the black gunk through West Coast ports. But even there the pro-coal forces have met with unexpected resistance, as city after city in Oregon and Washington have mounted grassroots campaigns to deliver an emphatic message: “Say no to coal.”

Green versus Yellow Unionism in Oakland

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, November 11, 2015

Author's Note: This article is a sequel of sorts to my previous piece, Unions and the Climate Justice Movement, which briefly mentions the No Coal in Oakland campaign. The image, depicted at the right, compares a pro-capitalist-logging poster (yellow, near right) ostensibly created by timber workers (but actually crafted by the employers) to mobilize support for a counter-demonstration to a rally and march, held in Fort Bragg in July 1990, organized by the Redwood Summer coalition (which included timber workers). The green poster (far right), represents the Redwood Summer coalition's response, and accurately summarizes their position on timber workers and timber jobs.

At first glance, the Oakland City Council meeting, held on September 21, 2015 looked much like many public hearings where public opposition had organized in response to the plans, practices, or proposals of capitalist interests that threatened the environment. For most of the evening, and well into the night, council members and the Mayor watched and listened as speaker after speaker (out of a total of over 500) either spoke in favor (or against) coal exports or ceded their time to their allies. On one side were a widely diverse group of activists, organized by a coalition known as No Coal in Oakland-- adorned in red (union made and printed) T-shirts--opposed to plans to export coal through a proposed Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal (OBOT), as part of the Oakland Global Trade and Logistics Center (or Oakland Global), and on the other were the project's supporters, dressed in business attire accompanied by several dozen union workers, many of them from the Laborers' Union, dressed in yellow.  As is often the case, the project's supporters tried to frame the opposition as being composed of insensitive outsiders, and themselves and the supporting "workers" as placing the economic interests of Oakland and its residents above all else. "We support good paying union jobs that will help the struggling, predominantly African-American residents of west Oakland" opined the supporters, trying to suggest that those in opposition didn't.

This is an old, and shopworn script, that has been trotted out numerous times in the past quarter century or more. Anyone who has experienced or studied the "Timber Wars" that took place in the Pacific Northwest during the late 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s will recall the armies of loggers and mill-workers decked out in yellow shirts, sporting yellow foam car radio antennae balls or yellow ribbons who would show up en massé (at the behest of their employers, often with pay) to oppose limits to clear-cutting or protections for the Northern Spotted Owl and to denounce (often) green shirted environmentalists as "unwashed-out-of-town-jobless-hippies-on-drugs" and/or upper middle class "elitists" (or--defying logic--both). Sometimes, in drawn out campaigns, the employers have often furthered this illusion by creating false front "Astroturf" groups, ostensibly composed of workers, to distract attention away from themselves.

The truth is far much more complex and nuanced, of course. Usually the "jobs" promised by the projects' supporters often don't materialize (indeed, the opposite--namely automation, downsizing, and outsourcing--usually occurs). Those in opposition to environmentally destructive practices and proposals are usually composed of and led by locals, most of whom are, themselves, gainfully employed, and sympathetic to the needs and concerns of the affected workers (in fact, the opposition's counter proposals, if well thought out, do more to create "jobs" and job security than those in support of the project). Meanwhile, the actual level of support among the rank and file workers purportedly backing up the capitalists interests could accurately be described as a mile wide and an inch deep, at best. And the bosses? When they speak of jobs, they actually refer to profits. Nevertheless, in the past, the capitalist media has typically and dutifully reported that these projects are opposed by "green clad environmentalists" (or red in this particular case) and supported by "yellow clad workers" (often neglecting to draw any distinction between the workers and their employers).

Therefore, it is both surprising and refreshing, that in spite of the attempts by the employing class to replay that same script on September 21, 2015 in Oakland, the attempt backfired, due to the diligent and tireless organizing by their grassroots opposition. A closer examination of what happened, and how the opposition organized, will illustrate why this is so and how others can duplicate the organizers' efforts to defeat further attempts by capitalist interests to use divide and conquer tactics to push their climate and environment (not-to-mention job) destroying projects through.