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Steelworkers

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.

Contested Futures: U.S. Labor after Keystone XL

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, May 12, 2016

Originally published in New Labor Forum. Download PDF

How to Achieve Zero Emissions, Even if the Federal Government Won't Help

By C.J. Polychroniou - Truthout, January 17, 2018

With Donald Trump in the White House, the prospects for fighting climate change have never been any bleaker in the US. Yet there are options available to state governments to move forward with the greening of the economy even without federal support. This point is made crystal clear in two studies produced recently by economist Robert Pollin and some of his colleagues at the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst for the states of Washington and New York. In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Pollin explains the significance of Green New Deal programs.

C.J. Polychroniou: Bob, two new studies on fighting climate change have been produced by you and two PERI researchers for the states of New York and Washington. How did these studies come about?

Robert Pollin: These were both commissioned studies. For the New York study, the commissioning group was New York Renews, which is a coalition of over 130 organizations in New York State, including labor unions, environmental groups and social justice organizations. For the Washington State study, three important groups within the US labor movement commissioned the study -- the United Steelworkers, Washington State Labor Council of the AFL-CIO and the Tony Mazzocchi Center for Health, Safety and Environmental Education (TMC). Tony Mazzocchi was a great visionary labor leader with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW -- [which] has since merged into the United Steelworkers), who fought to link the aims of working people with those of environmentalists.

It is not an accident that my co-workers and I were asked to do these similar studies at basically the same time. In both cases, the groups supporting the studies are advancing ambitious green economy programs within their respective states. It is obvious that nothing good on climate change is going to be coming out of the federal government under Trump. It is equally obvious that we can't wait around on climate issues (and many other matters) until somebody less awful gets into the White House. We therefore have to take the most forceful possible actions at the level of state politics. This is what the coalitions are doing in both New York and Washington States.

It is also significant that, with both studies, our priority was to show how a viable climate change project can be completely compatible with -- indeed, supportive of -- a pro-labor agenda. Trump and others on the right have feasted on the divides between labor and environmentalists, claiming that if you are for the environment, then you have to be against working people and their communities. These studies show in great detail (some might even say excruciating detail) that these Trump claims are flat-out wrong.

Big Oil’s Bi-Partisan Helpers: a Refiner’s Fire 5 Years Later

By Steve Early - Counterpunch, August 4, 2017

Five years ago, my wife and I moved to Richmond, CA and soon learned about the local emergency response protocol known as “shelter in place.”

When large fires break out in Bay Area refineries, like the century old Chevron facility near our house, first a siren sounds. Then public officials direct everyone nearby to take cover inside. Doors must be closed, windows taped shut, if possible, and air conditioning turned off.

August 6th is the fifth anniversary of such self-help efforts in Richmond. On that day in 2012, we looked up and saw an eruption worthy of Mount Vesuvius. Due to pipe corrosion and lax maintenance practices, a Chevron processing unit sprang a leak. The escaping petroleum vapor reached an ignition source. This led to a raging fire that Contra Costa County (home to four refineries) classified as a “Level 3 incident,” posing the highest level of danger.

Nineteen oil workers narrowly escaped death at the scene of the accident. It sent a towering plume of toxic smoke over much of the East Bay and fifteen thousand refinery neighbors in search of medical attention for respiratory complaints, While local property values took a hit, Chevron stayed on track to make $25 billion in profits that year.

Four Months into Strike, Idaho Miners Stand Strong

By Brian Skiffington - Labor Notes, July 28, 2017

A beloved 53-year old miner named Larry Marek was killed on the job at the Lucky Friday mine in Mullan, Idaho just a few years back. Steelworkers Local 5114 had been warning the company about the stability of a certain area called a stope. Management had Marek mine out the last piece of earth supporting the cavern for the ore it contained and the roof collapsed.

The consensus is that company greed for profit killed Larry Marek when the ceiling caved in. Now his picture stands on the 24-hour picket line in front of the mine, as 250 miners enter their fifth month on strike.

WHAT’S THE DEAL?

Rick Norman, known as “Redman,” is one of the striking silver miners in the Silver Valley, a stretch of small but proud mining towns along I-90 in the northern Idaho panhandle. He says the terms that Hecla Mining imposed on workers in March radically changes almost every aspect of their daily lives. The company wants to:

  • Eliminate the bid system, a longstanding union procedure in which senior union members put together crews and bid on various jobs in the mine
  • Reduce call-back protections in the event of a mine closure or layoff from three years to three months
  • Pass large insurance costs on to workers
  • Eliminate workers’ ability to bank vacation time, which many use to transition into retirement early

“The bid system is everything,” Redman tells me. “It’s about control.” Workers speculate that the company wants to control job assignments so that they can make old-timers do the backbreaking labor they did 30 years prior, pressuring them to quit and leave the industry. At stake are years of experience, trust, safety, and opportunities for younger workers to learn the job from senior members.

Trust is critical six thousand feet beneath the earth's surface, in confined spaces with rock temperatures near 110 degrees and with unpredictable movements of the earth. “It’s about the right to work with guys that have the training and know the safety,” Redman says.

Idaho is a right-to-work state, so a key component of organizing new workers into the union is convincing them that they have to join if a senior member is going to pick them through the bid system. Ninety-six percent of the bargaining unit is in the union.

The hard-rock mining industry is fickle. Downturns in markets, catastrophes, environmental protections, and many other factors can open and close mines at the drop of a dime. A three-year call-back is critical for any sort of stability for a mining family.

Redman and his fellow strikers paint a picture of a company that used to care about workers and their community. Upper management knew everyone by name and would sit down with you if you were having a problem. “Their office was in Wallace [a 10-minute drive from the mine] and any miner could walk right in and shake their hand,” Redman says. “Sure, there were problems, but we knew we needed each other.”

Several strikers said Hecla used to give workers interest-free home loans. Now, miners say the company seems willing to sacrifice its workforce, the community, and anyone that gets in its way to appease shareholders and generate profit. This strike, the first since 1981, only scratches the surface of the disbelief and frustration this union feels.

Local 5114 has been without a contract since March 2016. When Hecla began implementing its “last, best, and final” offer in March 2017, the union declared an unfair labor practice strike.

Miners contend that management never intended to negotiate at all, and was just buying time while outside contractors finished a critical project. Some speculate that the company intended to force a strike all along. Under labor law, the company cannot permanently replace unfair labor practice strikers. Hecla has not attempted to bring in strikebreakers, though some maintenance and contracting work has continued in the mine and the mill. Rumors abound that management could begin blasting at a slow pace.

How We're Surviving Right to Work: Oil Refinery Workers Get People in Motion

By Alexandra Bradbury - Labor Notes, May 16, 2017

The key is collective action, says Steelworkers Local 675 Secretary-Treasurer Dave Campbell. His union represents 4,000 workers in California and Nevada, many of them at oil refineries where workers get a window of opportunity to drop their membership each time the contract comes up for renegotiation. In each refinery of 300-600 workers, the union maintains around 90 percent membership.

That's because members have the habit of acting for themselves as a union on the shop floor. Union leaders encourage members to bolster a grievance with workplace action. For instance, a supervisor had forbidden people to wear baseball caps, sunglasses, or Hawaiian shirts in the control room. Workers collected signatures on a petition and presented it to the other supervisor, who crumpled it up and threw it away.

“We organized all four crews to show up for work with Hawaiian shirts, sunglasses, and ball caps,” Campbell says, “and the union bought the roast pig for a Hawaiian luau lunch. When the superintendent saw all the workers united, he of course asked what the hell was going on—and the supervisor who had caused all this was reassigned.”

Besides being fun and effective, these activities give workers the chance to learn by doing. “In essence they see what the union really is,” Campbell says. “The union is them, and it’s their concerted, collective activity on the shop floor which gives the union power.”

Sen. Jim Smith, State Chair of ALEC, Pens Letter to PSC Supporting TransCanada’s Foreign Steel-Made, Foreign Oil-Carrying Keystone XL Export Pipeline

By Jane Kleeb - Bold Alliance, March 8, 2017

Bold Alliance president Jane Kleeb issued this response to a letter sent by Nebraska State Sen. Jim Smith, also the state chair of corporation-friendly bill mill ALEC, and other Senators to the Public Service Commission voicing support of TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL tarsands export pipeline, which is abusing eminent domain for private gain, and threatening our land, water and climate:

“Keystone XL is a foreign-owned pipeline, using foreign, non-union steel, transporting foreign oil, headed to the foreign export market,” said Bold Alliance president Jane Kleeb. “We stand with the United Steelworkers union demanding U.S. steel, landowners defending their property rights from eminent domain, and our Native allies as we all take action to protect our water.”

Foreign, Non-Union Steel Destined for KXL

President Trump has betrayed the promise of his Presidential Memorandum, and numerous statements he has made publicly saying that only U.S.-made steel would be used on Keystone XL.

Despite TransCanada’s contention that “75% of the steel [for Keystone XL] is coming from North American sources,” this statement grossly misrepresents the sourcing of steel already purchased by the company for the pipeline.

It’s true that some of the pipe intended for Keystone XL was manufactured in North America — Canada to be exact (which obviously does not meet Trump’s promise to “buy American” or “American-made” steel). But the Russian company with facilities in Regina, Canada that TransCanada contracted with for 40% of the pipe, Evraz, is co-owned by Russian steel oligarch Roman Abramovich, a close ally and mentor of Vladimir Putin — and a Trump family friend.

Trump Lies About Keystone XL, Turns His Back on Unions and Fails at Negotiating “Best Deal” for America With U.S. Steel for Pipelines

By Mark Hefflinger and Jane Kleeb - Bold Alliance, March 3, 2017

President Trump on Thursday backtracked on his Presidential Memorandum and countless claims that all pipelines in the U.S. would now be made with American-made steel — including Keystone XL — and said that TransCanada could use non-American steel for the foreign tarsands export pipeline.

“The Keystone XL pipeline is currently in the process of being constructed, so it does not count as a new, retrofitted, repaired, or expanded pipeline,” a White House spokeswoman told Politico on Thursday.

The Keystone XL pipeline does not have a Presidential permit, nor a permit from the State of Nebraska. Construction of the Keystone XL pipeline has not started, which in turn means the White House lied to the press yesterday.

“Trump is a liar and a fraud,” said Bold Alliance president Jane Kleeb. “Trump just got bullied by a foreign corporation, using foreign steel, carrying foreign oil, headed to the foreign export market all while opening a reckless door for foreign interests to use eminent domain for private gain against American landowners.”

On. Jan. 24, President Trump held an event to publicly sign a trio of Presidential Memorandums — one that said that “to the maximum extent possible and to the extent permitted by law” companies must use U.S. steel on all new pipelines, “as well as retrofitted, repaired, or expanded pipelines.” The memo goes on to further stipulate that this means the steel must be in the U.S. “from the initial melting stage through the application of coatings,” and rules out “steel or iron material or products manufactured abroad from semi-finished steel or iron from the United States” as qualifying as American-made.

The other two memos President Trump signed during the same ceremony on Jan. 24 aimed to fast-track the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Since Jan. 24, Trump has repeatedly mentioned the “only U.S. steel” requirement in the same breath as his memos expediting completion of Keystone XL and Dakota Access.

Union co-operatives: what they are and why we need them

By Simon Taylor - New Internationalist, January 12, 2017

Trade unionist Jimmy Reid described alienation as ‘the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the process of decision-making’. This frustration is endemic in contemporary neoliberalised economies, and according to commentators, including George Monbiot, it contributes to the rise of populist backlashes and disempowerment.

Unions play a vital role in counter-balancing alienation and frustration, responding to organizations imposing alienating practices on their workers. However, neoliberal policies have contributed to a long-term decline of union membership and influence in the Anglosphere and elsewhere.

But workers and unions can counter alienation and other negative effects of neoliberal policies – such as outsourcing, precarity and union decline – in new and imaginative ways.

The United Steelworkers (USW) union in the US is one of many good examples, responding to decades of deindustrialisation and declining union membership. They are developing worker co-operatives that place unions at the heart of enterprises, a model known as union co-ops. They have modified the resilient Mondragon worker co-op model by replacing its social council in co-operatives with more than 50 workers with a Union Bargaining Committee. The committee represents the worker co-operators interests as workers, while other structures represent their interests as owners. Worker representation structures are important according to Mondragon and the USW because there is an inherent risk in worker co-ops that when enterprises achieve scale, workforce engagement in decision making is diluted.

The benefits of worker co-ops have been discussed widely elsewhere. They include empowering workers by involving them in the crucial decision-making processes affecting their working lives, overcoming the alienating factor of lack of control. Indeed, the USW believes that worker co-operators are unlikely to offshore or outsource their own jobs, to design precarity into their employment, or to make themselves redundant in response to business downturns – all tools that neoliberalism makes attractive options regardless of the consequences to workers and communities.

The USW also believes that the active involvement of unions in worker-coops will result in higher union membership within the enterprise, thereby contributing to trade union renewal efforts in some measure. After all, placing unions at the heart of the enterprise allows them to find potential members in a way that is impossible in other contexts.

In a recent study, I examined union co-ops in the US, and Britain’s experience of union involvement with worker co-ops. It sought to determine whether UK unions should be noting the example of their US counterparts, and considered whether lessons can be drawn that should be applied to Britain’s context (and elsewhere).

In the study, I found that the USW’s and other organizations’ efforts to establish union co-ops in the US are ongoing. They have considered the role unions can play in establishing and supporting enterprises to become sustainable, while forging an effective bargaining and representational role.

In Britain, I found that unions often struggle to carve out a role for themselves in worker co-ops, choosing not to engage with them and favouring their traditional role in conventional employment models. Despite sharing common historical roots addressing the iniquities of industrialisation, union and co-operative movements have often nonetheless been wary bedfellows.

The closest parallel to the union co-op model found in Britain was the relationship between Suma Wholefoods (a worker co-op wholefood wholesaler) and the Bakers Union (BFAWU). Suma is a long-established business, and operates a flat pay structure – meaning all its worker/owners are paid the same. They sought to recognise a union, and came to an agreement with the BWAFU, working collaboratively wherever they can, only moving to opposite sides of the table when a dispute or issue arises. I found that the arrangement is working well, suggesting that both the BFAWU and the USW have successfully defined a beneficial role for themselves in worker co-ops. The BFAWU cite Suma as a good employment model to others, and would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with other worker co-ops.

A sector that may be ripe for the union co-op model in Britain is adult social care, although it is noteworthy that the USW and others are developing union co-ops in the industrial sectors they organise in. Skills for Care, an organization working with employers to increase skill levels in the social care industry, report that the number of adult social care jobs in Britain in 2014 was estimated at 1.55 million, and since 2009 local authority jobs in the sector had shrunk by 50,000, while the private sector had grown by 225,000.

However, in my study I found that some unions seemed to be failing to target this growth area of employment in public services. Instead, they were choosing to adopt an ideological mantra that public services should be delivered by the public sector, or were oblivious to the opportunities presented by alternative models of work organisation.

Arguably their ideology or lack of interest flies in the face of the trajectory of the neoliberal assault on public services, and it abandons workers to largely non-unionised employers operating alienating work practises, and denying unions the oxygen of membership growth and innovative thought and action.

There are already examples in Italy, the US, Britain and elsewhere of how social care coops are successfully meeting rising social care demand in the private sector, often encouraging union membership and participation in the process.

Perhaps, it is time that the union movement in Britain and elsewhere took note of what the USW and others in the US are doing in respect of unionised worker co-ops. It’s worth considering how the union co-op model could be applied to their own context, how it may counter alienation amongst their members, and how it may contribute towards their renewal efforts.

The Chevron Way: Big Oil’s Vacation From East Bay Politics Won’t Last Long

By Steve Early - CounterPunch, November 22, 2016

In the two election cycles prior to 2016, the global energy giant Chevron spent more than $4 million on city council or mayoral races in Richmond, CA. Big Oil’s independent expenditures were so large two years ago that they drew widespread condemnation as a particularly egregious example of the unrestricted corporate spending unleashed by the Supreme Court’s Citizen’s United decision.

In our Chevron refinery town of 110,000, rent control was on the ballot this year. That’s not an issue that Chevron cares anything about. So, as company spokesman Leah Casey explained to the Richmond Confidential last month, her employer “decided not to participate in the 2016 local Richmond election,” preferring to remain “focused on keeping the refinery running safely and partnering with the city and the community on our modernization project.” (As a nearby neighbor, I found Chevron’s new “focus” particularly reassuring.)

This fall, the California Apartment Association replaced the oil company as our biggest local spender. According to Kathleen Pender in the SF Chronicle, the CAA and its allies raised $2.5 million to defeat rent control in multiple Bay Area communities on Nov. 8. In Richmond, the CAA pumped nearly $200,000 into its losing effort here (three times more than rent control advocates raised). By a 65 to 35 percent margin, Richmond voters approved a new system of rent regulation, a rent rollback to July, 2015 levels, and the legal requirement that landlords have “just cause” for evicting tenants.

Once again, Richmond progressives were celebrating a singular local triumph over “big money in politics” on election night. The strongest pro-rent control candidates in the 2016 council race, both RPA members, finished first and second in a field of nine. In similar fashion two years ago, three members of the Richmond Progressive Alliance running for re-election to the city council won an upset victory–despite Chevron’s record-breaking spending against them.

Among that year’s winners was a persistent nemesis of Big Oil, former mayor Gayle McLaughlin, the California Green who sought to increase Chevron’s local taxes and county property tax bill to raise more revenue for cash-starved city services.

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