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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.

This Is What Insurgency Looks Like

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, May 22, 2016

In a small church in the Albany, NY’s low-income, predominantly African-American South End, forty people were gathered for a community meeting. They were organizing a protest against trains carrying potentially explosive oil – dubbed by the residents “bomb trains” — that were running through their neighborhood. City Counselor Vivian Kornegay told the group that many municipalities had opposed the bomb trains and other dangerous fossil fuel infrastructure, but had little power to protect their residents; it was up to a “people’s movement” to do so. “What we want is for all of us to be free, healthy, and safe – and for our planet to be a better place to live.”

Maeve McBride, an organizer for 350.org, explained that the protest was part of a global campaign of direct action and civil disobedience aiming to keep 80% of all fossil fuels in the ground. Pastor Mark Johnson of the St. John’s Church of God in Christ said, “I heard at a meeting last night that we have a constitutional right to clean water and clean air.” Maeve McBride explained that the action was part of a “new wave” that was drawing on a “new paradigm” – “using civil disobedience to protect the public trust,” which included water, air, and the climate itself.

Organizers had met with officials from the police and sheriff’s offices and reported, “they abhor the trains – and are very supportive of us.” Then the group received direct action training. They read out loud the “action agreement” pledging nonviolent behavior and mutual support. Then they lined up to march and while police officers (played by the trainers) ordered them to move away, they scrambled onto an imaginary railroad track. Later that evening the steering committee for Albany Break Free planned outreach to supporting organizations, phone banks, canvassing, leafleting, and details of the action.

The Albany organizers had learned about the “new paradigm” when 350.org North American co-organizers of Break Free From Fossil Fuels had decided to use the “public trust” principle to frame US Break Free actions and formed a Break Free Public Trust Work Group to spread the idea. Some on the The Break Free Albany steering committee had participated in the working group’s webinar on using the public trust doctrine, and they decided to integrate the Public Trust Proclamation into their “topline message” and to hand out the Break Free Public Trust Proclamation to all participants. (The Proclamation appears at the end of this article.]

A week before the action the Albany Break Free steering committee defined their basic message. Potentially explosive crude oil “bomb trains” roll through Albany and surrounding communities, polluting the air and contributing to the climate crisis. Primarily low-income communities of color are put at risk. The urgent need to address climate change means that fossil fuels have to be left in the ground and a transition made to a “twenty-first century renewable energy economy.” They called for an end to all new fossil fuel infrastructure, including pipelines, power plants, compressor stations, and storage tanks. And they called for a just transition away from fossil fuel energy with training and jobs for affected workers, so “no worker is left behind.”

Labor Network for Sustainability Calls for Support for Oil Strikers

By Joe Uehline - Labor Network for Sustainability, February 2, 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. The IWW is not affiliated with the Labor Network for Sustainability.

Labor Network for Sustainability Calls for Support for Oil Strikers The Labor Network for Sustainability today called for environmentalists and other allies of organized labor to support oil refinery workers who went on strike this week.

Joe Uehlein, Executive Director of LNS, said, “Oil refinery workers are in the front line of protecting our communities against the environmental hazards of the oil industry. Their skill and experience is critical for preventing devastating explosions, spills, and releases. The oil companies ar

e creating conditions that make it impossible for refinery workers to protect us. Their strike is about making conditions that are safe and healthy for workers and communities. They deserve the support of environmentalists and everyone concerned about the rights and wellbeing of working people.”

Oil producers have slashed spending because of the falling price of oil. The result has been devastating for workers on the job. According to Steelworkers International Vice-President Gary Beevers, head of the Steelworkers National Oil Bargaining Program, “This work stoppage is about onerous overtime; unsafe staffing levels; dangerous conditions the industry continues to ignore; the daily occurrences of fires, emissions, leaks and explosions that threaten local communities without the industry doing much about it; the industry’s refusal to make opportunities for workers in the trade crafts; the flagrant contracting out that impacts health and safety on the job; and the erosion of our workplace, where qualified and experienced union workers are replaced by contractors when they leave or retire,” Beevers added.

That does not mean that oil companies lack the money to provide safe and decent working conditions. Refiners’ shares on the Standard & Poor’s 500 have more than doubled since the beginning of 2012. According to LNS Executive Director Uehlein, “It is critical that environmentalists support the rights and needs of working people, just as it is essential that workers support the need for a clean, healthy environment. As we work to protect the earth from climate change, it is particularly important that we advocate for the needs of workers in fossil fuel industries whose wellbeing must not be sacrificed to the necessity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

The Labor Network for Sustainability (www.labor4sustainability.org) is dedicated to engaging trade unionists, workers, and their allies to support economic, social, and environmental sustainability.

Contact: Joe Uehlein, Labor Network for Sustainability: joeuehlein@mac.com

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.

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