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Transforming Transportation–from Below

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, July 2022

People are acting at the local and state level to create jobs, reduce greenhouse gas pollution, and equalize transportation by expanding and electrifying public transit, electrifying cars and trucks, and making it safe to walk and bike. It’s a crucial part of building the Green New Deal from Below.

More than a quarter of greenhouse gases [GHGs) emitted in the US come from transportation – more than from electricity or any other source.[1] Pollution from vehicles causes a significant excess in disease and death in poor communities. Lack of transportation helps keep people in poor communities poor.

Proposals for a Green New Deal include many ways to reduce the climate, health, and inequality effects of a GHG-intensive transportation system. “Transit Oriented Development” (TOD), “smart growth,” and other forms of metropolitan planning reduce climate-and-health threatening emissions while providing more equal access to transportation. Switching from private vehicles to public transit reduces GHG emissions by more than half and substantially reduces the pollution that causes asthma and other devastating health effects in poor communities. Changing from fossil fuel to electric vehicles also greatly reduces emissions. Expanded public transit fights poverty and inequality by providing improved access to good jobs. And expansion of transit itself almost always creates a substantial number of good, often union jobs. Every $1 billion invested in public transit creates more than 50,000 jobs.[2]

Plans for a Green New Deal generally include substantial federal resources to help transform our transportation system.[3] The 2021 “bipartisan” Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provided $20 billion over the next five years for transit projects. But meanwhile, efforts at the community, local, and state level have already started creating jobs reducing transportation pollution – models of what we have called a Green New Deal from Below.[4]

These Green New Deal from Below programs are often characterized by multiple objectives – for example, protecting the global climate, improving local health, providing jobs, and countering inequality. And they often pursue concrete ways to realize multiple goals, such as “transit-oriented development” that builds housing near transit to simultaneously shift travel from cars to public transit and to expand access to jobs and urban amenities for people in low-income communities.

As heat rises, who will protect farmworkers?

By Bridget Huber, Nancy Averett and Teresa Cotsirilos - Food & Environment Reporting Network, June 29, 2022

Last June, as a record-breaking heatwave baked Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Sebastian Francisco Perez was moving irrigation lines at a large plant nursery in 104 degree Fahrenheit heat. When he didn’t appear at the end of his shift, his co-workers went looking for him, and found him collapsed between rows of trees. Investigators from the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division determined that Perez died of heat-related hyperthermia and dehydration. 

They also found that Perez had not been provided with basic information about how to protect himself from the heat. It wasn’t the farm’s first brush with regulators; it had previously been cited for failing to provide water and toilets to its workers. Later, in a closed conference with Oregon OSHA, an Ernst Nursery & Farms official blamed Perez for his own death, claiming that employees should “be accountable for how they push their bodies.”

This year, in a move to avert similar deaths — and force employers to take responsibility for protecting workers during hot weather — Oregon adopted the most stringent heat protections for outdoor workers in the country. The rule kicks in when temperatures reach 80 degrees F and requires employers to provide cool water, rest breaks and shade, as well as to make plans for how to acclimatize workers to heat, prevent heat illness and seek help in case of an emergency. 

The new standard has been praised by advocates, but industry is already pushing back. On June 15, the day the rule took effect, a coalition of Oregon business groups representing more than 1,000 companies filed a lawsuit seeking an injunction against the heat standard and another new rule governing workers’ exposure to wildfire smoke, arguing that they are unconstitutional. But the rules stand for now, making Oregon the third state to enact such standards for outdoor workers, after California and Washington. 

In the rest of the country, as climate change drives increasingly brutal heat waves, farmworkers lack protection. How they fare will largely depend on whether their employers voluntarily decide to provide the access to water, shade, and rest breaks that are critical when working in extreme heat. There are currently no nationwide regulations that spell out what employers must do to protect workers from heat and, while efforts to draft a federal rule recently began, it will likely be years before the standards are in place.

Farmworkers and Firefighters Are on the Front Lines of Climate-Fueled Catastrophe

By Lin Nelson - Labor Notes, February 14, 2022

Despite the short flurry of support (it seems so long ago) for workers on the front lines, many of the folks who help hold our health and the economy together feel abandoned and used up. The Covid calamity and the escalating climate crisis are creating worker sacrifice zones.

In December, more than 700 workers and allies from across the country made their way (online) to the 10th annual Council on Occupational Safety and Health conference, where they shared stories about the conditions that make going to work a risky affair.

Heat and climate were major threads. We might be in the chill-blast of winter now, but we remember the summer’s heat, from fires in British Columbia to evacuated towns in Oregon to the blistering heat in Washington farmlands.

Outdoor workers were at the center of risk this year. Many were sent into floods and fires—to harvest food, to fight the infernos in the West, or to do dangerous storm cleanup throughout the South and Midwest.

These workers grappled with urgent but often inaccessible health alerts about temperature, air quality, signs of heat stress and fire risk. Many didn’t have the benefit of unions, protective legislation, or functioning public agencies, and faced reprimand or firing if they spoke up about their concerns.

Food-service workers are suffering from extreme heat; Few rules exist to protect them

By Matthew Sedacca - The Counter, September 6, 2021

With record-breaking temperatures blanketing the country and no federal heat standard in place, workers find they have no choice but to walk out.

As a heat dome blanketed Portland, Oregon in late June, workers at Voodoo Doughnut’s Old Town location found themselves crumbling in their store. Even with air-conditioning in the shop, ambient thermometers brought in by staff recorded interior temperatures upward of 96 degrees. Workers were breaking out in heat hives and doubling over from nausea. The company’s iconic Bacon Maple Bar doughnuts, with their frosting unable to set due to the heat, literally melted into soggy brown mush.

The high-90 temperatures in the Old Town location were already a drastic surge from the more routine ambient summer heat, which was estimated to be around 80 degrees in the store, even with the fryers running all day. But on June 27, when temperature highs in Portland would eventually reach a record-breaking 112 degrees, it reached more than 100 degrees inside Voodoo Doughnut. Workers went to management and suggested that they close the shop early for their safety. After their demand was waved off, a group of employees walked out and went on strike through Monday, when the city’s temperatures soared even further to 115 degrees

“We would rather walk out on strike than to see a coworker collapse and hurt themselves or suffer heat stroke or worst case scenario, you collapse while you’re over a fryer,” said Samantha Bryce, a Voodoo Doughnut employee in Portland, who participated in a strike with her colleagues over workplace safety in June. “We don’t want someone to get hurt before the company takes action.”

A Just Transition Now or Climate Disaster is Inevitable

Billionaires Can Have the Cosmos—We Only Want the Earth

By Luis Feliz Leon - Labor Notes, July 15, 2021

Fleeing is what the rich do best. Republican Sen. Ted Cruz fled Texas last winter, abandoning millions to freezing temperatures. But some have tired of the Earth altogether.

Billionaires Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Richard Branson are fleeing to space on rockets with stratospheric price tags.

Branson was the first to venture forth July 11, in a gambit to launch a commercial space tourism industry—as if we didn’t have enough trouble with the carbon emissions from excess tourism.

That’s what it means to be ultra-rich—to squander oodles of untaxed cash and rake in public subsidies on boyhood fantasies of “space hotels, amusement parks, yachts, and colonies,” as Bezos put it in high school.

But the billionaires playing space cowboys aren’t like the rest of us. They’re on the other side of the fault line of an accelerating climate catastrophe caused by greenhouse emissions.

Workers who plow fields, erect scaffolding, haul garbage, lay track, and stuff mail are not going to escape onboard a winged rocket. We are going to have to fight to survive on Earth.

For Farmworkers, Heat Too Often Means Needless Death

By Liza Gross - Inside Climate News, July 9, 2021

Advocates say the case of an undocumented Oregon worker during the record-breaking Pacific Northwest heatwave exposes the deadly toll of failed U.S. immigration law.

People around the Pacific Northwest piled into emergency cooling centers late last month to escape the region’s life-threatening heat wave. Sebastián Francisco Perez, an undocumented farmworker in Oregon who had arrived from Guatemala just two months ago, did not have that luxury. 

No laws required Perez’s employer to provide water, shade or rest breaks—let alone a cooling station—to help workers cope with the punishing heat. On June 26, temperatures approached 105 degrees at the nursery where Perez worked, about 30 miles south of Portland. As the mercury climbed, Perez worked until he collapsed and died. He was 38. 

If Congress passed heat standards like those adopted by California in 2005, farmworker advocates say, Perez might still be alive.

The United Farm Workers and Oregon-based Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste (PCUN) urged state officials to issue emergency rules to protect agricultural workers from unsafe conditions during heat waves.

And on Tuesday, Gov. Kate Brown directed Oregon Occupational Safety and Health officials to do just that, temporarily expanding requirements for employers to provide shade, rest periods and cool water during heat waves until permanent rules are put in place.

Over Fifty Organizations Release Green New Deal Plan for Pacific Northwest Forests

By Dylan Plummer - Cascadia Wildlands, June 9, 2021

Today, dozens of forest and climate justice organizations across northern California, Oregon, and Washington released a sweeping Green New Deal for Pacific Northwest Forests platform calling for the transformation of current forest practices on private, state, and federal land in the face of the climate crisis and ecological collapse. The platform emphasizes the critical role that the forests of the Pacific Northwest must play in efforts to mitigate climate change and to safeguard communities from climate impacts such as wildfire and drought. The six pillars of the Green New Deal for Pacific Northwest Forests address the intersecting issues of industrial logging, climate change, species collapse, economic injustice and the disempowerment of frontline communities.

Matt Stevenson, a high-schooler, and the leader of the Forest Team of Sunrise Movement PDX, a youth organization focused on climate justice, said:

As a high schooler, I have grown up without much hope for my future, and with the knowledge that my generation may inherit a broken and desolate earth. Industrial forestry practices and the timber industry is one of the largest causes of this hopelessness, one of the leading destructive forces of the Pacific Northwest, and the single largest carbon emitter in Oregon. If I, or my generation, wants any hope of a liveable future we must fundamentally transform the way we treat our forests.

Jobs and equitable transition: Bridging the chasm between rhetoric and action

By Sean O'Leary - Ohio River Valley Institute, May 26, 2021

There was a time when the sight of rows of office workers hammering away at their Friden adding machines would have sent me into paroxysms of delight because I, the Victor Comptometer salesman, had a new and better “programmable calculator” that could kick the Friden’s ass.

I was a young 1970s college graduate entering the workforce at the tail end of the era of mechanical business automation. Typewriters, adding machines, and mechanical cash registers were still the workhorses of stores and offices.

Behind all that machinery were companies – Burroughs, Monroe, Friden, Victor – whose names were as familiar then as Cisco, Oracle, and SAP are today. And those companies supported factories, sales offices, and repair facilities that provided living wage jobs to hundreds of thousands of workers and their families.

Then, within a little more than a decade, it was all gone. A year after I fizzled as a Victor salesman, I was playing at home with my new Radio Shack TRS-80 home computer and five years later, instead of an adding machine and typewriter on my desk at work, there sat an Apple II desktop computer, precursor to the Mac.

Gone too were those hundreds of thousands of jobs plunging not only workers and families, but entire communities, into financial crisis. One could argue that Dayton, Ohio, once home to National Cash Register and the business forms giant, Standard Register, never recovered.

The knock-out blow suffered by the office automation industry was as ferocious and sudden as the one that hit the American steel industry a few years earlier, the textile industry a few decades before that, and also as the one that possibly faces workers in the fossil fuel economy today.

So how did we as a society help displaced workers and communities manage the economic consequences of the transition from the mechanical workplace to a digital one? We didn’t. Thanks to the New Deal, we had unemployment insurance and Medicare and Medicaid were brand spanking new. But that was about it – a little help for individuals and families and none whatsoever for communities.

“What’s the alternative?”: Answering the hardest question asked by workers and communities that feel threatened by energy transition

By Sean O'Leary - Ohio River Valley Institute, May 18, 2021

At ORVI, we’ve documented the inability of the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries to serve as engines for job growth and prosperity in Appalachia. Although these findings may be greeted with doubt, disbelief, and sometimes anger, we find that, once the numbers sink in and people in the mining and fracking regions of Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley look around at their communities — the struggling downtowns, declining populations, and the departures of their sons and daughters to places far away in search of opportunity — reality usually takes hold.

It can be a profoundly sad moment. But, for local leaders who may have invested years promoting these industries as economic saviors, the realization can be bitter and give rise to a question that is equal parts a challenge and a plea — What’s the alternative?

When you’re on the receiving end of that question, you feel its weight. And, if you don’t have an answer, you can feel that you’re stealing someone’s — maybe an entire community’s — hope and you’re leaving them with nothing.

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