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Energizing labor and environmentalists

A Green New Deal for rural economies

“People talk often about the infrastructure investment that has to happen….but there’s also an industrial plan that needs to happen to build entirely new industries.

It’s sort of like the moonshot. When JFK said America was going to go to the moon, none of the things we needed to get to the moon at that point existed. But we

tried and we did it. The Green New Deal touches everything—it’s basically a massive system upgrade for the economy.”—Saikat Chakrabarti, Chief of Staff to Rep. Octavio-Cortez.

Recently, Representative Derek Kilmer, 6th Congressional District, met with regional representatives of federal agencies, state agencies and private groups, along with Grays Harbor County government leaders, businesses, and individuals, to discuss economic development in the County. It got me wondering whether there were any representatives from labor unions or environmental groups, both active in the area. Perhaps there were, but I’m doubtful. Economic development discussions often exclude these groups.

Who sees that we need resources for the future as well as the present

There is a clear explanation for isolating those two groups. Conventional opinion is that union and environmental activities burden a company’s profits. In reality, such activities are essential to economic growth over time. Both the labor and the environmental movements grew out of the same seed: the desire for safe and healthy workplaces and communities.

Historically, the labor movement in America was created in an effort to protect people at work from abuses such as long hours and unsafe working conditions. The emergence of unions reflected the fact that working people needed economic and legal protection from exploiting employers.

Correcting problems in the 60s promoted growth in the 70s

Workplaces of the mid-twentieth century faced multiple environmental problems, with pollution, toxic emissions, and unsafe plant conditions. Employers provided no information about health hazards or even what hazards existed. Factory owners and industrialists resisted efforts to improve conditions on the basis that if they ensured decent working conditions, it would reduce their profits.

The environmental movement emerged to address additional harms. Environmental concerns focused on clean water supply, more efficient removal of raw sewage, and reduction of crowded and unsanitary living conditions. The industries responsible for much of the water and air pollution balked at efforts to reduce toxic emissions solely because it would add to their costs. They simply ignored harmful and dangerous effects on human and animal populations.

Labor and environmental groups share goals

During the 1970s, unions and environmentalists came together to fight for a safer, greener world, including at the workplace. The President of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union (OCAW) stated at that time,

“Organized Labor must emphatically support environmental efforts and must never get into the position of opposing such efforts on the grounds of economic hardship. Our position must be that nearly all polluting facilities can be corrected without hardships to the workers, and that in those few cases where corrections are not possible new job opportunities or compensation must be provided for the workers.”

The International Woodworkers of America supported wilderness preservation to give its members a place to rejuvenate in their free time, while green organizations assisted the union in trying to clean up toxic workplaces that threatened its members’ health.

It is not a coincidence that so many laws passed to protect our communities involved environmental and workplace impacts and were supported by both labor and environmentalists: Fair Labor Standards Act 1938 and subsequent amendments; Clean Air Act 1963; Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) 1970; Clean Water Act 1972; Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act 1983, to name a few.

Preventing or eliminating damage

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) 1970 preamble makes clear the goal of making sure that increased industrialization and growth was balanced with quality of life:

“To declare national policy which will encourage productive and enjoyable harmony between man and his environment; to promote efforts which will prevent or eliminate damage to the environment and biosphere and stimulate the health and welfare of man …”

Workers are more productive, bosses take the fruits

Since that time, however, both labor and environmentalists—along with our communities—have lost ground. As corporate power increased, labor unions lost membership. This is no accident, but a dedicated effort by industry to realize an ever-greater share of profit for its executives and shareholders by keeping wages and benefits down. In 2018, US bosses now earn 312 times the average pay of a worker. Wages fall as corporate profits rise. Working conditions in many industries have deteriorated as companies demand speed up and higher production.

Simultaneously, the pushback on environmental protections and the denigration of the environmental movement achieved the same result. Employers enlisted workers to rally against environmental measures by threatening layoffs or a complete shutdown of operations if such measures were pursued. Often presented as “jobs versus the environment,” these conflicts have captured the most attention and helped to shape the perception that environmental protection is antithetical to economic expansion, job preservation, the interests of workers, and the survival of communities.

This corporate lie has helped to erode the strength of unions and to undermine support for environmental protection. Corporations have used the two groups, labor and environmentalists, as pawns in the ongoing game of corporate exploitation of working people and of natural resources.

Blackmailing rural areas

Rural areas, which are often depressed areas where people have fewer options for work also often contain the last vestiges of an unspoiled natural environment. Thus rural communities become battlegrounds for “jobs vs. environment.” Even our children’s education in Washington State is being held hostage as state lawmakers blame their inability to properly fund schools as a battle of jobs vs. the endangered Marbled Murrelet, creating the same false dichotomy they employed with the Spotted Owl.

Counter the CEO alliance with a labor-environmental alliance

Brian Obach, writing in his book Labor and the Environmental Movement, argues that

Labor unions and environmental movement organizations are among the most powerful social movement sectors in the United States. When they are capable of acting together they can advance policies that protect both working people and the natural environment. Yet divisions between these two actors can yield environmental devastation and attacks on the interests of workers and their unions. The creation of a just and sustainable economy depends on the ability of these two social movement sectors to come together to advance this common goal.

…acting together [labor and environmental organizations] can advance policies that protect both working people and the natural environment.

“When unions and environmentalists have positive relations with one another and form an ongoing alliance, they present a formidable political force potentially capable of redirecting economic and environmental policy in fundamental ways. A recent example of this was the collective action by treaty tribes, community citizens, railroad, longshore workers, maritime workers, and environmental organizations to preserve Grays Harbor and its waterways from the dangers posed by an influx of crude oil tankers. This collective effort could foster tremendous job opportunities if allowed to flourish.

A Green New Deal is the way forward

Rather than fall victim to corporate propaganda, labor and environmentalists should join forces to bring new manufacturing and innovative technologies to our communities. The Green New Deal just such an opportunity. This initiative can support our community in generating industries that use local materials and create goods which can be used locally as well as exported to other markets. There is no reason why family living wage jobs cannot also be safe for both the workers and the environment. We need to break out of the old dichotomy and strive for a united front to work on solutions with each other and our elected officials.
Let’s make sure the next time our community leaders meet to discuss economic development, we are sitting at the table.

Linda Orgel lives in rural Grays Harbor County on the south shore of Grays Harbor Estuary. Along with her partner RD Grunbaum, she is active in community groups fighting for environmental, social, and economic justice.

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