Jobs vs. ecology: A dilemma manufactured by the profit system

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Part One of “Jobs vs. Ecology” discussed the debate over the spotted owl, the state of the forests, and the corporate timber barons. This concluding installment looks at conditions for timber workers, the environmental movement, and what action can be taken to preserve both jobs and nature.

‘Owl vs. Man’ was the headline for Time magazine’s multi-page spread on the bird’s listing as a threatened species last year.

‘Owl vs. Man.’ Them vs. us. Polluters and exploiters like to see environmental issues framed this way, as if a sound ecology were inimical to human interests. If we accept this view, they profit. Meanwhile, we suffer.

Why? Because the “environment” doesn’t just include plant and animal subspecies few people have even heard of until their survival is in question. “Environment” also means everything from where toxic waste is dumped to the fact that our immune systems are weakened by the degradation of the planet’s ozone layer.

The environment’s quality means life or death for working people. Ecology is our issue, and we need to claim it in order to turn things around.

Cutting forests, squeezing workers. It is big business, not ecology, that is hostile to most human interests. Nowhere is this truth more stark than in the timber industry.

Harry Merlo, CEO for timber giant Louisiana-Pacific (L-P), summed up the corporations’ attitude to natural resources in these words: “We log to infinity. Because we need it all. It’s ours. It’s out there, and we need it all. Now.”

The companies consider workers in the same way-as a resource to be purchased as cheaply and exploited as thoroughly as possible. L-P is the outfit which closed a California mill in order to reopen it in Mexico, where they pay the employees 87 cents an hour. They are also willing to murder their workers to keep profits high.

In September 1989, at the L-P sawmill in Ukiah, California, a worker named Fortunado Reyes was mangled to death when he climbed onto a conveyor belt to clear it of jammed lumber. The machines were supposed to be turned off before a jam was cleared, but workers were bullied into disregarding safety rules in order not to slow production down.

The way L-P operates is the norm. In February 1989, at a Georgia-Pacific (G-P) lumber mill in Fort Bragg, California, a pipe burst in Frank Murray’s face, causing him to swallow oil full of carcinogenic PCBs.

At the hospital, the company tried to prevent his stomach being pumped, claiming the substance was just mineral oil. The spill area was not closed off, and sixteen people were contaminated and three shifts of workers endangered before the G-P stopped stonewalling.

The union, International Woodworkers Association (IWA), refused to represent the contaminated workers. IWA later tried to cut a deal with G-P that would have reduced an OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) fine for “willful poisoning.”

Most timber jobs are non-union, and the unions that do exist don’t do much for their memberships. Wage cuts and layoffs were fierce through the ‘BOs. Top union officials work in tandem with management to peddle the company line on the environment. The IWA and the Western Council of Industrial Workers (WCIW) formed a coalition last year with Weyerhaeuser, G-P, and other timber companies to defeat national conservation legislation.

But the bureaucrats have not succeeded in pruning all pro-environment sentiment from the ranks of labor.

In Montana, for example, five environmental groups and two unions representing 800 millworkers worked together for four months to develop a proposal designating tracts in the Kootenai National Forest as wilderness, and therefore off-limits to logging, mining, and road-building.

For a holistic environmental movement. For the environmental movement to translate its appeal into effective results, it is going to have to do much more of this kind of joint work.

When it does, it can make great strides. Judi Bari and like-minded Earth First! colleagues have forged new alliances with California workers by helping to combat on-the-job disasters like the G-P accident, renouncing tree-spiking because of the danger it poses to workers, and organizing timber hands into IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) locals. Their success can be measured by the retaliatory violence and dirty tricks against them. (Please see accompanying article.)

As well as with workers, environmentalists need to mend fences and build alliances with people of color. Environmentalists and Native Americans already frequently collaborate together to simultaneously protect resources and treaty rights, but much more needs to be done.

The dumping of garbage and poisons in ghettos, barrios, and on reservations is environmental racism. Three out of every five U.S. Blacks and Hispanics live near uncontrolled toxic-waste sites.

“Cancer alley” is a 75-mile chain of dumping grounds for oil refineries and petrochemical plants lining the Mississippi River. Altgeld Gardens is a housing project in one of Chicago’s Black ghettos built on top of a still-stinking former landfill and near a sludge plant, a steel mill, a paint company, a huge incinerator-and another 80-foot-high landfill.

If these aren’t environmental problems, what qualifies?

The good news is that strong campaigns against toxic waste in poor neighborhoods are being waged all across the country. Some local protest groups have as many as 600 members, and many of them are led by women of color.

Rx: get rid of the profiteers. Our earth is being clear-cut, strip-mined and killed off to provide an ever-growing glut of goods, from paper to pistons to perfumes to petro-poisons-anything capitalists can sell at a price. Our land, water and air are increasingly toxic because industry finds it cheaper to dump its pollutants than clean up its act. Big capital is invested in deadly technologies and many harmful, superfluous products; earth-friendly research, techniques and goods are squelched and kept off the market.

Incessant imperialist wars for markets and resources are scarring our planet as well, and bomb-makers are now the kingpins of industry.

This is the logic of a system defined by the endless, competitive chase after profits. Capitalists must have it this way or go out of business.

There is no way to save and heal the earth-and gear production for human needs-without overturning the system.

Fight the corporations now! Meanwhile, there are crucial battles we need to fight, and some we can win now. Once we dump the despoilers, we want something left of the planet to enjoy and to manage! And it’s precisely these battles that will educate people to the need to get rid of the system once and for all.

We must fight to make the corporations responsible for maintaining jobs while safeguarding the environment. They’re the ones who have reaped the profits from the exploitation of both people and resources over the decades.

The prerequisites for accomplishing this are democratizing the unions in the woods and mills, organizing the nonunion workers there, and building a firm alliance between conservationists and labor. Then we will have the power to make demands and initiate programs like the following:

• Create new jobs through systematic inventorying of the forest and reforestation, including experiments in reproducing forests with the qualities of old growth. In many areas, nobody knows how much forest is left, what condition it’s in, or which species live there. Sustainable forestry can never be practiced without this information.

• Give economically depressed logging communities money and decision-making power over job retraining programs, creation of new jobs in the area, and relocation assistance.

• Remove all time limits from unemployment compensation.

One much-discussed option that will not create new jobs is a ban on export of raw logs. U.S. companies Ship unprocessed logs abroad because that’s where the market is. Trying to stop this is not going to create a market at home, where recession reigns and construction is sluggish. Funding for conservation and job relief can be gotten by:

• Ending subsidies to the mining and timber industries and others which make intensive use of scarce natural resources. Subsidies come in many indirect forms, such as artificially low fees for mining, tree-cutting, and grazing on public lands.

• Slashing the “defense” budget. Alongside its horrific destruction of people and nature and our creations, the Pentagon is an insatiable consumer of finite resources. It is the biggest single U.S. consumer of petroleum.

The tasks necessary to begin putting human beings back into synch with the world we live in are undeniably gargantuan. Fortunately, Mother Nature is very patient and resilient.

But the time to start is now. Even mothers have their limits!

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