Locked-out steelworkers forge promising alliance with eco-activists

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As the “Battle of Seattle” shut down the World Trade Organization (WTO) last winter, one thing definitely stood out -the deepening alliance between environmentalists and unionists, particularly steelworkers. This is a most welcome turn of the tide!

During the past years, media coverage of hot-button issues such as protection for the spotted owl has pitted eco-activists against labor. The disappearance of good jobs was blamed not on mechanization, speedup, and resource depletion, but on nature lovers who, supposedly, prioritized animals over humans. (See FS Vol. 12 Nos. 3 and 4.)

But now, barriers between environmentalists and workers are crashing down, to the cheers of anti-corporate organizers around the globe.

United by a common foe

Credit must go to Maxxam CEO Charles Hurwitz, Texas billionaire and infamous corporate raider, for his unwitting role in sparking this inspiring convergence.

In 1985, Maxxam took over Pacific Lumber, and Hurwitz laid plans to clearcut old-growth redwood stands in northern California. This galvanized opposition, notably from Earth First! Then, in 1988, Hurwitz took control of Kaiser Aluminum Ñ and promptly began clearcutting jobs by closing plants.

In 1998, after Kaiser had been already chopping at employee benefits for 15 years, Hurwitz presented a contract proposal that would have meant yet more job cuts, contracting out, decreases in retiree benefits, unlimited forced overtime, and wages averaging $11 an hour – the lowest in the industry.

In September 1998, 3,100 members of United Steel Workers of America said “Enough!” and struck five Kaiser plants in Washington state, Louisiana, and Ohio. After three and a half months of determined picketing, USWA offered to go back on the job while negotiations continued. Instead, Kaiser locked the workers out.

Incensed, the steelworkers went on the offensive. “Road warriors” began traveling around the country to seek support and extend solidarity to others.

Learning of anti-Hurwitz organizing by environmentalists, steelworkers visited California. A fruitful collaboration sprang up; hard hats joined forest defenders in tree-sits, and eco-activists publicized the union’s fight. In April 1999, they jointly founded the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment.

Then came the anti-WTO eruption in Seattle. Many steelworkers deviated from the cautious AFL-CIO plan and joined the militant protests of the direct-action folks, many of them environmentalists. The campaign of police violence hit not only young anarchists but also the steelworkers beside them, and USWA was prominent in the vigils and rallies against cop brutality that followed.

Over the next months, the solidarity and spiritedness of the WTO protests had a dynamic effect on the organizing against the lockout.

To press the Washington state legislature to extend unemployment compensation for the steelworkers, the union staged a weeks-long sit-in at the Capitol, the first in 20 years. Family members, other unionists, students, retirees, environmentalists, feminists and leftists all joined with them in bedding down on the marble floors.

Meanwhile, several groups – including USWA, Direct Action Network, members of International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union, and the local post-WTO coalition – were planning three days of mass rallies and civil disobedience at a Kaiser plant in Tacoma, Washington. The idea was initially endorsed by two of the state’s largest central labor councils.

Officials drag on the reins

But then labor leaders got cold feet. Perhaps they were loath to be part of high-profile protests that would embarrass Democrats in a hotly contested election year. In any case, USWA authorities unilaterally cancelled the planned events, a move that the head of the Pierce County Labor Council rationalized with a nasty public attack on anarchists as dangerous and untrustworthy.

This episode exposes all of the worst traits of labor officialdom: reliance on the Democrats, champions of management who count on being seen as the lesser of two evils (they never did come through on the extension of unemployment benefits); fear of the rank and file getting “out of hand”; and the squelching of militancy by redbaiting.

If top AFL-CIO leaders had their way, the whole anti-WTO movement would become just an appendage to their anti-China campaign – which is motivated not by altruistic concern for human rights, but by self-serving protectionism infused with old-time anticommunism. It is grossly hypocritical for union officials to bash China while endorsing “free trade” cheerleader Al Gore!

Those labor misleaders whose outlook is narrow find common ground with conservative eco-leaders. Both characterize the problem as “rogue” corporations – a few rotten apples spoiling the whole, otherwise fine capitalist barrel.

What they don’t acknowledge is that the problem is really the profit system as a whole. If it weren’t Hurwitz raping the land and slashing jobs, for example, it would be some other corporate John Doe. The fact that Hurwitz- predecessors at Pacific Lumber and Kaiser operated with less viciousness only reflects the fact that we’re in leaner, meaner times.

Let’s not squander the promise

The eco-labor alliance did not develop overnight. The seeds for it were sown over decades by socially conscious unionists and class-conscious environmentalists.

The late Judi Bari, a persuasive voice within Earth First! for strengthening ties with workers, was both. It’s no accident that Bari, a feminist and labor organizer, played this role. She represents the changed face of the U.S. workforce, made up today mostly of women, people of color, sexual minorities, and immigrants, whose second-class citizenship brings nothing-to-lose militancy to the house of labor.

These are the people who must be mobilized as the true friends of USWA and environmentalists in the fight against Kaiser/Maxxam. They are the people who can be the backbone of the mass labor action that it will take to win a fair contract and reparations from Kaiser. And they are the ones to turn to in order to ensure that the budding green-labor alliance does not wither, but grows and takes on the strength of steel.

Unionists speak out

PRENTICE BEATY hired on at Kaiser 20 years ago and most recently worked as a welder at the Mead plant in Spokane, Wash.

ON RACISM: “Sometimes, people can’t find their way out of attitudes they’ve been raised with until a situation like the strike arises. There’s been change since the strike. The majority of the union is white men. Some strikers made racist remarks to some of the company guards who were Black. That gave me a chance to educate my brothers.”

ON WINNING THE STRIKE: “There needs to be a big-time understanding by Kaiser that we’re going to ride this pony until it can’t stand. Even if it means Kaiser melts to nothing. This is truly about justice, and I’m willing to stay out here until we get our jobs back or until there are no jobs for us or the scabs. It’s us back in the plant, or no plant at all to return to.”

ANITA RABIDUE, a pioneer woman steelworker, was a furnace operator at Spokane’s Trentwood plant before the strike.

ON BEING A TRADESWOMAN: “I underestimate myself. But my ornery mother always said, “You need to stand up for your rights.” It was hard when I first started in the early “70s. We had to take endurance tests, and the guys were always testing me. But I wouldn’t quit. Now, I think of myself as “union made.””

ON BUILDING A MOVEMENT: “The environment is everyone’s issue. When the guys went down to the redwoods, talked to environmentalists and found out what was happening, steelworkers made the International [union] aware. And we got out there. We’ve been in every state. It’s become a movement. I’ve become an activist. We’ve become the activists we didn’t know we were waiting for.”

For more information or to find out how you can support the steelworkers, call the union at 253-351-0511 or visit the websites www.uswa.org and www.asje.org.

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