Sierra Club logo
Sierra Main
In This Section
  January/February 1999 Features:
Meat Factories
Bringing the Land Back to Life
Night Ride
The Hidden Life of T-Shirts
Brothers and Sisters
Inside Sierra
Ways & Means
Food for Thought
Way to Go
Hearth & Home
Lay of the Land
Sierra Club Bulletin
Mixed Media
Last Words

Sierra Magazine
Brothers and Sisters

Greens and Labor: it's a coalition that gives corporate polluter fits.

by David Moberg

Ralph Tupaz and Irene Gonzalez, the union man and the environmentalist, seem worlds apart. Tupaz is a middle-aged family man who has worked for 15 years at the giant Chevron oil refinery in El Segundo, California. Gonzalez, a 21-year-old student at the University of California at Irvine, comes from a family that blames nearby refineries for persistent respiratory problems and headaches.

One Saturday last June, Tupaz and Gonzalez sat at a table in a Southern California union hall, with a large American flag in one corner and a Labor Party banner in another. They were asked to name the biggest problem facing the country. "Job security," Tupaz said confidently. "Pollution," Gonzalez replied. Has the environment gotten better or worse? "Better," he said. "Especially here." "Worse," she declared.

By the end of the day, Gonzalez was still amazed that workers would put jobs before "the environment, pollution, and all that stuff." But she thought she and Tupaz were making progress. "I started seeing his side," she said, "but I don't know if he understood mine."

Tupaz came away wanting to connect with environmentalists like Gonzalez. "As workers, we don't want to cause pollution, and we want a better environment for ourselves," he said. "We're not there to ravage like a corporation. We hope environmentalists will have compassion for us. We don't want them to go out and eliminate our jobs, but I understand where they're coming from. We have the same feelings."

Tupaz and Gonzalez were brought together by the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) and a coalition of environmental-justice groups, part of a series of such encounters around the country. The hope is that by getting to know each other, they can put aside their differences to work together to prevent pollution at refineries and chemical plants and to derail company efforts to pit one group against the other.

Relations between labor unions and environmental organizations are too often characterized by high-profile conflicts such as loggers battling wilderness preservationists or construction workers squaring off against anti-sprawl activists. But both movements have an interest in clean air and water as well as workplace safety and health, and are increasingly joining together to fight the same big corporations and to elect the same candidates.

In the early 1990s, labor and some environmental organizations-including the Sierra Club-joined forces to oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement because it lacked strong protections for labor and the environment. That coalition was revived and strengthened in 1997, successfully defeating President Clinton's bid for fast-track negotiating authority for global economic agreements. The alliance on world-trade issues whetted appetites for a tighter political coalition, which AFL-CIO President John Sweeney made a high priority after his election in 1995. Sweeney named Jane Perkins, a former labor leader in Pennsylvania and more recently president of Friends of the Earth, to be the labor federation's first liaison to the environmental movement. He also created an environmental-policy committee on the AFL-CIO executive council, a leading member of which is OCAW President Robert Wages.

Wages is a blunt-speaking, self-described "progressive populist" from Kansas who followed his father into refinery work, putting himself through college and law school. Frustrated with the rightward drift of national politics, he was a driving force behind the launch of the Labor Party two years ago. His union holds an environmentally strategic position: virtually all of its 83,000 members work in industries fraught with environmental perils. Its employers, some of the biggest, baddest, and richest global corporations, warn workers that tougher environmental policies will cost jobs or close factories. Since the late 1970s, these companies have in fact cut thousands of OCAW jobs through plant closings, downsizing, subcontracting, automation, and flight to other countries.

Instead of succumbing to corporate anti-environmentalism, OCAW has consistently charted its own course, even allying itself with Greenpeace, whose goal of eliminating the class of chlorinated chemical compounds known as organochlorines (see "Hormone Impostors," January/February 1997) could cost the union thousands more jobs. Wages and OCAW have argued that multinational corporations have no interest in either job security or environmental protection, and that unions-as well as environmentalists-should be prepared to fight them on all fronts for both goals.

"We're not ashamed of this fundamental conflict we have with the corporations," says the 49-year-old Wages, whose cheery, bearded face belies his tough-minded politics. "They have power, money, and much more influence on the development of policy than we do. It's all about profit for them. Once you compromise on fundamental issues that go to the heart of social justice, I don't know how you retrieve yourself in collective bargaining."

Wages' union has a rich legacy of activist leadership going back to 1956, when the president of the Roslyn, New York, local was a lean, intense, imaginative young man named Anthony Mazzocchi. Inspired by Adlai Stevenson's presidential campaign, he turned his local into a force against nuclear weapons testing, leading to links with scientists like René Dubos and Barry Commoner, a biologist who used baby teeth collected by Mazzocchi's members to show that radioactive strontium 90 from nuclear testing accumulates in human bones.

Though never president of OCAW, Mazzocchi was a key figure of the postwar labor movement and the architect of the union's environmental strategy. As its Washington legislative director in the 1960s and '70s, he organized hearings across the country for workers to share their health and safety concerns. Environmentalists bolstered the labor campaign that won the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, just as support from unions like OCAW and the United Steelworkers of America helped pass the Clean Air Act that same year.

At the time, Wages was working in his first refinery and becoming conscious of the environmental impact of his industry. He saw oil seeping into the ground, acid flushed down plant drains, and sewage surreptitiously dumped into the Missouri River. ("I learned early on not to swim downstream from any place I worked," he quips.) Wages was also swept up by the opposition to the war in Vietnam. "I really saw how a grassroots movement turned the country around."

A critical moment for OCAW came in 1973 when the union, with support from the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, called the country's first major strike over health and environmental issues. The strike against Shell, says Mazzocchi, "alerted the nation that you couldn't talk about environmental issues without talking about workers in the plant." The same point was driven home the next year when OCAW member Karen Silkwood was killed, her car apparently forced off the road by another vehicle. Silkwood had been on her way to deliver proof of safety hazards at the Crescent, Oklahoma, Kerr-McGee nuclear-fuels plant where she worked to a union representative and a New York Times reporter. (Her story was later dramatized in the movie Silkwood with Meryl Streep.)

Throughout the 1970s, OCAW was involved in groundbreaking fights over worker exposures to substances like asbestos and vinyl chloride. It criticized the war in Vietnam and supported George McGovern's 1972 presidential bid-positions that often conflicted with the more conservative elements of the labor movement and sometimes its own members. Some OCAW workers in nuclear facilities wanted the union to champion nuclear power, but instead its leaders stuck to their demands for improved technology and safety, steering a path between the views of industry and environmentalists.

With growing environmental regulation, the OPEC-induced energy crisis, and a raging conflict over nuclear power, many in the labor movement in the 1970s argued that protecting the environment was costing union jobs. An OCAW-commissioned study of plant closings concluded that regulations at worst accelerated the inevitable closure of aging, obsolete facilities. It was a discovery oft repeated. As a union attorney, Wages helped oversee the elimination of lead as a gasoline additive. "Many refineries said, 'If you do that, we'll go out of business,' " Wages recalls. "That was the first time I was involved in confronting the big lie-'If you make us be environmentally responsible, we'll shut down.' " Actually, he says, the phaseout of lead created jobs in other refinery processes. "It's the plain truth: employers overstate the impact and try to pit workers against us and the environmental community with job blackmail."

With the tough job of explaining OCAW's support of the lead phaseout to local unions losing jobs, Wages told workers that they "should always understand that the people impacting them are corporate decision-makers. It's not the people trying to clean up the air and water." The union chose to focus on corporate power and accountability. "If a company is willing to completely eviscerate its work family," argues OCAW organizing director Richard Leonard, "then it's probably just as inclined to treat other elements in society in the same fashion-neighbors, taxpayers, consumers, and regulators acting on behalf of society."

The 1980s brought an anti-union U.S. president, corporate union-busting and concession demands, recession, and job flight overseas. Concerned with their own survival, many unions saw environmental issues as luxuries. Even OCAW entered a more cautious phase when Mazzocchi was narrowly rejected as union president in favor of the more conservative Robert Goss-whose campaign manager, ironically, was Robert Wages, later to become one of Mazzocchi's closest allies.

In the early 1980s, Mazzocchi-still active despite his electoral defeat-launched a campaign for the right of workers to know about chemicals in the workplace, which eventually led to national right-to-know legislation. The devastating Union Carbide explosion in Bhopal, India, and a host of disastrous refinery and chemical-plant explosions in the United States led to new union and community demands for tighter safety standards and less reliance on poorly trained non-union subcontractors for maintenance work.

The 1980s also witnessed increasingly automated factories locking out their workers to break unions or force concessions. For help in a nearly five-year struggle against a lockout by the German chemical giant BASF in Geismar, Louisiana, OCAW sought alliances with U.S. environmental groups and Germany's Green Party. After the local union won its fight in 1989, its members increased their dues by $5 a month to staff a Labor/Neighbor Project in the four-parish region surrounding the plant.

The strategy has become standard for OCAW. In Pasadena, Texas, workers shut out of their Crown Petroleum plant allied with neighbors to attack the company's environmental record-which worsened as it operated with replacement workers. "There was a time when a lot of people feared environmentalists would cost them their jobs," says Noel "Duke" King, president of the OCAW local that fought BASF. "Through a common ground, we made the workplace safer, and it won't cost jobs."

A new challenge to OCAW members is the possible elimination of many of the products they manufacture, from chlorinated chemicals and nuclear fuels to carbon-based fuels that contribute to global warming. The union first began to grapple with such upheavals in the 1980s, when nuclear weapons production was cut back and some highly toxic pesticides banned. The federal Superfund law provided millions of dollars to clean up some of these sites, but nothing for worker compensation. "They were going to treat dirt better than workers," says Mazzocchi.

Mazzocchi knew from experience how the federal government smoothed the transition of servicemen returning from World War II by providing up to four years of education and income. European countries had eased the hardship of dramatic job cuts in industries like coal and steel by offering long-term income protection for workers and loans to new businesses. So Mazzocchi argued for a "Superfund for workers," later called the Just Transition strategy.

Mazzocchi envisioned a government-established fund that would provide full wages and benefits plus tuition costs for displaced workers for up to four years of school, plus aid in relocating to find a new job. The fund, directed by government, industry, labor, community, and environmental representatives, could also provide low-interest loans and technical assistance to develop alternative technologies and jobs for displaced workers. Taxes on products being phased out, such as chlorinated chemicals or fuels contributing to global warming, would provide financing. On a small scale, OCAW has tried to negotiate transitional arrangements requiring contractors who clean up former government nuclear sites to give hiring priority to displaced OCAW members and to allow them to keep their union and previous pay. Now it's fighting for similar protection as the federal government seeks to privatize its nuclear-fuel-enrichment operations.

Wages, who was elected president of OCAW in 1991, enthusiastically embraced Just Transition, which is now a hallmark of AFL-CIO environmental policy. "You'll never have sound environmental policy unless you deal with the economic issues that workers face," Wages says. But unlike some of his colleagues, Wages insists that unions recognize the reality of environmental problems like organochlorine toxicity and global warming, and do the right thing. "The majority of members would say we generally support a cleaner environment and when science says something has to be done, we have an obligation to figure out how to do it."

Now science is saying that something has to be done about chlorinated chemicals, an issue in which OCAW has a deep stake. In 1992 the International Joint Commission, a U.S./Canadian body overseeing environmental quality for the Great Lakes region, called for phasing out the production of chlorine-based chemicals, from pesticides to bleach and polyvinyl chloride plastics. There are alternatives, and for society as a whole there would probably not be net job losses (contrary to an ominous study by the chemical industry). But thousands of current jobs would be eliminated. Rather than fight against "sunsetting" chlorine, OCAW and its Canadian counterpart have called for a tax on chlorine products to finance a transition that would "make workers whole" and help communities find alternative employment. Greenpeace has promoted the idea of a planned transition from chlorine as well.

Now representatives of unions and a broad spectrum of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, are meeting at the initiative of AFL-CIO President Sweeney to see if they can agree on global-warming policies. Despite AFL-CIO resolutions opposing the Kyoto climate-change treaty, most unions accept that global warming is real but fear transnational corporations will exploit the pact's exemption for developing countries, threatening union jobs in the richer nations. Many also accept the concept of Just Transition, though they worry that their environmental allies will settle for narrowly targeted programs-the equivalent of handing out gold watches. The United Mine Workers, solidly allied with industry on global warming, doubts that any program will resemble OCAW's vision. "Just Transition is talking about having a good funeral," scoffs UMW political director Bill Banig.

Wages is ready to challenge other unions, environmentalists, and the Clinton administration. To unions he says it's pointless to fight losing battles against scientific evidence and the public good. "What are [UMW officials] going to say to workers in 20 years when the mines are closed anyway?" Wages asks. To the administration, he says, "If you don't deal with social issues, we can't talk." Wages would like to see the use of trade rules or tariffs to prevent transnational corporations from undermining jobs in the United States, "but that flies in the face of this government's stated globalization goal." And finally he warns environmentalists that "it's not enough to give workers five hundred dollars' worth of retraining, a slap on the butt, and food stamps."

Even if restructuring the economy for a better environment actually creates jobs, Wages argues, there will still be some workers who make an enormous sacrifice for the benefit of everyone else. They deserve the nation's help.

"The requirement is that we transition workers from coal to wind, solar, and hydrogen power," says Wages. "I don't consider Just Transition a funeral. But if you shift from fossil fuels, what do you do to protect the infrastructure of manufacturing capability? We have to think about what we are going to produce." When you get right down to it, he says, what's needed is an industrial policy to plan the direction of a new economy.

The AFL-CIO's Perkins credits Wages with opening the labor movement to innovation on environmental issues. "He's the bold inspiration," she says. "He just has a completely different view of how you wrestle this dragon, a very practical and farsighted view about doing the right thing but not getting screwed in the process. There's room for experimentation because it's coming from inside the labor movement."

Yet Wages and other OCAW leaders have a constant fight even within their ranks. Oil workers in Alaska want to open up wilderness areas for drilling, contrary to official union policy. And now OCAW is moving toward a merger with the larger United Paperworkers union, which has clashed frequently with environmental groups on timber policy, paper-mill regulations, and climate change. The merged union will continue to struggle for Just Transition, says Wages, but "there's no question that over time there will be tension over these [environmental policy] issues."

For now, though, OCAW leaders are committed to closer alliances with environmental groups, advance consultation on contentious issues, and taking actions together-rather than reacting to environmental initiatives that blindside them.

Dave Campbell, a leader of the Southern California OCAW local, found out how easily that can happen when he got caught in the middle of a dispute between oil companies and environmentalists. Campbell formed an alliance with neighborhood groups to fight cutbacks in health and safety protection at the Tosco refinery south of Los Angeles, and sponsored meetings with environmental-justice groups. Meanwhile, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) was suing Tosco and four other oil companies and the South Coast Air Quality Management District to force the refineries to install equipment that would recover oil and gas vapors at Los Angeles Harbor. Other refineries throughout California have such systems, but these five took advantage of a local ordinance permitting them to buy junker cars from throughout the region to earn "pollution credits."

Chevron threatened to close the refinery if it lost in court. Ralph Tupaz, the Chevron worker who wanted a closer alliance with environmentalists, denounces the CBE lawsuit as the work of "renegades" from upper-middle-class beach communities who needlessly want to shut down the whole refinery. But the environmentalist he liked, Irene Gonzalez, is from a modest working-class neighborhood and is also a member of CBE, which filed the suit. Neither it, nor the Santa Monica Baykeeper group from more affluent areas, wants to shut down the refinery. They just want it to do what other refineries in California have done. (Tosco has since settled; Chevron has not.)

Although Campbell generally agrees with the environmentalists, he hasn't endorsed the lawsuit. Part of the problem is that they informed him only shortly before they filed, and nobody sought to form an alliance. ("There are a lot of things I'd like to do in the day," Baykeeper Director Terry Tamminen, an individual plaintiff in the suit, said dismissively when asked why he hadn't contacted the union.)

Campbell hopes the meetings with environmentalists will help dampen Chevron's classic "divide and conquer" strategy. But he wishes there had been time for a series of small confidence-building actions to establish a sense of trust between the environmental groups and his members. "Are they [Chevron] making a credible threat?" Campbell asks. "I can't say, but the company often makes decisions that don't make sense, just to punish people." Without established ties, he observes, working with CBE now may be "too bold, too big a step for people to confidently take."

Both union and environmental activists see the enormous potential of a working alliance. But such a coalition has to be built up carefully over time, with both sides gaining trust through the experience of fighting for shared objectives. Labor activists and environmentalists won't be able to agree on all issues at all times, but, like Ralph Tupaz and Irene Gonzalez, they may find that they have more in common than they think.

David Moberg is a senior editor of In These Times.

The staff of the Sierra Club's San Francisco headquarters is represented by the Sierra Employee Alliance, Local 2103, United Auto Workers of America. Elsewhere, Club national staff is represented by an independent union, John Muir Local 100.

(C) 2000 Sierra Club. Reproduction of this article is not permitted without permission. Contact for more information.

Up to Top

Sierra Magazine home | Contact Us Privacy Policy/Your California Privacy Rights | Terms and Conditions of Use
Sierra Club® and "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet"®are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club. © Sierra Club 2019.
The Sierra Club Seal is a registered copyright, service mark, and trademark of the Sierra Club.