Union and environmental activist Alex Lotorto believes environmentalists should be working more closely with organized labor and following the advice of some of labor’s more enlightened leaders.
When Lotorto speaks with his friends and neighbors who work in the shale gas fields of northeast Pennsylvania, they generally do not have favorable things to say about environmental groups. And when he meets with his fellow environmental activists, solidarity with workers is often missing.
“Hardly anywhere in the conversation do you hear the question, ‘How do we bring the workforce into the picture and how do we make sure that the communities that are losing these well-paying, family-sustaining jobs have something in the end?'” Lotorto, who lives in Scranton, Pa., said in an interview.
There have been attempts in recent years to bridge the gap. For example, the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle featured “Turtles and Teamsters” coming together to oppose corporate-managed globalization. The BlueGreen Alliance was created in 2006 to unite large labor unions and Big Green groups in a more lasting manner, with the goal of addressing environmental challenges while maintaining quality jobs.
And yet, the ties forged between labor unions and environmental groups remain fragile. Lotorto sympathizes with extractive industry employees, including coal miners in the bituminous coal fields of southern West Virginia, many of whom blame federal regulators for their worsening job prospects. “There is a war on coal. And it’s been led by Beltway, nongovernmental organizations,” Lotorto emphasized, referring to the Big Green groups who have made shutting down coal-fired power plants a top priority. “We’ve missed the fact that removing coal from the picture in Appalachia is devastating.”
The federal government is offering some help to the hardest-hit communities in coal country. The Obama administration on Oct. 15 announced the federal government will be giving $14.5 million to 36 programs designed to help coal country communities cope with the economic hardships from the coal industry’s decline. The grants will be used to spur economic development and workforce training to move coal communities away from coal reliance.
Lotorto views these efforts as an attempt by he Obama administration to throw a “bone to labor and a bone to Appalachia.”
Militant and Green
For southern West Virginia and other fossil fuel extraction regions experiencing economic downturns, Lotorto contends a more comprehensive approach is needed to save the communities, similar to the “Just Transition” framework once championed by influential union leader Tony Mazzocchi.
Whether it is northeast Pennsylvania or southern West Virginia, a Just Transition would create “something that is environmentally and economically sustainable,” Lotorto said.
Mazzocchi was a top official with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union, or OCAW, and one of the first labor leaders to work with the environmental movement. Mazzaocchi, who died in 2002, assisted Karen Silkwood in the 1970s as she investigated criminal activity at a Kerr-McGee plutonium plant in Oklahoma. He often warned environmentalists that workers would “eat them for lunch” if they failed to address the jobs issue, Les Leopold wrote in his excellent 2007 biography of Mazzocchi, The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzaocchi.
In response to concerns about the health and safety of OCAW’s members, Mazzocchi and his colleagues came up with a proposal for a four-year income and benefit guarantee for chemical and atomic workers that they called Superfund for Workers. The name played off the 1980 federal Superfund law, which established a cleanup fund for hazardous waste sites. But environmentalists complained the word superfund had too many negative connotations so they changed the name to Just Transition.
Mazzocchi was perhaps more in tune with cleaning up and protecting the environment than many professional environmentalists. Mazzocchi’s ideal labor movement would not just fight to protect a workforce from toxic substances — it would eliminate them. “This movement would be militant and green,” Leopold wrote in his biography. “It would bring about radical changes that would stop global warming. It would give workers real control over the quality and pace of work and over corporate investment decisions.”
Mazzocchi’s ideal labor movement would not fight with environmentalists over whether mountaintops should be removed to extract coal. His movement would simply oppose such unnecessary and appalling attacks on the environment. Cecil Roberts, the well-respected president of the United Mine Workers of America, has flip-flopped on the issue. Roberts generally supports surface mining and mountaintop removal as long as the workers are guaranteed strong safety protections. But Roberts and the UMWA have aligned themselves with environmental groups to protect one particular mountain from destruction — Blair Mountain in Logan County, W.Va. — because it is the site of the legendary 1921 battle between coal miners and mine owners that helped to propel the UMWA into one of the strongest unions in America. (As OCAW’s membership began to dwindle in the late 1980s, Mazzocchi waged an unsuccessful attempt to merge OCAW with the UMWA.)
Bob Wages, who served as president of OCAW from 1980 to 1999, adopted the Just Transition concept of his top adviser, Mazzocchi, to deal with the jobs-versus-environment conundrum and became the first union president in the U.S. to negotiate partnerships with Greenpeace and environmental justice communities.
Escape from Boom-and-Bust Cycles
Lotorto, a prominent anti-fracking activist and a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, is hoping northeast Pennsylvania can create a Just Transition. “We need to be talking about a Just Transition that will keep us from becoming the coalfields of West Virginia,” he said.
One of the policy initiatives eyed by Lotorto and his colleagues in northeast Pennsylvania is a “farm corps” that would allow recent high school and college graduates to serve apprenticeships at local farming operations where they would learn agricultural economics and farming’s best practices. The program also could focus on forestry. “Pennsylvania has a wealth of hardwood timber that two generations ago was almost completely logged but is now grown to be sustainably harvested again,” he said.
Another area of interest is clean technology. The Scranton area, where Lotorto lives, already has in place a skilled workforce, a vast highway system, and warehousing and distribution infrastructure that would prove perfect for creating a cleantech hub, he said.
Residents of Jessup, Pa., just northeast of Scranton, do not believe natural gas-fired generating stations qualify as clean technology. They are fighting power plant developer Invenergy LLC’s plans to build a large natural gas, combined-cycle facility that will likely use large amounts of natural gas produced in the nearby Marcellus Shale to power the facility.
Instead of building a gas-fired power plant, which would sustain an estimated 30 permanent jobs, state and local officials should be working to attract businesses or industry that would create a larger number of jobs, many of them union, Lotorto insisted.
“We’re trying to get the power plant stopped so the land could be used for something else — recycling facilities, food processing, lumber, hardwood processing,” he explained. “Almost anything you could put there would hire more than 30 employees permanently and it would be a better use of that property.”
In Pennsylvania, building coalitions between labor and green groups can be difficult because some environmental organizations take the position that the extraction of coal, drilling for natural gas using hydraulic fracturing, and operating coal-burning power plants must be ended permanently. Factories and mills, on the other hand, can strive to develop more environmentally friendly production processes, University of Pittsburgh researcher Matthew Hemphill wrote in a paper released in August.
For the paper, “Labor-Environmental Coalition Building in the Pittsburgh Area,” Hemphill interviewed leaders and active rank-and-file members of labor unions, environmental groups and social movement coalition groups. Many of the union workers he interviewed talked about wanting to pursue a broader class-based movement that advocated for a government-funded transition from fossil fuels to clean energy and that featured a large worker retraining program.
According to Lotorto, state and local officials in northeast Pennsylvania continue to focus solely on shale gas drilling, even though fossil fuel extraction is a notoriously boom-and-bust industry. The officials “are scared of thinking 30 to 50 years ahead,” he complained.
State laws are already favorable to the natural gas industry. “Policymakers should be asking, ‘What else do we need to be in favor of?'” Lotorto said. “That question would brighten up a lot of people.”