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
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
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
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
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
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
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.