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Coal miners in the 60's and 70's leave a compelling legacy of environmental advocacy. (Jack Corn / Wikipedia Commons)

Rank-and-File Environmentalism

Why workers are crucial to halting the assault on the planet.

BY Trish Kahle

To a significant sector of the environmentalist movement, it has become increasingly clear that the fate of environmental struggles are also bound up with the struggles for human liberation, and working class struggle in particular.

Reprinted with permission from Jacobin magazine.

The “jobs versus environment” debate is often seen as a fundamental division between labor and environmentalists, most recently emerging in the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline. Despite dire warnings from scientists about its potentially disastrous environmental impact, the pipeline was endorsed by the AFL-CIO, which justified its decision by citing “job creation.” Estimates range from 5,000-9,000 temporary positions—a drop in the bucket compared to the more than 794,000 unemployed construction workers in the US—and a mere 35 permanent jobs.

Is there any kind of environmental degradation, environmental activists might wonder, unions won’t endorse to secure a small handful of construction jobs?

Jeremy Brecher is right to point in a recent piece to the need for the labor and environmental movements to “evolve toward a common program and a common vision.” To do so, we’ll need to break down the false “jobs versus environment” dichotomy created by capital to obscure the fact that the exploitation of workers and the degradation of the environment go hand in hand.

Noting the common source of workers’ exploitation and ecological degradation is important because it also points us to a solution. Workers are the ones who can halt the assault on the planet.

Energy workers — workers who drill, mine, and frack (and, in much smaller numbers, build and install solar, wind, and geothermal technologies) — occupy a special place at the nexus of capitalism’s ecological destruction and human exploitation, a place that is simultaneously powerful and vulnerable.

Powerful, because energy sets the entire economic system in motion, and any action taken by the workers responsible for producing this energy quickly fans out to every sector of the economy. And vulnerable because the radical realignment of energy production they have the power to affect can threaten their livelihoods.

It’s one thing to point out that workers, particularly energy workers, have the power to bring our planet back from the tipping point; it’s another to get from where we are today, with a labor leadership that appears to be willing to risk the future of our species for slightly relieved unemployment, to where we need to be, with a fighting labor movement willing and able to demand and win our right to live on the planet.

But we actually have a not-too-distant historical example that can give us some concrete lessons: Appalachian coal miners in the 1960s and 1970s who connected the struggle for union democracy and workplace safety to the struggle against “environmental mayhem” through the Miners for Democracy (MFD) caucus, which won control of the international leadership in a 1972 landslide victory.

The MFD is not remembered for its strong stand on environmental issues. The iconic popular culture portrayal of the MFD (and the infamous union boss they succeeded in ousting, Tony Boyle) is in Barbara Kopple’s documentary Harlan County, USA.

In the film, the MFD appears as a “kick the bums out” campaign against Tony Boyle, who, following nearly a decade of trampling over union democracy and ignoring a growing revolt in the coalfields over safety, had murdered the previous opposition candidate, Jock Yablonski, following the 1969 election stolen by the Boyle administration.

Yet the effort to oust Boyle transcended concerns about corruption. Beginning with Jock Yablonski’s campaign in 1969, and emerging even more strongly in the MFD campaign in 1972, the rank and file miners argued that the UMWA “must become the most progressive force in the region,” advocating not only for workers, but the broader communities in which they lived and the planet as a whole.

Yablonski’s campaign came at a moment of rebellion in the coalfields over safety issues. In 1969, over 60,000 miners — more than one-third of the mining workforce — participated in wildcat strikes, demanding safer working conditions and protections from black lung, a deadly (and completely preventable) respiratory disease that comes from inhaling coal dust. That year, 70,000 miners marched on the West Virginia capital to demand black lung legislation.

Yablonski saw the opportunity to connect the struggles for safety and miners’ health with the ecological destruction being faced by coal mining communities outside the workplace as strip mining ravaged the countryside, coal dust blackened the walls of family homes, and poisoned the food and water they ate and drank. Instead of confining the miners’ rebellion to workplace issues, he issued what Rep. Ken Hechler of West Virginia called “a veritable magna carta for the coal miners of America.”

“Every union should have a vision of the future,” stated Jock Yablonski as he announced his candidacy for the union presidency. “What good is a union that reduces coal dust in the mines only to have miners and their families breathe pollutants in the air, drink pollutants in the water, and eat contaminated commodities?”

Although a mere seven months elapsed between Yablonski’s declaration of candidacy and his and his family’s brutal murder in their home at the hands of Boyle’s thugs in Clarksville, Pennsylvania, his campaign laid the basis for the next round of struggle: the Miners for Democracy. The MFD expanded on Yablonski’s campaign, declaring that if coal could not be mined safely and cleanly, it would not be mined at all.

Mike Trbovich, the MFD’s vice-presidential candidate insisted the threat could be enforced: “Beyond the strictly bread-and-butter union issues, we plan to stress this responsibility of the union to the region where our members have to live. Our power rivals that of the coal companies, and we intend to use it.”

Jobs, the MFD insisted, were not at odds with the environment. The caucus suggested that any miners displaced by a national ban on strip mining or enforcement of anti-pollution laws be given other (union) jobs working to reclaim land that had been destroyed by coal companies or building up the infrastructure in their home states which had often been bypassed by state and federal development projects.

The MFD shifted the terms of the debate. Instead of a choice between jobs and environment, they argued for different priorities: people and land before profit.

In fact, the MFD said that investing in the environment was the best way to protect jobs. After all, pursuit of profit in the coal industry had put half the nation’s miners out of work and exacerbated the crushing poverty of central Appalachia. Miners understood that when the coal companies and their collaborators talked about protecting jobs in their defense of environmentally destructive mining, it was an outright lie. Enforcing the tougher land reclamation laws the MFD demanded — which would force companies to repair the damage to strip mining sites — would create thousands of new union jobs.

The MFD was also opposed to the creation of new jobs that would pollute the environment and endanger residents. As the MFD prepared to campaign against Boyle, the government was funneling most of its research money into the process of high BTU gasification — turning coal into gasoline.

Rank-and-file miners did their own research and concluded:

High BTU gasification is very dirty. It uses immense quantities of water. The only reason those plants can be built in the West is because the citizens their [sic] can’t protect themselves from these hazards…Arnold [Miller, the MFD presidential candidate] must fight high BTU gasification because it pollutes even though it creates jobs.

The MFD also challenged the state over the issue of strip mining in the run-up to the 1972 election. Presidential candidate Arnold Miller declared: “Tough reclamation laws are essential and we must insist they are enforced. If the state won’t do it, the union will.” Many miners went even further, calling for a nationwide ban on strip mining.

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Trish Kahle is a graduate student in history at the University of Chicago and a member of UFCW Local 881.

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