The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists That’s Fighting to Save the EPA

Eli Day

The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists is connecting environmental justice to racial justice. (Via CBTU)

When Ter­ry Melvin was a boy in Lack­awan­na, N.Y., an after­noon siren would occa­sion­al­ly ring out, warn­ing the city’s most­ly black res­i­dents to the avalanche of red soot that would soon explode from the mouth of Bethelem Steel and blan­ket the city. But before mak­ing land­fall, the thick dust would build a home in the lungs of whomev­er toiled inside the Beth­le­hem plant. Over the years, can­cer would sink its teeth into many of the factory’s work­ers, includ­ing both of Melvin’s grandfathers.

And so long before he became Pres­i­dent of the Coali­tion of Black Trade Union­ists (CBTU), Melvin knew some­thing of the har­row­ing con­nec­tion between labor, com­mu­ni­ties of col­or and the envi­ron­ment. It’s a con­nec­tion his orga­ni­za­tion, whose mem­ber­ship includes work­ers from more than 50 nation­al and inter­na­tion­al unions, is ready to drill into the nation­al consciousness.

I spent time at the CBTU’s Octo­ber 13 – 14th Save the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency con­fer­ence in Atlanta, Ga., which brought togeth­er a grab bag of local and stu­dent activists, labor lead­ers and aca­d­e­mics, all devot­ed to lib­er­at­ing their com­mu­ni­ties — and their world — from cli­mate ruin. Their goal was straight­for­ward: diag­nose and set out plans to rem­e­dy what ails the EPA, an agency being rapid­ly ren­dered life­less by EPA Admin­is­tra­tor Scott Pruitt. The one-time Okla­homa attor­ney gen­er­al, who described him­self as a lead­ing advo­cate against the EPAs activist agen­da,” is now doing his part to has­ten the end of human civ­i­liza­tion as we know it. Ear­li­er this month, in a per­fect illus­tra­tion of the fos­sil fuel industry’s cap­ture of the agency charged with reg­u­lat­ing it, Pruitt ter­mi­nat­ed for­mer Pres­i­dent Obama’s Clean Pow­er Plan.

The CBTU, for its part, is work­ing to build a coun­ter­force to the Trump administration’s anti-envi­ron­men­tal cru­sade. Con­fer­ence atten­dees drew up a long list of tac­tics. From teach-ins to mobi­liz­ing region­al and nation­al allies, to cam­paigns aimed at pres­sur­ing EPA lead­ers and key pol­i­cy­mak­ers, the con­fer­ence fea­tured all the hall­marks of a move­ment brac­ing for a long and dif­fi­cult road ahead.

It’s a chal­lenge Mustafa Ali―who helped found the EPA’s envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice pro­gram before step­ping down as its leader in protest of the Trump administration’s cli­mate policies―knows well. In his keynote address, Ali stressed that pop­u­lar orga­niz­ing has always been the moral com­pass guid­ing the EPA: What­ev­er human­i­ty the EPA has shown over the years grew out of the envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice move­ment.” And per­haps it is now being called on to do so again.

But why is a group of black trade union­ists itch­ing for this fight in the first place? Sure, there’s the high-vil­lainy of Trump and his band of fos­sil fuel flunkies play­ing on the knife’s edge of cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe. But the CBTU is, at the end of the day, a union organ, and the fos­sil fuel indus­try has spent enor­mous amounts of mon­ey ped­dling the lie that labor and the envi­ron­ment are locked in a bat­tle that only one can make it out of alive.

This myth was tack­led in a num­ber of ways. For starters, speak­ers made the point that there is an impor­tant labor ele­ment to pre­serv­ing the EPA, with 1,200 EPA union jobs at risk. Atten­dees also dis­cussed the con­cept of just tran­si­tion,” a frame­work for ensur­ing that work­ers from shut­ter­ing indus­tries aren’t left behind on the road to a sus­tain­able future. Not to men­tion that the work­ing class has a pow­er­ful inter­est in Earth remain­ing suit­able for human life.

But Pay­ton Wilkins, Nation­al Direc­tor of CBTU Edu­ca­tion Cen­ter, spoke of some­thing more. The EPA is worth sav­ing because it plays an impor­tant role in pro­tect­ing the com­mu­ni­ties our con­stituents, and peo­ple that look like them, call home.”

Here was the sec­ond, and in some ways lofti­er, goal: It is not enough to pro­tect the EPA from being blown to smithereens. For CBTU, an EPA worth sav­ing is one that grasps the lethal stakes of cli­mate dis­as­ter for com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, and pur­sues racial and envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice as vital parts of its mission.

We want the EPA to exist, but we want it to do right,” Ali said. This is about the sur­vival of our community.”

Which is to say, before cli­mate dis­as­ter became a fea­ture of dai­ly life, com­mu­ni­ties of col­or were already caught in the eye of the storm. Stud­ies con­sis­tent­ly show that com­mu­ni­ties of col­or face greater expo­sure to air pol­lu­tion and lead poi­son­ing, live clos­er to land­fills and haz­ardous waste sites, and are among the first to expe­ri­ence the wreck­age of extreme weather.

Today’s envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice move­ment con­jures many faces, few of them black, few of them women and few­er who are both. But it is no acci­dent that the weekend’s most pow­er­ful words came from this class of unsung hero­ine. We have a job to do. We have a world to save,” said Donele Wilkins, long­time activist and cur­rent pres­i­dent and CEO of Green Door Ini­tia­tives, a Detroit-based orga­ni­za­tion work­ing to spread envi­ron­men­tal lit­er­a­cy and pro­mote sus­tain­abil­i­ty. And we’ll start right here, in our own land.”

Eli Day was an inves­tiga­tive fel­low with In These Times’ Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing. He is a writer and relent­less Detroi­ter, where he writes about pol­i­tics, pol­i­cy, racial and eco­nom­ic jus­tice. His work has appeared in the Detroit News, City Met­ric, Huff­in­g­ton Post, The Root, Truthout, and Very Smart Brothas, among others.
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