An Oakland Coal Terminal Is Officially Stalled—Thanks To a Labor-Environmental Alliance

Sarah Lahm

Roughly 200 workers and youth marched on Oakland developer Phil Tagami’s house October 30th, 2017 to demand that he drop the lawsuit and all plans to build a coal terminal in Oakland. (Photo: Sunshine Velasco/Survival Media Agency)

In Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, labor and envi­ron­men­tal activists have worked togeth­er to suc­cess­ful­ly stop — at least tem­porar­i­ly — a new coal export ter­mi­nal from being built on the city’s West Side. After res­i­dents learned in 2015 that the export site had been added onto a pro­posed water­front project by Bay Area devel­op­er Phil Taga­mi, they quick­ly orga­nized to con­vince Oak­land City Coun­cil to block the project. While a judge con­sid­ers whether or not to allow the plant to move for­ward, the sto­ry exem­pli­fies a grow­ing trend: Labor and envi­ron­men­tal move­ments are over­com­ing old antag­o­nisms and increas­ing­ly join­ing forces to pro­tect jobs and build a green­er, health­i­er future.

As Oak­land activists and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers wait for a deci­sion on the pro­posed coal project, cli­mate and labor activists in the Bay Area and beyond are work­ing to fos­ter crit­i­cal col­lab­o­ra­tions on mul­ti­ple fronts. Short-term projects, such as the Dako­ta Access Pipeline, are often jus­ti­fied on the grounds that they bring jobs to strug­gling com­mu­ni­ties. Yet, labor and envi­ron­men­tal groups point out that when that work is com­plet­ed, the jobs dry up — and what’s left is pol­lut­ed water, air and oth­er long-term dam­age to the environment.

In Oak­land, oil indus­try exec­u­tives are attempt­ing to use this faulty log­ic to ram the export ter­mi­nal through. Accord­ing to Jer­ry Bridges, CEO of Ter­mi­nal Logis­tics Solu­tions, one ratio­nale for allow­ing coal to be moved through Oak­land via rail­road cars is that peo­ple in the city des­per­ate­ly need the work. Unem­ploy­ment num­bers for Oak­land show that just over 5 per­cent of city res­i­dents lack full-time employ­ment, although these num­bers are notably high­er for peo­ple of col­or.

But orga­niz­ers like Brooke Ander­son of the Oak­land-based group Cli­mate Work­ers have not fall­en for the argu­ment that any job is a good job. Cli­mate Work­ers is a side ven­ture for the mem­ber and union-fund­ed group, Move­ment Gen­er­a­tion Jus­tice & Ecol­o­gy Project. Through Cli­mate Work­ers, Ander­son is help­ing pair work­ers’ inter­ests with what she says is the imme­di­ate need to build a green­er economy.

Along the way, she has worked close­ly with Oak­land-area com­mu­ni­ty activists to ban Tagami’s project on envi­ron­men­tal grounds. A major con­cern is that work­ing peo­ple, par­tic­u­lar­ly work­ing peo­ple of col­or, stand to bear the brunt of any tox­ic impact from the coal export ter­mi­nal. Coal is shipped on open cars,” Ander­son points out. Coal dust flies off the trains and lands on the com­mu­ni­ties and into the lungs of those clos­est to the train tracks.”

Among the com­mu­ni­ties clos­est to the devel­op­ment are Chi­na­town and West Oak­land, whose res­i­dents have protest­ed vocif­er­ous­ly against the move to bring coal into the city.

Many Oak­land activists have fought the pro­posed coal project on broad­er envi­ron­men­tal grounds. If Tagami’s devel­op­ment goes through, it would facil­i­tate the ship­ping of coal from Oak­land to coal-burn­ing plants in Asia. But pro­test­ers and activist groups like the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists have point­ed out that burn­ing coal brings cli­mate change and threat­ens human and ani­mal pop­u­la­tions around the world.

It is encour­ag­ing, in Anderson’s view, that labor groups such as the Inter­na­tion­al Long­shore and Ware­house Union (ILWU) have also stood up to Tagami’s coal export plans. In a 2015 press release, the ILWU announced its oppo­si­tion to coal, say­ing long­shore work­ers are stand­ing by com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers who do not want the wor­ry and risks of nine mil­lion tons of coal pass­ing through their neigh­bor­hoods on trains each year.” The union also said it rejects the typ­i­cal pitch to labor inter­ests, not­ing that coal is not the right way to bring jobs to Oakland.”

Accord­ing to the ILWU, coal is both an envi­ron­men­tal haz­ard and a dirty, low-val­ue car­go.” Instead, the ILWU says it wants devel­op­ers like Taga­mi to invest in clean­er, safer” products.

In response to pub­lic con­cerns, Taga­mi has report­ed­ly com­mis­sioned his own envi­ron­men­tal reviews of coal as part of an ongo­ing law­suit against the City of Oak­land and its ban on the coal export project. Envi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist Lyle Chinkin, who was hired by Taga­mi, tes­ti­fied recent­ly that Oakland’s City Coun­cil over­looked new tech­nolo­gies that could help keep coal dust emis­sions down. City res­i­dents are cur­rent­ly await­ing the judge’s deci­sion in Tagami’s law­suit, which could deter­mine whether or not he will be allowed to move coal through Oakland.

Taga­mi did not reply to a request for an interview.

Turn­ing away from the fos­sil fuel industry

Mean­while, sim­i­lar cam­paigns to bring envi­ron­men­tal and labor move­ments togeth­er are being waged across the Unit­ed States. This grow­ing alliance is at the heart of Michael Leon Guerrero’s work with the Labor Net­work for Sus­tain­abil­i­ty (LNS). Leon Guer­rero has been an envi­ron­men­tal activist for years, hav­ing got­ten his start by help­ing low-income com­mu­ni­ties in New Mex­i­co push for equi­table cleanup of their land. Today, as direc­tor of the LNS, he is at the helm of efforts to change the nar­ra­tive around labor and its role in cli­mate justice.

The LNS was start­ed by Joseph Uehline, who rose up through union ranks as a steel­work­er and con­struc­tion crew mem­ber before even­tu­al­ly becom­ing the AFL-CIO’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive on the Unit­ed Nations’ first glob­al warm­ing com­mis­sion in the 1980s. His vision, accord­ing to Leon Guer­rero, was to see labor take on a key role in the move to get off fos­sil fuels and oth­er extrac­tive industries.”

It hasn’t been easy. Leon Guer­rero acknowl­edges that labor has been noto­ri­ous­ly slow to embrace chang­ing eco­nom­ic real­i­ties. He also points to what he says are burned bridges in the eyes of unions, such as the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment (NAF­TA), which Leon Guer­rero describes as a grand scheme to basi­cal­ly use Mex­i­can labor for U.S. cor­po­ra­tions.” At the time, he says, labor unions fought against NAF­TA on the grounds that jobs would be lost in the push for cheap­er man­u­fac­tur­ing costs and high­er cor­po­rate profits.

In the end, NAF­TA failed every­body,” Leon Guer­rero asserts, and left work­ers in rust-belt states with closed up fac­to­ries and dimin­ished future prospects. It also left traces of skep­ti­cism and dis­trust, since, he con­tends, work­ers were not pro­tect­ed” in the rush to globalization.

The con­se­quences were felt in the 2016 elec­tion,” he says, when union mem­bers vot­ed against Clinton.”

Now, Leon Guer­rero says, we need a real, com­pre­hen­sive, large-scale nation­al effort to tran­si­tion our econ­o­my to a clean ener­gy econ­o­my.” But, he cau­tions, labor unions must not only be at the fore­front of this effort, as he says they are in places like Wash­ing­ton state and New York, but there must be a real pay­off for work­ing peo­ple. Past green-jobs ini­tia­tives, Leon Guer­rero believes, have brought promis­es and train­ing but few, if any, liv­ing-wage jobs.

Work­ers are mak­ing six-fig­ure salaries in refiner­ies, and they are proud of their skills and the train­ing they have received,” he points out. So, what? They’re going to give up their job for solar instal­la­tion work, mak­ing min­i­mum wage?”

The way out still may come from labor join­ing forces with envi­ron­men­tal activists. In Wash­ing­ton, Jeff John­son is the pres­i­dent of the state’s AFL-CIO labor coun­cil. In 2017, Johnson’s labor orga­ni­za­tion passed a res­o­lu­tion in favor of a move towards renew­able ener­gy, as long as it includes a call to pro­tect work­ers whose jobs were lost because of the tran­si­tion away from fos­sil fuels.”

Ander­son of Cli­mate Work­ers agrees with this stance. She has been involved in labor rights cam­paigns for more than a dozen years and has watched as many pol­i­cy-dri­ven shifts to bet­ter envi­ron­men­tal prac­tices have land­ed on the shoul­ders of work­ing peo­ple. Work­ers say the move to reduce water use in hotels, for exam­ple, has led to lay­offs among house­keep­ing staff, while truck­ers — who are often inde­pen­dent con­trac­tors — have strug­gled to keep up with the push to dri­ve expen­sive, new green­er vehi­cles, which they are often expect­ed to pay for themselves.

Many truck­ers are real­ly low-wage, immi­grant work­ers mak­ing $20,000 per year. How can they afford $100,000 trucks?” Ander­son asked in a recent phone inter­view. (This issue came to a head in Oak­land in 2009, when new emis­sions stan­dards forced many truck­ers out of work.)

Accord­ing to Ander­son, the claim that work­ers can have either a good job or a healthy envi­ron­ment is a false dichoto­my: More dol­lars in your pay­check doesn’t mean as much,” she says, “ when your kids have asth­ma or you devel­op cancer.”

Sarah Lahm is a Min­neapo­lis-based writer and for­mer Eng­lish Instruc­tor. She writes the Mid­west Dis­patch col­umn for the Pro­gres­sive mag­a­zine, and her work has appeared in oth­er local and nation­al outlets.

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