Liberation Road

Bridging the Chasm Between Environmental and Economic Justice: A Conversation with Bill Fletcher and Bill Gallegos

Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said about the choice between a clean environment and good jobs, “You can have both, or you have neither.”A rift exists between those good trade unionists who fight for decent jobs and a just economy, and those good environmentalists who fight for a planet where all human beings can be healthy.

In the Appalachian coalfields, the same corporations who deliberately keep non-coal jobs out of the region and blast the mountains apart for greater profits lie to mining communities that the reason for layoffs is the Environmental Protection Agency’s so-called “War on Coal.” An eastern Kentucky retired miner writes, “I prefer dirty coal over ‘Christmas in Appalachia’ pity,” not recognizing greater options.

And so three activists decided to have a conversation about jobs and the environment. Bill Fletcher is committed to economic justice and working class solidarity. Bill Gallegos is dedicated to the environmental justice and climate justice movements. Anne Lewis is a documentary filmmaker with deep interests in labor and environmental justice.

We decided not to hold back from material and political divisions, or from the imagination that has built concrete experiments for unity.

Anne Lewis: You’re coming at this from different angles than the usual talk about jobs and environment. Bill Gallegos, describe the difference between environmental justice and mainstream environmental groups.

Bill Gallegos: The environmental justice movement emerged from the struggle for equality and self-determination of oppressed communities of color. Our focus is on addressing the disproportionate pollution burden borne by communities of color and poorer white communities. Native Americans, African Americans, Latina/os, Asian Pacific Islanders, and working class whites often live near freeways, power plants, toxic waste sites, oil refineries, rail yards, chemical plants and other major sources of pollution. So our base is among working class people of color and working class white folk (in coal country especially). The strength of the environmental justice community is very close to the ground and at the local and regional level where they have achieved many victories over the last several years – closing down coal fired power plants, stopping oil refinery expansion projects and the build out of natural gas power plants, creating local clean energy projects, developing urban organic farms, and so on.

Many of the major big green groups like the Sierra Club and the World Wildlife Fund have a conservation history, seeking to preserve or develop parks and natural spaces. Their base is largely white and middle class, and their orientation has mostly been legal advocacy and lobbying especially at the federal level. The green groups recently invested huge amounts of resources in an unsuccessful effort to pass federal climate and energy legislation. One of the central features of this legislation was a pollution-trading scheme that would have allowed industrial polluters to avoid reductions at the source if they purchased pollution permits or created offset projects, for example planting trees in Mexico or some other place. The idea is that the trees would eventually absorb enough carbon to “offset” the emissions from, say an oil refinery in California. The environmental justice community is strongly opposed to pollution trading because it had failed in Europe (levels of emission actually increased); would do nothing to stop the harm to people in communities near the source; and often displaced local peoples in the Global South from their land. The environmental justice community reached out to the green groups to discuss our concerns around pollution trading and other problems with the proposed federal legislation. The green groups dismissed our concerns with little serious consideration of the evidence we presented or our proposals for alternative ideas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

While there are examples of local collaboration between environmental justice and green groups, major problems continue to characterize this relationship. The green groups receive more than 95% of all foundation monies allocated for environmental work. They tend to pursue top-down lobbying and legal strategies, which leads them to unacceptable compromises because they do not want to jeopardize their “relationship” with elected officials or agency regulators. And most green groups continue to support problematic climate policies such as pollution trading, natural gas as a replacement for coal, and offset programs. The environmental justice community unanimously opposes these policies.

At this point everyone agrees that there is no real chance of achieving federal climate and energy legislation because of opposition from the Republican right wing. This means that the game is now local and regional, which is the strength of the environmental justice community. This creates a new opportunity for the environmental justice movement and the green groups to collaborate, but this collaboration will require the green groups to recognize and accept environmental justice leadership, work with the philanthropic community to address the problem of funding inequality, and re-think their failed policies like cap and trade. There are efforts to build this type of collaboration and I am optimistic that real change could happen.

AL: Bill Fletcher, is there a comparison in the relationship between big labor and economic justice with the relationship between big green and environmental justice?

Bill Fletcher: First, I don’t think that one’s approach or attitude towards economic justice necessarily leads one to a progressive position on the environment. There are a lot of trade unionists who are very good fighters, are into class struggle, but are weak or silent on the environment. So I don’t think there’s a one-to-one correspondence.

When you look at what we know as organized labor, you have institutions much like the big greens that Bill Gallegos described, that were constructed as a result of decades of struggle. They reached a certain pinnacle and then feared they’d lose their legitimacy if they didn’t, among other things, jettison the left – which they did in the 1940’s.1 Since then organized labor has retreated in the vision of its role in society. At the same time union membership has fallen precipitously. A metaphor that I frequently use is that of the man who jumped off the Empire State Building and as he was passing the 40th floor he was overheard saying, “So far, so good.” That’s essentially organized labor.

Every percentage point that we drop in membership, most of the leadership says, “We’re still standing, we’re still here.” Even when they let out the cry, “Well the ground is coming up fast,” it doesn’t translate into the sort of transformation that’s necessary. And a large part of that transformation has to do with the relationship of the union movement to other social movements including but not limited to the environmental movement.

AL: Bill Gallegos, as someone who’s involved in ecological justice how do you view economic justice?

BG: The environmental justice community sees itself as part of a broader movement for social justice and recognizes that economics underlies a lot of the problems in our communities – environmental problems, problems with the educational system, problems with housing, with health care, persistent and widespread poverty, under employment, unemployment, and the lack of real economic opportunity. Economic justice is easily the number one issue in our communities. There’s an understanding that we need to address this problem even as we’re trying to address the problem of environmental racism.

Awareness of the climate crisis has stimulated alternatives – what people call the green economy. It’s a very loose term and means a lot of things to different people, but the idea is there’s a new emerging economy with the potential to address this systemic problem of poverty and inequality. Some in the movement have said that we need to look at the whole continuum of an economy and make sure that every element of that continuum benefits our communities. An emerging economy needs an educational infrastructure, research and development, a business infrastructure, an employee infrastructure, the whole range of professionals and engineers and blue-collar workers. Since a lot will be publicly supported and funded, we have to fight so that the educational infrastructure doesn’t end up in the suburbs with wealthier white kids learning all there is about state of the art ecological economy, so that we’re not limited to solar panel installation or energy efficiency audits, so that our community has the opportunity to become environmental engineers and environmental architects, our small businesses are included, and alternatives like worker-owned cooperatives are based in our communities.

Who is going to benefit from this emerging economy? Is it going to look like the Silicon Valley where the 1% benefitted and a lot of low wage women of color received very few benefits and a lot of environmental harm? We don’t want to see this green economy be a sweatshop economy. We’d like to see it be a unionized economy, a high wage economy, a high benefit economy, one with strong health and safety regulations and environmental controls. We can only do that if we can build a partnership with our sisters and brothers in labor.

AL: Bill Fletcher, the term just transition has been thrown around a lot. What does it mean and how do we begin to get there?

BF: I think that the challenge is to talk aboutalternative economic strategies. So if you’re in a mining region for example, what happens if you close the mines, what happens to the miners? We need to win people over to an alternative economic strategy. Now this is really difficult. It’s much easier to have reactionary responses – anti-climate justice or right wing nostalgia. It’s a community organizing challenge in the broad sense of community organizing. Let’s look at the state of West Virginia. What kind of an economy are we going to try to build in the State? What does it mean in terms of the sorts of industries introduced? What does it mean in terms of job training?

There are very few unions who are prepared to engage in that discussion. The UnitedSteelworkers of America’s alliance with the Mondragon Cooperatives of the Basque region of Spain is an example of an alternative economic development strategy. I’ve heard discussions about taking over abandoned plants. But this has to go much broader.

AL: You mention the steelworkers. What else seems to be offering hope in terms of modeling, particularly in this country?

BF: The Amalgamated Transit Union is under new progressive leadership and they are attempting to build alliances with community based organizations. A key environmental struggle is around public transportation and they want to engage in that. That’s not the way the leaders or the members have tended to look at the union and so ATU President Larry Hanley is calling on them to think differently about their role.

At the same time, as we see in Keystone Pipeline debate, the problem is being defined as jobs versus the environment. Traditional union people often feel that the environmental movement is insensitive to the jobs crisis. There is some truth to that but, as I’ve said to people in the union movement, “You’ve got to breathe.”

Just the other day, I was in a planning session with some unions that were talking about the construction of an incinerator that was a polluter. The main focus of attention was whether the incinerator was going to be built with union labor or non-union labor. And I posed a question, “What difference does that make if it could have devastating environmental consequences for people living there.” They nearly ran me out of the room, “ Fletcher, how dare you say what difference does it make. We want union labor.” I was saying in response, “Yeah, yeah we want union labor but I’m asking this other question. What are the ramifications of building this incinerator right in the middle of poor communities?” Few people wanted to respond to that question.

AL: How are you going to move that one forward?

BF: Ultimately there are decisions that can’t be made by staff people or well-intentioned outsiders. Elected leaders are going to have to make decisions and it’s not an easy answer, it’s a discussion. There needs to be discussion about the consequences. If there was union labor to build concentration camps would that be okay? Let’s talk about what’s being built in the case of this incinerator. What are the social consequences and doesn’t the union have an obligation to speak up about that?

AL: It seems like there’s a big split between unions as well. The National Nurses Union takes a very different position from the building trades.

BF: Well in part it’s easier for them. That’s why I don’t make light of this difference. The building trades, by definition, are workers that build things or knock things down in order for things to be built. That’s not the role that nurses have.

If nothing is being built, then you have thousands of people who are sitting around. It’s one thing for a leader of nurses, public sector workers, and so on to say that the union must speak out on these incinerators, but it’s another when you are leading the laborers’ union or the carpenters’ union or the electricians. Things become very complicated and we cannot make light of that. Think about it for a second. We are saying that we need leaders in the building trades to speak out against construction projects—such as the incinerator—that, by the way, could actually put a significant portion of their members to work if it’s built.

My point is not that this should be avoided but that we should understand the stakes. We need to think through how to not only win over leaders, but how to win over members of unions that are directly affected by environmental decisions.

AL: Bill Gallegos, how would you respond? How would you begin talking to people in labor who are directly impacted in terms of jobs?

BG: It’s going to take quite a long time because at the national level labor does not fully understand the climate crisis and is not ready for its political consequences. The possibilities that exist now are on the local and regional level. I’ll give you some examples.

In Los Angeles there’s an organization called the L.A. Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE). It’s not an environmental justice organization; it works around jobs and the economy. But they developed two significant projects with the Teamsters Union. One is called the Clean and Safe Ports Campaign.

The Port of Los Angeles, which adopted the LA Clean Truck Program in 2008, has:

  • Banned more than 10,000 late-model, heavier polluting trucks;
  • Provided nearly $200 million in port subsidies and leveraged more than $600 million in private investment of 10,000 clean diesel and natural gas fuel trucks; and,
  • Reduced diesel pollution by approximately 80%.

The L.A./ Long Beach port complex is the busiest in the United States and handles 80% of the trade from the Pacific Rim within the U.S. The port is expanding – it’s going to double in size – and the expansion of diesel truck traffic will primarily affect poor black and brown communities along the Alameda Corridor. The Teamsters and LAANE formed a campaign to help these (independent contractor) truckers clean up their vehicles, placing the cost of greater energy efficiency on the shipping companies, and allowing the truckers to become employees of the companies. It was an enormous environmental benefit. There was a benefit for the truckers because they had been responsible for everything – the trucks, the upkeep, the insurance, fuel costs – while the shippers got a free pass. But as employees of the shipping companies, they could join the Teamsters Union.

This is an example of how a social justice organization and the labor movement came together and found common interests. For the Teamsters it was unionizing these truckers; for LAANE it was creating good jobs and helping the environment.

Then LAANE began a second campaign with the Teamsters to restructure the waste disposal industry in Los Angeles, which creates enormous environmental impacts primarily in poor communities of color, and is largely a sweatshop industry. The Teamsters and LAANE launched the campaign “Don’t Waste LA” that will result in the consolidation, unionization, and environmental cleanup of this industry.

This is how change is going to come. It’s going to come from local efforts, grassroots efforts that become a model. So we don’t just talk about just transition. We can actually say, “Here in the ports of Los Angeles, this transition is happening. Here’s the impact and the benefits. It’s not a concept anymore. In the waste industry in Los Angeles, this just transition from dirty horrible polluting industry to a much cleaner industry and a union industry is happening.” We need to draw lessons from best practices and think about how we can spread those efforts throughout the country – even as we work at the top to have a good conversation with the AFL-CIO leadership.

AL: Bill Fletcher, why do you think the conversation at the top is so difficult?

BF: I actually think that a lot of the problem is directly related to the elimination of the left in organized labor. I don’t mean that the Left has always been good on environmental issues. We have had plenty of economic determinism and climate avoidance in the Left. But I think that the failure of organized labor to consider options outside of traditional paths has made it especially difficult for mainstream labor to embrace the messages from the environmental movement and climate justice.

AL: I can see that cutting both ways. It’s true of labor. It’s also true that in the mainstream environmental movement that the lack of a Left has made it difficult for people who were working class. In other words, it’s hard for coal miners to think friendly towards the mainstream environmental movement because there’s the question of class base.

BF: Well I think that that’s true but I think at the same time the number of coal jobs, miners’ jobs, have been steadily dropping for the last 50 years. That’s not because of the environmental movement. Instead, the environmental movement has served as a convenient target for reactionaries and right wing populists to explain away the use of new technologies in mining that have lessened the need for miners. So the question in West Virginia really calls upon people to look very differently, in fact very radically (although it doesn’t seem that radical anymore) at forms of alternative economic development.

AL: Bill Gallegos, do you see these alternative economic models as a way to deal with climate justice? Are they going to get us there?

BG: It’s going to be tough. The Climate Justice Alliance had a labor organization that joined and then pulled back because they got pressure (I think around Keystone). So there were folks who wanted to be part of this, wanted to engage, were very progressive, had great ideas and little by little they started to pull back.

We need to get into this with our eyes open. Twenty years ago we would have been able to talk to a whole range of folks who had caucuses and leadership – folks on the left who were in the steelworkers, who were in the autoworkers, who were in a number of other industries. We don’t have that now.

We’re going to have to look at creating alternative economic models even as we’re working for a larger social transformation. We need to say, “Look, here in northern Arizona, the Navajo Nation, there is a model of cooperative economic development that’s working,” even as we’re building up our forces to take this to scale. What I hope is that the brothers and sisters inside of labor who are fighting for the perspective of social justice unionism can make some headway, and within the climate justice movement those of us who recognize the strategic importance of this relationship with labor can confront some of the understandable pessimism that exists in the movement about whether this is doable.

I’ll give you one example. When we were trying to stop Chevron from expanding its refinery in order to refine dirtier grades of crude oil in Richmond, which would have had huge greenhouse gas emissions and also would have added to the poisoning of the black, brown, and Laotian folks who live near that refinery, the building trades tried to physically intimidate our members. They raised a really nasty campaign – nasty enough that Chevron didn’t have to do it. So this is a bitter experience for folks. But as much as we need to stand up to that and criticize that kind of behavior, we still have to look at the long term. We need to support the folks in labor like Bill Fletcher and Fernando Gapasin and others who are ready to fight for transformation on the inside.

AL: Can you tell us more about what’s going on in the Navajo Nation?

BG: The Navajo Nation is the largest Indian nation in the U.S. and it’s a very poor economy. Unemployment rates are 70%. A lot of the small towns and villages on the reservation don’t even have access to water because it’s piped to Phoenix and Scottsdale for golf courses and resorts. But the Navajo Nation does have 10,000 jobs related to the coal industry – mining production, transport, and a large coal fired power plant that provides energy, among others, to the Department of Water and Power in Los Angeles.

There has been a big campaign to get the LADWP to end its coal contracts and to convert to clean energy. And they’ve agreed to do that. They’ve said, “We’re going to end our coal contracts with the power plant in the Navajo Nation in Arizona by 2025 and also with one in Utah.” The plan is instead of replacing that coal with clean energy, with solar, to replace it with natural gas. The Black Mesa Water Coalition , which organizes in the Navajo Nation is saying, “No! This should be a clean energy project and this project should reflect the way we get off dependence on the coal industry. We should become a solar, wind center for Arizona and for the country. Let’s replace this coal-fired power plant with a solar project. We’ll keep the contract with the LADWP so we keep people working.”

The Navajo Nation has identified three other areas for creating a viable people-centered economy. One is the wool industry – spinning, creating textiles and rugs. Others are agriculture and what’s called ecotourism. So they see clean energy, wool, agriculture, and ecotourism as the pillars of a viable economic infrastructure in the Navajo Nation – so it won’t be dependent on coal or casinos.

They’ve worked out an idea for just transition. They’ll need large investments – where do you get the investments for this kind of infrastructure without compromising and without selling your soul to Wall Street. There are a lot of problems that they’ll need to solve. But I think this small group of people in the Navajo Nation are doing outstanding, pioneering work addressing the ecological crisis, the economic crisis, and looking towards creating a democratic local economy – and mostly women in leadership of that project.

AL: How does this connect to economic transformation, to socialism? How does it begin to address the vast environmental problems that this capitalist economy has created?

BF: Bill Gallegos and I were talking several months ago about the right wing and climate denial. There are different sources of climate denial. One form is that of bizarre religious explanations. Another is a feeling of being so overwhelmed by the extent of the crisis that it’s easier to simply deny that it exists – much like other things that people deny. And a third is that many on the Right truly understand that in order to address climate, you have to address the economy. That’s not what many mainstream environmentalists accept, but the right does understand. And given that large swath of the right wing is prepared to be genocidal and make millions of people redundant, they can afford to be in denial. They’re not prepared to address what really needs to happen in terms of changing the economy – the solution really does come down to some kind of fundamental socioeconomic transformation.

The problem with some folks on the left though is that they describe the extent of the catastrophe and then they jump to, “Well therefore we need socialism.” And while the conclusion is correct, I think we have to understand that getting there—to socialism—is a process of ongoing struggle through various stages. Some of those stages are going to involve battles for structural reforms that address or attempt to address the environmental crisis even while capitalism continues to exist.

BG: Every environmental justice organization talks about helping communities understand the systemic roots of environmental racism. They talk about it but it’s very difficult to do in practice. You get so caught up in the demands of your immediate campaigns that people have had a difficult time integrating political education. There really is a need to understand the lived realities of working people of different cultures and nationalities for the environmental justice community and for other movements as well.

The environmental justice community needs to make a very intentional effort to link the economic and ecological crisis, to reveal the root causes of those crises, and to stimulate a conversation about is there a better way, is there a better way that we can live in this country.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is an internationally known racial justice, labor and global justice activist and writer.  He is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the co-author (with Dr. Fernando Gapasin) of “Solidarity Divided,” and the author of They’re Bankrupting Us – And Twenty Other Myths about Unions.”

Bill Gallegos is a long time activist with roots in the Chicano Liberation Struggle and a leader in the environmental justice movement.  He is the author of two major articles on Chicano Liberation:  “The Sunbelt Strategy and Chicano Liberation” and “The Struggle for Chicano Liberation” He is a member of the Climate Justice Alliance.

Anne Lewis is a documentary filmmaker whose films include: On Our Own Land (DuPont-Columbia award), Justice in the Coalfields (Gold Plaque, Intercom), and Morristown: in the air and sun about factory job loss and the rights of immigrants. She serves on the executive board of the Texas State Employees Union TSEU-CWA 6186.

1 The Taft-Hartley Act in 1947 let loose a wave of repression of trade unionists. This was part of the Cold War as conducted in the USA.