“Environmentalists and health-safety activists have a common goal: the eradication of pollutants from work and the environment alike. And in this, we sink or swim together,” Canadian Labor Congress Secretary Treasurer Dick Martin told the CLC’s first joint environment and workplace health and safety conference in Winnipeg late last year.
Workplace exposures to hazardous chemicals at high levels for long periods of time make millions of workers sick each year. Though worth the struggle, just making the boss meet OSHA recommended limits isn’t always enough. US Government limits presume exposure to healthy young adults, are sometimes based on self-serving data provided by manufacturers, and do not meet with general agreement in the occupational health community.
“Check out the exposure limits they have in Norway,” says Dorothy Wigmore, an occupational health and safety professional with the Canadian Auto Workers and McMaster University Labour Studies Program. “Norwegian thresholds are a fraction of what US OSHA recommends.”
Workplace toxics follow us home. Numerous studies have shown that the distribution of industrial wastes can be predicted by the income levels (the lower the income the higher the amount of toxics) and race (toxics are found most often in communities of color) of residents.
Corporate leaders tell us it’s a choice between jobs and the environment. Confronted with this no win choice we need to look for other alternatives.
In the US the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers union (OCAW) has been in the forefront of recognizing environmental issues as union issues. In the 1980s OCAW was con- fronted with the longest lockout in US history at a BASF chemical plant in Geismar, Louisiana. BASF’s attempt to break the union was unsuccessful because of community/labor coalition building around the health and safety concerns in the plants and the environmental poisons causing health problems in the area of the plants.
The fear of job loss if environmental and safety needs are met is a legitimate fear in this economy. An OCAW booklet on labor and the environment says this about “job fear”: “There is good reason to be worried about our jobs. Many profitable companies are trying to eliminate them and the economy seems to be generating new jobs that are mostly low paying and/or part time with few, if any, benefits. But we also have to worry about our health and our environment. Too many of us are dying from cancer caused by toxics. Too many of our neighbors and family members are suffering from diseases caused by toxics entering the environment. Job fear might be keeping some of us from getting more involved in trying to stop in-plant and community pollution. But if we don’t get involved and accidents do take place, it could lead to more and more job loss. Prevention of toxic exposure is the best job protection we can find.”
Locally the Citizens Environment Alliance has documented problems in Michigan and Ontario water and air. CEA efforts earlier this year prevented the Detroit Edison company from re-starting the antiquated, mothballed, coal burning Connor Creek power plant.
Coal burning plants spread nitrogen oxides resulting in ground level ozone or smog, sulfur oxides which increase acid rain, and carbon dioxide which increases health the greenhouse effect. About a third of all mercury released into the environment by human activity comes from coal fired plants.
Rick Coronado an active member of both CEA and the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW), says, “it should be obvious that burning coal is detrimental to the environment and to human health and should be banned. But this leads to another problem, loss of jobs for workers who mine the coal or work in the power plants.”
Coronado says solutions are possible. Energy can be produced by cleaner technologies. Recycling can be profitable.
“It’s not easy to realize that ones’ own industry and way of life has to radically change,” says Coronado. “A jobs and economic transition program must be worked out with government and industry at the table. Unions like steel and auto should be looking at a just transition strategy. This means put just transition on the bargaining table and make it a strike issue if necessary. It means communities supporting unions in this struggle because they have an important stake in the outcome and that means unions need to stop burying their heads in the sand and recognize that change is inevitable.”
Jobs & the Environment
Corporate logic says damage to the environment is not a cost to be carried by the corporation. Whether it’s old people and children getting sick or the Federal government paying for clean-up the costs are borne by society.
Big city mayors are joining with corporations in opposition to Environmental Protection Agency “environmental justice” standards which are designed to alleviate the current racist distribution of poisons.
“Job fear” is rampant and reasonable. Manufacturing jobs are moved around the world in pursuit of low wages, anti-union governments, and the lack of environmental standards. At home deregulation of the power generating industries threatens jobs, safety standards, and the easy supply of electricity we’ve all grown used to.
Faced with such concerns union uneasiness about raising environmental standards is understandable, but the only answers that help union members are those which take into consideration both good jobs and a clean environment.
When the question is presented as “jobs or environment” the choice is false. Most frightening is the fact that if we don’t make a transition to an economy where both are achieved there won’t be either to leave for our grandchildren.