The “Blue-Green” Alliance in Practice

“Just Transition” Activists Support Cement Plant Workers

by George Shriver

Last month I first learned about a group that, it turns out, has been around for a few years — the Just Transition Alliance (JTA).

The concept of “Just Transition” is part of the Labor Party’s program, its “Call for Economic Justice.” Essentially it means that when some industry makes a transition, or must be forced out of existence — for example, because it is dangerously polluting the environment — the workers who have depended on that industry for their livelihoods, and the communities affected by that industry, must be aided as they make the transition to a different situation. The money for this should come out of the polluting industry’s profits, and when necessary, out of public funds as well.

The Just Transition Alliance has a web site which defines the concept as follows:

Just Transition is a process to ameliorate the conflict between jobs and the environment. It brings organized labor, the traditional environmental community, and the people of color environmental justice movement together to develop policies and relationships to avert clashes. Through a process of dialogue and common projects these groups are defining a policy of Just Transition that calls for financing a fair and equitable transition for workers and communities in environmentally sensitive industries as we necessarily move forwards towards more sustainable production.”

(See also the document entitled “The Just Transition Alliance.” That document was distributed at the monthly meeting of the Southern Arizona Central Labor Council in February.)

This alliance of unions with environmental justice groups and networks seeks to put the “Just Transition” idea into practice. The “environmental justice” side is mostly made up of activists from communities of color. Among the unions involved, the primary one is PACE. PACE is the acronym for Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical, and Energy Workers International Union. (It was formed in 1999 when the former Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union, or OCAW, merged with the former United Paperworkers International Union — UPIU). Also part of this trinational alliance is the main energy workers union in Canada, as well as environmental and union activists in Mexico.

A couple of dozen JTA activists came to Tucson, Arizona, the second week of March to support PACE Local 8-0296, which has about 120 members at a cement plant just north of Tucson along the Interstate highway (I-10) leading to Phoenix. The plant is owned by Arizona Portland Cement.

The PACE members have been working without a contract since 1997, and the Japanese-owned parent company, which also has two cement plants in California (but has long since signed decent contracts with the unions there), seems happy to let the Tucson workers twist in the wind.

Local Community Supports the Workers

The Just Transition Alliance has made contacts with the local community adjoining the cement plant (a little town named Rillito Vista), and a couple of dozen neighbors came out on March 12 to demonstrate in support of the workers, who are demanding a fair contract. The Rillito residents want something done about the cement dust and coal dust that gets on their cars and into their homes and lungs, and they support the workers’ right to health and safety protection, among other demands. (A statement of alliance between the union and the community was formally signed at the March 12 rally at the front entrance to the cement plant.)

The Southern Arizona Central Labor Council supported the cement workers’ protest demonstration and rally, and sent a spokesperson to it — and also to a conference on the subject the morning of March 12 at a hotel in Tucson. A dozen PACE local workers were present at the conference, along with several members of Machinists Local 933, who were there in solidarity with their sisters and brothers in PACE and in the Rillito community.

Additionally, the Machinists are trying to unionize workers at a plant run by Brush-Wellman Corp. in South Tucson, a Mexican American community. Brush-Wellman processes beryllium, a very dangerous heavy metal, which causes an incurable and fatal disease (berylliosis). More than 25 workers and residents have come down with berylliosis as a result of contamination from the Brush-Wellman plant; several have already died. There are seven (!) schools endangered by beryllium dust from the plant. They are in a half-mile radius of the plant, of course with mainly Mexican American population.

Workers Memorial Day

April 28 is the date each year when the national AFL-CIO holds Workers Memorial Day. The Machinists union, the Southern Arizona Central Labor Council, and many other groups including the Tucson Labor Party chapter, are planning a protest demonstration and rally on that day at the Brush-Wellman plant.

One of the groups that will take part is a member of the Just Transition Alliance — the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ), which consists mainly of Mexican Americans in whose communities dangerous and contaminating substances and processes are disproportionately placed by corporations and allowed by local governments.

It was a very intense and interesting weekend. We met African American activists from the Northeast Environmental Network, and Native American activists from Minnesota and Wisconsin as well as Arizona, who belong to the Indigenous Environmental Network. The IEN, they told us, has contacts with indigenous people all over the world who are victims of corporate pollution and the usual imperial arrogance. (Some of these activists have been at Zapatista events in the state of Chiapas, in southern Mexico, an indication of how truly international their outlook and activity is.)

Getting to Know the JTA

From California there were representatives of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), one of whose members is going to China soon to work with women in the sweatshops run there by Reebok, Adidas, and (possibly) Nike. From California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas there were half a dozen or more representatives of SNEEJ, including Rubén Solis of the Southwest Workers’ Union in San Antonio. Also present was Baldemar Velasquez of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

On the night after the rally, Rubén and his compadre Genaro from San Antonio did the cooking at an outdoor barbecue for the “blue-green” activists. Baldemar played his guitar and sang songs of protest and solidarity from the Tex-Mex borderlands.

The PACE union sent two representatives to the JTA conference in Tucson from its headquarters in Nashville, Tennessee. The particular assignment of one of them is to work with the JTA. (This alliance between unions and environmental activists, mostly people of color, is the product of years of effort by OCAW, inspired mainly by Tony Mazzocchi.) Also the Southwest regional representative of the PACE “international” was there, and Dave Campbell, head of the largest PACE local in the Southwest (representing five oil refineries in Southern California, along with a number of other units). Kathleen O’Nan, organizer of the Los Angeles Metro chapter of the Labor Party, also traveled to Tucson. Dave and Kathleen met with members of the Tucson LP chapter, as well as with some members of the Green Party who are interested in collaborating on labor issues.

The cement plant and Brush-Wellman situations are issues that lend themselves readily to a “blue-green” alliance. Several Green activists came to the rally and demonstration at the cement plant in Rillito, and they listened carefully to Dave Campbell’s explanation of the “just transition” concept.

“Toxic Tour”

Before the March 12 rally there was a “toxic tour” of the hamlet of Rillito Vista. We had a close-up view of the cement dust on windshields, which you can’t just scrape off. A special solvent is needed to clear the windshields of cars that have been exposed. We were told the solvent is available at the cement plant itself, or by special arrangement at a certain car wash facility (requiring a three-hour cleaning process). The airborne cement particles harden and make visibility impossible over a few weeks of exposure. One can only imagine what these particles do to the lungs of the 200 plus residents, especially those of young children and fragile seniors.

Another pollutant that we saw was a towering pile of coal, just across a field from the town and completely uncovered in the dry and windy air of Arizona. The company has recently planted a few scrawny trees to supposedly keep the coal dust from blowing into town, but for them to actually cover the coal pile seems too much to ask. We met many of the community residents, mostly Mexican American and African American; the hamlet was originally the home of workers in adjacent cotton fields, according to one report.

The March 12 rally attracted a couple of hundred people. Besides the JTA folks from out of town and the PACE union members and members of other Tucson unions who came to show solidarity, the organized community residents were present, along with supporters from a number of organizations in Tucson, including Jobs with Justice, Environmental Justice Action Group, the Greens, Students Against Sweatshops, the Labor Party, etc. And there was surprisingly good — unusually accurate and objective news coverage — on the 10 o’clock television news the night of March 12.

How much impact all this will have on the company’s decision making remains to be seen, but we were told that the local union members were energized by the action, which is a good thing because some of them had been getting discouraged. (Spirits picked up the previous week, in Los Angeles, when Dave Campbell’s union local and its environmental activist allies, together with visiting PACE members from Tucson, rallied in front of the company’s headquarters — and pressured the head of the company into talking with union reps for the first time in a long time.)

Those are some of the highlights of a very busy, very educational weekend getting to know the Just Transition Alliance. The JTA will also be sponsoring a training session in Tucson in April together with the Southern Arizona Central Labor Council. And plans are in the works for further solidarity activities.

Toward the end of the March 12 rally, sheets were passed around with the words of “Solidarity Forever.” Everyone, from gray-headed veterans to the pre-teen daughter of a PACE worker at the cement plant, sang together: “Without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.” And they chimed in extra loudly on the refrain: “For the union makes us strong.”

March 17, 2001