Environmentalists and laborers unite!
Karen Kitchens
November/December 1999

A hefty man wearing a beaten-up work suit and a shirt that reads, "Steel Worker on Lock-out" walks up to a man who wears long dreadlocks, Birkenstocks, and a shirt that reads, "Earth First!" The people observing this encounter may be expecting a fight or confrontation, but instead the two men return handshakes and smiles.

Onlookers are amazed. What could a blue-collar worker and an eco-hippie possibly have in common?

That is the question being answered all over the Pacific Northwest. Steel workers and environmentalists from California and Washington have found a common interest in their mutual enemy - the CEO of Maxxam Inc., Charles Hurwitz.

In September of last year, Kaiser Aluminum, a subsidiary of Maxxam, locked out 3,000 of its unionized steel workers. Environmentalists had been targeting another Maxxam corporation, Pacific Lumber Company, for clear-cutting forests and logging in the ancient redwood forests of Northern California for years.

In May of this year, environmentalists and labor groups met outside of Maxxam's 1999 annual shareholder meeting outside Houston for a joint protest. The Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment was officially formed around a document they call "The Houston Principles."

"The Houston Principles" call for stricter law enforcement of labor laws, global trade agreements that enforce labor and environmental standards, and adoption of business models for long-term sustainability, while protecting working people, communities and the environment.

"The Alliance will be the conscience for corporations and politicians that have lost theirs, providing strong reminders that American workers and the Earth demand respectful and fair treatment," remarked Alliance co-chair and Earth Island Institute Chairman David Brower.

More than 200 environmental groups and labor unions have signed "The Houston Principles" and joined in the Alliance, including the Sierra Club, Earth First!, the United Steel Workers of America and the Teamsters union.

The interaction between environmentalists and laborers all started when workers on lockout from a Kaiser Aluminum plant noticed an environment-oriented web page that had some considerable bashing of Hurwitz, said Mikhail Davis, assistant to the chair at Earth Island Institute.

The workers were having their own conflict with the CEO, and the two groups began trading stories, Davis said. This kind of affiliation is rare, since corporations have an interest in keeping the attitudes of their workers set against environmentalists.

"This way it is easier to ignore corporate responsibility for both environmental damages and loss of jobs," Davis said.

Initial apprehensions had to be overcome, "I never thought I'd be working side by side with environmentalists to get my job back," said Don Kegley, a locked out Kaiser steelworker from Spokane, Wash. "I'm a third generation Kaiser employee and steelworkers were always told that tree huggers were out to get our jobs. This past year has taught me it's the greed of corporations that's the real danger."

This is the first time environmentalists and labor unions have joined as a unified force against rogue corporations. They have been side-by-side in the past on issues such as NAFTA, but now they seek out opportunities to be involved with one another.

The loggers of the West Coast have had notorious conflicts with environmentalists. There have been many violent exchanges between the two groups.

Timber industry workers would have a place in the Alliance, said Scott Adams, communications director for the Alliance. However, the timber industry is largely non-unionized and many workers face the threat of being fired for cooperating with environmentalists.

The main goal of the Alliance is protecting jobs and the environment by targeting unethical corporations such as Maxxam Inc. and misguided international trade bodies. The Alliance will act through filing lawsuits against corporations that break environmental or labor laws, protesting and boycotting corporations, and lobbying in Washington D. C.

The Alliance plans to make its presence known at the World Trade Organization's Summit in Seattle, Wash. this December. Panels of the WTO are dominated by corporate attorneys who want to throw out U.S. laws protecting clean air standards, endangered species and worker safety as barriers to free trade.

"According to the WTO, our democratically elected officials no longer have the right to protect the environment, worker safety and jobs," said Dave Foster, District 11 director of the United Steelworkers of America and Alliance co-chair.

As "Houston Principles" of the Alliance explains, "Too often, corporate leaders regard working people, communities, and the natural world as resources to be used and thrown away."

The Alliance hopes to alter the current practice of resource extraction and promote resource preservation, said Adams.

To get more information or to sign "The Houston Principles", visit the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment.

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