The New Solidarity

Steelworkers and forest activists forge a new kind of alliance: one that values forests and jobs.

The stage was set for confrontation at Redwood Acres Fairgrounds in Eureka, California, one cold and wet November day in 1998. On the main floor of an exhibition hall fitted out with bleachers and folding chairs sat environmentalists of all persuasions, most of whom had lived in Humboldt County less than one generation: business owners, professionals, homesteaders, full-time and part-time activists, children from local alternative schools and their parents.

To them, this hearing before the federal wildlife agencies reviewing the Pacific Lumber Habitat
Conservation Plan was the culmination of a long and tortuous struggle to stop Pacific Lumber from clearcutting the rest of the ancient redwoods. For more than a decade, they had lobbied in Sacramento and Washington, DC, protested in the streets and in the woods, been arrested for civil disobedience, risked their lives sitting in trees hundreds of feet above the forest floor.

The government was about to endorse the “Sustained Yield Plan,” which environmentalists saw as a contract to clearcut forests, kill endangered species, and create mudslides that would ruin the lives and homes of those living downstream. They were waiting their turn to speak.

The trouble began in 1985, when Charles Hurwitz and MAXXAM bought Pacific Lumber (Palco), a company whose lands had, until then, been managed for the long-term. The purchase was a leveraged buyout, financed in part by the public, who had bailed out Hurwitz when his Texas Savings and Loan went under. When Hurwitz took over Palco, he immediately tripled the clearcutting of the ancient forests, leaving a 200,000-acre landscape sparse in vegetation and wildlife, and triggering lawsuits alleging violations of the Endangered Species Act and environmental statutes. Lawsuits and state forest practice rules stopped some of the cut, though there were too many approved logging permits to pursue them all in court. But over the 13 years, the alarm had spread from a handful of Earth First! activists to environmentalists nationwide, and their outrage could not be dismissed by elected officials.

To quiet the clamor for saving the redwoods, the federal government entered into negotiations with MAXXAM over the fate of the Headwaters Forest. The result, which came to be known as the Headwaters Deal and would send $480 million to Hurwitz, was a plan to save some 3,000 acres of the trees and install a “Habitat Conservation Plan/Sustained Yield Plan” (HCP/SYP). The plan permitted clearcutting in the remaining 197,000 acres, destroying the old forests in less than two decades.

The Palco employees sitting in the bleachers had been given a paid day off to attend the hearing. Used to arriving at the mill before dawn, they were first to the fairgrounds and first to sign up to address the hearing.

Speaker after speaker rose to tell the panel that their company's future and the future of their jobs, their families, and their very existence were on the line. In shiny green Palco jackets and matching hats, workers told of generations of family members who had toiled in the company mill. They extolled the virtues of the sustained yield plan being evaluated as part of the Headwaters Deal. An entire community of workers was pinning its future on a deal engineered by the new boss.

Then an unknown man in black hat and black jacket rose to address the hall. He was a member of United Steelworkers of America (USWA), on strike against the Kaiser Aluminum Company, which Hurwitz had acquired several years earlier. Hurwitz had sent Pacific Lumber employees up to replace the striking workers, and this man was in Eureka to stop the scabbing. He had conviction and the presence of an unavoidable truth.

The enviros in the crowd looked up to watch this big, bad, bald Steelworker just down from two months on the picket line. But he had no interest in them. He was a worker, looking to talk to workers.

He spoke directly to the Palco employees: “Let me tell you, when Charles Hurwitz decides that this is no longer a profitable place, not only will the trees be endangered but, ladies and gentlemen, your jobs and your livelihood will be endangered.”

It was as if he'd dropped a bucket of ice down the Palco workers' shirts.

When he finished speaking, he went outside under the porch of the men's room and held court for Palco employees who might want to hear more.

The Steelworker presence brightened that dark day for the enviros. Spirits rose, and an invigorated
environmental community swung into action, pressuring public officials and winning back concessions lost in previous negotiations. And environmentalists took an interest in the strike at Kaiser Aluminum in Washington state, driving the thousand or so miles to join picket lines and swap stories.

Meanwhile, the Steelworkers were struggling, day after day, month after month, with little sign of progress in a strike that would last two years. It takes a good deal of faith and hope to drag oneself out in the cold to sit all day at the picket line. The isolation and despair of struggling against a billionaire who simply planned to starve them out was taking a toll on the Steelworker families. Charles Hurwitz certainly didn't care, and, apparently, neither did anyone else in the nation.

The appearance of help from outside was something new to the picket lines. The newfound allies in California helped the Steelworkers and their families take the strike “one day longer,” and a bond formed that brought hope to both environmentalists and labor.

An alliance is forged

In October of ‘98, striking Kaiser Steelworkers searching the web for information on Charles Hurwitz stumbled onto “,” an environmental website. From there, enviros and labor began to talk. Community radio stations aired the conversation, and individual workers and environmentalists in the two communities began corresponding by phone and e-mail. A Humboldt activist scabbed at a struck plant in
Washington and brought out information on how bad things were inside. He reported that the accident rate had increased as soon as the replacement workers took over. The work floor was in dangerous disarray, and there was a great need for the skilled Steelworkers. This intelligence from inside gave cheer and insight to the union.

The USWA Road Warriors set up an office in Eureka to attempt to stem the tide of scabs sent north from Pacific Lumber to Kaiser Aluminum. The Steelworker presence raised the hopes and spirits of those facing the destruction of their forests, and the fire was kindled anew in both camps. Neither was smothered by the weight of MAXXAM's tactics: divide and conquer and “delay, dispute, and deny.”

From these beginnings a joint campaign emerged. A loose association of environmental activists and USWA Road Warriors formed the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment (ASJE) to
formalize the commitment to each other's issues and make them national.

The Alliance confronted Hurwitz at his MAXXAM Corporation Annual Shareholder Meeting, massing thousands in Houston, Texas, and condemning Hurwitz in public.

It confronted Pacific Lumber in California, with mass mailers to local residents, demonstrations at company headquarters, talks at civic clubs arguing that the conflict was not “jobs vs. the environment,” but more basically: greed vs. both workers and the environment. The USWA filed a suit against Pacific Lumber's “Sustained Yield Plan,” claiming it did not consider the impact on the workers of liquidating the forests in so short a time.

The Alliance confronted Kaiser Aluminum in Washington state, Ohio, and Louisiana. Environmentalists traveled to join picket lines, rallies, and parties, and the work of fighting Hurwitz became a national campaign.The campaign included a boycott on consumer products using aluminum cans made by replacement workers. Thousands of boycott-pledge postcards were mailed to name-brand beverage companies. When asked, “Do you want to see an advertisement running nationwide with your product sitting in the middle of a clearcut?” the companies capitulated.

The Alliance challenged Hurwitz over the use of low-cost public power from the Bonneville Power Administration. During World War II, the federal government built hydroelectric plants on the Columbia River to provide subsidized electricity to defense industries. The aluminum smelters were a primary beneficiary. The Alliance participated with USWA in a campaign to institute a “good corporate citizenship” clause, which would ensure that publicly subsidized power did not go to operations that were not acting in the public interest. Kaiser Aluminum, with its increased accident rate, environmental violations, and illegal worker lock-out, was clearly not acting in the public interest. The campaign garnered the support of the governors of Washington and Oregon as well as the White House and much of the region's public.

And the Alliance joined with other environmental organizations to successfully curtail the retailing of old growth forest products, culminating with the pledge by national superstores to no longer stock products made from old growth redwood. It was also highly visible in Seattle during the WTO demonstrations, where Steelworkers and environmentalists headed joint marches and shared speakers' platforms.

These campaigns pinched MAXXAM and brought it unfavorable publicity. The company is particularly sensitive to public scrutiny, since Hurwitz is under indictment for his role in the demise of Texas Savings and Loan, which could potentially cost him over a billion dollars in paybacks and penalties.

Victory: saving jobs and forests

The story of the Alliance is the story of the rabbit and the fox. The fox is only fighting for its dinner. The
rabbit has to win — it is fighting for its life. Steelworkers and environmental activists are fighting for their communities.

MAXXAM was hurt badly by the allied campaigns. Initially, it was out to bust the union at Kaiser, a policy that would have devastated the Steelworkers' lives and futures. Instead, the USWA won a contract with modest pay increases, a smaller number of lay-offs than the company demanded, a measure of job security, and improved pension benefits. Kaiser is also liable for two years' back pay from the illegal lock-out of its workforce.

Environmentalists rejoice that their friends in the USWA are back at work under a contract that affords them a measure of dignity. Announcing the agreement to end the strike, David Foster, USWA district director and negotiator, credited the alliance of labor and environmentalists with the victory:

“Without the unflagging support of the labor movement throughout the country and especially in the Northwest and the inspirational support of environmental organizations and activists, this day would not have come.”

Critics have predicted that the Alliance would not last — that it was nothing more than a means to pressure Hurwitz to settle the strike. The Steelworkers have proved otherwise. When Kaiser's negotiating team offered a concession if the USWA would drop its Sustained Yield Plan lawsuit against Pacific Lumber, the union refused.

In 1999, at the one-year strike anniversary rally in Spokane, the union served a chicken barbecue for over 2,000 Steelworkers and supporters. Seated at the long table with me, one Steelworker said, “If you knew how bad the plant was for the environment, you'd want to shut it down.”

I asked him if he liked it that way.

“No, but that's how it is.”

By the time we finished our dinner, we realized that once the strike was settled, the union would have the power to begin cleaning up the plant and that the environmental community would be there to help rather than pointing a finger at the plant to shut it down. Neither Steelworkers nor Headwaters activists would have been talking like this had not Charles Hurwitz brought us together. And now that we have begun, there is no stopping the conversation from happening elsewhere.

A global struggle

The struggle that engages the USWA and the Headwaters activists is a global struggle, and the scope of the Alliance will widen to address these universal concerns. Local campaigns will strengthen the voice of communities in corporate affairs that affect them, and the Alliance will continue to bring workers and environmentalists together to make each aware of the potential for increased effectiveness through working together.

Those of us involved with the Alliance are feeling connected to each other, to all life, and with our past, present, and future. We are re-learning the proud history of labor's fight for human rights, dignity, and freedom. Environmentalists are sharing in that history, profoundly moved to discover that labor's historic struggles were central to developing the idea of ecological justice.

Once we tended our separate fires in the corporate dark. No longer. Workers issues matter to environmentalists; environmental issues matter to workers. There is more light for all of us to see by and to push back the dark.

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