Labor Advocate Online

Labor and Environmental Movements Are Natural Allies
by Bill Onasch

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The following is the text of prepared remarks to the Labor and Sustainability Conference, held in St Paul January 19-20. The meeting was at the UAW Local 879 hall—the union at a St Paul Ford plant in the process of closing. Due to time constraints the actual oral presentation was somewhat shorter. Bill Onasch is a retired bus driver, a former Vice-President of ATU Local 1287 in Kansas City. He represents Midwest Chapters on the Labor Party Interim National Council.

One aspect of the environmental crisis that probably doesn’t get sufficient attention is what became known as Urban Sprawl. My home town of Kansas City is the perfect poster child for this blight. The official metropolitan area encompasses seven counties in two states. The population is a little under two million. We have the most freeway lane miles per capita of any major city in the world. But business development promoters have expanded this metro definition even further to take in no less than seventeen counties, extending as far west as Topeka, and as far north as St Joseph. This area is about 150 miles east to west and 100 miles north to south, about the size of Belgium.

While we are among the most extreme examples we are hardly unique. Most major cities—including the Twin Cities—have gone through a similar process. While the growth of this sprawl has been largely unregulated it is not unplanned. It is the consequence of conscious decisions made after World War II by those who rule America.

The country was just emerging from more than fifteen years of uninterrupted depression or war. There was already a big housing shortage and tremendous pent up consumer demand when the baby boomers started arriving on the scene in big numbers. Instead of renovating the somewhat shabby urban cores, as was done in Europe at the time, developers decided to take advantage of relatively cheap land prices to build brand new suburbs. Government guaranteed VA and FHA loans lured much of the white working class out of the bustling urban core in to brand new single family houses where the birds sing and the flowers bloom.

Now what’s wrong with that? It turns out plenty was wrong.

That cheap land surrounding the cities used to be where our milk and eggs came from every day, along with much of our fresh fruit and vegetables in season. Locally produced food has become a boutique industry today. Most items in our grocery stores were transported hundreds, even thousands of miles.

In addition to removing acreage from productive farming in many cases wetlands were destroyed leading to a host of new, sometimes deadly problems, such as those described by the Chair [Phyllis Walker, president of AFSCME Local 3800] in the Katrina storm surge in New Orleans.

In many cities, Kansas City included, part of the sales pitch for the new developments was racially motivated. Bank redlining, and sometimes covenants attached to home deeds, insured most of the new suburbs were white. Conversely, what remained of the urban core was largely Black. Most inner cities faced a declining tax base leading to deterioration of basic services. The Kansas City School District has lost its accreditation. The fall out from sprawl has had enormous social and economic as well as environmental consequences.

Abandoning the established urban infrastructure meant a whole new one had to be created spanning vast areas with new water, sewer, electrical, telephone and gas lines.

While the old cities were usually well served by mass transit a vast new road network had to be built—at tax payer expense—to access the new housing. No transit service to speak of was expanded to these areas.

It was that factor, not some “American love affair with the car,” that made us car dependent. Once you were out in the new suburbs if you didn’t have a car you were marooned. Most people started spending a good chunk of their lives in commutes to work in their cars. Lacking the corner stores that were so abundant in the cities they became accustomed to driving to the nearest filling station or strip mall just to buy a quart of milk.

There is no group of workers more in touch with the problems of urban sprawl than transit workers. We see all sides of it through the passengers we carry, to the traffic we drive in, to the fight for public funding.

Now Kansas City has a proud transit heritage. We had the first electric powered streetcar. We once had an extensive network of streetcar lines that included many miles of exclusive right of ways. In the 1930s this was supplemented with trolley bus lines. At its peak, during World War II, the system carried nearly 400,000 passengers a day in a city that at the time had a population of only 400,000. Such a system would cost many billions to replicate today.

Then KC not only got hit by the general trend of postwar sprawl. We were also one of a number of cities targeted by General Motors, who covertly acquired transit systems in order to destroy them. The streetcar and trolley bus lines were eliminated. They paved over tracks and sold the overhead wires for scrap. They did this on an even grander scale in Los Angeles. Different forces brought a similar outcome to the Twin Cities and ultimately nearly every major city.

In 1969 congress passed the Urban Mass Transit Act. With the help of federal funding, the failed private transit companies were reorganized into quasi-public bodies. While this saved mass transit from extinction it recast its role. Instead of a vital, commonly used public service in need of expansion it was designed to primarily provide bare bones transportation to those unfortunates without access to a car. Diverting transportation funds from highways to transit was always like pulling teeth. What funding that was available was usually for big ticket capital projects—such as building subways or light rail systems where there was money to be made by construction contractors—while operating funds needed to provide day-to-day service shrank.

In 1992, in response to lost operating fund assistance, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority launched a downsizing strategy that included, for the first time in many years, lay offs of bus drivers. Some of us approached our local union president and sold him on the idea that we should organize a public fight against the cuts in service. A Community Outreach Committee was launched that enlisted support from community, student, and environmental groups.

Our committee submitted a petition with 8,000 signatures protesting the cuts to the Kansas City, MO city council who passed a resolution of support. In Kansas City, Kansas we bused angry transit users to city council meetings whenever there was any talk of further cuts and their sometimes rowdy interventions kept the status quo in place for several years. We held rallies and organized community meetings. We published a position paper putting transit in the sprawl crisis context. We did win some short term reprieves of service, and put transit on the agenda for discussion. But we didn’t have the political clout to do much more.

Then we heard about an initiative by a most remarkable union leader, the late Tony Mazzocchi of the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union. He had convinced his union to sponsor Labor Party Advocates. We thought a Labor Party sounded like a good idea in general and we were particularly attracted to the environmental stance LPA was staking out. ATU Local 1287 became an early endorser of LPA and activists in our Community Outreach Committee took the initiative in setting up a Kansas City LPA chapter, as well as a Labor Party Transit Club in our local union.

Now I knew something about Mazzocchi. He was generally credited with being the principal leader of the successful drive to get OSHA passed in 1970. He worked with Karen Silkwood, whose life and death as a Kerr-McGee nuclear fuel plant worker was made famous by Meryl Streep’s film portrayal. I found out only later that Tony also had a long history of collaboration with the broader environmental movement, working closely with figures such as Ralph Nader and Barry Commoner.

Tony had confidence in the working class. He believed that, told the truth and given reasonable options, we generally do the right thing. That’s what encouraged him to take environmental issues to the membership of a union whose bosses were among the top polluters. It was within the old OCAW, now part of the Steelworkers, that the concept of Just Transition, incorporated from the beginning in the Labor Party program, was initially formulated.

Just Transition rejects the counterposition of jobs versus the environment. We want, and believe we can have, good jobs while repairing and reversing the environmental destruction caused by corporate polluters.

Certainly some union jobs—including UAW jobs—would face elimination as we reorganize economic activity to tackle the enormous environmental crisis, above all Global Warming. The Labor Party approach to Just Transition is to provide retraining to all such displaced workers and to assist them with incomes and benefits to maintain middle-class living standards until they are placed in new suitable work. Nobody will be left behind. This program would be largely paid for by a tax on corporate polluters—similar to the Super Fund tax used to clean up environmental messes created by irresponsible industries.

Some will say this Just Transition is socialistic pie-in-the-sky that can never be realized. We better rally around our employers to save our jobs. Well, let’s look at just one example from history concerning UAW members.

In 1942 all auto production in the USA came to an abrupt and total halt, not to be resumed for nearly four years. Did this lead to disaster for UAW members? Quite the contrary. The numbers in the plants swelled considerably and there was more overtime available than even the greediest could work.

Those plants were put under government control and virtually all capital and operating expenses were guaranteed by the federal government. It was a triumph of industrial mobilization. Of course, in this example, the product was planes, tanks, and jeeps for the war effort. We don’t need such things today.

But can’t such plants, along with their workers, be converted to serve a new green economy? As a matter of fact, one proposal for using the plant across the street being abandoned by Ford is to build clean mass transit vehicles—and we need a lot of those if we are serious about Global Warming.

The labor movement needs to recognize that environmentalists are not our enemy. Our adversaries are the employers who care nothing about either the environment or our jobs. The union movement and the environmental movement are in fact a natural fit as allies. We need to unite to educate, agitate and organize in our workplaces, campuses, and communities. This conference is a good step in that direction.

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