Why Forest Workers and Environmentalists Are Natural Allies


(Published in Access magazine in August 1997)



"[A] workers' forest policy starts by recognizing the need for a sustainable and renewable forestry. It recognizes that each portion of the planet must produce its proportional share of the resources it uses. The proportion should be produced as environmentally sound as possible. ...A workers' forest policy would harvest at a sustainable rate and ensure that those mature trees that are harvested are used for those socially desired products for which there are no substitutes. By thus restricting the use of older trees, harvest pressure would be diminished without contributing to unemployment." - William Street, policy analyst for the International Woodworkers of America (IWA), 1990




I used to live on Vancouver Island in British Columbia and served for a year as the Labor Liaison for Friends of Clayoquot Sound, a tiny village-based organization which did the impossible: it orchestrated an international media and nonviolent civil disobedience campaign which virtually halted MacMillan Bloedel Corporation's clearcutting and road-building in the local rainforests. For four months during the summer of 1993, 13,000 people of all ages, races, and nationalities visited our base-camp, and 900 of them blockaded a logging road deep in the rainforest - the largest CD actions in Canadian history.


We thought we were winning. But we were quite mistaken. And the biggest reason, in my opinion, is that we failed to understand that the hundreds of forest workers who we were blockading could be our allies and not our enemy. The result? Inter-community tension that you could cut with a knife. Regular death threats of our leading activists. And ultimately, a perhaps permanent loss in our ability to ever co-organize around our common ground.


Why couldn't we see it coming? I believe the main reason is that our movement was blind to the class privilege which informed our work. We simply could not fathom that loggers might also have a strong desire to protect the forests -  so as to ensure themselves and their children a secure forest job base well into the future. In addition, we could not distinguish between the corporation and the workforce. We perceived them as having the same values: cutting the forest down in order to get rich.


By the time I proposed that perhaps loggers were actually our allies, and that we needed, at a minimum, a new staff position to focus on building these relationships, it was too late. The damage had already been done. All chances of real dialogue had evaporated.


It is now 1997. The battle over the future of the ancient forests continues to escalate. As nature's healthy edges recede by the day, the stakes grow higher. Who's on what side? Who are our allies in the campaign? Who are our opponents? And who the heck is "We" anyway? Are professional D.C. based enviro-lobbyists any more "We" than local loggers worried about their future employment prospects? I'm not so sure.


Our society is so culturally fractured, and so many of us are now committed to single-issue campaigns, that it's almost impossible to gauge how broad-based a movement we could actually build to protect what's left of the ancient forests and the human cultures which depend on them. Most of us don't know our neighbors. Most of us are too timid to share our deep thoughts with our co-workers for fear of alienating ourselves if they think differently than we do. Environmentalists still don't talk to mill workers. The wealthy don't talk to the unemployed. Euro-Americans rarely have meaningful conversations with Native people or other people of color. Yet so many in our society are suffering, most of them unorganized and silent. It's a very difficult time in America for those of us who envision a healthy and equitable society. What is to be done?


I, for one, am ready to commit to doing the hard and challenging work necessary to not make the same mistakes that environmental activists continue to make all over the world. What would such a work look like? How would we begin? How would it be organized and sustained for the long-term? After twenty years of community organizing experience, I think I know some of the answers. Some are more obvious than others. We all need to make it more of a priority to build those personal relationships with people who are "The Other". Only after authentic relationships are established can we get down to examining where the common ground lies. And building those relationships is tough! It requires that each of us be willing to really look at the cultural conditioning we carry in our body armor, be it: 'workers are greedy and don't care about the forest', 'environmentalists are dirty lazy hippies', etc. And that's just the crud at the surface. Below that layer, it gets way more complicated - classism, racism, sexism and more.


In my opinion, here's the hardest piece each group will have to tackle:


1.  Environmentalists will finally have to confront and acknowledge the vast amount of class privilege which they are mostly unaware that they carry. And they will have to educate themselves about the proud history of working class culture: so that they finally begin to understand that they too are "workers", so that they no longer blame workers for the sins caused by CEO's in distant corporate boardrooms, and that most of the freedoms and privileges they take for granted came through workers' social movement struggles. (In fact, if unions weren't around, practically all of the wealth would be held by just a few people and the rest of us would be serfs!)


2.  Forest and mill workers will finally have to confront their lack of understanding of ecological principles: ancient forests are not a renewable resource, protecting biological diversity is essential if nature's species (including our's) is to survive, our society's standard-of-living is way beyond the earth's capacity to support us - and this includes the lifestyles of most well-paid workers, and perhaps most critical - we are all connected in a great web of life, and what we do to the forest has direct impact on all of us).


Forest and mill workers tend to see environmentalists as more of a threat to their jobs than the giant corporations which employ them. Although clearly absurd, it is no accident. Corporations, under the tutelage of public-relations fixers, have learned its easier to have workers fighting their environmental battles for them. Obviously, environmentalists didn't cause the forest crisis, decades of overcutting and road-building did. Environmentalists are simply the messengers with a very unpleasant message.


Unfortunately, environmentalists have their own tunnel vision. They continue to perceive forest and mill workers as uncaring about the natural environment, and interchangeable in their values with the corporations which employ them. This is equally absurd. The fact is, if loggers had the power to set forest policy in the woods, they  certainly would not support clearcutting because they would have the long-term interests of their own families and multi-generational communities as their priority. Loggers don't stand up publicly and oppose clearcutting for obvious reasons: they are pawns in the operation and easily replaced in a society where the government chooses to maintain a high unemployment rate in order to keep workers docile and scared. Forest workers are terrified for their futures and it is simply made worse by an environmental movement which utterly fails to communicate with them in ways which speak to their current fears and anxieties.


To me there is only one critical division line in our struggle - only one relevant us and them - and it's the line between giant corporations and the citizens who care about the health of their communities (and I mean health in the broadest sense: economic, ecological, social, etc).


Imagine a day in the near future when loggers recognize a forest road blockade action for what it is: the activist equivalent of a union picket line, and thus, in a show of solidarity, choose not to cross it because they understand that both groups - activists and loggers - share common ground. Now imagine a larger leap, where both groups are well enough organized and supported by large enough numbers of active and empowered citizens that we no longer have to meet at a blockade because we have become powerful enough to dismantle the corporations which interfere in the lives of our communities. And in their place, we have created locally owned and democratically managed companies.


You may see the picture I paint as impossible pie-in-the-sky fantasy. Perhaps. But the alternative is an increasingly impoverished society, both economically and ecologically, where citizens fight for the crumbs and giant corporations control everything. From my perspective, we have nothing to lose, and a healthy and more equitable world to gain. Are you ready to get off the couch? I'd love to hear from you (see contact info below).


Here's how you can get involved:


* Educate yourself.


- Key resources on labor struggles and community organizing:

A People's History of the US by Howard Zinn, Deeper Shades of Green: The Rise of Blue Collar and Minority Environmentalism in America by Jim Schwab, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do by Studs Terkel, When Workers Decide: Workplace Democracy Takes Root in North America edited by Len Krimmerman, The History of the American Labor Movement by Philip Foner, Workers' Struggles, Past and Present: A 'Radical America' Reader by Jim Green, Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers by Alice and Staughton Lynd, An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism by Kim Moody, Organizing For Social Change: A Manual For Activists in the 1990's by Kim Bobo, Jobs and the Environment by Public Health Institute, Putting Power in its Place: Create Community Control! edited by Christopher and Judith Plant.


- Key resources on ecological literacy:

Ecological Literacy by David Orr, Forest Farmer's Handbook by Orville Camp, Ecoforestry: The Art and Science of Sustainable Forest Use edited by Alan Drengson, Seeing the Forest Among the Trees: The Case for Wholistic Forest Use by Herb Hammond, Beyond the Limits: Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable Future by Donella Meadows, The End of Nature by Bill McKibben, State of the World: 1997 by Worldwatch Institute, Nature's Services: Societal Dependence on Natural Ecosystems edited by Gretchen Daily The Green Alternative: Creating an Ecological Future by Brian Tokar.


- Key resources on building alliances between workers and enviro's:

Fear at Work: Job Blackmail, Labor and the Environment by Richard Kazis and Richard Grossman, Timber Wars by Judi Bari, Building Bridges: The Emerging Grassroots Coalition of Labor and Community edited by Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello, Breaking Old Patterns, Weaving New Ties: Alliance Building by Margo Adair, The Ecology of Hope: Communities Collaborate for Sustainability by Ted Bernard and Jora Young.


- Key resources for reclaiming our society from domination by giant corporations:

Corporate Power and the American Dream: Toward an Economic Agenda for Working People by the Labor Institute, The Emergence of Corporate Rule and What to Do About It by Tony Clarke, When Corporations Rule the World by David Korten.




More relevant quotes:



"Environmentalists need to confront their class biases. ...The environmental movement arises from the cities, the more privileged people, and from the gentrification class of the rural areas. ...Once we confront our class biases...we need to reach to their [the workers'] issues...not as a ruse to get to them, but with the understanding that the way the corporations treat the workers is the same way they treat the forests."

- Judi Bari, forest protector and labor organizer, recently deceased



"WHEREAS, the clash between our productive capacities and the tolerance of nature is heightening each day because our prosperity is based on toxic substances and by-products that cause significant harm to working people, their communities and the environment as a whole; and

WHEREAS, many workers see the growing environmental clashes and feel angry and frustrated because although they may hold deep pro-environmentalist convictions, they are also not inclined to commit economic suicide; and ..."

- a brief excerpt from the Resolution on Superfund For Workers adopted in 1991 at the annual convention of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union



"[T]he export of unprocessed logs, the relentless drive for ever higher levels of automation, the stress on clearcutting as opposed to 'new forestry', the use of chemical weed killers, the burning of slash, and so on, make no sense from a worker's standpoint."

- John Bellamy Foster, in "The Limits of Environmentalism Without Class", 1993



"Union activists have always fought for basic human rights. We have fought for fair wages, fair hours, health care, civil rights and women's rights - sometimes with our lives - for the ideal that every person should be treated equally and with dignity and respect. Protecting our natural environment is an issue of fundamental human need. It is indeed a basic union issue, and we must heed the call for working men and women to join together and organize together with environmentalists to protect our natural world."

- David West, Executive Director of the Labor Coalition for Environmental Responsibility and a member of United Steelworkers' Local 8378, 1992



"Every single environmental measure should have a provision in it for the protection of a worker's income and benefits. That would go a long way toward undermining the jobs versus the environment argument. As it is now, the companies pick up the issue and run with it.

- Tony Mazzocchi, a founder of the newly formed Labor Party and long-time leader of OCAW Union




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