Address to the Great Lakes International Joint Commission, 1995

Les Leopold,  Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union

Good afternoon. Bonjour.

On behalf of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union I would like to thank the IJC for this invitation. It demonstrates to us that the IJC is serious about bringing all the stakeholders into the sunsetting process.

We represent approximately 100,000 production workers in oil refineries, chemical facilities, pharmaceutical plants, and even nuclear weapons facilities. Almost all of our work is toxic-related. We make the organochlorines that are polluting this lake. We are also the first exposed – we are your canaries.

On behalf of these working people, I need to make four points.

  • First, I need to explain why we so desperately cling to our toxic-related jobs.
  • Secondly, I want to argue that justice for the ecosystem and justice for working people are inseparable. Transboundary pollution and transboundary job dislocation are connected through the stateless, multinational corporation.
  • Thirdly, I need to sound an alarm. There is a dangerous vacuum in the making that helps anti-environmental sentiment. This vacuum is being created by the failure to develop an equitable transition program for dislocated workers;
  • And finally, I want to offer a proposal to fill that vacuum. It is a call for a just transition to end the jobs and environment clash.

So, why do workers so desperately cling to their jobs even at the expense of their health? Let me share with you a couple of stories.

The first is from a conversation with a chemical operator from Bayonne, New Jersey about why he works in such a hazardous facility. Here is what he said. “Look. My family has lived around this plant for three generations. Of course I care about what it does to the environment. Maybe if I knew about all these problems 30 years ago I wouldn’t have gone into this kind of work but I can’t change that now. I’ve got a family to support. My boy is about to go to college. If I lose this job, all I’ve worked for may be ruined. You can’t expect me to give that up.”

The second story is from a conversation between father and son. The father, a retired African-American machinist in Chicago is gravely ill due in all likelihood to workplace exposure. The son asks his dad given all that has happened would he take that job again. The father replies, “Yes. Yes I would. I kinda knew it was harming me and probably the community outside the plant too.” “But why, dad, why stay in there.” “Because I had to. It was the best way out. Your sister, she’s the first in this family to go to college. You, you’re the first one of us to go even further. That was worth working for even if my life is cut short.”

Similar stories can be heard again and again from blue-collar workers all over North America. Even though toxic and chemical and petrochemical jobs are among the best paying they are declining year in and year out. At the same time, production goes on and grows because more is produced with fewer. The problem is compounded by the fact that the next best job available is likely to pay near poverty-level wages. The data now show clearly that dislocated chemical workers can expect to lose 50% of his or her wages and benefits in the transition. This translates into a minimum over a lifetime of $100,000 U.S.

In effect, a small proportion of us are being asked to pay a large tax so that this society as a whole can benefit.

But job insecurity extends far beyond these workers. It’s a general economic phenomenon that impacts millions. Each day more decent-paying blue and pink-collar jobs are falling prey to what the Wall Street Journal calls the four horsemen of the workplace – globalization, downsizing, automation, and the increasing use and abuse of temporary workers. Just since 1988, two million of the best jobs for working people in the U.S. have been destroyed. Of course new jobs were created but they are either at or below the poverty line or required four years of college to even be considered. Indeed, decent working-class jobs are now the occupational equivalent of an endangered species.

But there’s more than money at stake here. The health of unemployed workers is also severely compromised. We now have access to hundreds of medical studies around the world that conclusively demonstrate that unemployment is a disease. That dislocated workers and their families and their children suffer significantly higher rates of illnesses. Here’s one from LANSET, a British medical journal, particularly relevant to us here today. The study compared immune response functions of unemployed and employed meat factory workers in New Zealand. The researchers found that unemployed workers suffer statistically significant increased damage to their immune functions. I must point out that this damage is not unlike that caused by dioxin. It would be a sad state of affairs if our efforts to protect the public’s health by sunsetting organochlorines shifted the immunological damage onto dislocated workers. To knowingly do so would be immoral.

In short, we cling to our toxic jobs because job dislocation is a prescription for illness and financial ruin.

But why is there so much job insecurity and how is it connected to the sunsetting of organochlorines?

My second point is that the modern multinational corporation is the connection between job insecurity and pollution The massive job destruction underway can be traced to the largest and most profitable corporations many of whom are represented here in this room here today. The list of recently announced layoffs in the United States reads like a who’s who of the Fortune 500. It also reads like a list of the world’s largest toxic producers, users, and emitters Just as pollution respects no national boundaries, neither does the mobile corporation.  The rules of the game allow giant corporations to flee to low-wage and low regulatory areas of the globe. They can do so with impunity because they are not held responsible for the human damage left behind.

By just threatening to leave, these giants gain enormous leverage over North American public policies. To add insult to injury, the dynamic caused by capital mobility allows corporate interests to pit dislocated workers and environmental advocates against each other. At this time, capital flight transforms environmental regulations into a magnet for worker job fears. That’s because it’s so hard to have any impact on the bigger problem, unfettered multinational corporate behavior.

In fact, we are repeatedly told that capital flight and job dislocation are the natural outcomes of the invisible hand of the marketplace. We are told dislocation is the inevitable result of competitive pressures and the drive for increased productivity. These market forces appear so unstoppable and untouchable that it seems as if our jobs are being taken away by an act of God or a force of nature.

But policy making is the work of visible hands – an overt act of human will. In a democracy, regulations are something tangible that can be effectively supported or opposed. A policy proposal like sunsetting provides an arena where working people can express their anger and their frustration. It becomes the lightning rod for job insecurity. The greater the overall job insecurity, the greater the jolt of lightning that sunsetting will attract.

There’s nowhere to run, no argument behind which we can hide. Job insecurity and serious environmental protection are joined at the hip, neither can be solved without challenging the corporate rules of the game.

Now, the bad news. Unfortunately as a union, we hear far too many statements that miss the point. Most are a variation of the following – more jobs will be created in pollution prevention than will be lost through sunsetting, or, the industry’s just crying wolf, safe substitutes will be found and jobs will stay, or, it’s better for those workers anyway since they won’t have to be exposed at the workplace, or, regulations don’t really cost jobs, or, these toxics jobs are going to go away anyway as corporations downsize.

To our ears these arguments sound like wishful thinking. Like an excuse for not confronting head on the worker transition problem.

Every worker knows that there are simply not enough jobs to go around – decent ones that is. Every worker knows that there is no policy for making sure that dislocated workers are the ones to get the new pollution control jobs. Is it all a corporate bluff? It wasn’t a corporate bluff when 1000s of tetraethyl lead workers lost their jobs as lead in gasoline was justifiably banned. It’s not a bluff when it happens to you.

This wishful thinking amounts to a dangerous surrender of the jobs turf.  That’s my third point. By avoiding the question of job dislocation an enormous vacuum has been created This vacuum is being filled by powerful corporate interests with much to gain from slowing down and reversing environmental regulations. By preying upon job fear, groups like the Wise Use Movement in the United States are reaching out to working people in the hope of using them as cannon fodder in their attack on environmental regulations.

I can assure you that the U S Chemical Manufacturers Association and their Chlorine Chemistry Council are ready to fill that void on this issue before us today. As we speak, they’re working hard to build a massive propaganda machine to subvert this sunsetting effort. They have asked unions like ours to join in an alliance with the five largest corporate producers of chlorine to do battle against the environmental community. They have made it clear they have millions in their war chest. They will spend it on new studies to belittle the environmental problem. They will spend it to fan the flames of job insecurity and they will spend it to grease the political skids. Together, they say, corporations and the unions can crush this environmental initiative. What is left unsaid is that if we refuse, they will tell our membership that we care more about the fish in these lakes than we do about their livelihoods.

What should our unions say to this Faustian bargain We say “No, Not now. Not ever ” We are able to say no only because we have an alternative vision. We have a program for a just transition movement which we wish to share with you now. That’s our fourth and final point.

The basis for our proposal is a simple principle of equity. We ask that any worker that loses his or her job during a sunsetting transition should suffer no net loss of income No toxic-related worker should be asked to pay a disproportional tax in the form of losing his or her job to achieve the goals of sunsetting. Instead, these costs should be fairly distributed across society.

We propose that a special fund be established, a just-transition fund which we’ve called in the past a Superfund for Workers. Essentially this fund will provide the following:

1) Full wages and benefits until the worker retires or until he or she finds a comparable job;

2) Up to four years of tuition stipends to attend vocational schools or colleges plus full income while in school;

3) Post-educational stipends or subsidies if no jobs at comparable wages are available after graduation;

4) Relocation assistance.

In the case of sunsetting organochlorines, we should start with a Canadian-U S binational fund and eventually develop a multination fund. It should receive revenues from a surcharge on the production of the substances that are target for elimination.

There are ample precedents for this both here and abroad. Fifty years ago something very much like what we are proposing was the major transition policy of the United States. The US developed this idea of a just transition when it was forced to redeploy 17,000,000 returning soldiers at the close of World War II. Then, as now, there were simply not enough jobs to go around. Then, as now, fiscal conservatives argued that the program was too expensive and violated the laws of the free market.

But what turned into the GI Bill of Rights passed and billions were set aside so that these GIs received a living wage and tuition for almost any school of their choosing. And we now know that it was perhaps the best manpower investment ever made in the U S. Strictly in dollar terms, studies showed that for every dollar invested in the GI Bill of Rights, six were returned to the economy. And in human terms, the GI Bill opened the doors to college for an entire generation. It made the middle class in the United States.

At this very moment, a similar transition fund is in operation within the European steel and coal community. To reduce the overproduction of coal and steel, a multination fund has been in continual operation since 1950 to provide economic relief, retraining and relocation expenses, of dislocated coal and steel workers. In recent years, to cope with another wave of restructuring, this fund has increased its level of assistance to the 60,000 workers who are expected to lose their jobs just between 1993 and 1995. If such a worker transition fund could help eliminate the overproduction of steel and coal, surely a similar fund could be established to eliminate the overproduction of hazardous organochlorine compounds.

But in North America, where the budget crunchers rule the roost, wouldn’t such a program be totally unrealistic? Isn’t it all pie in the sky? I hear this all the time and I must respond.

Let me state the obvious. For centuries now the dominant Anglo-European system of economics has been based on conflict — conflict amongst peoples, classes, corporations, nation-states, and most importantly conflict against nature. The human versus nature conflict is no minor aberration of the system It is and always has been a central feature.

As a result of this conflict with nature, the global economy is rapidly reaching its ecological limits. I do not have to remind this audience of the litany of environmental disasters waiting on the horizon. Whether we want to admit it out loud or not, every single person in this room knows that big changes lie ahead. Clearly, as a species we have to halt that destruction and that is going to mean making fundamental changes in what we produce and how we produce it. I’m talking about fundamental changes in the core sectors upon which all modern economies are built. I’m talking about chemical, oil, atomic, energy, transportation, pharmaceutical, just to name a few.

Now if anyone thinks that a fundamental shift in production can take place without major dislocation, then that is pie in the sky.

If anyone thinks that the corporate invisible hand, on its own, is going to generate enough decent nontoxic jobs for all who need them, then that is really pie in the sky.

If we want any semblance of a sustainable future we had better get very realistic about finding some way of getting ordinary people from here to there with their lives, their families and their hopes for the future still intact.

A just transition program provides us with at least one realistic path by which all working people can begin to embrace the elimination of toxic substances instead of fearing it.

Fortunately, the IJC has already taken the first several steps to build a bi-national, just-transition program. We commend the Seventh Biennial Report for clearly identifying the need to develop a worker transition agenda and the need for unions to be included in the process. Because it is binational, the IJC can build bridges across borders and across the jobs and environment divide.

But will these proceedings really make any difference? They already have. We just received a letter from the Confederacion Sindical de Comisiones Obreras, a major union confederation in Spain. Someone had bothered to translate these proceedings and they had read them – the ones that happened two years ago. Here’s what they say:

“Any results you may have obtained are already a success, for you are fighting against one of the most powerful entities in the world – the chemical monopolies. This experience is encouraging from the workers’ viewpoint. We too are seeking a transition to environmentally clean industry through which we can ensure retraining and relocation of all workers in the sector. We are motivated by the search for greater protection of the environment, but we believe that none of these changes should harm the interests or conditions of the workers. We need as much information on how you are proceeding so that we may also demand this transition, and so that it can be done right.”

So let’s do it right – right here – right now. If we have the courage to go forward we will have heard what working people are really saying to us all.

They are saying that justice is indivisible. Economic justice and environmental justice must go hand in hand.

And, finally they want us always to remember that a dialogue about justice–about a just transition–is never pie in the sky.

For the sake of these workers, for the sake of their children, our children, and the Great Lakes, let’s join together to build a just transition movement.

Thank you for your patience

 Merci bien. Au revoir