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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

Living On Earth’s Chris Ballman reports on a fledgling movement in the Pacific Northwest called the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment. The group is working to bridge the decades long gap between labor unionists and environmentalists.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For years, labor unionists and environmentalists have mostly ignored each other. For a while in the 1970s the two groups banded together to push landmark labor and environmental bills through Congress. But then they slowly drifted apart. You might have seen them together at liberal rallies or under the Democratic party's umbrella, but they didn't talk much to each other. Differences over climate change and tensions over jobs related to natural resources kept them at arm's length. But more recently pressure from the new global economy has been bringing them closer together. Unions were seeing jobs head overseas. Environmentalists feared an increasing demand on the planet's resources. They starting talking again, and by the time of the world trade organization meeting in Seattle they were marching arm in arm.

MAN: When we come together as environmentalists, as human rights activists and trade unionists we can literally change the course of history, and we are taking that first step here today. Thank you. (Cheers)

CURWOOD: But this reunion is still tenuous. Living on Earth's Chris Ballman recently spent a few days traveling with some of the people who are trying to forge this coalition.

CATON: I got it, I got it.

BALLMAN: Cliff Caton and Don Kegley are packing the car for a road trip through the Pacific Northwest. They have no trouble lifting their gear into the trunk of Cliff's blue Chevy Lumina. That's because Cliff and Don are big burly guys. They both sport black T-shirts, leather jackets, and jeans, but it's easy to tell them apart. Cliff has the ponytail. Don shaves his head.

CATON: The place that we do our drinking is right over there.

KEGLEY: That's the neighborhood bar right down there.

CATON: The Trenton Dale.

KEGLEY: The Trenton Dale.

CATON: Little bitty place and they just squeeze them in.

BALLMAN: Caton and Kegley look like members of a motorcycle gang but the colors they wear belong to the United Steel Workers of America. They worked at Kaiser Aluminum in Spokane, Washington, until a labor dispute with the Maxxam Corporation left them locked out of the plan.

(A guitar plays)

BALLMAN: Now Caton and Kegley think environmentalists can help them get their jobs back. Cliff even makes up songs about it to pass the time on the road.

CATON: (Sings to the tune of "If I Had a Hammer") But then along came the unions, and the people from the forests, and we got together to take back our land. To fight against the Maxxams and the corporate structure. To prove when we stand together we can do anything we want to -- and that's kind of where the song breaks down and we ain't got that figured out yet.

BALLMAN: To figure it out, Cliff, Don, and other steel workers roam the Pacific Northwest these days, building what they call the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment. Today they're heading to Eugene, Oregon, where their alliance was born about a year ago. They went to Eugene looking for allies in an environmental conference, but they didn't know the players. And as Don Kegley recalls, they almost left without meeting one of the most important.

KEGLEY: We were getting ready to leave and a gentleman came up to us and said, "David Brower would like to buy you a beer." And we were kind of excited about that, except that two young women had offered to take us also to a big party. It was kind of a funny moment, because Don and I were like wrestling back and forth: Let's see, do we go get the beer or do we go with the women to the party, and they've probably got beer there, too.

BALLMAN: So they went for the beer with David Brower, and found out that the octogenarian is considered the dean of the modern environmental movement. Don Kegley told Brower that he'd love to have him at an upcoming meeting about labor and environmentalists working together. "Not half as much as I'd love to have you," Brower replied.

KEGLEY: And I really knew then, when he said that, he was talking about labor. He had shared the same vision that we'd come to know, that as long as we continue to divide each other and let the corporations put us in little boxes and label us, we weren't going to get anywhere. So it was very incredible that he had already recognized and was really after us as much as we were after him.

BALLMAN: With Brower's blessing and the steelworker's organization behind it, the alliance was born. Built around a partnership between unions and environmentalists in the Northwest. Returning to Eugene for this year's environmental conference, the steelworkers are no longer strangers.

(Mingling crowds)

WOMAN: I'm glad you guys are here.

CATON: Thank you.

KEGLEY: Thanks, we're glad to be here. We're glad we've been accepted like we have.

BALLMAN: To kick off its founding, the alliance ran an ad in the New York Times. It asked, "Have you heard the one about the steelworker and the environmentalist?" Today in Union Hall's corporate boardrooms and coffee houses, the joke is being taken seriously. Alliance members say they have the beginnings of a national movement.

PICKETT: It feels like it's on the cutting edge, and the potential is tremendous.

BALLMAN: Karen Pickett is a forest activist who's found common ground with unionists in a common enemy: Charles Hurwitz and his Texas-based Maxxam Corporation. In 1986 Maxxam acquired the Pacific Lumber Company in northern California and began aggressively logging redwoods. A few years later Maxxam bought Kaiser Aluminum. The company's first ever strike followed, and in a move the National Labor Relations Board has since called illegal, the workers were locked out of the plants. After a few Internet connections and a couple of phone calls, Karen Pickett says the parallel universes of the aluminum mill and the redwood forest converged.

PICKETT: You listen to the changes that they said took place in the Kaiser plants, and it was the same method of operation. Which isn't surprising, but here we were sitting across the table from these people, who weren't part of our campaign. And we were speaking the same language and having the same problems.

BALLMAN: Like many alliances, this one began modestly. The Kaiser steelworkers asked redwood activists to use union printers. The environmentalists got steelworkers to use recycled paper. But the alliance picked up steam with the corporate campaign against Maxxam. Lawsuits, boycotts, and a lobbying and public relations blitz took off. The goal was to increase union leverage at the negotiating table and hold Charles Hurwitz morally accountable for cutting down ancient redwoods. A Maxxam spokesman calls the alliance a marriage of convenience between disgruntled workers and eco-terrorists, and its corporate campaign a waste of time and money. But it is having an impact. Maxxam's stock has lost half its value since last summer.

PICKETT: Charles Hurwitz, thank you. He has given us a good example to hold up there, and he has brought us together in something that's very powerful.

(On the road)

CATON: (Yawns) How far are we out?

KEGLEY: We're only five minutes away.

CATON: Five minutes away; we need a five-minute song.

BALLMAN: Cliff Caton, Don Kegley, and I are on Highway 101 now, heading into Eureka, California, center stage in the feud over the redwood forests.

(A phone rings)

KEGLEY:[phonetic spelling] Hello? Hey, Garlic, what are you doing?

BALLMAN: The alliance has his office here and Don is working the phones. He talks with locals who have complaints against Maxxam, checks in on the lawsuits, and to appreciate up close the trees they are now committed to saving, the steelworkers sometimes travel to Founder's Grove just south of Eureka. This redwood sanctuary is a place of majestic beauty, and sometimes inspiration.

CATON: (Sings) As I watch one more truck full of old growth leave the mountains and head toward the mill, I wonder why they can't see the destruction that is caused when you clear-cut a hill...

BALLMAN: Cliff Caton's making up songs again, and nature is his studio. Cliff, Don Kegley, and I are standing comfortably inside the rotting innards of a redwood that rises several hundred feet and is nearly 12 feet around. It's like being inside the ruins of a cathedral.


CATON: It amazes me that we would even consider cutting trees like this down to make decks and hot tubs. It's just insane.

BALLMAN: But trees are being cut near here. Maxxam's Pacific Lumber Company is based just a few miles away, and its men, trucks, and helicopters are working around us.

(Helicopter rotors)

BALLMAN: We leave Founder's Grove to go see a man who's trying to stop the logging of unprotected trees.

CATON: So how long you been back up?

MADESON: Oh, a little over a week, I guess, now.

CATON: Really.

MADESON: Not too long, just kind of getting settled in, so to speak. Takes a little while.

BALLMAN: Nate Madeson is perched on a platform 150 feet up a redwood just outside Freshwater, California, the place where voices echo through the hills. He's been living in the tree for 20 months now, to keep it from being cut down. Occasionally he likes to take a break, if he can find a replacement. The idea tempts Cliff Caton.

CATON: I heard somebody throwing around an idea of getting a steelworker up there for a little while, anyhow. I wouldn't mind doing it.

KEGLEY: Well, Cliff, you can sleep just about anywhere. I'll bet you can sleep up there. (Madeson laughs)

CATON: Just give me a rope to tie to the trunk in case I start tossing and turning in the night and I’m there. (Kegley laughs)

MADESON: There you go.

CATON: Okay, Bud, take care.

MADESON: All right, guys.

CATON: Later. (Madeson whoops)

BALLMAN: Hugging trees and hanging out with forest activists are new experiences for steelworkers. And after we check in at the Earth First office in nearby Arcada, I asked Don Kegley about the bond forming between the leather-jacketed visitors and their tie-dyed hosts. He likens it to a slow dance.

KEGLEY: Where we've, maybe in the past, looked at some of the young activists and thought, you know, these are a bunch of hippies and dreadlocks, goofy kids, but a lot of these kids look at us with suspicion. And some of them have even said to us, "Well you guys are the problem, though. I mean, you guys are the ones that are consuming." I mean, we're the ones that are buying in massive amounts all the products that are causing the corporations to have to continue to extract more and more resources. I feel guilty once in a while when they start talking about, you know, what the automobile is doing, and I know that I have this big old truck that costs $40,000 and burns a lot of diesel (laughs). And so, that's the downside, is that they are pre-judging us, too. It's a very strange balancing act that we're going through, and it's not like we're just doing it. But it's just something that's happening on both sides. We're like pulling and giving and looking, and it's different.

(Snoring on the road)

BALLMAN: Cliff Caton's snoring now. He's stretched out in the back of the car as it rambles up the California coast. Don Kegley's behind the wheel for the first stretch of the 12-hour ride to the steelworker's union hall in Spokane, Washington. Don and Cliff agree that if looks and lifestyle were the only gauge, many of their coworkers might not accept the grungy forest activists as allies. Truth is, most union members don't know about the alliance being forged with environmentalists, but some are taking an interest.

STROMM: Turns out I work at one of the least environmentally conscious places, probably, on the planet.

BALLMAN: Larry Stromm is on the picket line at the Kaiser Aluminum plant in Mead, Washington. Nearby, a coworker is splitting wood to stoke a potbellied stove that heats a makeshift strike headquarters. Stromm doesn't know if environmentalists can help him get his job back, but he says they have forced him to take a closer look at his industry.

STROMM: You know, we're just outside a plant here, where they've had, you know, in the last 18 months, an excess of $200,000 in fines. The thing is, they pay the money as a business expense, but yet the pollution's there. You know, the people around the plant live with it, and you know, I live in this town. And it really kind of makes me rethink a little bit what I'm doing, too.

BALLMAN: Still, Larry Stromm says he doesn't always see eye to eye with environmentalists. Tearing down dams to restore salmon runs, a green mantra here in the Pacific Northwest, he's not sure he can support that. Could hurt the region's economy, he says. The jobs versus environment argument remains an obstacle for the alliance to overcome, and there are other hurdles to cross.

(A group sings: "We shall not, we shall not be moved. We shall not, we shall not be moved...")

BALLMAN: We're at the State House in Olympia, Washington, now. Steelworkers are lobbying lawmakers to extend unemployment benefits for locked-out Kaiser workers. But union leaders did not invite environmental activists to join them here. They also canceled a labor environment protest at a Kaiser plant in nearby Tacoma. Some observers say union leaders balked at the prospect of environmentalists committing civil disobedience and getting arrested, a common tactic among green activists. The labor movement was born of that kind of fervor but today it's an institution, bound by laws which limit its activities and discourage militancy. The difference in tactics bothers steelworker Don Kegley as he tries to build the alliance. Unless labor gets aggressive, he fears environmental activists may walk away.

KEGLEY: They just want to say the hell with your lawyers, you know. The hell with the law. And I, if anything I begin to quiz those things myself. I mean, because, if we're just going to be subservient to the law and subservient to everything without protest, without standing up, I don't know if we are going to change anything. I don't want these kids to fight my fight. I'd love to have them join in, but if we can't participate, I have a problem with that.

(Milling voices, laughter)

BALLMAN: Remember that ad the alliance placed in the New York Times? The ad that asked if you'd heard the one about the steelworker and the environmentalist. Well, there is such a couple. Don Kegley introduced them to me in Eugene, Oregon.

BUTTERFLY-HILL: My name is Julia Butterfly-Hill.

GOODMAN: John Goodman.

BALLMAN: John Goodman and Julia Butterfly-Hill sit holding hands in a lounge at the University of Oregon Law School. It's the first time they've seen each other since Butterfly-Hill climbed down a redwood tree called Luna. Julia Butterfly-Hill spent 738 days living on a small platform high in the tree. She did it to keep Pacific Lumber from cutting it down, and in the process the waif-like tree-sitter earned the respect of the beefy steelworker.

GOODMAN: You know, I used to think I was a tough guy. I went to Vietnam, I was in martial arts for a lot of years, full-contact karate, road bowls and rodeos and stuff like that. But when I met her I had to redefine what tough was, you know, and what tenacity is, and what true grit is. And I'll tell you what. She has definitely shown me that. She's something else.

BALLMAN: John Goodman spent hours talking Julia Butterfly-Hill through the cold, stormy, just plain lonely nights. He also spent hours negotiating with officials at Pacific Lumber. The steelworker and the lumberjacks spoke the same language, and eventually they struck a deal that saved Butterfly-Hill's redwood.

BUTTERFLY-HILL: If anyone doubts the power of alliances, they can drive north from San Francisco, 250 miles north. And on a little ridge top above the town of Stafford, the very top is a magnificent tree standing, and three acres around it, which is just a piece of the puzzle. But it is a phenomenal piece of the puzzle, the tree being over 1,000 years old, marked to be turned into somebody's deck, where it could last maybe another 100 to 200, tops. Now stands for at least another thousand years. That happened, that area is protected forever, to live and die by nature's laws for the rest of time, because of alliances. That's the power of alliances.

BALLMAN: One tree, it's said, does not a forest make. And given its cultural, tactical, and political differences, this alliance is as fragile as a newly-planted sapling. But if they can save more redwoods and help some steelworkers gets their jobs back, these activists say their work will help pave a road for unionists and environmentalists to travel together.

(A car door shuts; an engine starts up)

BALLMAN: And that's where Don Kegley and Cliff Caton are headed, back out on that road.

KEGLEY: Hello?

BALLMAN: Don on his cell phone, and Cliff on his guitar, making the calls and making up the songs they say can bridge the gap between the blues and the greens.

(A guitar strums)

CATON: (Sings) As I watch one more truck full of old growth leave the mountains and -- mountains and head for the mill, there we go. Can I write this down as I go? Mill...

BALLMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Chris Ballman.

CATON: (Sings) Wonder why they can't see the destruction that is carving clear-cut hill...



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