An answer to the jobs-environment conflict?

Issue 

By Tony Mazzochi

[The author is secretary-treasurer of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union in the US. This article is abridged from EcoSocialist Review, published in Chicago.]

Our first concern is to protect the jobs, incomes and working conditions of our members. On the other hand, people who work in hazardous industries, as many union members do, want safe jobs and a healthy environment. We must do everything we can to provide a workplace and environment free from recognised hazards.

The only way out of the jobs versus environment dilemma is to make provision for the workers who lose their jobs in the wake of the country's drastically needed environmental clean-up, or who are displaced or otherwise injured by economic restructuring, or military cutbacks and shifts of manufacturing overseas.

It will take an ambitious, imaginative program of support and re-education — going far beyond the inadequacies and deceptive "job retraining" programs that really mean a downward spiral to low-paying service jobs or subsistence level unemployment income.

The GI Bill after World War II, an innovative and successful program, is the precedent upon which the Superfund for Workers is based. The GI Bill helped more than 13 million ex-servicemen and women between 1945 and 1972 make the transition from military service to skilled employment in the private sector. This program had a formidable price tag, but the country overwhelmingly approved it as an investment in the future. Education became the key to national economic recovery. Education remains just as powerful a force today and is the basis of a concept supported by OCAW called "The Superfund for Workers".

OCAW members are concerned with the environment — our record over the years demonstrates this very fundamental fact. However, our members also are concerned about their jobs. It is small comfort to know that the environment is improving, but our jobs no longer exist.

There is, obviously, a major contradiction to be overcome. We want jobs and a clean environment. Environmental organisations representing millions demand a clean-up of toxics and a halt to the continuing toxification of the environment. However, they lack a clear idea of how to accomplish that desirable goal without a loss in jobs or a mass movement into jobs that pay only the minimum wage.

Options

How should we as workers react to the threat that jobs will be lost if steps are taken to stop environmental degradation?

One option is to oppose any and all regulatory measures affecting our industries that could potentially cost jobs. Unfortunately, such a defensive position does not come with job guarantees. All the environmental regulations now on the books could be repealed, and millions of working people — including many of our members — would still wake up one day to find themselves without a job.

According to the US Department of Labor, approximately 1 million workers with three or more years' seniority lost their jobs every year during the 1980s. Very few of these jobs (less than 2000 overall) were lost because of environmental regulations.

Does this mean that we should not worry about job loss from environmental regulation? Not at all. Corporations can close down their facilities whenever and wherever they want to. They can do so for good reasons, bad reasons and no reasons at all. When they threaten to take our jobs away if the government imposes additional regulations on them, we have to take that threat seriously.

We need to provide workers with a guarantee that they and their families will not have to pay for clean air and water with their jobs, their living standards, their future.

Until recently the environmental movement brushed aside the question of job fear with studies to prove that protecting the environment would create more jobs than it destroyed.

This position is not adequate. As workers, we must be concerned with our livelihood. The reality is that if we lose our jobs, we will face extreme economic hardship.

We need a more realistic program from those who care about the environment — a program that provides working people with job and income guarantees. We have a program to protect ourselves against companies dumping workers — a Superfund for Workers.

Worse than dirt

In 1987 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) forced Velsicol to suspend domestic sales of two very toxic pesticides, chlordane and heptachlor. Shortly thereafter, Velsicol closed its Marshall, Illinois, manufacturing plant and laid off all the hourly workers. Some workers were given early retirement. But many were too young to qualify for retirement, and many were unable to find comparable employment, if any job at all.

The EPA listed the Marshall facilities as a Superfund site after it closed, and ordered more than $10 million to be spent cleaning up the piles of contaminated dirt. But the workers were tossed onto the economic scrap heap, black-listed because of their toxic exposures on the job and impoverished by the lack of comparable employment opportunities.

Why do we treat dirt better than we treat workers? We have a federal Superfund for restoring abandoned piles of toxic dirt, but no Superfund for abandoned workers.

The end of the postwar economic boom in 1973 resulted in a radical restructuring of the US economy and the loss of hundreds of thousands of unionised manufacturing jobs. Workers became increasingly reluctant to complain about health and safety problems.

At the same time, the grassroots environmental movement became ever more vocal in demanding an end to unchecked, heedless growth of the hazardous waste stream and, as much as possible, the complete elimination of toxic materials from the production cycle. This put trade unions and the environmental movement on a collision course.

The 1980s saw an incredible economic restructuring. Industries that we considered a bedrock in our economy were greatly reduced or, in some instances, completely disappeared. Leveraged buy-outs wreaked havoc in many communities throughout our country and average wages, adjusted to inflation, fell to the level they were in the early 1970s. The 1990s see us confronting increased lay-offs and plant closures along with an extremely depressed economy.

In this economic climate, workers feel threatened by any expressions that are perceived to be a peril to their jobs. How should working people confront the 1990s given the new environmental perceptions that exist in our society? The answer is not simple. We need to think about this question in new ways and rework a lot of old definitions.

Corporations

Corporations are in a different position than the average working person. The companies, especially the transnational ones, don't suffer from a shutdown. Their operations just continue somewhere else.

Workers do not have such flexibility, so it is essential that the environmental community reflect on this fact. We are not asking that the environmentalists change their agenda. However, we urge consideration of our economic dilemma and the creation of an agenda that considers the economic impact upon workers.

This notion of an economic agenda for workers whose jobs may be threatened must also be a government priority.

In the national forests in the Rocky Mountains, Alaska and the east, timber stands have low value and are costly to bring to market. The pricing formula used for sales from the national forests involves calculation of a minimum bid that guarantees profit to timber buyers but ignores the government's cost of growing and selling trees.

Moreover, the Forest Service is allowed to use its timber sale contracts to finance purchaser-built roads and acquire land management services that often are uneconomic and environmentally destructive. As a result, below cost timber sales — where the US Forest Service does not recover the cost of making timber ready for sale — dominate in 76 of the agency's 120 administrative units. From 1982 through 1987, the Forest Service national timber program generated, on average, approximately $0.8 billion in annual gross receipts. The agency spent about $1.2 billion each year on road construction, sales administration, reforestation and other timber programs.

The government would serve the interests of the environment and the workers involved by not cutting the timber and instead paying the workers full wages for not cutting timber and building roads.

Insurance

Most large corporations carry what is known as "business interruption insurance". An example of how well this works for corporations occurred shortly after the Phillips Chemical Plant blew up in Pasadena, Texas, in October of 1989. The blast, which levelled the polyethylene complex, killed 23 and injured 290. The physical damage to the plant, estimated at up to $700 million, was compensated by insurance.

However, a little understood feature called business interruption insurance allowed Phillips to collect an estimated $750 million for income lost during the 32-month rebuilding period. In this $1.5 billion explosion the total cost to Phillips amounted to only 5% of the entire loss. Imagine being out of work and receiving 95% of your wages.

Why should we not consider the concept of worker job loss insurance that pays 95% of wages?

FIFRA stands for Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act. The law in its original form provided for compensation to a company whose product was found to be a hazard to public health.

Any company whose pesticide products were banned received compensation for lost sales, and the government paid for storing the banned product.

In spite of the fact that most of these corporations had broad product lines and would have hardly felt the impact, the subsidies were paid in full. These reimbursement measures never considered the worker whose entire livelihood relied on the existence of a single plant or product.

Congress has been willing to pay farmers billions of dollars not to grow food; it has been willing to set aside large sums of money to clean up hazardous waste sites, and to relieve polluters of the financial burden of restoring a spoiled landscape. These schemes provide us with a framework for new thinking about approaches that we need to develop to resolve emerging conflicts around environmental questions.

Americans seem to have forgotten the most successful transition accomplished by us as a nation during most difficult times. We need to revisit this period — post-World War II — because it is most instructive.

In 1944 the Serviceman's Readjustment Act was passed; it became known as the GI Bill of Rights.

The GI Bill provided for 52 weeks of pay at $20 per week (commonly known as the 52-20 club). You could take the whole 52 weeks straight or work for a while, then go back in the club. Twenty dollars a week in 1946 could keep you going because the average wage wasn't much higher. Single veterans got $50 a month to go to school; married vets received $75.

Tuition was paid by the government, and the colleges and universities thrived on the attendance of these veterans. Between 1945 and 1946, college enrolment in the US involved 400,00 veterans. A year later the campus held 1.5 million vets.

While the GI Bill had many shortcomings, it is still considered one of the most advanced pieces of social legislation ever enacted by the Congress. What is lacking is the social vision that allowed for the successful post-World War II transformation.

Price tag

The anticipated automatic response to a Superfund for Workers is "we can't afford it".

But it is important to realise that this is a political — not economic — question. Can we afford the $2.3 trillion Pentagon budget and the $500 billion savings and loan bail-out?

The estimated cost of $40,000 per year per person for income, tuition and health benefits to a million workers would be offset by: (1) these workers would continue to pay taxes and contribute to the economy; (2) the government will realise saved costs in social services such as food stamps and unemployment benefits; (3) we will avoid predictable increases in treatment costs for alcohol and drug abuse, family violence and other effects common to sudden unemployment; (4) new jobs will be created in teaching and student services, new buildings and upgraded facilities; and (5) local economies that have been affected by plant closings will receive a much-needed boost.

Allocating the money is simply a matter of will. The savings and loan crisis has shown us all that hundreds of billions of dollars can be committed with hardly a second's thought to pay off the greed, larceny and corruption of the "big guys". Why can't a much smaller sum be found to provide environmentally displaced workers with a guaranteed income?

What about the national debt? The experience of the GI Bill of Rights at the end of World War II is again instructive. In 1945 the national debt was actually larger than the entire gross national product (GNP). Today the national debt totals only about one-quarter of the GNP.

In 1945, the annual deficit was 22.3% of all the goods and services produced in the country. Today, it is 2.3% of total production. If we could afford a GI Bill of Rights in 1945, we can certainly afford a Superfund for Workers in the 1990s.

Paying people to make the transition from one kind of economy to another economy, another job, is not welfare. It is not a hand-out. Was the GI Bill of Rights charity? No. The members of our armed forces deserved a helping hand to make a new start in life. And so do those of us who work with toxic materials on a daily basis, who face the ever present threat of death from explosions and fires, in order to provide the world with the energy and the materials it needs.

We must think along similar lines to frame the debate around jobs and environment. A Superfund for Workers would guarantee workers who lose their jobs due to any environmental legislation or incident their full wages and benefits until a comparable job can be found. In other words, as with any unjustified firing, workers would be made whole in terms of wages and benefits.

The Superfund for Workers should also provide full tuition and fees — in addition to wages and benefits — to every environmentally displaced worker who wants to further his or her education. Displaced workers should be encouraged to start their lives all over again if they wish, to go back to school and earn advanced degrees that will help them find a job in the expanding, knowledge-intensive sectors of our economy.

We support a public policy whereby all workers would be encouraged to go to school off and on throughout their working lives. The Superfund for Workers should provide even employed workers with an opportunity to take a sabbatical from their job and to be paid full wages and benefits (as long as they make satisfactory progress toward a degree) while they go to school in the program and at the institution of their choice. All working people, whether or not they are facing the prospect of losing their job, need the chance to re-establish our family ties, to reinvigorate ourselves intellectually, to catch up with technological change and to improve our skills.

This debate should be framed by those of us who are most victimised by current policy. The proposal for a Superfund for Workers enables us to join this debate on our terms.

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