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Steelworkers and Environmentalists: An Exuberant Alliance

Grateful tears welled up in the eyes of many of the hundreds of listeners last January in Eureka, California, at the hearings on MAXXAM corporation’s management plan for its 211,000 acres, when Don Kegley, millworker at MAXXAM’s Kaiser Aluminum in Spokane, and speaking for the United Steelworkers of America, addressed the panel. Numbers of people, veterans in the struggle to save the last fragments of California’s ancient forests, had spoken already, presenting exhaustive data as to why Pacific Lumber’s Sustained Yield Plan, part of the Headwaters Deal in which the public was to acquire about 4,000 acres of old-growth  for $480 million, would lay waste to the area and the species, including human, which lived upon it. Now here, appearing as if by magic, was a radiant new ally, huge, dressed like a biker, and speaking with such honesty, clarity and feeling that his warmth suffused the entire hall.

The audience would never have believed that this was the first time Don had ever spoken in public. For many years prior to  September l998 when the USWA went out on strike against Kaiser, Kegley had worked on the floor at Kaiser’s rolling mill. Then, late last fall, MAXXAM began busing laid-off timber workers from Pacific Lumber, one of its other holdings, to scab at Kaiser. Incensed at this pitting of worker against worker, two inquisitive Earth First!ers, Darryl Cherney and Mike Jacobal, pursued the scabs. When they confronted the strikers, there was first a clash of stereotypes, then a resolution of misconceptions and, finally, an epiphany in which both groups realized they shared the same aspirations for social justice, respect for the earth’s resources and recognition of the destructive force of rampant corporate global rapacity. A strong friendship sprang up.

When Kegley saw the sea of Pacific Lumber hats and jackets on timber workers given a day off by the company to attend the hearings, he stuffed the speech given to him by USWA President David Foster into his back pocket, and started to talk about conditions which all MAXXAM workers faced. Both properties were acquired by Charles Hurwitz, CEO of the Texas-based corporation: Kaiser in l988, Pacific Lumber three years earlier in a highly leveraged hostile takeover, culminated by a visit from Hurwitz where Hurwitz gave the workers his version of the golden rule: “he who has the gold rules.”  In both plants, the family atmosphere which had formerly characterized them abruptly disappeared. At Kaiser, there were no more Thanksgiving turkeys or Christmas hams. Worker loyalty had been such that in l983 the Kaiser workers had agreed to a pay cut of $4 an hour to help the business through the hard times of refitting — their former wages were never restored. At Pacific Lumber, the pension fund was plundered, and the cut was tripled to liquidation levels. At both sites, work was contracted out to save on wages and benefits. Manufacture of “value-added” products was discontinued.

Kegley emphasized the untrustworthiness of multinational corporations, and the threat to labor of imported products produced with cheap labor in environmentally unsound conditions.  He described an aluminum plant co-owned by MAXXAM and the Venezuelan government, to be built in a clearcut in the jungle. It is, heavily guarded by the Venezuelan military to protect it from outraged indigenous peoples, whose homes and fields have been flooded by the dam which was erected to supply the plant.

Similarly, in California, residents living downstream or downslope from MAXXAM’s timber harvests have had their homes destroyed by avalanches, water systems ruined, farms swept away.

Kegley said told MAXXAM’s timber workers that scabbing on their brothers in Spokane was “shooting themselves in the foot.” He warned that supporting the Sustained Yield Plan would cut themselves out of a job. “Without the environment we’d all be unemployed,” he stated. “Preserving the environment is preserving jobs.”

Since the hearings, the USWA has kept a presence in proximity to MAXXAM which has been high-spirited and exhilarating. Union president David Foster spoke at a rally in mid-April just after he had climbed 180 feet into an ancient redwood tree to salute Julia Butterfly Hill, now more than 500 days without setting foot to the earth. Several steelworkers helped to haul Joan Baez and Bonnie Raitt up the tree to see Julia.

But reaching the MAXXAM timber workers has been more challenging.  Steelworkers marching to the mills with banners found the gates locked, and the workers locked in. There has been virtually no timber worker attendance at the rallies. Don, though sympathetic to the economic exigencies which beset workers, is impatient with this timorousness when it comes to First Amendment rights.  “If management ever tried to tie and muzzle me like a slave, I’d throw away my lunchbox and rip the gate down!” he exclaimed.

Inspired by a joint vision, the steelworkers and environmental workers have acted together on different fronts. In Olympia Washington, Earth First!, together with the steelworkers and other labor unions, successfully blockaded a shipment of aluminum ore bound for MAXXAM’s Kaiser aluminum plant in Tacoma. In late April the USWA filed a suit against MAXXAM’s Sustained Yield Plan for their timberlands.  “This notion of jobs versus the environment is a false choice,” said president Foster. “At the close of the 20th century we want an America that is founded on human values, not corporate values.”

This alliance of forest defenders and steelworkers is historic and electrifying.  It will converge on Houston on May 19th, for the MAXXAM annual stockholders’ convention, to hold a giant rally. “Says Kegley, “I’m in the labor movement. I’m an environmentalist. A coalition will alter the identity of each.  No more, Either labor or environmentalism — it’s not a choice. Both will be seen together as we declare a unity of purpose in fending off global exploitation, preserving local jobs and preserving the local environment from irresponsible operators.”

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