Why don't they work together?
By PAUL CIENFUEGOS
"[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
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
ours) 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
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.
Paul Cienfuegos has been active in a variety of social change and environmental
movements since the late 1970s. He founded Democracy Unlimited, a citizens'
organization which educates and organizes to challenge corporate rule. He
can be reached at POB 27, Arcata, CA 95518 or 707-822-2242 or by email at
email@example.com. This article first appeared in Access, a monthly
newspaper distributed in northwest California and southwest Oregon
Here's how you can get involved:
EDUCATE YOURSELF. (All books with listed price available from Paul
Cienfuegos. Please enquire.)
* 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 ($30); 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 ($17); 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 ($12); Putting Power in its Place: Create Community
Control! edited by Christopher and Judith Plant ($10).
* Key resources on ecological literacy: Ecological Literacy by David Orr,
Forest Farmer's Handbook by Orville Camp ($8); Ecoforestry: The Art and
Science of Sustainable Forest Use edited by Alan Drengson ($25); Seeing
the Forest Among the Trees: The Case for Wholistic Forest Use by Herb Hammond
($40); Beyond the Limits: Confronting Global Collapse, Envisioning a Sustainable
Future by Donella Meadows ($17); 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 ($25); The Green
Alternative: Creating an Ecological Future by Brian Tokar ($15).
* 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 ($11); Timber Wars by Judi Bari ($15); 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 ($6); The Ecology of Hope: Communities Collaborate for Sustainability
by Ted Bernard and Jora Young ($17).
* Key resources for reclaiming our society from domination by giant corporations:
Democracy Unlimited, POB 27, Arcata, CA 95518 -- introductory info packet
available for $4. Plus, Corporate Power and the American Dream: Toward an
Economic Agenda for Working People by the Labor Institute ($12); The Emergence
of Corporate Rule and What to Do About It by Tony Clarke ($8); When Corporations
Rule the World by David Korten ($20).
News | Current Issue
| Back Issues | Essays
About the Progressive Populist | How
to Subscribe | How to Contact Us
Copyright © 1997 The Progressive Populist