Sunday, March 27, 2011

Jobs? Or Jobs with Justice for All?

I spent all day yesterday at the Western Mass Jobs with Justice Conference.  I thought it was good-- even better than last year-- and more diverse.  Bill Fletcher was  a very thought-provoking speaker.

Got home and then, after getting the cats settled, did what I usually do after a day out:  looked at the news online   Channel 3 had a little article about a job fair scheduled for Taunton, MA that had to be canceled because not enough employers signed up-- not enough jobs!

This got me thinking about the workshop I had just attended, Good Green Jobs.  I didn't know it was going to be mostly about the Mt. Tom coal-burning energy plant in Holyoke, but  had already heard that the coalition organized around Mt. Tom issues was working on a strategy to preserve jobs as well as trying to move Mt. Tom beyond coal.

Here in Springfield,  where we're organizing to stop a biomass incinerator, the plant proponents that I have the most sympathy with are the building trade unions that want the jobs the plant would bring.  Of course, the question we ask back to them is, At what cost are you willing to take those jobs?  And who will pay the price?

The format of yesterday's workshop was that we all sat at three tables, and the workshop facilitators rotated among us.  The last facilitator to join my table was Brian Kenney, IBEW Local 455, who is the business manager for workers at the Mt. Tom plant.  He told us about the significant improvements in air quality that the plant had made this year after installing new scrubbers.  He also mentioned that Mt. Tom is a peak-load plant-- that is, doesn't put electricity into the system 24/7, but only on those days when it is called for.  Meanwhile, the boilers operate non-stop in case they are needed, and-- I don't think I got this wrong-- burn 1,200 tons of coal a day even when not generating electricity!

I do think it took some courage for him to come to the conference, and I had no desire to be rude.  When it was time for questions, I asked him if he and other workers would be willing to work elsewhere if the wages and benefits were just as good.  (I know you lose the solidarity of people you've worked with for years.)

"Those jobs don't exist," he said.
"Yeah, but if they did exist?"
"Well, yeah, but..."

Then someone else mentioned that the coal burned from Mt. Tom comes from Colombia.  Mr. Kenney said he had just heard that, had always thought it was U.S. coal, but maybe it was Colombian.

This led me to ask if he knew anything about the working conditions on the mining end of the operation, and he said he didn't.

When I got home last night, I did an internet search for the source of Mt. Tom's coal, and came across this informative post at Students for a Just and Stable Future.

Last year, more than 100 Colombian coal-miners died at work. Just five weeks into 2011, the death toll already stands at 26. Other than the ties that bind us all together as humans, what do these deaths in Colombia have to do with us in Massachusetts? The connector is coal: The coal we burn at Mount Tom, Holyoke, comes from Colombia.

How does the coal get from Colombia to Massachusetts? Helpfully, the Wall Street Journalprovides the names of the major companies that own coal mines in Colombia. One of them is BHP Billiton, an Australian company that dedicated $4 million to crushing Kevin Rudd’s surtax proposal. BHP Billiton’s shares were up 0.8% today. Others include Xstrata (up 1.26%) and Anglo American (also up by more than 1%).

As connect-the-dots puzzles go, this one is not very elaborate. GDF Suez imports Colombian coal from companies like BHP Billiton. It burns the coal in power stations like Mount Tom, Holyoke. A lackadaisical approach to workplace safety in Colombia leads to the deaths of miners, and a cavalier attitude to climate safety leads to floods in Australia. What are the common factors joining the Australian and Colombian tragedies? We are. And we are doing something about it.
I've posted before about my apparently deathless idealism about unions.  Of course, I've never been in a union, which helps to preserve my ideals.  And I acknowledge the cognitive dissonance we all live with in Corporate U.S.A.-- electric lights burn in all our houses and we know way too little about the working conditions of those who grow our food and make our clothes. But once we do know, we can start to make choices.

Is it too much to ask that Mt. Tom workers consider their brothers in Colombia?  What does solidarity mean in 2011? 

AP Photo: Woman waits for news of a relative after a Colombian mine explosion this year. Print Friendly and PDF

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