Unprecedented? Unions and Community Unite to Halt Plans to Build Coal Export Terminal in Oakland, California

By Elena Mora for Trade Unions for Energy Democracy

A short but well-organized campaign to stop plans to build a coal export terminal in the Oakland Port resulted in a packed Oakland City Council meeting on September 21, and a vote requiring a public health impact study to guide the Council’s action, up to and including a moratorium on coal.

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The campaign, “Coal Free Oakland,” led by the Sierra Club and others, brought together a very broad coalition (more than 80 organizations), with significant union participation, including the Alameda Labor Council, which passed a resolution calling on the city to reject the coal export plan.

Among those coordinating the labor outreach was Climate Workers, a project of Movement Generation Justice & Ecology Project.

Labor and climate justice organizer Brooke Anderson, who heads up Climate Workers, called it “hugely significant — precedent setting — that labor came out in this way and opposed coal coming through the neighborhoods where their members live.” Unions signing on to the petition against the coal facility include the California Nurses Association; SEIU 1021 and United Service Workers West; the American Postal Workers Union (Oakland’s largest post office is next to the port); ILWU Local 10, Local 6 and Northern California District Council; UniteHERE Local 2850; the Peralta Federation of Teachers; the Oakland Education Association; UAW Local 2865; the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 192; and AFSCME District Council 57.

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Terminal Logistics Solutions, the company proposing coal exports from the terminal, has claimed that the facility will be served by covered rail cars to reduce the amount of coal dust that drifts into nearby neighborhoods. Environmental experts dispute that, citing the danger of explosion from covered cars and containers.

As soon as the plan for the coal terminal became public, Anderson told TUED, “we started mobilizing to prevent what would have been an all-too-familiar scenario of workers who would stand to gain jobs from the development pitted against residents whose air and water and health would be jeopardized by it.”

Climate Workers reached out to unions whose members live along the rail line  to discuss the impact of coal on public health. “A tremendous amount of coal dust would be in working class communities and communities of color along rail lines, which would exacerbate already high rates of asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia, heart disease and cancer,” said Anderson.

Anderson stressed the significance of the fact that the unions that opposed the project “passed a resolution in the Executive Committee of the Alameda Labor Council, and the result was a strong position refusing to allow jobs and the environment to be pitted against each other. We need to build a movement that fights for our rights to our homes and our health and our livelihoods.”

The coalition provided unions with talking points and fact sheets about the negative health impacts of coal and the anti-union history of the industry; did research on job-producing alternatives to the coal export project; hosted phone briefings with union leaders to explain the issue; and prepped union members who wanted to testify at the City Council.

At the City Council hearing, which lasted more than six hours, many speakers including union members and leaders spoke passionately against the coal project. Longshoreman Christopher Christensen, from ILWU Local 10, said, “Coal is wrong for our community and wrong for our docks. This community needs good jobs but we don’t need coal to make it happen. As the ILWU says, ‘an injury to one is an injury to all.’ No coal.”

Marie Walcek, a member of the California Nurses Association, asserted that “we are being sold a false choice here between jobs versus our health and our environment, and this does not have to the case if we stand united.”

Others told personal stories related to the health threats posed by coal: “My son has asthma. Depending on which way the wind blows, I have to hook him up to a machine to breathe,” said Al Marshall, SEIU 1021 Oakland Chapter President.

The proposed export terminal’s developers spent a lot of money on the hearing, busing in dozens of workers in t-shirts reading “I Support Oakland Jobs,” who signed up to testify but then ceded their time to the company representatives. Several large churches also spoke in support of the coal project, saying that the “right-now issue” is jobs. These speakers were countered by the many teachers, nurses, and longshore, postal, hotel and other workers whose message, said Anderson, was that “not every job is a good job; you can’t add this level of pollution to our communities; coal is not the only way to get those jobs.”

Photo by Bert Kaufmann via flickr (CC-BY).