The Gristle

Hard Hats and Sea Turtles
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HARD HATS AND SEA TURTLES: In an astonishing and welcome fusion of interests, organized labor and environmental groups joined forces last week on Bellingham’s central waterfront. In an extended series of comments to the Bellingham Planning Commission, representatives from the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, the local chapter of Jobs With Justice, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities, and others sketched a broad range of intersecting concerns with the joint plan of the city and Port of Bellingham to redevelop the brownfields of the former Georgia-Pacific mill site.

“As the community evaluates the pros and cons of the proposed plan,” the groups noted in a joint statement to planners, “we and those we represent ask you to support the development of a waterfront that will provide living wage jobs that include essential benefits, such as affordable health care housing, including workforce housing, that will directly and indirectly benefit the entire community.”

The coalition asked for an improved plan to remediate the site “based on clean-up standards in the water and on the land that will protect the entire food chain in Bellingham Bay and enable families to safely live and work at a restored waterfront; open spaces to provide essential recreation for workers, residents and visitors; and restoration of intertidal habitat to support healthy wildlife.” In addition, they requested a fully realized transportation plan that provides opportunities for transit, walking and carpooling. Finally, the group asked for a complete analysis of the 35-acre ASB wastewater containment lagoon before it is dismantled in order to determine its highest and best use in a functional economy.

“The land is publicly owned,” the coalition noted, “the clean-up is being financed by our tax dollars and the roads, sewers and other infrastructure will be paid for by us at a projected cost of more than $400 million. As taxpayers, we are financing the development of the waterfront and we need to assure that the development that occurs there meets the needs of our community members.”

Among the many suggestions, creation of a living-wage zone incubating local business rather than the boutiques and chained franchises envisioned by the port.

“I want to thank you,” Bellingham attorney Larry Hildes remarked to the commission in later comments, “for bringing environmentalists and labor back together. You may not entirely enjoy that, but we do.”

Certainly the groups have been strained over the past five decades, as focus on habitat restoration and species protection have been met by cries from organized labor that such efforts kill jobs. The animosity has intensified as organized labor has linked itself more and more to corporate goals and interests, while the organized environmental movement has focused on lobbying in the corridors of power. Locally, the strain has reached the point of buckling over the Gateway Pacific Terminal, with Labor Council union members strongly in support of the coal pier proposal and its associated jobs and local environmental groups fiercely in opposition to a plan that could ship as much as 54 million metric tons per year of greenhouse-gas-laden coal to markets in Asia.

The groups represent the mightiest biceps of Whatcom Democrats, and that certainly spells a challenge to election efforts in 2013. While organized labor is perhaps not the kingmaking force it once was to proactively elect candidates to office, they surely retain the power to reactively thwart candidates from seeking office. The environmental movement is similarly a force to be reckoned with in fundraising and organizing power.

That’s why the words of Mark Lowry, president of the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, took on particular meaning and power at last week’s meeting.

“We support our friends in the environmental community and we trust them to look out for our interests,” Lowry told planning commissioners.

“I was cheered by that,” remarked Crina Hoyer, executive director of RE Sources. “Not just the statement of support, but the assurance of trust.

“It’s mutual,” she said, cautioning that the deep divisions and commitments to positions remain in response to GPT, even as opportunities to work together and collectively negotiate broaden around the city’s central waterfront.

More than a decade ago, the disparate groups of labor and environment took to the streets of Seattle to collectively protest the globalization agreements of the World Trade Organization—agreements that have accelerated the outsourcing of labor, a race to the lowest environmental standard, and a consolidation of wealth and power in the hands of a small, elite cabal of corporate multi-nationals. These groups were prescient in their concerns, yet disorganized and hostile to one another, and the protests of the 1999 WTO Ministerial Conference grew quickly out of hand.

Police tear-gassed a crowd, and men in a solidarity of hard hats sought the shelter of a small bar to wait for the gas to disperse. Huddled inside was a similar crowd of Greenpeace volunteers dressed as sea turtles, protesting the corrosive effects of globalization on the world’s oceans. Hard hats mingled with sea turtles, shared drinks and laughs with people with whom they had really not shared anything since the Vietnam War and the divisions of Nixon.

It was a powerful scene—unlikely to happen, unlikely to endure, as corporate power and relentless political forces have managed to isolate and divide these groups, keep them from talking, and set them one against the other.

And while those divisions will continue and harden around Cherry Point, a tiny light of cooperation and teamwork glimmers on the shores of the city’s maritime brownfield.

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