Divestment Days and the “War on Coal”

Next weekend, February 13 and 14, hundreds of cities around the world will witness actions as part of Global Divestment Days, calling for an end to fossil fuel addiction and a transition to a clean-energy future. The Fossil Free coalition coordinating these events grew out of the massive People’s Climate Marches (PCM) on September 21, 2014. Divestment campaigns, urging individuals and institutions (churches, universities, unions, banks, and city governments) to withdraw investment dollars from extractive industries, emerged as a key strategy intended to unite students, workers, and people on the front lines climate change.

In an op-ed the day of the March, Desmond Tutu connected the movement for climate justice with the anti- apartheid struggle, which had been aided by a widespread divestment campaign: “Reducing our carbon footprint [has] emerged as the human rights challenge of our time. The most devastating effects of climate change – deadly storms, heat waves, droughts, rising food prices and the advent of climate refugees – are being visited on the world’s poor. Those who have no involvement in creating the problem are the most affected, while those with the capacity to arrest the slide dither.”

Justice, then, requires that those with the capacity should act in solidarity with those most affected, moving our money, if we have investments, and pressuring those who control the flow of capital to do likewise: “Just as we argued in the 1980s that those who conducted business with apartheid South Africa were aiding and abetting an immoral system, we can say that nobody should profit from the. . . human suffering caused by the burning of fossil fuels.”

Three months before the PCM, citing “a moral obligation to act on climate,” President Obama had given the movement some hope with new EPA regulations limiting emissions from coal-fired power plants. The rules mandating an average reduction of 30% by 2030 were a significant departure because they aim to mitigate impacts of coal burning not only on local air quality but also on global warming. If they are implemented as intended, they could deliver cleaner air and water to local communities, mostly poor and working-class, living near power plants, while also showing US willingness to reduce the causes of climate disasters that have already cost thousands of lives in the poorest regions of the world.

The new rules were met with howls of protest from climate deniers, industry executives, and coal-state politicians, charging Obama with waging a “war on coal.” Thousands of union miners and their families took to the streets during the EPA’s public hearings in Pittsburgh, denouncing the regulations as job killers. Their protest was organized by the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance and industry lobbying groups, along with the United Mineworkers of America and other labor unions.

In testimony at the EPA hearings, former Teamster activist Mel Packer attributed this unholy alliance of long-time class enemies to the miners’ anger and fear in the precarious post-2008 economy: they have seen horrendous job losses, their small towns impoverished, and all the social ills that come with a sense of having no future. “They, like everyone else displaced in this Wall Street ‘recovery’ but working class disaster, need jobs, good jobs with dignity, union protection, and living wages. Jobs that leave us with some sense of pride at the end of the shift, knowing we somehow contributed to the common good.” However, he cautioned, “That ain’t gonna come from the coal companies.”

In fact, contrary to the industry line about “Obama’s war on coal,” most job-losses across the coalfields predated the new EPA regulations and happened as a consequence of decisions made in coal company boardrooms. These included a shift from labor-intensive “room-and-pillar” underground mining to fully mechanized long-wall mining and surface extraction, including mountain-top-removal (MTR) with its devastating effects on human health and the natural environment. As a result, the “coal state” of West Virginia saw employment in mining shrink to 27,000 jobs by 2014, while poverty is higher and life-expectancy lower in communities near MTR sites. And it is no coincidence that those surface mines usually run non-union, reducing the UMWA’s membership and clout.

The hard truth is, though, that in a state like Kentucky, which generates 90% of its electricity in coal-fired plants, job losses in coal are unavoidable, since many old plants cannot be adequately retrofitted. In fact, the future for coal faces a much greater threat than either the EPA’s regulations or the industry’s job-killing mechanization. Saving the planet requires essentially that we stop digging the stuff.

The Guardian recently reported on a study published in the journal Nature, estimating that about 75% of known fossil fuel reserves must be left buried if we are to prevent climate catastrophe. The study also indicates exactly which fuels must remain in the ground, primarily those requiring extreme modes of extraction: Canadian tar sands oil, much potential shale gas, and, of course, coal, “the most polluting of all fossil fuels. Globally, 82% of today’s reserves must be left underground. In major coal producing nations like the US, Australia and Russia, more than 90% of coal reserves” must remain unburned.

A “just transition” to a clean energy future, then, requires that we not only divest from fossil fuels but also reinvest in renewables and in training displaced workers for the new economy. Groups like Appalachian Transition work to develop local wind and hydro generation, solar installations, and building retrofits for energy efficiency, as well as jobs in forest and watershed reclamation. As Nick Mullins puts it in his Thoughtful Coalminer blog, not only would this transition “give people good steady jobs outside of the coal mines–it would decrease our need for fossil fuels, satisfy many environmental concerns, and even give us that national energy security everyone keeps talking about.”

The students who initiated the campus divestment movement understood the necessity to both “divest and invest.” They explicitly framed their campaign as a “solidarity tactic” with workers and others most affected by extractive industries. At Swarthmore, for instance, they founded the Mountain Justice organization after a spring break study trip to mountaintop removal sites in West Virginia. Student Stephen O’Hanlon expresses the resulting strategy with typical idealism: “As institutions of higher education, we can leverage our economic and political capital to not only transition from fossil fuels to renewables, but to create a more equitable society in the process. By divesting, we can undermine the fossil fuel industry’s social license, thereby threatening their bottom lines. Through reinvesting, we can actively promote the world we want to see.”

This cross-class solidarity approach has spread to hundreds of campuses, with its most recent success at the New School in New York City. Pittsburgh’s Divestment Day rally and teach-in, Friday February 13, are organized primarily by students from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, in alliance with traditional peace and justice organizations, union and environmental activists. The Center for Coalfield Justice, based in the most mined and fracked corner of western Pennsylvania, will teach us about “living on the front lines of the fossil fuel industry,” while students crank up pressure on their universities to divest from climate-destroying fuels and invest “like Appalachia matters.”

Nick Coles

Fighting for More than A Contract

While Wisconsin drew most of the national media attention as the home front of the battle over collective bargaining for public sector workers, what’s happening in Ohio is every bit as significant and interesting.  Ignoring weeks of protests in the state capitol and around the state, and despite divisions within the Ohio Republican delegations, the Ohio legislature passed Senate Bill 5 in March.  The bill would place tight limits on collective bargaining for most public employees, and it would ban it entirely for college professors (using the language from the Yeshiva Decision that defines us as managers). By June, almost a million people had signed petitions to put the measure on the ballot in November, giving voters the opportunity to overturn the bill – something we can do in Ohio that isn’t an option in Wisconsin.

The petition drive involved unions across the state, as well as community and religious organizations, while local chambers of commerce, businesses, and even the state’s university presidents either overtly advocated for SB5 or insisted on “remaining neutral” and thus passively embraced it .  Those same divisions are playing out as the campaign heats up heading toward November.

For public sector unions, this has been a tough time.  No one wants to make organized labor or collective bargaining look bad right now.  The Ohio Education Association, for example, has encouraged its locals to settle on contracts, no matter how bad, early in the game, and many have complied.

Here at Youngstown State University, we’re living with the political ramifications of this bill right now.  The faculty union, an OEA affiliate, first accepted the recommendations of an external fact finder,   which included small pay raises, a large  increase in our health care costs, and a small cut in pay for teaching summer courses.  We said yes, agreeing to accept what amounted to major concessions, but the Board of Trustees rejected the fact-finder’s report, demanding even greater “shared sacrifice” from the faculty.  Their counterproposal asked for cuts of up to $7500 in a single year for some, though their public statements insisted that most faculty would lose less than $1000.  Much of that loss comes in summer pay, which affects only faculty, not administrators or other staff.  So much for “shared sacrifice.”

Clearly, the upcoming referendum on SB5 has created an especially difficult context for unions.  Some have speculated that the Board of Trustees (most of whom were appointed by Republican governors) is playing hard ball at the request, advice, or encouragement of the Governor or other Republican leaders who hope that a strike by YSU faculty will illustrate the need for this bill. Others are encouraging the faculty to give in to avoid generating public resentment that could lead to a bad outcome in November.  No doubt, every public sector worker in Ohio, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and other states with similar laws must be feeling the pressure to make organized labor look good.  But should  we make every concession we’re asked for, in order to show that unions are reasonable and willing to do our part to balance state and local budgets?  If we do that, aren’t we also willingly contributing to the loss of power for workers and for unions?

Some organizers of the campaign to overturn SB5 have encouraged us to avoid making trouble, but I would argue that the situation at YSU offers a great illustration of why collective bargaining is so important.  What’s happening here illustrates just how bad SB5 and similar bills will be for public sector workers.  If we were not allowed to bargain, the administration would have imposed much bigger cuts.  YSU faculty are already the second-lowest paid in Ohio, and under SB5 we’d be solidly at the bottom, with no recourse whatsoever.

At the same time, we illustrate that collective bargaining works, not only for workers but for employers.  After all, our negotiations have already been built around concessions, not demands for increased salaries.  Further, in exercising our labor rights – by going to fact finding, by holding democratic votes on the proposals, by authorizing a strike and ultimately deciding not to strike, by filing unfair labor practices – we are working through a process that protects us even as it limits some of what we can do.  To my mind, we make a great poster child for public sector bargaining.

For an academic activist who is also deeply engaged in teaching, this has been an especially difficult time.  On the one hand, I’m ready to push this fight as hard as I can, because what happens here matters not only for us but for public workers across the state.  On the other hand, the threat of a strike – and that remains a possibility – creates real difficulties for students.  The University administration has already shown that it is willing to put our students at risk in its effort to force even greater concessions from the faculty.  A week before classes were due to start, YSU announced that it was putting a hold on financial aid, claiming that they could not say with confidence when school would start because the faculty had filed a strike notice.  They had never done this before, despite strike authorizations in previous rounds of negotiations or during an actual strike in 2005.  While assuring students of the administration’s concern, YSU had prepared alternative schedules and a website full of information, and they had sent threatening messages to members of other campus unions insisting that they were required to cross the picket lines.  The faculty union refused to play along, and after voting down the administration’s “last best offer,” we decided not to strike.  Instead, we are back in the classroom, working under the provisions of the old contract and trying to continue negotiations.

Some students responded exactly as the administration must have hoped: blaming the faculty and creating a facebook page that included many statements by students vowing to vote in support of SB5 because of this.  But others were not reeled in.  Instead, they organized.  They created a facebook page, YSU Students for Faculty (which now has almost 900 members), but they also held protests, conducted a letter-writing campaign, and challenged the University administration to treat its workers fairly.  They analyzed the administration’s actions and communications, and they have used a wide range of tools, from social media to filing public records requests to showing up and trying to ask questions at a Board of Trustees press conference last week.  They are also working with the campaign against SB5.

As the students have made clear, this is a case where politics are not entirely local.  What happens here may well affect the statewide vote in November, and of course, I hope it will make clear to anyone who’s unsure about the issue that unions are our best, maybe even our only, tool to protect the rights of workers.  But while the dispute at YSU and the debate over SB5 are inherently political, they also serve as learning opportunities.  The discussion among the students — and even on local talk radio — has encompassed why people should vote to overturn SB5, what’s happening to workers and universities across the country, the sad state of the American dream, and the real purpose of a college degree.  Those conversations remind us that the fate of public sector workers – educators, clerical workers, safety officers, health care workers – is not just about our income or benefits.  It’s about the public good.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies