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Connecting the Environmental Dots

Peter Rugh Jul 11, 2012

Floods washed away the lives of at least 171 people in Russia's Black Sea region last week. In southern India, rising waters killed 121 people and displaced 6 million people.

As increased emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases warm our planet, more moisture is suspended in the air. What comes up, must come down. So far, the most severe effects of global warming have rained down on the heads of those in the Global South.

By 2030, floods in India may increase 30 percent in magnitude, according to the country's Ministry of Environment and Forests. This summer, global warming is also showing its violent force in the U.S. Temperatures in the Midwest are at heights not witnessed since the Dust Bowl year of 1936. New Mexico and Colorado have been scorched by wildfires.

New York City is not immune either to the effects of climate change. As temperatures stand at a fever pitch, some 8,500 workers with Consolidated Edison, the city's electricity monopoly, are locked out. Con Ed showed the bulk of its workforce the door in the wee hours of July 1, after contract negotiation with Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA) Local 1-2 broke down.

The company wanted assurances from the union that they would receive at least seven days' notice before they walked out. When the union refused, workers were ushered out and replaced by a skeleton workforce of scabs and management. UWUA member Debbie Thomas said she could have used some advanced notice, telling Alternet's Michelle Chen, "[The lockout] was a shock to me, because had I known we would've been going out, I'd be saving my money. I really don't have no savings right now, and I never expected this to happen."

The utility has gone the extra mile, canceling workers' health plans. With the city's energy demand at a peak and those who maintain its transmission lines on picket lines, sections of the city have blacked out and are starting to feel the heat. Though damage so far as been a fraction of what is possible, Con Ed's actions beg the question: Why has the utility given its workers the boot? Why is Con Ed gambling with the lives of the city's elderly and chronically ill, potentially leaving them without respite from the effects of a climate-change heat wave that has turned New York into an asphalt furnace?

Moola. Greenbacks. The "Paper." Profits.

Con Ed wants workers to accept a $1 hourly raise in exchange for doubling their health care costs, eliminating sick days and replacing their pension plan with a 401(k) that ties their retirement fund to the stock market.

Con Ed is by no means strapped for cash. It has made $5.9 billion since 2008, none of which was taxed. In fact, the company has received $74 million in federal tax refunds in the last three years. While the company wants workers to take a cut, CEO Kevin Burke gave himself a 30 percent raise in 2010. He raked in a $1.1 million salary that year, plus $9.2 million in benefits and stock awards.

Local 1-2 is not the first UWUA local to find itself locked out this summer. At midnight on June 5, security for Entergy Corp. escorted workers offsite at the Pilgrim nuclear plant in Plymouth, Mass., 45 miles south of Boston. For the last month, Pilgrim has been kept online by untrained scabs and management, putting the millions of people who live in the surrounding area at risk of a meltdown.

In a recent statement, UWUA Local 369 noted that since they were locked out, "Entergy has cancelled a vital safety drill that has yet to be rescheduled, forced replacement workers unfamiliar with the Pilgrim plant to double up on critical safety responsibilities, and at times has had to significantly reduce power output at the plant to cope with leaks and overheating."

Entergy makes $1 million a day, but, like Con Ed, it has opted to put its insatiable drive for profit ahead of workers' rights and public safety. The corporation would rather risk a meltdown than drop its demands, including that employees at Pilgrim pay 50 percent of their health care costs.

At a recent Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearing on the safety of another Energy plant–Indian Point Power Center in Westchester, N.Y.–those carrying "Shut it Down" signs sat next to people with placards reading "Indian Point = Jobs." At one point during the hearing, an environmental activist asked the Entergy worker beside him, "Do you really think your boss cares about you?" "Yes," the man answered vehemently.

Looking at the case of Pilgrim, however, the veil wears thin. The nuclear plant operator has been eager to rally workers to its cause when profits are under threat, but when push comes to shove, Entergy cares as much for the safety and living standards of those they employ as they do for preserving our environment: not at all.

It's nuclear workers who will be on the front lines of a meltdown should one occur, and with the numerous safety exemptions the NRC has granted Entergy and other plant operators in the four decades since most of America's plants were built, the chances of a "U.S. Fukushima" are higher than ever.

Similarly, a new pipeline set to stretch from Jersey City under the Hudson River and into Manhattan will expose UWUA members in New York to radon gas. Spectra Energy's NJ-NY Expansion Project has been the target of much ire from environmental groups, which contend it will increase the metro area's reliance on fossil fuels and that it is unsafe. A recent study from Radioactive Waste Management Associates has also warned that the natural gas the pipeline will carry contains concentrations of radon 70 times above average.

Con Ed has hailed the pipeline's arrival and plans to connect it to its already existing infrastructure. Radon from the pipeline will be pumped into millions of homes through stovetops and laundry appliances. But UWUA workers, charged with installing the New York City side of the subterranean transmission line, will receive the heftiest dose.

Any day now, Con Ed's scabs will begin work on the pipeline at 10th and Gansevoort in the West Village. The site could become a location where two often-divided camps unite: workers and environmentalists.

Divisions between those seeking ecological preservation and workers did not always exist. Many of the environmental regulations won during the 1970s were advocated for by unions demanding healthy and safe working conditions. The notion that those who care for our biosphere are opposed to labor and are not, in fact, workers themselves is a fallback strategy by bosses to sow divisions among the public and to stomp out any opposition to the accumulation of capital at the top.

Nature has been locked out of the capitalist economy. The risks of nuclear power are outsourced to the public. Companies "aren't responsible" for the glitzy wrapping covering sweatshop cellphones or prison-stitched underwear once it has come off to reveal the planned-obsolescent fossil underneath.

The ecological devastation of carbon-intense industrial output is put on layaway for future generations. Not only will jobs be scarce if capitalist-induced global warming continues on its current course; food, water and arable land will be hard to come by as well. Expect more floods, heat waves, forest fires, droughts and resource wars between competing states.

There are concrete reforms environmentalists can fight for immediately that will reduce carbon emissions and provide workers with greater job security and higher pay. For instance, in November, the city of Boulder, Colo., voted to ax its electrical monopoly in favor of public control of their power.

Although the structure of such public electrical municipalities can vary, let's imagine if New York City's electrical grid were managed by the workers who operate it and by those who utilize its power. Would members of Local 1-2 lock themselves out? Would the public jack up its own rates? Would we continue to have our power sourced ad infinitum from fossil fuels rather than cheaper renewable sources?

Such reforms could provide stepping stones toward a larger movement that challenges the foundations of our ecocidal and exploitive system, but, in themselves, would not be enough. More than a century and a half ago, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote that class struggle–the 99 percent versus the 1 percent in "Occupy speak"–results "in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes."

We live in an epoch where we either reconstitute society–shifting off fossil fuels and nuclear power while building an infrastructure based on renewable energy and sustainable agriculture–or we starve like fleas on a bloodless dog. Such a reconstitution of society would offer jobs to millions, along with the prospect of mitigating against the effects of climate change.

Environmentalists must stand by those who climb into the fiery manholes, weld the derricks and sweat into the gears of capitalism–in order that we may one day shut this system down together and build the new world that is vitally necessary. Who's to say a new ecological movement could not be spawned on the picket lines of Plymouth, Mass., or New York City?

First published at Ear to Earth and Socialist Worker.

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