The Next Page: From steel to plastic — a future most foul

Maura Losch/Post-Gazette

50 years since celebrating the first Earth Day, the threats to our planet are more tangible than ever

by CHARLES MCCOLLESTER, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, APR 26, 2020

A decade ago, my Pittsburgh Post-Gazette op-ed, “Under Siege by Marcellus Marauders,” raised the alarm that “a thousand Marcellus Shale sites are in the works, with tens of thousands more poised to descend on Penn’s Woods.” Today the number is over 15,000 deep wells, despite the fact that fracking has produced an overproduction of natural gas and constant expansion has undermined its profitability.

Rising seas caused by global warming are making the fossil fuel industrial centers of Texas and Louisiana untenable, so the industry is moving to our tri-state area, bringing toxic pollution, cancer and respiratory illness with them. Tragically, Pennsylvania opened the veins of the commonwealth without meaningful regulation, taxation, transparency or accountability.

I well understood the deep hunger for jobs amidst the collapse of regional mining and manufacturing that made the Marcellus juggernaut unstoppable. From 1979 to 1999, with other union activists I attempted to staunch the hemorrhaging of our region’s once legendary manufacturing capacity. We bitterly decried the hollowing out of the nation, the discarding of the industrial working class with its diversity of skills, rootedness in this land and love for our communities.

The present coronavirus crisis demonstrates the vulnerability of a society that has off-shored its productive capacity to tenuous global supply chains. The invocation of World War II America’s heroic productivity, summoning auto companies to make ventilators and medical testing equipment as if they were tanks or airplanes, was pathetic, if not laughable. Pittsburgh was once surrounded by hundreds of small manufacturers and engineering firms that could have quickly responded. Ladies garment workers of Eastern Pennsylvania could have produced hundreds of thousands of masks and gloves in weeks.

Exploitation and corruption

One consequence of a corporate global strategy — harnessing foreign production through financial and military power to drive down wages and increase profits — is demonstrated in the epicenter of the pandemic, New York City. There, a subway system absolutely central to the city’s operation is ranked the worst in the world, with hundreds of daily delays and breakdowns in its signaling and control systems. Union Switch & Signal, where I was elected chief steward of the union from 1983 to 1986, wired the New York system at its creation and maintained it until the Switch was closed. Highly skilled workers who spent a career servicing that complex system were displaced when the Swissvale operation shut down.

The political muscle behind Shell’s massive natural gas to plastics plant, with its spider-web network of wells, compressor stations and pipelines intended to deliver gas and plastic feedstock to the world market, are the Pittsburgh region’s union building trades. My appreciation of skill-based union organizations began in 1986,as 45,000 union workers marching to protest the incursion of nonunion contractors into the birthplace of organized labor shutdown Pittsburgh.

Exploiting thousands of skilled steelworker crafts people desperate for jobs, nonunion contractors gained an expanding segment of the labor market. Subsequently, I grew to deeply admire the construction unions’ dedication to intensive training and the pride they feel in their collective skill, organizational competence and political clout. I deeply respect the manual and intellectual skills involved in building, making and growing the products we humans need to survive.

That said, we must question the building trades’ political commitment to fossil fuel and plastics. It is madness to welcome the construction of two, three, four or more of these massive petrochemical facilities upwind from Pittsburgh. To go from dependence on steel to dependence on single-use plastics is environmentally suicidal and a disaster for the long-term economic health of our tri-state region.

Five years ago, a respected leader of a union contractors organization expressed to me his fear that the heavy strain on skilled manpower needs of the massive Shell chemical plant would reopen the regional door to nonunion contractors with underskilled, underpaid and underprotected workers. Several union sources tell me that this is happening now.

While I want skilled union-protected local workers to do every bit of regional energy work, I much prefer them to build the greenest, most energy efficient city and region in America. It is no service to union labor to allow corrupted politicians to sell our common-wealth to foreign investors eager to ship out untaxed energy to Europe and Asia. We will continue to need natural gas for heating and power until clean alternatives are in place. We do not need more plastics and the massive export of our resources abroad.

Modern solutions

If Shell’s Beaver County plant becomes operational, the state will need a moratorium on any further natural gas development until this plant’s health, safety and environmental impacts are meticulously and scientifically assessed. Pennsylvanians need absolute transparency and accountability; plus, reinvigorated chemical right-to-know laws with updated water and air standards reflecting the complexity and diversity of the toxic chemicals now employed; plus, rigorous epidemiological monitoring of regional cancers and respiratory illness that only a universal health system can provide. We absolutely need a well-trained union-protected workforce to operate the facility. Pittsburgh’s United Steelworkers absorbed the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union and has extensive experience representing oil and gas facilities in Texas and Louisiana.

The most dangerous aspect of the present moment is the denial of science and critical thinking as we confront the effects of global environmental degradation. Just as the coronavirus will not be contained through political chest thumping and blame games, our grandchildren’s health and happiness will not be ensured by turning a blind eye to the devastation wrought by combustion, methane leaks, toxic pollutants and single-use plastics on our land, air and waters.

Dialogue inside the working class and between workers and communities over a “Green New Deal” that structurally engages unions in a planned, comprehensive and just transition to a better future is essential. State Rep. Summer Lee, D-Swissvale, was recently denied the Democratic Party endorsement, which some have speculated was because she is “anti-fossil fuel” and has criticized U.S. Steel for a massive leakage of coke oven gas that directly impacted her constituency.

It takes total blindness for an aging white political leadership not to understand the importance of minority and female voices to the future of the party. In addition, a failure to respond to the deep existential anxieties of young people who are acutely aware of the Earth’s vulnerability will condemn the Democratic Party to irrelevance.

Blue vs. green

Fifty years ago, in Gary Ind., I was among several hundred people, including hippies, radicals, community activists, steelworker union folk and a few Black Panthers, gathered at a lakeside park to celebrate the first Earth Day. The Bethlehem Steel headquarters was to the east, while the Gary Works, U. S. Steel’s largest manufacturing plant, rumbled in the west. And beyond the area, toward Chicago, the lakeside was crowded with oil refineries and heavy manufacturing.

While everyone was intimately aware of pollution and environmental devastation, there was a great feeling of optimism based on the experience developed in the civil rights and antiwar movements. Despite the assassinations of our heroes and the hostility of the governments, redemption appeared possible. A clean environment seemed a unifying cause too compelling to deny.

On Earth Day 2020, there is no room for the innocence and optimism of 1970. Glaciers are melting and seas are rising; weather is increasingly unstable with more violent storms; vast stretches of the planet are burning; thousands of species are collapsing with extinctions increasing exponentially; cancer, immune system disorders and infectious diseases are taking ever greater toll on human life; climate change is exacerbating bitter wars and political divisions; the poor of the Earth are increasingly refugees causing xenophobia and political extremism to increase. Ignorance is no defense.

In 2016, I went to a large gathering at Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center of coal miners and union tradespeople connected to power plants. They were protesting the so-called “war on coal” while environmentalists had also gathered to protest coal usage. I knew a lot of the coal miners and tradespeople and a fair number of the environmental activists. Standing between thousands of coal miners and other fossil fuel workers and a couple hundred environmentalists, my sign read:

“As long as Blue — union jobs — is pitted against Green — the Health of the Earth — we are all doomed!”

I believe that today more profoundly than ever.

Charles McCollester is the retired director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Labor Relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and co-founder of the Battle of Homestead Foundation.