A piece I wrote detailing the history of West Virginia in national energy policy appeared today at Salon.com.

Read it here.

They poisoned the river for a “clean coal” lie

An updated, condensed version of my two part article that appeared today on SocialistWorker.org

IMAGINE YOURSELF in the rugged countryside of the Appalachian Mountains, where you and your neighbors have lived with a history of poverty and lack of economic development–and you learn that the water piped into your home has been poisoned and can’t be used, even after it is boiled, until further notice.

Imagine trying to run a hospital when the city’s water is unusable–even for hand washing. Imagine having to ration drinking water to school-age children in the fourth most water-rich country on earth.

All of these nightmares and more came true in West Virginia on January 9 after residents reported that their tap water tasted like licorice. The contaminant turned out to be 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCMH–a chemical used to produce misleadingly named “clean coal” through a froth flotation process that “scrubs” the coal prior to burning it in power plants.

The chemical spilled into the Elk River from a 48,000-gallon tank owned by Freedom Industries. The full extent of the leak remained unclear over the weekend. West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin claimed the spill didn’t exceed 5,000 gallons, but Freedom Industries President Gary Southern could only say for certain that less than 35,000 gallons leaked out.

Tom Aluise of the West Virginia Environmental Protection Association noted that MCMH cannot be removed from the water–and residents will simply have to wait for thousands of miles of pipelines to be flushed before water safety can be reassessed. “This material pretty much floats on the water, and it’s floating downstream, and eventually it will dissipate, but you can’t actually get in there and remove it,” Aluise said.

That begs the question of why a hazardous chemical that is impossible to clean up if spilled was being stored near a river only one mile upstream from a treatment plant providing water to West Virginia’s capital of Charleston and nine counties that span the surrounding area.

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FREEDOM INDUSTRIES claimed it didn’t know how a toxic chemical could leak from its tank and the containment area around it, and then into the river. But state investigators said they were able to trace the leak to a hole in the storage tank–the chemical apparently breached a second containment barrier and flowed into the Elk.

According to its website, Freedom Industries supplies bulk quantities of numerous hazardous chemicals used by the mining industry, among others. “With 4,000,000 gallons of storage capacity,” boasts the website, the Elk River terminal “can process large volumes of chemical rapidly, and cost effectively.” Processing them safely, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be a top concern.

Officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) started receiving odor reports about the facility as early as 7:30 a.m., according to theCharleston Gazette. But the department’s emergency response chief didn’t receive word about the spill until noon. The Gazette reported that the company failed to report the spill to regulatory agencies.

DEP officials said they had no jurisdiction to inspect Freedom Industries’ terminal because chemicals were only stored–not produced–at the site. Gazette report later quoted a DEP official stating that the department last inspected the site in 1991, when it was a different kind of facility and owned by a different company.

As for federal oversight, my search of agency records found no recorded inspections by either the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The lack of inspections by OSHA was confirmed in an agency statement saying OSHA personnel were now investigating, but had “no previous history” to go by. An EPA spokesperson told CNN that its inspectors hadn’t ordered any enforcement actions at any Freedom Industries facility in the past five years.

The DEP did finally issue an order forcing Freedom Industries to close down its operations–and later to drain remaining chemicals from 11 above-ground storage tanks. The facility may be allowed to operate again, however, after the equipment is tested.

As if to underline the disastrous response of regulatory agencies to the Elk River disaster, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to undercut existing environmental standards…on the same day that thousands of gallons of a toxic chemical leaked out of Freedom Industries’ terminal. The “Reducing Excessive Deadline Obligations Act,” sponsored by Colorado Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, would, among other provisions, get rid of the requirement that the EPA review solid waste regulations every three years.

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IF REGULATORY negligence is an old story–especially in West Virginia, where the coal industry is concerned–it really doesn’t convey the human costs of this disaster.

With no way for MCMH to be removed from the water, it remains unclear what the short- and long-term effects will be. Safety data sheets for various materials compiled by OSHA list little information about the effects of the chemical, and many emergency officials say they know little about how exposure to it would effect humans, animals, plants or the overall ecosystem.

Jeff McIntyre–president of the West Virginia American Water Co., which runs the treatment facility polluted by the Freedom Industries’ leak–did little to reassure residents when he refused to comment specifically about possible effects, saying only that the chemical is “not particularly lethal in its usage form.”

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources said possible effects of ingestion or inhalation MCMH include “severe burning in throat, severe eye irritation, non-stop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin irritation, such as skin blistering.” To this list, the National Library of Medicine web page on the human health effects of methylcyclohexanol adds headaches and damage to the heart, liver, kidney and lungs, possibly resulting in death.

Scientific American reported that the chemical was “an obscure compound” that hasn’t received many safety reviews because it has little use in consumer applications. The chemical “adheres to some of the compounds in soil,” the magazine reported. “It is poisonous but only at relatively large doses; in rats it killed half of the animals tested at concentrations above 825 milligrams per kilogram of body weight.”

While concentrations in the West Virginia water aren’t that high, it’s not clear what the ecological consequences of the spill will be. The Elk River is a major tributary of the Ohio River, and the Appalachian Mountains, as well as the valleys downstream, are home to ecosystems already under threat from more than a century of burning coal, deforestation, strip mining, mountaintop removal and more.

For now, hundreds of thousands of people are without water in one of the poorest areas of the country, and the government has no idea when tap water will be safe to drink again. The inadequate emergency response sent people–or at least those who had transportation to get to a store and money to afford it–scrambling to buy rapidly disappearing supplies of bottled water.

The state Department of Health and Human Resources closed restaurants and schools. Nursing homes and hospitals, while also under the advisory, struggled to provide basic services. There were, however, reports of some nursing homes that had to close, leaving elderly and disabled people without access to care.

On social media, West Virginians were quick to point out the failure of the government response. Teresa Boggs Meadow noted, “already cooked, ran the dishwasher, done laundry and drank it. If it happened so early why did you put the warning out so late? It happened at 10:30 AM!” Other residents tweeted that stores were gouging frightened customers by raising prices on bottled water.

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THE SPILL in the Elk River is the latest chapter in a long story of ecological and class warfare in West Virginia–where the coal industry and other companies have attempted to rob working people of their land and livelihoods and devastate the ecosystems they rely on for survival.

It’s an all-too-familiar story to residents. For Steve Pauley, a former chemical plant worker, the disregard for workers, the community and the environment–and the negligence of companies and the government alike–was just more of the same. As he described on the West Virginia Water Crisis blog:

One day I was up on a tower cleaning up some waste material that had leaked out…While I was up there, the chemical alarm sounded for a gas leak of…the same stuff that killed all those people in Bhopal, India in 1984. During the alarm, everyone else sheltered in place, but I was up on a tower and couldn’t get down, so I was left there while all these chemicals swirled around me.

Once the emergency was over, someone finally came to get me down, but only after they had me finish the job that I was doing up there. I sent letters to OSHA and my congressman about the incident and was assured that there would be a “thorough investigation.” That was in 1991, and I’m still waiting to hear anything further about it.

In her comment on an Al Jazeera America blog, Marilyn Mullens of Cool Ridge, W.Va., made the direct link back to the coal industry–the reason that MCMH exists in the first place:

This is the same chemical they use to “clean the coal.” The same chemical that is pumped into billion-gallon earthen dams that litter the Appalachian Mountains. The chemicals have been seeping into the streams and groundwater of coalfield residents for years. Some of us have been pleading with our elected officials to stop this, but they are paid off by the coal companies. The same coal companies that are on record as saying my people are “collateral damage” and “expendable.” Now this chemical spills into their drinking water, and they tuck tail and run. Go figure.

Mullens’ comment raises an obvious question: How can a chemical that causes “damage to the heart, liver, kidney and lungs” possibly be considered part of a so-called “clean” energy process?

In reality, “clean coal” is a dangerous myth. As writer Jeff Goodell put it, it is “not an actual invention, a physical thing–it is an advertising slogan. Like ‘fat-free donuts’ or ‘interest-free loans’…”

It’s no coincidence that this disaster happened in one of the poorest areas of the country. The same companies that poison the water, decimate the mountaintops and erect dams to hold back huge amounts of “mountain slurry” are also responsible for the high levels of poverty that exist throughout the region.

For more than a century, minimizing access to health care, education and other social services helped employers extract as much profit as possible from the region by keeping corporate tax rates low–when the corporations that own operations in the state pay taxes at all.

This is the context we must understand to comprehend the failure of the state government’s response. Why, in the richest country in the world, were people left to scramble to find supplies of bottled water? Why weren’t hospitals and other medical facilities prioritized to receive water so the most vulnerable would be in less danger? Instead of closing schools and other public buildings, why weren’t these facilities opened to the public as emergency relief centers?

Instead, the people of West Virginia, especially those who live outside the cities, were left to fend largely for themselves.

By Friday afternoon, there were at least six lawsuits filed against Freedom Industries and West Virginian American Water Co., two of which are seeking class-action status. But these lawsuits focus primarily on economic “damage” to businesses over water contamination–and not on the hundreds of thousands of people who may have been exposed to toxic chemicals.

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ALL THE ecological disasters we see around us–from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, to the fertilizer explosion that leveled the town of East, Texas, to the disaster at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in 2010, to the “development” of Canadian tar sands as an oil resource–underscore the increasing urgency of the ecosocialist project.

Capitalism is destroying our planet faster than we can study the effects of that destruction. Increasingly, the fundamental conflict emerges with astounding clarity–capitalism and the world’s more than 6 billion people are on a collision course.

The people of West Virginia understand this conflict better than most people in the U.S. Central Appalachia contains some of the world’s largest accessible deposits of bituminous coal, and coal drives the region’s economy. Since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, coal mines have been owned by the most powerful sections of the corporate elite–the railroads, the steel companies and, more recently, the energy conglomerates.

As capitalists rushed to exploit the region’s natural resources, they subjected the people who lived there and worked in the mines to countless ecological disasters and deadly explosions and cave-ins in the mines, all while keeping the region in poverty by keeping businesses located out of state.

The people of West Virginia have made clear demands through the years: put the land and people first. The companies did neither, but continued on a profit-driven rampage, destroying huge swaths of the West Virginia mountains–one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes–with mountaintop removal for cheaper access to coal, exposing West Virginia residents to toxic air pollution and inflicting deadly explosions and cave-ins in the mines and anti-union violence against any miners who fought back.

The priorities set years ago by the corporations are what got us here today, with hundreds of thousands of people unsure when they will be able to drink their water again. Which is why the debates of the past aren’t just the backdrop to the current crisis, but can help illuminate the stakes of the current moment.

Ecological demands are, of necessity, social demands. In the past, some coal miners and their allies argued that energy resources should be nationalized so production and use wouldn’t be dominated by the profit motive. Hostility to nationalization stopped the idea from ever getting a hearing, but its importance remains.

Natural resources are public resources–energy generation and control of water resources must be brought under public control and run for the public good, not for profit. The trend, however, is in exactly the opposite direction. Increasing numbers of water treatment centers, like the one affected by the Elk River spill, are run more and more often by private companies–and companies like Coca-Cola have been pushing to privatize water resources in areas around the world.

Energy production must be nationalized and any workers displaced from the oil, coal and natural gas industries must be given unionized employment building an infrastructure based around sustainable energy sources.

Such a struggle points in a different future–one where West Virginia is not a dumping ground for the nation’s dirty energy policy, but where its workers and residents decide democratically how to utilize natural resources and implement a system based on meeting their needs and not, as Freedom Industries boasts, processing large amounts of destructive chemicals rapidly and cost-effectively.

 

Link  —  Posted: January 13, 2014 in Uncategorized
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This is Part 2 of a 2 Part Series examining the political and social ramifications of the chemical spill in West Virginia last Thursday in the context of Appalachian history and struggle.  Part 1 can be read here.

On the third day after 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (MCHM) leaked from a storage facility into West Virginia’s Elk River, little has changed for 300,000 West Virginians who remain without water.  The estimated size of the leak remains unclear.  Freedom Industries’ President Gary Southern could only say for certain that less than 35,000 gallons leaked out, but West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin claims the spill did not exceed 5,000 gallons.  No one can say for sure when the water will be safe to use for even the most basic daily tasks–brushing teeth, washing hands, clothes, and dishes, and, of course, drinking.

Finally, the EPA issued an order forcing Freedom Industries to close down its operation and drain any remaining chemical in the tank.  While the site cannot accept any new materials for storage, they will not be required to remove other chemicals from the site.  Instead they have been ordered to test the integrity of all other above ground tanks and secondary containment systems.  But it comes too late.  The Department of Environmental Protection had no jurisdiction over the site since the chemical was only stored–not produced–there, meaning that hazardous chemicals stored in close proximity to major water source had no state or federal oversight and were supposed to self-report EPA violations.  OSHA has also launched an investigation into potential violations of worker safety, but their statement also highlighted further oversight and negligence–OSHA has no past relationship with Freedom Industries.  Yet another workplace containing dangerous chemicals went uninspected.

Those defending the company because it has no record of violations entirely miss the point: after all, you can’t find violations that you aren’t even looking for.

The state has launched an investigation into the disaster, and by Friday afternoon, at least six lawsuits had been filed against Freedom Industries and West Virginian American Water, two of which are seeking class action status.  But these lawsuits primarily focus on economic “damage” to businesses over water contamination–and not on the hundreds of thousands of people who may have been exposed to toxic water and who have lost access to the most important public resource as a result of Freedom Industries’ negligence.  The state is also investigating price gouging on the part of businesses that had stockpiles of bottled water at the time of the spill.

More than 16 trucks of relief water have arrived, but distribution remains uneven as nine counties remain without water. And, perhaps more importantly, no one seems to be asking the questions that should have been prompted by this disaster.

Why, for example, in a water-rich area in the country with the fourth largest renewable water supply in the world, are hundreds of thousands of people forced to rely on water brought in from other states?

Why is a chemical company allowed to store 4,000,000 gallons of chemicals with varying levels of toxicity only a mile upstream of a water treatment facility that serves hundreds of thousands of residents and is connected to the water table that supplies well water for many more?

How can a chemical that cause headaches, irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, skin rashes, damage to the heart, liver, kidneys, and lungs, possibly resulting in death be considered part of a “clean” energy source?

Why, in the middle of a state emergency, is the government allowing water to still be sold in stores under police guard and not allowing for free community distribution to anyone who needs it?

Why aren’t the people being kept from working–people who are disproportionately low-wage workers in restaurants, food service, schools, and hospitals–being paid to help with emergency relief?

These are the questions that most people aren’t grappling with, because they call into question the country’s energy policy, economic and social inequality, the notion of private property.  They call capitalism into question, and the media can’t respond.  But ecosocialists can.

Every disaster–from the BP oil spill to the fertilizer explosion in Texas, from the Massey mine disaster to “development” of the tar sands as a oil resource–underscores the increasing urgency of our project.  Capitalism is destroying our planet faster than we can study the effects of that destruction.  Increasingly, the fundamental conflict emerges with astounding clarity–capitalism and the world’s more than six billion people are accelerating on a collision course.

The people of West Virginia probably understand this conflict better than most people in the United States.  Central Appalachia contains some of the world’s largest accessible deposits of bituminous coal, and coal drives the region’s economy.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, coal mines were owned by railroads, then by steel companies, and in the 1960s, began to transition to being owned by large energy conglomerates–usually oil companies, but coal has been an important part of the American economy for more than a century, and as capitalists rushed to exploit the region’s natural resources, they also subjected the people who lived in the region and worked in the mines to countless ecological disasters and deadly explosions and cave-ins in the mines, all while keeping the region in poverty by keeping businesses located out of state.

And West Virginia found itself at the center of a similar debate nearly 45 years ago, as the nation grappled with the rise of nuclear power, increased development of strip mining, and decline of oil and natural gas being used as source fuels in the generation of electricity.  As operators pressed for ever-increasing levels of productivity in the nation’s coal mines, increasing numbers of miners died in workplace accidents.

Then in 1972, the Buffalo Creek disaster happened.

One of the coal slurry dams owned by the Pittson Coal Company burst, releasing 132,000,000 gallons of the black liquid.  The deluge, which crested at thirty feet, killed 125 people, injured more than 1,000, and left four-fifths of the town’s population homeless.  The company called it “an act of God” but residents knew that, yet again, the companies had put profits ahead of the lives of local residents.

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Aftermath of the Buffalo Creek Disaster

The state demanded $100,000,000 for disaster relief and damages, but settled for only $1,000,000–a settlement that reflected the power of the companies in shaping state politics and suggested that the state was less interested in winning justice for its citizens than it was in maintaining a relationship with the coal industry.

But the ecological attacks perpetrated by the companies went far beyond disasters like Buffalo Creek.  In an effort to cut costs, the companies expanded the use of strip mining after WWII.  They invested in uranium mines.  Tooth and nail, they fought every environmental and safety regulation put forward by lawmakers under pressure from organized miners.  In the midst of an energy crisis–the energy companies were determined to emerge victorious.

To do so, they attacked the people of West Virginia on every front.  They harassed and assaulted residents who tried to block strip mine operations.  They attacked workers who unionized and fought against a union leadership that claimed “if coal cannot be mined safely and burned cleanly, it should not be mined or burned at all.”  The coal industry even went so far as to say that in lieu of sustainable energy alternatives being developed, government resources should detonate nuclear weapons underground to increase natural gas reserves.  (When they tried that, they acted shocked that the resulting gas was radioactive…and therefore unusable.)  The people of West Virginia had made clear demands: put land and people first.  The companies did neither, but continued on their profit-driven rampage destroying huge swaths of the West Virginia mountains–one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes–with mountaintop removal for cheaper access to coal, exposing WV residents to toxic air pollution in order to provide the rest of the nation with cheap energy.  The decisions made in the early 1970s are what got us here today, with hundreds of thousands of people unsure when they will be able to drink their water again.

The debates of the 1970s aren’t just the backdrop to the current crisis, but it also can help illuminate the stakes of the current moment.  What happens now matters.  It will determine the ability of people to halt capitalism, climate change, and global ecological destruction in its tracks.  But what exactly does this history teach us?

Ecological demands are of necessity social demands.  Some coal miners and their allies argued that energy resources had to be nationalized in order to not be dominated by the profit motive.  Hostility to nationalization halted the idea in its tracks, but its importance remains.  Natural resources are public resources–energy generation and control of water resources must be brought under public control and run for the public good, not for profit.  Of course, the trend is exactly the opposite.  Increasing numbers of water treatment centers are run by private companies, and companies like Coca-Cola have been pushing to privatize all water resources.

The energy industry is enormously profitable.  As long as profit is the driving factor, sustainability will be impossible, and we are running out of time to replace fossil fuels with green alternatives.  Energy production must be nationalized and the masses of workers displaced from the oil, coal, and natural gas industries should be given unionized employment building an infrastructure entirely based around sustainable energy sources.  Such a fight points toward a different future–one where West Virginia is not a dumping ground for the nation’s dirty energy policy and one where workers and mountain residents decide democratically how to utilize the natural resources the land offers and work collectively to implement a system based on meeting everyone’s needs and not, as Freedom Industries boasts, processing large amounts of destructive chemicals rapidly and cost effectively.

Much like the crisis of the 60s and 70s, we are at a point of ecological and economic crisis.  We must choose between the destruction of our planet and the revolutionary transformation of society, and the steps we take now to begin that process matter.  Join the fight for ecosocialism, and in the meantime, demand that Freedom Industries pay for the costs of the chemical spill and be held criminally accountable to the people of West Virginia.

This is Part 1 of a 2 Part series that will examine the political and social ramifications of the chemical spill in West Virginia and the history of Appalachian struggle against human and ecological destruction.  Part 1 will focus on the spill and its aftermath.  Part 2 will put this disaster in historical context and discuss what the legacy of ecological and class warfare in central Appalachia can teach ecosocialists today.

Imagine living in the rugged countryside of the Appalachian mountains.  You have no source of income or means of transportation, and you find your water has been poisoned and cannot be used–even after being boiled–until further notice.   Imagine trying to run a hospital when none of the city’s water can be used–even for hand-washing.  Imagine having to ration drinking water to school age children in the fourth most water-rich country on earth.

All of these stories and more came true in West Virginia on January 9, after residents reported water that tasted like licorice.  The contamination turned out to be 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a chemical used to produce the misleadingly named “clean coal” through the froth flotation process which “scrubs” the coal prior to burning in power plants.

A Freedom Industries worker places boom in the Elk River at the site of the chemical spill

As of this writing, an unknown amount of the substance had spilled from a 48,000 gallon container located along the Elk River, owned by Freedom Industries (FI).  Despite being located only one mile upstream from the water treatment plant where drinking water was contaminated, Tom Aluise of the West Virginia Environmental Protection Association noted that the chemical cannot actually be removed from the water–and residents will simply have to wait for more than 60 miles of pipelines to be completely flushed before water safety can be reassessed.  “This material pretty much floats on the water, and it’s floating downstream, and eventually it will dissipate, but you can’t actually get in there and remove it,” Aluise said.

FI claims they don’t know how the hole which caused the toxic substance to leak into the containment area and then into the river got there, but then, according to its own website, FI keeps maintains bulk quantities of not only 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, but 5 other flotation reagents–not to mention the other products stored on site, which include other specialty chemicals including freeze conditioning agents (used in deicing), dust control palliatives, water treatment polymers, and other mining chemicals.  “With 4,000,000 gallons of storage capacity,” boasts the Freedom Industries website, the Elk River terminal “can process large volumes of chemical rapidly, and cost effectively.”  Processing them safely, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be a primary concern.

Although air-quality officials began receiving odor reports about the facility as early as 7:30 a.m., the emergency response chief of the Department of Environmental Protection didn’t receive word of the spill until noon.  The Charleston Gazette reported that the company had failed to report the spill to the self-regulation agencies, which raises the question why a chemical corporation more interested in efficiency than the safety of hundreds of thousands of people is allowed to regulate itself anyway.  A search of the Environmental Protection Agency’s facility compliance reports found no record of inspections at the facility for available years, presenting a striking parallel with low OSHA inspection rates that resulted in a deadly explosion at a Texas fertilizer plant last year.

And, of course, with no way for the chemical to be removed from the water through a clean-up operation, it remains unclear what the short and long term effects will be beyond contaminating the water supply of the Kanawha Valley, West Virginia’s most populated region.  The materials safety data sheets, compiled by OSHA, lists little information about the effects of the chemical, and many emergency officials say they know little about the potential effects of the chemical.  West Virginia American Water President Jeff McIntyre did little to reassure residents when he refused to get specific about possible effects, only saying that “it’s not particularly lethal in its usage form.”  And while not completely sure how the contamination will affect residents, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources said that possible effects of ingestion or inhalation could include “severe burning in throat, severe eye irritation, non-stop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin irritation such as skin blistering.”

In addition to the human effects, it’s not clear what the ecological consequences of the spill will be.  The Elk River is a major tributary of the Ohio River, and the Appalachian mountains–as well as the valleys downstream–are home to ecosystems already under threat from more than a century of burning coal, mountain-top removal, strip mining, deforestation, and more.  Many people rely on these rivers for water supplies, irrigation, and leisure.

Empty shelves at a Charleston area store.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people are without water in one of the poorest rural areas of the country, and the government has no idea when the water will be safe to drink again.  The emergency response has been entirely inadequate, leaving those who could afford it–and who had transportation to get to a store–scrambling to buy rapidly disappearing supplies of bottled water.  The Health Department closed all restaurants, tattoo parlors, and schools, and many businesses will remain closed.

Nursing homes and hospitals, while also under the advisory, must still struggle to provide basic services.  According to the Charleston Gazette, however, some nursing homes will shut down, leaving elderly and disabled people without vital access to care at a critical time.  The Charleston Area Medical Center has canceled all procedures until the water use ban is lifted.

West Virginians were quick to point out on social media the failure of the government and the water company in warning people about the danger.  As Teresa Boggs Meadow noted, “already cooked, ran the dishwasher, done laundry and drank it.  If it happened so early why did you put the warning out so late?  It happened at 10:30 AM!”

Soon after the announcement, stores began to run out of water supplies.  Residents tweeted out that stores were gouging prices, trying to make some extra money from people’s fear.  As of Thursday evening, the state had asked for help in acquiring and distributing more bottled water from FEMA.

Yet no amount of feigned concern from state and national officials can cover how badly the situation has been handled.  Once again, the companies have engaged in ecological warfare against the people of the Appalachian mountains.  Once again, the state was negligent in the enforcement of regulations and colluded with company officials to assert control over the situation and avoid the companies being held meaningfully accountable for their actions.  Once again, the lives of working people and the health of the land and resources they rely on have come second to the demands of capitalism.  The latest spill in the Elk River is the latest chapter in a long story of ecological and class warfare, where the coal companies have attempted to crush the working people, rob them of their land, and devastate the ecosystems they rely on for survival.  It’s a story that is far too familiar to the people of West Virginia.  As Marilyn Mullens of Cool Ridge W.Va. noted:

“Just for the world to know. This is the same chemical they use to “clean the coal.” The same chemical that is pumped into billion gallon earthen dams that litter the Appalachian mountains. The chemicals have been seeping into the streams and groundwater of coal field residents for years. Some of us have been pleading with our elected officials to stop this but they are paid off by the coal companies. The same coal companies that are on record as saying my people are “collateral damage” and “expendable.” Now this chemical spills into their drinking water and they tuck tail and run. Go figure.”

So-called “Clean Coal” is a dangerous myth.  It can be easy, sometimes, for those of us who don’t live in coal producing areas of the country, to forget the social and ecological toll coal burning and production takes on land and people.  For the most part, away from smokestacks and slurry dams, we can forget that at the other end of the energy production chain, all the ugliness is still there.  People often claim sustainable energy alternatives–solar panels and wind turbines, for example–are a blight on the landscape.  Not only is this untrue, but it ignores the real blight–the one we have outsourced (or perhaps, insourced) to the Appalachian coalfields and imposed on the people who live there, impoverished and murdered by the same energy companies who are destroying the entire planet.

It’s no coincidence that this happened in one of the poorest areas of the country.  In fact, the same companies that poison the water, decimate the mountaintops, and erect dams to hold back unfathomable amounts of “mountain slurry” are also responsible for the high levels of poverty that exist throughout the region.  For more than a century, minimizing access to health care, education, and other social services has helped employers extract as much profit as possible from the region by keeping corporate tax rates low and by not requiring corporations who own operations in the state to even pay taxes there in the first place.  It is in this context we must comprehend the utter failures of state departments to respond to the chemical spill crisis.

What should have been the alternative to leaving those who were able scrambling to find water supplies?  How could hospitals and other medical facilities been prioritized to receive water so the most vulnerable among us would be in less danger?

Instead of closing the schools and other public buildings, these facilities should have been opened to the public as emergency relief centers.  Available water supplies should have been centralized, assessed, and distributed according to need, with special attention to vulnerable populations.  Communication check-ins should have been established to make sure people in more remote areas got the message to discontinue use of the water, and to make sure those people had adequate supplies on hand.

Instead, the people of West Virginia have been left, for the most part, to fend for themselves.  Even as we organize to send them what aid we can to get them through the crisis, the need for a systemic change has never been more urgent.  Capitalism is killing us, and our planet.  In the grand ways–the super storms, extended fire seasons, rising ocean temperatures, and skyrocketing extinction rates–yes.  But also in small ways,  a river here, a person there.  A person who could have been part of helping build a solution.

Look for Part II on Saturday.

This is the text of one of the speeches I gave at the SYRIZA Youth Festival in Greece over the weekend.

I come to you tonight from the belly of the beast, from the heart of capitalism and crisis.  In the US, we experience the crisis in some ways differently than you do in Greece, but the consequences for the working class are still devastating.  

 
Just to give you a very brief picture of the last few years, we have had millions of people lose their homes, leaving up to a third of some cities completely depopulated.  This includes Detroit, the old industrial powerhouse that was once the heart of working class power.  Detroit now exists under the dictatorship of an unelected financial manager.  He decides which workers will be paid, who will receive pensions, and which union contracts he will honor.  
 
In Chicago, where I live, our dictator is nominally elected, but despite a mass movement to save public education, he closed fifty of the city’s 300 schools this year, cut the remaining schools’ budgets by more than $200 million, and laid off more than 3,000 teachers.  
 
In states across the country, due to slashed budgets and the ideological warfare of the right, the right of women to abortion does not exist in any meaningful way.  It took weeks of protests and demonstrations just to have a group of high school athletes held accountable for gang-raping a classmate and posting the video online.
 
Programs like Stop and Frisk criminalize Black and Brown youth.  More than one million African Americans are in the claws of the New Jim Crow prison system, and last year, the police extra-judicially murdered a Black person every 36 hours. A racist vigilante was acquitted by an all-white jurt after murdering 17-year-old Travyon Martin while a Black woman was sentenced under the same law for 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband but injuring no one.
 
Youth in America graduate college with an average $30,000 in debt which most of us will never be able to afford to repay.  Unemployment is high–not as high as in Greece, but still devastating.  For the general population, it’s about 15%.  For youth, it’s closer to 25%.  For Black and Brown youth, the numbers are as high as 60%.
 
For this reason, many people were surprised when we, the fast food and retail workers, went on strike for the first time in April this year.  Some media characterized it as the fight of people who have nothing to lose, but in reality, we had everything to lose.  Living on minimum wage in the US (which is $7.25/hour before taxes are taken out), is nearly impossible.  Living without any income is much harder.  States are cutting unemployment benefits and imposing work requirements to receive food aid and other welfare benefits.  
 
So why, with so much to lose, are increasing numbers of low-wage workers–who, according to conventional wisdom, are unorganizable–walking off the job?
 
First, we must note that while the crisis and the new age of austerity has ushered in a brutal and vicious attack against working people and the youth worldwide, it has also generated a growing resistance.  American workers were inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.  I was standing in a line for food benefits one day in early 2011 when the man in front of me turned around and said, “We need some of that Egypt shit up in here.”  And then, a week later, we got our first taste of mass struggle in the US as hundreds of thousands of workers took to the streets of Madison, Wisconsin and occupied the state capitol to oppose Governor Scott Walkers’s new law that would ban public sector unions.  Nurses, students, teachers, municipal workers, and steel workers marched behind banners that said, “Out with Scott Mubarak.”  
 
Two other mass movements erupted that fall.  First was a struggle to save Troy Davis from the death penalty.  Not only was Davis innocent, but he was a leader of the new abolitionist movement to oppose the racist and barbaric death penalty.  Anger over his execution fused with decades of growing anger over class inequality.  This turned into the Occupy movement, which also drew inspiration from the movement of the squares in Greece and Spain.  
 
2011 was of momentous importance, because for most American youth, it was their first lesson in how to fight, and how to organize on a mass basis.  But every movement I’ve talked about was eventually repressed, often violently.  Public sector unions became illegal in Wisconsin.  Troy Davis was executed, and the Occupy movement was the target of a massive and coordinated campaign of state repression.  And perhaps most importantly, the working class outrage that had been the lifeblood of most of these movements had not found expression in the workplace, the real locus of our class power.
 
In 2012, that started to change.  The Chicago Teachers Union took a stand against the austerity attack on public education that had been closing and defunding schools, laying off teachers, and corporatizing curriculum across the country.  They waged a successful seven day strike with massive community support.  The strike was built completely among rank-and-file teachers, who held building-by-building organizing meetings, went door knocking in neighborhoods, and organized displays of unity between teachers, students, and parents by packing buses with school contingents to take over hearing meetings.  
 
On the first day of the strike, after holding 300 picket lines around the city, the teachers and their supporters, numbering about 50,000, flooded downtown Chicago, shutting down the city.  Massive support for the teachers stemmed from two main things.  First, they were drawing a line in the sand against austerity.  Second, people understood the teachers weren’t just fighting in their own interest, but they were fighting for everyone in Chicago and for education justice.  To give an idea of how the city was transformed: the first four days of the strike in September were the first four days in Chicago where there had not been a shooting all year.
 
Support for the teachers extended beyond the picket lines and downtown rallies into other workplaces too.  For low-wage workers, who at this point were almost completely unorganized, we did little things.  We put up “We Support the Teachers Union” signs in our shop windows, wore red (the color of the teachers union) to work, donated our limited money to the strike fund, made tamales to bring to teachers on the picket lines.  
 
But what we did not only supported the teachers’ strike, it also helped ourselves to get organized.  It gave concrete lessons in how to build solidarity and the crucial role it plays in a victory.  The experience of the teachers’ strike inspired others to walk out: teachers in nearby school districts, symphony musicians, cab drivers, hotel workers, domestic workers, graduate students, and soon enough, fast food workers.  Fighting back took concrete form because now we had a playbook to follow.  It combined our class’s most powerful weapon, the strike, with new ideas about how to make the strikes more effective and part of social movements.
 
Over the summer, our union has waged three one day strikes in addition to holding other demonstrations.  Each time, the number of workers and stores participating has about doubled, and we have won very concrete gains in our stores.  No one has been fired for striking.
 
There are a few important things to understand.  First, in the US, there are very few unions, and almost none in the places where young people work.  Many of my co-workers didn’t even really understand what a strike was.  Only 6% of US workers have a union.  We are in the position of having to start over, to build from scratch.  
 
It is not easy to go on strike.  Unions have been hesitant to call them, since the leadership is committed to the false belief that sitting at the table with management can make gains for workers.  The bosses try to fire anyone who organizes a union.  Sometimes they will even close a shop rather than allow it to go union.  In the middle, youth have little to no experience of trade unionism, and so for those of us on the left who understand the central importance of the working class to changing society, and who know that a union is the most basic level of working class organization, we find ourselves in a very difficult position.  We must train our co-workers in organizing and fighting the bosses’ attacks while at the same time confronting the old style of bureaucratic unionism that we know is a recipe for failure.  It is a tall order, but it is one we must meet if we have any hope of changing the tide of austerity.
 
And we have other hurdles we must overcome.  Perhaps the biggest is racism.  In the US, racism has a long, brutal, and powerful legacy that is present everywhere you go.  Our cities are segregated, so in Chicago, most African Americans live on the South Side, Latinos on the West Side, and white mostly in the North.  Until the 1960s, segregation was enforced through law.  Now, it is the marker of continued inequality and discrimination.  
 
To give you a picture of the inequality: more than 90% of the students affected by Chicago school closings are Black.  Since taking office, Obama has deported more than one million immigrants.  In the place of schools, cities are building prisons, often run by for-profit contractors.  The city of Philadelphia closed 23 schools this year, citing a budget deficit, but then announced they would be building a prison that cost more than the size of the deficit.  Youth of color are being diverted from schools directly into the prisons, and in the US being convicted of a crime can strip you of voting rights, welfare rights, and legitimate housing discrimination against you.  So right now, among the youth there is a very strong feeling that something must be done, because the future we are being presented with is untenable.
 
Racism has long divided American workers too, so we have to confront it now on a political and organizational basis.  For our union, this means going to demonstrations to demand justice for Trayvon Martin.  It means having bilingual meetings so English and Spanish speakers organize together and see each other as brother and sister.
 
And as we have started to struggle together, we have started to lose our fear.  There comes a time in all of our lives when we decide that we will not allow our boss to walk over us, mistreat us.  A time when we decide that our work deserves dignity and fair pay.  The courage that decision generates is contagious.  
 
Let me give you an example.  In my workplace, a few of us started wearing pins to support the union.  Since we’re only allowed to wear pins issued by the company, we took some of the pins we had, painted over them, and wrote “We support the union” on them.  The first day only a few of us wore them and our boss told us we couldn’t wear them.  But we said we were following the rules, since they were work-issued buttons, and we wouldn’t take them off.  We won the stand-off, and soon almost everyone was wearing the buttons.
 
That was a small thing we did together, but the implications were large.  They gave people the courage to do more.  Every time we stood up to our boss and didn’t get fired, people got a little bit bolder.  Unity and solidarity are not just ideas or slogans.  They are our organizational and political basis.  We are fighting for a living wage, paid sick days, and a recognized union.  But along the way, we win things that embolden people.  Those little things matter a lot.  Now we are allowed to drink water and coffee while we work.  I was able to have my absence excused so I could come here to Greece, when before, people have been fired for leaving work early after being electrocuted on the job or going into childbirth.  But now I said, “I need to go to Greece to a workers’ conference,” and they told me I could go.  They told me in writing they wouldn’t fire me or retaliate against me so I can enforce it.
 
My co-workers and comrades wanted me to come here to speak but also to learn.  Because they look at you here in Greece and they see people who know how to fight.  They see one of the most organized working classes in the world.  They are inspired by you, and they are in solidarity with you.
 
So I want to finish today by talking about what young people of the left can do to help us organize ourselves in the workplaces.
 
First, organize to solve small problems but always have in your head that you are building people’s confidence to take on bigger problems.  Problems in the workplace, but also political problems.
 
Second, make your workplace political.  Confront racism, sexism, anti-immigrant ideas, homophobia every time they arise.  This will teach your co-workers to see the workplace not just as a place where we earn money, but a place where the working class does politics.
 
Third, democracy is our power, and we need to build democratic unions. We as workers have the power to totally transform society, and the everyday practice of unionism–not only in the delegates’ meetings but on the shop floor–is how we prepare ourselves, how we transform and educate ourselves.  In this way, we must see the dual nature of trade unionism.  It is a way to fight for the reforms we need now, the ones that will allow us to live and to organize, but it also a way to build the basis for revolutionary struggle, and a different kind of society where workers’ power extends from the workplace to the whole of society.

Why I’m Striking

Posted: August 29, 2013 in Uncategorized

Tomorrow, I’m striking for the third time since April as a part of the growing movement of low-wage workers demanding better pay, treatment, and working conditions.

But this struggle is about so much more than what happens inside the wall of my workplace, or any workplace.  As some of the most vulnerable workers in the United States, hundreds of us are standing up, yes, against harassment from our bosses and poverty wages, but also against a system determined to keep us in a permanent underclass–and then blame us for it.

So tomorrow, as the strike spreads from seven cities to thirty-eight, I’m striking for paid sick days, and I’m striking because we live in a country that allows the poor to die because they can’t afford healthcare.

I’m striking against sexual harassment at work, and I’m striking because that harassment is possible because we live in a country where most rapes go unreported, victims are blamed for assault, and the media laments the “ruined lives” of rapists.

I’m striking against racism at work, which keeps people of color in the most menial jobs, with the lowest pay.  And I’m striking because racism devalues the lives of people of color in so many ways, because another head of that racist hydra killed Trayvon Martin, Troy Davis, Ramarley Graham, Rekia Boyd, Alan Blueford, Oscar Grant, Kenneth Chamberlain, and so many others.

I’m striking for a living wage, and I’m striking for a welfare system that cares for everyone, whether they can work or not.

I’m striking in solidarity with my undocumented sisters and brothers, whose lives are even more precarious than mine, and I’m striking because no human being is illegal.  The borders are the crime, and we, as workers can crush them.

I’m striking against the discrimination against LGBTQ workers, who are passed up for raises and promotions, and I’m striking for a trans-inclusive ENDA.

I’m striking because I want a union, and I want contract protections.  I’m standing up for my rights because I know people before me died to secure them.  I’m striking because right-to-work laws are taking away our rights as workers nationwide, and the tide must be turned.  I’m striking because I want freedom, and I know the only way to win individual freedom is to struggle together.

I’m striking against retaliation, against intimidation–at work or in the street.  I’m striking because it is our right to organize, our right to march, to occupy.  I’m striking against retaliation at work and everywhere.  I’m striking for Chelsea Manning, and Glenn Greenwald, and Assata Shakur, and Edward Snowden.

I’m striking against the disregard for working class lives, in the US and everywhere.  I’m striking against military occupation, and I’m striking against drone wars, and against imperialism.  I’m striking because no Syrian  ever let me be homeless, or go hungry.

I’m striking to make a stand against austerity.  I’m striking because you can’t live in any meaningful way making minimum wage.  I’m taking a stand against neoliberalism, against an economy that wants to put all workers into my position.  I’m striking to link arms with the teachers, students, and parents fighting for public education.  I’m striking in solidarity with the postal workers, and the municipal workers, and nurses, and every public employee that’s ever been made out to be the villan for having basic workplace protections.

I’m not just striking for myself, but for all workers.  I’m striking because I believe in solidarity.  I’m striking to make solidarity ourdaily practice.

I’m striking as a step forward.  I’m striking because power concedes nothing without a demand.  I’m striking because I have a dream.  I’m striking because another world is not only possible, but worth fighting for.  I’m striking because the only way to see a different future is to stand up, and gaze over the walls of what people say can’t be done.  I believe we can win, and that as we stand here, on the shoulders of giants and masses, we can see a better world in embryo, nestled among a hundred workers wearing red shirts and singing, “Power to the union, power to the workers!”

On strike! Again!

Posted: August 1, 2013 in Uncategorized

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Today, my co-workers and I conducted our second strike this year.  I don’t have time to relate anything but my elation right now, since we’ll be on strike again tomorrow.   Later this week, I’ll be posting a summary and analysis.
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There is literally no feeling better than marching to picket your workplace with your co-workers and being greeted by a cheering crowd of supporters.  After picketing our company for three hours, we went to Brighton Park, another Chicago neighborhood, to support striking McDonald’s workers who are also part of the Fight for 15.

It’s hard at this point to even process what is happening, but it’s an important project.  Perhaps because I study history, I get the itching sense that I’ve seen this somewhere before.  It stirs something within the past I’ve read about, which I’ve studied, examined, and tried to learn from.  We’re on the verge of something historic.

But in the most immediate sense, what we’ve already done is powerful.  For low-wage workers to go on the offensive in the austerity economy was a huge risk, but as the labor leaders we’ve been learning from have said, if you want to win in these times, you have to be willing to bet it all.

Today, a journalist asked me what I would say to workers who were worried about being fired or otherwise retaliated against if they joined the union.  Here’s what I said:

If they can scare you out of organizing, they don’t need to retaliate against you.  They’ve gotten what they wanted in a quiet way, and you never had a chance.  But if you fight, there’s a chance you can win.  And if you fight together as an organized force, the chance of winning becomes much greater.  If you link your organization to a social movement, victory is on the horizon, however far away it seems.

Join the fight for 15.  We are worth more!

 

Join Chicago pickets tomorrow in the Loop and Mag Mile.  Check fightfor15.org