Coal is the energy source of the past, so what is it doing in plans for our future? It’s a question that was asked by labor, environmental and community activists as they learned about plans for a new bulk commodities terminal proposed for Oakland’s former army base by developer Terminal Logistics Solutions. The company is backed heavily by major coal producers in Utah looking for a way to get their product to U.S. ports for shipment, and while they thought they could sneak it by quietly, the ever-vigilant community in the Bay Area found out anyway, and the result was explosive. Opposition to the terminal is coming from a variety of angles, but one is particularly important: the labor community.
Oakland’s workers, especially its dockworkers, have always been highly active in their community. Many live and work in and around West Oakland, near the city’s port, and they have a vested interest in community health and welfare in addition to safe working conditions. They live in the awareness that the region has extremely high rates of respiratory disease and other pollution-related illnesses, something coal shipping would only exacerbate, and that working on a daily basis with the dusty and dangerous commodity would put their health at risk as well. So they had a personal interest in keeping coal out of Oakland, but it went deeper than that.
In a statement issued September 18—immediately before a city council meeting scheduled for the 21st—the Alameda Labor Council put forward a firm case against coal. “The Alameda Labor Council [expresses] opposition to the export of coal through Oakland and specifically the Oakland Global Trade and Logistics Center at the former Oakland Army Base,” they explained, citing environmental and human health risks associated with coal exports. They also noted that the coal industry is notoriously anti-union, and that it doesn’t offer as many jobs as work in other commodity industries. Moreover, union advocates argued, they welcomed development of other commodities shipping at the Port of Oakland, as long as it involved less toxic and environmentally harmful products.
“We acknowledge and commend the ongoing and growing commitment of labor to environmental justice issues that affect workers, communities, and future generations, including and not limited to the collaboration of labor with community groups to secure stricter environmental standards on projects and worksites that not only protect workers but diminish environmental hazards and pollution impacting public health and climate,” the statement said, reflecting the fact that unions across the United States are becoming more heavily engaged in environmental and social activism. Earlier this year, workers in Oakland’s ports shut down all activity on May Day in a solidarity protest with the Black Lives Matter movement, stressing commitment to racial and social justice in a heavily Black community—and in an industry where many workers are minorities as well.
Oakland’s city council is in a difficult position, as it approved construction of the terminal before it passed a resolution barring the transport of coal and petcoke through its port. The city is required to demonstrate that the shipment of such products would be harmful before it could successfully block the proposal, and many community groups—like the Sierra Club along with union members and Positive Communication Practices, which serves at-risk youth—say there’s enough evidence to do just that.
Many city council members have joined in public opposition to the plan, and the statement from Alameda County unions will only add weight to their position. Oakland’s port is a huge source of revenue for the community, and longshoremen and other dock workers are famous for having extremely robust and active unions. Without their support, it will be difficult to force the project through, and their insistence on defending not just their own health but that of the community is a sign of a notable trend in labor organizing.