The Big Picture –
By Glynn Wilson –
MOBILE, Ala. — A few years ago, Princeton graduate Charles Scribner with the Black Warrior Riverkeeper in Birmingham saw my coverage of the BlueGreen Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference in Washington, D.C. and sent me an e-mail asking an important question: Do you think it would be possible to form a similar alliance between organized labor and environmental activists in Alabama?
My reply? Sure it would be possible. With leadership.
Unfortunately, the leadership never emerged on either side. Now the political situation in my home state has deteriorated probably beyond a point of no return.
Is it at all possible that the scales will fall from peoples’ eyes in time to forge a change in direction? I doubt it.
But I figure the only hope for such an awakening is for those who know both sides of this story to get it out there where people might share it and perhaps start a new kind of conversation.
Some historical background is in order. You can’t get this stuff anywhere else on Google, so if you are interested in the truth, read on.
Back in 2011, I was foraging around trying to gather a coalition of trial lawyers, labor unions, environmental groups, women and urban progressive democrats in a new political coalition to stop the total tea party takeover of my home state and to build a better press on the Web than the monopoly Newhouse machine now at al.com.
I had moved back to Birmingham, my home town, from Washington, D.C. in 2005 to take care of my elderly mother, and was experimenting with building a new kind of news organization on the Web.
One of the important people I met was John Eves, the business manager of UA Local 91, the oldest union in Birmingham, Alabama. After several meetings of explaining the problems we faced politically in the state and my academic expert opinion on what it would take to potentially change the situation for the better, Eves became the first union leader in Alabama to make the leap to begin promoting his union online with a Website, a Facebook page and a positive image ad and video.
In the wake of the labor uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, the national unions had begun encouraging their locals to get involved doing just what I was suggesting, engaging with the media and the political system and participating in social network marketing.
As time went by, I also met Al Henley with the AFL-CIO of Alabama, along with Stuart Burkhalter, the long time president. So the AFL-CIO started sponsoring us too. We had the budget to actually go out in the field and begin to cover some labor news and political news related to labor, something that had never been done in Alabama by the so-called mainstream newspapers and television stations. Newspaper publishers like the owners of the Birmingham News, the Huntsville Times and the Mobile Press-Register had been anti-labor for a hundred years, so this kind of news never got covered at all.
As a result of this new alliance, I began to see some encouraging signs that change might emerge. I mean the United Mine Workers shut down every coal mine in the state in April, 2011, and about 1,000 union members showed up at a protest rally in downtown Birmingham.
I got to know Stuart Burkhalter, and was the only journalist there to cover the story when the Alabama Democratic Party honored him upon his retirement at a Hall of Fame dinner.
I asked Buck what he planned to do in his retirement, and he told me he didn’t really plan to retire totally. He had a retirement job lined up. He didn’t tell me what it was. I wish in retrospect he had, because I would have encouraged a different path. Maybe he would have listened. Maybe not. But at least I could have had some input into the direction he would take, which turned out to be the wrong path that places him on the wrong side of Alabama politics and the wrong side of history.
Sorry Buck. But I am sworn to tell the unvarnished truth, come hell or high water.
His retirement job turned out to be the so-called Jobkeeper Alliance, what executive director Patrick Cagle now goes around calling a “coalition of industry and labor” while bashing the national Sierra Club out of San Francisco as the root of all evil in the world. The actual purpose of his organization is to take money from Drummond Coal, Alabama Power and other polluting industries — and to con other labor unions to support the effort as well — to promote the exportation of Alabama coal to places like China.
While Cagle gives lip service to helping pipe fitters and other labor occupations, this is a total political shell game that is not based in anything resembling reality. The pipe fitters will have jobs working on the power plants whether they are fired by coal or gas. And there will be many, many new jobs for them if Southern Company decides to build new, cleaner plants.
During my time getting to know the labor leaders in Alabama, I also got to know Darryl Dewberry, the head of the United Mine Workers in Alabama. For several years he was seen promoting Alabama Democrats. But then something changed.
Somewhere at some hunting camp over strong drink and big fat cigars apparently he and Burkhalter and Henley and other labor leaders decided to hatch a fake political story attacking environmentalists as the problem and to try and convince some Republican politicians to help their cause. On the face of it this was a silly plan, considering that the Republican Party nationally and in Alabama was already publicly on the record favoring the death of America’s labor unions.
The only reason I can figure they decided to go this way was to provide some red meat for their conservative memberships, since surveys showed that a majority of union members have voted Republican since Ronald Reagan won the presidency in 1980.
So rather than put in the time and effort it would take to educate their members about political reality, they cynically decided to suck up to the likes of Twinkle Cavanaugh, president of the state’s Public Service Commission, in the perceived effort to “save coal mining jobs” and also the jobs of those pipe fitters who maintain Alabama Power’s coal-fired power plants.
That led to the political fight over the Public Service Commission that dominated media coverage in the political cycle of 2014, a story that was framed inaccurately from the very beginning. People who keep up with what’s actually going on realize that natural gas is now cheaper than coal, so market forces are the reason power companies are switching from coal to gas fired power plants in places like Georgia.
But for internal union political reasons, Dewberry began going around bashing President Obama and the Sierra Club in the same breath, claiming there was a conspiracy to close coal-fired power plants in Alabama and eliminate coal mining jobs. Dewberry also sits on the State Port Authority Board, where Jimmy Lyons promotes the exportation of Alabama’s natural resources every chance he gets.
Cagle showed up in Mobile the other day and took to the microphone at a public hearing on tank farms before a Mobile Planning Commission subcommittee and made the most blatant statement yet about the purpose of his political organization. Of course he is having no effect, because what he said was not covered by any mainstream or alternative news organization in Alabama — until we publish this story and video today. The new bloggers at al. com must just be puzzled by it all, never having any experience covering labor news. Watch the video to see what Cagle said.
He called the Mobile Bay Sierra Club “a wholly owned subsidiary of the San Francisco Bay Sierra Club,” and claimed the group is “driving most of the opposition to Mobile’s petroleum storage.” He claimed the “objective” of the Beyond Oil campaign is “to literally end the use of oil.”
“That’s the motivation behind the Sierra Club’s activities here in Mobile,” Cagle said.
Actually, the campaign is designed to educate the public about the need to invest in alternative, clean energy sources such as solar and wind power, and to put public pressure on politicians to lead in this direction.
Cagle is wrong on many levels, but one simple fact should be pointed out. The Sierra Club out of San Francisco is busy raising money fighting the Keystone XL pipeline out west and has done little to support the local fight against tar sands oil coming to Mobile by rail. This has been a local, grassroots fight taken up by people mobilized in the aftermath of the BP Gulf oil disaster of 2010 and the people of the Africatown community.
David Underhill, the conservation chair of the Mobile Club, made light of Cagle’s remarks when he took the microphone later.
“I wish we had the magnitude of cunning influence that the previous speaker gave us,” Underhill said. He went on to make the case that many corporations are divesting of their investments in fossil fuels and even the U.S. military is investing in alternative energy sources, such as solar power at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsille.
What John Eves got but what seemed to go right over the heads of other labor leaders and union members in Alabama is that organized labor is quite naturally part of the same political coalition as the environmentalists the Jobkeeper Alliance is now bashing as the root of all evil. Unions are not partners with corporations. They are inevitably in an adversarial relationship at contract renewal time and at odds politically. The Citizens United vs. FEC decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that authorized unlimited political campaign spending by corporations and unions made this painfully clear for anyone with an eye to see and an ear to hear.
This was made clear in the story and interview I did with Wayne Flynt awhile back, a story that went all over the country and the world on the Web.
Somehow this story didn’t make it all the way down into the ignorant recesses where Alabamians get their news, probably because Alabama football so dominates the news here.
Unions were already in decline. If this is the tack they are going to take, they are probably doomed. Trial lawyers and non-profit environmental groups are also part of this potential coalition, but in Alabama, they don’t appear to get this either. The trial lawyers are supporting Republicans on the courts such as Judge Roy Moore, and some of the environmental groups appear to be working with the Republicans too rather than working diligently with the alternative press to replace them in office.
So where does that leave us? In an untenable political situation so divided that there is not much hope for a change in Alabama politics over the next decade at least. In short, we are screwed — unless everybody shares this story and starts a new conversation.
© 2015, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.