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Coalition tackles polluters.

NANAIMO -- Who would draw their bath and then crap in the tub, amassing disgusting piles of poop on the bottom until the foul water spilled over the rim? According to the environmental coordinator for the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union, the industries, cities and towns draining into British Columbia's once-pristine Georgia Strait would.

This was the tasty analogy Arnie Thomlinson dished up for 350 participants at a "State of the Strait" conference here in February. Billed as "a public inquiry into the health of Georgia Strait," the conference was organized by the Save Georgia Strait Alliance, a one-year-old coalition of environmental, peace, labour, native Indian and community groups featured in the October 1990 issue of Canadian Dimension.

The alliance and the conference are part of a new and promising trend reshaping activist politics and the social change movement in this province. For this was not the first time traditionally embattled groups joined forces (albeit tentatively) to tackle environmental problems.

Like the Tin-Wis coalition (see Canadian Dimension, November/December 1990), the State of the Strait conference brought environmentalists into the same room as woodworkers, whose employers repeatedly threaten to axe their jobs if forced to stop polluting and clearcutting.

Norm MacLellan, vice-president of the BC Federation of Labour and western regional vice-president of the Canadian Paperworkers Union, described the threats of plant closures as "one of the favourite smokescreens of industry -- job blackmail." MacLellan said polluting companies (of which pulp mills lead the pack in BC) should be forced to comply with environmental regulations and compensate any workers laid off as a result. The money would come from a special tax levied on industry profits and could also be applied to job retraining, product diversification (e.g., moving into value-added manufacturing instead of shipping out the raw resource), and implementing effective pollution controls.

MacLellan's proposal exposes the "jobs vs. environment" trade-off for the false alternative that it is -- a false alternative vigorously promoted by industry and all too easily swallowed by many workers and environmentalists, thereby keeping these groups divided and powerless (which is the whole idea from a CEO's point of view).

It should not be necessary to send hundreds or thousands of workers to the U.I. line to eliminate the many tons of organochlorines discharged daily into Georgia Strait by the six pulp mills bordering the 220-km long inland sea. British Columbians are more than a little fed up with the long-term fisheries closures and elevated cancer rates surrounding the province's pulp mills.

Premier Bill Vander Zalm didn't boost his plummeting popularity when he vetoed his own environment minister's new pollution controls on pulp mill discharges in December before the ink on the press release was even dry. (A Saturday morning phone calls to the preme from a forest company exec did the trick.)

Because coalitions compel each interest group to consider the needs and priorities of the others, they become flints sparking the creativity needed to develop solutions like MacLellan's that can protect the environment as well as workers, and place the financial burden for clean-up where it belongs: on those who are profitting from the pollution.

However, to the benefit of big industry, there are still plenty of folks in both the labour and environmental movements who reject this kind of broad-based coalition-buidling as an unacceptable ideological compromise. Canadian Dimension contributor David Orton is apparently a case in point.

In his January/February 1991 column, Orton argues that no workers are "forced" to toil in environmentally unsustainable industries or jobs, and those who do are "part of the problem" and are therefore not "potential allies in any coalition-building."

Orton concludes by stating "social justice is only possible in a context of ecological justice." No argument there. However, the reverse is also true. To assign either category of justice primacy over the other is strategically and logically flawed.

Only dysfunctional ideologies and strategies are built on hierarchies of oppression. We cannot successfully remedy one category of oppression or exploitation by exacerbating another. And we will certainly not solve environmental problems by turfing workers out on the street or by excluding them from the solution-seeking process.

Freelance writer Kim Goldberg is a regular contributor to Canadian Dimension.
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Title Annotation:Save Georgia Strait Alliance
Author:Goldberg, Kim
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Apr 1, 1991
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