Kathryn O’Donnell Howard Besser

The Canary Fights Back: Environmental Action & the Labor Movement Pt. Two

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The Canary Fights Back: Environmental Action & the Labor Movement Pt. Two

(1990, 28min)

“Working people around the country are allying with environmentalists in an effort to protect their families, homes and communities. Once again, the enemy of the labor movement is corporate America, the world's worst polluter. Citing movements in Louisiana, Canada and the Silicon Valley, this program shows coalitions being formed nationally between the two movements” (Deep Dish TV 4).

The first half of this episode discusses the problems that chemical plants in Louisiana are causing for their workers and their surrounding communities. A voiceover states “Louisiana. For almost three centuries the people of this state have made their living from the land and from the water that flowed through it. This balance changed after World War Two with the birth of the modern chemical industry. Today 93 chemical plants stretch along the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. Together they account for one quarter of the nation’s petrol chemical production. BASF-AG […], the second largest chemical company in the world owns and operates the […] chemical plant at Geismar, LA. […] Geismar’s 260 operators and 110 maintenance workers have been members of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) Local 4620. […] Early in 1984 BASF was in contract negotiations with OCAW. On June 15, 1984, BASF’s negotiators abruptly ended bargaining with the announcement that the 370 members of OCAW local 4620 were locked out of the Geismar plant” ("Environmental Action and the Labor Movement”). This is a tactic referred to as a company strike ("Environmental Action and the Labor Movement”).

The second half of this episode highlights several different environmental issues. First, the grape boycott led by Cesar Chavez is discussed. The grape boycott was called for because the pesticides sprayed on grapes are harmful to both workers and consumers because they can cause birth defects and cancer. Next, workers in Silicon Valley discuss how they are exposed to toxic chemicals on the job and a fireman speaks out about the dangers he and other firemen face when responding to fires at chemical plants. Finally, a successful local residential recycling program is examined. Although most residents’ seem happy to recycle, concerns still exist because 60-70% of the waste is created by industry ("Environmental Action and the Labor Movement”).

At the exhibition I will screen the following excerpt:

31:00-44:42: This excerpt shows the entire first half of the episode about the Geismar plant lockout. I chose to include this excerpt second because it is similar to Drawing the Line at Pittston in the sense that it involves workers striking in one community in America. During the lockout, several accidents occur at the plant. In some instances workers are exposed to chemicals and in other instances chemicals are released into the atmosphere. For years throughout the community, people have been coming down with cancer and they believe that it is a direct result of their exposure to toxic chemicals. The fact that the chemicals are seeping into the air that we all breath stresses that labor’s problems are our problems too ("Environmental Action and the Labor Movement”).

This excerpt also highlights the importance of the alliance between the labor movement and environmentalists. If companies ignore laws and put their workers at risk they also put the community, the people, at risk too. The OCAW members team up with environmentalists and take air samples every day at different times of the day. They notice that the level of toxic chemicals is higher at night after state officials have gone home. We need the environmentalists to stand up for both the workers and the community because they are educated about problems such as harmful chemical emissions ("Environmental Action and the Labor Movement”).

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