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Environmentalists discover a curious ally

They are increasingly forging ties with organized labor, an old

Eight years ago, loggers in Pacific Northwest timber towns burned spotted owls in effigy, venting their hostility toward environmentalists who, they said, cost them jobs.

Eight days ago, the two groups stood side by side in Seattle, a united front against globalization.

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"I never imagined something like this could happen," says Phil Knight, a former activist with the radical environmental group EarthFirst! who marched in Seattle with members of the AFL-CIO.

Adversaries for decades, labor and environmentalists have found strength together. It isn't a marriage of natural love so much as an arrangement of necessity against a perceived common foe.

Although deep differences remain on a score of fronts, the newly discovered common ground displayed most prominently in Seattle has spread nationwide.

*Fishermen in the Pacific Northwest have endorsed calls from environmentalists to breach dams to save salmon.

*Burly woodsmen in Maine have enlisted the support of tree huggers to fight NAFTA-related clear-cuts in Quebec.

*Conservationists and blue-collar workers in Wyoming have worked together to address mining safety questions, assist cowboys in fighting sprawl, and support higher incomes for workers in glitzy resort towns.

*In Spokane, Wash., and two other cities, striking workers at Kaiser Aluminum - all members of the United Steelworkers of America - joined forces with legendary environmental activist David Brower earlier this year.

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Kaiser's parent company, Houston-based Maxxam Inc., also operates Pacific Lumber, which had proposed logging redwood trees that Mr. Brower and his allies have tried to save.

Now, several hundred environmental and labor groups have signed the Houston Principles, which identify mutual objectives. Objectives include the assertion that "the drive for short-term profits without regard for long-term sustainability hurts working people, communities, and the earth."

United through adversity

They've discovered that economy and ecology share more than the same prefix.

In many ways, Seattle forged bonds through adversity, with union members and environmentalists standing together amid tear gas and pepper spray. It was "a watershed event," says Mr. Knight, now a regional representative of the Native Forest Network.

"If loggers are out there on the front lines with us, that means we've made progress," he says. "If the corporations thought environmentalists were a pain before, wait until they have to confront thousands of angry unionists."

Indeed, how companies treat their workers is, according to some, a window for examining how they view public concerns over clean air, water, and forests.

"I see the possibility of a new alliance emerging, and the reason is the marginalization of both the environmental movement and labor by corporations," says noted business entrepreneur Paul Hawken, co-author of "Natural Capitalism: The Coming Efficiency Revolution."

An important factor in environmentalists' ability to forge a dialogue with various factions of workers, say experts, is the presence of a union.

"Unions also play an important role in promoting and defending free speech," says Mikhail Davis of Earth Island Institute. "At companies that have no union representation, workers can be fired for even talking to environmentalists."

Companies that respect unions, Mr. Davis adds, are more likely in turn to have better environmental records.

But both partners acknowledge that their alliances have created strange company. In Seattle, green activists dressed as endangered sea turtles approached a gathering of Teamsters. The unionists began shouting, "Teamsters love Turtles!" In response, the greens shouted back, "Turtles love Teamsters!"

The common thread between the two groups is concern for quality of life issues - whether taking the form of a safer, more rewarding work environment or a landscape that has fish swimming through its streams, says Steve Thomas, an environmental community organizer, who previously worked in a Denver slaughterhouse and served as a union organizer.

Moreover, he says, a diminished environment is not an automatic byproduct of a booming economy. "You can have prosperity without having to give other things away," Mr. Thomas says.

The jobs-versus-environment argument, in fact, is a "false dichotomy" left over from the frontier and no longer applicable, adds Mr. Hawken.

Towns could create jobs and reduce the impact on the environment by being more efficient, by recycling more waste, and by restoring blighted areas, he says.

Differences remain

Still, despite the fusion, the reality is that no one expects all divisions to disappear. Many conservation organizations advocate an end to commercial logging in federally managed forests, which puts them at odds with workers whose jobs depend on a steady supply of timber.

"I don't believe the conflict is insurmountable, but I have always said if environmentalists are going to propose actions that put people out of work they need to first ensure those people can transition into another career," says Tony Mazzocchi, national organizer for the Labor Party in Washington.

For many activists, though, an agreement such as the Houston Principles marks a turning point. "Things are wide open right now and a lot depends on how we follow up," says Davis.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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