Alameda County Unions Split on Coal Transport

While the Alameda Labor Council and International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 oppose coal exports in Oakland for environmental reasons, Teamsters Joint Council 7 says bring on the coal.


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East Bay unions are split over the coal proposal, although citizens seem largely opposed to it.

Photo by Brooke Anderson

Protecting the environment is important to Oakland residents. Protecting and creating jobs is also a high priority. The curious intersection between these two priorities shades the highly contentious discourse over the proposal to transport out-of-state coal through the 226-acre bulk commodity and logistics terminal under construction at the former Oakland Army Base.

Officially, a vast majority of local labor unions oppose the proposal by Terminal Logistics Solutions, the operator of the large bulk terminal, to receive coal from Utah mines. The mighty Alameda Labor Council, which represents more than 100,000 union workers in the county and wields immense political power, approved a resolution in September to formally oppose coal exports in Oakland. “Jobs involving coal are unhealthy and unsafe due to dust emissions, [and] coal is increasingly an anti-union industry,” the labor council said, noting that the last union coal mines left in Utah are expected to close. Terminals transporting coal also create fewer jobs than those shipping containers or general cargo, the resolution said.

Members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 agreed. “I assure you that bulk shipping without coal is a lucrative business, as our 25,000 Longshore brothers and sisters can attest,” said Derrick Muhammad, business agent for ILWU Local 10.

In early October, Labor Council Executive Secretary-Treasurer Josie Camacho reaffirmed the organization’s opposition to coal and urged city leaders to adopt an ordinance prohibiting coal from the former Oakland Army Base.

However, keeping all 109 affiliated labor unions in lockstep is never easy. In a blistering four-page memo to the city in August, the Teamsters Joint Council 7 refused to accept the premise that coal-delivering jobs are equivalent to harming the environment, as some have framed the issue in Oakland. The Teamsters count 5,000 dues-paying members in Oakland alone, while the union represents another 100,000 in the Northern California and more than 74,000 railway jobs nationwide.

“First and foremost, the Teamsters refuse to be put in a box that, because we support the project, we are against the environment and the community,” Executive Board President Rome Aliose wrote. “We will never accuse any organization or individual who opposes coal shipments of being against good jobs for Oakland. The situation is more nuanced than that, and anyone who wants to paint this as a black-and-white issue is doing a disservice to Oakland.”

Aliose noted that the railcars will be covered, and said that such efforts prevent “fugitive coal dust” from polluting the air during transport. “And while we admire Oakland’s continued leadership on problems of global importance, we can’t forget the need to solve Oakland’s problems first,” Aloise wrote, decrying that jobs promised by the Army Base project will be lost. “We set up a jobs center in West Oakland to put people to work. What do we tell them now? Sorry, we are closed for business?”

In the months before most of organized labor coalesced against coal, there was considerable grumbling by some union rank-and-file toward two political opponents of Terminal Logistics Solution’s proposal, Oakland Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan and Councilmember Dan Kalb. In recent interviews, both acknowledged the pressure coming from the Teamsters.

“Of course, on any one given issue, it wouldn’t be a shock that you could have different unions taking different positions,” Kaplan said. “We know there are people who were trying to organize the protest. … If people want to talk against us, that’s their right.”

Besides the Teamsters, other groups backing coal importation have targeted Kaplan, Kalb, and Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who represents West Oakland. Lawyers for various Utah mining companies, as reported by the East Bay Express in early October, have been scouring the city’s public records, possibly in hopes of finding wrongdoing on each of their parts.

But regardless of the opposition’s attempts to discredit, Kalb said through hours of public testimony, his own private conservations, and emails, it’s clear the public is rallying against coal. During a special meeting of the Oakland City Council on Sept. 21, nearly 700 public speaker cards were distributed, leading to more than six hours of testimony. The majority of residents in attendance strongly opposed coal in Oakland for its effects on the global environment in addition to the chronically unhealthy air around the port in West Oakland. Many speakers noted that asthma rates among residents in that area of Oakland are typically double the rate of any other place in Alameda County, and the health of the region was vastly more important than any jobs to these speakers.

In October, Earthjustice—representing the Sierra Club, Communities for a Better Environment, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, and San Francisco Baykeeper—took the issue to Alameda County Superior Court because of the perceived impact coal transportation of coal will have on air and environmental quality. Earthjustice asked the court to require Oakland to conduct additional environmental review as required by the California Environmental Quality Act, arguing the scope of coal transportation effects has not been significantly studied.

Kalb believes that people who are concerned about long-term jobs for Oakland should actually be arguing against importing coal. “If people care about long-term jobs at the Army Base, then they should be against coal, because that’s not going to get you long-term security,” he said. “That’s a failing industry.” After all, he notes, climate scientists believe for the world to stave off global warming, almost all of earth’s remaining coal must stay in the ground. Doing so would obviously greatly diminish the attractiveness of the coal industry as a shipping client.

“It’s risky to hang their hat on this commodity,” Kalb said in reference to coal supporters and the industry. But, then again, he noted, “There were people who were testifying that had that same Koch Brothers-type rhetoric. So, you know, Oakland is not immune to a few of those people.”

Early December is the earliest date at which the City Council could ban coal at the Army Base project, although councilmembers passed a general resolution opposing coal last year before news of a specific plan to transport coal at the Army Base project was publicly known.

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