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A Call for Environmental Stewards

I know from talking to you as I go across the country that AFSCME members care deeply about the environment. Just as we employ the concept of stewardship to look out for our members in the workplace, it can also be applied to the environment.

By William Lucy

I know from talking to you as I go across the country that AFSCME members care deeply about the environment. 

Just as we employ the concept of stewardship to look out for our members in the workplace, it can also appropriately be applied to the environment.

It is our responsibility to care for and protect Planet Earth and all the natural resources we derive from it. By protecting the environment, we can preserve the quality of life for ourselves, our children and for generations to come.

I encourage all AFSCME members to consider themselves environmental stewards, and to go one step further and become advocates for environmental justice.

The term environmental justice refers to the movement that seeks to address the disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards faced by certain communities — particularly low-income and minority.

For too long in this country, minorities and low- income individuals have suffered greater environmental risks and the increased health consequences that flow from them. These risks generally stem from one or multiple sources of exposure to toxic chemicals.

Frequently, the cause of this exposure is a solid waste dump, a transfer station, incinerator or similar facility located in the community. Many of these communities have extremely high rates of cancer, birth defects and other health problems that are linked to environmental risks.

There has been a long and dishonorable history of Big Business intentionally locating these facilities in minority or low-income communities.

Until recently, corporate interests have been able to bank on the assumption that those in minority and low-income communities lacked the political power or resources to effectively organize against this unfair course.

But labor, working in coalition with environmental activists, religious and community leaders, is working to end that assumption and slow or halt this destructive course.

Too often, the defense put forth by industry is that it brings much-needed jobs to these communities, and that increased environmental risk is the trade-off that comes with economic development.

As union members, we must firmly reject this false construct. Good jobs should not translate into poor health. When such choices are made, the affected community must have the right to vote on the issue and to be at the table to negotiate the specifics.

Throughout the 20th century, unions led the way to identify and reduce hazardous elements in the workplace. Due to our advocacy, the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health was created.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency has set standards for hazardous emissions in the workplace, no such standards exist to deal with the overflow of hazardous emissions from workplace to community.

We must argue for adoption of community emission standards. Above all, we must urge for inclusion of leaders from affected communities in setting these standards.

The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists has launched a worker training program in environmental justice. One of the primary features of this program has been the formation of Community Action and Response Against Toxics (CARAT) Teams.

These CARATs are comprised of union members, affected residents, environmental advocates, legislators, scientists and others key to a collective environmental health protection effort.

Employing grassroots methods, CARATs have used sanitation workers to spread the word about environmental risks in affected communities. They have also piggybacked educational information along with utility bills to spread the word.

Although we need macro changes on the legislative and national policy levels, it is these micro efforts, highlighted by one-on-one communication, that may be the most effective at raising awareness about environmental risk and in fostering advocacy within communities.

It is time for AFSCME members to join with other union members and other groups in serving as stewards for the environment, and in doing so, lend a hand to our brothers and sisters who may have shouldered more than their fair share of environmental risk.

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