The viability of efforts to combine the forces of labor and environmentalism will be put to a test this week when steelworker Don Kegley of the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment (ASJE) speaks in public forums in Libby, Kalispell and Hamilton. ASJE was formed in May of 1999 when members of several environmental groups–including Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, Earth First! and the Bay Area Coalition for the Headwaters–joined forces with the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) union to confront the Maxxam Corporation, the parent company of Kaiser Aluminum and Pacific Lumber. That year Kaiser had locked out its union employees, while Pacific Lumber was actively cutting ancient redwoods in the Headwaters area. USWA attributes its eventual victory in that struggle in part to the labor-environmentalism partnership. Likewise, environmentalists point to the alliance as instrumental in stopping the redwood deforestation.
Kegley, a balding and mustachioed third-generation steelworker from Spokane, jumped onboard as the labor chairman of ASJE, and has since been speaking around the country to preserve jobs and wild lands.
“I’m really looking forward to being in western Montana, a beautiful region that faces some serious challenges,” says Kegley, in a written statement to the Independent. “I’m very concerned about the people at the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company who are out of work as a result of energy deregulation, and the people in Libby who are suffering from the contamination caused by the W.R. Grace mine. I’m also concerned that some individuals are attempting to blame environmental activists for the region’s economic woes.”
How Kegley’s message will play in these three conservative communities–all of which are epicenters of labor and environmental unrest–remains to be seen. Scott Nicholson of the Montana Human Rights Network, the primary sponsor of Kegley’s visit, doesn’t foresee any activity beyond a healthy, spirited discussion.
“Don spoke at a public hearing during the Headwaters campaign, and unbeknownst to him, the Pacific Lumber company had given all 700 of its employees the day off to attend,” says Nicholson. “One activist turned to Kegley and said, ‘We’re dead.’ But when Don finished speaking, he got a standing ovation from everyone in the room.”
According to Nicholson, the idea for the forums came from an Independent article from January about Kegley’s last visit to Missoula. The forums are scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 16 at the Libby United Methodist Church, Monday , Sept. 17 in Kalispell at the Flathead High School Auditorium, and Tuesday, Sept.18 in the Hamilton High School Commons. All the forums begin at 7 p.m.