Fossil Fuel industry workers positioned below a smokestack.  (Credit: New Republic)

Fossil Fuel industry workers positioned below a smokestack.  (Credit: New Republic)

Lucas Ayenew

Labor unions have been a crucial part of the Pacific Northwest debate around fossil fuel shipping. Despite the fact that labor unions and environmentalists have been historically at odds in the Pacific Northwest, unprecedented coalitions are being built between the labor movement and the environmental movement that spell a “power-shift” in the region (Kahle).

Clarifying the Power of Coalition

Union members protest climate change with the Blue Green Alliance. (Credit: The Nation)

Union members protest climate change with the Blue Green Alliance. (Credit: The Nation)

“We know that the starkly different daily lives and material conditions of the working class and the upper classes can't help but be reflected in our respective psychologies” (Sawyer).

The discontinuity of the labor and environmental movements has historically been due to a deep difference in class cultures. What is colloquially known as the "Spotted Owl Wars” typified the psychological divide between working-class labor unions and middle- to upper-class environmentalists (Rose).

“While both groups heighten confusion with conflicting “facts,” they also construct competing social realities with opposing rhetorical tropes. Most recently, the controversy over proper forest management has come to the forefront of public consciousness through two divergent, synecdochic constructions of the spotted owl, as an “indicator” species by environmentalists and an economic “scapegoat” by the timber industry. While each group attempts to disarm the other with their own synecdochic form of the owl, these tropes prevent resolution and maintain controversy by becoming issues in and of themselves” (Moore).

The Spotted Owl Wars involved more than two decades of environmentalists and labor unions talking past each other. Whether in the 19th, 20th, or 21st centuries, labor is necessary to create capital. Multinational corporations want to create capital by moving fossil fuels from basins in Alberta and the Great Plains through the Pacific Northwest to be shipped through our public ports. Old entrenched wariness of environmentalists still exists among some union leaders and members who lived through the Spotted Owl Wars. In the 2010s, however, labor and the environmentalists living in one of the most progressive regions of the U.S., are starting to speak each other’s language (Rose).


Worker readies a fully loaded coal barge for shipment. (Credit: West Virginia Gazette Mail)

Worker readies a fully loaded coal barge for shipment. (Credit: West Virginia Gazette Mail)

Labor unions have been essentially split in their stances on proposed Pacific Northwest coal terminals in Longview and Cherry Point (See Ferndale/Cherry Point and Longview oil/coal terminals). Some union leaders have made statements condemning environmental impact studies of the coal terminals, while many rank-and-file union members disagree with exporting coal to power competing Chinese industries (Smith, E).

Union Leaders

The leader of the Sheet Metal, Air and Rail Transportation Workers Union, Herb Krohn, said of environmental reviews of the coal terminals:

“The tactic ought to disturb anyone concerned with jobs and the economy […] If this project is blocked, in fact if we were to block all exportation of coal today, it would not prevent the nations of the Far East who seek their own economic development from burning one lump of coal. They would simply buy and burn coal from other countries, coal that is significantly more damaging to the environment, while we lose more middle-class union jobs across America” (Smith).

Here Krohn equates the passage of coal trains to jobs. Kohn also articulates the understanding that the coal will be exported to build industries in “the Far East,” namely, China (Ye). Kohn was joined in this statement by Union leaders John Risch, national legislative director of the Sheet Metal, Air and Rail Transportation Workers Union, and Jeffrey Soth, Washington legislative director for the International Union of Operating Engineers (Smith).

Rank-and-File Union Members

A former police officer and rank-and-file union member of the International Union of Operating Engineers observed: My background as a law enforcement officer makes me very much opposed to the idea of civil disorder for the sake of making a political point and makes this statement in an article he wrote titled "East Coast Environmental Activist Cautioned Against Inciting Lawlessness:"

“As for the projects themselves [the coal terminals], I am supportive. Our region needs a new path to growth and recovery. The projects, proposed for Boardman, Oreg., Longview and Bellingham, would create thousands of jobs and millions in tax dollars” (Worden, R).

When the Department of Ecology, the US Army Corps of Engineers, and Whatcom County facilitated public comment periods, both on the web and in the form of public hearings, many rank-and-file union members spoke out against the proposed coal terminals. Some of these anti-coal union members are environmentally minded and climate-conscious, such as John Svob:

“As a carpenter, I am often involved in expansion projects, projects that promote the business end of Portland and Oregon. Because I work union, I earn a better living when these projects are under construction. However, I will always forgo work if it means egregious damage to the environment. Construction is dirty enough, but when the end is increased coal dust, or diminished watersheds and aquifers and spawning grounds, or unsafe nuclear energy, or increased traffic along with decreased public transportation, or damage to communities as opposed to maintenance and improvement, then I will choose to truly build a better society by refusing to work” (Svob).

Other rank and file union members argue that bringing these coal terminals to the Pacific Northwest will actually hurt the local economies.

“I cannot imagine an additional 18 or more, mile long trains coming through our towns every day carrying coal.. The trains will effectively cut our towns in half for all traffic during a major portion of the day. That will mean vital emergency services, business travel, local and tourist travel will suffer so a coal mine in Montana can ship their product to China. In addition there will be safety and health concerns to local residents. Coal mines in Montana are not going to produce jobs in the northwest. We are simply the doormat for their business. There must be a better way to ship their products without adversely impacting our great Northwest environment and our lives and livelihoods” (Curtis).

These comments represent two common lines of reasoning that rank-and-file union members give against coal, despite the stated opinions of their union leaders.

ILWU Local 4 protesting outside Port of Vancouver’s Terminal 5 (Credit: International Longshore Workers Union).

ILWU Local 4 protesting outside Port of Vancouver’s Terminal 5 (Credit: International Longshore Workers Union).


In contrast to their divided opinions about coal, labor unions are essentially unified in their stances on proposed Pacific Northwest oil terminals in Longview, Hoquiam, Vancouver, Ferndale WA—and in Burnaby, BC. 

Port Workers

A member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 13 in Vancouver WA describes his job: “Longshoremen facilitate the transportation of cargo that comes [to and] from ships” (Duke). The association that negotiates administers maritime labor agreements with ILWU describes the scope of the organization and in so doing articulates the power encapsulated in an ILWU statement:

“Nearly 13,600 ILWU workers are employed at West Coast ports. In 2013, the total payroll exceeded nearly $1.4 billion. ILWU members pay no health care premiums and receive a generous pension […] LWU workers receive a compensation package that is among the most lucrative among all blue-collar workers in the United States. Full-time workers earn an average of $147,000 annually in wages, along with a non-wage benefits package costing more than $82,000 per active worker per year” (The ILWU Workforce).

Although the ILWU has cited lack of transparency, lack of accountability, public health, community resource sovereignty, and climate and watershed health as reasons for their opposition to the proposed oil terminal in Vancouver, their unified dissent is primarily due to the present danger of oil trains to workers (ILWU). DOT-111 tank cars comprise the majority of oil trans that operate in the Pacific Northwest. According to the National Transportation Safety Board, these trains are outdated and unsafe for use to move Bakken crude oil due to “their thin metal skin and protruding valves [that] lead to punctures when they derail” (Facts about oil trains in North America).

In 2013 a train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded killing 47 local residents of Lac-Mégantic, a town in Quebec, and injuring many more (See Oil Train Explosions). Bakken crude oil trains are the same ones that would run through communities in the Pacific Northwest in great volumes if the proposed oil terminals are accepted. International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 4’s Cager Clabaugh has told port commissioners that “The risk isn’t worth the reward” (ILWU).


Port of Albany firefighters practice for a real oil event by combating a controlled blaze (Credit: Times Union).  

Port of Albany firefighters practice for a real oil event by combating a controlled blaze (Credit: Times Union).


The Washington State Council of Firefighters, WSCFF, have called the DOT-111 trains “an unacceptable public risk”. As operations such as the Vancouver Energy Distribution Terminal on the Columbia River announce that they will upgrade their rail cars, the National Transportation Safety Board insists that the upgraded cars still may not be sufficient (Connelly).

The WSCFF’s resolution on shipping crude oil states:

“Catastrophic explosions, spills and death due to derailments of tankers carrying Bakken crude oil have occurred in Lac Megantic, Quebec; Casselton, North Dakota; New Brunswick, Canada; Aliceville, Alabama; and Lynchburg, Virginia within the last year and could occur in our urban and rural areas; and The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PMSHA) has determined this Bakken crude oil may be more flammable than traditional crude oil”

During the Port of Vancouver's regular public meeting, the president of the Vancouver Firefighters Union IAFF Local 452 declared that the city is not staffed appropriately and doesnt have the correct training or equipment to effectively act in the event of an emergency at the oil terminal (Corvin).

DOT-111 oil tanker (Credit: Huffington Post)

DOT-111 oil tanker (Credit: Huffington Post)

In a public statement the WSCFF, controversially called for a halt of all exiting oil trains in Washington until a safety study authorized by Governor Jay Inslee is completed, and the trains are deemed safe to pass through the communities intended:

“These unit oil trains composed of 100 to 150 tankers filled with Bakken crude oil now travel through our state from Spokane, down the Columbia River and up the I-5 corridor north to refineries and possibly through Rochester along the Chehalis River west . . . to three proposed marine transfer terminals at the Port of Grays Harbor […] At the same time, the burden to protect is being placed on local jurisdictions — many who are struggling to maintain their firefighters and first responders, let alone provide them with adequate resources to respond to oil fires, explosions and derailments” (Connelly).

It is with these refrains that Fire Fighters unions in the Pacific Northwest descent against the oil terminals (See Health Workers & First Responders).

BNSF oil train heads west (Credit: Brock Stoneham)

BNSF oil train heads west (Credit: Brock Stoneham)

Rail Engineers
The oil train explosion that killed 47 people in Lac Mégantic, Quebec, had occurred because the corporation—Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway— had downsized their train operation procedure to Single Person Train Operation (SPTO), meaning a one-man-crew. The “permit” process to achieve that SPTO status requires public input and was not followed. According to the regulators, that engineer failed to set the brakes properly (Dokoupil).

Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) is the railway company that would ship Bakken crude oil to Pacific Northwest terminals. The Association of American Railroads endorses BNSF’s decision to replace the train conductor job with a braking system known as Positive Train Control (PTC). According Dan Baum of Popular Science—

“The technology depends on a combination of GPS and cellular networks, purchased from different manufacturers and installed by the railroads. […] The global positioning technology doesn't work in tunnels or canyons and the cellular back-up would be prone to dropped signals just the same as a smartphone on a hiking trip” (Dokoupil).

Larry Sandefur, 56, a BNSF conductor of three decades describes the automation of the conductor position as “just crazy” (Dokoupil).

Some rank-and-file conductors union members deem BNSF leadership who seek to automate the conductor role via PTC while touting safety as “the industry's number one concern” to be thinly veiled plutocrats. PTC will cost the railway industry $10 million to install + $850,000 a year to maintain, but that cost would in turn, become a net gain in profit (Dokoupil).

Other Unions

A coalition of other non-shipping related labor unions articulated a joint opposition to the Port of Seattle Commission’s allowance of a Shell oil rig to dock in Elliott Bay.  This coalition articulates a wide diversity of community voices: OPEIU 8, SEIU 6, UAW Local 4121, UFCW 21, UFW, Pride at Work King County Chapter (Local Labor Unions Join Call).


Labor unions are split in their stances on the proposed Pacific Northwest coal terminals, while they are rather consistently opposed to new oil terminal projects.  The arguments in support of Northwest coal are that it would create jobs. Arguments against coal have used environmentalist language and/or proposed that additional coal terminals would not in fact lead to revitalization for local economies, rather industries would be built in China, and communities here would be put at risk. 

The arguments in opposition to additional Northwest oil terminals have been largely centered around clear and present danger to workers—in the form of tank fragility, poor emergency preparedness, and precarious train operation crew downsizing.


Connelly, J. (2014). State firefighters: Halt oil trains until safety review complete. Seattle PI. 

Corvin, A. (2015, October 13). Vancouver firefighters union opposes oil terminal at port. The Columbian. 

Curtis, R. (n.d.). Individual comment detail. Gateway Pacific Terminal EIS.

Dokoupil, T. (2015, February 20). Railroads want one-man crews on massive freight trains. NBC News.

Duke, R. (2013, May 17). Who are Longshoremen? What do they do?

Forestethics. Facts about oil trains in North America. (2014). Forestethics. 

ILWU. (2015, October 21). ILWU and community coalition challenge dangerous crude oil terminal in Vancouver, WA. International Longshore and Warehouse Union. 

Kahle, T. (2014, June 11). Rank and file environmentalism. Jacobin.

LFCW. (2015, June 11). Local labor unions join call saying 'Shell No'. UFCW

Moore, M. P. (1993). Constructing irreconcilable conflict: The function of synecdoche in the spotted owl controversy. Communication Monographs.

Rose, F. (2000). Coalitions across the class divide: Lessons from the labor, peace, and environmental movements. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Sawyer, J. (2016, February 14). A tale of two psyches: Upper-class and working-class psychology. Lecture, New York City.

Smith, E. (2013). Labor blasts state coal-port permit plan – calls it 'radical environmental economic imperialism.' Washington State Wire.

Svob, J. (2014, April 24). Individual comment detail. Gateway Pacific Terminal EIS.

W. (n.d.). 2014 WSCFF Convention Resolution [Subject: Crude by Rail. Resolution #14-33].

Worden, R. (1995). The causes of police brutality: Theory and evidence on police use of force (pp. pp-23).

Ye, Q., & Wu, T. (2015). Putting China's coal consumption into context. Brookings Institution.