As the West Coast Burns, We Don’t Need Unity. We Need to Point the Finger at Those Responsible

Rogue Action Center burned to the ground by wildfire
The community organization Rogue Action Center had its office burned to the ground. The group is asking for donations to the Rogue Valley Relief Fund (bit.ly/rvrelief) for families displaced by fires in southern Oregon. Photo: Rogue Action Center
Ryan Olds | Labor Notes | September 25, 2020

Americans often react to tragedy with calls for unity. People want to feel that we’re in this together.

But as fires burn throughout the West Coast, I’d like to offer an alternative vision. What we need now is to point the finger at those responsible. Rather than unity, we need blame and accountability.

Over the past few years, the unions I’ve worked for have seen hundreds if not thousands of members displaced by climate change-related fires in Santa Rosa and Paradise, California, and now in Oregon.

Some of my current members in Central Oregon and around the state have been forced to flee. My former members and organizer friends in the Rogue Valley had to flee; some lost their homes and much of their towns. Our office administrator lost her mom’s home in Blue River.

My friend and mentor Fernando Gapasin, co-author of Solidarity Divided, had to evacuate the Central Coast. Around the same time, my mom had to leave her home in Clackamas County outside Portland. As I write this, she is still not allowed to return and her town remains at risk from two separate fires.

WHICH SIDE ARE YOU ON?

My experience in 10 years as a union rep, bargaining for multiple unions in the public and private sectors, is that the employer has come for concessions on wages, health care, or retirement every single time. We didn’t unify with the employer; we fought back.

So in times like these, I find the vapid hashtaggery for “unity” nauseating. We cannot unify with those who seek or cause our destruction.

That means those on the far right who deny climate change, flood our emergency lines with Facebook rumors about Antifa, and patrol the streets itching to shoot outsiders. The science is clear that climate change is driving the huge increase in scale of destructive wildfires—with hotter summers, droughts that turn forests into kindling, less snowpack to protect us, and strong winds that spread fires far and fast.

It means the corporate-backed politicians who have done nothing about this threat for decades, who have helped destroy communities in the name of the economy. Those who mock necessary alternative fossil-fuel-free economies offer no viable future for us. Some in organized labor have also been on the wrong side of history in this regard.

It also means the politicians in both parties who have pushed austerity, so we do not have enough equipment or firefighters; who send prisoners in to fill the labor gap for well below minimum wage; who sent Oregon’s best firefighting helicopters to Afghanistan.

They are at fault. They are the ones we must fight.

It won’t do any good to plaster a platitude on the bumper of your SUV. If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that politics is life and death.

We cannot have change without blame. Instead of call for unity, it’s time to ask what our labor ancestors asked: “Which side are you on?” Because the fire is coming for you too.


Ryan Olds is a union and community organizer on the West Coast.

Labor Notes is a media and organizing project described as "the voice of union activists who want to put the movement back in the labor movement since 1979."

 

 

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