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ARTICLES ON ENVIRONMENTAL AND CLIMATE JUSTICE

Food Workers—Wages and Race

Mariano Lucas Domingo traveled north from his home in Guatemala in search of work to support his sick parent. He landed in Immokalee, Florida, the tomato capital of the United States, where he found work harvesting tomatoes. He expected to earn about $200 a week.  Then Lucas met two brothers who offered him room and board at their family house, in exchange for a cut of his pay. This didn’t seem like a bad deal to Lucas who had no family or friends nearby, and also because the brothers offered to extend credit even when work was sparse.

Lucas spent the next two-and-a-half years living as a captive with other workers in a truck with no water or electricity.1 The workers were forced to relieve themselves in a corner of the truck and wash with a garden hose in the backyard. The brothers locked them in the truck every night, forced them to work even when they were sick or tired, and took away their paychecks. Lucas and his colleagues finally escaped from the truck one night by punching a hole through the roof.2 The two brothers were subsequently arrested and sentenced to 12 years in prison. 

This story, unfortunately, is not unusual among the workers who produce our food.  While Lucas’ experience of being enslaved is certainly a horrific extreme, the 20 million workers employed in the food system earn low wages, work in unsafe and unhealthy conditions, and are unable to collectively organize to demand rights at work. Half of all workers in the food system earned just $21,692 a year or $11.05 per hour in 2008.3 That is well below what a family needs to make in order to sustain two children, according to the Center for Women’s Welfare at the University of Washington.4 In a metropolitan area like San Francisco, a family needs to earn around $26.97 per hour just to meet basic needs. In Cleveland, that figure is $20.21 per hour and in Atlanta, it’s $18.37 per hour. Close to one quarter of all food system workers live at the federally defined poverty threshold—earning less than $21,200 for a family of four—as per data gathered in 2008.5

San Francisco Chinatown Restaurant Workers Fight for Fair Employment

Li Shuang Li, 42, had worked at a restaurant in San Francisco’s Chinatown for seven years before she discovered that her boss was stealing her tips. At the time, Li was barely making $900 a month to support her 13- and 11-year-old children and was afraid of confronting her boss for fear of losing her job.

So, Li allied with her colleagues and they collectively raised the issue with their employer, whose ill-tempered response was: “If you want to complain, I’ll just fire you!” But the employees threatened to quit en masse if he did not pay them back the tips he owed and he eventually came to a verbal agreement.

Li says she was fortunate to receive her back pay relatively quickly, unlike some other waitresses who were given the run around by the boss until some brought their relatives in to coerce him. Rather than continue working for that employer, Li decided to quit and has been unemployed for three years now.

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Los Angeles Coalition Wins Health Clinic and Jobs from Developer

When you walk into the yellow building of the Esperanza Community Housing Corporation in Los Angeles, you are greeted by bright paintings done in the Diego Rivera and José Orozco muralist styles. This office and the brick warehouse down the street, which houses the UNIDAD[1] Coalition are the sites where one of the first community benefits agreement (CBA) fully funded by a private developer was negotiated.

“This agreement with Palmer provides South LA residents with health services, jobs, affordable housing, small business development, and transit-oriented development (TOD) planning—all desperately needed in this historically underserved community,” notes Paulina Gonzalez, executive director of SAJE.[2]The developer, Geoffrey Palmer, calls his own projects “fortress-like” and in 2003, pleaded “no contest” to criminal charges of illegal demolition.[3] His ornate, market-rate (high-rent), Italian-named complexes are designed to draw affluent professionals to the urban core. In 2009, Palmer won a case in the California Supreme Court against the City of Los Angeles’ attempt to mandate affordable housing in his luxury developments. Despite his political and economic clout, the UNIDAD Coalition[4] and a team of community lawyers[5] was able to negotiate a groundbreaking deal with Palmer in just over three months over the Lorenzo Project, which includes:

Outsourcing Global Warming Solutions

When the implementation of California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, AB32, came to a grinding halt due to San Francisco Superior Court’s March 17, 2011 ruling that it violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), it came as a shock to industry and environmentalists alike. It would not be surprising if leading-edge environmental legislation like AB32 were to draw fire from climate-change deniers and oil interests. Indeed, the most recent attempt to derail the law, last year’s Proposition 23, was pushed by two out-of-state oil companies. Voters, mobilized in large part by grassroots climate justice groups, roundly defeated that attempt.

But the lawsuit against California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) regulatory framework for AB32 was undertaken by the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE) and Communities for a Better Environment (CBE)—two groups that advocate on behalf of “frontline and fence-line environmental justice communities.” They represent low-income people and people of color who live, work and play in the shadow of refineries in Wilmington and Richmond, in the agribusiness fields of the Central Valley, near the waste dumps of Kettleman City, and in other California communities plagued by industrial pollution.

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Timber Companies Stand to Benefit from CARB Regulations

A lawsuit brought by environmental justice groups has put AB 32 on hold. The plaintiffs are from communities located near agricultural and industrial operations and say that “trading” carbon credits will generate more pollution near their homes. The court’s March 17 decision will require California Air Resources Board (CARB) to go back and look at alternatives to the cap-and-trade plan, analyzing options, such as directly regulating polluters. While there has been quite a bit of coverage on the impacts of the “trade” portion of the program on communities located near greenhouse gas emitters, few seem to have been aware that the program also has implications for communities that live near the “offset” locations that aim to reduce these emissions. —STC

California timber firms could emerge as big winners in the state’s fight against global warming, earning millions of dollars through the sale of carbon credits under the set of rules approved by the Air Resources Board on December 16, 2010.

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The San Francisco PUC: Working for the Community

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) provides water, sewage services, and municipal power to San Francisco and surrounding areas. It is also a huge job generator. When I joined the Commission in 2008, I identified three priorities: (i) achieving stronger local hire outcomes; (ii) adopting an environmental justice policy; and (iii) creating an agency-wide Community Benefits Program.

In 2002—following a bond measure approved by San Francisco voters that November—the SFPUC embarked on one of the largest water infrastructure projects at a cost of $4.6 billion dollars. The Water System Improvement Project (WSIP), which includes more than 80 projects, is working to repair, replace, and seismically upgrade deteriorating pipelines, tunnels, reservoirs, pump stations, storage tanks, and dams from San Francisco to the Central Valley by the end of 2015.

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Introduction: Catalyst or Catastrophe?

From the Editor
By B. Jesse Clarke

Climate Change Cover imageI started this issue as a skeptic of climate change. I didn’t doubt its reality, the human contribution to it, or the threat it represents to the ecological health of the planet but I doubted that this crisis created an organizing moment that could benefit low-income people and communities of color. When Race, Poverty and the Environment covered this topic in 2006, [Clarke] efforts within the United States to organize in response to climate change were scattered and largely led by white environmentalists. We had to turn to a Canadian author to find a succinct description of a framework for green economics. [Milani]

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Young Activists Revitalize EJ Movement

On an Eco-bus tour of Detroit during the 2010 U.S. Social Forum, 17-year-old Janice Nyamakye strives to capture everything with her video camera: the tour guide’s comments, the city sights, as well as the ‘sites’—a dirty incinerator, salt mining operations, and power plants—all located in low-income communities of color. The tour informs Nyamakye’s own work in environmental remediation back home in Worcester, Massachusetts where she has been involved with Toxic Soil Busters (TSB) for the past four years.

As an organization, TSB effects improvements in the lives and environments of urban youth by employing them to first test local soil for lead levels, then remediate and redesign affected environments as needed. “We are a youth-led cooperative business,” says Nyamakye proudly. “The youth do everything.” As a videographer, she uses media to connect different EJ communities and amplify the message of youth working for environmental justice. From California to Massachusetts, groups like TSB, Grind for the Green (G4G), and Third Eye Unlimited are using new outreach methods to successfully reach a new generation of information-seeking cyberkids. And increasingly, youth interested in acting for environmental change are finding outlets through national organizations like It’s Getting Hot In Here (itsgettinghotinhere.org) and SustainUs: US Youth for Sustainable Development (sustainus.org).

Transforming the Land-- One Garden at a Time

Raheem Payton used to think nothing of littering streets until he discovered his community garden. Now he is angry that he and his friends ever did such a thing. “I’m an advocate for putting your trash in the right place now,” he says, “and I try to keep my friends on the straight path, too.” Payton discovered his calling earlier than other youths through a program called Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ) in the Bayview district of San Francisco. Founded in 1998 by a coalition of youth, educators, and community leaders, LEJ addresses the ecological and health concerns of Bayview-Hunters Point and surrounding communities of southeast San Francisco.

The project that Payton participates in operates a native plants nursery at a former dumpsite near Candlestick Park. The garden is the primary supplier of plant stock to two major restoration projects in San Francisco—Candlestick Point State Recreation Area and Heron’s Head Park.
Payton works three hours a day in the garden transplanting starter plants into larger pots to be taken to one of the restorations sites. Already, the 18-year-old is hooked on gardening.

“I want to major in landscape architecture [and] design gardens to encourage cities to be healthier and better looking,” he says. Community organizer for Green Action, Marie Harrison says, “These children are gaining knowledge that is quite valuable. If there ever was a disaster these children would know exactly how to sustain themselves.”

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