By Charles McCollester, Pittsburgh Post Gazette op-ed, April 26,2020.
A decade ago, my Pittsburgh Post-Gazette op-ed, “Under Siege by Marcellus Marauders,” raised the alarm that “a thousand Marcellus Shale sites are in the works, with tens of thousands more poised to descend on Penn’s Woods.” Today the number is over 15,000 deep wells, despite the fact that fracking has produced an overproduction of natural gas and constant expansion has undermined its profitability.
I well understood the deep hunger for jobs amidst the collapse of regional mining and manufacturing that made the Marcellus juggernaut unstoppable. From 1979 to 1999, with other union activists I attempted to staunch the hemorrhaging of our region’s once legendary manufacturing capacity. We bitterly decried the hollowing out of the nation, the discarding of the industrial working class with its diversity of skills, rootedness in this land and love for our communities.
The political muscle behind Shell’s massive natural gas to plastics plant, with its spider-web network of wells, compressor stations and pipelines intended to deliver gas and plastic feedstock to the world market, are the Pittsburgh region’s union building trades. My appreciation of skill-based union organizations began in 1986,as 45,000 union workers marching to protest the incursion of nonunion contractors into the birthplace of organized labor shutdown Pittsburgh.
Exploiting thousands of skilled steelworker crafts people desperate for jobs, nonunion contractors gained an expanding segment of the labor market. Subsequently, I grew to deeply admire the construction unions’ dedication to intensive training and the pride they feel in their collective skill, organizational competence and political clout. I deeply respect the manual and intellectual skills involved in building, making and growing the products we humans need to survive.
That said, we must question the building trades’ political commitment to fossil fuel and plastics. It is madness to welcome the construction of two, three, four or more of these massive petrochemical facilities upwind from Pittsburgh. To go from dependence on steel to dependence on single-use plastics is environmentally suicidal and a disaster for the long-term economic health of our tri-state region.
Charles McCollester ([email protected]) is the retired director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Labor Relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.