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#262 - What's Good About L.A.'s Lethal Air, 03-Dec-1991

The air in Los Angeles is as bad as it gets anywhere in the U.S. For
example, at the University of Southern California recently, scientists
performed autopsies on 100 youths, aged 15 to 25, who had died by
violence, accident, or other non-disease cause. They found an
astonishing 80% had "notable lung abnormalities" and 27% had "severe
lesions of the lung." Dr. Russell Sherwin, the principal investigator
of the study, said the youths were "running out of lung." He commented,
"The danger I'm seeing is above and beyond what we've seen with smoking
or even respiratory viruses... It's much more severe, much more

No doubt about it, bad air is killing large numbers of people in Los
Angeles. For many thousands more, L.A.'s bad air means as people get
older they can look forward to emphysema, chronic discomfort, chest
colds and other persistent ailments, restricted movement, debilitating
pain, and finally a prolonged and unpleasant death.

But L.A.'s bad air has a bright side, as well: it has provoked the
formation of a far-reaching Campaign for Clean Air that seems to offer
innovative ways to attack environmental destruction and injustice
everywhere. It is an exciting development. People who have been asking,
"How will the grass-roots environmental movement develop next?" will
want to learn more about the organization behind the Campaign. It is
called the Labor/Community Watchdog. Despite the name, which might seem
to imply a passive role overseeing government as it fails again and
again to deal with L.A.'s bad air, this Watchdog has an aggressive and
expansive vision, and maybe a real bite.

The Watchdog has outlined its vision in an unusually well-written,
thoughtful and attractive 80-page manifesto called L.A.'S LETHAL AIR--
a description of L.A.'s deadly air, moves to a discussion of who's
affected most (children, pregnant women, sick people, the elderly,
athletes, workers, low-income people, and people of color, in sum, a
majority of L.A.'s population), identifies the main sources of the
problem (carrying names like DuPont, Chevron, Unocal, and General
Motors) then lays out a stra-tegy for creating solutions. But not band-
aid solutions of the kind environmental groups have tried for the past
20 years with little success. The Watchdog's strategies are rooted in
the sit-down strikes of the '30s that sparked the growth of industrial
unionism, the bus boycotts and direct-action campaigns of the '60s that
forced passage of civil rights laws, and the United Farm Workers
boycotts of Gallo, grapes and lettuce that forced passage of the
Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975.

The Watchdog says, "We agree that individuals must take responsibility
for making environmentally sound choices. But, for the most part, it is
large corporations that manufacture the consumer products we purchase
and that determine our choices through advertising, market share,
pricing and other forms of power in the marketplace.

"...it is misleading for us to talk about making environmentally sound
'choices' based on our individual consumption when it is corporate
America that must change its products in order for us to have any real

"When products are environmentally destructive we have to combine the
personal choice to stop using them with the collective action of
demanding they be taken off the shelf," the Watchdog says.

"If we have any hope of constructing a society that is based on
industrial democracy and environmental safety, we need a strategy that
targets corporate production," the Watchdog says.

Then this from Frederick Douglass: "If there is no struggle, there is
no progress. Those who profess freedom, yet deprecate agitation, are
people who want crops without plowing up the ground, who want rain
without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful
roar of its many waters. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It
never did and it never will." [Frederick Douglass, August 4, 1857.]

"We intend to fight corporate polluters on terrain most favorable to
workers and communities--not primarily in the courts, the legislatures,
or the regulatory agencies, but in the workplace, the communities, the
media, the marketplace, and the streets," says the Watchdog's

And it is evident that they mean it. As you page through L.A.'S LETHAL
AIR and read the captions beneath the attractive photos, you will see
that the Watchdog already has built an impressive coalition of labor
and community groups, has tested some of its strategies and tactics,
has won some victories, and has thought hard about where to strike
next. The plan is bluntly put:

"...Environmental groups don't have to show they can 'communicate' with
big business by sitting on corporate boards of directors or taking
grants from corporate polluters. In fact such tactics compromise their
credibility and leverage.

"We welcome face-to-face negotiations with executives of polluting
companies, based on concrete environmental demands. But for those
conversations to generate any changes in corporate policy, we will have
to: 1) organize a powerful constituency-based movement; 2) set the
terms of the debate so that concepts of public health, worker and
community rights, corporate responsibility, and restricted
profitability create the parameters for the discussion," the Watchdog

L.A.'S LETHAL AIR goes on to say, "We need a model of community action
that forces companies to stop producing toxins RIGHT ON THE SPOT, even
if that means temporarily shutting down production."

One Watchdog goal: "To initiate a highly-visible test-case campaign to
confront a major corporate polluter, and to win major changes in
production technologies and processes that will, in turn, improve the
health and safety of workers and communities in L.A.

"But before we initiate such a campaign we need to identify a company
that (a) produces or uses a highly toxic product that is acknowledged
to create a clear and present public health danger; (b) has substantial
economic ties to L.A. and thus could be hurt by a boycott of its
products; and (c) engages in production for which far safer and less-
polluting alternatives are available--even, or especially if,
transforming the production technology would involve significant
corporate expense.

"It is precisely the conflict between community health and 'corporate
expense' that we want to raise in the public arena," the Watchdog says.

When management caves in and commits the necessary investments to make
production processes safer, "...That precedent, if we are strong enough
to succeed, could begin to change market practices by other companies
in the field," the Watchdog says.

"Factory and office workers, high school and college students, women,
Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, white
working people, farmworkers working with pesticides in the field, and
the inner-city residents facing air pollution, waste incineration, and
groundwater contamination must become the leaders of the new
environmentalism.... Therefore the Watchdog is going into workplaces,
churches and communities to develop new leaders and a new grassroots

This short review can hardly do justice to the vision laid out in
L.A.'S LETHAL AIR. Suffice it to say that the Watchdog's strategists
are working on tough issues such as the flight of capital overseas, the
dumping of toxics in the Third World, the need for environmentally
benign economic development using L.A.'s own abandoned rust-belt
factories, affordable public transportation, changes in the tax
structure, and international campaigns to ban particularly dangerous
chemicals. These are not people who think small, yet they are rooted in
local confrontation over local problems. We expect to hear much from
them and about them as the decade unfolds.

ORGANIZING, AND ACTION for $15.00 (includes shipping and handling;
California residents add $1.25 tax) from: Labor/Community Strategy
Center, 14540 Haynes Street, Suite 200, Van Nuys, California 91411;
phone (818) 781-4800; fax: (818) 781-6200.

--Peter Montague


Descriptor terms: air pollution; emphysema; chest colds; campaign for
clean air; labor community watchdog; children; pregnant women;
corporations; citizen groups; health; corporate campaigns;