On September 21st, hundreds of people packed the Oakland City Hall to oppose developer Phil Tagami’s proposal to build a coal export terminal in Oakland. Among them were dozens of union members whose locals were opposing coal as anti-union, a major source of carbon emissions, and a risk to public health in working class neighborhoods through which coal trains would pass and deposit toxic coal dust. One of those union members was Al Marshall, SEIU 1021 City of Oakland Chapter President, who told the council that coal dust would only exacerbate his son’s asthma. We later interviewed Al. Here’s his story.
Brooke Anderson, Climate Workers: Thanks for talking to me, Al. You’re a union member. How did you get involved in the union?
Al Marshall, SEIU 1021: I’ve worked as a construction inspector for the City of Oakland for 15 years, and a city employee for 26 years total. One day I showed up to a union meeting, learned that our contract was being violated and that other people were frustrated too. I’ve been involved in the union ever since. I was elected City of Oakland Chapter President two years ago.
BA: So you live in Oakland then?
AM: I used to live in Oakland. But I lost my family home as a result of the furloughs during the financial crisis. My wife was laid off with reinstatement rights up to three years. She was called back with 45 days left, but by that time, the damage had been done. We now live on the other side of the tube in Alameda.
BA: You recently spoke against coal at Oakland City Council. Why do you oppose coal?
AM: My son DeVon is 7. He’s had asthma since he was 1.5 years old. He also has bad allergies. Most nights we have to hook him up to a ventilator to breathe. It’s a 20 minute process, and I lay there with him to help him find a breathing pattern that will calm his cough. As a parent, having a child with asthma is hell. It means many sleepless nights.
Depending on how hot it is and which way the wind is blowing, what’s in the atmosphere triggers my son’s allergies and asthma. So to me, it doesn’t make any sense to transport coal through Oakland. And if we know coal will cause health problems here, why we would send it elsewhere? We are the gatekeeper to the planet. What we do has impacts on the other side of the planet and vice versa. We are all responsible.
BA: At the hearing, we heard the coal lobbyists say we need coal because it will bring jobs.
AM: I find it interesting that all these people are coming out of the woodwork now to say how it important it is to have coal in Oakland to bring jobs. There is enough other things to put on that Army Base to bring good paying jobs to those who need them. We don’t need coal for that. It’s the people who are financially well off who have the money to push coal on the less fortunate neighborhoods. They don’t have to worry about it because they don’t live here. But if they did, they would oppose coal too.
BA: Any last words for the coal industry?
AM: We all have a duty here while we are here on earth. We need to recognize what our calling is and do our best to serve whatever that calling is in the amount of time that we have here. We need to preserve something for those who come after us. It’s called passing the baton, and we have to make sure the baton doesn’t get dropped.