John Snyder was one of the leaders of Coalwatch, a community group formed in response to a proposal to build a coal mine in the Comox Valley. He is also a long time Teamster who lived most of his life in Alaska before moving to Fanny Bay, BC. We felt John’s experiences as both a union activist and as an environmentalist could provide insight into both struggles.
You are from San Diego but you spent most of your adult life in Alaska?
In 1964 when I started at college, there was a 9.2 earthquake in Alaska on a Good Friday. Some of my buddies went up there and came back with stories of plenty of construction jobs that paid good money, and that it was wild and crazy place. So next summer we drove up in a VW van. I was going to work for a couple of months, make my fortune and go back to college in California but I ended up staying for 42 years. It was a great place to be, vibrant, just like the frontier it was.
How did you end up being a teamster?
I got some non-union gigs driving delivery trucks for food warehouses, but through a friend I got on at a union place. I paid my initiation fees in April 1970. I have been a Teamster member for 47 years, 37 of them as an active member. If nothing else I am a union person first and foremost.
Beginning in 1970, Alaska, with the start of the construction of the oil pipeline, became a boom economy with a capital B. They couldn’t find enough people to drive trucks. I got a job hauling fuel all over the state and it is a big state.
Were you active in the union?
Not at first but I remember a time, I had only been on the job for 2 years and a situation arose. An employee had been unjustly fired and the union came to us and asked “Are you guys willing to go to bat for Joe?” We said yes, and they did eventually work out a deal to get him back to work.
Remember this was the 1970s. Environmental concerns were never even heard of up there. The State was getting so much money they couldn’t spend it and believe me, they tried. The Governor started a permanent dividend fund so that every man, woman and child got some money each year varying from $1,000-2,000. It gave some people some skin in the game. It was actually ingenious.
I had some good mentors who taught me about being a good union member, sticking together, and solidarity. As one person you don’t really have a voice. Why wouldn’t people want collective bargaining where you have some control? I know there has to be a balance but at the end of the day why wouldn’t you want a collective voice?
During the last 15 years I was a shop steward.
Were unions active politically in Alaska?
In the seventies they had a lot of power but later on there was a lot of deregulation. Most of the Teamster jobs back then were warehousing and trucking but that started decreasing. It went from company trucks and company drivers to owner-operators and things just went downhill from there. It was a tough period. Once the construction of the pipeline was finished it went from boom to bust.
What was the attitude of Teamsters to the pipeline construction and the oil development?
They were in favour of it. Remember this was the 1970s. Environmental concerns were never even heard of up there. The State was getting so much money they couldn’t spend it and believe me, they tried. They did away with the personal income tax. The Governor started a permanent dividend fund so that every man, woman and child got some money each year varying from $1,000-2,000. It gave some people some skin in the game. It was actually ingenious.
Did the Exxon Valdez spill affect people’s attitudes?
That was huge. It devastated Prince William Sound, Valdez, all of the fishing industry. The First Nations, it just ruined their subsistence food supply. They got paid out but they lost their livelihoods, lost who they were. There were divorces and suicides. Things were not going to bounce back to where they were before the spill.
Unfortunately, as devastating [the Exxon Valdez spill] was, people up there if given a choice would still give approval to the pipeline and oil drilling. It is something to keep in mind with Kinder Morgan.
Unfortunately, as devastating as it was, people up there if given a choice would still give approval to the pipeline and oil drilling. It is something to keep in mind with Kinder Morgan.
So like the Raven mine, you have to get in beforehand?
I’d much rather fight it at the front end than try to shut it down.
What is Coalwatch and why was it formed? How did you become involved in it?
Coalwatch is no longer an entity. We were focused on Compliance Energy’s proposed Raven coal mine, and once that was terminated we decided to fold our tent. Our main focus was to raise public awareness and participation in the process, and to get information out to people. We did not want their proposal to fly underneath the radar.
Campbell Conner was sort of the original lead dog but after a couple of months he stepped down. So I ended up being drafted. It ended up being a six-and-a-half -year battle.
My greatest fear was that as a 40-year union man I was going to get stuck between a rock and a hard place, between a community group that was actively opposing a coal mine, and having then to battle my union brothers and sisters.
It was Campbell’s idea to sort of sit on the fence and focus on the process. But then we were still viewed as against it, merely because we were raising questions. We certainly were concerned, considering many of us were only five kilometres downstream from the proposed mine.
We came up with a set of demands, which we outlined in letters to both the federal and provincial governments. One, we wanted an independent review with public hearings. Two, we demanded baseline studies of Baynes Sound, and lastly an exhaustive aquifer study. When those three demands were refused, we did become opponents.
Compliance did try to manipulate people with the usual line about all the employment they were going to create.
Jobs, jobs, jobs! They eventually had to set down on paper an employment plan, of benefits to the community. We had Alice de Wolff, who has expertise on labour and employment statistics, do a critique of that plan which showed their forecast had lots of loopholes.
The Port Alberni Labour Council came out early in opposition. They looked at the numbers and decided the negatives outweighed the positives. They got blowback from the Steelworkers but they were pretty firm.
The issue of temporary foreign workers was on people’s minds at that time, so the job benefit numbers were suspect – especially as many of these workers were being used in coal mines in northern BC.
That did throw a shadow on their job projections.
What lessons did you learn at Coalwatch and from the Teamsters?
The union work helped me. I was a shop steward and that is all about problem solving. Learning on the fly came natural to me.
In the “golden years,” if your father worked in a car plant, you’d come out of high school, get hired, you then worked for 30 years, got married, bought a house, put your kids through school, and had a pension at the end. Those jobs are disappearing.
My greatest fear was that as a 40-year union man I was going to get stuck between a rock and a hard place, between a community group that was actively opposing a coal mine, and having then to battle my union brothers and sisters – but that never really happened. That was due to the support of the Labour Council in Port Alberni and the Campbell River, Courtenay and District Labour Council.
Most of us on the Labour Council knew Compliance was never going to meet the criteria so it was a no go from the start.
It was the same with most of the city councils like Comox and Courtenay. We didn’t go there to oppose the mine but to push for a more rigorous review, which is just common sense. It put a marker down for the regulators that these communities have set a bar that Compliance has to meet.
How do you feel about receiving the Eugene Rogers Environmental Award in 2015?
I am grateful for the award but I view it as if I received it on behalf of all the people who supported Coalwatch with fundraising, writing letters, putting up signs, going to meetings and demos. These people stepped up to the plate and worked very hard to accomplish our goals.
Are you involved in other local activities around environmental issues?
Not right now. I am just a concerned citizen and there is certainly no lack of issues to be concerned about. I am an American and have lived in Fanny Bay for ten years. I recently put in my papers to become a Canadian citizen. One of the reasons is the election of Donald Trump.
What do you see as our common future?
I don’t know what is going to happen. I feel fortunate being the age I am. In the “golden years,” if your father worked in a car plant, you’d come out of high school, get hired, you then worked for 30 years, got married, bought a house, put your kids through school, and had a pension at the end. Those jobs are disappearing. Businesses need to figure out how to support these people. There is talk of a guaranteed national income.
It is a hard nut to crack. We can’t continue down this path. This planet has only so many resources. Organized labour can provide leadership but I think our kids will be the ones to solve the problems. I don’t think our generation will.
Brian Charlton was president of the Vancouver Local of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (1989-96) and the Education and Organization Officer for the Pacific Region of CUPW (1996-2002). He lives in Courtenay, BC.