- Forging a Common Bond: Labor and Environmental Activism during the BASF Lockout
A large billboard metaphorically looms over Timothy Minchin’s wonderful book, Forging a Common Bond: Labor and Environmental Activism during the BASF Lockout. Located high above a roadside forest along Louisiana’s Route 10, the sign asked motorists traveling between Baton Rouge and New Orleans a disturbing question, “BASF: Bhopal on the Bayou?,” in the hopes of linking environmental dangers at the company’s nearby chemical plant to the 1984 Union Carbide eco-disaster in Bhopal, India. Minchin uses the sign, put up in 1986 by workers locked out of the BASF plant in Geismar, Louisiana, to illustrate the unlikely alliance that took place during the lockout between labor and environmental activists. Like the billboard, which during the late 1980s caught the eyes of thousands of drivers daily, Forging a Common Bond will appeal to labor and environmental historians interested in the social history of the southern United States.
Minchin tells the story of the longest lockout in United States history, which lasted more than five and one half years from June 1984 until December of 1989 and pitted the German chemical giant BASF against a small local of the Oil, [End Page 251] Chemical, and Atomic Workers’ International Union (OCAW). Three issues dominated the breakdown in labor-management negotiations: the company’s desire to eliminate a provision allowing workers to switch jobs on the basis of seniority rather than skill, a rollback in wages, and an increase in the percentage of health care costs paid by workers. While such concerns are typical of many labor disputes, the union’s reaction to the subsequent lockout was anything but. When the usual tactics of letter-writing, product boycotts, and daily picket lines proved ineffective, OCAW initiated a corporate campaign aimed at raising negative publicity for BASF in the hopes that public pressure would force the company back to the bargaining table. What was most novel about OCAW’s efforts, however, was its alliance with local, state, and national environmental groups in an effort to draw attention to BASF’s abysmal, and often unhealthy, environmental record in Geismar. “By raising the issue of plant safety,” writes Minchin, “the union had secured national media attention, and the focus of coverage had shifted away from traditional labor-management issues and towards environmental issues” (p. 66).
After an introduction and a first chapter that describes the positive pre-lockout relations between labor and management as well as the negative feelings for environmentalists among OCAW workers, who before the dispute viewed demands for a healthy workplace as threatening to high-paying jobs, Minchin divides his book into six additional chapters each correlating to one year of the BASF lockout and which together trace the rise of this labor-environmentalist alliance. He then ends the book, which is part of the University Press of Florida’s “New Perspectives on the History of the South” series, with an epilogue of sorts that examines the post-lockout period and OCAW’s continuing support for the environmental organizations it worked with during the five-year battle. Throughout, the author gives voice to those directly involved in the dispute by relying on a rich variety of sources including the local and national records of OCAW, those of the international union representing BASF’s German workers (I.G. Chemie), BASF company records, as well as local, state, and national newspapers. What will appeal most to social historians, however, is Minchin’s use of oral interviews which he conducted himself with plant workers, OCAW leaders, BASF managers, local community activists, and environmentalists.
While Minchin’s sources help him dig deeply beneath the toxic muck of the BASF lockout in Geismar, and even though he successfully situates this local battle into its regional and international contexts, Forging A Common Bond leaves unanswered the central question of whether or not this case study is typical or exceptional. For instance, does OCAW’s victory against BASF refute historical claims about the decline of the...