Former congressman builds labor-environmentalist bridges

By Don McIntosh, Associate Editor

When Jim Jontz first set foot in Oregon, he was a U.S. Congressman from Indiana. It was 1987, and Jontz, a Democrat backed by labor and by environmentalists, was a member of the Forestry Subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee, in Medford for a hearing on logging in old-growth forests.

The Forest Service flew him over the Kalmiopsis Wilderness. He met with environmentalist Andy Kerr, who was at the center of the conflict over spotted owl habitat and old-growth preservation. And he met with labor leaders.

"There was a virtual civil war going on over the forests," Jontz recalls.

The more he learned, the more strongly he believed old-growth forests were in need of protection. In 1990, he introduced a bill that he said would later serve as the foundation for President Bill Clinton's Northwest Forest Plan.

To protect timber and mill jobs, Oregon labor leaders went to work to try to change Jontz' views. At their invitation, he visited a sawmill, stayed in the home of a carpenter in Dallas, toured Sweet Home. But it didn't change his mind.

So they decided to try to get him out of office. Jontz was a liberal Democrat in a conservative rural Indiana district. He had held on for three terms because of his reputation as a populist.

But in 1992, Jontz was running for a fourth term against a well-funded conservative. Union millworkers from Oregon flew to Indiana to work against Jontz. They leafletted United Auto Workers (UAW) job sites and made appearances at public events. Irv Fletcher, then the president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, led a delegation of Oregon labor leaders in meetings with Indiana unionists, trying to get them to withdraw support. Indiana labor stood by Jontz, but voters picked the Republican, by a narrow margin.

Jontz doesn't think the Oregon woodworkers were a factor in his defeat, which he attributes to an anti-incumbent mood and the general conservatism of his overwhelmingly rural district. Still, it was a low-point for Jontz. "I wasn't used to being an enemy of labor," he says.

That's because Jontz has spent much of his life bringing together labor and the environmental movement.

Born in Indianapolis in 1951, Jontz was a student of public schools, including Indiana University, where he got a bachelor's degree in geology. As a grad student in history, he was swept up in his first political campaign - a long-shot crusade to stop an Army Corps of Engineers dam-building project. He went to the State Capitol to make his case, and there met a UAW lobbyist who taught him how the Legislature worked.

Jontz was a quick learner. In 1973, at the age of 22, he ran against the majority leader of the Indiana House of Representatives, and won - by two votes. The dam project was defeated, and Jontz went on to win other battles as well, for solar power, nursing home reform and children's health.

Jontz says he identified early on with the environmentalist agenda of several out-in-front unions, including the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and the UAW. The UAW was one of the sponsors of the original Earth Day in 1970, and it formed a department devoted to balancing economic growth with environmental protection.

When Jontz ran for the U.S. House in 1986, labor was the bulwark of his financial support. He raised half a million dollars, and won against a religious conservative in a district whose largest town, Kokomo, numbered fewer than 50,000 inhabitants.

In Congress, he took on the issues that mattered to constituents. He served on the Veterans Committee, the Education and Labor Committee and the Agriculture Committee, where he was a member of the corn caucus and co-chaired the pork caucus.

"He knew what he wanted and went out and worked on it," recalls Chuck Deppert, former president of the Indiana AFL-CIO. "He's one of the hardest-working guys you'll ever meet in your life. He's one of the few elected representatives that tried to read every bill that was going to be voted on."

Deppert says Jontz' populist appeal resonates because it's not a posture - it's who he is. Jontz spent as much time in his district as he did in Washington. He rode an oversized bicycle in town parades. Driving his 1986 Chevy pickup, he made his way around the district, meeting people at union halls and at veterans halls, shaking hands at factory gates, speaking at pancake breakfasts.

"Every weekend I did town meetings," Jontz recalls. "I did town meetings in places that there weren't even towns."

But it was hard to stay in office as a liberal Democrat in a conservative Republican district. He wasn't surprised when he lost in 1992. And he didn't slow down. He went to work as a leader of the Citizens Trade Campaign, a coalition of labor, environmentalists and farmers, formed to fight the North American Free Trade Agreement NAFTA). Though not as well known as the campaigns led by centrist Ross Perot and conservative Pat Buchanan, the Citizens Trade Campaign marked the first time labor and environmentalists came together in a big way against a new foe - corporate-designed trade agreements.

"Workers and environmentalists are affected by the same corporate powers," Jontz said. "We're all part of a global economy that isn't friendly to our interests."

Wearing his trademark union-made blue suit, Jontz got to work setting up a national network of anti-NAFTA groups.

Dave Mazza, then an Oregon Sierra Club staffer and later a communications director for Service Employees Local 503, describes Jontz as a talented organizer, a dogged campaigner and a good tactician. In weekly conference calls, Jontz kept anti-NAFTA activists informed, and boosted their morale.

But the power of the presidency was too great; Clinton used every bit of financial, personal, and political power at his disposal to win votes, and it passed in 1993 with the support of a majority of Republicans and a minority of Democrats.

Since that time, with American manufacturing jobs leaving the country, there's been a shift in public consciousness about trade agreements, Jontz said. Before NAFTA, few people knew anything about trade policy. Now many people know something and are concerned.

"The days are over when politicians could say 'I'm for labor and free trade,'" Jontz said.

Jontz kept up his campaign to unite unions and environmentalists. In 1999, he helped found the Portland-based Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment (ASJE). Its first big campaign was to bring together Steelworkers fighting Kaiser Aluminum and Northern California tree-sitters fighting Maxxam Lumber, both owned by corporate raider Charles Hurwitz of Houston.

That campaign was a precursor to what Jontz calls a watershed event - the November 1999 demonstrations against the World Trade Organization (WTO), when 50,000 unionists, environmentalists, students, and church activists took to the streets of Seattle to say "no" to a secretive corporate trade agenda, shutting down the city and contributing to the failure of that trade summit.

"Seattle was a door-opening. We saw all of a sudden what the potential was if we combined our efforts."

Today, a new set of NAFTA-style trade agreements is being negotiated. The biggest of these - the Free Trade Area of the Americas and the WTO's expanded General Agreement on Trade in Services - are targeted to be completed in 2005.

That's after the next presidential election.

Jontz is eager to avoid a repeat of the NAFTA battle, in which a Democratic president worked with Republicans in Congress to pass an unpopular trade deal. So he's starting early. Leaving the Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment in the hands of a new executive director - Evergreen State College labor studies professor Dan Leahy - Jontz is now hopping between New Hampshire and Iowa, the two states with the earliest presidential primaries, to make sure that all the Democratic nominees hear how unpopular the NAFTA-style trade agreements are among Democratic voters.

With the campaign backed by the USWA, UAW, Sierra Club, Public Citizen and the National Farmers Union, Jontz hopes to get all of the Democratic candidates to commit to pro-worker, pro-environment positions on international trade.

"The promise of Seattle - that a progressive alliance of 'Teamsters and turtles' could sidetrack the WTO and the replace a corporate-driven economic agenda with a global economy in which people and the environment come first - can still be realized," Jontz said in a recent letter to supporters. "In fact, it must be achieved if citizens globally are to have any chance to protect what they value the most."

March 21, 2003 issue

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