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(en) US, Strike! #, Right To Know Committee: Southwest Philadelphia Workers And Residents Fight Back!

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Fri, 9 Jul 2004 08:25:32 +0200 (CEST)

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The Right To Know Committee (RTKC) came together in response to
the toxic workplace and neighborhood conditions brought on by two
factories in Southwest Philly. In June of 1994, a Defense Personnel
Supply Center (DPSC) and an oil refinery complex (run by Sunoco Oil)
were put under scrutiny by the federal government following the
findings of massive pollutant outputs deep under the surface of the
surrounding neighborhoods. These two factories have been sitting
along the Schuykill river for decades, putting out countless tons of
chemical waste into the river, soil, and air.

According to the City of Philadelphia's Department of Public Health,
there has been a disproportionate number of fatalities and health
problems in the surrounding neighborhoods since the opening of these
factories. Those most affected have been the workers, and the residents
of the Passyunk Homes community that is located next to the refinery.
When the Federal government shut down the DPSC and the refinery
for a closer look workers were laid off and their issues were swept
under the rug with limited or no compensation. At the same time, local
residents were displaced from their homes.

The refinery reopened after limited cleaning, but there are thousands of
families in Southwest Philly that are still getting sick. Shortly after one
of the shutdowns, a small group of committed ex-workers and
Passyunk tenants merged to form the Right To Know Committee. For
a decade, RTKC has successfully mobilized hundreds of members of
the communities affected.

The following is an interview with Mabel Mallard, who co-founded the
group in 1994.

Strike! : Give us a little bit of background on some of the health-related
and other issues that you have had over the years as a result of working
in the DPSC and living in southwest Philly.

Mabel : In September of 1988, after working as a seamstress in the
DPSC, I was punctured by a DDT-laced sewing needle that made me
sick with constant pain and dizzy spells for one month until I finally
had an infection set in. I had to have emergency surgery and I was in
critical condition in the hospital for nine days. I have had three metal
clips in my abdomen for 14 years and over six surgeries in that time,
too. As I looked through the textbooks, I found that once DDT is in
your system it stays there forever. They knew all along that the water
and everything in southwest Philly was contaminated with these
chemicals and that was why they tried to replace the sewage lines
between Sunoco and DPSC in 1967. But when they did that, 4 workers
died because of the chemicals underground and the city was sued.

S! : What was the original response in the community?

M : If you got money, move and get the hell out of here. But now the
new people who move in don't even know about all this stuff. Part of
the Right to Know Committee's [RTKC] goal is to bring about
awareness, not to bring about a solution because nobody can actually
bring about a solution to something that's been going on for 40-50
years. You can't come in here over night and solve the problem just
because you build new houses or put new soil over top of this old kind
of toxic waste.

S! : When and why did the DPSC shut down?

M : 1994. They were building an elevator in the factory and saw all this
oil and realized they were sitting on a time bomb.

S! : Did you have a union at this place?

M : We had a union. The local 102 federal workers union [AFSCME].
And I'm here looking at them like how come you didn't do what you
were supposed to do all this time?

S! : How did they [the union] react to the factory closing?

M : They were right there to give us health benefits and give us training
and give us job referrals but they knew we were sick. How can you go
out and start a new life when you got all this here stuff that's been in
your body all these years? They did nothing but get the heck out of
there themselves.

S! : Who shut the factory down?

M : Congress. They felt that they needed to cut back on military
spending which our factory contributed to. They need war to keep on
going. When there's no war, there's suddenly no job for me.

S! : What did workers in the factory do when it was shut down?

M : Those who had retirement would get a lump sum of money. I was
offered early retirement when I was out on disability, but you're not
supposed to get disability when you retire, you're supposed to wait until
you get to that age that you need to be to get retirement [62] which
hopefully I can make it to if I can be around for that long! A lot of
workers have not been able to receive their benefits like they should.
They took away most of our health benefits and only gave it to us for
two years after the factory closed. But people are still sick, so they have
had to take money out of their retirement funds to pay for their health
problems. And I think that's the way they got over on us. Here they
poison us, give us the little bit of money for retirement and now we
have to use it to pay for our medical expenses. OSHA [Occupational
Safety and Health Association] did come in 1996, after they had shut
the place down already, and documented some of the health hazards
such as the fact that DPSC did not even have a permit to manufacture
poisonous waste until 1980 even though they had been doing it for
years before that. I remember being around barrels full of chemicals
that didn't even have lids on them. The Right to Know Laws were
passed in 1986 stating that they had to report this information and
that's where our name came from because we have the right to know.
At least they could have given us safety masks and something to put on
our hands. I seen a woman just fall over at the sewing machine and die
and people would just get sick all the time and have to leave work. I
have over 300 [questionnaire] documents of people from my work
stating their sicknesses and long-term health problems.

S! : Was this people from work and the neighborhood?

M : Oh sure! Most of the people from the factory lived in the
neighborhood, too.

S! : Do you feel that people from wealthier neighborhoods are more
likely to get help from the powers that be than you when they organize
around issues like these, and why?

M : Well, the way I see it is, it's not about helping you to them, it's
about 'What can you do for me?' They say 'What good is it for me to
help you unless you can help me." Who is "they"?

S! : Politicians?

M : Yeah, politicians! They listen to you when they want to, but they
won't come to your meetings. That's why I never expect to hear
anything from them when I write them a letter about our cause or our
meeting, but I have to be able to show people that I tried to do it that

S! : What more specifically do you see as the reason why there is
difference between the way your community and other more affluent
communities (in the suburbs, for example) are treated around the
issues the RTKC is dealing with?

M : The race barrier. You have to realize one thing. What is happening
over there in Iraq has a lot to do with what is happening here. This
country is based on racism. You might as well say "I'm out to get you".

S! : What do you mean by the connection between the war in Iraq and
what's happening to you?

M : The connection that I see is that they are oppressed just like we've
been oppressed right here in South Philly and I know how to accept
and change my condition. That is all. Change your condition, accept
what you can't change and move on.

S! : Do you think that if people were able to come together and realize
some of the conditions that do exist and oppress them and decide to
organize around these issues that they could do something about it?

M : To me, it's out of hand. Something has to stop it and it seems to
me that the only thing that's going to stop it is another war. But I'm not
talking like this here war that's going on in Iraq. How can people be
running themselves or taking care of themselves in the state of
condition that things are in now? It's the power that that man [George
W. Bush] and others have. That's the problem. That's what's got to
change first.

S! : Tell us a little more about the RTKC.

M : It started in 1994 when the manufacturing company closed. I got
hold of a study by Johns Hopkins University about south and
southwest philly and it stated that the DPSC had a problem with
leaking tanks and toxic waste and I said "so that's what I've been
smelling all these years"! All this waste was dumped into the river and
could be traced right back to the DPSC. So I started calling some
people and found out that lots of my fellow workers had gotten cancer
and other illnesses. Some couldn't work no more and some were
getting strokes and these were people who'd never had these kinds of
diseases in their families. So we said we are going and try to get a
lawyer and sue the government. I have had meetings with hundreds of
people in my neighborhood who were willing to fight this stuff. That
was when I met Myrtle Carter. They were dealing with the same
problems related to waste being underneath and around their homes
and in their water and air. The city was hurrying up and getting people
the hell out of there. She was in charge of the tenants’ council in
the Passyunk Homes. So I got in touch with her and said well, since
y’all are dealing with the same issues as us, let's join and become a
group and fight these people. Her lawyers were giving her the
runaround just like my lawyers because nobody wanted to fight this
thing. It was too big and no one wanted to take the blame. Today, 10
years later, they're pulling the same tricks, Sunoco is still here making
the money, the federal government gave the city $35 million dollars but
somehow the city says they’re still bankrupt which I don't
understand. But they keep discovering new toxic substances in the soil
still today. They found chromium in the well we used to drink out of
and wash with in the plant. I'm here to complete what I started and
that's what I feel about the Right to Know Committee. We want our
due, we want some kind of justice, and we want compensation for
what we've had to endure.


This article is a preview of the debut issue of "Strike!"

Strike! is a tabloid newspaper covering the ever important struggles of
working people in the Northeast and across the world. From
community and workplace resistance, to the fights against racism and
sexism as well as international turmoil, the struggles that rock your
world are brought to you here with a fresh anarchist-communist

Strike! is the English-language agitational publication of the
Northeastern Federation of Anarcho-Communists (NEFAC). We are
bilingual federation of revolutionaries who identify with communist
tradition in anarchism. Our activity in the last few years has focused
around radicalizing the broad struggles of our class, in the streets, in
our workplaces and in our neighborhoods.

Strike! has come to exist after a long process of rethinking our
agitational publications following the end of Barricada magazine, which
for a time was a NEFAC affiliated magazine.

In this issue of Strike!, you will find articles on rank and file labor
struggles, tenant union organizing, eco-racism, indigenous struggles,
and direct action in the streets! Plus, there is a regular column about
GI resistance within the military, and a pro-queer/feminist advice

Strike! can be obtained in most large cities in the Northeast. NEFAC
members will be making a special efffort to have it available in
community centers, left bookshops and at picket lines and

Bulk orders and subscriptions can be made with the Stelton Anarchist
Collective: PO BOX 3107 New Brunswick, NJ 08903, or contact:

For letters to the editor, content questions, submissions, and press
exchanges, contact Class Action at: classaction@nefac.net

Also, brand new issues of NEFAC's other publications (The
Northeastern Anarchist, Ruptures and Cause Commune) are set to hit
the newstands very soon!


Strike! can be obtained in most large cities in the Northeast. NEFAC
members will be making a special efffort to have it available in
community centers, left bookshops and at picket lines and

Bulk orders and subscriptions can be made with the Stelton Anarchist
Collective: PO BOX 3107 New Brunswick, NJ 08903, or contact:

For letters to the editor, content questions, submissions, and press
exchanges, contact Class Action at: classaction@nefac.net

Also, brand new issues of NEFAC's other publications (The
Northeastern Anarchist, Ruptures and Cause Commune) are set to hit
the newstands very soon!

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