The debate over the Keystone pipeline has once again pitted the core Democratic Party constituencies of organized labor and environmentalists against each other. At this point, it seems like an obvious conflict: unions want to create jobs for their members, while conservationists prioritize endangered species and clean air and water. But a half-century ago, the story was very different. In a 1998 paper in Environmental History, Scott Dewey argues that unions were a key force for the emerging cause of environmentalism in the 1950s and ’60s.
In the booming post-war era, the labor movement won unprecedented gains in wages and working conditions and began moving beyond the shop floor to seek other improvements in the lives of the working class. Among these broader campaigns were anti-pollution efforts.
One of the first environmental campaigns by labor came in response to the 1948 “Killer Smog” air pollution disaster outside of Pittsburgh, Penn., which killed 20 people and sickened thousands. With steelworkers among the victims, the United Steelworkers used its money and power to push for the United States Steel Corporation to take responsibility. The campaign was ultimately not successful, but it drew attention from other unions, broadening the scope of labor activism.
In the 1960s, federal water and air pollution laws became the subject of conflicts between unions and employers. Andrew J. Biemiller, director of the AFL-CIO’s department of legislation, argued before Congress that members had “a vital interest in protecting the purity of the air around us, just as they have an interest in protecting the purity of America’s water supply.”
At the same time, organized labor also campaigned for the preservation of outdoor recreation and wilderness areas. The idea was that enjoyment of the outdoors should be for everyone, not just the wealthy, and that “wilderness preservation would benefit the American people much more than commercial exploitation by a greedy few,” Dewey writes.
In the ’60s, the two goals of pollution control and wilderness preservation had not yet merged into “environmentalism” as we know it today, and Dewey argues that unions were some of the first groups to bring the two threads together.
In particular, United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther emerged as an advocate of radical environmentalist ideas. In 1968, he told a conference of the Water Pollution Control Federation that that “[w]e may be the first civilization in the history of man that will have suffocated and been strangled in the waste of its material affluence-compounded by social indifference and social neglect.” The UAW bucked the major car makers in arguing for tighter limits on motor vehicle air pollution and built alliances with environmental groups.
In the 1970s, though, the green lthe labor movement began to fade. Economic stagnation hit the working class, and many unions joined management in attacking environmental rules as a threat to jobs. Since then, environmental groups have sometimes united, to oppose international trade agreements or support green jobs. But conflict, not cooperation, between unions and environmentalists has become the expected storyline.