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One Example of Working-Class Environmentalism


Too often, including in the comments at this blog, the idea that labor unions and environmentalists have irreconcilable goals goes unchallenged. But there is in fact significant common ground. Over the Keystone XL Pipeline, the Transit Workers Union, health care unions, and other unions opposed its construction on grounds of both environmental health and the future of the planet. Employers love to say that the Environmental Protection Agency is a job killer. Too often, many unions buy into that rhetoric as well. But not all. A leader on pushing back against job blackmail for years is the United Steelworkers. The USW has long used EPA regulations to push its own interests both inside and outside the workplace. Other unions that used to do this as well were the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW) and the International Woodworkers of America (IWA), which is the subject of the second half of my book project. Unfortunately, those latter unions no longer exist. But the Steelworkers keep up the fight. Here it is with a press release ripping the oil refinery industry for violating EPA standards on safety and the workplace environment.

Part of the problem right now on this labor-environmental issue is that the industrial unions of the CIO were always much more open to making alliances with environmental organizations than the AFL trade unions. But it’s the industrial unions that have been slaughtered by outsourcing, deindustrialization, and globalization, while many of the trade unions, especially in the building trades, remain relatively healthy. So a changing culture in the remnants of American unionism isn’t helping. But the reality is far more complicated than the stereotype of workers and environmentalists being always opposed.

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  • Bruce Vail

    Footnote: Not exactly right to say OCAW doesn’t exist anymore. It merged into PACE, which then merged into USW. The same fighting spirit of OCAW lives on in many of the old OCAW refinery locals.

    I saw this some in person years back when attending a PACE conference of refinery locals. These are great union people.

    • Well, the IWA merged with the Machinists in 1994. If those unions still could be viable organizations on their own, they would be. Of course, a few locals still exist that no doubt retain that spirit.

      • Bruce Vail

        I was very impressed when I visited the PACE refineries conference about 10 years ago.

        Jim Pannell was head of PACE refineries division then, and very impressive guy. At his right hand was Gary Beevers, who now heads the USW refineries division. Also a very impressive guy. Both were deeply immersed in the environmental issues surrounding oil refining, but were trade union men first and foremost.

  • pete

    Thanks for banging this gong. There is a class element to this, I think. Many self-identified liberal & progressive activists seem to find it regrettably easy to slip into “those people we’re trying to help” characterizations of, well, the people they really do think they are trying to help. I’m an over-educated white-collar type myself, but as a member of the UAW via the National Writers Union I’ve spent time in meetings both local and national with union activists over the last decade-plus. Yeah, we have had some cultural confusions from time to time but I’ve really enjoyed the pro-feminist, pro-gay, pro-environment hard-hat old-school unionists who seem to be the majority. This ain’t your granddaddy’s union movement, and it’s the better for it.

    • Hooray totally non-ironic stereotyping?

      • pete

        Sheesh, how many fking qualifiers do I have to add in order to make a generalization in a short blog comment? “… element … think … many … seem … some … seem …” Gimme a totally unironic fking break! There is a huge difference between stereotyping and generalizing, and you appear to be missing the point.

  • Thomas Ware

    In retrospect my transition from Old Logger to “environmentally aware” and a certain degree active was/is perfectly logical. My understanding of not only eco and mycrosystems but of anthropogenic atmospheric disruptions is rooted in not just my sixty year experience but four generations of living on the Oregon Cascade. Kinda’ changes your persective when you can see it happening all around you. And protecting not a way to earn a living but a traditional way of life for future generations is neither a new nor novel concept. Overall I think I’d call it adaptation.

  • This is a straw man. Anyone who says that labor’s and environmentalists’ issues never coincide or that they can never partner is wrong.

    However, the narrower claim– that there is an inherent conflict between the agendas in that some unionized workers’ jobs depend on environmentally destructive activities, or simply activities that aren’t actually that destructive but which offend the aesthetic desires of environmentalists, and that therefore SOMETIMES there will be inevitable issues where labor is– and SHOULD be (because their job is to be advocates for the self interests of the workers)– opposed to environmentalists– seems to me to be irrefutable.

    And refusing to admit these issues exist does not solve the conflict. There’s definitely nothing inherent in environmentalism that its agenda will be good for workers’ short term economic interests.

    • Bruce Vail

      Agreed, a blithe dismissal of the very real differences between labor and enviros is not productive in any way.

      A classic case here I think is the coal miners (unionized and non-unionized). As enviers, we all agree that we must reduce and eliminate the burning of coal. But what about the men in the mines? Are they simply to be discarded?

      There is no plan that I am aware of – either from a union source or from an enviro source — to transition miners into decent jobs. No wonder that the miners are angry and resentful, except at the Republicans who favor burning more coal.

  • Bruce Vail

    Erik, I think you misunderstand the nature of the complaint by United Steel Workers against Exxon.

    The union is committed to safe, efficient and legal operation of the Baton Rouge refinery. And they want the refinery workers to be treated properly, including proper compensation.

    The last thing they want is to see the refinery closed for the sake of some vague environmental goal. PACE and USW worked hard over many years to organize the Baton Rouge refinery: The union goal now is to improve working conditions and compensation so that Exxon can provide good-paing union jobs for many years to come.

  • Chesternut

    Global Warming created heaven and earth. It created man. And now it’s creating jihad, famine, euthanasia, abortion and academic advocacy.

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