On January 23, 1973, the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers went on strike against Shell Oil. This strike gained unusual supporters. Environmentalists came out hard against Shell and in support of OCAW. This came about in part because of the progressive leaders of OCAW leaders, particularly Tony Mazzocchi, OCAW legislative director. This case shows the very real potential for alliances between labor and environmentalists when the two movements have meaningful conversations and act in solidarity with one another.
By the late 1960s, many unions responded to growing scientific literature about the health effects of industrial labor by demanding federal action and demanding action from employers to clean up their workplaces. On the federal level, this led to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Companies resisted doing anything about these workplaces. The AFL-CIO under George Meany generally was typically indifferent, but a number of industrial unions, including the United Steelworkers of America, took the lead on making environmental demands. No union led on this issue more than the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers. Tony Mazzocchi and his assistant Steven Wodka believed that inspiring rank and file activism on environmental issues was key for unions to keep workers safe. This was especially important for the OCAW because its members were exposed to radiation and reports were coming out during these years about just how unsafe those radioactive workplaces were. It started to reach out to other unions working on environmental issues, like the nascent United Farm Workers, fighting over pesticide exposure.
Said Al Grospiron, OCAW president:
Organized Labor must emphatically support environmental efforts and must never get into the position of opposing such efforts on the grounds of economic hardship. Our position must be that nearly all polluting facilities can be corrected without hardships to the workers and that in those few cases where corrections are not possible new job opportunities or compensation must be provided for the workers.
The OCAW also worked with environmental organizations. Calling for the workplace as the first line of defense for the environment certainly got the attention of greens. Environmental Action worked with unions to get OSHA passed. Other environmental organizations were however only tepidly in support, frustrating the OCAW. They reprinted a Stewart Udall editorial in the union newspaper, lambasting greens. Udall said, “Environmental groups act act as if the blue collar worker does not exist. Their lack of concern for the workplace–their failure to even recognize it as an environment–is the most glaring defect in their young movement.”
OCAW and other unions felt OSHA far too weak and continued to push for worker-led safety and environmental committees that would go farther than the weak and slow government oversight the law created. This continued to help build relations with environmental organizations. Shell Oil had long animosity toward both unions and environmentalists. OCAW decided to target Shell because of the company’s power and the union’s need to stand up to the biggest bully on the block. But it knew that it could not defeat this company alone. It needed consumer help. For that, it build on its relationships with environmentalists, arguing that if Shell didn’t care about polluting workers’ bodies, it wouldn’t care about polluting the environment.
So a week after OCAW went on strike, on January 30, 11 of the nation’s largest environmental organizations announced their support for the strike and urged a nationwide boycott of Shell. This included the relatively conservative Sierra Club, which had by this time kicked the radical David Brower out of office and reverted to its traditional moderate stance. But the radicalism of the time had caught up to Sierra Club, which was concerned about attracting new members. It held two conferences with labor in the early 1970s, which helped create connections that convinced it to join the boycott. It took until March for Sierra Club to join and that included the threat of unions creating an anti-environmentalist coalition, which was already happening in the building trades. But join it did, putting its significant muscle behind the action.
This alliance did not come that easy in the rank and file of both labor and greens. A lot of environmentalists had absolutely zero interest in working with unions. Particularly during these years, environmentalism was seen as above politics and unions were most certainly not. Middle-class greens might well oppose unions and they didn’t see why their dues money should be spent working with workers. Sierra Club especially saw many angry letters from its members who opposed the boycott, saying the workplace was not an environmental issue. But Sierra Club leadership held to its position.
By April 1973, Shell sales in the U.S. had dropped 20-25 percent. But ultimately, OCAW did not have the resources to win this strike. It was paying out large sums in strike benefits and was rapidly losing money. Many rank and file workers wanted to end the strike. A Texas local negotiated an independent settlement, defying OCAW leadership. It included a few tokens for the union, including morbidity statistics the union wanted. There was no way the international could stand up to this and the strike ended on June 4.
The strike was not exactly won. But OCAW’s new contracts following it almost all had much stronger health and safety clauses. The strike also helped solidify the coalition with environmental groups. Many groups now claimed a long-term commitment to workplace health and safety. In the spring of 1975, labor and environmentalists formed Environmentalists for Full Employment that fought for the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill. During the Carter administration, blue-green alliances reached their peak, as I discuss in the lumber industry in Empire of Timber. On workplace health, pollution, and other issues, labor and environmentalists worked together in exciting ways.
At the same time though, deindustrialization was destroying the American working class and their unions. Companies began openly claiming that if environmental laws were passed, they would close company doors and move to a new state or out of the nation. Often these were lies, but sometimes companies followed through. Job blackmail began to turn the declining unions against their green allies because the rank and file was so scared for their jobs. The OCAW resisted job blackmail to a significant event, as did the International Woodworkers of America until 1987. But many unions did not. In the early 1980s, the OSHA/Environmental Network, an attempt to unite labor and greens against Reagan’s attacks on both, had some local successes in rebuilding coalitions, but mostly it quickly faded, as did the conversations between the two movements. There have been periodic attempts to revive these alliances to the present. But as we have seen over coal mining and the Keystone XL Pipeline, when workers feel their jobs under attack, especially in the absence of good jobs for working people throughout the United States, they will attack environmentalists. It’s unfortunate but understandable. Ultimately though, the more we understand about attempts to build these coalitions, the better chance we have to build them in the future over issues such as pollution, green energy, and climate change.
The information for the OCAW strike comes from Robert Gordon, “Shell No! OCAW and the Labor-Environmental Alliance,” in the October 1998 issue of Environmental History. Other parts of the post come from my own research and writing.
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