On November 8, 1970, Congress approved the Reorganization Acts Amendment that laid the groundwork for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Despite what nearly a half-century of right-wing and pro-business propaganda has claimed, the EPA was an openly pro-worker act, not a job destroyer.
The need for the EPA was nearly undeniable. The nation’s industrial past had absolutely devastated the natural world. Corporations could dump pollution wherever they wanted and they did so with aplomb. Pittsburgh was famous for its smoke, Cleveland had burning rivers. Oil slicks covered California beaches and had led to legendary gushers covering the land in Texas and Oklahoma. Companies such as General Electric dumped PCBs in the Hudson River and other waterways around the nation. Timber, coal, and hard rock mining had devastating consequences. Coal slurry dams collapsed and killed dozens. By the 1960s, Americans, increasingly middle class and in the rare liberal mood, had decided they had enough of this pollution. Increasingly demanding amenities rather than survival, they made environmentalism an overwhelmingly popular political movement with major legislation passing by enormous and often near unanimous margins. The outrage over the use of DDT, exposed by Rachel Carson in her legendary book Silent Spring, was a major part of this movement, but so were many local actions. On July 9, 1970, Richard Nixon proposed the EPA’s establishment to organize the many new environmental functions of the government. Congress passed the necessary legislation on November 8 and it went into effect on December 2.
What is less discussed in the history of the EPA is how it was so necessary precisely because the poorest Americans were the ones, and still are today, most exposed to toxicity. This phenomenon has two parts. First, people who can move away from toxicity do so. Second, corporations specifically target the poorest communities for the most toxic industries because they have less ability to fight back. By the late 1970s, the environmental justice movement had sprung up to expose this reality and lead local fights to protect people, usually people of color, from toxic exposure. But even though the term wasn’t invented until after the EPA passed, through the 20th century, there were working class movements, sometimes in unions and sometimes not, to resist toxicity. But the point of studying working class people is not to study unions. That is a piece of labor history, but it’s not the totality. Whether unions support the EPA and environmentalism or not, the EPA has had a critical impact in helping working people survive. When it has an administrator who actually wants to save people from toxic exposure, the agency has had the ability to do at least some good in forcing companies to stop polluting and to clean up their already existing pollution. It’s a mixed bag to be sure, but that’s more about corporate capture of the nation’s regulatory functions than the ability of government to be of tremendous help to the nation’s poorest residents.
Unions themselves were initially a mixed bag on the EPA. Many unions took an instant dislike to environmentalism. These often tended to be politically conservative unions. Others, such as the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers and the International Woodworkers of America, embraced the EPA and new environmental regulations, sometimes making critical alliances with greens to fight their battles.
Today of course, the union movement has a very bad relationship with environmentalists and the EPA is popularly seen as a central problem to this. One can see why many workers feel this way. They are looking for an easy excuse to why American industrial jobs have declined. But what happened to American jobs was not environmentalism, or to be more precise, of all the things to happen to American jobs, environmentalism is maybe the 10th most significant factor. What happened was a combination of American policy makers encouraging capital mobility and the offshoring of jobs which combined with export policy and international concerns to undermine the working class. With some industries it was more complicated than that. Steel declined in no small part because American companies refused to invest in efficient mills and preferred to have knock-down fights with the USWA instead of coming to agreements. This led other businesses to lobby Washington to find new steel supplies, which led to cheaper imports. When this all coincided with the 1973 recession and the economic stagnation that followed, companies found themselves newly empowered to use environmental blackmail against their own workers.
Even if they did not plan to close factories, companies found threatening to do so a great way to fight reforms. In 1974, workers in a B.F. Goodrich factory in Louisville had unusually high rates of liver cancer because of vinyl chloride exposure in making PVC. The petrochemical companies that made PVC such as Shell, Dow, and Goodrich claimed better workplace standards would drive up the price, imperiling the economy. General Motors claimed protecting workers from vinyl chloride would lead to 450,000 GM workers laid off. In fact, when the EPA did raise the standards, not a single plant closed and the companies admitted they could pay for the improvements. Union and EPA studies in the 1980s showed that most American factories that closed because of workplace protections took place at obsolete facilities usually already on the chopping block.
But while environmental regulation might not directly force factories to move, corporations did begin moving to avoid environmental regulations. In 1969, General Telephone and Electric Corporation moved its electronic components manufacturing plant from the Silicon Valley to Albuquerque, New Mexico because of the “good business climate.” With few unions, New Mexico was the kind of state many companies moved during the 1960s and 1970s. GTE hired a predominantly female and Latina labor force for the repetitive tasks of assembling transformers. It also wantonly exposed workers to solvents, acids, and other toxic chemicals. The women suffered from skin conditions, memory loss, mental illness, hallucinations, and cancer. Workers repeatedly struck beginning in 1978 and by 1988, over 250 workers filed suit against GTE for their illnesses. GTE’s response was to escape once more, moving the factory to Juárez, Mexico in 1983 and recreating the same poisonous workplace outside of the American regulatory framework.
This sort of activity did the dirty work of getting workers to hate environmentalists because it was easier to blame the hippies than larger shifts in the global economy, corporate greed, or trade policy. We see the aftermath today with the Laborers demonizing environmentalists over opposing the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, for instance.
Until we understand how a invigorated EPA is great for the American working class and fight for that, employers will continue succeeding in their campaign against both workers and greens by splitting them against each other.
I drew a bit of this post from Out of Sight, which amazingly made back its advance recently.
This is the 247th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.