On December 6, 1970, the Calumet Community Congress met for the first time. This movement to fight pollution in Gary, Indiana was one of many forms of working class environmentalism that developed in the 1960s and 1970s.
Gary, Indiana had horrible pollution problems in 1970. This isn’t surprising. It was a steel town and steel towns poured pollution into the air, water, and soil every single day. The entire idea of pollution control was still new for corporations and they didn’t like it. The thing about pollution is that it is a deeply working class issue. That’s because they are the ones who breathe and drink it in. They are the ones who get the weird cancers and have children with birth defects. The managers and owners can live in the suburbs, far away from the factories. But not only do the workers have to labor in such dangerous conditions, they also have to live in them because the only housing they could afford was near the plant. The steel industry was notorious for having the most noxious possible conditions, as the survivors of the Donora Smog in 1948 had discovered, as if they didn’t already know it.
The Calumet Community Congress was one of many efforts in steel towns to adopt the new language of environmentalism to clean up the cities. It was also the most important. It was the brainchild of a Mexican-American steelworker named Jim Wright. That he was Mexican-American shouldn’t surprise us. His father was one of the first generation of Mexicans who came to the greater Chicago area to work in the mills, the first large Mexican immigrant population outside of the Southwest. Wright looked around and was frustrated by the pessimism Gary’s working class felt about the conditions in which they lived. It was just an aura of inevitability and so why bother fighting to change social problems. Even more, with white workers blaming their problems on civil rights instead of the capitalist system that created their hard lives, the chances for meaningful organization seemed even more remote.
Wright felt this attitude was unacceptable. He also was angry at United Steelworkers of America leadership for its lack of leadership on the social problems of steel cities. Wright soon discovered that there were others like him in steel and other industrial towns from Pittsburgh to Newark trying to organize their communities. Wright learned how they were also trying to build cross-racial solidarity movements using the idea of “ethnic power” rather than “Black power” per se. Soon, Wright had others in Gary working with him on a militant effort to clean up the city and solve other social problems. Other leaders included George Patterson, an older man who had been part of the initial Steel Workers Organizing Committee campaigns and was at the Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago in 1937. Ken Tucker was a local union leader who had seized control over his local and led the DuPont workers at his plant out on strike over pollution.
They were able to make alliances with non-union actors as well, especially environmentalists from state and national organizations. Local churches got on board and so did community organizations. Pollution was the one thing that Wright believed he could rally Gary workers around. People complained a lot about everything from sewage to the dumping of industrial waste to the lack of access to fishing. Soon after the Congress’ first convention, major political leaders such as Ed Muskie and Ted Kennedy send messages of support. Ralph Nader’s key aide Joseph Esposito gave the keynote at the first Congress, lambasting U.S. Steel’s pollution record, which led the head of the Gary Works to publicly call Esposito a communist.
The Congress soon became a major force in Gary fighting for environmental equity. It worked with other community groups seeking access to U.S. Steel owned land for fishing. It took on other polluters for dumping overheated water into Lake Michigan and it led a successful effort to stop the local utility company from raising rates in 1972. All of this made mainstream labor nervous. USWA leadership kept its distance while not outright opposing it. But it worked behind the scene to undermine the group and created rifts over its militant direct-action tactics. This worked. By 1973, a lot of the church and community groups had left, concerned over the tactics and the direct attack on industry. Moreover, the group split entirely later that year after one of the founders took 180 members out over the attacks on industry. Soon, neither group existed and the movement was dead.
So this isn’t necessarily a huge success story. But it does demonstrate the real anger over pollution and other environmental issues among working class people in the 1970s. It goes far to show that the idea of labor and environmentalists being inherently opposed is a false construction. It also demonstrated some brilliant organizing, reviving the old era of labor militancy at a time when the working class was increasingly divided over race and in an era of fat and happy union leadership that had eschewed the militancy of the past. It was true that in the end, most of the people involved in the Congress were white and that Black workers now made up the majority of the population in Gary. So there were limitations there. Of course there were. That’s not surprising nor can we fault anyone for this. It was a grassroots organization struggling to get off the ground. Black workers had their own relationship to Gary’s environment and worked on it in different ways, which we will get to later in this series. But in some ways, this leads us to another lesson here, which is that it is indeed possible to channel white ethnic working class anger in ways that are not destructive or racist or fascist.
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