Climate Change and the American Working Class: Historical Perspectives of a Changing Environment

Solicited by the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA). Endorsed by the OAH Committee on National Park Service Collaboration

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Environment; Labor and Working-Class


As an ongoing historical event, the climate crisis has deep roots and contested origins. Workplaces and their politics, although long recognized as a site of environment-making, have been under-examined as we try to historicize our present. This panel looks at the history of key industries—oil, coal, and timber—to deepen our understanding of the relationship between work, class, and climate change. We consider how working-class people who labor in environmentally destructive industries are very often the first to feel the effects of these industries. Sarah Stanford McIntyre examines how a leaking natural gas pipeline in West Texas divided small, mixed-race ranching communities, with the families of victims pitted against a coalition of state and oil industry leaders working to cover up the incident. Trish Kahle discusses a short-lived but important flourishing of labor environmentalism, when union coal miners reimagined the future of their work as tied to demands for ecological viability and occupational safety in one of the deadliest and dirtiest industries. David “Mac” Marquis looks to the southern timber industry of the early twentieth century to illuminate how deforestation played a significant role the Great Migration. These papers show how the role of industries at the center of the climate crisis have long been sites of upheaval and contestation that reshaped environmental, energy, and climate politics in the United States. The panel ties these working-class histories to contemporary debates over environmental migration, transitions to cleaner and safer industries, and environmental justice.

Papers Presented

“Ole Sawmill has Cut All that Timber”: Deforestation and the Great Migration

At the dawn of the twentieth century timber was one of the pillars of the southern economy. The decline in production of timber from the Great Lakes, the opening up of millions of acres of land at rock bottom prices, and the construction of railroads coincided to make the South the nation’s leading timber producing region. Within just thirty years tens of millions of acres of old growth forest was cut at breakneck speed, destroying a massive carbon sink and forever changing the landscape. But it was not just the physical landscape that was changed. The increased production of southern sawmills required workers. The towns that sawmill owners created were the first step in the Great Migration for many rural southerners. Once a part of the sawmill world, workers moved with considerable frequency between sawmills and towns. But the industry reached its peak before World War One, limiting the opportunity for internal sawmill migrants to control the conditions of their labor. The stagnation and ultimate decline of the sawmill industry coupled with the pull of economic and social opportunity led to many migrants leaving the South. This paper demonstrates that deforestation was one of the factors pushing migrants out of the South.

Presented By
David J. Marquis, College of William & Mary

Cattle, Oil, and the Politics of Environmental Risk in Twentieth-Century West Texas

In the late 1970s, West Texas was rocked by a rash of seemingly inexplicable asphyxiation deaths. After a state investigation, these deaths were determined to be the result of hydrogen sulfide gas exposure - a waste product from oil wells known to kill within a few minutes of contact. An experimental natural gas pipeline, funded by Phillips Petroleum, was deemed the culprit. Almost immediately, West Texas’s network of small, mixed-race ranching communities was divided by a vocal debate, with the families of victims pitted against a coalition of state and oil industry leaders working to cover up the incident. In this paper I use this tragic case study to demonstrate how West Texas’s environmental history was influenced by regional political economy. After World War II, the West Texas Permian Basin became the heart of American on-shore oil drilling operations. West Texas ranchers used oil money and oil technology as political tools and were pivotal to promoting legislative faith in the power of private technology and infrastructure to solve environmental contamination and resource depletion. This helped spark a right-wing resurgence after 1970 but it also had stark public health consequences for people in West Texas. Ultimately, this paper provides a case study in a broader environmental history for the New Right, arguing that the West Texas oil industry was crucial to state and national political trends.

Presented By
Sarah Stanford-McIntyre, University of Colorado Boulder

Jobs, Lives, and Land: Coal Miners and Just Transition in Historical Perspective

Coal miners are the emblematic figures of just transition narratives, reflecting our contemporary understanding that there is no future of a coal-powered planet. At best, coal miners are positioned as objects of climate policy, at worst, they are its antagonists. But contemporary debates about just transition have often failed to incorporate a historical understanding of the relationship between labor and environmental politics in the coalfields, which has in fact been much more complex. Between 1968 and 1972, a short-lived but important flourishing of labor environmentalism in the United Mine Workers of America tied support for water protections and opposition to surface mining to democratic practices inside the union and the mining workplace. These connections were strengthened by a pair of Appalachian coalfield disasters which were experienced both as workplace and environmental events: the 1970 Hyden disaster which killed 38 miners and the catastrophic failure of the impoundment dam at Buffalo Creek which killed 114 as it unleashed 132 million gallons of coal slurry on a West Virginia valley. During this period, efforts to democratize the UMW opened also reshaped the union’s role in regional politics and the relationship of the union with environmental organizations. This paper argues that by looking to this earlier moment when coal miners reimagined the future of their work and union as tied to demands for ecological viability and occupational safety, we can better understand the centrality of worker agency and workplace democracy—including in the deadliest and dirtiest industries—in building a just transition.

Presented By
Trish Kahle, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University Qatar

Session Participants

Chair: Jason Hauser, Auburn University
Jason Hauser received his Ph.D. from Mississippi State University, where he studied climate history and the history of climate science. His current manuscript project is based on his dissertation, By Degree: A History of Heat in the Subtropical American South, which won the Southern Historical Association's C. Vann Woodward Award for best dissertation in southern history. He currently serrves as the book reviews editor for Environmental History and is a visiting instructor at Auburn University.

Presenter: Trish Kahle, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University Qatar
Trish Kahle is historian of energy, work, and politics. Currently, she is a postdoctoral Social Sciences Teaching Fellow in the Department of History and the College at the University of Chicago. Beginning in August 2020, she will join the faculty of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University Qatar as assistant professor of American Studies. Her work has appeared in Labor and the Journal of Energy History, and her book project, Graveyard Shift: Energy Citizenship in the American Century, examines the importance of the coal mining workplace to changing conceptions of national belonging in the post-1945 United States.

Presenter: David J. Marquis, College of William & Mary
David Mac Marquis is a fifth-year PhD candidate (ABD) in the Lyon G. Tyler Department of History at the College of William & Mary. Mac is an editorial assistant at the journal, LABOR: Studies In Working Class History and board member of the Southern Labor Studies Association. His focus during graduate school has been on working class experiences in the Southern timber industry during Jim Crow. Mac’s dissertation, tentatively titled, “Clear-cut Blues: Violence, Working-Class Activism, Culture, and Labor in the Jim Crow Piney Woods” is being chaired by Cindy Hahamovitch.

Commentator: Brian McCammack, Lake Forest College
Brian McCammack is the author of Landscapes of Hope: Nature and the Great Migration in Chicago (Harvard University Press, 2017), which in 2018 was awarded the Organization of American Historians’ Frederick Jackson Turner Award, the American Society for Environmental History’s George Perkins Marsh Prize, and the Foundation for Landscape Studies’ John Brinckerhoff Jackson Book Prize. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University’s History of American Civilization Program, and he teaches at Lake Forest College, where he is Beerly Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Chair of American Studies. He is currently working on a book that examines the origins of the environmental justice movement

Presenter: Sarah Stanford-McIntyre, University of Colorado Boulder
Sarah Stanford-McIntyre is an Assistant Professor in the Herbst Program for Engineering, Ethics & Society at the University of Colorado Boulder. She received her PhD in 2017 from William & Mary. She is editor of the forthcoming edited volume, American Energy Cinema. She has published in multiple edited volumes and has work forthcoming in the journals Technology and Culture and Journal of Energy History. She taught previously at the University of Wyoming.