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Labor and the Environmental Justice Movement: Why Their Shared History Matters Today

The recent pipeline battle at Standing Rock, and the lead poisoning disaster in Flint, have once again thrust issues of environmental justice and environmental racism into the mainstream media spotlight (however briefly). In the aftermath of Trump’s election, casual observers might be forgiven for assuming that labor unions and environmental justice activists at Standing Rock and Flint have conflicting interests. Last month, in a familiar public relations tactic, President Trump surrounded himself with coal miners while signing an executive order to dismantle Obama’s Clean Power Plan. AFL-CIO leaders have supported the Dakota Access Pipeline, and criticized the Standing Rock protesters, largely due to pressure from building trades unions. However, numerous unions have opposed the pipeline and supported the protests, including the Communication Workers of America, the United Electrical Workers, the Amalgamated Transit Union, National Nurses United, and the Labor Coalition for Community Action. Similarly, dozens of labor unions have aided Flint residents with water filter and faucet installations and low-cost loans to replace lead pipes.

Alliances between organized labor and environmental justice activists are not new. Numerous scholars (including Elizabeth Blum, Andrew Hurley, Trish Kahle, Erik Loomis, Linda Nash, Lisa Sun-Hee Park, David Pellow, Laura Pulido, Dorceta Taylor, and Sylvia Hood Washington) have demonstrated that workers and unions played a significant role in local environmental justice struggles after World War II. As I showed in my 2014 Journal of American History article “Environmental Justice at Work: The UAW, the War on Cancer, and the Right to Equal Protection from Toxic Hazards in Postwar America,” automobile workers were no exception. In the 1960s and 1970s, African American workers protested “smog and polluted air” in Detroit factories, and demanded union representation “in the areas of ecology and air pollution” (to quote Eldon Gear & Axle worker Jordan Sims). Members of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers accused automakers of disproportionately sickening and killing African Americans segregated in the most dangerous jobs. As early as 1970, members of Ralph Nader’s Health Research Group (who had close ties to UAW health and safety activist Franklin Wallick) used the phrase “environmental justice” to refer to workers’ rights under OSHA. The Working for Environmental and Economic Justice and Jobs conference, held at the UAW’s Black Lake conference center in 1976, helped popularize the concept, and forged new links between the labor, civil rights, feminist, and environmental movements. Whether we focus on the history of the phrase itself, or simply on environmental inequities in the past, workers are clearly integral to the history of the environmental justice movement.

However, it is not difficult to see why early scholars of the movement focused on community-based struggles, often ignoring unions. In the three years leading up to the mass protests against PCB dumping in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982, a third of steel and auto workers in the United States lost their jobs in a brutal wave of plant closures. In many communities, the combination of rising unemployment, and the Reagan administration’s union-busting and deregulation, undermined the labor-environmental coalitions of the 1970s. Still, as Timothy Minchin’s study of the 1984 BASF lockout shows, such coalitions persisted, including in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley” Chemical Corridor (a focal point of environmental justice organizing). Moreover, as I show in my article, UAW activists in Michigan and Ohio continued fighting toxic chemical exposures among factory workers in the 1980s and 1990s. Like community-based environmental justice activists, they used popular epidemiology to collect evidence of disproportionate disease rates (in this case, cancer). They demanded joint company-union Proportional Mortality Ratio studies, and stronger protections from carcinogens in union contracts. The activism of groups like Lordstown Workers Against Toxic Chemical Hazards and Cancer Watch Group in Ypsilanti (often led by women and African Americans) belies the common stereotype that blue-collar workers prioritized “jobs” over “the environment,” as if the two could be neatly compartmentalized.

Two days after his inauguration in 1981, President Reagan announced the creation of the Presidential Task Force on Regulatory Relief. In his remarks, Reagan claimed that government regulations “impose an enormous burden on large and small businesses in America, discourage productivity, and contribute substantially to our current economic woes.” Reagan proceeded to cut the EPA’s budget by 12% and OSHA’s budget by 9%, and installed a construction executive and multiple OSHA fine recipient (Thorne Auchter) as the director of OSHA. Under Reagan, OSHA rule-making ground to a halt, and the agency’s staff fell by 22%. While President Clinton increased OSHA’s budget in 1994-1995, OSHA inspections fell to a historic low in his second term, as Congressional Republicans used their majority to defund the agency. Then, between 2001 and 2008, George W. Bush cut the EPA’s budget by 25%, and OSHA’s staff by 10%. Both in inspections and rule-making, Bush’s OSHA was (to quote the Washington Post) “mired in inaction.” Under Obama, progress at OSHA and the EPA proceeded largely by executive order, as Republicans and conservative Democrats in Congress blocked new emissions and workplace safety standards.

It is not surprising, then, that the Trump administration has proposed to cut the EPA’s budget by 31%, and the Department of Labor’s budget by over 20%, and to delay OSHA standards for silica and other hazards. Trump, whose companies have often violated OSHA standards, recently signed a resolution repealing an Obama-era OSHA rule requiring employers to record work-related injuries and illnesses. Trump has also promised that reducing “job-killing regulations” will benefit workers in manufacturing and extractive industries.

However, the historical record is clear: deregulation did not solve the “economic woes” of Rust Belt cities or Appalachian mining towns. Even as EPA and OSHA cuts increased pollution and related health problems in these and similar communities (disproportionately among people of color, but also among working-class whites), automation and capital flight continued to decrease job opportunities. Although Trump’s policies will further cut costs for corporations, they will threaten the safety of workers, including a significant share of Trump voters. As Jacqueline Patterson of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program has observed, the coal industry (to name one glaring example) is “harmful not only to the communities that are host to coal-fired power plants, but also to the very workers whose jobs President Trump purports to save, including the fact that 76,000 coal miners have died of black lung disease since 1968.”

For the past 40 years, the dichotomy between “jobs and the environment” has provided an ostensibly populist rationale for dismantling the regulatory state. Historians have an important role to play in challenging the simplistic assumptions that underlie this dichotomy. If workers’ survival depends on jobs, it also frequently depends on EPA and OSHA protections. Moreover, some workers have loved ones who suffer from asthma, lead poisoning, or environmental cancers, and all live in communities that will suffer the consequences of anthropogenic climate change in the twenty-first century. The indivisibility of these problems, in real human lives, explains why union members have participated in struggles for environmental justice from the Deep South to California’s Central Valley, and from Appalachia to Standing Rock and Flint. It is only by ignoring this history that pitting jobs against the environment can seem plausible.

Josiah Rector teaches history at Wayne State University, where he completed a Ph.D. in December 2016, with a dissertation entitled “Accumulating Risk: Environmental Justice and the History of Capitalism in Detroit, 1880-2015.” His research focuses on the history of the environmental justice movement, labor history, and urban history.