By Caroline Griffith
Divide and conquer is a strategy often used by the ruling class to stay in power. From the creation of a racialized slave-class designed to keep indentured Europeans from uniting with African slaves following Bacon’s Rebellion in 1675, to the modern Conservative talking point about working-class migrants stealing jobs from working-class Americans, this tactic has been used time and again to keep the majority in competition with each other while a small minority benefits.
One way this manifests is the Environment vs. Jobs argument. Though environmentalists are often accused of being anti-business and pitted against working people (generally by industries looking to shirk their environmental responsibility), there are many historical connections between the environmental and labor community. In fact, labor unions like the United Auto Workers (UAW) were some of the biggest supporters of the first Earth Day, recognizing that a healthy environment leads to a healthy economy and that the forces that exploit workers also exploit the environment.
Labor leaders have also recognized that their members and workers are on the front lines of pollution; Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) organized around pesticide exposure by farm workers. In 1971, a coalition of environmental and labor groups fought to protect the Clean Air Act against deregulation efforts by industry.
This relationship has re-emerged with the Earth Day to May Day movement which seeks collaborative action between workers and environmental and climate activists from Earth Day to May Day, or International Workers Day. Both holidays arose from people taking to the streets to fight industries that saw workers and working class people as expendable in the name of profit. Both are celebrated widely among their respective movements, and the direct-actions associated with them continue to engage activists and influence policy.
Though COVID-19 continues to make it hard for us to take to the streets together, there are still opportunities to practice labor/environmental solidarity. Locally, we can work to form coalitions with workers and labor groups before contentious projects arise. We can also support local labor organizing, like the California Faculty Association’s (CFA) efforts to fight the corporate takeover of HSU, United Food and Commercial Workers’ (UFCW) organizing of cannabis workers, and the California Nurses Association (CNA) and National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) in their ongoing struggles to keep our hospitals adequately staffed and keep those staff safe. Collectively we can compel corporations to follow practices that protect workers and the environment, and make sure that workers have a seat at the table. A recent poll by the think tank YouGov Blue found that 62% of union members polled favored the Green New Deal. The workers understand that a healthy environment means a healthy economy. It’s the CEO’s and the shareholders who don’t want to change.