Labor and Environmental Movements

Raven E. Marshall, EcoNews Intern

Perhaps unsurprisingly a lot of overlap exists within differing social justice movements, but the ways some intersect and support the other are not always so obvious. The ​​labor rights movement has long intertwined with the environmental movement, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that the celebration of Cesar Chavez Day and Earth Day follow each other. These holidays give reason to remember the actions behind the movements that helped to achieve many of the rights and protections we have today. Understanding how these movements overlap can be one way to engage current and future movements in more intersectional ways. 

Ed Mata, Potawot Community Food Garden’s Garden Specialist, describes working in produce fields in the 60s in the San Joaquin Valley. Mata remembers getting to know the families he worked with at the farms and seeing young children running around. He describes the experience of seeing crop duster planes fly overhead and spray while the workers shouted and covered their heads with scarfs. “I didn’t live it everyday like they did. I was out there when we were being sprayed but I was fortunate enough to leave,” he said.

Mata would later describe seeing the effects of workers being sprayed with chemicals by seeing adults and children getting sick and a rise in birth defects. Though Mata doesn’t describe himself as an activist of the labor rights movement he says he was a part of the support behind it. Being familiar with the pittance that farm workers were paid, it was hard to see how people could support their families. Through many years of organizing, the labor rights movement would amp up in the mid to late 60s and prove successful in improving the rights, working conditions, and pay for farmworkers.

John Frahm is Director for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5, and president of the Humboldt and Del Norte Central Labor Council, a union organization that represents 20 unions and over 5,000 workers in the Humboldt County area. Unions are made up of workers who come together to create a collective voice and empower each other and are an important counterbalance to capitalist systems as they prioritize putting resources into the community. Frahm has worked with unions for over 20 years locally and has seen a dramatic increase in union organizing due to a variety of factors.

 Locally, unions sit in on meetings for various proposed community projects as a way to ensure that all workers a part of the project are being represented fairly. This holistic approach to advocacy for workers in the community can be seen as a silent deed gone unnoticed but is one way that unions support the community. “When we all do better, we all do better and that’s the power of collective action” says Frahm. 

Expanding on how the pandemic brought forth a surge in new technology, mostly food delivery services, Frahm sees this as a push for selling convenience by big tech companies fueling a “need it now” philosophy. It’s this idea of convenience that is creating unrealistic demands on workers and the environment, both of which are suffering at this expense to keep up. Better labor rights for workers are contingent on better environmental protections. 

One way to slow down the capitalist machine is to resist this push for convenience. People who live in urban areas could learn from the lifestyles of folks living rurally such as planning ahead to get everything you may need when making trips to the grocery store.