Organized Labor & Environmentalists Need Each Other

Separately, we lose. United, we are unstoppable.

Climate protection is the nexus that can bind the current prevailing social justice movements together. Corporate America is an invasive injury to our ecological/environmental balance and to the working class. Organized labor and the environmental justice movement share more in values than is generally acknowledged and as we face the challenges of global climate change, an ongoing permanent relationship between the two is necessary for the common good.

Unions owe a duty to their members to advocate for better wages, working conditions, and job security. As organized labor, we must also recognize the importance of a healthy environment. THERE ARE NO GOOD JOBS ON A DEAD PLANET.

Despite efforts to separate us, there is a history we can build upon. The AFL-CIO (the largest federation of unions in the U.S.) was critical in advancing anti-pollution and conservation efforts, long before the term “environmentalism” became a catchphrase. George D. Riley, AFL-CIO legislative representative, argued before the 1958 U.S. Congress that a bill to create a National Wilderness Preservation System would benefit the American people much more than commercial exploitation by a greedy few.

Andrew J. BIemiller, AFL-CIO director of legislation, years later stated before the U.S. Congress that they had “a vital interest in protecting the purity of the air around us, just as they have an interest in protecting the uipurity of America’s water supply.”

Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1963, and the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964.

In the following decade, however, “Corporate America” began an attack on organized labor that started with the Powell Memorandum. In it, Lewis Powell, a former corporate lawyer and future supreme court justice, stated, “it is essential that spokesmen for the enterprise system—at all levels and at every opportunity—be far more aggressive than in the past. There should not be the slightest hesitation to press vigorously in all political arenas for support of the enterprise system. Nor should there be reluctance to penalize politically those who oppose it.”

As the 1970s gave way to a corporate offensive and attack on labor, unions retreated inward, focusing on their members and immediate needs of wages and job security. As a result, the decade witnessed the formation of the modern environmental movement.

The anti-nuclear movement was at its peak in the 1970s, and a litany of federal legislation can be found that passed and established guidelines for drinking water, air quality, and liability for pollutants.

Despite these similar nascent beginnings and victories, neither movement has fully embraced the other—allowing Corporate America to flourish in the face of any regulation.

The recessions only put greater pressure on workers to make a living while the union-busting and anti-environmentalism of the Reagan administration put both movements on the defensive.

What we have seen in decades since, however, is all but a cohesive social justice movement. The 1999 World Trade Organization protests—look up Teamsters and Turtles—or the 2017 People’s Climate March are the most recent examples of organized labor and the environmental justice movement coming together. However, those events are simply too far apart given the condition of our planet’s climate and the experiences of our working class people.

The solution to the problems of justice for workers and their environment is not one of being loud and intractable with demands. Rather, it is about collaboratively defining our goals in each other’s movements.

Labor demands living wages and growth in jobs in secure industries; meanwhile, the environmental justice movement demands climate protection—less reliance on carbon fuel—access to healthy food and sustainable housing. In both there are demands for equity, security, and sustainability.

Stated simply, social justice means a higher standard of living.

At stake is the health and safety of every person in this country. Adequate far-sighted motion could protect the U.S. Climate change is a threat, and so are the day-to-day realities faced by the impoverished working class. The lower classes are also the ones that will likely suffer the most from climate effects. The term “climate justice” is a newer term that combines the principles of social justice with the specific challenges and inequity of climate change.

We will survive and prosper only if we look out for one another. In my world, we call that solidarity. It is the understanding that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” It is recognizing that environmental justice is as essential as economic justice. I invite environmentalists to consider the importance of social justice in all activism and advocacy efforts.

Separately, we will lose. United, we are unstoppable.