Labor-Environmental Conflict

The history of labor-environmental conflict

Despite the broad areas of common interest between the labor and environmental movements, they often find themselves in conflict over specific issues. Unions have a responsibility to protect the jobs of their members, and the labor movement has a long tradition of providing solidarity with workers in other unions whose interests are threatened. Environmental organizations, conversely, have as their primary responsibility protecting particular aspects of the environment, and they are often determined to do so even if other social groups oppose them.


Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station

The result has sometimes been highly publicized conflict over specific regulations and projects. When anti-nuclear activists opposed the building of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant (later the scene of a serious nuclear accident), a local union distributed a bumper sticker reading “Hungry and Out of Work? Eat an environmentalist!” The interest of workers in protecting their jobs is often used by employers to achieve their own policy objectives; workers are often presented as the public face of opposition to environmental protection. For example, in the 1990s a highly publicized conflict developed over use of the Endangered Species Act to halt logging in the Pacific Northwest. While proper regulation of logging might well have extended logging employment in the long run, the logging companies held meetings on paid work time to train workers to oppose the regulations and the Bush administration encouraged the conflict for its political advantage.

The book Fear at Work: Job Blackmail, Labor and the Environment by Richard Kazis and Richard L. Grossman made the case that ever since the establishment of environmental and workplace protections in the early 1970s, private employers have resisted further curbs on corporate conduct by threatening job destruction. The refrain has been that environmental standards, and to some extent occupational safety and health standards, wipe out existing jobs and make new ones impossible. Fear at Work showed in detail the use of this job blackmail to split trade unionists from environmentalists, making unnatural enemies of those who should be allies. While many studies indicate that in aggregate environmental protection is good for jobs and for the economy as a whole, such specific examples often help those who are opposed to both workers and environmental protection to frame such situations as “jobs versus the environment.”

Such conflict has arisen around nuclear energy; coal mining; “smart growth” restrictions on development; and many more projects locally, regionally and nationally. Both environmental and labor groups are often divided internally on such issues. For example, many environmental groups joined with labor in opposing NAFTA, but others supported it. The Steelworkers union supported the Kyoto Protocol on global warming while the Mineworkers and others opposed it and eventually persuaded the AFL-CIO to do so as well. While the AFL-CIO has come to recognize the reality of climate change and to support policies to expand green jobs, it has also lobbied against incorporating the targets and timelines recommended by climate scientists in international agreements.

Sometimes such conflicts can be reconciled. When environmentalists urged restrictions on high-sulfur coal that was causing acid rain, the Mineworkers union opposed their proposals and even insisted that the labor-environmental OSHA-Environmental Network be shut down. But in 1988 the Mineworkers negotiated an acid rain compromise agreement with Senator George Mitchell of Maine – later torpedoed by the utility industry.

A broader philosophic division often occurs around the question of economic growth. Historically, unions have supported economic growth both as a means to full employment, a way to provide a better life for all, and as an aspect of human progress. Environmentalists are often acutely aware, however, of the negative consequences of economic growth in the pollution of air, water, and land, the harm to human health, and the threat to the earth’s climate. A beginning at reconciling this division has been made with proposals for massive job creation through investment in the transition to a low-carbon economy.