Labor-Environmental Cooperation

The history of labor-environmental cooperation

The labor movement’s involvement with industrial pollution by toxic substances inside of workplaces inevitably led to concern with the effect of industrial processes outside the workplace. A critical example:


Donora, Pa., shortly after the smog episode of 1948 (U.S. Public Health Service photo).

On Halloween night, 1948 in Donora, Pennsylvania, fluoride released by plants of the US Steel Corporation caused a toxic cloud that killed twenty and left hundreds more sick or dying. The “Donora death fog” led the recently formed United Steelworkers Union to recognize the close connection between health and safety issues in the plant and environmental issues in surrounding communities. The union became a strong supporter of environmental protection, regarding it as an extension of the union’s responsibility for its members’ health and safety. In 1963 the Steelworkers supported the very first Federal Clean Air Act and in 1990 it stated that global warming “may be the single greatest problem we face.” Workers and environmentalists joined together in many states, such as Pennsylvania and New Jersey, to fight for the right of workers and communities to have the right to know the relevant information about toxic substances used in industry – leading to passage of national right-to-know protections by both OSHA and the EPA.

Labor has also supported conservation efforts, in part because many workers have long been active participants in outdoor activities like hunting and fishing. For example, 1958 the AFL-CIO joined with conservationists to support the establishment of the National Wilderness Preservation System. The AFL-CIO launched a national Union Sportsmen Alliance in 2007 to work for wildlife habitat protections while guaranteeing access for hunters and anglers.

Over the later decades of the 20th century as “sustainable development” emerged as a concept to unite social, economic, and environmental concerns, unions in the US and around the world developed their own version of a vision for sustainable development that integrated the needs of environment and working people. As the 1992 World Congress of the International Confederation of Trade Unions, then the dominant global union federation, put it, “in a world of finite resources there must be a reconciliation between growth and environmental protection.” Sustainable development demanded “the creation and maintenance of socially useful, individually fulfilling and environmentally sound employment.” This concern went beyond economics and environment to “broader social issues” such as “the struggle for human rights, equity and social justice.”

Unions and environmentalists have often worked together to fight corporate enemies of labor and the environment. For example, in 1973 the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers union, largely as a result of the pioneering work of labor-environmental activist Tony Mazzocchi, struck the notorious polluter Shell Oil at five refineries demanding a national health and safety agreement that also would have significantly reduced the dangers of environmental contamination through poor plant practices. The Sierra Club and 11 other national environmental organizations supported the strike, stating, “We have increasingly come to recognize that working people are among the hardest hit by the hazards of pollution in the workplace. We support the efforts of the OCAW in demanding a better environment, not just for its own workers, but for all Americans.” Al Grospiron, president of the OCAW, said “Organized Labor must emphatically support environmental cleanup efforts and must never get into the position of opposing such efforts on the grounds of economic hardship. . . Our position must be that nearly all polluting facilities can be corrected without hardships to the workers and that in those few cases where corrections are not possible new job opportunities or compensation must be provided for the workers.”


Denis Hayes, taken while director of the Solar Energy Research Institute (1979-1981)

Unions like the United Auto Workers and the State, County, and Municipal Workers (AFSCME) helped initiate Earth Day. Organizer of the first Earth Day Dennis Hayes recalls, “The UAW was by far the largest contributor to the first Earth Day, and its support went beyond the merely financial. It printed and mailed all our materials at its expense — even those critical of pollution-belching cars. And, of course, Walter [Reuther] then endorsed the Clear Air Act that the Big Four (auto companies) were doing their damnedest to kill or gut.”

In 1975, a group called Environmentalists for Full Employment organized to challenge fears that environmental protection would lead to job loss by promoting new jobs. In 1979, unions and environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth formed the OSHA Environmental Network with active coalitions in 22 states. It helped pass legislation that gave both workers and communities a right to know about toxic substances being used in workplaces. Both the OSHA-Environmental Network and Environmentalists for Full Employment were initiated by and housed in the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO, the post-merger successor to the CIO.

In 1999 the labor movement and many (though not all) environmental organizations jointly demanded protection of workers and the environment in any international trade agreement and joined together to protest the founding WTO meeting in Seattle. When young environmentalists, some wearing turtle costumes to represent threatened species, arrived at the mass rallies and demonstrations of over 40,000 people, the slogan rapidly spread, “Turtles and teamsters, together at last!” The ensuing “Battle of Seattle” shut down the global summit called to establish the World Trade Organization.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Seattle labor and environmental organizations organized a major meeting to launch further cooperation. The meeting was scheduled for September 11, 2001; it was canceled because of the terrorist attacks. Two new labor-environmental alliances sprang up to continue the collaboration. The Apollo Alliance, which brought together labor, environmental, and some business groups to promote massive investment in a clean energy economy, was founded in 2003.  The Blue-Green Alliance was founded in 2006 by the Sierra Club and the Steelworkers union to fight for “green jobs;” it has subsequently been joined by a number of other unions and environmental groups. In 2012 Apollo merged into BGA. Meanwhile, an environmental justice movement also emerged to fight for poor and minority groups whose communities have been made dumping grounds for pollution.

Today, “environmentalism” is broadening into a movement that calls for social and economic as well as environmental sustainability. The Earth Day Network, which coordinates Earth Day worldwide, includes among its goals to “broaden the meaning of ‘environment.’” It is committed to “expanding the definition of “environment” to include all issues that affect our health, our communities and our environment, such as air and water pollution, climate change, toxic contamination, green schools and environmental curriculum, access to green jobs, renewable energy, and a new green economy.” Such a sustainability movement is a natural ally for organized labor in its efforts to challenge an economy currently driven by corporate greed.