Brief Timeline for Labor and Environmental History

1886 AFL founded

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) was founded in Columbus, OH in May 1886 by an alliance of craft unions. The AFL was the largest grouping of unions in the United States for the first half of the 20th century. Samuel Gompers of the Cigar Makers International Union was elected as its first President and was reelected every year except one until his death in 1924. The AFL organized workers along craft lines.

1892 Sierra Club founded

The Sierra Club is one of the oldest most influential environmental organizations in the United States. It was founded on May 28, 1892, in San Francisco, CA by the Scottish-born American conservationist and preservationist, John Muir, who became it’s first president.

1893 AFL President Sam Gompers Speech

AFL President Sam Gompers famous “What Does Labor Want” speech at an International Labor Congress meeting setting forth labor’s sustainability vision, although they did not call it that. Gomper’s called for “more schoolhouses and less jails, more books and less guns, more learning and less vice…” (see full quote in box on this page).

1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City on March 25, 1911 was one of the deadliest industrial disasters in US history. The fire caused the death of 146 garment workers – 123 women and 23 men. The owners had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits to prevent pilferage and unauthorized breaks, so the workers could not escape the burning building. The fire led to legislation requiring factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).

1936 CIO Founded

The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) began as the Committee for Industrial Organization within the AFL. The idea was first proposed by Mineworkers President John L Lewis in 1928. The committee was formed in 1935, and the unions belonging to the committee withdrew from the AFL in 1936 and formed the congress. The CIO organized workers along industrial lines, regardless of craft. This meant that everyone on the job site belonged to one union.

1948 Donora, PA disaster

The 1948 “Donora Smog” was a historic air inversion resulting in a wall of smog that killed 20 people and sickened 7,000 in Donora, PA, a mill town along the Monongahela River in western Pennsylvania. The toxic fog buildup started on October 27 and continued until it rained on October 31. The primary culprits were the hydrogen fluoride and sulfur dioxide from the US Steel’s Donora Zinc Works and its American Steel and Wire Plant. This event caused the United Steelworkers of America to begin to realize the connection between worker health and safety in the plant and the health and safety of the communities surrounding the plant.

1955 AFL-CIO founded

The AFL and the CIO after years of feuding and competing for jurisdiction merged to form the largest trade union federation in the United States. In order to preserve the different visions of trade unionism practiced by the AFL and the CIO, and to preserve autonomy, trade divisions were built in to the new constitution. For example, the Industrial Union Department (IUD) carried on the traditions and vision of the CIO while the Building and Construction Trades Department (BCTD) did the same for the craft unions.

1962 Silent Spring

Silent Spring is an environmental science book written by Rachel Carson and published by Houghton Mifflin on September 27, 1962.[1] The book documented the detrimental effects on the environment—particularly on birds—of the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Carson accused the chemical industry of spreading disinformation and public officials of accepting industry claims unquestioningly. This book is often credited with kick-starting the modern environmental movement.

1962 Walter Reuther’s Speech

Walter Reuther’s famous speech linking shop floor gains with broader social issues. Reuther made the point that what good is an extra week of vacation we might negotiate if the lake we take the kids to is polluted and they can’t swim in it? (see full quote in box on page…_)

1968 Joint International Housing Committee of the ICFTU and the IFBWW

Joint International Housing Committee of the ICFTU (Int’l Confederation of Free Trade Unions) and the IFBWW (Int’l Fed. of Building and Wood Workers) provided labor with the first focused documents on environmental problems. An important recognition of the common interests between labor and environment, this document connects the two movements and makes suggestions for a future in unison.

1970 First Earth Day

Organized with considerable labor support, Earth Day is an annual event, celebrated on April 22, on which day events worldwide are held to demonstrate support for environmental protection. It was first celebrated in 1970, and is now coordinated globally by the Earth Day Network,[1] and celebrated in more than 192 countries each year.[2] Founded by United States Senator Gaylord Nelson as a national environmental teach-in first held on April 22, 1970. Denis Hayes was the national coordinator, and 20 million Americans took to the streets to support a healthy environment. Nelson was later awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award in recognition of his work.

1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA)

Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) is enacted. OSHA is the primary federal law that governs occupational health and safety regulations in both the private sector as well as the federal government. The main purpose of OSHA is to ensure that employers meet standards that keep employees safe from health hazards and risk of injury on the job.

1970 Clean Air Act (CAA)

Congress passed the Clean Air Act (CAA) to protect public health and welfare nationwide. The Clean Air Act requires EPA to establish national ambient air quality standards for certain common and widespread pollutants based on the latest science. EPA has set air quality standards for six common "criteria pollutants": particulate matter (also known as particle pollution), ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead.

1970 Nation’s First Environmental Teach-In

UAW sponsors the nation’s first environmental teach-in at the University of Michigan, months before the first Earth Day. Beginning in 1969, students and teachers organized a teach in on environmental concerns with the intent of bringing awareness to the nation over growing environmental degradation. The group gained support from the UAW and eventually worked in unison with Senator Gaylord Nelson on earth day. Additionally, the UAW called for the replacement of the internal combustion engine “within the next five years."

1970 UAW and IAMAW Support and Help Pass Clean Air Act (CAA) Amendments

UAW, United Steelworkers and International Association of Machinists (IAMAW) support and help pass Clean Air Act (CAA) amendments. Following the 1948 event in Donora, Pennsylvania trade unionists began to realize that they had a particular interest in legislation that would help to protect the health of their members while on the job. By the 1970s this was becoming evident by their support of Earth Day, the CAA and the Clean Water Act (CWA).

1971 ICFTU’s first statement on the environment

ICFTU’s first statement on the environment: “Free Trade Unions and the Challenge of the Human Environment.” The statement centered on workplace health hazards and environmental risks, showing yet again the inseparable connection between labor and environment.

1971 ICFTU’s publication Free Labor World

ICFTU’s publication Free Labor World carries article critiquing consumer society as equally destructive of people and the environment. This statement admonished consumerism as propagating racial inequalities and unfair distribution of goods and hazardous byproducts of production.

1972 Clean Water Act (CWA)

Clean Water Act (CWA) passed with support from the UAW, United Steelworkers and IAMAW. The CWA was implemented to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation’s waterways by restricting pollution, providing assistance to public water treatment facilities, and maintaining the nations wetlands.

1972 Stockholm Conference on the Environment

Stockholm Conference on the Environment (global labor attends) – an important turning point for labor environmentalism. Recognizing the need for a common outlook to inspire and guide preservation, the UN set 7 proclamations and 26 principles on labor and environment. These focused on the ability of humanity, through labor, to transform the planet in potentially devastating ways. As a response, the proclamations and principles lay out a means by which environmental and labor justice may be achieved.

1972 ICFTU Congress

ICFTU Congress: Miners’ International Union Federation delegate argues that “the present crisis is indeed a forceful reminder of the anti-social and environmentally catastrophic effects inherent to policies of limitless economic growth…”

1972 First COSH

First COSH (Committee On Occupational Safety & Health) formed in Chicago – this turned into a movement around workplace health and safety. Over the next several years new COSH organizations in Philadelphia, New York City, North Carolina, Maine, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts were created. Initially funded under OSHA, these COSH groups began to create national networks that would eventually blossom into a national COSH.

1973 Shell Oil Strike

Shell Oil Strike and boycott of Shell products by Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) with support from major national environmental organizations. This was also the first national strike for health and safety contract protection by a trade union. Following picketing at Shell Oil refineries, a nationwide consumer boycott was initiated and joined by the Sierra Club and Environmental Action, the groups responsible for the first Earth day.

1975 EFFE Formed

Environmentalists for Full Employment (EFFE) formed due to the omission of environmentalists from the Full Employment Action Council, which was comprised of labor leaders and community leaders. The primary goal of the EFFE was to show that environmentalists and organized labor share common concerns and must work together to address such issues as occupational hazards, pollution, and clean energy. EFFE worked under the idea that environmentally friendly initiatives within companies would create more jobs for the unemployed. EFFE stopped operations in 1984 owing to a lack of support from labor.

1977 Clean Air Act Amendements Passed with Support of UMWA

Clean Air Act amendments passed with support of the United Mine Workers (UMWA). Amendments include provision on installing scrubbers in coal-burning power plants. The UMWA has been notoriously silent on environmental issues in the 20th and 21 century with the notable acceptation of their support for this amendment. These amendments primarily concerned regulations for the prevention of significant deterioration of air quality, something of direct concern to coal miners and UMWA members.

1978 ETUC

ETUC established working party on the environment and issued report on labor-environmental thinking – in advance of the ICFTU Congress. The focus of this report was the right of every worker to a safe and healthy working environment.

1979-1985 OSHA-Environmental Network

OSHA-Environmental Network (OEN) formed by the Industrial Union Department, AFL-CIO and began to organize state-level networks and advance right to know legislation, and build a stronger alliance between the labor and environmental movements. The OEN grew to having active networks working in 22 states before being dismantled over the acid-rain issue.

1983 First hazard Communication Standard

First hazard Communication Standard promulgated providing workers a right to know about chemical hazards on the job. These standards required unrestricted access by employees to company material safety data as well as proper training so that workers could understand health and safety risks.

1984 Bhopal, India Union Carbide Chemical plant explosion

Bhopal, India Union Carbide Chemical plant explosion amplifies the linkage between production and community well-being. Known as the world’s worst industrial disaster, over 500,000 people were exposed to methyl isocyanate gas. 2,259 persons died immediately, and the death toll would reach a low estimate of 8,000 with some reporting as many as 16,000 deaths. The severity of this disaster would lead to a stronger recognition of the need for labor environmentalism.

1986 New Jersey Work Environment Council (WEC) founded

New Jersey Work Environment Council (WEC) founded by leaders of NJ Industrial Union Council, AFL-CIO. WEC is the nation’s oldest labor and environment council and is a membership alliance of labor, environmentalists and community organizations working for job and environmental sustainability.

1986 Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA)

Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) passed. The purpose of the EPCRA is to encourage and support emergency planning efforts at the state and local levels and to provide the public and local governments with information concerning potential chemical hazards present in their communities.

1987 Brundtland Commission Report

Brundtland Commission Report, Our Common Future. World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), the Brundtland Commission's mission is to unite countries to pursue sustainable development together. ICFTU Executive Committee credits this report as the reference point for all work on environment and development. This commission coined the term “sustainability” and helped define it as both economic and environmental, thus popularizing “sustainable development” as a key organizing concept linking labor and environmental concerns.

1988 UN establishes Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

UN establishes Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose First Assessment Report rapidly established that global warming was real and probably caused at least in part by human release of greenhouse gasses. Labor’s participation started with one person representing the Industrial Union Department, AFL-CIO, and one person from the United Mine Workers of America and grew over the year to delegations of 30-40 people from a wide variety of unions.

1988 ICFTU’s Occupational Safety & Health Working Party adds “environment” to its name

ICFTU’s Occupational Safety & Health Working Party adds “environment” to its name. Concerned with the safety and welfare of employees the OSHWP saw the link between workplace environment and employee health and worked to enact the former to preserve the latter.

1989 CERES founded

CERES founded as the Valdez Principles, with labor support (Industrial Union Department, AFL-CIO). CERES is a non-profit sustainable advocacy group based in Boston, Massachusetts. Their goal is to inspire business leaders to construct a vibrant and sustainable global economy. 1992 Rio Earth Summit declaration, sec. 29, included “strengthening the role of workers and their trade unions” which recognized labor as a “major group.” The wording drafted by a small group of labor health and safety experts.

1992 Rio Earth Summit declaration

Rio Earth Summit declaration, sec. 29, included “strengthening the role of workers and their trade unions” which recognized labor as a “major group.” The wording drafted by a small group of labor health and safety experts.

1992 ICFTU devoted its 1992 World Congress to environmental issues

ICFTU devoted its 1992 World Congress to environmental issues, including demanding the use of Environmental Impact Assessments (which would include environmental costs in the price of production), and coordinating regional meetings on environmental issues.

1993 Tragic fire at Imperial Food Products in Hamlet, NC

Tragic fire at Imperial Food Products in Hamlet, NC; 25 workers killed

1996 Blue Green Working Group discussions

AFL-CIO, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists, and others initiate Blue Green Working Group discussions designed to define common ground between the labor and environmental movements. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney brought in Jane Perkins, former head of Friends of the Earth, and formerly with SEIU, to lead the project. Jane Perkins submitted this description (edited for length): “Mr. Sweeney asked me to survey member unions and various affiliates about issues and relationships and to report back to him. After more than one hundred interviews, I made a written report. A working group was formed from among the unions most interested in pursuing some sort of dialogue internally about relevant win/win issues that might then be taken up with environmental groups who’d be interested in talking about those issues, particularly in terms of job creation. Eventually the Blue-Green Working Group was formed. When that group met, the primary topic was narrowed to energy policy and jobs, producing a study on Just Transition.”

1997 UN process results in the “Kyoto Protocol.”

UN process results in the “Kyoto Protocol.” It provided “common but differentiated responsibilities” for developed and developing countries and prescribed binding ghg reduction targets of five percent below 1990 emission levels by 2010 for participating developed nations, but allowed them to exceed their targets by trading quotas with other countries or investing in ghg reduction in developing countries. The UNFCCC, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the COP, Conference of Parties, are the two primary vehicles for meeting and attempting to work out a global deal. For example, here’s a notice found on-line: “the 18th session of the Conference of Parties to the UNFCCC and the 8th session of the Conference of Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol will take place from Monday, 26 November to Friday, 7 December 2012 at the Qatar National Convention Center in Doha, Qatar.”

1997 AFL-CIO Blasts UN Kyoto Protocol

The AFL-CIO Blasts UN Kyoto Protocol. Seeing the treaty as one-sided in favor of environment, labor leaders saw it as a threat to jobs and opposed it. Fearing stricter environmental regulations would lead to further offshoring of production, union leadership called the President Clinton to seriously consider the economic effects of the treaty.

1998 Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment (ASJE)

Alliance for Sustainable Jobs and the Environment (ASJE): Created from the recognition that sustainable communities involve both the conservation of the natural world as well as nurturing the quality of human life. ASJE formed alliance to challenge the economic policies that are destroying good jobs and a healthy environment. ASJE was initially forged out of an unlikely bond over the unfair environmental and labor practices of the Maxxam Corporation.

1998 Global Reporting Initiative launched (by Ceres)

Ceres launches the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), a non profit organization geared towards full spectrum sustainability. The GRI created one of the world's most prevalent standards for sustainability reporting. This has been called ecological footprint reporting, environmental social governance reporting, triple bottom line reporting, and corporate social responsibility reporting. The GRI wants to make sustainability reporting by all organizations as standard as, and similar to, financial reporting.

1999 “Battle of Seattle” against WTO

“Battle of Seattle” – All of civil society (Labor, environmental, religious organizations, etc.) came together to protest the World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings scheduled for Seattle, WA at the Seattle Trade Center building on November 30, 1999 (N3099). The lowest estimates put the protesters numbers at around 40,000 (60,000 more accurate). The AFL-CIO and all affiliated unions played a huge role, working with the environmental movement, religious organizations, farm groups, among others. Anarchists were present as well, engaging in a form of direct action that went beyond rallies and demonstrations. N3099 represented a high water mark for labor and environmentalists working together in opposition to corporate trade agreements. “Teamsters and Turtles Together” was one of the most popular headlines.

2000: Ralph Nader “Green Party” Presidential candidacy

Ralph Nader “Green Party” Presidential candidacy credited by many in labor as costing Al Gore the elections. Note: authors disagree.

2000 Unions for Jobs and the Environment (UJAE) formed

Unions for Jobs and the Environment (UJAE) formed to provide a voice for union and worker concerns regarding the climate policy debate and other environmental matters. Editorial Note: UJAE led the charge against climate and environmental policies.

2001 September 11 attacks

: September 11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Towers, and the Pentagon. On that morning a group of leaders of environmental organizations were in the AFL-CIO building awaiting a meeting with AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to discuss ways to move forward and rebuild the relationships. That meeting was canceled and never rescheduled.

2002 Johannesburg World Summit

Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development takes place in Johannesburg, South Africa from August 22nd to September 4th. Convened by the United Nations, the summit was intended to discuss sustainable development world wide.

2002: Leaders of SEIU, USW, UNITE Joined With Major Environmental Groups

Leaders of SEIU, USW, UNITE joined with major environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists, and National Resources Defense Council, to endorse a study by economists James Barrett, recently with the Economic Policy Institute, and J. Andrew Hoerner of the Center for a Sustainable Economy. “We in the labor movement are not going to make a choice between good jobs and a safe environment, we’re for both.”

2003 Apollo Alliance founded

Apollo Alliance -- founded to advance energy independence and clean, more efficient energy alternatives. The Alliance brought together leaders from business and environmental organizations with over 30 labor unions. The goal of the alliance was to catalyze a clean energy revolution in America.

2004 National COSH recognized

National Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) forms with leadership and membership drawn from local COSH organizations; coordinates the Protecting Workers Alliance. The first COSH was formed in Chicago in 1972, followed over the next several years by new organizations in Philadelphia, New York City, North Carolina, Maine, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts. These first COSH groups were funded by small grants under OSHA. Eventually COSH groups began to grow and create national networks leading up to the creation of a national COSH.

2006 Blue-Green Alliance founded

Blue-Green Alliance founded by the Sierra Club and the United Steelworkers (USW). The alliance grew rapidly and eventually included four major environmental organizations, and ten labor organizations. The political nature of BGA's endeavor is reflected in the organization's name: "Blue" refers to labor; "Green" refers to environmentalism. The organization focuses on green jobs, clean energy, and worker rights.

2007 First-ever power structure analysis of the labor movement

First-ever power structure analysis of the labor movement through sustainability lens conducted by the Labor Network for Sustainability, which would be formally founded in 2009. This analysis consisted of a self-interest analysis, a decision maker analysis, and an analysis of how labor changes on big social issues, and now contains a labor-environmental history timeline as well. For more information on the Labor Landscape Analysis visit the LNS website at www.labor4sustainability.org.

2008 IBT Reversing Position on Drilling for Oil in Alaska and Pull Out of the ANWR Pro-Drilling Coalition

Teamsters union (IBT) reversing position on drilling for oil in Alaska and pull out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) pro-drilling coalition. The IBT announces that they are shifting their support to efforts to build coalitions to green groups to create a sustainable energy economy around sources like solar, wind and geothermal. IBT coalitions with green groups in the west coast ports campaign had a lot to do with this move. IBT President, James Hoffa, told labor and environmental activists at an Oakland, CA summit on good jobs and clean air “we must find a long term approach that breaks our dependence on foreign oil by investing in the development of alternative energy sources…”

2009 Labor Network for Sustainability Founded

The Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) was founded by Joe Uehlein, Jeremy Brecher, Brendan Smith, and the late Tim Costello. Working with the idea that sustainability starts at the dinner table, and that labor needs to step up to the plate on climate change, LNS set out to help environmentalists understand and appreciate the centrality of work in peoples’ lives, and to help labor realize its self interest in building a path to a sustainable future for the planet and its people and in solving the climate crisis. The one sentence mission statement: Making A Living On A Living Planet. When working people struggle every day to feed their kids, secure health care, send their kids to college, and plan for retirement, they will not be able to focus on bigger issues like climate change; hence “sustainability starts at the kitchen table.”

2009 Waxman-Markey “Climate” Bill Fails

Waxman-Markey “Climate” bill fails. Proposed to the 111th US congress this bill, formally titled the American Clean Energy and Security Act, would have established a kind of emissions trading plan similar to that of the European Union.

2010 project labor agreement signed

Teamsters, Plumbers, Operating Engineers, and Laborers unions signed a coveted “project labor agreement” offering preferential hiring and union conditions on the Keystone XL pipeline. The four union presidents say project would “pave a path to better days and raise the standard of living for working men and women in the construction, manufacturing, and transportation industries.”

2011 Mass civil disobedience organized by 350.org

Mass civil disobedience organized by 350.org and a large coalition of environmental organizations. More than 1,200 arrested at the White House opposing Keystone XL Pipeline. While thousands were present at this protest, President Obama remained silent on a decision over the KXL pipeline. LNS co-founder, Joe Uehlein signed the Call to Action.

2011 350.org launched a global day of protest

350.org launched a global day of protest for action on climate change in advance of global UN talks in Copenhagen. This protest is thought to be the largest global protest in history. The climate movement is becoming the fastest growing movement in the world, and 350.org is playing a big role in jumpstarting that movement.

2012 Apollo alliances merges into BGA

Apollo Alliance merges into the Blue-Green Alliance in order to create a stronger, more efficient and effective movement for creating sustainable jobs.

2013 Building trades unions support Keystone XL pipeline

Building trades unions continue organizing support for the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline while a small group of health and transportation unions oppose it. After a year or more of internal debate the AFL-CIO ultimately endorses “all pipelines” in a statement that does not specifically mention KXL.

2013 President Barack Obama delivers a speech to combat climate change

President Barack Obama delivers a speech suggesting that he will invoke his executive authority to undertake a number of measures aimed at combatting climate change and preparing the American people for the oncoming and current impacts. The speech was widely lauded by environmental activists who have seen Obama ignore their priorities despite his 2008 promises. Change was slow in coming in the aftermath of this speech. The White House and the EPA are now developing a proposal under clean air rule 111.d that would set the first cabon dioxide emissions limits for existing power plants.

2013 SEIS's Analysis of the Keystone XL Pipeline

On the final day of the Keystone XL public comment period for the State Department's draft supplementary environmental impact statement (SEIS) of the Keystone XL pipeline, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a sharply critical assessment declaring the analysis "insufficient."

2014 Keystone XL Pipeline Youth Protest

Youth protest on the White House lawn in anticipation of an Obama administration decision over the Keystone XL Pipeline. Over 300 youth protesters were arrested, yet Obama skirted the issue and postponed it to a later date. A decision still has not been made.

2014 Nebraska State Judge Ruling

Stephanie F. Stacy, a Nebraska State judge from Lancaster County, struck down a law that permitted construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in that state. Stacy's ruling invalidated Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman's approval of the project.