A Timeline of the Labor Union – Environmental Relationship

A perfect storm of economic malaise, the sudden publicity around the Keystone XL pipeline and the Occupy Wall Street protests have dredged up pockets of lingering acrimony between the labor and environmental movements in the US. But while the media and corporate interests are quick to slap a pre-printed “jobs vs. environment” sticker on the issue, the relationship between the two movements has a complex and often collaborative history. This is the first entry in a series examining the relationship between environmentalists and labor unions. Subsequent posts will examine the current status of Blue-Green relations and global perspectives on the issue.


I think the environmental crisis has reached such catastrophic proportions that … the labor movement is now obligated to raise this question at the bargaining table in any industry that is in a measurable way contributing to man’s deteriorating living environment.” – UAW President Walter Reuther in 1970

Before the mid-1970s, the relationship between labor and environmentalists was a largely friendly and reciprocal one. Leaders of most major unions regularly spoke about environmental issues with a fervor matched only by environmentalists themselves. But after the energy crisis and recession of the early to mid-1970s and economic policies stemming from Reaganomics during the 1980s, the relationship hit some rough patches from which it never fully recovered. Perhaps the most promising development in the last few years has been the formation of the BlueGreen Alliance which has steadily brought both large unions and environmental organizations together with one strong voice. What follows is a partial timeline of “Blue-Green” collaboration/animosity since post-WWII.

1948 – United Steelworkers conduct independent investigation of US Steel Corporation after “Killer Smog” sickens thousands in Donora, PA.
1955 – American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merge to form the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of unions in the US.
1956 – United Auto Workers (UAW) fights for public hearings on federal government’s plan to build a nuclear reactor in Detroit.
1958 – AFL-CIO officials serve on first National Conference on Air Pollution. AFL-CIO legislative representative George D. Riley testifies at congressional hearing in support of federal clean water regulations. Riley also provides support to a bill that would create a National Wilderness Preservation System, stating “Wilderness has practical values, even though they cannot be measured in dollars, of obvious benefit to the Nation.” United Mine Workers and the International Association of Machinists also support the proposal.
1959 – Local chapter of the International Chemical Workers call special meeting to address air pollution caused by phosphate mining and chemical production.
1962 – AFL-CIO officials serve on second National Conference on Air Pollution.
1963 – Andrew J. Biemiller, director of the AFL-CIO’s department of legislation, throws official support behind the proposed Clean Air Act, the first federal regulation on air pollution control.
1965 – UAW organizes conference on clean water.

UAW President and environmental
advocate Walter Reuther (Britannica)

1966 – AFL-CIO Legislative Representative James F. Doherty declares that “The postwar population surge, concentration of more and more people in supercities, the expanding uses of water, the proliferation of human and industrial wastes reducing water supply… for human uses and enjoyment – all have contributed to a situation which will produce enormous economic and social consequences if allowed to prevail.”
1967 – UAW creates Department of Conservation and Resource Development which “encouraged members to take part in solving the air and water pollution problems.” UAW’s Olga Madar also testifies before Congress in support of more strident fuel emissions standards, even at the risk of hurting members’ employment.
1969 – UAW supports the National Environmental Policy Act and a federal Council on Environmental Quality. Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union and some officials of the United Steelworkers also support the legislation.
1969 – United Farm Workers chief counsel Jerome Cohen testifies before Congress on the lax federal and state oversight on pesticides’ health effects.
1970 – UAW sponsors the nation’s first environmental teach-in at the University of Michigan, months before the first Earth Day. They also call for the replacement of the internal combustion engine “within the next five years” [!].
1970 – UAW, United Steelworkers and International Association of Machinists (IAMAW) support and help pass Clean Air Act amendments.
1970 – Occupational Safety and Health Act enacted with support from environmental groups.
1972 – UAW, United Steelworkers and IAMAW support and help pass Clean Water Act amendments.
1975 – Environmentalists for Full Employment formed with the intent to bring the environmental and labor movements together.
1975 – UAW supports the establishment of fuel economy standards with the condition that separate standards be applied to foreign and domestic automobiles.
1977 – Clean Air Act amendments passed with support of the United Mine Workers (UMWA). Amendments include provision on installing scrubbers in coal-burning power plants.
1978 – Love Canal incident brings unions and environmentalists together, leading to the formation of the New York State Labor and Environment Network.
1981 – AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department and the Sierra Club work to build networks between environmental and labor groups. Dominick D’Ambrosio (Allied Industrial Workers) establishes Wisconsin OSHA-Environmental Network.

“Teamsters and Turtles” at WTO Meeting
(photo by labornotes)

1989 – New York State Labor and Environment Network sponsors workshop bringing two antagonistic leaders from each side of the Blue-Green divide together (Sandy Fonda of the Rainbow Alliance for a Clean Environment and Bill Towne of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees), leading to their eventual partnership on issues of mutual concern.
1990 – Unions split over Clean Air Act extension with United Steelworkers in favor of tough standards while UMWA oppose acid rain provision.
1993 – Labor and environmentalists mutually oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement.
1997 – Kyoto Protocol supported by labor unions from several countries and the United Steelworkers while being opposed by AFL-CIO and the US government, which fails to sign the agreement.
1999 – “Teamsters and Turtles” protest against neoliberal economic policies at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle.
2001 – UAW sides with automakers in opposing new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.
2002 – Environmentalists and labor split on Bush proposal to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). International Brotherhood of Teamsters President James Hoffa later reverses the organization’s original position and comes out against drilling in ANWR.
2003 – Apollo Alliance formed to advocate for policy development around a clean energy economy.
2006 – The Sierra Club and United Steelworkers jointly establish the BlueGreen Alliance after years of more informal collaboration. Groups that would later join the progressive coalition include Communications Workers of America (CWA), Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), National Wildlife Federation (NWF), Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), UAW and more.
2006 – AFL-CIO forms Energy Task Force, signaling intent to address climate change.
2007 – Nonprofit Green for All launched by Van Jones, advocating clean energy jobs to close the inequality gap.
2009 – AFL-CIO creates the Center for Green Jobs in affiliation with the National Labor College and the Working for America Institute.
2009 – The Sierra Club and other environmental groups get behind the Employee Free Choice Act but the legislation fails in Congress.
2009 – Roughly 40 union representatives from the US attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP15) in Copenhagen, Denmark to “ensure that social and economic concerns are included in what had been an environmental discussion.”
2010 – Climate Bill to reduce GHG emissions supported by AFL-CIO but fails in Congress.
2011 – UAW helps draft and pass new CAFE standards.

Environmental activists and LIUNA members outside
Keystone XL hearing at State Department in Oct. 2011

2011 – Unions split over proposed Keystone XL pipeline with Transport Workers Union and the Amalgamated Transit Union in opposition to the pipeline and groups like America’s Building Trades Unions, LIUNA and the United Association of Steamfitters and Plumbers in support. Building Trades Unions use rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street to advertise supposed benefits of pipeline project while Occupy contingents in other cities rally against pipeline. AFL-CIO remains neutral.


Working for the Environment: Organized Labor and the Origins of Environmentalism in the United States, 1948-1970. Scott Dewey, 1998;
Labor and the Environmental Movement: The Quest for Common Ground. Brian Keith Obach, 2004;
Auto union joins labor, green groups on climate bill push;
Can Push for Climate Bill Forge a Lasting Labor-Enviro Alliance?;
BlueGreen Alliance: About Us;
Labor after Bali;
Punctuated Equilibrium and the Dynamics of U.S. Environmental Policy. Robert Repetto, 2006.

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