Earth Day: How union workers are driving a cleaner future

  • Published on April 21st, 2018

When you think of Earth Day, your first thought probably isn’t about how labor union members were pivotal in the success of the first Earth Day. Nor do you likely think that unions and their members have been at the forefront of the move to a cleaner environment and fairer economy over the past 48 years since the first Earth Day in 1970.

Blue Green Alliance - unions for environmentBy Kim Glas
Executive Director of the BlueGreen Alliance

But, without the work of unions to help organize events throughout the country, the first Earth Day might not have been the success it was. In fact, the largest contributor to the first Earth Day was a labor union, and in the intervening decades since that first event, unions and their members have been fighting for a cleaner economy and safe and healthy workplaces and communities.

Why? The answer was simply and eloquently put forward by then-Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, the founder of Earth Day, on “Face the Nation” just days before the first Earth Day. He said, “…some people who talk about the environment talk about it as though it involved only a question of clean air and clean water. The environment involves the whole broad spectrum of man’s relationship to all other living creatures, including other human beings.” Basically, caring for the planet also means caring for your fellow human beings.

Unions are a vital and necessary instrument to do just that.

Unions give a voice to those that might not have it otherwise. They are a key to ensuring prosperity for workers, but also to safe jobs and workplaces. They provide real protections for people who blow the whistle on the use of dangerous chemicals, and on pollution, potential industrial disasters, and other hazards. They are better trained to deal with dangerous conditions in the workplace. They can and do collectively bargain to make their workplaces safer and healthier.

They also bring their political clout to bear to make needed changes to laws to protect workers and the communities around their workplaces. For example, in California, the United Steelworkers helped lead the five-year effort to adopt the strongest refinery Process Safety Management rules in the country. Norm Rogers of United Steelworkers Local 675, Blue Green Alliance - unions for environmentrepresenting refinery workers in the Los Angeles area, explained why they back the regulations: “We work with these processes every day, and we have a pretty good idea about what’s needed to make them safer. These rules give us a real voice and a much bigger role, which is something we’ve needed for decades.” A similar effort led in part by unions is underway in Washington State, which has seen its fair share of refinery fires and explosions, including at a 2010 fire and explosion at a Tesero refinery in Anacortes that killed seven workers.

It’s easy for some to buy into the narrative that some CEOs and political leaders put forward: that we have to choose between good jobs and a clean environment, or between good jobs and safe workplaces. The bottom line is that the last 48 years have shown that narrative to be a lie. Today, we’re stronger than we were almost five decades ago when Earth Day started, with cleaner air and water, safer workplaces, and an increasingly cleaner economy. That has happened in part because workers and environmentalists have rejected that false choice and–in more cases than not–have moved forward togetherto build a stronger, cleaner, fairer economy for all of us.

Union workers care about having clean air and water. They also care about the health and welfare of their co-workers, families, and the communities around their workplace. And they are doing something about it every day.

So, while your first thought this Earth Day might not be about the work that union workers are doing every day to protect our planet and their fellow human beings, maybe it could be.

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