Friday, October 3, 2014

Early environmental justice

Legal Planet's Jonathan Zasloff recently noted the publication of Josiah Rector's "Environmental Justice at Work: The UAW, the War on Cancer, and the Right to Equal Protection from Toxic Hazards in Postwar America" in the Journal of American History. The article greatly enriches our knowledge of the history of the environmental justice movement; indeed, of the history of environmental law as a whole. Rector writes:
Despite the amplitude of the literature, occupational health historians have devoted surprisingly little attention to the relationship between health and safety activism and the post–World War II civil rights and feminist movements, or the role of health and safety activism in the rise of the environmental justice movement.
Ford's River Rouge Plant (1931)
Meanwhile, the nascent historiography of the environmental justice movement, largely written by social scientists, has tended to ignore labor's contributions, with the important exception of the United Farm Workers 1968–1971 campaigns against pesticide exposure. Most books about environmental justice, including many brilliant and formidable works of scholarship, present a brief, potted history of the movement, beginning with the struggle over polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) dumping in Warren County, North Carolina, in 1982. Scholars of the topic have neglected the fact that as early as 1970 occupational health and safety activists used the term environmental justice to refer to the right to protection from toxic hazards codified by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Few scholars, moreover, have noted that the UAW's 1976 Working for Environmental and Economic Justice and Jobs National Action Conference in Black Lake, Michigan, helped popularize environmental justice. This elision is ironic, since the disproportionate exposure of workers and people of color to toxic hazards was a major theme of the conference—one of the first to gather civil rights, feminist, labor, and environmental activists for sustained dialogue.
Rector's article focuses on occupational cancer in American auto plants as a case study. I hope we'll continue to see more work by him and others (see for example recent articles by Gregory Alexander and Stefania Barca) on working class environmentalism and environmental law.

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