Today, the AFL-CIO lobbies Congress to pass the Keystone XL pipeline while noted NASA climate scientist James Hansen, one of the first to link global warming to fossil fuels, is repeatedly arrested for protesting such projects. And while in 2017, the idea that the interests between wonky environmentalists and jobs-focused trade unionists would diverge seems like common sense, it’s only because the bad guys won.
But it wasn’t a preordained victory. For nearly a decade in the 1960s and ’70s, environmentalism seemed to be on the cusp of a popular reckoning against the powers of capital. And it found an ally in the labor movement which, for a few years, looked like it might be able to not only cling to life but find a way back into the heart of American society.
[Tony] Mazzocchi and his union, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International (OCAW), were the primary muscle behind the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), signed into law by Richard Nixon. Looking back on that victory, which mobilized both labor and the burgeoning environmental movement, Mazzocchi said: “We have demonstrated that an unpopular idea can be generated into a powerful political program that’ll reignite the consciousness of the American people.”
Policy analyst Anthony Downs was optimistic about the new environmental movement’s focus on corporate America, which he saw as a political strength in 1972: “much of the ‘blame’ for pollution can be attributed to a small group of ‘villains’ whose wealth and power make them excellent scapegoats. Environmental defenders can therefore ‘courageously’ attack these scapegoats without antagonizing most citizens.” By 1975, a poll found that only 15 percent of Americans had “a great deal of confidence” in America’s business community, down from 55 percent just nine years earlier.
Mazzocchi saw an opportunity. The new environmentalism would be the natural ally of the labor movement.
But even Carson’s massively influential Silent Spring said next to nothing about the workers exposed to the chemicals she wrote about. As Mazzocchi’s biographer Les Leopold put it: “Carson’s prize-winning narrative never mentions the black hole of production, where thousands are sickened or killed by multiple exposures. Carson’s blindness, Mazzocchi recognized, was fundamentally rooted in class.”
And while consumers could boycott and raise awareness, only the workers behind that factory fence — tens of thousands represented by Mazzocchi’s union — could shut it all down.
As Mazzocchi saw it, those chemicals that poisoned his union’s rank and file eventually make their way into communities outside — through the air, soil, and waterways. The factory was therefore the demon core of the environmental crisis. But as a socialist, Mazzocchi also knew the job site was a place in which workers potentially had vast powers even under capitalism. “It was the workers in these industries who taught me that there was a systematic conflict between profits and health.. . . When you start thinking that, when you start to interfere with the forces of production, you’re going to the heart of the beast.”
And he was going to make absolutely sure the labor movement would be the ones dealing the death blow. For Mazzocchi, worker control over production was environmentalism. Their fates were intertwined. As he said in an Earth Day speech to the OCAW and broadcast on the Today show in 1970, the environmental movement needed the labor movement and vice versa.
"You can’t be concerned about the environment unless you’re concerned about the industrial environment because the two are inseparable. After all, we create the pollutants. . . . We’ve got to control the plant environment and we’ve got to tell the truth about what we’re doing to the plant environment."
The owners of those plants had to find a way out — fast. In a fascinating study of corporate America’s shaping of environmentalism, lawyer Joe Conley traced a distinct pattern emerging all the way back to the 1960s: “The goals of these programs ranged from deflecting criticism of environmental impacts and forestalling new environmental laws to promoting voluntary alternatives to regulation and gaining market share among ecologically-conscious consumers.”
In other words, slip off the noose that activists wanted to place on corporate America’s necks and instead loop it around the public’s shoulders in a phony kind of universalism in which everyone is to blame for our environmental ills, particularly consumers.
When the glass recycling movement took off in 1970, it had all the appearances of a grassroots movement, including a partnership with the Boy Scouts of America. But it was in fact a PR campaign. The Glass Container Manufacturers Institute and the firm Carl Byoir & Associates developed it together after years of criticism for switching from returnable bottles to the less expensive no-deposit, one-use-only kind. They launched the campaign a couple of days before Earth Day at a handful of collection centers in Los Angeles, with invitations sent out to local media and journalists to come see the new movement unfolding. Recycling became one of many initiatives to keep the state out of private enterprise: turn a bottom-up reckoning against power into a voluntary, individual project of doing good.
Corporate America was in luck — a nearly identical message of belt-tightening, moralism, and sacrifice was about to be echoed by a Democratic administration. And their new president would respond to the energy crisis that capped off the recession of the 1970s with a message oriented around voluntary cutbacks and involuntary wage caps.
Only a tiny number of Americans in the workforce are in labor unions today, but that destructive cycle — dwindling jobs, management’s cost/benefits line, and a liberal environmentalism that’s agnostic at best on labor — has brought us to this moment. With wages stagnant since Mazzocchi’s heyday and a labor movement almost entirely dead in the private sector, keeping your head down and doing whatever it takes not to antagonize management is, sadly, a rational play by a worker. Anything to keep the rest of the jobs from leaving, anything to stop the bleeding. Just as victory begets victory, losing spawns an endless cycle of losing.
A recent Pew poll demonstrated that, contra liberal messaging, climate skeptics aren’t generally “more science illiterate” than most. But, being Americans, they are less likely to be represented by a labor union than the rest of the developed world. This is a country in which workers are uniquely dependent on their jobs for basic rights like health care. Which also means that they’re uniquely dependent on their employer staying in business no matter what the social or environmental costs. Is it any wonder that, in the absence of a strong labor movement and a decent welfare state, we have ourselves taken on that same “cost-benefit” analysis that corporate America developed in order to beat back environmental regulation a half century ago?
Here is the root of climate skepticism in America. It’s not provincialism, stupidity, or Christian apocalypticism. It’s our uniquely weak labor movement and our uniquely powerful capitalist class. And, sadly, our uniquely inept liberal elite, who — without a strong labor movement to keep their eyes on the prize — turned defeat into victory and concocted a “Third Way” environmentalism of austerity — not worker control — right out of corporate America’s playbook.