When Blue Meets Green: The Intersection of Workers and Environmentalists

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Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of posts considering the intersection between environmental history and labour and working-class histories. Subsequent posts are available here.

I am what you could call an accidental environmental historian. My interest in history is particular to labour and working-class history; however, my historical interests and environmental interests intersected in the old-growth forests of Vancouver Island. While working with various environmental groups to save the Walbran Valley on the west coast of Vancouver Island, our tactic of choice was to stop the fallers from entering the woods. We used tree sits, inventive obstacles on bridges, and simply standing in the road to prevent loggers from going to work. Not surprisingly, most often these tactics created confrontation and animosity instead of dialogue. [1] This experience began my journey to understand the rift between workers and environmentalists. I was uncomfortable with the ways in which many environmentalists discussed the working class. I was equally troubled by how the media turned the conflict into a narrative about “us versus them,” conveniently leaving out the companies actually responsible for environmental degradation and resource exploitation.

When I first started thinking about the relationship between workers and environmentalists, it was difficult to find much written specifically on the topic. The survey texts on the history of environmentalism prior to the 1990s largely concerned the wilderness, rather than the urban roots of environmentalism. They harkened back to the American icons of the environmental movement, such as Emerson and Thoreau. David Stradling argues that the omission of urban reform, to which early class-based environmentalism would be linked, is a long-standing historical paradigm started by Samuel Hays. He notes that it continued “largely because progressive-era urban reform does not fit well with the conservation narrative dominated by Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt, and John Muir.” [2] One exception stood out: Robert Gottlieb’s Forcing the Spring. Gottlieb laid out a world of sewer socialists and inner-city environmentalists that didn’t exist in other histories. Forcing the Spring made the link between the working class and environmentalists in ways that I had intuitively been seeking, but had also been unsure that I would find.

Robert Gottlieb's Forcing the Spring.
The cover of the first edition of Robert Gottlieb’s Forcing the Spring.

Forcing the Spring introduced me to historical actors like Alice Hamilton and her Workers Health Bureau. Hamilton was at the forefront of investigating industrial diseases and their effects in the workplace and the community. She wrote what would become a classic text called Industrial Poisons in the United States[3] Along with other labour activists, she helped found the Workers Health Bureau in 1921. This organization put forward a program that integrated labour and the environment, with the understanding that “health is an industrial and class problem.” [4] Other than Gottlieb in Forcing the Spring, historians had ignored this strand of the environmental movement. [5] While this is not a particularly Canadian awakening to the links between working-class and environmental history, I have found that the growth of this type of history was happening simultaneously in the United States and Canada.

Canadian scholars accomplished some of the earliest work in what would become known as environmental justice, or worker environmentalism. In her article “Greening the Canadian Workplace: Unions and the Environment,” Laurel Sefton MacDowell notes that “throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as unions increasingly brought occupational health and safety matters to the bargaining table, the number of strikes over such issues increased, and unions allocated more staff, time, and money to reducing workplace hazards and disease.” [6] This is important work, as it details the history of workers’ health and safety movements. Yet it is often not considered part of the narrative of environmentalism. By segregating early worker environmentalism into the narrative of workplace health and safety movements, the discourse around environmentalism and environmental history remained separate from working-class history. When injured while working, familiarize yourself with what is and what is not covered under the New York workers’ compensation laws.

The idea of working-class environmentalism is relatively new and not widely used. This is partially because the history of workers as environmental advocates has been obscured, but also because many environmental battles are fought on the ground, with resource workers becoming the de facto representatives of the companies. In his article “Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?,” Richard White suggests that environmentalists do not adequately consider work in their understanding of environmental issues. “Most environmentalists disdain and distrust those who most obviously work in nature,” he notes. “Environmentalists have come to associate work—particularly heavy bodily labor, blue-collar work—with environmental degradation.” [8] Thomas Dunk makes a similar point: that the environmental movement did not adequately address working-class concerns about resource use. [9]

More recently, historians on both sides of the border have begun to document the history of worker environmentalism. [10] Richard Rajala’s “The Forest as Factory: Technological Change and Worker Control in the West Coast Logging Industry, 1880-1930” provided an early Canadian example of this trend. [11] Many of these studies looked at how the working class and poor are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation and pollution. These included Laura Pulido’s Environmentalism and Economic Justice: Two Chicano Struggles in the Southwest and Andy Hurley’s Environmental Inequalities: Class, Race and Industrial Pollution in Gary, 1945-1980. Robert Bullard’s Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality became a classic in the field of environmental justice. Ken Cruikshank and Nancy B. Bouchier explored similar themes on the Canadian side of the border in their article “Blighted Areas and Obnoxious Industries: Constructing Environmental Inequality on an Industrial Waterfront, Hamilton, Ontario, 1890-1960.” [12] A more recent example from British Columbia, once more from the pen of Richard Rajala, is “This Wasteful Use of a River: Log Driving, Conservation, and British Columbia’s Stellako River Controversy, 1965-72.” [13] Others have explored the relevance of Marxist theory to this type of history. For example, Jonathan Hughes suggests that some of the solutions to the impasse between environmental action and class struggle lie with Marx’s communist slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” [14]

"Turtles and teamsters, united at last," reads this photograph from the Battle of Seattle.
“Turtles and teamsters, united at last,” reads this sign from the Battle of Seattle, 30 November 1999.

Within this growing body of literature, the history of workers and environmentalists is merging—and also emerging. It is an exciting time to be doing environmental history that includes working-class history, or vice versa. The theory and practice of working-class environmental history is growing simultaneously. For example, the protest against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, Washington on 30 November 1999, also known as “The Battle of Seattle,” saw the slogan “Teamsters and Turtles together at last” gain international prominence. [15] A picture of this sign made it into a number of publications; it was seen as the beginning of the coming-together of workers and environmentalists. This was the mainstream media’s take on it, of course. As historians, we know that workers have acted as environmentalists for decades, and we continue to publish new examples of the convergence of these two identities. Recently, Labour/Le Travail published two articles on worker environmentalism in the same issue: Katrin MacPhee’s “Canadian Working-Class Environmentalism, 1965–1985,” and Joan McFarland’s “Labour and the Environment: Five Stories from New Brunswick Since the 1970s.” [16] This was an unprecedented event in the journal’s history, and signals the gathering strength of environmental and labour history.

Confrontations between workers on the ground and environmentalists have not magically been resolved, nor have all the differences between labour history and environmental history been erased. Yet there exists a promising intersection between both sets of groups. By uncovering the history of worker environmentalism, we may help better bridge the gap between workers and environmentalists in the weeks and years to come.


[1] For an examination of the first year of the campaign to save the Walbran, see The Road Stops Here: The Walbran Valley dir. Velcro Ripper and Heather Frise (1991).

[2] David Stradling, Smokestacks and Progressives: Environmentalists, Engineers, and Air Quality in America, 1881-1951 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 194, f.8.

[3] Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement (Washington DC: Island Press, 1993), 51.

[4] Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring, 69.

[5] Stephen Fox, John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement (Boston: Little Brown, 1981); Phillip Shabecoff, A Fierce Green Fire: The American Environmental Movement (New York: Hill & Wang, 1993). Shabecoff’s book has been turned into a film, A Fierce Green Fire, directed by Mark Kitchell (March 2013; USA: First Run Features).

[6] Laurel Sefton MacDowell, “Greening the Canadian Workplace: Unions and the Environment,” in Sustainability: The Challenge: People, Power and the Environment, eds. L. Anders Sandberg and Sverker Sorlin (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1998), 168.

[7] Histories of the struggle for recognition of workers’ health concerns include Barbara Ellen Smith, Digging Our Own Graves: Coalminers and the Struggle Over Black Lung Disease (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987); James Whiteside, Regulating Danger: The Struggle for Mine Safety in the Rocky Mountain Coal Industry (Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1990); Claudia Clark, Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997). Classics in the field of workers’ health and safety include Daniel M. Berman, Death on the Job: Occupational Health and Safety Struggles in the United States (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978) and, of course, Alice Hamilton’s contributions: Industrial Poisons in the United States (1925), Industrial Toxicology (1934), and Exploring the Dangerous Trades (1943).

[8] Richard White, “Are You an Environmentalist or Do You Work for a Living?” in Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995), 172.

[9] Thomas Dunk, “Talking About Trees: Environment and Society in Forest Workers’ Culture,” The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 31, 1 (1994). I make a similar point in John-Henry Harter, “Environmental Justice for Whom? Class, New Social Movements, and the Environment: A Case Study of Greenpeace Canada, 1971-2000,” Labour/Le Travail 54 (Fall 2004): 83-119.

[10] For an earlier example of workers involved in environmental debates in British Columbia, see Mark Leier’s discussion of the struggle over parkland on Deadman’s Island in Vancouver in 1887-89 in Red Flags and Red Tape: The Making of a Labour Bureaucracy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), 58-61. For more on the labour movement and the environment in turn–of-the-century Vancouver, see Robert A.J. McDonald, “Holy Retreat or Practical Breathing Spot? Class Perceptions of Vancouver’s Stanley Park, 1910-1913,” Canadian Historical Review 64 (1984): 127-53.

[11] Richard Rajala, “The Forest as Factory: Technological Change and Worker Control in the West Coast Logging Industry, 1880-1930,” Labour/Le Travail 32 (Fall 1993): 73-104.

[12] Ken Cruikshank and Nancy B. Bouchier, “Blighted Areas and Obnoxious Industries: Constructing Environmental Inequality on an Industrial Waterfront, Hamilton, Ontario, 1890-1960,” Environmental History 9 (2004): 464-96.

[13] Richard Rajala, “This Wasteful Use of a River: Log Driving, Conservation, and British Columbia’s Stellako River Controversy, 1965-72,” BC Studies 165 (Spring 2010): 31-74.

[14] Hughes discusses at length what Marx meant by this statement in his Critique of the Gotha Programme. He argues against the environmentalist interpretation that this was a statement supporting abundant growth. For a full explanation of this, see Jonathan Hughes, Ecology and Historical Materialism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), particularly Chapter 6, “Capitalism, Socialism and the Satisfaction of Needs,” 161-200.

[15] Placard as seen by author, 30 November 1999, Seattle, Washington. Also documented in John Charlton, “Talking Seattle,” International Socialism 86 (Spring 2000). For an account of the Battle of Seattle, see C. Pearson, “Peaceful in Seattle,” Our Times 19 (December/January 1999); Alexander Cockburn, Jeffery St. Clair, and Allan Sekula, 5 Days That Shook the World: Seattle and Beyond (London, 2000).

[16] Both articles appeared in Labour/Le Travail 74 (Fall 2014).

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John-Henry Harter

Lecturer, History at SFU
John-Henry is a Lecturer in History at Simon Fraser University. Interests include Canadian social and political history with a focus on labour and the environment. Writes on topics from pop culture to precarious labour.

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