Unionized oil refinery workers picket outside their Whiting, Indiana refinery, February 9, 2015 (Samuel A. Love / Flickr)

Austerity vs. the Planet: The Future of Labor Environmentalism

Last December members of the International Trade Union Confederation joined other civil society activists in a mass sit-in at the COP21 talks in Paris. Unionists and their allies, some 400 strong, filled the social space adjacent to the negotiating rooms for several hours, in defiance of a French ban on protests that remained in effect in the wake of the November 13 terrorist attacks. The ITUC delegation demanded the negotiators go back to the table and make a serious effort to incorporate labor’s demands for a just transition—which, at its heart, is concerned with making sure workers in environmentally unsustainable industries are retrained and put to work building a new, sustainable economy.

The action, even as it generated energy and media buzz, failed to convince the negotiators. The “just transition” clause of the Paris agreement remained stuck in the preamble (not in the body of the agreement itself, as the ITUC members had demanded), more of a hat tip than grounds for international action. But at least it got a mention—unlike the fossil fuels largely responsible for the climate crisis in the first place. Nowhere in the Paris agreement or its preamble do the words fossil fuel, coal, oil, gas, or pollution appear.

As the talks wrapped up and world leaders hailed a “historic turning point” in the world’s relationship to ongoing climate disruption, environmental activist Chris Williams pointed out that “twenty-one years of treaties and negotiations have all been stepping around the main problem, which is the production of fossil fuels.” For all the pomp and circumstance, this agreement was no different. Meanwhile, the consequences of two decades of inaction become clearer each day. A few weeks after the Paris agreement was signed, scientists confirmed that 2015 was the warmest year on record, with global temperatures approaching 1°C above the twentieth-century average. And those already feeling the worst effects of this climate disruption, predominantly poor people of color, continued to have the least say in how to combat it.

Just as they have been dismissed in international climate negotiations, workers have largely been excluded from the fragile global recovery since 2008. Some 197 million people around the world are jobless, with young people making up over a third of this number. Unemployment in southern and eastern Europe remains particularly high, still hovering at 24.6 percent in austerity-ravaged Greece, as well as in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Middle East.

The picture in the OECD economies is not much prettier. In the United States, economic recovery has meant the swapping out of middle-wage jobs, earning between $14 and $21 an hour, for part-time, on-call, low-wage employment with few benefits. Energy-sector jobs, often hailed as the lifeblood of the American economic recovery, have taken a dive as oil prices plunge below $30 a barrel. In 2015 the industry slashed 104,514 jobs, compared to 4,137 the year before. Fracking boom state North Dakota went from ranking first in U.S. job growth to dead last.

All this takes place in the context of a weakened labor movement that has failed to maintain workers’ expected standard of living in the face of ongoing restructuring in the world economy and, particularly in the United States, political backsliding. The degradation of work and the destruction of the environment have proceeded hand in hand. Good jobs keep going away, but fossil fuels haven’t gone anywhere. And yet the industry-propagated myth of “jobs versus the environment” persists. From the moment Congress debated anti-pollution legislation in the early 1970s, fossil fuel industry leaders promised such regulation would destroy the heavily unionized employment in the industry. In 1971 the Chamber of Commerce warned that the passage of the Clean Air Act could lead to the collapse of “entire industries,” while auto industry lobbyists prophesied “business catastrophe.” Four decades later, the talking points remain the same: the Heritage Foundation claims that Obama’s Clean Power Plan will cost 1 million U.S. jobs, while West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito says that new coal rules threaten to “regulate out of existence” her state’s key industry.

The problem with this story is that environmental regulation never got the chance to destroy whole sectors of “good jobs,” as opponents of pollution regulation promised it would; the fossil fuel companies themselves, with the winds of free-market fundamentalism at their backs, destroyed them instead. A decade after the passage of the Clean Air Act, the United States was producing more cars and fossil fuels than ever, and employing a record number of workers to do so. Another decade later, as the Cold War was ending, U.S. fossil fuel production was still going strong, but the jobs were evaporating.

It wasn’t just fossil fuels, of course. The decline in manufacturing jobs, union density, and real wages wrought by neoliberal restructuring hollowed out the prospects of the entire American working class. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the resulting misery has only been exacerbated by government austerity and anti-union measures, as manufactured scarcity is marshaled to frighten workers into concessions.

In cities like Flint, Michigan, built around the auto industry, the consequences of this restructuring are all too vivid. Globalization and the rise of “lean production” have turned the city, once an industrial powerhouse, into a waking nightmare for the people who remain: forty years of stagnant wages, reduction in public welfare and services, and then a recession that gutted the few middle-wage jobs left. In today’s Flint, the generalized decline of American working-class living standards has turned into a life-or-death crisis. In 2014 emergency city manager Darnell Earley, appointed by Governor Rick Snyder with no democratic accountability to the residents of Flint, funneled untreated corrosive water into residents’ homes in order to cut the city budget. The result? The corrosive water leached lead and other contaminants from pipes. The amount of lead in the blood of Flint’s children doubled in the space of a year. At least eighty-seven people contracted Legionnaires’ disease—nine of whom died—and the residents of Flint, who are overwhelmingly black and low-income, will now face the consequences of irreversible lead poisoning. The situation was so dire that the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah appealed to African nations to “save an American village.” In effect, the governor’s emergency management team poisoned a black working-class city to save a mere $100 a day. Earley could have paid the difference out of his own salary and still taken home $143,500 a year—$102,000 more than Flint’s median income. And yet Flint residents still somehow pay among the highest prices for tap water in the nation.

About seventy miles southeast of Flint, a story different only in the particulars is unfolding in Detroit, where teachers lead a fight against toxic and dangerous school buildings. It’s another story where industrial disinvestment has played out as sheer environmental racism. In photographs posted on social media, teachers showed schools where mushrooms grew from the walls and rats roamed the hallways. The showdown over school safety and budget cuts has also become a labor dispute: teachers have organized at least four sick-outs since the beginning of the school year. On January 20, the largest sick-out to date shut down almost the entire Detroit public school system. By withdrawing their labor to demand safe working conditions (and healthier learning conditions for their students), the teachers of Detroit stand in a long tradition of union activists organizing outside of their contracts and developing a broader vision for society. The sick-outs have built unity among educators and students, between workers and communities, but the state still shows no sign of relenting, instead moving to punish the teachers involved and rule the sick-outs an illegal work action. For Republican governor Rick Snyder and his administration, poisoned water and moldy schools are apparently acceptable side effects of realigning the state budget in the service of private-sector growth.

What the struggles in Detroit and Flint have made clear is that neither neoliberalism nor austerity is only a social or political project—they are ecological projects, remaking our relationships with our (built) environments. Whether through contaminated water or infested schools, ecological degradation goes hand in hand with economic and labor restructuring. And this broad-based assault on the working class has direct implications for the climate. The same aggressive cost cutting, privatization, and deregulation that have resulted in the poisoning of Flint, the charterization of public schools, and new health crises like Indiana’s rural HIV outbreak have also given us the BP oil spill, the deadly explosion at a fertilizer factory in West, Texas, and the recent methane leak in Southern California. Moreover, the state leadership and investment, not to mention global cooperation, that would be required to wean the world energy system off fossil fuels cannot emerge as long as social and fiscal austerity remains the order of the day. Austerity and sustainability are antithetical concepts.


The cases of Flint and Detroit point to a deeper link between neoliberalism and the climate crisis. The same forces that devastated both cities, gutting U.S. manufacturing alongside organized labor and the welfare state, have left workers nationwide desperate for even the dirtiest jobs. In this way, they have heightened longer-standing contradictions in the working-class relationship with fossil fuels.

From the mid-eighteenth century on, the industrial-scale use of fossil fuels that accompanied the growth of capitalism increased the standard of living and life expectancy for a vast swath of people around the world. These gains and improvements were far from evenly distributed, and came with their share of previously unknown ills. Nevertheless, they helped the burgeoning working class secure real social power, and the consolidation of the fossil fuel economy fostered cornucopian visions. Demands for a decent standard of living, rooted in much higher energy consumption than had ever before been possible, translated into working-class mobility and leisure time. In a world where energy was already cheap—and where atomic scientists promised it could be cheaper still, even free—workers’ visions for themselves included not only a greater share of the fruits of their labor in terms of wages, but in terms of the social distribution of energy.

In the 1960s things began to change, as rapidly growing energy use forced a reorganization of production. With energy consumption doubling in the span of two decades, the industry struggled to keep up with demand. Scheduled nuclear plants were slow to come into public use and hadn’t lived up to their initial promise, and anyway, the public remained skeptical of the atom, which, especially during the Cold War, raised the specter of mutual annihilation and nuclear meltdown. The future of energy looked incredibly frightening and uncertain, and the companies took action to protect the energy regime that had made them so fabulously wealthy. Although they would continue to be identified primarily with that sticky black substance, the oil companies bought up coal and gas at a rapid rate, skewing the balance of power between the companies and workers, who remained in unions organized along increasingly blurred industrial lines. Coal miners and oil-rig workers both extracted energy for the same companies but remained organized in different unions without a shared strategy for labor action across the industry.

The destruction of workers’ power went hand in hand with energy-industry efforts to protect profits from other potential threats, including regulation of pollution and greenhouse gases. By 1979 nearly every major American oil company joined in an American Petroleum Institute initiative to share research about the potential impact of climate change. Realizing the gravity of the problem, they buried their data and turned to extensive propaganda campaigns to shape public opinion about emerging climate science. If the planet had to burn to protect the bottom line, so be it.

With energy companies steeling themselves for an uncertain future, the outlook for their workers was decidedly grim. Companies often cited new pollution regulations as the cause of layoffs, and leveraged fears about the future to extract concessions from workers. But the real forces driving down employment were mechanization and strip mining. Over the course of the 1950s, mine mechanization had put nearly two-thirds of the nation’s miners out of work. Employment continued to sink in the 1960s, even as production climbed and profits soared. Since the 1970s another two-thirds of the remaining mining workforce have lost their jobs. As Paul Krugman has noted, the “real war on coal, or at least on coal workers, took place a generation ago, waged not by liberal environmentalists but by the coal industry itself. And coal workers lost.”

Caught in a period of transition, and rightly convinced the energy companies had neither workers’ nor the environment’s interests in mind, some miners took it upon themselves to formulate their own solution to the energy crisis. Known as Miners for Democracy, they were a rank-and-file-caucus of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), and their vision (true to their name) tied labor, environmental, and social demands to the need to democratize their union.

The Miners for Democracy emerged from a crucible of tragedy. In 1968, seventy-eight miners were killed by an explosion at the Consol No. 9 Mine in Farmington, West Virginia. The disaster brought long-running grievances over workplace safety to a head, leading one UMWA activist, Jock Yablonski, to mount the first opposition campaign against the union’s autocratic president, Tony Boyle. As deaths racked up from mine explosions and black lung disease, Yablonski charged Boyle with failing to secure a safe workplace for the nation’s miners. But he signaled a problem that extended far beyond the mines. Announcing his campaign platform to “end environmental mayhem,” he argued:

Every union should have a vision of the future . . . Unions represent men and women who are part of communities, are citizens of states and a nation. The public environment affects the well-being of miners and their families. What good is a union that reduces coal dust in the mines only to have miners and their families breathe pollutants in the air, drink pollutants in the water, and eat contaminated commodities?

Yablonski did not have long to put his vision of labor environmentalism into practice. On December 31, 1969, three weeks after losing to Boyle in an election that was widely seen as rigged, he was murdered in his sleep, along with his wife and daughter, by three hitmen. Boyle struggled to maintain control of the union as its members revolted against the sacrifice of their lives, land, and labor to an economy that did little for them in return, and five years later, he was convicted of the Yablonski murders.

In the meantime, the Miners for Democracy built on Yablonski’s legacy to challenge Boyle once again in 1972. “Lives, land, and labor” remained at the heart of their vision. They also embraced Yablonski’s broader goal of environmental protection, particularly in relation to two increasingly prevalent practices: strip mining, which had ravaged the Appalachian hillsides, and coal gasification, a major focus of energy industry research and development. Energy companies presented gasification projects as a way to wean the American economy off of imported fossil fuels. The MFD opposed them—even though they would have created jobs for miners put out of work by mechanization and the rise of strip mining—because the process was environmentally destructive and threatened to contaminate soil and water supplies. Most gasification plants were proposed for the American West, where they would have overwhelmingly impacted poor people and Native Americans who faced massive political barriers to fighting the plants on their own.

In addition, some miners went as far as to call for a national ban on strip mining. In place of expanding their dirty industry, MFD proposed adding jobs to the economy by enforcing anti-pollution laws: reclaiming land that had been destroyed by coal companies and repairing the damage done by strip mining, they argued, could create thousands of new union jobs. “Tough reclamation laws are essential, and we must insist that they are enforced,” Arnold Miller proclaimed as he campaigned for union president on the MFD ticket, “If the state won’t do it, the union will.”

The MFD’s platform carried them to victory in the 1972 election. Their environmentalism, however, faded quickly, as did that espoused by other industrial unions in the 1970s, notably the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) and the United Auto Workers (UAW). Today, the UMWA leads the charge on pro-coal politics, and parrots the industry line that EPA rules necessarily lead to job loss and impoverishment. It’s hard to blame the workers who have accepted this narrative, and continue to stand with employers and politicians against environmental regulation—especially since, at the moment, there are no large-scale jobs programs on the table to replace their current dirty jobs. But history shows that the Faustian bargain offered by their employers is a false one.


The situation in Appalachia today is desperate. In Harlan County, Kentucky, median household income is $18,665, unemployment stands at almost 12 percent (twice the national average), and a third of the population lives below the poverty line. Residents need jobs, and the energy companies (along with affiliated machinery and chemical industries), the largest economic forces in the area, shape the public narrative of how to bring jobs back. Workers must sacrifice to keep the industry profitable, the story goes, or the jobs will go away for good. Private-sector unions, desperate for a boost in membership after a fifty-year decline, do whatever it takes to defend the few jobs that remain. And not just in coal: whether it’s the AFL-CIO announcing its support for the Keystone XL pipeline or unions standing with the American Petroleum Institute to support fracking development, unimaginative union leaders in a hostile environment have chosen to tie the fortunes of workers to those of the energy companies.

This strategy hasn’t exactly paid off for organized labor. Thanks largely to the fracking boom, U.S. fossil fuel production and employment grew steadily over the last decade, and weathered the recession well; altogether, from 2004 to 2014, oil, gas, and mining jobs grew by 60 percent. Over that same period, union membership rates in the industry fell by almost the same proportion, dropping from 11.4 to 4.8 percent. (In 2015 jobs took a dive again along with oil prices, while union density got a slight bump.) This puts union density in the fossil fuel industry even lower than in the private sector overall (6.7 percent).

Clinging to the fossil fuel industry can only lead to a dead end for workers. It is time for a different approach. Already in recent years, several unions have hinted at such a method, echoing the all too short-lived efforts of Miners for Democracy. In February 2015 more than 6,500 oil workers joined in a strike at fourteen refineries and a chemical plant spanning from Ohio to California. The strike, led by the United Steelworkers, was primarily a conflict over workplace safety: USW Vice President Gary Beevers pointed out that workers were being put at risk by “onerous overtime; unsafe staffing levels; dangerous conditions the industry continues to ignore; the daily occurrence of fires, emissions, leaks and explosions.” But it went far beyond that, with the workers positioning themselves as the first line of defense against spills and pollution in surrounding communities. Steve Garey, president of a USW local in Washington, explained that by outsourcing maintenance work to less experienced, non-union contractors who lacked the training and work protections provided by the USW, the industry was also putting communities and the environment at risk.

The workers who took part in the strike would know. Some of them had witnessed a 2005 explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery, which killed fifteen workers and injured 180 others after management bypassed safety procedures during hasty repairs. Others had witnessed the 2014 oil spill at BP’s Whiting refinery, which dumped as much as 1,600 gallons of oil into Lake Michigan, Chicago residents’ source of drinking water.

In a critical step forward for U.S. environmentalism, several key green groups expressed support for the strike, including the Sierra Club, 350.org, and Oil Change International, as well as smaller grassroots organizations like Rising Tide. In Martinez, California, members of Communities for a Better Environment as well as of the local nurses’ union joined refinery workers on the picket line. At the end of the six-week strike, the USW claimed victory, citing “vast improvements in safety and staffing.” There were signs that the strike could also lead to a more enduring militancy within the union. The USW’s threat of a nationwide strike, if unrealized, was itself notable at a time when this tactic has all but disappeared from unions’ arsenal. During the strike, Beevers said, “Our members are speaking loud and clear . . . If it takes a global fight to win safe workplaces, so be it.”

In the wake of the strike’s success, an article posted on the USW website called for unions to help steer the economy away from profits and toward a system “based not on selfishness, greed, and contempt, but on ethics, on giving people the justice they deserve.” This, at its core, is what a just transition is all about: reframing the economy entirely, placing workers at the center instead of profits. “The successful strike by the oil refinery workers,” the article continued, “is on behalf of that justice and shows that unions still have power.”

Indeed, behind workers’ apparent vulnerability lurks enormous potential. As they extract fossil fuels, load them onto railway cars and into tankers, transport them thousands of miles, refine and process them, package and sell them, workers have a unique ability to bring the industry to a halt. And, thanks to the deep integration of fossil fuel products into the modern economy, if the fossil fuels stop moving, so does the rest of the world.

From teachers to nurses to rig operators, the array of workers confronting the nexus of social and ecological destruction is rapidly growing. But much remains to be done. Environmental politics must become generalized in the labor movement, and vice versa. The language of climate justice has already begun to infuse a sense of class politics into environmentalism, and green groups’ support for recent labor struggles is a promising step forward. Initiatives like the Labor Network for Sustainability, Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, and the BlueGreen Alliance are helping to connect the dots. But environmentalists must go further, acknowledging that there can be no real solution to the energy crisis without the input and leadership of the people who already do the work. Understanding the climate crisis as part of neoliberalism’s larger attack on public welfare and democracy (with the impacts, like all social failings in the United States, experienced more acutely by people of color and particularly by African Americans) can help expand the terrain on which both unions and climate activists struggle.

Ultimately, we live in the world we build. That world is both social and ecological, constantly made and remade through what sociologist Jason Moore has described as “the web of life.” If organized labor—and the climate—are to have a fighting chance, unions must offer real alternatives to the world of “shared sacrifice” and dead zones, of poisoning by austerity, of cheap fuels and cheap lives. What would it take for today’s coal-belt communities, channeling the Miners for Democracy, to fight not against EPA regulations but for jobs restoring lands destroyed by mountaintop removal mining? What would it take for union activists to have a meaningful say at the next international climate talks?

This work is just beginning. But with a shared vision to guide it, labor environmentalism can take us far. Its core demand is simple: to build a world that all of us, not just the rich or white, can actually live in.

Trish Kahle is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Chicago. She is a contributing editor at Red Wedge and has written for Jacobin, Dissent, In These Times, Labor, the Ecologist, and the International Socialist Review.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

Let’s Save Each Other

Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission