Around 2004 the USW and other unions began meeting with environmental groups to create the Blue-Green Alliance for “good jobs, clean environment and a green economy.” This merging of labor and environmental issues, formally launched in 2006, is not new. At times the USW has taken a leading role in strategizing with environmental and public health advocates to build a broader movement to hold government and businesses accountable for public health, worker rights, and social justice in the context of environmental health. The Steelworkers were there in 1970 to help launch Earth Day; 29 years later they were instrumental in building the coalition that challenged the WTO in Seattle in 1999. The challenges of building labor-environment coalitions have been persistent over several decades; the movement lurches forward in fits-and-starts, offering an occasional victory, or the intermittent mishap and misunderstanding. Union trainings on the environment, the Toxic Use Reduction Institute work with labor and environmentalists, the analyses developed through New Solutions: A Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health—these are a few signs of the potential for shared analysis and action. The USW has been involved in most of these efforts. It is prominent in the Blue-Green Alliance, which is primarily focused on renewable energy, green jobs and eco-economic sustainability.
The USW has been a critical player in shaping national policy, training, and remediation of environmental hazards through its prominent participation in the national Superfund program. Since the time of Love Canal in the late 1970's, the USW has played a significant role in public hearings, pushing for labor funding, training and participation.
Other unions have also pushed for a fair deal for workers, with former Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union activist, Tony Mazzochi, promoting a “Superfund for Workers,” or a “just sustainability” in which workers would not suffer job loss, but would be retrained for cleanup and a cleaner economy. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, the USW worked with community organizations and workers to offer training and support in cleanup, rebuilding of homes and retooling of infrastructure.
In a fragile economy where union membership is slipping, especially in the private/industrial sector, the USW is making a powerful effort to create a broader labor-environment-health-sustainability connection. This is a serious challenge for this union or any union in our ruptured economy. On the ground, in each community, the labor-environment-health history and conditions vary. It remains a very serious, uneven and mostly unexamined challenge for the USW and other unions to deal with the distinctive needs of local workers. In Hayden, ASARCO’s last operating smelter in the United States, workers and community members face the persistent corporate suffocation of their concerns about health and safety hazards. In El Paso, site of ASARCO’s hulking and hazardous smelter skeleton, it’s the challenge of staying connected to rank-and-file workers who are now out of work, injured, ill or on to other jobs. There’s much work to be done for a union which, having endured a complex corporate reorganization, must now address the variety of occupational and environmental risks that labor and its neighbors face. The work continues.
Next: Cross-Border Solidarity
Blue Green Alliance, www.bluegreenalliance.org “EPA Ignores Own Research on Health Threats from Asarco Pollution,” October 2004, USWA Strategic Campaigns. www.uswa.org/usws/program/content/1940.php Retrieved 6/24/05
Foster, David. “Steel Magnolias: Labor Allies with the Environmental Movement,” New Labor Forum, Winter 2007, pgs 59-67.
Greenhouse, Steven. “Steelworkers and Sierra Club Unite,” The New York Times, June 8, 2006. Slatin, Craig. Environmental Unions: Labor and the Superfund. Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing, 2009.