Labor-Environment Relations: An Enduring Conflict or Transformative Alliance?

The relationship between workers and environmentalists is often described as an “enduring conflict” in which workers’ jobs are pitted against the ecological concerns of environmental activists. The presumed trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection contributes to a jobs versus the environment rhetoric that is dominant in media and political debates over environmental regulations.

Photo: M H, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Divisions between unions and environmentalists are related to differences in economic interests and social class as well as cultural, social and generational dynamics of the different groups. Unions have often prioritized jobs and economic growth, particularly in heavily polluting industries, while the mainstream environmental movement has historically neglected working class and economic issues. In the U.S. these conflicts have played out around logging versus protection of endangered species, and air pollution regulations on power plants. Workers have pushed against conservation and pollution-reduction when these policies are perceived as threatening their livelihoods.

The recent controversy in the U.S. over building the Keystone XL pipeline to transport tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast of the U.S. is emblematic of these labor-environment conflicts. Industry and conservative political supporters of the pipeline presented the project as creating economic growth and jobs, while environmentalists mobilized against the pipeline as contributing to climate change and a pollution risk.

However, labor versus environment conflicts are not inevitable or inherent. The relationship between class and environmentalism is complex and shaped by people’s lived experiences, culture, religion and political ideology that does not follow a neat division between work and the environment. Workers and environmentalists share an interest in critiquing capitalism that both exploits workers and degrades the environment. Working class and communities of color are also exposed to greater environmental pollution and hazards. Often times the same corporations who cut wages and place workers’ health at risk also pollute surrounding communities and deplete resources. Yet, workers are in a contradictory position of depending on employers for livelihoods while also being exploited and oppressed.

While there have certainly been labor-environment tensions, conflict does not tell the entire story. The demands of the early labor movements in 19th century Europe and the U.S. often focused on health and safety, and quality of life issues, and concerns about pollution. In the 1970s, unions worked with environmentalists in the U.S. to pass major environmental and occupational safety and health legislation, while laborers in Australia refused to work on environmentally damaging projects in the green bans movement. In the 1990s unions and environmental activists protested against free trade and NAFTA – symbolically taking to the streets as Teamsters and Turtles in the 1999 Seattle WTO protests.

There is little evidence that rank and file union members in the U.S. are particularly anti-environmental. My analysis of U.S. survey data from the past 20 years shows that union households are not any less concerned about the environment, even during weak economic times, than the general public.

Labor-environment divisions are therefore actively created and maintained. Scholars have shown how corporations attempt to split workers and environmentalists in a divide and conquer strategy. Actions by unions and environmental groups have also created both alliances and disputes, as seen in the Keystone XL case in which some unions collaborated with environmental groups while other unions aligned with industry in pushing for the project’s development.

Media coverage of environmental and labor issues is a key way in which jobs versus environment trade-offs become taken-for-granted. Ideologies of capitalist growth and worker dependence on industry can be reproduced through reporting on environmental issues.

Photo: tarsandaction, CC BY 2.0

My analysis of mainstream U.S. newspaper coverage of the Keystone XL pipeline found that the issue was described as a fight between workers and environmentalists. This shows how media coverage reinforces these divisions by presenting environmental issues as a trade-off between the economy and the environment. The Keystone XL pipeline was framed as promoting national energy security, job creation and helping struggling middle-class union workers. On the other hand, stopping the pipeline was framed as a political favor to middle-class environmentalists concerned about nature and as a narrow environmental, rather than social justice, issue.

The Keystone XL pipeline controversy reveals how dominant narratives make blue-green collaboration invisible, but also the transformative possibilities of the climate justice movement. The loudest and most frequent voices of workers in coverage of the Keystone XL pipeline were the few pro-industry unions that would directly gain jobs on the project. Missing in the coverage was the large number of unions and diverse social groups that opposed the pipeline. Unions, civil rights groups, students and anti-capitalist activists demanded rigorous environmental review of the pipeline while environmentalists, Indigenous activists, and Midwestern ranchers mobilized to block the pipeline.

More broadly, labor movements have mobilized around climate justice and participated in climate change negotiations pushing for a just transition agenda that protects negatively impacted workers and communities. The People’s Climate March in September 2014 brought together student, environmental, labor, and civil rights movements across the globe to demand climate action in what could signal an emerging mass movement that crosses class, race, age, gender, and national lines.

The possibilities for a “more ideal future” of sustainability and popular decision-making are also shown through the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline’s permit was recently rejected by President Obama – essentially halting the project, which was a major victory for the climate change movement and the ability for popular protest to disrupt extraction of fossil fuels. Obama’s decision overcame the old divisions between the economy and the environment, and corporate power to respond to a vibrant social movement and public outcry against the ravages of fossil fuel consumption.

Still, the Keystone XL controversy points to the challenges in fostering a sustained blue-green movement that is key for creating a more sustainable and just future. Alliances between labor and the environment can strengthen both movements and build popular pressure to address climate change, but sustaining these relationships requires active effort to overcome differences and dominant ideologies.


Kojola photoErik Kojola is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota where he studies political economy, the environment and labor. His research examines the social, economic and political dynamics of resource extraction, and relationships between the labor and environmental movements.

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