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.

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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. Continue reading