Teamsters & Turtles: An On-Again, Off-Again Relationship

posted by scott parkin

“You cannot seriously address the destruction of wilderness without addressing the society that is destroying it.”

— Judi Bari, Earth First!er, Wobbly, organizer and agitator

“Hungry and Out of Work? Eat an environmentalist!”

— Bumper sticker distributed by local union at Three Mile Island in response to anti-nuclear movement

In 1921, for five days in late August and early September, some 10,000 armed coal miners confronted 3,000 police and coal company strike breakers in a little-known historic incident known as “The Battle of Blair Mountain.”  The Battle of Blair Mountain was the culmination of a massive union drive in the coalfields of West Virginia. The miners worked in appalling conditions for little pay. The collapse in coal prices following World War I, and the greed of the coal operators and Wall Street bankers, led to a new level of union-busting. The Battle of Blair Mountain was the largest armed insurrection in U.S. history since the Civil War. Strike breaking included the intervention of federal troops on behalf of the coal operators and the use of aerial bombing on the union forces in the United States. The conflict resulted in the deaths of nearly 150 people.


Eventually, militant labor movements such as the Appalachian mineworkers, and radical moments like the Battle of Blair Mountain, led to the legalization of collective bargaining and improvement of working conditions around the country.  

In the past 50 years, the same coal operators have waged a war on Appalachia’s mountains and mountain communities with strip-mining techniques that includes mountaintop removal and the disposal of coal waste in the rivers and streams of Appalachia. The same companies have used the modernization of strip-mining techniques to reduce the size their workforces making their executives more money and breaking union strength (less numbers, less power). 

On the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Blair Mountain in 2011, environmentalists, labor, Appalachians, retired union miners and many other re-enacted the march on Blair Mountain. At the event, march organizer Brandon Nida stated: “The unions protect [workers] in the workplace and environmentalists protect them at home. They’re the same.”

Over the years, labor and environmentalists have not always gotten along harmoniously. Unions often advocating for their members find themselves in conflict with environmental groups advocating for specific policies and regulations. Environmentalists, lacking a class analysis, have too often placed workers interests in the same camp as company interests.

Often the conflict is framed around economic growth. Unions support economic growth and see it tied to full employment and strong unions, while environmentalists support a world with less economic growth and impact on wild places, communities and the climate.

The western timber wars of the 1980s and 1990s were particularly tense times. When environmentalists pressured the government to protect wildlife and wilderness in the Pacific Northwest, logging companies Louisiana Pacific, Georgia Pacific, and MAXXAM in northern California, and Boise Cascade and Weyerhauser in Oregon and Washington responded with a variety of tactics to divide timber workers from the “environmental threat” and provoke violence.

Early on, logging corporations used paid company time to “educate” loggers on how to resist government polices regulating forest destruction. One company asked workers, their families, and local businesses to fly yellow ribbons to show solidarity with management against the environmentalist “threat.” It became dangerous not to fly ribbons in timber-dependent small towns.

When Earth First! escalated forest defense with direct action campaigns to protect Old Growth forest. Judy Bari, a lifelong member of the Wobblies, became a lead organizer for Earth First! in Redwood Summer in 1990. Bari worked to connect labor to environmental issues. She called for sustainable logging to protect both logger employment and the forests. She pushed Earth First! on finding common ground with loggers and form a united front against companies bent on exploiting workers and destroying the planet.

In May, 1990, Bari and her partner were bombed when starting their car in a parking lot in Oakland while organizing Redwood Summer. Both survived, but campaign momentum was stunted.

In the mid-1990s, when Earth First! descended upon Idaho to fight the Cove-Mallard timber sale, timber industry front groups created a culture of hostility against forest defenders. The Idaho state legislature passed anti-Earth First! laws to stop forest defense with felony charges. Loggers also responded with violent attacks against Earth First!ers.

Not all labor-environmentalist interactions have been bad. In fact, many times environmentalists and labor had banded together to defend the rights of workers and protect the planet from Corporate America. In 1970, the first Earth Day began with critical support from the United Autoworkers (UAW). UAW donated the initial $2,000, provided printed materials, had UAW chapters organize events and eventually endorsed the Clean Air Act, in contrast to other big unions. 

On the first Earth Day, UAW President Walter Reuther said:

The labor movement is about that problem we face tomorrow morning. Damn right! But to make that the sole purpose of the labor movement is to miss the main target. I mean, what good is a dollar an hour more in wages if your neighborhood is burning down? What good is another week’s vacation if the lake you used to go to is polluted and you can’t swim in it and the kids can’t play in it? What good is another hundred dollars in pension if the world goes up in atomic smoke?

In Seattle at the World Trade Organization protests in 1999, also known as the “Battle in Seattle,” a new era of labor-environmental cooperation was heralded as “Teamsters and Turtles” marched together against corporate globalization. At the Free Trade Area of the Americas protests in Miami in 2003, John Sweeney toured the convergence space organized by anarchists and environmentalists and proclaimed support and solidarity. The next day when, Miami police violently attached the march, labor, environmentalists, human rights advocates, students and many others were together facing down the corporate police state.

Earlier this year, when more than 7,000 steelworkers across the country walked off the job at 15 oil refineries run by Shell, Chevron, Exxon and other oil companies, another wave of labor-green cooperation swept both movements. During the six week strike action, environmental and climate activists joined steelworkers on the picket lines and groups like the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Communities for a Better Environment and the Sierra Club voiced support for the striking workers.

In an era of conservative and corporate led attacks on labor and environmental regulations, collective bargaining and frontline communities, bolstering ties between unions and greens is not only powerful, it’s necessary. 

As founder and director of the Labor Network for Sustainability, Joe Uehlein, said:

When it comes to the environment, organized labor has two hearts beating within a single breast. On the one hand, the millions of union members are people and citizens like everybody else, threatened by air pollution and water pollution and the devastating consequences of climate change. On the other hand, unions are responsible for protecting the jobs of their members, and efforts to protect the environment sometimes may threaten workers’ jobs.

Scott Parkin is a climate organizer with Rainforest Action Network and Rising Tide North America. You can follow him on Twtter at @sparki1969.