People holding hands around an earth. The approach of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22 provides us an opportunity to reflect on the “long, strange trip” shared by the environmental movement and the labor movement over four decades here on Spaceship Earth.

A billion people participate in Earth Day events, making it the largest secular civic event in the world. But when it was founded in 1970, according to Earth Day’s first national coordinator Denis Hayes, “Without the UAW, the first Earth Day would have likely flopped!”

Less than a week after he first announced the idea for Earth Day, Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin presented his proposal to the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO. Walter Reuther, president of the UAW, enthusiastically donated $2,000 to help kick the effort off — to be followed by much more.  Hayes recalls, “The UAW was by far the largest contributor to the first Earth Day, and its support went beyond the merely financial. It printed and mailed all our materials at its expense — even those critical of pollution-belching cars. Its organizers turned out workers in every city where it has a presence. And, of course, Walter then endorsed the Clear Air Act that the Big Four were doing their damnedest to kill or gut.”

Some people may be surprised to learn that a labor union played such a significant role in the emergence of the modern environmental movement.  When they think of organized labor, they think of things like support for coal and nuclear power plants and opposition to auto emissions standards.

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. First as a working-class kid and then as a labor official, I’ve been dealing with the two sides of this question my whole life.

I was raised in Cleveland. It was a union town, and both my parents were trade unionists. We were going to the union hall all the time; that’s where the picnics and social functions and concerts happened.

At the same time, we kids were swimming in Lake Erie, and I watched them post the signs saying, “Don’t swim in the lake.” We were catching 50 to 100 perch every weekend and eating them until they posted the signs, “Don’t eat the perch.”

So we experienced this switch from where the smoke coming out of the steel mill chimneys meant bread on the table to a realization that we were messing up the lake that we loved and enjoyed.

I was there when the Cuyahoga River caught fire, and that was an alarming wakeup call. The burning river and the dying lake led the first Earth Day in Cleveland to be a monumental event. According to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, an estimated 500,000 elementary, junior-high, high-school, and college students took part in campus teach-ins, litter cleanups, and tree plantings. More than 1,000 Cleveland State University students and faculty staged a “death march” from the campus to the banks of the Cuyahoga River.  The headline in the Cleveland Press read, “Hippies and Housewives Unite to Protest What Man is Doing to Earth.”

After high school, I went to work in central Pennsylvania in an aluminum mill, and when the mill was flooded out by Hurricane Agnes, I got a job doing flood cleanup at Three Mile Island, which was under construction at the time, and joined the laborers union. That really got me involved in the labor movement. At 19 or 20, I became a full-time shop steward on safety and health issues. 

The environmental movement was protesting the construction of the power plant.

My local union had a bumper sticker that said, “Hungry and out of work? Eat an environmentalist!” I objected, and I went to the local and said, “You know, they’re not really our enemies. They’re protesting the construction of this power plant because it wasn’t built to withstand the impact of a Boeing 707. And the airport’s right there. So it kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?”

I’ve been making the same kind of argument ever since.