Labor Unions, Earth Day, and Environmentalism

Letter from Walter P. Reuther to Senator Gaylord Nelson

This Earth Day, we’d like to highlight archival collections that demonstrate organized labor’s role in environmentalism and the understanding of Earth Day as advantageous to the interests of business and workers alike. Though one may not expect it, numerous collections highlight unions’ historical efforts to fight pollution and champion conservation. The UFW Office of the President: Cesar Chavez Records contain reports about the high levels of pesticides used on American crops, pointing out the alarmingly low doses for each chemical required to cause serious bodily harm. The Urban Environment Conference Records, among many topics, document a coalition of labor unions and environmental organizations formed to protect the Clean Air Act against risks of industry deregulations. All these collections indicate that a healthy planet and thriving economy can be mutual goals, and that many in organized labor championed long-term environmental protections.

Few unions took this notion to heart as early and vigorously as the UAW. Years before the first Earth Day, President Walter Reuther and the UAW prominently made protecting the environment a priority by holding the Clear Water Conference in 1965. The UAW President's Office: Walter P. Reuther Records, includes correspondence between the labor leader and Lyndon Johnson on proposed legislation to reduce water pollution, his formation and leadership of the UAW Pollution Action Line, and planning documents for a conference with Earth Day-founder Senator Gaylord Nelson at the UAW’s Black Lake facility. Another rich collection demonstrating the UAW’s proactive stance on environmentalism is the Olga Madar Papers. Olga Madar was the first Director of the UAW’s Department of Conservation and Resource Development in 1967, and directed the union’s major conservation initiatives. Despite the UAW’s ties to heavy industry, the records in this collection highlight the union’s attempts to protect the environment, including correspondence that details the UAW’s early support of the proposed Earth Day. One also finds evidence of Reuther’s speeches at campus teach-ins that served as a precursor to the holiday and his initial donation of $2,000 to the Earth Day cause (Reuther's accompanying letter is pictured above). This was the first donation to Senator Nelson’s effort to create an Earth Day, and along with massive administrative support from the UAW, helped jumpstart Nelson’s successful campaign to designate an official day to celebrate environmentalism.

Organized labor was an early and eager supporter of Earth Day and its environmentalist aspirations, believing that a healthy environment means a healthy economy. As a newsletter sent to all the UAW’s locals stated in 1967, “Our members and their families are directly affected by the environment around them, whether inside the plant or outside the plant.” To learn more about the cooperation between the labor and environmental movements, the Walter P. Reuther Library and its archival collections is free and open to the public for research.

Gavin Strassel is the Service Employees International Union Archivist at the Walter P. Reuther Library.