In 1969, a concerned American citizen sent the following letter for inclusion in the records of the United States Senate Subcommittee on Air and Water Pollution’s 1969 field hearings in St. Louis, Missouri:
“[My organization] is proud that it involves itself socially and politically in all the great issues of our times. We take positions on Viet Nam, armament de-escalation, school integration, racial injustice, Supreme Court appointments, moon shots, mass transit and health insurance.
“It is frightening to think that all the above issues, each screaming for priority, will become, or worse—already are hypothetical, and we here are a ‘moot court’ planning today to meet yesterday’s deadline.
“We believe no problem has greater priority than the problem of our environment.
“What difference will it make if the fighting stops in Viet Nam—
“What difference will it make if the bomb is banned—
“What difference will it make if black children finally receive a chance for an education and their fathers a chance for a job—
“What difference will it make which persuasion dominates the Supreme Court, or how many more billions are budgeted to trample more footprints on the moon—
“What difference will it make if at last we decide that all men have the right to the best medical care that can be provided—
“What difference will any of it make if we continue to poison and destroy the life supports of our world?
“We in [my organization] ask ourselves if we are struggling for the benefit of a generation which will never have the chance to be.
“Better we tear the factories to the ground, abandon the mines, plug the petroleum holes and fill the fuel tanks of our cars with sugar than continue this doomsday madness.
“[My organization] has placed air and environmental pollution at the top of its list of priority problems of man.
“We demand that our community and all communities do the same.
“We demand that uncompromising and irreversible standards and controls be established to preserve our environment, no matter what the cost, no matter how great the violation of property rights, no matter what the effect on dividends and no matter what the effect on our own bold plans for collective bargaining.”
To say that this striking, resounding letter expressed the environmental concerns of some segments of the American public at the dawn of the 1970s environmental movement would be a pathetic understatement. It went far beyond that. For the writer, who was obviously sensitive to a wide range of major issues of concern to progressives of the day, actually went so far as to say—outright, eloquently, and forcefully—that as important as all those other issues were, the truly central issue on which all the others depended was protecting the environment. The writer was pointing out, stridently, what frankly still applies today: that all of our other worthy reform efforts will be rendered meaningless if we let our ship collide with the looming iceberg of environmental devastation.
Some of today’s reform causes are mostly new since 1969—like equal pay for women and gay marriage rights. Other of today’s worthy reform efforts are, sadly, depressingly familiar and still far too much the same as they were more than forty years ago—such as health care and racial equality. The Vietnam War is long over, but other, newer (and some might say, equally ill-advised) wars are still grinding on.
But most of all, the iceberg in front of us is still the same—or at least still too much the same, in some ways perhaps better, in other ways much, much worse, still unresolved, still un-surmounted, still un-bypassed, still potentially, disastrously lethal.
What’s also striking about this 1969 letter is that it was not written by just some random environmental extremist representing some peripheral, possibly fly-by-night early environmental group; it came from a major leader of a major American labor union. Substitute “the United Auto Workers” for each appearance of “my organization” in the letter above.
The letter was written by Kenneth L. Worley, the long-time director of Region 5 of the UAW, covering effectively the entire western United States from Missouri, Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana westward to the Pacific, excepting only Minnesota, Iowa, Montana, and the Dakotas. With California, Texas, and Washington State, UAW Region 5 largely dominated aerospace employment along with being a major presence in auto, truck, and tractor manufacturing. It was and is a major component of a major international labor union.
Worley’s letter thus powerfully demonstrates how before the 1970s, the American labor movement was frankly out in front of most of the rest of the nation in supporting pro-environmental policies and reforms.
Worley’s letter, although admittedly only one piece of evidence, also helps dispel some all-too-common myths about early environmentalism. For instance, one that took root in the later 1970s and 1980s: that environmentalism was cooked up by a bunch of privileged, liberal/leftist college kids. Anyone who is familiar with the history and origins of environmentalism before 1970 would know that is wholly incorrect.
In the early 1960s, some progressive college kids, white as well as black, stuck their necks out bravely to fight against racial segregation and inequality—those were the famous “Freedom Riders” who rode Greyhound buses into the segregated South to desegregate bus terminals, at risk of injury or death; the students who participated in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters; those students who joined Dr. Martin Luther King in the anti-segregation boycotts and protests in Birmingham, Alabama in 1962-63; and workers in the Mississippi Freedom Summer voter registration campaign of 1964, to name a few salient examples among many others. Those students got out front early, took great risks, and sacrificed their own safety and comfort for the good of others and in the name of justice. They are rightly viewed as heroic as such. Later students became active in the antiwar movement during the late 1960s—before they all became mostly preoccupied with drugs, sex, and other self-indulgence in the dissipated 1970s.
The point is: student activists, and students in general, were busy with other things and basically didn’t even discover the environmental movement until not long before the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Students did take an active role in the first Earth Day; it was conceived as a nationwide “teach-in” patterned after earlier “teach-ins” about the Vietnam War on college campuses. Thereafter, students became much more active and visible in the new environmental movement, and ultimately, in typically self-satisfied, self-important Baby Boomer fashion, they sort of took it over and acted as though they had built the whole movement in the first place, helping to give color to critics’ contentions that environmentalism was just the creation of some spoiled-rotten, affluent college kids who knew nothing about real work.
Obviously, though, Kenneth Worley, who was born in 1924—thus 45 years old in 1969—and was a Marine veteran of World War II who apparently never went to college, was not a Baby Boomer college kid, and was not speaking for them when he wrote his letter to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee. We can safely assume that relatively few of the members of UAW Region 5, or any other UAW region, had gone to college.
This all just helps to illustrate my point: the people who over the 1950s and ’60s brought the fledgling environmental movement to the point where it could be even called a movement, and to where there could even be a first Earth Day, were not Baby-Boomer college kids; they were mostly mature adults of the World War II and Korea generations.
[Notably, like most of the people who did all the early heavy lifting in the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and early 1960s, when most Baby Boomers were still in diapers or watching “Leave It To Beaver.” Remember, even the earliest Boomers, born in 1945, would have been only nineteen by the time of the Mississippi Freedom Summer—barely old enough to participate. Thus it is safe to say that nearly all Boomers were too young to have taken anything more than a mere spectator role in most of the significant achievements of the Civil Rights movement. Like the environmental movement, credit for all that must be given to the earlier generations who have never received credit for it. Boomers, by contrast, are due full credit for the irresponsible self-indulgence of the 1970s, as well as later being the “Me Generation” and young Reaganite conservatives of the 1980s. Credit (or discredit) where such is due.]
Worley’s letter, and what (and who) it represents, gives the lie to another popular myth about environmentalism: that it’s just a creation of (upper) middle-class elitists looking to establish nature preserves for themselves and their affluent families to romp in, with no regard for employment opportunities for ordinary working stiffs.
The charge of environmentalist “elitism” is one that Reaganite critics have loved to throw at environmentalists since the late 1970s, when corporate America and its spin-masters finally discovered effective if under-handed and logically inconsistent rhetorical tools to turn back the environmentalists’ appropriate critique of modern corporate consumer capitalism. The elitism charge has always been transparently hollow.
Early environmentalism, from the late 1960s through the ’70s, focused primarily on controlling air and water pollution and other forms of pollution. Upper-middle-class people already lived in relatively cleaner places, and always have; working for general clean-up of the air and water obviously had more impact on more heavily polluted poorer neighborhoods than on richer ones that were already relatively clean. No duh. Presumably that’s why the Reaganites and their descendants always loved to focus obsessively on wilderness preservation as though it were the whole of the environmental movement, and ignore pollution control—it’s a lot easier to caricature rich people frolicking on nature adventures in national parks than to confront the reality of people, rich, poor, or in between, challenging industrial pollution for the sake of everybody.
[I should add here that I am absolutely NOT joining in the Reaganite critique of wilderness preservation, which some on the left also have foolishly embraced; wilderness preservation is necessary and appropriate to keep a greedy, short-sighted, stupid corporate consumer economic machine from overrunning and destroying everything in its path in its mindless pursuit of short-term gain. And what is preserved is preserved for all, and for the future, even if it’s admittedly easier for the more affluent to take advantage of it. Does anyone suppose that the poor of today, who are struggling to get by, want their children or grandchildren to stay in the same situation, and never have a fuller life? Or want their children or grandchildren, even if more affluent, to inherit a world not worth living in? Moreover, if we were to measure the value of everything by the yardstick of people presently too poor to worry about anything other than just getting by, we would have to throw out pretty much everything: not just national parks and wilderness areas, but concert halls, opera houses, art galleries, museums, universities, and certainly the golf courses of the filthy rich. The very poor don’t have access to most of these institutions, unless as menial laborers. Yet it’s kind of funny how only the national parks and wilderness areas, which have resources that corporations wish to exploit, get branded with the label “elitist” and targeted for destruction. And how CEOs and investment bankers who annually earn several hundred to several thousand times what the average American taxpayer earns are not “elitist,” but environmentalists are. VERY mysterious. Almost looks like spin …. ]
At any rate, Worley, and the many ordinary union members from the St. Louis area who came out to testify before the visiting U.S. Senators in 1969—like the Teamsters-affiliated Martha Blacksher, James Pace, and Richard King, who complained bitterly of the harm lead smelter pollution was causing to their communities—obviously were not “elitists,” unlike the well-heeled academic and political spin-doctors who later cunningly cooked up that label for anybody who challenged corporate environmental destruction.
The later history of Ken Worley, unfortunately, parallels the history of both the decline of union-environmental cooperation and the decline of the American labor movement as a whole.
Kenneth Lee Worley was born in Fortuna, Missouri—a small town in a rural county right in the center of the state—on June 18, 1924. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the Pacific Theater during World War II—his obituaries call him a “decorated veteran,” a fact Worley apparently carried proudly through his life. He married his wife of forty years (she predeceased him) in 1954 in Liberty, Missouri, now a suburb of Kansas City. Worley was director of Region 5 of the UAW for 21 years from the 1960s to the 1980s. He was living in retirement back in Fortuna when he died on March 8, 2010. The Ken Worley UAW Center in Wentzville, Missouri is named after him.
What was Worley thinking when he made his sweeping pro-environmental statements in his letter to the visiting Senators in 1969? As with any person, at any time, it is hard to say for certain. Was his strident rhetoric entirely a reflection of his own personal feelings at that time, or was it affected by a majority (or outspoken minority) of his rank and file members within Region 5, or was it in part an effort to curry favor with Walter Reuther, the far-sighted, progressive, and pro-environmental top leader of the UAW? We don’t know. Some historians, most of whom know and understand very little about environmental issues or environmentalists, when first confronted with Worley’s pro-environmental rhetoric, may be inclined to be dismissive, concluding that “He was just saying that.” They don’t know for certain just what was going on in Worley’s mind any better than I do, but whatever the case, he WAS saying it—that is, as a major and rising figure within a major international union, and speaking on behalf of tens of thousands of members, he MADE those strident statements, on the public record. Even assuming that Worley may not have been speaking purely from his own heart—few of us ever do, especially public figures—he obviously felt that it was not only politically safe, but perhaps also politically advantageous, to write what he did. That in itself obviously speaks volumes about the mood of the times, and the mood within UAW’s Region 5.
The fortunes of both the environmental movement and the labor movement ebbed in the 1970s, though. Walter Reuther himself died in a plane crash in early 1970, a few months before the first Earth Day. The 1970s brought economic troubles to the United States that tended to dampen both movements and drive a wedge between them. Although environmentalists and labor unions continued to cooperate on certain issues well into the 1970s, gradually, unions, concerned about hanging onto union jobs and job-creating projects, began to abandon their pro-environmental stance. Various major unions favored the Supersonic Transport (SST) project—which was both economically and environmentally a bad idea, as later developments revealed, but which promised jobs. Unions also favored building the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline and more nuclear power plants, additional bad ideas that environmentalists resisted. By 1980, the major unions were more and more prone to ally themselves with corporate management and make sweeping concessions to management to hang onto jobs, and, of course, in the election of 1980, large numbers of union members became “Reagan Democrats,” switching sides to vote for the pro-growth, anti-environmental former governor of California. [Environmentalists were generally horrified by Reagan and his proposals and mostly did not vote for him; unlike union members, they definitely cannot be blamed for helping to elect him and bring on the age of Reaganism. Reagan, of course, promptly rewarded the blue-collar Reagan Democrats’ loyalty by dramatically and aggressively using the full power of the federal government to smash the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike, so helping to break the remaining strength of the American labor movement to such an extent that it is only starting to recover now, decades later.]
By the 1980s, whatever his earlier views on the environment may have been, Worley, a survivor and an insider, was an active participant in the alliance between union leaders and corporate management. Worley and other UAW leaders helped to arrange secret deals with employers, then presented them to the rank and file as faits accomplis. Rebel movements within the UAW sprouted up to challenge what some saw as high-handed and unresponsive union leadership of the 1980s; Victor Reuther in particular came out of retirement to fight against the new “partnership” approach to union-management relations, which he saw as a return to the 1920s and everything he and his brother had fought against. Worley was challenged for his leadership position in Region 5 by Jerry Tucker, a popular, reform-minded UAW official and leader of the “New Directions” caucus of local union leaders concerned with the upper leadership’s readiness to accept job losses, concessions, and a common front with corporate management. Worley initially hung onto his position by one-tenth of a vote in a close, bitterly contested election in 1986 that drew allegations of corruption and impropriety. Later, after prolonged litigation brought by the United States Department of Labor, a federal court threw out the 1986 election results, and Tucker handily won in the 1988 rematch. Although Tucker was soon squeezed out again by the established leadership of the UAW, the whole transaction embarrassed the UAW leadership, including UAW president Owen Bieber.
“Partnership”-prone UAW leaders such as Bieber and Worley presumably honestly felt that the cozying up to corporate management and making secret agreements with corporations were the best things they could do for their union and its members during what was, for both the UAW and the U.S. auto industry, a generally disastrous run of years from the 1970s through the 1980s, as the industry reeled from foreign competition (especially from fuel-efficient and well-made Japanese imports), U.S. auto plants were closed, and the Big Three automakers of Detroit lost ever more domestic and international market share. Bieber credited himself with softening the blows to the UAW by the partnership approach. Other union leaders, such as Victor Reuther and Jerry Tucker, advocated a different path, confronting the corporations more aggressively as the union had done in the past, even being ready to strike if necessary. Probably the domestic plant closures and steady off-shoring of American jobs were never as inevitable as the corporations and their allies in the Reagan administration liked to pretend; yet at the same time, there definitely were powerful forces pushing in those directions.
Whether or not American unions could have done better during the 1980s with a different strategy, and whether or not the UAW somewhat helped to soften the blow for its workers relative to certain other industries such as the hard-hit steel industry, the fact remains that overall, labor lost out during the Reagan years and has been, ever since, a mere shadow of its former self. That suggests that, if they were going to lose anyway, the union leadership might have done better at least to go down fighting. They chose not to.
They also forgot that they ever were allied with some friends they might have had in that fight—the environmentalists. Worley of course wrote his striking, strident letter in 1969; around the same time, both before and after his brother Walter’s death, Victor Reuther made various passionate public statements regarding the common interests of workers with students and environmentalists. By the mid- to late 1970s, already, such statements were long forgotten, and Victor Reuther, even as he was trying to help mobilize progressive elements within the UAW to challenge the established leadership, seemingly never mentioned environmentalists again, at least not in a favorable way; the same goes for Kenneth Worley. Ironically, even the segments of the UAW that challenged the established leadership’s coziness with the corporations nevertheless appeared to have swallowed the corporations’ anti-environmentalist poison. Such attitudes persist even today, with far too many environmentally unaware leftists joining disingenuous right-wing spin-doctors in a common front of self-righteously bashing environmentalists as though they somehow are the problem. Again, it wasn’t the environmentalists who elected Ronald Reagan president. And although some union members who became Reagan Democrats may have felt alienated by environmentalists, more were probably at least equally alienated by the (non-environmentalist) student activists of the 1960s and ’70s. It’s easy to see how World War II veterans like Worley, or Korea veterans, might have felt put off by what many saw as lazy, irresponsible, draft-dodging, pot-smoking, sexually libertine, pampered deadbeats of the 1970s. [In fact, Ronald Reagan’s whole major political career and trajectory toward the presidency began when he was elected governor of California in 1966, based in large part upon the statewide emotional appeal of his promise to rein in and muzzle the student radicals of the Berkeley Free Speech movement—who were not talking much if at all about environmental issues.]
Ken Worley’s striking 1969 letter indicates that significant elements within the America labor movement actively embraced the environmentalist cause at that time; other evidence reveals the same picture. When the hopeful relationship came to an end during the 1970s and ’80s, it was fundamentally due to labor bailing on the environmentalists, not the other way around. Labor, in cozying up to corporations that were already determined to close plants and off-shore jobs, shot itself in the foot. On balance, and with hindsight, labor leaders made bad decisions that sealed the fate of the American labor movement. Union members did the same by switching parties to vote for Ronald Reagan.
Only someone quite ignorant of these facts, or quite disingenuous, could blame environmentalists for these disastrous results. That doesn’t keep them from being blamed, though, or from being used generally as a whipping-boy for the frustrations and disappointments of the American left. More on that later.
And the bottom line remains: when Ken Worley made his statement in 1969 that various other worthy reform issues would not matter if we fumbled the ball on the environment—HE WAS RIGHT.
In fact, HE IS STILL RIGHT.
Which is something that a lot of well-intentioned progressive reformers, confronting the plethora of policy problems we presently face, should always keep in mind.
Or in other words, to bluntly rephrase Ken Worley’s statement, and to liberally paraphrase former President Bill Clinton:
“It’s the ENVIRONMENT, stupid!”