The UAW steps up for Earth Day

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At right is a United Auto Workers (UAW) leaflet from October 1970 detailing the union's actions to confront the dangers of pollution and encouraging its members to get involved in the effort.

Many labor unions would show their support of Earth Day and become important constituencies in the modern environmental movement. The UAW led the pack.

By 1970 the UAW already had made a well-established commitment to the cause. After hosting a major conference on water quality, United Action for Clean Water, in 1965, the UAW added a permanent Conservation and Resource Development Department to "make common cause" with other groups and the union. Not only did the CRD department lobby - as this document boasts - to limit industrial effluence and ban DDT and tainted food, but department director Olga Madar (pictured in the document) even appeared on Capitol Hill to endorse better fuel economy for automobiles - a demand that would ostensibly threaten the jobs of UAW members.

However, Madar insisted that the laborers she represented were "first and foremost American citizens and consumers" who "breathe the same air and drink and bathe in the same water" as their neighbors in other professions.

Gaylord Nelson had worked as a labor lawyer out of law school and always been politically reliant on union support. In the UAW and other labor unions he found a dependable ally as he championed Earth Day. For example, Nelson's only second announcement of the Earth Day idea was made to a meeting of the AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Department. In response, Walter Reuther, the UAW's president, happily contributed 2,000 dollars to Environmental Teach-In, Inc.

UAW events to mark Earth Day 1970 were a microcosm of the diversity of Earth Day itself. A UAW-funded community group near Detroit, the Down River Anti-Pollution League, used Earth Day to stage a protest in which local resident Joyce Vermillion took women to the gates of the dirty steel mill 6 miles from her home.

President Reuther made a sweeping environmental speech at the union's annual convention in Atlantic City. He urged his members to think of the environment not as the distant lakes and mountains accessible only to privileged vacationers. Rather, it is where union women and men work and live.

"Because industry has for so long polluted the environment of the plants in which we work and has now created an environmental crisis of catastrophic proportions in the communities in which we live, the UAW will insist on discussing the implications of this crisis at the bargaining table," said Reuther.

In this Nelson Collection document, Reuther's successor, Leonard Woodcock, pledges his continued support to the environmentalist agenda. This flier is itself proof of that. On page 4, the UAW lists its support of the efforts of Nelson's former Earth Day coordinating staff - now incorporated as the lobbyist group Environmental Action - to turn Earth Day enthusiasm into victories in the midterm elections. When Reuther died in a plane crash just three weeks after Earth Day, the coordinating staff dedicated their book of Earth Day speech excerpts to him.