The only problem? This simplistic narrative erases the history of working-class support of environmentalism while covering up the more complicated story of the timber industry’s decline due to the policies of a shortsighted, rapacious industry — not environmental regulation.
Counter to popular belief, working-class Americans have a long history of active environmentalism. Timber workers in particular long used their unions to promote a forward-looking environmental agenda. Beginning in 1938, the International Woodworkers of America (IWA), a CIO-affiliated union, took on the timber industry’s awful environmental record.
The union spent the next decade demanding sustainable forestry that would lead to stable communities and healthy forests — as well as jobs. It hired a professional forester as research director and had a bill introduced before Congress that would have regulated private forestry. The bill failed in the late 1940s, but the IWA remained a leading voice in forest protection for the next four decades, including testifying in favor of what became the Wilderness Act of 1964.
Labor unions and conservationists worked together frequently in the mid-20th century. Both movements recognized that the growth of the state would create opportunities to engage in long-term planning to use natural resources sustainably.
Working-class environmentalism thrived in an era when workers believed they were assured a stable future. Yet transformations in the nation’s economy in the 1970s curtailed this shared effort. Deindustrialization, automation, outsourcing and a renewed era of union-busting weakened the New Deal coalition, as well as the bonds between labor and environmentalism, putting workers on the defensive. And after 1973, efforts by environmentalists to clean up industry fueled employers’ narratives that any such regulation would close factories and move jobs abroad.
Yet many of these jobs were disappearing regardless of environmental regulation. Beginning in the 1970s, the timber industry began engaging in rapid improvements in efficiency and automation, drastically cutting the number of workers needed. In 1978, the timber industry employed 136,000 people in Oregon and Washington. Four years later, that number declined to 95,000. The number of workers needed to produce the same amount of lumber fell by about 20 percent between 1982 and 1991.
Changing export policy also transformed the industry. Beginning in 1962, the timber industry began shipping unprocessed logs to Japan rather than processing them in the United States. While the amount of timber being shipped increased, the number of workers needed plummeted and thousands of jobs were lost. Exports exploded during the Reagan years, and between 1979 and 1989, lumber production in the Northwest increased by 11 percent — while employment dropped by 24,500.
This all took place at a time when environmentalists fought to save the last old-growth forests in the Northwest. But they tried to take workers’ concerns about job losses seriously. Notably, when Redwood National Park in Northern California expanded in 1978, the final bill included a clause that gave nearly full wages and benefits to workers laid off because of environmental protection, thanks to the unions and the Sierra Club working together. The Redwood Employee Protection Program helped nearly 2,000 workers get through hard times before the Reagan administration killed the program in 1981.
In the 1980s, concerned about the loss of the last remaining ancient stands of timber and the ecological catastrophe that portended, environmentalists sought more robust protection, even if that meant job losses. Worsening conditions for workers because of corporate policy coincided with a decaying relationship between timber unions and environmentalists. The IWA worked closely with environmentalists, both on forest policy and creating healthy workplaces through the 1970s. But tensions grew in the face of the shrinking union membership that plagued the entire labor movement.
By the late 1980s and 1990s, when timber companies blamed greens for job losses, workers believed them and vehemently attacked people they saw as outsiders, hippies and city dwellers. The IWA ended its relationship with environmentalists in 1987 and became an ally of employers instead. Job losses and larger changes to the American economy since the 1970s steadily weakened labor power, leaving workers precarious and anxious. And the rise of a new, more radical environmental movement brought a different tenor to the protests and included some members who genuinely were indifferent to the future of those laid off, poisoning the relationship between the movements.
Even though the ancient forest campaigns were often led and supported by rural Northwesterners themselves, and many green organizations tried to push for solutions that would provide alternative forest economies, timber companies and media reports promoted the idea that environmentalists were outsiders pitted against the region’s workers.
The spotted owl, officially listed as threatened in 1990, provided the timber industry with a scapegoat for the elimination of thousands of jobs in the preceding decades. The entire enterprise was a cynical yet effective way for the timber industry to deflect its own culpability for the conditions in which these communities found themselves.
Blaming environmental regulation for those losses, however, was largely a lie. The Endangered Species Act didn’t precipitate an immediate loss of jobs. By 1994, after most logging in the national forest was shut down, some 91,000 workers were still employed in the timber industry; most of the jobs had disappeared over the previous 20 years for unrelated reasons.
Today’s timber workers will not benefit from the evisceration of the ESA. Even if every old-growth tree is harvested and every northern spotted owl eliminated, timber communities will not materially benefit. The nearly fully automated industry employs consistently fewer workers, a trend that is unlikely to reverse.
More than that, economic growth in the Northwest actually depends on these trees standing, as the region has become an international tourist hub, with locals and visitors coming to hike, fish, mountain bike and otherwise play in these forests. And the survival of our species may depend on protecting its delicate ecosystems.
In 1938, the IWA’s union newspaper told its members that if the timber industry continued its environmentally destructive practices, the industry would be largely dead in the Northwest by 2000. The union was right. But that had almost nothing to do with protecting the spotted owl and almost everything to do with corporate policies pursued at the expense of workers and sustainable forestry.
Taking the economic problems of these communities seriously shouldn’t mean hastening environmental destruction by gutting the Endangered Species Act, but instead demanding significant economic assistance for those workers unemployed due to changing ways of working, as well as environmental protection. A federal job guarantee, for example, would support workers whose industries can no longer employ them.
Environmentalists and workers can join once again to build a green economy that is also a unionized economy. Rather than embrace the cynical arguments of an environmentally destructive industry or engage in nostalgia, we need to fight instead for a new economy that will protect workers as well as owls, forests as well as communities.