A Choice Of Nightmares
1 August 1982
WHEN the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered Union Carbide in 1971 to clean up air pollution from its Marietta, Ohio, plant, the company resisted, claiming the move would cost 600 workers their jobs.
Yet when Marietta citizens joined the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union to challenge Union Carbide, the company quickly backed down. The pollution control deadline was eventually met and not a single worker was fired. Throughout the 1970s, employers claimed that a clean environment must be sacrificed for the sake of a healthy economy.
Employers actively encourage fears that stricter environmental regulation might lead to higher unemployment. They know the fear of no job and no income is a powerful persuader— and they often use that threat to win worker support for their actions.
According to William Winpisinger. president of the million-member International Association of Machinists, the corporate ultimatum is ‘support industry or lose your job.’
This job blackmail is often quite effective. In 1975. for example, the drive to defeat a California antinuclear campaign was supported by virtually all California labour organizations Sigmund Arywitz, secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labour, wrote to every’ local union advising against ‘giving in to extremist environmentalists who must have their own way on every issue without regard to the number of jobs it will cost.’
In fact, experience over the past decade indicates that health and environmental laws have been good for society and for employment. Few jobs have been lost and several hundred thousand new ones have been created.
No hard data has been provided to back claims that environmental laws cost jobs. The major industry associations rely on figures gathered by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Between January 1971 and June 1981, the agency identified 153 plant closings in firms of 25 or more workers. A total of 32.611 jobs were alleged to have been lost because of environmental laws— an average of just 3.200 workers a year in a workforce of over 100 million.
In fact, the government agency: overestimates the extent of environmentally-related layoffs. The surveys include many- plant closings where declining sales, technological obsolescense. more efficient competitors and scarce raw materials were more important factors in corporate decisions to shut up shop.
On the other hand environmental protection has created several hundred thousand jobs in construction, manufacturing. operation and maintenance, engineering and design of pollution-control systems. One EPA official estimated in early 1982 that water pollution control employed about 220.000 people. Data Resources. lnc.m an economic research and consulting firm, says there will be a net increase of 524.000 jobs by 1987 as a result of pollution controls.
The evidence that environmental protection creates more jobs than it eliminates has not prevented Washington from using job blackmail to weaken labour support for environmental regulation.
Vice President George Bush say’s axing environmental and health regulations will ‘reduce costs, reduce inflation, increase productivity and provide more jobs.’
Yet, even the most cursory- analysis of the roots of inflation, slow growth and declining productivity shows regulation to be at most a minor factor. James Miller Ill, an architect of Reagan’s regulatory- strategy- and now director of the Federal Trade Commission, admitted as much in 1977. ‘In contrast with fiscal and monetary policy-.’ he wrote. ‘regulation has a very small effect on the rate of inflation.’
By pitting jobs against the environment corporations are trying to hide the consistent and costly failure of industry- to protect both the environment and workers’ health— and to provide decent. secure jobs. They are trying to shift public attention away from the serious health, environmental and economic costs of unrestrained industrial production and undemocratic economic planning.
The corporate attempt to set the terms of public debate on environmental and economic issues has been especially effective on the question of ‘growth’. In the 1970s, environmental concern was equated with opposing growth and therefore jobs. Business leaders and their allies carefully cultivated the no-growth/no-jobs argument. Energy Secretary James Schlesinger told the 1977 national convention of the AFL-CIO:
‘Restraining growth means restraining the growth of jobs. It means unemployment. It means the failure to provide the best part of the American way’ of life to a growing number of our citizens.’
Many labour unions and their members —particularly the building trades which depend on large-scale construction projects for jobs— agreed with Schlesinger. Similarly, many minority groups feared environmentalists wanted improvement at the expense of growth and therefore at the expense of the poor.
Now, more and more of the labour and environment movements see the growth/no-growth debate as a false and avoidable conflict. There is no hard-and-fast correlation between growth and jobs. Different kinds of growth create different kinds of jobs and different numbers of jobs.
Growth in solar energy- and energy conservation creates more jobs than growth in nuclear power generations. The microchip computer-based growth of the 1980s and nineties may eliminate more jobs than it creates. The real question which every society must address is not growth or no-growth, but what kinds of growth — and for whose benefit.
Fortunately, environmental job blackmail does not always work. There is a growing tradition of labour-environmental co-operation and resistance to threats of environmentally- related job loss. These efforts share several basic principles: