Sociology professor Brian Mayer says that labor unions and environmental groups are overcoming their differences to become allies on health concerns shared in workplaces and communities.

Above: Sociology professor Brian Mayer says that labor unions and environmental groups are overcoming their differences to become allies on health concerns shared in workplaces and communities.

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Health Concerns Unite Unions, Environmentalists, UF Author Says

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Once as divided as oil and water, labor unions and environmental groups are burying their bitter differences to become natural allies about health concerns shared in workplaces and communities, says a University of Florida researcher and author of a new book.

Often viewed as fierce opponents in controversies pitting jobs against wildlife — such as the dispute over logging and spotted owls — unions and environmental groups are banding together to stop groundwater contamination in the Silicon Valley, toxic chemical spills in New Jersey, air pollution from the nation's ports and other hazards that affect communities and workplaces alike, said Brian Mayer, a UF sociology professor.

"Health issues are increasingly becoming the common ground on which blue-green coalitions are developing across the United States," he said. "Recognizing that the same toxins that cause workplace hazards escape into surrounding communities has brought workers and environmentalists together to look out for everyone's protection."

In his new book Blue-Green Coalitions: Fighting for Safe Workplaces and Healthy Communities, published this month by Cornell University Press, Mayer debunks popular images of these groups. "Stereotypes of blue-collar workers as interested only in putting food on the table and being willing to do anything to trade off the environment are no truer than perceptions of an environmentalist as someone middle class or upper class who is preoccupied with outdoor leisure opportunities," he said.

"Mayer's book fills a huge gap in our knowledge of how unions and environmentalists have worked together and why," said J. Timmons Roberts, a sociology professor at the College of William and Mary and co-author of the book "A Climate of Injustice; Global Inequality, North-South Politics and Climate Policy." He added that Mayer "offers creative ideas about how this potentially powerful coalition might work together in the future."

An increase in environmental risks has encouraged unions and environmentalists to unite, Mayer said. In past economic booms, Americans were excited about new factories, while today, with the transfer of heavy industry overseas, larger numbers of workers have service jobs, which can put them in close proximity to a variety of chemicals, he said.

The Service Employees International Union, which represents vast numbers of employees in the service and hospitality industry, is one of the few unions in the United States whose membership is expanding, Mayer said.

"If you think about hotel workers, custodial workers and other employees who come into direct contact with a lot of cleaning chemicals, their jobs can be dangerous," he said. "More and more of these workers are concerned with health."

The decline of organized labor to about 12 percent of the nation's work force from 36 percent in 1945 also has encouraged unions to reach out to nontraditional allies by collaborating with environmentalists, he said.

One example of such an affiliation is the formation of Alliance for a Healthy Tomorrow in Boston in 2001, a grassroots coalition that worked to pass a Massachusetts law requiring that proponents of a product prove its safety before it goes on the market instead of forcing the public to make a case later that something is hazardous, Mayer said. Today the organization works with scientists, public health experts and community activists across the state in promoting the substitution of safer alternatives for hazardous substances, he said.

Some blue-green coalitions began as early as the 1980s, as with the New Jersey Work Environmental Council helping to put into place the nation's first right-to-know legislation, giving New Jersey workers and residents access to information about the use and storage of toxic substances, Mayer said. In California, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition fought for similar right-to-know legislation, as well as addressed health concerns about electronics, expanding into a global presence today as high-tech industries have moved overseas, he said.

One of the most recent initiatives has occurred with the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which use the revenue from a small tax on shipping containers entering the ports to update and retrofit trucks to make them cleaner and more efficient, Mayer said. Ships, trains and diesel trucks that congregate in and around ports pollute city air and have been blamed for about half of the emissions in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, he said.



Cathy Keen,, 352-392-0186


Brian Mayer,, 352-392-0265, ext. 228


Joseph Steufer, Justin Cozart, Flickr

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