How Detroit’s Black leaders shaped Detroit’s environmental justice, labor movements

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On May 2, 1968, Black workers at the Dodge Main plant in Hamtramck led a multiracial wildcat strike– a work stoppage unauthorized by a union.  The group went on to form the Detroit Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), which later teamed up with other groups to form the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. 

At that time, only white men held skilled trade positions, and Black workers were segregated in the foundry in so-called unskilled and semi-skilled jobs. According to the African American Intellectual History Society, one key point of contention instigating the strike, which was the first in over a decade, was the increasing speed on the factory assembly lines.

In a program published in 1970, the League of Revolutionary Black Workers called out that Black workers were pushed into the fastest, hardest, and most exhausting jobs exposed to toxic chemicals such as carbon monoxide and nitric acid, sulfuric acid and sulfur dioxide. 

According to historian and author of the book Toxic Debt: An Environmental Justice History of Detroit Josiah Rector, the incident marks one of countless moments in Detroit’s history that point to the intersection between the city’s environmental justice and labor movements.

“What happened was by the 1960s, you have a lot of workers to feel the union is not sufficiently militant, and you have a lot of younger workers, disproportionately Black workers, who were angry about these dangerous conditions, which included numerous workers who had been killed by things like malfunctioning equipment,” Rector said. 

Josiah Rector.

“DRUM and other revolutionary union movements do organize a number of health and safety wildcats, and they highlight environmental issues and how those environmental issues are racialized in the leaflets and the flyers they put out and in their publications.”

Since Black workers and residents have been historically exposed to toxic substances in and outside their workplaces and have endured dangerous working conditions, Detroit’s labor and environmental justice movements have often moved in tandem with one another. 

But as corporations fought against environmental protections for workers and residents, the city’s labor and environmental justice movements have sometimes been at odds with one another over the false choice between job security and safeguarding the public, especially the city’s Black residents, from toxins. 

Donele Wilkins, CEO and president of the Green Door Initiative, a Detroit environmental justice nonprofit centering on youth programs, solar, air quality and other issues, has witnessed the evolution of the city’s labor and environmental justice movements firsthand.

Wilkins first entered the environmental justice movement as a labor organizer focusing on worker and health safety when she was invited to participate in the People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., in 1991.

There, she contributed to 17 Principles of Environmental Justice, a seminal document that continues to guide today’s environmental justice movement. 

Donele Wilkins. Photo by Joe Parnell

Wilkins notes that big labor was once very opposed to the concept of environmental justice, in part because it meant moving away from harsh chemicals that their work may have depended upon for their livelihood. But in recent years, the relationship between the two movements has improved, Wilkins said, noting there’s room for more collaboration. 

The environmental justice movement has helped workers avoid toxic chemical exposures and has prevented residents from being exposed to the same toxins in their communities near these facilities, she said.

“That’s [the unions’] priority—that people are able to hold down the union jobs. I understand their priority, but my goal is to help them understand that there are ways to ensure that jobs are available that also honor and support the health of the environment,” Wilkins said. 

Access to green jobs

Historically, the city’s labor movement has never been a monolith, Rector said. While some unions have taken a more progressive stance on environmental issues, others have resisted changes that might upend their jobs.

In the late ’60s and the 1970s, automakers began to divest from Detroit and other manufacturing centers and move into rural areas in the North and South as well as to other countries so that they could pay non-union workers lower wages, fire workers more easily and circumvent environmental protections to produce cars in a manner that pollutes the community, Rector said. And as this divestment is happening, leaders at the UAW knew that pollution from these factories was killing people, he added. 

One instance when this dynamic came into play was during the 1976 Working for Environmental and Economic Justice and Jobs Conference, which UAW leaders and a coalition of multiple other groups organized. 

During this conference, leaders discussed what environmental and economic justice meant, and they demanded that new environmental industries such as solar and wind implement anti-discrimination policies so that Black Americans wouldn’t be discriminated against, Rector explained. 

But while leaders were pushing to ensure that green jobs weren’t only going to white workers, he said there was also discussion about how unemployment resulted in deaths alongside environmental pollution.

“There’s always been segments of the labor movement that had a larger vision and understood that we need to address environmental problems, not only because they kill workers and people who live in the communities around where workers work, but also because these transitions are going to happen inevitably,” Rector said.

“And if we don’t want workers to be left behind, we have to make sure that the new industries are good paying and unionized,” he continued. “We don’t want to transition to wind and solar and have those industries engage in racist treatment towards workers of color.”

Wilkins said more work must be done to preserve jobs for residents while also seeking justice for residents who’ve borne the brunt of toxic chemical exposures for decades. 

Wilkins said both movements could continue focusing on green jobs and air quality. But for people who can’t easily transition to green jobs, such as people with disabilities or single parents, the movement could push for direct cash payments, Rector told Planet Detroit.

Reflecting on the progress of the city’s environmental justice issues in the years since the 17 Principles were released, Wilkins said the city’s environmental justice advocates have successfully gotten ordinances passed at the local level regarding illegal dumping and air quality issues. However, the city’s residents still suffer from asthma and other respiratory issues due to poor air quality. 

She said other priorities for the movement include the lead water service lines, water affordability, and legacy pollution and contamination due to industrial activities. 

The Green Door Initiative was one of 18 groups to receive $3.6 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s “Inclusive Energy Innovation Prize” last May for its “Motor City, the Solar City” project. 

Wilkins said the organization plans to develop a model neighborhood that exemplifies “what renewable energy really looks like for low-income people.” She adds that the nonprofit wants to continue its youth employment programming and open a tech hub to help bridge the city’s digital divide. 

“We just have a lot of work to do, and I’m hopeful. Look, my thing is to make sure that there’s a transition of leadership into the younger generation because when I pass the baton, I ain’t going to be in this position forever,” Wilkins said.

“Making sure we’re investing in young people and others who are as motivated to keep going until there’s true environmental protection, equal protection for all in places like Detroit.”



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