2019 Annual Meeting Preview: The Nature of Deindustrialization: Rural Workers and Environmental Politics in the Age of Capital Flight

This session takes place on Thursday, April 4 at the 2019 OAH Annual Meeting in Philadelphia and is endorsed by the Western History Association and the Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA)
Twitter: #AM2920

Chair and Commentator: Joseph E. Taylor, Simon Frasier University

"A Paycheck and a Decent World to Live In": Organized Labor and the 1970s Pacific Northwest Timber Crisis
Steven Beda, University of Oregon

Digging Deep for Freedom: The Long History of Environmental Justice in Intermountain Mining Towns
Nichelle Frank, University of Oregon

"Gillette Syndrome": The 1970s and Energy Boomtowns in the American West
Ryan Driskell Tate, Rutgers University

From Iron to Incarceration: The Legacies of Mining in an Adirondack Prison Town
Clarence Hall, Queensborough Community College / CUNY

The Nature of Deindustrialization: Rural Workers and Environmental Politics in the Age of Capital Flight

Perhaps the best way to explain why we organized this panel is to tell you how we came about our title. Each of us is talking about the environmental politics of workers living through periods of industrial decline, so calling the session “The Nature of Deindustrializaton” just seemed to make sense. And it was clever, but not too clever.

That was the easy part. The more interesting, and maybe more revealing discussion came when we debated subtitles. At some point, one of us proposed “Rural Workers and Environmental Politics in Trump Country.”

It was certainly an accurate description of what we all intended to talk about, and it spoke directly to our motivations in organizing the session.

As historians who study rural working-class communities, we all watched with interest the large gatherings of coal miners holding “Trump Digs Coal” signs in the last presidential election. Academics and journalists alike interpreted these rallies as simply the most recent development in a long history of rural people placing economics over environment.

This interpretation didn’t sit well with us. While we don’t deny that crowds of disgruntled coal miners chanting Trump’s name speak to rural America’s economic frustrations, some real and some imagined, we knew from our research that the rural people being portrayed as the most ardent opponents of environmentalism in fact have a long and proud history of protecting nature, even when it’s cost them jobs.

Take, for instance, Clarence Jefferson Hall, Jr.’s work on iron mining communities in upstate New York. Hall shows that from the 1960s through the 1980s, unemployed iron miners continually put pressure on local politicians to improve the health of the community and resisted efforts to build a new prison, even though they needed the work a prison may have provided. Likewise, Steven Beda shows that even at the height of the 1970s timber recession, when loggers were losing jobs by the thousands, Pacific Northwest timber workers advocated for new harvest restrictions intended to preserve the region’s forests. Looking at old mining towns in the intermountain West in the latter-twentieth century, Nichelle Frank finds a powerful environmental justice movement that fought to clean up the toxins and detritus left by decades of intensive mining. And Ryan Driskell Tate shows how newcomers to the Great Plains coal mines partnered with longtime residents to advocate for more responsible environmental policies during the energy boom of the 1970s.

So, at its most basic, this panel is an attempt to bring some of these lesser known stories to light and show that rural working-class communities have often had a more complex and complicated relationship with nature and the economy than recent images and media narratives would suggest.

Placing “Trump Country” in the title would have also hinted at some of the more scholarly ambitions of this panel. In many ways, Trump’s political ascendency is the result of political realignments ongoing since the 1970s. Several historians looking at that decade have focused on the loss of industrial jobs, rapid declines in union membership, and the white backlash against civil rights and identified the 1970s as a key moment when class lost much of its saliency in politics. Perhaps most famously, historian Jefferson Cowie has termed the 1970s the “last days of the working class.”

We think that moving the history of the 1970s out of cities and into rural communities and making environmental politics part of the discussion complicates the picture historians such as Cowie paint. Certainly many white rural workers, like white urban workers, had troubling and deeply problematic attitudes towards civil rights and women’s rights that made them look more regressive than progressive. Yet, as our research shows, those same workers—as well as many women and nonwhite workers—were engaging in new forms of activism, building new coalitions, and demanding more radical union leadership in order to expand environmental protections. At the very least, focusing on the environmental politics of rural workers in the 1970s shows that the decade’s class politics were more varied than much of the existing literature suggests, not easily characterized as liberal or conservative.

In the end, though, we decided to swap “Trump Country” for “in an Age of Capital Flight” in the subtitle. The latter just seemed a bit more proper and more befitting a meeting like the OAH. Besides, we were all a bit tired of Trump’s name in headlines. Love him or hate him, you have to admit that seeing his name in bold typeface every time you open a newspaper is getting boring.

Steven C. Beda is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Oregon. His research examines the environmental, labor, and political histories of the rural Pacific Northwest, with a specific focus on timber workers and the logging industry. His dissertation, "Landscapes of Solidarity: Timber Workers and the Making of Place in the Pacific Northwest, 1900-1964" (UW, 2014) was awarded the Labor and Working-Class History Association's Herbert Gutman Prize for Outstanding Dissertation. His current manuscript project, Strong Winds and Widow Makers: Work, Nature, and Environmental Conflict in Northwest Timber Country, 1900-2000, which examines the ways timber workers interacted with nature through recreation and labor, and how those interactions shaped rural working-class politics, is under contract with University of Illinois Press. In addition to his academic writing, Beda has written for The Eugene-Register Guard and the Portland Oregonian and has served as an associate editor on the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project. He teaches courses on 20th Century U.S. History, the Pacific Northwest, and Environmental History.

Nichelle Frank is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oregon, studying the effects of the U.S. environmental and historic preservation movements on the cultural landscapes of intermountain mining towns from the nineteenth century to the present. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in History at Colorado State University, where she wrote an undergraduate honor’s thesis about Depression-era film in the United States and a master’s thesis about historic movie theaters, architecture, and national-scale identity shifts in Denver, Colorado. Her great passion is to help people learn about history in ways that speak to their individual learning styles, which she is gaining experience in while working as a graduate student teacher at the UO. Although she specializes in U.S. West history, she relishes discussions involving environmental, architectural, women’s, race, and transcultural histories as well as public history and historic preservation.

Clarence Hall is a full time faculty member in the Department of History at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York where he teaches courses in U.S. history. Hall earned a Ph.D. in History from Stony Brook University in 2014 under the supervision of Dr. Christopher Sellers. His dissertation and future book, "Prisonland: Environment, Society, and Mass Incarceration on New York's Northern Frontier, 1845–1999," explores the intersection of environmental politics, public health, race, class, and mass incarceration in New York's Adirondack Park. Hall's work has been featured in national news media outlets including the New York Times, NPR, CNN, MSNBC, and others.

Ryan Driskell Tate is a PhD candidate in United States history at Rutgers University. He specializes in the labor, environmental, and political history of the American West. His dissertation, “The Saudi Arabia of Coal: The Making of America’s Energy Frontier, 1960–2016,” is a study of energy development on the northern Great Plains over the last half century. The project sheds new light on the inner-workings of fossil capitalism in the American West and around the globe. His research has received financial support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Hagley Center for Business, Technology, and Society, and the Friends of the Van Pelt Library.

Joseph E. Taylor III is a full professor in the History and Geography Departments at Simon Fraser University. He has taught there since 2004, having previously taught at Iowa State University from 1996 to 2003. He received his PhD in history from the University of Washington in 1996. He has expertise in western and environmental history, focusing especially on public natural resources, including fisheries, recreation, and federal lands. His first book was Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis (Seattle: Univeristy of Washington Press, 1999). The research related to this project earned two fellowships by the Smithsonian Institution and a research grant from the National Science Foundation, the Phi Alpha Theta/Westerners International Prize for best dissertation in 1996, the Theodore C. Blegan Award from the Forest History Society for best article in 2000, the George Perkins Marsh Prize for best book in environmental history in 2000, and mention in the Ten Best Books in Technology and Science from Library Journals in 2000. Taylor has also studied the history of recreation, publishing on the implications of gender, sexuality, technology, and nature in outdoor sport and rural gentrification. This research culminated in Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers and Nature at Risk (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), which received support from NSF and the National Park Service, and was honored with the National Outdoor Book Award for History/Biography in 2010. It is being republished in Korean.

Posted: November 19, 2018
Tagged: Previews, OAH Works, OAHistorian, Conference