How has America changed since 1954? Surely, at some point, the decline of organized labor and the rise of the citizens’ environmental movement should both be mentioned. In 1955, when the AFL and the CIO merged into one force, labor was at the height of its power and even Republican conservatives listened carefully to its voice. America was an industrial nation, and unions were well-established in the steel mills, coal mines, and factories where many Americans found employment. Unions could deliver the votes that politicians needed. Labor and management, together, pointed the way to something called “progress.”
The environmentalists of the 1950s —known variously as “nature nuts” and “birdwatchers—had little impact on public policy. The Sierra Club was still a rather elite mountain organization in the West, and Rachel Carson, an Eastern biologist, was only gradually entering the field of politics. Carson’s book Silent Spring caused a sea change during the 1960s and so, too, did the work of activists like the Sierra Club’s David Brower. When the first Earth Day bloomed in 1970, it was suddenly apparent that environmentalism was a sociopolitical movement with breadth and depth and clout. Together with the feminist and gay-rights movements, it has been one of the few survivors of the sixties counterculture. Ecology is now a household word.
In the 1990s Americans are accustomed to seeing Earth Day fairs and rallies in April. A major Labor Day parade in September, however, is now a rarity in most cities. Perhaps this shift of citizen energy suggests some of the grassroots changes in cultural values and expectations that have been developing during the past forty years. Much of America, for good or for ill, now celebrates John Muir and Henry Thoreau, and Emerson’s faith in nature and individualism seems to be the religion embraced by many Americans. Joe Hill, Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, and faith in class solidarity and collective action are acknowledged only in the footnotes to the current drama. Labor may someday return to center stage, but it will be a long journey back.