As we celebrate May Day 2024, only a week after this year’s Earth Day, it presents an opportunity to explore the often overlooked connection between organized labor and environmental justice in the popular history of grassroots social movements. Historically, Earth Day and May Day tend to be seen as separate silos of advocacy and activism, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Tyler Norman, writes on the histories of both events for the Just Transition Alliance:

“Spurred by the warnings of Silent Spring and 1969 catastrophes such as the Santa Barbara offshore oil spill and the Cuyahoga River catching fire, the young environmental movement organized a national day of campus teach-ins, mass demonstrations, and public school activities such as tree planting and beach cleanup.  An estimated 20 million people participated.

May Day was a signal of the beginning of the planting season, and therefore it is inherently ‘green.’ In the 1880’s it gained its ‘red’ aspect after May 1st was declared an international day of demonstration for all workers to demand respect and dignity, and it became firmly entrenched in the early labor movement as a commemoration of the Haymarket martyrs.”

Within these histories a shared path to justice has always existed, highlighted in the “Teamsters and Turtles” alliance of labor and climate advocacy. Spurred by a necessary acknowledgment that community issues like safe air and drinkable water align with the need for safety and dignity for workers, many of whom are on the frontline of our growing climate emergency, there is a growing discourse around these linked movements.

In discussing Earth Day to May Day 2024, the Western Massachusetts Labor/Climate Movement asks:

How can addressing the climate crisis move our workers’ movements forward, and vice versa? Can we prioritize a transition away from fossil fuels that improves working conditions and labor rights? Ensure that a “green transition” doesn’t happen on the backs on the working class and bust unions?

What does this mean for Third Act? Both May Day and the start of Older Americans Month coincide on May 1st every year. What is the impact of older generations and their contribution to the labor movement and environmental justice? What can we learn about how these efforts for justice and progress contribute to our shared quality of life, and what can we take from them as we look forward in the broader labor movement as one generation of leaders gives way to a new one?

We interviewed folks about the intersection of labor, climate, and collaboration between youth and elders. Here’s what they had to say.


Ben Manski, an Assistant Professor of Public Sociology at George Mason University, is a fourth-generation labor activist and took part in the first organized Earth Day to May Day events in 1995

We had about 1,000 people at the Capitol, and over 120 organizations signed on; importantly, the AFL CIO was part of that, the Sierra Club was part of that, and Wisconsin’s environmental decade was part of it. And it continued in Wisconsin for a good 9 to 10 years. 

So Earth Day to May Day came out of very broad movement alliances that were not just the environmental movement and labor, but also farmers and students and youth and communities and indigenous communities all coming together. And then in 2005 and 2006, you had the mass mobilizations and general strike of immigrant workers in the United States, particularly Mexican Americans, Chicanos, and many others out in the streets on May Day. 


For him, the intersection of labor and climate came from family members and mentors, such as late environmental leaders Richard Grossman and Judi Bari.

Judi was a carpenter and union member when she moved to Northern California and became involved with the Earth First movement. She was the most prominent organizer for Redwood Summer in 1990 during which tens of thousands of people went to Northern California to protect the redwoods. 

Richard was somebody who, by the 1970s, was working to build an alliance between unions and the environmental movement, what people now call blue/green alliances. These alliances were about working people at the front lines of environmental harm. The whole movement for occupational safety and health was tied into the broader environmental movement.


Kate Daligga, a Michigander, Third Actor, and long-time union member with the National Lawyers Guild and NewsGuild, echoed these thoughts in a more contemporary context.

I think raising what jobs are taking out of the workers is legitimate. They wind up all these fossil fuel-extracting industries polluting the areas where people work, and they are harmful to the workers’ families and the residents of those communities.

You know, sometimes it’s just dirty, awful, difficult stuff. And when that doesn’t get properly acknowledged and appreciated, the toll it takes, the risks people go through when others are not subject to those.


To feel confident and secure enough in expressing one’s beliefs and politics in a work environment takes courage. This is where veterans can play a huge role. Hunter Pagiuana, a staff representative with the Pacific Media Workers Guild, who in the labor movement as a journalist mentored by more seasoned reporters. He found guidance from older workers helped him grow further.  

My experience came from working at the newspaper in Omaha, where we formed a union, and that was my entry into the labor movement. Before that, I had no knowledge or experience of it. But we had two individuals. Their names were Tony Mulligan and Darren Carroll. You spend a lot of time talking about things. So, I learned a lot from their experiences in the labor movement for 40 years, particularly Tony Mulligan. His dad was a big labor organizer in Colorado. He would take his kids to the picket lines. 

People like Tony and Darren gave me a window into the past and then connected it to the present, which is what got me into this.


For Hunter and others rising in the labor movement, the ultimate goal is to find ways to bridge older workers’ knowledge and lessons, allowing for continued growth and progress.

You have people at both ends of the spectrum: people just now starting out and doing it for six months, and people who have been doing it for 40 years, and when it comes to organizing, especially, you know, that creates a challenge to some degree, because not necessarily like hostility toward organizing, just like a lack of basic common ground.

These people devoted their lives to this. And eventually, they will move on because they can’t do this forever. How do we, the younger generation, carry on that torch and then download all their information and experiences so that we aren’t going blank? And it’s all just about, you know, keeping us all together, whether we’re 30 years old, 80 years old, or somewhere in between. We’re all workers. We’re all pushing the same way.



Kate, who works closely with Hunter in the labor movement, shared similar thoughts about the importance of working with future leaders and activists and how it powers older workers, like herself, in the third act of their lives.

I’m 66. I’m not the same as I was when I was 33. And that’s for good and ill.

But what’s really fun about doing this is not only the chance to associate with other older folks and to realize there’s still a lot of capacity and fun to be had, but it’s also really fun to do the intergenerational stuff. And I’ve learned so much from  working with younger folks that I’ve encountered in workplace situations and in union situations. And I’m hoping now through the climate activism, there’s just so much sparking that can be done in these ways.


So how do we move forward? The more workers of all ages can learn from each other, the more progress we will make toward a more sustainable and equal quality of life for all working people, their families, and their communities.

Happy May Day and Older Americans Month! Make sure to spend a moment appreciating the work of the generations of activists who have come before us. Let us continue to work together.

Picture of Mike Johnson

Mike Johnson

Mike Johnson (he/him) is a Campaign Associate at Third Act. Hailing from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Mike has a great range of campaign and advocacy experience, from digital campaigns at Daily Kos and housing advocacy for families at YWCA to political and community engagement for Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers.