Pipeline Issue Divides House of Labor

Pipeline Issue Divides House of Labor

By Paul Garver


The ever-fragile “Turtles and Teamsters” coalition of environmentalists and labor unions that emerged almost 20 years ago cracked even further during the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), threatening both the environmental movement and the labor movement. This rift has only been exacerbated by Donald Trump’s election.

Last September, even as progressive organizations mobilized to support the struggle of the Standing Rock Sioux against the completion of the pipeline, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka called upon President Barack Obama to allow pipeline construction to continue because the pipeline “is providing over 4,500 high-quality, family-supporting jobs.”


Within days, the Labor Coalition for Community Action issued a statement in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux and their allies, linking the pipeline struggle to other struggles of “many communities of color and marginalized populations, whether it be fighting for lead-free water in Flint or uncontaminated water in North Dakota.”


The coalition is a child of the AFL-CIO, formed to advance the organization’s political agenda within specific sectors of working people. It includes the six primary AFL-CIO Constituency Groups: the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and Pride at Work. For the coalition to publicly and directly oppose the AFL-CIO president was unprecedented.


The more progressive unions within the AFL-CIO (National Nurses United; the Communications Workers of America; the Amalgamated Transit Union; and the American Postal Workers Union, which had also endorsed Bernie Sanders for president) had already come out in opposition to the pipeline. Their stance triggered an angry letter to Trumka from Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU). McGarvey’s five-page letter, copied to all AFL-CIO union presidents, passionately argued the case for opposing Obama’s suspension of the pipeline. But the main thrust of his letter was to denounce the presidents of the four AFL-CIO unions that opposed the pipeline, accusing them of allying with environmental extremists and professional agitators as well as with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe at the expense of genuine AFL-CIO members. He called them an “outdated, lowest common denominator group of so-called labor organizations.”


The next day, Trumka issued his own statement in support of the pipeline. Although, as a former coal miners’ union president, he may well share those convictions, those in the four unions targeted considered his statement inappropriate, given the virulence of McGarvey’s personal attack on his fellow AFL-CIO presidents. Trumka could have remained silent or issued a more balanced statement expressing the divided views on the Executive Council.


The internal conflict within the AFL-CIO on how to preserve and create good union jobs during the transition from a fossil-fuel economy to one based on renewable sources threatens to paralyze organized labor for decades to come. Over time, more sustainable jobs would be created through renewable energy and infrastructure projects. This argument is well advocated by the Labor Network for Sustainability, whose position papers can be found at labor4sustainability.org.


However, leaders of building trades unions remain skeptical, and not without reason. Obama’s promises of a broad Green Jobs program were not fulfilled during his administration, and Trump’s empty promises of millions of jobs in the coal, oil, and energy transportation industries attract many of its members. The larger number of dispersed jobs that would be created by moving toward a sustainable economy seem hard for unions to organize and may often be held by undocumented laborers.


This internal conflict within labor over DAPL reveals a fault line between divergent conceptions of the political role of organized labor. This rift continues and threatens to paralyze effective resistance by organized labor to Trump’s virulently anti-union and anti-people agenda. Will organized labor, and specifically the leadership of the AFL-CIO, join the common front against the right-wing coup or will it not? The AFL-CIO constituency groups and progressive union leaders want to align organized labor with a broad social movement for economic and climate justice. If labor solidarity and climate justice are able to merge in a single movement, workers and the planet have a fighting chance. If not, the remnants of organized labor may disappear even faster than the melting glaciers.

Paul Garver is a retired labor organizer and founding member of DSA. As a member of the Pittsburgh New American Movement’s People’s Power Project, he helped establish the Pennsylvania Alliance for Jobs and Energy.

This article originally appeared in the Labor Day 2017 issue of Democratic Left magazine.


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