The Dakota Access Pipeline and the Future of American Labor

by Jeremy Brecher

Labor Network for Sustainability


As United States Energy Transfers Partners began building the Dakota Access Pipeline through territory sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, the tribe began an escalating campaign against the pipeline. By this summer nearly 200 tribes around the country had passed resolutions opposing the pipeline and many hundreds of their members joined nonviolent direct action to halt it. Amidst wide public sympathy for the Native American cause, environmental, climate protection, human rights, and many other groups joined the campaign. On September 9, the Obama administration intervened to temporarily halt the pipeline and open government-to-government consultations with the tribes.

The Dakota Access Pipeline has become an issue of contention within organized labor. When a small group of unions supported the Standing Rock Sioux and opposed the pipeline, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka issued a statement discounting Native American claims and urging that work on the pipeline resume. Other constituencies within labor quickly cracked back. Why has this become a divisive issue within labor, and can it have a silver lining for a troubled labor movement?

The statements war

As video footage of private security dogs attacking nonviolent Indian demonstrators spread through the media, a small number of unions felt compelled to express their support for the anti-pipeline movement. All of them had previously opposed the Keystone XL pipeline and advocated for strong climate protection policies.

The Communications Workers of America issued a statement supporting the Standing Rock Sioux.

The Standing Rock Sioux and potentially 17 million others are threatened by the Dakota Access Pipeline route, a 1,170 mile oil pipeline that would run from North Dakota to Illinois. In addition to endangering those communities, the pipeline could possibly desecrate the ancestral burial grounds of the Standing Rock Sioux; this utter disrespect and violation cannot be allowed. CWA, through our Committee on Human Rights, stands with working people and against corporate greed, whether we’re fighting for clean water in Flint, Mich., against bad trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would hurt U.S. jobs and communities, or the rights of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to safeguard their community.

Amalgamated Transit Union International President Larry Hanley condemned the violent attacks on Native American demonstrators:

“The Amalgamated Transit Union joins others in the Labor movement in condemnation of the ongoing violent attacks on the Standing Rock Sioux and others who oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline. These attacks by a private security company bring back horrific memories of the notorious Pinkertons, who used clubs, dogs and bullets to break up peaceful worker protests. Noting that “Union members understand that today the greatest threat to jobs, health and decent living standards is climate change,” the ATU urged Obama to “stop construction of this destructive pipeline” and “keep dangerous fossil fuels in the ground.”

The National Nurses United urged the government to permanently block the Dakota Access pipeline as “a threat to public health, as well as to the tribe’s sacred sites.” It is “long past time to call into question all these dangerous pipeline projects” which “pose a continual threat to public health from the extraction process through the transport to the refinery.” The decision of the Departments of Justice, Army and Interior to temporarily halt the Dakota Access pipeline is “a direct result of the efforts of the pipeline opponents who have taken this courageous stand on behalf of all of us.”

The United Electrical Workers (UE) called for a halt to the pipeline and cited its convention resolution “Protect Our Planet for Future Generations”: “The energy profiteers want a world where both labor and environmental standards are in a race to the bottom. If they get their way, we get poverty and a poisoned planet.”

These statements, combined with the Obama administration’s intervention to temporarily halt pipeline construction, aroused the ire of the building trades unions. They issued a public statement on “Obama Administration Action to Halt Construction of Dakota Access Pipeline.” The statement expressed disappointment with Obama’s action and found “troubling” the “intimidation and vandalism” directed at pipeline workers and the Executive Branch’s “disregard” of the “exhaustive permitting and review process” that had approved the project. The project would have improved access to domestic fuel, injected a $5 billion economic infusion into communities along the pipeline, and provided “collectively bargained, family sustaining wages and benefits” for pipeline workers. “We fear this sets a precedent that political considerations can now thwart or delay every single infrastructure improvement and construction project moving forward.”

The building trades support for the Dakota Access Pipeline comes as no surprise. The Building Trades Unions were leading proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline and have been advocates for expanding fossil fuel infrastructure. (They also support solar, wind, nuclear, and geothermal infrastructure – in short, an “all the above” energy policy.)

In 2009, North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU) forged a partnership with the oil and gas industry to develop North American energy sources called the Oil and Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee (OGILMC). Sean McGarvey, president of NABTU, is president of the OGILMC and Jack Gerard, President of the American Petroleum Institute, is Secretary-Treasurer.  McGarvey signed the letter to Trumka. The API has been a major financial sponsor of building trades conferences.

The AFL-CIO joins the fray

The day after NABTU statement, the AFL-CIO issued a statement supporting the pipeline. It endorsed pipeline construction as “part of a comprehensive energy policy that creates jobs, makes the United States more competitive and addresses the threat of climate change.” Pipeline construction and maintenance provides “quality jobs to tens of thousands of skilled workers.” When community involvement decisions have been completed, “it is fundamentally unfair to hold union members’ livelihoods and their families’ financial security hostage to endless delay.” The Dakota Access Pipeline is providing “over 4,500 high-quality, family supporting jobs.” Furthermore, “trying to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects is neither effective nor fair to the workers involved.”

Many people have found the AFL-CIO’s decision to support the pipeline against so many of its needed allies hard to fathom. After all, it does not issue a public statement every time workers are threatened by layoffs.

Of course, every job is important if it is your job. And while pipeline jobs are sometimes denigrated as “just temporary jobs,” nearly all jobs for construction workers are temporary – and important for those who hold them. Construction workers qualify for health care and pension benefits based on hours worked in any given quarter. So temporary construction job assignments can secure benefits for construction workers and their families. Construction workers naturally want to preserve their jobs. But that is not a sufficient explanation for why the AFL-CIO intervened.

Much of the answer lies in an effective rule-or-ruin policy on the part of the building trades. For several years they have been conducting a sort of “stealth disaffiliation” from the AFL-CIO. They have changed their name from the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO to “North America’s Building Trades Unions.” “AFL-CIO” does not appear anywhere on the homepage of their website, or even in its “About Us” section.  For these 14 unions to pull out of the AFL-CIO entirely would have a devastating effect on the AFL-CIO’s clout – not to mention its budget. That effectively gives NABTU the bargaining power to dictate AFL-CIO policy. (The same might well be true of any similar-sized bloc of unions.)

The threat to disaffiliate was hinted at in a letter sent by the Building Trades Unions to Trumka and the presidents of unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO. “We in the Building Trades respect the AFL-CIO and the history of the institution but it seems we have to collectively decide whether or not we choose to advance and protect the health, safety and economic well-being of AFL-CIO members or not.”

The underlying issue is the AFL-CIO’s continuing commitment to what its statement calls a “comprehensive energy policy.” This is code language for an “all the above” energy policy that includes expansion of fossil fuels. As a previous AFL-CIO statement put it, “It is clear that for the foreseeable future our nation will continue to use a wide range of energy sources-including both traditional sources like coal, oil and natural gas, and newer sources like wind, solar and nuclear.”

The problem with this argument is that, without rapid reductions in the use of some of these energy sources, the necessary cuts in climate-destroying GHGs will be impossible and, indeed, their continued growth will be inevitable. It is simply false to say that “pipeline construction as part of a comprehensive energy policy. . . addresses the threat of climate change.”

Allies strike back

The AFL-CIO statement caused shock and dismay among many who see the labor movement as a force for social justice. Ajamu Dillahunt, a retired North Carolina leader of the American Postal Workers Union and of Black Workers for Justice expressed the feelings of many in and around organized labor:

This is beyond disgusting. So disappointing. The almost total disregard for the indigenous peoples who are waging a courageous struggle to protect their land, water and ancestral burial grounds is maddening to say the least. Rage is increased each time I hear from community allies about this terrible state of affairs.

Similar sentiments led to an unprecedented decision by the Labor Coalition for Community Action — the official “constituency groups” of the AFL-CIO — to issue a statement in direct opposition to the AFL-CIO position. The LCCA includes the A. Phillip 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.

Though cited to bring 4,500 jobs, the Dakota Access Pipeline seriously threatens tribal sovereignty, sacred burial grounds, and the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux and potentially 17 million others. As organizations dedicated to elevating the struggles of our respective constituencies, we stand together to support our Native American kinfolk – one of the most marginalized and disenfranchised groups in our nation’s history – in their fight to protect their communities from further displacement and exploitation.

We recognize this systematic oppression that so intimately resonates with many communities of color and marginalized populations, whether it be fighting for lead-free water in Flint to uncontaminated water in North Dakota.

We remain committed to fighting the corporate interests that back this project and name this pipeline “a pipeline of corporate greed.” We challenge the labor movement to strategize on how to better engage and include Native people and other marginalized populations into the labor movement as a whole.

Lastly, we applaud the many labor unions working to create a new economy with good green jobs and more sustainable employment opportunities for all. We also encourage key stakeholders — labor unions including the building trades, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and others who would be impacted — to come together to discuss a collective resolution.

They concluded, “We will continue to campaign and organize for a broader agenda that secures the rights for all working people in all communities.”

A paradoxical opportunity?

While “business unionism” has been an important strand of American trade unionism, the labor supporters of the Black Rock Sioux represent another important strand of the labor movement. As the CWA statement concludes,

The labor movement is rooted in the simple and powerful idea of solidarity with all struggles for dignity, justice and respect. CWA will continue to fight against the interests of the 1% and corporate greed and firmly stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe against the environmental and cultural degradation of their community.

Opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline is turning out to be a rallying point for those in the labor movement who share that view of solidarity.

Trade unionists should of course support the struggle against the Dakota Access pipeline. But at least as important is the longer-term strategic battle to change labor’s approach to climate and energy. Climate change is already causing unprecedented heat waves, coastal inundation, desertification, extinctions, and extreme weather. But that is just a love tap compared to what will come if we don’t start a rapid transition from fossil fuel energy immediately.  And organized labor itself will just be climate change road kill if it does not join and help to lead the fight to protect the climate. We will be scorned by young people whose wellbeing we are putting at risk. Our jobs are already being harmed, our members’ health and safety threatened, and our communities devastated by climate change effects. There are no jobs on a dead planet.

The AFL-CIO opposed the Kyoto protocol, opposed the Copenhagen climate agreement, and has never endorsed scientific targets for greenhouse gas emission reduction. In recent years, however, it has at least recognized the reality and threat of climate change. As president Trumka has said, “Scientists tell us we are headed ever more swiftly toward irreversible climate change – with catastrophic consequences for human civilization.” And far from being a threat only in a distant future, “Climate change is happening now.” That demands action: “The carbon emissions from that coal, and from oil and natural gas, and agriculture and so much other human activity – causes global warming, and we have to act to cut those emissions, and act now.”

The AFL-CIO has also begun to recognize the need go beyond opposing climate protection policies it claims will hurt workers to instead designing policies that protect both the climate and the wellbeing of the workers they may affect. It endorsed the Paris agreement’s recognition of “the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs.” It called for investment in the affected communities and “creating family-supporting jobs like those that will be lost.”

More specifically, Trumka has said, “We need a dialogue about “how we are going to create jobs for out of work construction workers – jobs that build America’s competitiveness, while we turn our nation’s economic future in a low carbon emission direction.”

That dialogue is incompatible with a policy guided by the American Petroleum Institute and enforced by unions that portrays destruction of the earth’s climate as little more than an opportunity for good-paying jobs. But as its own actions isolate it from its essential allies and its own activist members – especially young people who will have to live with the consequences of climate change – the pressures on the AFL-CIO to shift direction will only increase.

In response to the AFL-CIO statement supporting the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Climate Justice Alliance, representing 40 organizations “led by indigenous communities of color and low-income white communities living on the frontlines of the impacts of extractive industries,” has written president Trumka opposing the pipeline but asking for just such a dialogue. They request a meeting “to discuss our concerns and potential opportunities to work together for a clean energy future that addresses the needs of current workers and the many in our communities who are under and unemployed.”

Isn’t it time for the AFL-CIO to pursue the dialogue it proposed about how to build the new fossil-free infrastructure that will indeed create jobs “turning our nation’s economic future in a low carbon emission direction”?

Jeremy Brecher is a writer, historian, and activist who is the author of more than a dozen books on labor and social movements.  

One Response

  1. Green Left Weekly covered this issue recently but it did not include the AFL-CIO undermining the Standing Rock Blockade. Good Unions need to lead change to environmentally progressive policies. I wonder can our ACTU also show a bit of leadership. It has failed to deal properly with corruption in its affiliates. The ALP poison does its work.

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