Dakota Access Pipeline Exposes Rift In Organized Labor

It's an issue of construction jobs vs. the environment.

WASHINGTON ― The nation’s largest federation of labor unions upset some of its own members last week by endorsing the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota. Some labor activists, sympathetic to Native American tribes and environmentalists, called upon the AFL-CIO to retract its support for the controversial project.

The rift within the federation may be even deeper than it first seemed. The day before federation President Richard Trumka issued a statement supporting the pipeline, Sean McGarvey, the head of the AFL-CIO’s building trades unions, sent him and the presidents of the federation’s other unions a blistering letter. In the letter, which Common Dreams posted on Thursday, McGarvey ripped the unions that publicly opposed the pipeline.

McGarvey said unions’ resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline had helped upend the lives of union workers employed on the project.

Those unions and their leadership that decided to publicly weigh in should have had the decency to check with the Building Trades or any of its affiliated AFL-CIO unions before once again jumping into a  manufactured debate at the 11th hour that they had little or no business in engaging…. 

Now, rather unfortunately but I suppose not surprisingly, it seems the same outdated, lowest common denominator group of so called labor organizations has once again seen fit to demean and call for the termination of thousands of union construction jobs in the Heartland. I fear that this has once again hastened a very real split within the labor movement at a time that, should their ceaseless rhetoric be taken seriously, even they suggest we can least afford it.

McGarvey’s anger isn’t surprising. According to the AFL-CIO, the Dakota Access project supports 4,500 good-paying, union construction jobs. Critics of the pipeline point out that most of these jobs are temporary, but that’s the nature of construction work. Workers in the building trades tend to move from project to project, often with spells of unemployment in between.

As far as McGarvey’s concerned, it’s easy for a union to oppose a project if its members have no financial stake in it.

(McGarvey’s group doesn’t seem to trust the media on Dakota Access, either. A spokesman declined an interview request, saying The Huffington Post has an agenda and hasn’t reported fairly on the subject.)

This is not the first time the building trades have found themselves across the table from other, more politically liberal unions. The same split was at play during the debate over the now-stalled Keystone XL pipeline through Canada and the U.S. The building trades unions supported construction of the pipeline, while some other unions joined environmentalists in opposing it. As with Dakota Access, the AFL-CIO ultimately urged the Obama administration to greenlight Keystone.

Dakota Access, however, has the added element of racial disenfranchisement. The opposition to the project started with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, which says construction of the pipeline could threaten its water supply as well as sacred land. Their charge that Dakota Access undermines tribal sovereignty has rallied Native American tribes from around the country to their side.

It’s also been a key contention for the labor unions that have opposed the pipeline. That includes AFL-CIO member unions National Nurses United, the Amalgamated Transit Union, the American Postal Workers Union and the Communications Workers of America. (In a sign of their deep progressive leanings, all of those unions happened to endorse Sen. Bernie Sanders for president during the primary season, whereas the building trades consortium endorsed Hillary Clinton.)  

“How much more can we betray the American Indian?” said RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United.

DeMoro said she understands the concern about union jobs “100 percent,” but that her union can’t back a project it believes threatens the environment.

“The environmental movement and the labor movement need to join very strong forces in a genuine blue-green fight. It has to be hardcore,” she said. “The [AFL-CIO] has to turn the corner in a throwdown on the right type of employment, the right type of jobs, and the right type of planet. This is a zero-sum game. There needs to be a dramatic discussion.”

That discussion is already underway. In recent years, the AFL-CIO has said it’s considering branching out and becoming more of a formal partner to progressive groups, including environmental ones. Such a strategy could help make organized labor relevant beyond just the workplace, Trumka previously told HuffPost.

McGarvey, unsurprisingly, comes off as skeptical of such a plan, suggesting the rift may be over more than just environmentalism. Rather than, say, movement-building, he seems more concerned with his members getting a paycheck.

“For years,” he wrote in his letter, “we have heard the ideas, non sequiturs and dubious pronouncements regarding the future of the labor movement and how to make it stronger by these union ‘leaders’ and even their predecessors.”

If union leaders feel climate change is the “most pressing issue” for their memberships, he added, “then I suggest they work within their own industries to do their part to combat the problem and not callously and hypocritically take it out on hard working American AFL-CIO members.”