In The Dakota Access Pipeline Fight, The AFL-CIO Is Not The Enemy

Last week, the AFL-CIO came out in support of the Dakota Access Pipeline. For many climate advocates, such as myself, the news was disheartening. The Dakota Access Pipeline will poison water supplies, destroy priceless heritage sites, and lead us farther away from the transition to a low-carbon economy. Here on Huffington Post, a headline read, "AFL-CIO To Planet Earth: Drop Dead." But, this is a red herring. The enemy is not the AFL-CIO. The enemy is not those advocates rightfully trying to stop the pipeline from being built at Standing Rock. Instead, these two seemingly at odds interests have a common enemy: the fossil fuel industry, which puts profits over workers and is the worst contributor to climate change.

It's no surprise that the fossil fuel industry is hostile to any attempt to transition to a low-carbon economy. For decades, the industry led a targeted, well-financed campaign to deceive the public on climate change. Evidence shows that the world's largest fossil fuel companies knew of the dangers of climate change for over 20 years and continued to spend tens of millions of dollars on their deception campaign. The industry secretly funded "independent" scientists, created front groups, and even forged letters from nonprofit organizations, desperate to prevent the transition to a low-carbon economy.

But, the fossil fuel industry is also no friend to workers. As just one example, Peabody Energy, the largest private sector coal company in the world, shifted millions of dollars in health care liabilities to a subsidiary, Patriot Coal, that then filed for bankruptcy and sought to, "limit or discharge its pension and health obligations to 22,000 retired miners and their spouses." By shifting the health care costs to a subsidiary that then filed for bankruptcy, Peabody Energy increased its profits at the expense of coal miners' health. Health benefits for retired miners is particularly essential considering black lung disease is at its highest levels in 40 years, indicating that miners now are being exposed to ever more toxic working conditions. Despite what it may say, environmental regulations or the need to shift away from coal doesn't seem to be hurting the company. Peabody Energy's revenues for 2015 topped $5.1 billion.

In addition, fossil fuel companies are active members of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Exxon Mobil, Koch Industries, and Peabody Energy are corporate board members of ALEC. ALEC promotes climate denial and has actively worked to repeal renewable energy standards at the state level, taking issue with their overwhelming success in increasing renewable energy use. ALEC has also successfully pushed Right to Work legislation at the state level since 1995. Right to Work laws undermine unions and Right to Work states have lower wages and benefits.

Without a drastic shift away from fossil fuels, we will see the worst impacts of climate change. At the same time, if you can't feed your family, it's difficult to focus on anything apart from that. Base pay for workers on the Dakota Access pipeline can start at $37 an hour plus benefits, overtime, and per diem pay. The median pay for solar PV installers is $18.19 an hour.

But, it doesn't have to be this way. Research has shown that solar jobs can be good jobs. In California, utility-scale solar construction built by union members paid $39 per hour plus health and pension benefits. In addition to providing good jobs, all unionized employers participated in state-approved apprenticeship programs to train a new generation of solar workers. The mean hourly wage for an apprentice electrician is almost $24 an hour plus benefits and increases with skill acquisition as they move through their apprenticeship program.

Pitting unions against climate change advocates only benefits the fossil fuel industry. Investing in climate jobs that pay family sustaining wages and meaningfully decrease carbon emissions makes our economy stronger and saves us from the worst impacts of climate change. Labor and environmentalists must work together and not be driven apart by fossil fuel greed. We are stronger together.

Update: A Peabody Energy Spokesperson emailed me the following:
"Peabody reached agreement with the UMWA related to Patriot healthcare obligations in 2013 and amended its agreement with the UMWA for related Patriot healthcare obligations earlier this year as noted in the attached release. Peabody's payments for retiree healthcare under the Coal Act remain unchanged."