Which Is More Likely to Rebuild the Labor Movement: Environmental Allies or 6,000 Temp Jobs?

Mike Elk

For us, this is our Wisconsin,” environmental activist Bill McKibben told a meeting of labor leaders on Friday, describing the dramatic protests against the Keystone XL pipeline during which more than a 1,000 people were arrested in front of the White House over a period of two weeks.

The Keystone XL pipeline would bring hard-to-extract oil all the way from the Tar Sands region of Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico. Building the pipeline is vital for the expanded development of the Tar Sands region, which environmental activists say would dramatically worsen the effects of global warming. As leading NASA climate scientist James Hansen said, if the Tar Sands fields are fully developed it is essentially game over for the climate.” Thus McKibben declared the fight over the pipeline to be the environmental movement’s Wisconsin.”

Unlike in Wisconsin, however, where organized labor rallied together with allies including environmentalists, labor leaders have largely ignored the pipeline protests. While many writers will write op-eds on this Labor Day bemoaning the decline of the labor movement that built the middle class and blaming it all on unionbusters and Republican politicians, perhaps it would be more meaningful to examine why organized labor has largely remained silent on the issue of the pipeline in order to understand organized labor’s decline.

Amalgamated Transit Union President Larry Hanley, whose union opposes the pipeline, believes the mentality that leads some labor leaders to endorse the pipeline project is the same mentality that has weakened organized labor. 

It’s a short-term gain of a few thousand jobs to endorse this pipeline, but a big long-term loss for the labor movement to support this pipeline,” Hanley says. Not only do we hurt the environment, but we lose our allies. We need our allies to overcome the incredible obstacles that face the labor movement.”

The AFL-CIO has not taken a position on the pipeline because four unions — the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters, the International Union of Operating Engineers, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the Laborers’ International Union of North America — have signed project labor agreements that would allow their members to build the pipeline.

In a joint statement supporting the pipeline’s construction, the unions described the Keystone XL pipeline as something that will pave a path to better days and raise the standard of living for working men and women in the construction, manufacturing, and transportation industries.” But a State Department analysis says the pipeline would create only 5,000- 6,000 temporary construction jobs for three years, while a study financed by oil company TransCanada claims the project would create 20,000 temp jobs.

While it is unclear how many jobs would be created for members of organized labor, it is clear that building the pipeline would help some enemies of the labor movement. The people making money off of this pipeline are the people making problems for everybody,” says McKibben. The Koch Brothers have a refinery very close to the tar sands region in Alberta. By building this pipeline, we are funding the very people attacking all of us.”

While the pipeline may help construction unions whose members are suffering record levels of unemployment, some worry its construction could spell the end of unions all together. Look, it’s very simple. If the earth goes out of existence, the labor movement goes out of existence too,” says union organizer Joe Uehlein, executive director of the Labor Network for Sustainability.

Only two public transit worker unions — Transport Workers Union and the Amalgamated Transit Union — have come out in opposition to the pipeline.

If you truly believe in building a movement to build a green economy, this pipeline is taking a huge step backwards,” says Hanley. By building this pipeline we are increasing our dependence on fossil fuels instead of focusing on building the green economy.”

With unions divided over the pipeline and the AFL-CIO preoccupied with other issues (like nationwide unionbusting and state austerity measures in part targeting unionized public-sector workers), the labor movement has not paid much attention, according to one senior AFL-CIO staffer.

Even though the protest is going on down the street from our building, it’s not something that is buzzing in the building. It’s a shame,” Cathy Feingold, director of international programs of the labor federation, said Friday in Washington, D.C. It’s just not something that is on a lot of people’s radar screens.”

Such silence on crucial issues not directly related to labor — like the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War — created deep rifts between the Baby Boomer generation and organized labor.

Remember, the AFL-CIO boycotted the March on Washington in 1963. It’s an unpleasant part of our history, but it’s true,” said Transport Workers Union Vice President Roger Toussaint. Had it not been for a few unions like the UAW supporting the Civil Right Movement, we might have missed the opportunity to gain from that period. Now we risk losing the opportunity to gain from this movement.”

Former Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union leader Tony Mazzocchi (dubbed the Rachel Carson of the American Workplace”) argued that just because unions work in heavily-polluting industries doesn’t mean organized labor shouldn’t be critical of those industries.

Mazzocchi argued unions should instead fight for their own vision of a just transition” in which workers who worked in harmful industries would be given jobs in environmentally sound industries. Furthermore, he argued that by always supporting the corporate position on environmental issues, unions were weakening their own power by abandoning the allies needed to bring about change.

We don’t have to carry the boss’s water on these kinds of issues. This is a real learning moment for building the kind of movements we need to change the world,” says former Mazzocchi aide and longtime union organizer Marc Dudzic. We can’t build alliances with environmentalists, young people, and Native Americans that aren’t based on real principles. How do we expect to be able to revive the labor movement if we take these allies’ support for granted?”

The endorsement of the pipeline by four major unions says something significant about the state of today’s labor movement. Unions make separate deals that hurt other sectors of the labor movement when they would rather save themselves (at least temporarily) than be wiped out altogether.

Earlier this year in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker tried to cut a separate peace with two powerful unions by exempting police and firefighters from losing collective bargaining rights. He hoped this would stop politically popular firefighters and cops from rallying alongside less popular teachers. Instead of making a separate peace, they showed up with bagpipes rallying under the slogan An injury to one is an injury to all.”

Wisconsin’s firefighters and cops helped light a flame of solidarity so bright that it inspired young activists to defend the labor movement. Organized labor now has a chance to grow that flame even larger by moving closer to the fire of environmental activists.

The question I have for labor leaders this Labor Day is: How will a few thousand temporary construction jobs rebuild the labor movement?

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.
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