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What happened to Teamsters & Turtles? Arctic Drilling, the Labor Movement, and the Environment

By Alexis Buss - Industrial Worker, October 2001

"They couldn't have done it without the unions," is the sentiment echoed across the environmental movement, as U.S. President George Bush's energy plan passed 240-189 in the House. Although few expect the plan to drill for domestic oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge to pass the Senate (although with the potential for war around the comer, political dynamics are bound to change), many are left scratching their heads, wondering what the future will be for a fledgling environmentalist-labor coalition dubbed "Teamsters and Turtles" during 1999's anti-WIO protests in Seattle.

Media pundits had long labeled the ANWR drilling plan as politically unviable because of the Democrats' control of the Senate. A last-minute intervention by the Teamsters played a major part in pushing the plan through the House, and Teamster President James Hoffa plans to help target the Senate when the bill hits the floor in late September.

The Teamsters came aboard as a lobby group for the plan after a closed-door meeting in May with Vice President Dick Cheney and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. Leaders from over twenty labor organizations were present, mostly from construction and maritime. The AFL-CIO also endorsed the Bush plan late in the game, which came as an unexpected move as several power-hitters in the federation including the Service Employees International Union and the Communication Workers of America had stated their opposition to the scheme. (The AFL-ClO's 1993 convention passed a resolution that, in part, called on the country to explore ANWR for oil with safeguards to protect the environment.)

Bush's energy plan - supposedly instigated by the California energy crisis [1] and unstable gasoline prices - calls for building almost 2,000 new power plants and 18,000 miles of fuel pipelines over the next two decades. The Bush teams figures indicated that each new power plant would create 1,000 construction jobs and 200 permanent jobs, while every 1,000 miles of pipeline would bring with it another 5,000 jobs. And there would be another job boom if nuclear power plants came back into the picture. All told, over 700,000 jobs would be created, according to a 1990 report of the Wharton Econometric Institute, paid for by the American Petroleum Institute. (Not to mention the plethora of jobs to be had cleaning up from environmental disasters, guarding radioactive wastes for tens of thousands of years, and such.)

Unions at the Cheney meeting have joined a business-led coalition called "Job Power: Americans for Energy Employment." It's worth noting that Cheney earned more than $20 million last year as CEO of Halliburton, an oil-field services company that would benefit greatly from loosening regulations on refineries and pipelines.

Steelworkers sought an agreement that steel used in construction would come exclusively from American plants, but no such commitment was made. This, of course, is prevented by international free trade agreements that multi-national corporations enforce with vigor. There was also no guarantee that the jobs created would go to union workers, who are a distinct minority of available workers for any major construction job, as only around 20 of the industry is organized. However, the House of Representatives voted to allow the use of project labor agreements on such jobs, which can help unions get a foothold in the work at the cost of strict no-strike pledges.

Bush's energy plan also included higher fuel-efficiency standards for SUVs and minivans, a provision vigorously lobbied against by the United Auto Workers, who argued that the policy would prefer foreign imports and economically devastate American car manufacturers. As initially proposed, car manufacturers would need to average 27.5 miles per gallon by 2007. The auto companies say this would be too expensive, and with lobbying assistance from their friends in the UAW, that requirement was replaced by a "goal" for automakers to reduce gas consumption by.5 billion gallons between 2004 and 2010. 

Polls indicate that most Americans favor energy conservation over building energy plants and drilling for fossil fuels in order to keep up with current energy usage levels. A recent Gallup poll shows 52 percent favor conservation while 36 percent lean toward the Bush plan to increase production.

"What the administration has announced is not an energy policy but an energy rip-off by big oil companies and utilities," said Andrew Stern, president of the SEIU. This sentiment appears to be echoed in a majority of American union households.

According to a poll conducted by Hart-Teeter for NBC News and the Wall Street Journal in March 2001, more than 60 percent of union members oppose President Bush's plan to allow oil and gas drilling in the Arctic refuge. The poll shows that 62 percent of union members, compared to 56 percent of respondents in non-union households, oppose drilling in "protected areas, such as the Alaskan wilderness," and want to "keep these areas off limits and consider other solutions."

The World Wildlife Fund insists that more jobs can be created by investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency than by ANWR drilling.

The National Federation of Independent unions, a coalition of non-AFL-CIO unions whose numbers add up to well over 100,000 members, believes that ANWR drilling would not solve the problem it is designed to fix. President Francis Chiappardi voiced his d
isagreement with the plan "to plunder the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to extract a supply of oil that would be available a decade or more from now, and even then would give us a mere four to six months." NFIU interestingly enough, is affiliated with the AFL-CIO's Laborers Union, which strongly favors ANWR drilling.

Set aside in 1960, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a 1.5 million acre swath of land near the US-Canadian border north of the Arctic Circle. Although the energy plan that passed the house says that no more than 2,000 acres of the plain will be disturbed for oil production, environmentalists say the limit is meaningless because the acres could be scattered across a broad area. Drilling is predicted to alter vast portions of the refuge.

According to an environmental impact statement by the U.S. Department of Interior, opening the area would require construction of hundreds of miles of roads, pipelines and air strips, drilling pads and other, infrastructure to accommodate production.

Riverbeds and streambeds would have to be stripped for gravel for roads and air strips. Reasons to oppose drilling are numerous, ranging from arguments that say the oil in ANWR is not enough to make any significant impact on the domestic oil supply, to protecting the pristine habitat that is home to large populations of caribou, moose, wolves, grizzlies and polar bears, and migratory birds. The potential for oil spills is high - many people will remember the 10-million-gallon Exxon Valdez disaster - but smaller spills are commonplace and dangerous to the environment.

The attention lavished on labor to lobby for ANWR has been seen by many environmentalists and unionists as a ploy by the Bush camp to bust-up the AFL-CIO's Democratic Party vote-getting machine. Endorsements from labor now will strengthen Bush's position with union voters later - the same votes who were aggressively mobilized to support Gore (and other oil-baron Democratic politicians) in 2000. A wedge is most easily driven in the Federation by targeting the construction unions as they have historically been among the most conservative. The 500,000 member United Brotherhood of Carpenters recently left the AFL-CIO. At the time UBC Secretary-Treasurer Andris Silins said, "The AFL-CIO has strayed to social and environmental issues that have nothing to do with getting better wages and working conditions for working people."

The Teamsters could have other reasons to get cozy with the Bush Administration. The IBT, who endorsed Reagan in 1980, want to be rid of the federal control of the union established 12 years ago to settle a racketeering lawsuit for mob ties. Hoffa says those days are over and the union is moving toward democratic control. His critics, including the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, say that corruption is still a problem and the union hasn't developed the resources needed to expand organizing efforts and increase membership. TDU's case has been bolstered by accusations that a top' aide to Hoffa masterminded a sweetheart deal to undercut Teamsters members in Las Vegas by giving jobs to non-union workers.

When the AFL-CIO mobilized its members to march alongside environmental and other activist groups in Seattle - and again at protests against the World Bank in Washington, D.C., and the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City - many heralded it as the dawn of a new era of socially responsible unionism. While there was always reason to doubt the sincerity of the AFL-CIO piecards' commitment to such a vision, many rank-and-file union members were eager for a unionism that addressed not only their immediate job concerns but also the long-term degradation of the planet on which we live and work and the immiseration of our fellow workers around the globe.

However, the rank and file do not control the business unions, and AFL-CIO officials evidently have no problem mortgaging the future of the planet in exchange for promises to create a handful of jobs building the means for our own destruction.

The alliance was captured in the slogan, "Teamsters and Turtles, Together at Last." Are the Teamsters now offering a new slogan, "Turtle Soup, Anyone?"

Unions for Bush?

The International Association of Machinists has produced a jingoistic video featuring its president encouraging IAM members to support George Bush's Star Wars II program. Meanwhile, the Teamsters invited Bush to speak at Labor Day celebrations.

Bush spoke August 26 at a West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, USX plant, apparently invited because he has begun an "inquiry" into steel imports. "I support anybody that supports labor," said Howard Graham, 56, chairman of the trustees of Local 1219 of the United Steelworkers of America, during the event.

How Bush falls into that category is anyone's guess. However, one union member said he couldn't do much worse than the Democrats. "With all the money we gave him, Clinton didn't do much for us," said Frederick Nicholas, 80, a retired steelworker at the event. Hard to argue with that.


[1] The California Power Crisis was later revealed to have been manufactured entirely by the employing class, primarily by (but not limited to) Enron taking advantage of recently enacted "deregulation" in an effort to price gouge.

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