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Labor Leaders Support the Dakota Access Pipeline—But This Native Union Member Doesn’t

Article and Image by Brooke Anderson - Yes! Magazine, October 18, 2016

This article is part of a collaboration between YES! Magazine and Climate Workers that seeks to connect the experiences of workers with the urgency of the climate crisis.

As clashes over the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline continue in North Dakota, a related battle is brewing in the halls of organized labor. In a statement issued September 15, the nation’s largest federation of trade unions threw in its support for the controversial oil pipeline.

The president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) denounced the actions of the Standing Rock protectors, stating that “trying to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects is neither effective nor fair to the workers involved.”

Thousands of people, including members of over 200 tribes, have been camped at the construction site for months to stop the pipeline, which would move 500,000 barrels of crude oil a day across four states, threatening the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

As the controversy heated up, four unions representing pipeline workers denounced the water protectors, claiming they were illegal protesters who were committing dangerous actions while Illegally occupying private land. The AFL-CIO, which represents 55 unions and 12.5 million members, quickly followed suit.

Many union members were furious. Unions representing nurses, bus drivers, communications workers, and electrical workers issued statements in solidarity with the tribe and opposing the pipeline.

However, some critical voices have been missing from the conversation: those of indigenous union members themselves. One of those members is Melissa Stoner, a Native American Studies librarian at the Ethnic Studies Library at the University of California Berkeley and a member of American Federation of Teachers 1474, AFL-CIO.

I recently sat down with Stoner. She shared her experiences growing up on the Navajo Reservation, advocating for domestic violence survivors, falling in love with libraries, and wrestling with the contradictions of a labor movement divided on climate at a critical moment.

Standing Rock Solid with the Frackers: Are the Trades Putting Labor’s Head in the Gas Oven?

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, October 14, 2016

This article first appeared in New Labor Forum. It has been updated to reflect the rising level of union opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

If anyone were looking for further evidence that the AFL-CIO remains unprepared to accept the science of climate change, and unwilling to join with the effort being made by all of the major labor federations of the world to address the crisis, the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) provides only the most recent case in point. Taking direction from the newly minted North American Building Trades Unions (NABTU) and the American Petroleum Institute (API), the federation stood against the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribal nations.

In a recent video interview, NABTU president Sean McGarvey dismissed those who oppose the expansion of fossil fuels infrastructure. “There is no way to satisfy them…no way for them to recognize that if we don’t want to lose our place in the world as the economic superpower, then we have to have this infrastructure and the ability to responsibly reap the benefits of what God has given this country in its natural resources.”[i] Although the leaders of NABTU no longer identify with the AFL-CIO and the letterhead does not mention the Federation, the Trades continue to determine the shape the AFL-CIO’s approach to energy and climate. This is despite the fact that a growing number of unions have opposed the DAPL, among them the Amalgamated Transit Union, Communication Workers of America, National Domestic Workers Alliance, National Nurses United, New York State Nurses Association, Service Employees International Union (SEIU); SEIU 1199, and the United Electrical Workers. Union locals (branches or chapters) have also opposed the DAPL, among them, GEU UAW Local 6950 and Steelworkers Local 8751.

These unions have been joined by the Labor Coalition for Community Action, which represents well established AFL-CIO constituency groups like LCLAA, APALA, Pride at Work, CBTU, CLUW and the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

Reacting to the progressive unions’ solidarity with Standing Rock Sioux, NABTU’s president Sean McGarvey wrote a scathing letter to AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, copies of which were sent to the principal officers of all of the Federation’s affiliated unions. In a fashion reminiscent of the Keystone XL fight, McGarvey disparaged the unions that opposed DAPL. A day later, on September 15th, the AFL-CIO issued its own already infamous statement supporting DAPL. “Trying to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects is neither effective nor fair to the workers involved” said the statement. “The AFL-CIO calls on the Obama Administration to allow construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to continue.”[ii]

Unions Congratulate the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe on Denial of Authorization for the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL)

Statement from 1199 SEIU; Amalgamated Transit Union; Brotherhood of Maintenance and Way Employees Division, Pennsylvania Federation–Teamsters; National Domestic Workers Alliance; National Nurses United; New York State Nurses Association; United Electrical Workers - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, December 9, 2016

We are unions representing members in health care, domestic work, public transit, railroads, manufacturing and other sectors.

We congratulate leaders of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and thousands of supporters for the news that the federal government will deny authorization for the Dakota Access Pipeline to go through tribal lands posing a threat to water sources and sacred sites.

The Obama Administration’s decision respects the sacred grounds of the Standing Rock Sioux and takes into consideration the potential of a hazardous pipeline leak that would harm the community’s life and livelihood.

This is a historic victory, and an organizing victory that every union member can identify with, against one of the most powerful economic and political forces in the world: the fossil fuel industry and its many allies inside and outside government. These forces have used private police that have not hesitated in using violence to intimidate those participating in peaceful protest.

Mindful of our own history in facing private police and vigilantes in the fight to establish workers’ rights, trade unionists have stood shoulder to shoulder with the First Nation water protectors, environmental and community supporters, and many allies who have mobilized and rallied for months against huge odds.

Our unions will continue to join with opponents of the Dakota Pipeline along other routes and fight to halt similar projects that transport dirty crude oil that jeopardize public health and contribute to the climate crisis.

We also stand in solidarity with the construction workers who build our country’s infrastructure, and also with the workers in coal, oil and gas, many of whom have lost their jobs due to the collapse in global prices. In accordance with the Paris Climate Agreement, we call for a “just transition” for workers whose jobs and livelihoods may be threatened by the move away from fossil fuels.

But there is much work to be done in modernizing and repairing bridges, roads, tunnels, public transit systems, etc., many of which have become dilapidated and dangerous to workers and the public.  But jobs based on expanding (and exporting) fossil fuels will simply lead to more environmental destruction, worsening health, climate instability and social upheaval at home and abroad.  Business as usual is not an option.

Together we can demand the development of sustainable energy production and resource initiatives that unequivocally provide good, safe union jobs while salvaging the health and well-being of the earth’s population.

Our future depends on our willingness to engage and organize among progressive forces and social movements in order to effectively meet the challenges ahead.

Eyewitness Dakota: Standing with a Native Led Movement Against Extreme Energy

By Irene Shen - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, October 14, 2016

I just returned from Standing Rock, North Dakota where I stayed at the camp with thousands of others gathered to resist the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). I decided to go because, despite the lack of major media coverage, this has been the most visible Native-led movement against America’s system of exploitation in our country, and one that deeply impacts all of us, from issues of clean drinking water to climate change. I also went because I believe that we can’t allow the fossil fuel industry or our government to perpetuate a history of genocide for profit by jeopardizing the water source of thousands of Native Americans while ignoring their treaty rights and sacred lands – an example of capitalism at work. I knew that the water protectors at Standing Rock wanted people to come out there, so I went to contribute whatever I could to win the battle.

Standing Rock is an opportunity to organize and raise people’s consciousness that the climate crisis is the result of a system that exploits land and working people and then displaces them, so that natural resources can be extracted for profit. Without a systemic change, more pipelines will be constructed for profit and more communities will be destroyed, especially poor communities of color, regardless of a defeated DAPL or better energy policies.

Many people who were at Standing Rock were there because they decided to fight against a system that can seem unbeatable. Instead of letting discouragement or fear keep them away, they chose to fight the fossil fuel industry and our government that supports the destruction of their water supply and land. I wanted to connect with people in that context, to talk about the need for systemic change and to bring that energy of hope and a fighting spirit home to local battles against displacement, environmental racism and exploitation.

If Not Now, When? A Labor Movement Plan to Address Climate Change

By Jeremy Brecher, Ron Blackwell, and Joe Uehlein - New Labor Forum, September 2014

We are on a climate change path that, unless radically altered, will lead to an unsustainable global warming of seven degrees Fahrenheit or greater. We also face the most serious employment crisis since the Great Depression, with wages that have stagnated for four decades and economic inequality now at levels not seen since the 1920s.

The Keystone Pipeline Debate: An Alternative Job Creation Strategy

By Kristen Sheeran, Noah Enelow, Jeremy Brecher, and Brendan Smith - Economics for Equity and the Environment and Labor Network for Sustainably, November 5, 2013

The Keystone XL pipeline has been touted as a means to address America's jobs crisis. But how does its
job creation compare to other possible projects?

Climate Emergency: Global Insurgency

By Jeremy Brecher - Common Dreams, October 14, 2016

Note: The new, updated 2016 edition of Jeremy Brecher’s Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival, from which the following is drawn, can be now be downloaded for free at the author's website here.)

The Lilliputian defenders of the earth’s climate have been winning some unlikely battles lately. The Standing Rock Sioux, supported by nearly two hundred Native American tribes and a lot of other people around the globe, have put a halt, at least for now, to completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a project that threatens their sacred burial sites and the water supply for 17 million people—not to mention the world’s climate. Before that a seven-year struggle terminated the Keystone XL pipeline. Other fossil fuel extraction, transport, and burning facilities have been halted by actions around the world.

But as Bill McKibben has said, "Fighting one pipeline at a time, the industry will eventually prevail."[1] Is there a plausible strategy for escalating today’s campaigns against fossil fuel infrastructure to create an effective challenge to the escalating climate threat? How can we get the power we need to counter climate catastrophe? My book Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival (download) grapples with that question and proposes a possible strategy: a global nonviolent constitutional insurgency. Now that strategy is being tried – and may even be overcoming some of the obstacles that have foiled climate protection heretofore.

Dakota Access Pipeline and the Future of American Labor

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, September 28, 2016

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?

Native rights and resistance after Standing Rock

Nick Estes and Ragina Johnson interviewed by Khury Petersen-Smith - Socialist Worker, January 24, 2018

One of Donald Trump's first acts as president was to sign executive orders to push through construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and Keystone XL Pipeline. Both projects were flashpoints of Indigenous resistance, especially DAPL, which sparked a rebellion at Standing Rock that galvanized months of protest and political action around the country.

The executive orders signaled Trump's hard line against Indigenous protest, as part of his broader attack on oppressed people, the working class and the environment. More recently, Trump announced the reduction of protected lands at Bears Ears National Monument, amid a series of insults toward Native Americans, such as his disrespect of Navajo veterans when they visited the White House.

Nick Estes is a co-founder of the Red Nation website, and Ragina Johnson is an activist and member of the International Socialist Organization. Both participated in the Standing Rock resistance and other struggles, and have written prolifically on Indigenous politics. They talked with Khury Petersen-Smith about the state of the struggle after Standing Rock and the questions of Indigenous oppression and self-determination that lie before us.

Was 2017 the year that the tide finally turned against fossil fuel projects?

By Suzanne Dhaliwal - Open Democracy, December 21, 2017

Last week AXA announced its sell off of €700m of tar sands investments from its balance sheets, covering 25 tar sands companies and 3 major pipelines projects. Thomas Buberl, the company’s chief executive, called the projects “not sustainable and therefore also not insurable.”

This was a significant win for activists like the UK Tar Sands Network and the Indigenous Environmental Network, who have been calling on financial institutions to end investments in the tar sands projects and pipelines since 2009, and who have most recently taken their campaigning efforts to the insurance industry.

The AXA decision comes just weeks after BNP Paribas broke the news that it will no longer finance new shale or tar sands projects, nor work with companies that mainly focus on those resources. Last Friday, Norway’s largest life insurer, KLP announced that it would exclude from its portfolio any firms that derive 30 percent or more of revenues from the extraction of tar sands. In the same week the World Bank announced it would cease financing upstream oil and gas after 2019.

It’s welcome news. Based on the financial risks, climate impacts and indigenous rights violations, we have seen a significant shift in financial institutions backing fossil fuels. The Bank of England now recognizes the monetary risks associated with climate change and is advising the central banks and governments to get out of highly polluting fuels due to the pending carbon bubble and the bad business associated with ‘extreme’ energy extraction. As a result BP, Shell, Exxon and others have pulled out of major tar sands projects and pipelines.

And now the insurance industry is beginning to act more meaningfully. As early as the 1970s, the insurance industry acknowledged the risk of climate change and the need for the sector to take meaningful action. Insurers have already seen the costs of climate related catastrophes and extreme weather events skyrocket, compelling them to be among some of the first movers divesting from coal and also develop policies to stop the underwriting of new fossil fuel projects. But they have massive holdings in fossil fuels. And so they need public pressure to push them to divest.

So despite last week’s news, we must be careful not to pop those champagne corks too fast. Significant action and commitment has yet to be seen by Asian and American insurers. Moreover, regenerative steps need to be taken to ensure that the communities whose livelihoods depend on fossil fuels benefit from the transition to the clean energy economy. Simply put, who will be responsible for the massive clean-ups of stranded projects and direct the green energy transition?

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