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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.

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.

Labor Must Embrace the Anti-Trump Resistance to Fight for the Working Class

By Jeremy Brecher and Joe Uehlein - In These Times, March 2, 2017

The Trump presidency presents organized labor with a dilemma.

On the one hand, Trump’s advocacy for fossil fuel, infrastructure and military expansion promises to provide jobs for some union workers. His proposals to end trade deals and put tariffs on manufacturing imports align with long-standing labor opposition to pro-corporate globalization.

On the other hand, Trump and his Republican allies in Congress propose tax, budget and social welfare policies that would impoverish most workers. His Cabinet nominees are proven enemies of organized labor and the rights of workers. And his executive policies, legislative priorities and likely Supreme Court appointments point towards catastrophic restrictions on organized labor.

A portent of the future: Vice-President Mike Pence recently discussed with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker how to go national with Wisconsin’s restrictions on collective bargaining and union rights. Union membership has dropped some 40 percent in the state since Walker’s collective bargaining law passed in 2011. Only 8 percent of Wisconsin’s workers were in unions last year.

Some in organized labor, especially in the buildings trades, have met with Trump, provided photo ops, and advocated that unions try to work with him, particularly on trade, energy and infrastructure. They know that many union members voted for him. Others have called for resistance to the entire Trump agenda.

The effort to embrace and work with Trump is short-sighted at best, and it may be short-lived. The survival of the labor movement depends on denying Trump the power to implement his agenda. The Trump presidency is likely to be catastrophic even for those unions that are currently seeking his favor. If the power of organized labor and its allies is further diminished, governments and corporations will be free to create a “union-free environment” for the building trades as for everybody else.

Trump’s infrastructure proposals are based on tax credits to private investors, private equity, and low-cost construction. The result is likely to be the banning of prevailing-wage rules and union security provisions for construction workers. Case in point: The Republican-led Kentucky legislature recently passed not only “right-to-work” and “paycheck protection” laws, but repealed the state’s prevailing wage law—a crucial support for building trades unions.

The attack by Trump and his Republican allies comes at a time when organized labor is already weakened. Less than 11 percent of all wage and salary workers are in unions, compared to some 20 percent in 1983. Less than 7 percent of private sector workers are in unions. Close to 35 percent of public sector workers are union members, but they are already under attack that will intensify under Trump.

While Trump’s actions will be devastating for organized labor, they may also have a silver lining. The Trump era is seeing the emergence of what has been called “social self-defense,” a massive self-organization of millions of Americans to resist Trump’s agenda. It has been manifested by the millions who participated in the Women’s March, the spontaneous actions against Trump’s Muslim ban, the mass demonstrations and community meetings in cities around the country, the millions of calls that have tied up politicians’ phone lines and myriad other forms of resistance.

The term “social self-defense” is borrowed from the struggle against the authoritarian regime in Poland 40 years ago. In the midst of harsh repression, Polish activists formed a loose network to provide financial, legal, medical and other help to people persecuted by police or unjustly dismissed from work. They organized free trade unions to defend the rights of workers and citizens, and nurtured many of the networks, strategies, and ideas that eventually helped topple the repressive regimes in Poland and other countries.

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?

Making the Promises Real: Labor and the Paris Climate Agreement

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, January 20, 2016

As nearly 200 nations gathered in Paris approved the UN Climate Change Agreement, the AFL-CIO issued a statement that broke new ground on climate. While the AFL-CIO opposed the Kyoto climate agreement and never supported the failed Copenhagen agreement, it “applauded the Paris climate change agreement as “a landmark achievement in international cooperation” and called on America “to make the promises real.”

Although it has frequently pointed out the harm that workers and communities might face from climate protection policies, the AFL-CIO has never proposed a “just transition” plan to protect them. Its Paris statement noted that “workers in certain sectors will bear the brunt of transitional job and income loss.” Recognizing that reality, it endorsed the Paris agreement’s recognition of “the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs.” It called for investment in the affected communities and “creating family-supporting jobs like those that will be lost.”

This statement lays the groundwork for organized labor to take a new approach to climate change. How can labor now move forward to implement that approach? What should labor’s post-Paris climate program be?

The New AFL-CIO Stand on Climate Change

By Jeremy Brecher - Common Dreams, November 3, 2017

At its Quadrennial Convention in late October, the AFL-CIO unanimously adopted a resolution on “Climate Change, Energy, and Union Jobs.” [https://aflcio.org/resolutions/resolution-55-climate-change-energy-and-union-jobs] The resolution says that the fastest and most equitable way to address climate change is for “labor to be at the center of creating solutions that reduce emissions while investing in our communities, maintaining and creating high-wage union jobs, and reducing poverty.”

If acted on, the resolution will bring about significant changes in organized labor and will bring American trade unions into far closer alignment with allies in the climate protection movement.

The resolution starts with the facts of global warming. It acknowledges “the overwhelming scientific consensus” that climate warming is “due to human activities” and that higher global temperatures will trigger “irreversible changes in our climate,” causing “a rise in sea levels and storm surges, an increase in droughts and extreme weather events, a substantial threat of increased extinctions, decreased food security in some regions, and an increase in heat-induced health problems.”

The resolution turns next to the social justice dimensions of climate change. “Workers, communities of color and low-income Americans suffer disproportionately from environmental degradation and climate change” through “polluted air, water and land,” and from “drought and extreme weather events.” It cites Pope Francis and other religious leaders on the “moral imperative to address both climate change and poverty.”

The resolution notes that tens of thousands of union members work in industries that rely on fossil fuels or live in regions where fossil fuels are “the primary economic driver in their communities.” Like all workers, they have a right to “a strong, viable economic future” including good jobs at union wages and benefits. It cites the Paris Agreement on “the imperative of a just transition” of the workforce and “decent work and quality jobs” when addressing climate change. It resolves to fight politically and legislatively “to secure and maintain employment, pensions and health care” for workers affected by changes in the energy market.

Unions, Trade and Nationalism

By Tom Crofton - CounterPunch, October 31, 2017

A recent statement from the AFL-CIO regarding a rejection of NAFTA and other corporate/globalist trade agreements unfortunately only skims the surface of the issues working people face.

As the dominate union leadership in America, the AFL-CIO and its member unions need to take a deeper look at their historical behavior, and their role in enabling the evolution of the corporate state with its current right wing/anti labor swing.

American unions never were interested in taking responsibility for production. American unions developed to confront management but not to replace it. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was the only organization that tried to organize horizontally across all sectors to create a “new world in the shell of the old”. The vision of workers building a society where prosperity was available to all and artificial class barriers would dissolve was never a popular theme in American labor. We have always felt that we needed the owners, agreeing at least subliminally that capital has more power than basic human needs; that human weakness, pettiness, and laziness would wreck any sort of money-free effort to exchange services; that hierarchies of wages and benefits were natural and that those at the bottom were there due to their own fault.

The evolution of trade unions cemented in place these hierarchies, leaving the least skilled workers unorganized until the CIO attempted to fill the need while organizing mine workers and African Americans during the Great depression. The following era of war-induced prosperity, and the ongoing economic expansion during the Cold War, created a phony, unsustainable sense of American prosperity for a growing middle class, where 5% of the world’s population consumed 80% of its resources. The AFL-CIO was active in this period wrecking third world union organizing attempts as a front for a CIA run, right-wing sponsored, American style Imperialism. On the home front, a rising middle class of workers were happy to build low quality products, for good wages, as the disposable society offered an endless supply of the “latest” consumer goods. Conspicuous consumption and keeping up with the Jones’s did not include the working poor or the third world.

AFL-CIO Convention adopts Climate Change resolution

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, October 27, 2017

The 2017 Convention of the AFL-CIO   took place in St. Louis from October 22 to 25.  In a breakthrough, Resolution 55 on Climate Change, Energy and Union Jobs  was adopted, putting the AFL-CIO “on the  record” as  recognizing the threat of  climate change and acknowledging the need to move to a sustainable alternative energy system.  The resolution also calls for workers impacted by the energy transition to be protected.  The floor debate is available on YouTube , showing supportive speeches by members of  the Utility Workers, IBEW, LIUNA, USW, the Boilermakers, CWA,  AFA, the Montana AFL-CIO and the Southeast Minnesota Area Labor Council.  Speaking strongly against the resolution was the General President of the UA, which represents workers in the plumbing and pipefitting trades, including pipeline and energy industry workers. He objected to the exclusion of the UA in the process of drafting the resolution. Resolution 55 was, in fact, a compromise version arrived at by the Executive Council from several resolutions submitted.

From the text of Resolution 55 :  “ THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the AFL-CIO will fight politically and legislatively to secure and maintain employment, pensions and health care for workers affected by changes in the energy market; and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the AFL-CIO supports incentives and robust funding for research programs to bring new energy technologies to market, including renewables, carbon capture and advanced nuclear technologies; and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the AFL-CIO will support the passage of key energy and environmental policies with a focus on ensuring high labor standards, the creation of union jobs and environmental sustainability; and BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED,  that the AFL-CIO will continue to urge the United States to remain in the Paris Agreement and to work to ensure that all nations make progress on emissions reductions; and BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, that the AFL-CIO believes that the United States Congress should enact comprehensive energy and climate legislation that creates good jobs and addresses the threat of climate change.”

The full list of Adopted Resolutions from the 2017 AFL CIO Convention is here. The Labor Network for Sustainability has archived past resolutions by U.S. labour unions to their own conventions here.

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