By staff - NW Labor Press, December 14, 2016
The standoff at North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Reservation — with Indian tribes and supporters on one side, and police and private security for the Dakota Access Pipeline on the other – also finds labor union members on both sides.
North America’s Building Trades Unions and the AFL-CIO have come out in favor of the project moving forward, because it’s a big source of union jobs. But other labor organizations have declared support for pipeline protesters, and in Oregon and Washington, a number of union members have traveled to Standing Rock to take part in the massive protest encampment — a nonviolent uprising that has united Indian tribes nationwide.
Roben White — a retired union painter and former president of Painters Local 10 — is one of them. White is of mixed Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne ancestry on his father’s side, and he’s an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He’s also a staunch unionist who says he was pained to see unions take a stand he disagrees with.
The Standing Rock Sioux object to the pipeline chiefly because of the potential risk to their water supply. When complete, the Dakota Access Pipeline would pump 470,000 barrels a day of light crude oil through a 30-inch-wide, 1,172-mile-long pipeline from the Bakken Oil Fields of northwestern North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa to refining facilities in Illinois. The pipeline’s route was originally supposed to cross the Missouri River just upstream from Bismarck, North Dakota, but because of concerns that an oil spill could wreck the city’s water supply, the route was changed to cross just upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The pipeline would cross half a mile north of the reservation, 92 feet underneath the Standing Rock Sioux water supply — Lake Oahe, a reservoir formed by a Missouri River dam.
To protest that course, in April, members of the tribe established a “spiritual camp” on Army Corps of Engineers land along the banks of the Missouri river. By August, it had become the largest gathering of Native American tribes in more than a century. With protesters attempting to stop construction, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple declared a state of emergency Aug. 19. Private security contractors, joined by police reinforcements from six states, deployed in armored personnel carriers, and used rubber bullets, tear gas grenades, pepper spray, and sound cannons against unarmed protesters. On Sept. 3, security guards attacked nonviolent protesters with pepper mace and dogs.
Then on Sept. 9, Department of Justice, Department of the Interior and Department of the Army asked that the pipeline company voluntarily halt construction within 20 miles of Lake Oahe, after a federal judge denied the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s request for a temporary injunction.
Shortly after that, national AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka weighed in with an official statement on the pipeline: “The AFL-CIO supports pipeline construction as part of a comprehensive energy policy,” he declared Sept. 15. “Pipeline construction and maintenance provides quality jobs to tens of thousands of skilled workers,” Trumka said. Community involvement is important, Trumka said, particularly in situations involving places of significance to Native Americans, but, he added, “once these processes have been completed, it is fundamentally unfair to hold union members’ livelihoods and their families’ financial security hostage to endless delay.… Furthermore, trying to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects is neither effective nor fair to the workers involved.”
Reacting to Trumka’s statement, White, the former Painters Local 10 president, picketed with half a dozen other local unionists outside the Sept. 23 annual awards banquet of the AFL-CIO’s Southwest Washington Labor Roundtable.
“I’m all labor. I live and breathe it,” White said. “I’m not questioning the fact that they want those jobs. I made my living in the building trades too. But there is a point that we need to take responsibility. … How ‘bout fixing the pipelines that are busting all over the place? How ‘bout changing the infrastructure so we don’t have to use so much oil and gas?”
For the Standing Rock tribe, protest banners say, “water is life.” But for many union construction workers, pipelines are how they earn their living. After the federal agencies requested a halt to construction, five national union presidents wrote to President Obama. “The [Dakota Access pipeline] project is being built with an all-union workforce and workers are earning family-sustaining wages, with family health care and retirement contributions,” wrote the presidents of Operating Engineers, Electrical Workers, Teamsters, United Association and Laborers. “However, the project delays are already putting members out of work and causing hardships for thousands of families.”
The pipeline is providing work for an estimated 4,500 members of building trades unions.
But a number of labor organizations not directly involved with the project issued statements supportive of the protests, including Amalgamated Transit Union, American Postal Workers Union, Communications Workers of America, National Nurses United, and Service Employees International Union (SEIU).