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Cliff Willmeng

Labor can't sit out the fight at Standing Rock

Cliff Willmeng interviewed by Sean Petty - Socialist Worker, November 28, 2016

THE STRUGGLE to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota has become a lightning rod in the concurrent struggle for Indigenous self-determination, to protect the basic water supply for a huge section of the country and to stop climate change. How did you get involved?

SELF-DETERMINATION is a position that cannot coexist within capitalism, since the 1 Percent could never survive an actual democracy.

This is harmful enough at the workplace where the dominant decision-making comes from the CEOs and upper management, instead of those of us actually performing the work. As it's applied to decision-making over the environment, the disenfranchisement of people becomes even more critical. First Nations, of course, have known this for many centuries through the genocide of Western expansion, and the same patterns exist today.

Where I live, my own community and many others attempted to move against the dominance of the fossil fuel industry by enacting local bans or moratoriums on oil and gas drilling in 2012 and 2013.

It resulted in near immediate lawsuits against the communities by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association on the basis that we did not have the authority to stop drilling, since that was in the possession of the state. One lawsuit was even joined by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who, along with the rest of the two parties, don't believe communities should have superior legal power to corporations.

This is playing out very directly and in the harshest sense against Native Americans in Standing Rock. What they have always known--and what more people are waking up to--is the fact that environmental sustainability is illegal under the American system of law.

THIS STRUGGLE in particular and the effort to stop climate change more generally were completely absent from the presidential debates. Why do you think that is?

IF CLIMATE change is addressed at all, the topic is couched in a set of superficial talking points. The reason is that the dominant forces of the U.S. military and economic system are permanently wedded to fossil fuels. So it doesn't matter if the application is fertilizer and industrial agriculture under Monsanto or war efforts.

The two political parties agree that nothing substantial can be done, or should be done, to address climate change. To do so would threaten their very existence.

AS A former union carpenter and current union nurse, what has been the role of unions in this struggle?

THE UNION leadership has centered itself upon a strategy of integrating the rank and file with management, the Democratic Party and Wall Street, which has meant the widespread demobilization of the membership over the prior 40 years.

This strategy, which some call "business unionism" and some call the "team concept," is based on cooperation with the owners, and has been so successful that unions are at a historic low in membership and strength. The strategy is dependent on removing any leadership role for working people at the workplace or the wider political process of the country. It means elevated positions for union leaders and a diminishing share of crumbs for the workers.

This has led people like AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to serve as the mouthpiece of the bosses for some time, most recently through his endorsement of Energy Transfer Partners' Dakota Access Pipeline. Thankfully, this extreme position has opened up a debate within organized labor itself, with many unions and rank-and-file members directly opposing the position of the AFL-CIO leadership.

IT SEEMS like the naked business union strategy within the energy and building trades unions is a key factor in providing political cover for the fossil fuel industry. Can you talk more specifically about the potential for organizing resistance against this strategy?

ANY REAL opposition to the fossil fuel industry is going to have to be led by the rank and file. There is the potential or likelihood that union leadership may be pulled in to assist that fight, but the people to lead it have to be the workers ourselves.

Within the fight against the fossil fuel industry, there is the potential for a new debate on the role of working people in forming our world and constructing a planet that is free of fossil-fuel use. This is already taking place in the ranks of the building trades, and those efforts will be opposed by the union leadership for reasons we've already discussed.

The fact is that we can create the best, safest and fullest employment in the process of a just transition from fossil fuels and the repairing of our infrastructure and environment. Where the building trade workers fight for this transition, they will need the support of all workers, and not in only the symbolic sense.

WHAT DO you see as the next steps for building union support?

THERE IS both a lot of work to do and an enormous potential. The vacuum left by the disastrous and weak strategy of business unionism can be filled by a new mobilization of working people to transform our world and our unions.

The first steps will be through bringing the fight and direct action of Standing Rock to our locals and union bodies, and through the education and mobilization of the rank and file. This work will be depend on building through groups like Labor For Standing Rock and a growing coalition of workers ready to lead.

We can join the fight led by the courageous First Nations at Standing Rock and defeat this pipeline. The moment we commit ourselves and unions to that clear goal, an entire world of possibility opens up. It could mean a new power for working people across the country and a powerful alliance of union labor with the frontline fighters ready to build a sustainable world.

Don't sit this one out. It is a true game-changer for us all.

Labor activists for Standing Rock

Staff Interview - New York Nurses Association, November 2016

Nowhere is the battle to protect tribal lands and our country’s environment from the ravages of the oil and gas industry playing out more dramatically than in Standing Rock North Dakota, where the Dakota Access Pipeline threatens the only water supply available to the Lakota and Dakota peoples of the Standing Rock Reservation. Recognizing early on the inherent justice in resistance, NYSNA President Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, RN, with a contingent of our nurses and staff traveled to the Sacred Stone Camp to stand in solidarity with “the largest gathering of Native Tribes in the past 100 years of American History” against the pipeline.

Now labor activists and working people from across the country have followed suit. Labor for Standing Rock is a rank-and-file organization that has joined the First Nations in the fight to protect their water supply, their ancestral lands (and our planet) from the consequences of gas pipeline development. Cliff Willmeng, an RN from Lafayette, Colorado, and UFCW Local 7 member, is one of the organizers. He spoke with New York Nurse about why it is critical to support the Native American right to self-determination and their territories.

It’s a fundamental health issue

NYN: Why is a nurse from Colorado involved with a struggle in North Dakota?

Willmeng: Quite simply, advocating for our patients is a primary role and responsibility of nurses and all health care professionals. When we take a wider view of this, we have to conclude that the fight for the environment is really advocating for patients everywhere.

Where I live and work in Lafayette, Colorado, we are among communities nationally that are fighting the oil and gas industry, or as many people know it “fracking”. We experience the spills, explosions, fires and leaks that the fossil fuel industry is synonymous with everywhere. When Standing Rock began to find its way into the national news, it was an easy connection for many people living in the shadow of the oil and gas industry to make.

NYN: Can you talk more about the healthcare impacts of these pipelines in particular?

Willmeng: When the pipelines leak and fail there are no scientific remedies to restore the comprehensive damage to the environment they affect. Every living thing that depends on that environment is then exposed in multiple ways to the oil — which is both carcinogenic and disrupts the endocrine system.

NYN: What can unions and individual members do to participate in Labor for Standing Rock?

Willmeng: The most important actions have to do with educating and mobilizing support for Standing Rock and the larger fight against the fossil fuel industry. We can pass resolutions, sponsor busses to bring members to North Dakota and start to bring new people into local fights for the environment. With these first steps, we can make the connections between all union members and begin to organize a new labor movement that fights for full employment and builds a sustainable world where working people, not CEOs, are the new leaders.

For more information, visit www.facebook.com/Labor-For-Standing-Rock

Rank-and-File Union Members Speak Out at Standing Rock Camp

By staff - Indian Country Today, October 30, 2016

Image by Karen Pomer

Despite escalating police violenceand AFL-CIO leadershipof pipeline, a delegation of union members from around the U.S. are spending the weekend of October 29 at Standing Rock camp to join Sioux water protectors against Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL.)

The delegation from Labor For Standing Rock(LSR), comprised of rank-and-file union members and working people.

Liam Cain,Union Laborer at LIUNA Local 1271 Cheyenne, WYand a LSR spokesperson, over years worked on numerous heavy construction sites and pipeline construction spreads. "To the union laborers working on these projects I would just implore you to listen to what regular folks are saying," Cain said. "Don't just listen to the bosses, and not to just the echo-chambers on the spread.

"Listen to the water protectors, listen to folks talking about just transition, a view of the future, involving good paying union jobs, involving many of your skill-sets. Just generating energy in a much more environmentally sustainable manner, rather than just gross over reliance on fossil fuels, that we currently engage in. As the saying goes, 'there's no jobs on a dead planet'."

Cliff Willmengis a registered nurse with UFCW Local 7, and former member of United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 1 in Chicago. He is a leader in Colorado fight against fracking, a rank-and-file labor activist and organizer for the Colorado Community Rights Amendment. Cliff’s work against the oil and gas industry made national headlines when Lafayette, Colorado banned frackingin 2013. He and his daughter Sasha delivered water tanks to Standing Rock Camp after authorities removed the water supply in August.

“As a healthcare provider, as a father of two, and as a union member I will be heading up to Standing Rock,” said Willmeng, union member and a co-founder of LSR. "We will be supporting the First Nations fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, to protect the environment for my kids, and as a rejection of the decision of the AFL-CIO support the pipeline."

Michael Letwinis former President of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys/UAW Local 2325in New York City, and Co-Convener of Labor for Palestine, whose online petitionin opposition to DAPL has garnered more than 12,000 signers and helped lay the basis for Labor for Standing Rock. In 1973, at age 16, he and others were arrested by the Nixon-era FBI under the Rap Brown Actfor participating in a relief caravanto the American Indian Movement occupation at Wounded Knee.

"Escalating police attacks against unarmed water protectors at Standing Rock on behalf of the oil and gas industry evokes images of Wounded Knee in 1890 and 1973, brutality against the civil rights movement, and state violence today from Ferguson and Baltimore to Palestine," Letwin said. "The labor movement has faced similar violence throughout its history, and from the same forces of greed and injustice."

Labor For Standing Rockwas created by rank-and-file workers and union members to mobilize growing labor support for the First Nation's fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The response from working people around the country has been nothing short of staggering. It is clear that the labor movement is no longer content to sit aside while Native American sovereignty is violated, and while land and water are risked. No oil company profits are more important than our rights and environment.

"We at Oceti Sakowin Campwelcome any and all support from our Union brothers and sisters," said Standing Rock Council in an October 13 message to Labor for Standing Rock. "This camp stands to protect our sacred water and support a new energy paradigm, jobs and work in green energy fields. We welcome your support in any ways you feel appropriate, join us in paving a new road to a sustainable future for many future generations."

VIDEO from this weekend here. Photos here.

Rank-and-File Union Members Join Standing Rock Camp, As Crackdown on Opponents of Pipeline Escalates

By Micheal Letwin and Cliff Willmeng - Labor for Standing Rock, October 27, 2016

Editor's note: IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus cofounder, Steve Ongerth, is also a cofounder of Labor for Standing Rock.

On Saturday, October 29 at 10 AM, union members and supporters are assembling at Standing Rock Union Camp, north of Cannonball, North Dakota. Despite escalating police violence and AFL-CIO leadership support of the Dakota Access Pipeline, pipeline, a delegation of union members from around the U.S. are, at this moment, assembling with signs and banners for a labor procession at Standing Rock camp to join Sioux Water Protectors against Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL.) The procession will be followed by a lunchtime organizing meeting, and by afternoon outreach to pipeline workers, by a delegation from Labor For Standing Rock, comprised of rank-and-file union members and working people.

This effort is being spearheaded by Labor for Standing Rock co-founders Michael Letwin and Cliff Willmeng. Letwin, a former President of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys/UAW Local 2325 in New York City, and Co-Convener of Labor for Palestine, whose online petition in opposition to DAPL has garnered more than 12,000 signers and helped lay the basis for Labor for Standing Rock. In 1973, at age sixteen, he and others were by the Nixon-era FBI under the Rap Brown Act for participating in a relief caravan to the American Indian Movement occupation at Wounded Knee. Willmeng is a registered nurse with UFCW Local 7, and former member of United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 1 in Chicago. He is a leader in Colorado fight against fracking, a rank-and-file labor activist and organizer for the Colorado Community Rights Amendment. Cliff’s work against the oil and gas industry made national headlines when Lafayette, Colorado banned fracking in 2013. He and his daughter Sasha delivered water tanks to Standing Rock Camp after authorities removed the water supply in August.

Labor For Standing Rock was created by rank-and-file workers and union members to mobilize growing labor support for the First Nation's fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The response from working people around the country has been nothing short of staggering. It is clear that the labor movement is no longer content to sit aside while Native American sovereignty is violated, and while land and water are risked. No oil company profits are more important than our rights and environment.

"As a healthcare provider, as a father of two, and as a union member I will be heading up to Standing Rock, said Cliff Willmeng, union member and a co-founder of Labor for Standing Rock. "We will be supporting the First Nations fight against the Dakota access pipeline, to protect the environment for my kids, and as a rejection of the decision of the AFL-CIO support the pipeline."

"Workers' rights are inseparable from indigenous rights, said Michael Letwin, union member and a co-founder of Labor for Standing Rock. "We need decent union jobs that protect, rather than destroy, the Earth -- there are no jobs on a dead planet."

"We at Oceti Sakowin Camp welcome any and all support from our Union brothers and sisters," said Standing Rock Council in an October 13 message to Labor for Standing Rock. "This camp stands to protect our sacred water and support a new energy paradigm, jobs and work in green energy fields. We welcome your support in any ways you feel appropriate, join us in paving a new road to a sustainable future for many future generations."

Labor for Standing Rock and Union Camp are being hosted by Red Warrior Camp, which is made up of Dakota and Lakota people residing within the original Sacred Stone spirit camp on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.