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Contested Futures: U.S. Labor after Keystone XL

By Sean Sweeney - Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, May 12, 2016

The extraordinary story of the political battle over the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline that began in the summer of 2011 came to an end when President Obama finally rejected the project on November 6, 2015. President Obama’s decision was met with anger and derision from many unions in the Building Trades—known in labor as simply the Trades—but was a cause for reserved celebration for the handful of unions that opposed the project.

Time to Kiss and Make Up?

Labor’s part in the fight over KXL was lazily portrayed in the mainstream media in “here we go again” jobs versus environment terms. But this was no ordinary squabble, and there are no plans for a “group hug” moment of reconciliation for the principal officers of a number of key unions now that the saga is seemingly over.

KXL could be a precursor to a more protracted and serious union leadership-level dispute in the years ahead. Referring to the split in labor over KXL, the pro-pipeline president of Laborers’ International Union of North America (LiUNA) Terry O’Sullivan said in early 2013,

That divide is as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon. We’re repulsed by some of our supposed brothers and sisters lining up with job killers like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council to destroy the lives of working men and women.[2]

Can future KXL-like fights be avoided? Yes, but it will require that certain unions rethink their relationship to coal, oil, and gas industry groups and take the lead in driving a different conversation about “extractionism,” energy, and climate change.

Energy Wars and the Black-Blue Alliance

Today, the fight over the energy future of the United States is clearly defined. On the one side, there are those who feel that the country’s rich coal, oil, and gas resources will ensure the United States’ economic prosperity in the years ahead. World prices today are low, but over the longer term, demand for these fuels is assured, unless of course climate commitments to reduce emissions get in the way. A significant number of unions share this “Saudi America” vision of the future. In 2009, the Building Trades forged an explicit partnership with the oil and gas industry to develop North American energy sources, via the Oil and Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee (later described by some as the “Black-Blue Alliance”).[3]

On the other side of the United States’ energy war is the growing movement that sees the social and environmental costs of drilling, blasting, mining, moving, and burning of fossil fuels. The extraction, transporting, refining, burning, and waste by-products associated with fossil-fuel use is inflicting intolerable damage on communities and ecosystems, further destabilizing the earth’s climate, and will ultimately weaken the U.S. economy over the longer term.

Unions are in this camp also, and one or two have become pro-active in moving members into key fights around coal, oil, and gas infrastructure, and fracking in particular. These unions see potential allies in the movements against fossil fuels and against climate change.

Done Deal Undone

When TransCanada Corporation applied for a State Department permit to build the 1,700- mile KXL pipeline from the Alberta Tar Sands to two oil refineries in Port Arthur, Texas, four unions signed Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) with the company and joined the oil industry to lobby Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to issue the permit to build KXL.[4] Few at that time doubted that the permit would be issued; the industry wanted it, labor wanted it— KXL was a “done deal.”[5] For the Trades, there was much more at stake than the jobs involved in building KXL. TransCanada and the oil industry expected unions to use the jobs argument to deliver a permit to construct the pipeline and to do the same for a string of future infrastructure projects related to tar oil, coal export terminals, and fracking. If KXL had been approved, other “KXLs” would have followed and that meant PLAs for years to come— a fact that goes a long way toward explaining why KXL became a top priority for construction unions like LiUNA.

But opposition to KXL grew dramatically in 2011 and 2012, led by indigenous organizations, farmer and rancher groups, and environmental, environmental justice, and climate advocates like Normally cautious and beltway-constrained environmental groups were also important players in putting KXL into the national political spotlight. The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU) were the first U.S. unions to say no to KXL in August 2011.[6] National Nurses United (NNU) and the New York State Nurses Association also issued strong statements, and in mid-2013, more than two thousand nurses and other union members marched over the Golden Gate Bridge carrying placards that read “No to KXL, Stop Climate Change.” The National Domestic Workers Alliance, Domestic Workers United, United Electrical Workers, and 1199 SEIU would complete the group of unions that would oppose the pipeline.[7]

Other unions chose not to explicitly oppose KXL, but were concerned to protect President Obama from GOP efforts to use KXL as a way of hammering the president on jobs in a presidential election year. In January 2012, the SEIU, Steelworkers, CWA, UAW, and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSW) backed the president’s decision to delay a “yes or no” on the pipeline until the environmental and economic impacts had been fully investigated by the State Department.[8] Reacting to the president’s decision to delay, the Trades lined up with Republican critics like Mitt Romney in criticizing President Obama for turning his back on the unemployed and blue-collar America.[9]

It is important to note that the decision on the part of several unions to oppose KXL was anything but pro forma or routine, especially for the AFL-CIO affiliates. They knew that the reaction would be both harsh and swift. In a series of statements, LiUNA President Terry O’Sullivan railed against the ATU, TWU, and the NNU. Unions opposing KXL, said O’Sullivan, had no right to take food from the mouths of work-deprived union members and “should come out from under the skirts of delusional environmental groups which [sic] stand in the way of creating good, much-needed American jobs.”[10]

Client Koch?

The Black-Blue Alliance is still very much the compass that guides the Building and Construction Trades Department (BCTD), but it is worth noting that the BCTD no longer identifies with the Federation—as a simple search for “AFL-CIO” on the BCTD’s website will immediately confirm. At its 2015 legislative conference of the North America’s Building Trades Unions, it was announced that the Trades would endorse candidates based on how supportive they were of the kind of industries that employed their members. In an interview, the BCTD leader Sean McGarvey stated, “We’re not about political parties. We’re about construction workers . . . Both parties have changed, and we have no permanent friends and no permanent enemies.” When asked about big GOP- and Tea Party-backers Koch Industries, McGarvey responded, “They’re one of our biggest clients. You’ll never see us making public statements saying negative things about Koch Industries.”[11]

In recent months, LiUNA and the Operating Engineers have linked arms with the likes of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the American Petroleum Institute in a call on Congress to lift the export ban on U.S. crude oil that was introduced in 1975 during the Middle East oil crisis. Letters supporting the bill to remove the ban described how the United States could become an “energy superpower” and create jobs along the way. Noting how union members worked a record number of hours on pipeline projects in 2014, LiUNA and the Operating Engineers stated, “Lifting the ban will result in increased domestic crude production and deliver hundreds of thousands of jobs across all sectors of the American economy.”[12]

Realignment from Below?

But the pro-industry positions of the BCTD and individual union leaders cannot be allowed to obscure the fact that many union locals in the Trades have shown creativity and leadership around environmental issues, and they continue to work alongside others on renewable energy, energy efficiency, waste management, and related initiatives. This suggests that “realignment from below” is possible. Meanwhile, the collapse of oil, coal, and gas prices has led to huge layoffs and a dramatic plunge in investment levels. In Alberta, sixty-three thousand jobs were lost in the first eight months of 2015 due in large part to falling oil prices and rising costs of tar sands extraction. In the United States, the closure of coal-fired power stations has led to thousands of layoffs for members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the Utility Workers Union of America AFL-CIO (UWUA). All told, the United States lost 122,000 energy and mining jobs in 2015.[13]

Many members and leaders in the Trades cannot be comfortable playing the role of attack dog for fossil-fuel interests, including the likes of the Koch brothers. They realize that even if prices rebound in the coming years and “Saudi America” looks to become a reality, only a few unions will benefit and many of the labor movement’s sworn enemies will become a whole lot stronger than they are today. They will have also noted that the defeat of TransCanada and KXL has emboldened the movement against fossil fuels, resistance to “carbon lock in” and extreme energy is rising, and the number of victories against the industry is growing.

The Trades Can Lead a Policy Shift

Realignment on the part of the Trades could also allow for labor to pursue a different approach to climate policy in the United States and to the whole question of “just transition.” Clearly, one of the unintended consequences of the closeness of the Trades to the oil, coal, and gas industries is that when unions in the Trades or the energy sector raise legitimate worker and societal concerns, they are often interpreted as acts of opportunism aimed at promoting fossil-fuel interests or are simply viewed as an attempt to preserve the status quo. Similarly, by supporting unpopular right-wing initiatives like Proposition 23 in California—which again saw unions side with groups like Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity to repeal California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (Assembly Bill 32 or AB 32)—it undermines the important role unions could play in highlighting the many serious flaws in current liberal and market-based approaches to climate and energy policy.

This has been illustrated in the present debate around President Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP). The EPA’s new federal regulations on power plants mandates a 32 percent reduction in carbon emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants by 2025 based on 2005 levels. Mainstream green groups and mostly non-union wind and solar companies are staunch advocates of the regulations, which also featured prominently in the current Administration’s commitment on emissions made at Paris Climate Talks in December 2015.

However, the IBEW, Boilermakers, and Operating Engineers have signed on to a lawsuit to prevent the EPA’s implementation of the regulations. At first glance, opposition to the EPA’s regulation looks like another example of key unions aligning with fossil-fuel interests and GOP leaders to prevent bold action to address climate change. But this is too simplistic. IBEW President Lonnie Stephenson is right when he says,

Human-caused climate change is real, and a real threat, but focusing on power generation in isolation—leaving out industry, agriculture, and transportation—ignores three-quarters of the problem . . . Everyone will benefit from an effective response so everyone should share in the cost.[14]

Energy unions are acutely aware of the fact that the United States’ power generation sector is in a deep crisis, with cheap shale gas from fracking having led to thousands of job losses in coal-fired power stations. The deregulation of the sector has led companies to neglect both the physical and human infrastructure that sustains the system—a point also made forcefully by the UWUA. Meanwhile, renewable energy is mostly non-union and its levels of deployment are low; and is in any case not ready to fill the massive loss of power generation capacity, and energy conservation is also another woefully neglected area.

Renewing Labor’s Energy for Change

Unions in health care and public transport opposed KXL because they saw it as their responsibility to advocate for, respectively, their patients and passengers, as well as the interests of their own members. They understand that they have an obligation to do more than “just say no” to environmentally damaging projects, and they have begun to engage with members on energy and climate issues. Unions’ visibility in the local struggles against fracking, “bomb trains,” coal export terminals, and so on has grown significantly in the past two or three years, with nurses’ unions leading the way. And in these struggles, unions have been on the winning side more often than not.

Beyond “blockadia,” progressive approaches to energy and climate are also expressing themselves in national politics. Of this writing, unions such as CWA, NNU, and the Postal Workers (APWU), are backing Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primaries, and Sanders just happens to be the first national politician to oppose KXL. Sanders, in turn, has proposed legislation (Clean Energy Worker Just Transition Act) that would advance an energy and climate protection agenda that protects workers and takes on the political power of the large fossil-fuel companies.

So the choice is clear: Labor’s KXL fight could be the precursor to more disunity and acrimony in the labor movement in the years ahead, especially if the Black-Blue Alliance remains in place and “Saudi America” imaginings continue to shape labor’s discourse. Alternatively, unions in all sectors—the Trades, transport, health, and so on—can work together to support an approach to energy and climate that is needs-based, grounded in the facts, and independent of both industry interests and the mainstream environmental groups that support renewable energy “by any means necessary.” Such a coalition could unite labor behind an “energy democracy” agenda that rejects the expansion of fossil-fuel use, seeks to reclaim key parts of the energy economy to public ownership and democratic oversight, and shifts control over energy toward workers, communities, and municipalities.

[1] Murphy Institute, New York, NY, USA

[4] Importantly, the four union presidents counterpoise jobs and the environment—choosing the former while dismissing the latter. The letter acknowledges the fact that “further development of Canada’s oil sands puts in jeopardy U.S. efforts aimed at capping carbon emissions and greenhouse gases” and that “comprehensive energy and environmental policy should strive to address climate concerns while simultaneously ensuring adequate supplies of reliable energy and promoting energy independence and national security.”

[5] labor-agreement-keystone-xl-pipeline-create -13000-american-jobs

[6] ATU and TWU, 2011

[7] NDWA et al., 2011

[9] Mark Ayers, news/obamas-keystone-decision-alienates -him-from-the-majority-of-americans -67553/#0rqCqD9thhzAh08q.99

[10] Statement, LiUNA, September 9, 2011. On November 11, O’Sullivan wrote in Nebraska’s Journal Star:

LIUNA members are angry and surprised that some of our fellow union brothers and sisters, who don’t have any members in the pipeline industry and who themselves have never worked on a pipeline, now speak out as pipeline experts in their attempt to block Keystone. For thousands of LIUNA workers, the stakes are too high to not hold them accountable.

[11] ingtonbureau/2015/04/union-builds-bridges-with -business-and-even-some.html. The full quote:

Even if you look at Koch Industries— they’re one of our biggest clients. You’ll never see us making public statements saying negative things about Koch Industries. They’re a huge client of ours. Do we agree with some of the things that they supposedly support? No. Do we understand why they do it? Yeah, OK, because they’re looking for political advantage for a political point of view, and the Democrats don’t see it the way they see it. And other unions in the labor movement tend to be much more Democratic unions. And if you can hurt the labor movement, i.e. you hurt the Democratic Party. It’s just a system that we really don’t want to be engaged or involved in.

[12] LiUNA and Operating Engineers, Letter to the Honorable John Boehner, Speaker and The Honorable Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader, September 9, 2015, -hr-702-adapt-changing-crude-oil-market -conditions. See also http://www.washington port-pits-obama-against-organize/?page=all

[13] -prices-drop-so-do-energy-jobs-with-layoffs -expected-to-mount/.

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