As Tribes Fight Pipeline, Internal AFL-CIO Letter Exposes 'Very Real Split'

The AFL-CIO has received widespread criticism for standing against Native American tribes and their allies who have said the Dakota Access Pipeline project violates tribal sovereignty while also threatening water resources, sacred burial grounds, and the climate. (Photo: Joe Brusky/flickr/cc)

As Tribes Fight Pipeline, Internal AFL-CIO Letter Exposes 'Very Real Split'

Leaked letter circulated within nation's largest labor federation illustrates troubling disconnect when what working people deserve and what climate science compels are actually the same thing

The AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor federation, generated waves of criticism by standing against the Standing Rock Sioux and supportive allies last week when it endorsed the Dakota Access Pipeline - a project opponents say threatens tribal sovereignty, regional water resources, and sacred burial grounds while also undermining efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change.

Yet while a public statement by AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka stirred widespread backlash, what has not been seen by the general public is an internal letter which preceded that statement--a letter which not only reveals a deeper and growing rift within the federation, but one that also helps expose the troubling distance between the needs of workers and priorities of policy-makers on a planet where runaway temperatures are said to be changing everything.

Trumka said the pipeline deserved the AFL-CIO's support because it was "providing over 4,500 high-quality, family supporting jobs" and argued that "attacking individual construction projects is neither effective nor fair to the workers involved."

"What we're seeing here is the pipeline company--and this is nothing new--pitting workers against workers."
--RoseAnn DeMoro, NNU

In turn, many of the tribes and their progressive allies saw the statement as a short-sighted, if predictable, position on behalf of the federation's building trade unions. Norman Solomon, writing on these pages, didn't mince words when he said Trumka's remarks amounted to "union leadership for a dead planet" that could easily be mistaken for the "standard flackery" of the oil and gas industry. On Monday of this week, a coalition of AFL-CIO constituency organizations, made up of groups normally supportive of the federation, bucked Trumka's public stance by declaring their own opposition to the pipeline.

But many of those outside critics of the AFL-CIO didn't know the half of it. That's because none of them have likely seen a much more harshly-worded letter, obtained by Common Dreams, which was circulated internally among the federation's leadership ahead of Trumka's statement.

The five-page letter (pdf), dated September 14th, is addressed to Trumka and copied to all presidents of the AFL-CIO's 56 affiliated unions. It was sent by Sean McGarvey, president of North America's Building Trades Unions (NABTU), which represents 14 separate building and construction unions within the federation.

In the letter, McGarvey questions top leadership for not taking a firmer position in defense of the union members working on Dakota Access and calls out other AFL-CIO member unions--specifically the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), the National Nurses United (NNU), the Communications Workers of America (CWA), and the American Postal Workers Union (APWU)--for aligning with "environmental extremists" opposed to the pipeline and participating in a "misinformation campaign" alongside "professional agitators" and members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe.

"The letter speaks for itself."
--Tom Owens, North America's Building Trades Unions

Indeed, McGarvey's letter appears written as a direct response to those same unions who just days earlier issued public statements of support for the tribe's efforts to stop the pipeline. After first expressing frustration for being forced to sit through the "non sequiturs and dubious pronouncements regarding the future of the labor movement" from these union leaders during federation meetings in recent years, McGarvey's letter laments their objections to previous fossil fuel projects, including the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. The letter then continues:

Though McGarvey says in the letter that pipeline workers have been intimidated and made fearful by the presence of those objecting to the pipeline, much of the publicly documented violence so far has been against tribal members--including those last month who were pepper-sprayed and attacked by dogs handled by private security contractors hired by the pipeline company.

As Dave Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux, told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland this week: "Thousands have gathered peacefully in Standing Rock in solidarity against the pipeline. We stand in peace but have been met with violence."

McGarvey does claim in his letter that the unions he represents "are sensitive to the long and tragic history of mistreatment of Native Americans," but does nothing to address the repeated and consistent arguments of the Standing Rock Sioux and others who say the Dakota Access project is a direct descendant of that same mistreatment.

Criticizing the unions standing with the tribes, McGarvey accuses their leaders of "callously" and "hypocritically" disregarding the pipeline workers. He also declares the "misinformation and inaccuracies that [these union members] have used to justify their opposition to this project to be nothing short of astounding if not wholly ignorant." McGarvey's letter concludes by demanding a "public apology" by those unions "for not only the uninformed public opposition to this project" but for also "initiating the conscious decoupling of the American Labor Movement or, what remains of it."

Those interviewed for this story described the overall tone of McGarvey's letter as ranging from "strong" to "aggressive" to "threatening."

That these tensions exist, of course, is no more a secret within labor circles than how under McGarvey's leadership the building trade unions have forged controversial labor-management partnerships with large corporations and celebrated stronger ties with powerful industry lobby groups like the American Petroleum Institute (API) and the American Chemistry Council. Still, the latest intra-federation conflict takes place in the midst of a contentious presidential campaign, one in which the condition of workers and the climate threat (or denial of that threat) have played a prominent role.

Tom Owens, NABTU's director of marketing and communications, said his group would not comment for this story, stating in an email: "The letter speaks for itself."

And though not all the unions named in the letter had responded to interview requests by the time this story went to press, RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of the NNU, reacted by saying the contents and tone of McGarvey's remarks were troubling, yet also instructive.

First of all, said DeMoro, she remains "absolutely sympathetic" to those workers who will be out of work if this pipeline project is halted. "I understand these workers are desperate for jobs," she told Common Dreams in a phone interview. "But this letter portrays us as the enemy of workers--which is just outrageous because nurses are tremendous and tireless advocates for workers, their jobs, their families, and their health."

But there are also bigger questions that must be asked, she said, regarding the sacredness of the lands these tribes are defending as well as the climate implications for this project and others like it.

"I mean, would you build a pipeline under Arlington National Cemetery? I don't think so. And so on that point, sacred is sacred. You just don't do this," she said. "And what we're seeing here is the pipeline company--and this is nothing new--pitting workers against workers."

Ultimately what these latest internal tensions expose, DeMoro and others argue, is an absolute failure of the political class and elected officials to move from talking about "creating green jobs" to actually approving and implementing policies that would do so on the scale that climate scientists say is necessary and policy experts have shown is both possible and affordable.

Who's Standing Up and Who's Rolling Over?

In his response to the letter, Jeremy Brecher, a historian and researcher with the Labor Network for Sustainability, joined DeMoro in making clear how important it is to take the concerns of the pipeline workers seriously.

"These five thousand workers on the pipeline," he told Common Dreams, "are very reasonably concerned about their jobs." However, he continued, "we have to be clear that's not what most of this is about. These workers are also pawns in a much larger game."

"The core of the problem is that the AFL-CIO has consistently opposed significant cuts to climate-destroying projects, like Dakota Access, while failing to adequately advocate for policies that would actually address climate change in a worker-friendly way."
--Jeremy Brecher, Labor Network for Sustainability
One very important thing to know about NABTU, explained Brecher, is the close ties it has formed with the fossil fuel industry, specifically the American Petroleum Institute (API). According to Brecher, in the context of the Dakota Access Pipeline--a joint project spearheaded by two API-affiliated companies, Enbridge Energy Partners and Energy Transfer Partners--the heads of the building trade unions and McGarvey are "essentially acting like a paid mouthpiece for the oil and gas industry."

Brecher called it a "horrendous thing" to have the AFL-CIO acting in such a "callous way toward both the needs of Native American people and to the needs of all workers and all people in terms of protecting the climate." So McGarvey's rhetoric and tone, he said, "is just devastating to anyone who thinks that the labor movement is and should be an expression of human rights and social justice. And anyone who feels that way, should say so in whatever way is appropriate for them."

For these and other reasons, Brecher said he was glad to see CWA, NNU, APWU, ATU, and other groups make their support known. But he also believes the internal divisions within the AFL-CIO speak to a broader problem--which is that the American labor movement as a whole has backed itself into a corner when it comes to climate change, job creation, and public policy.

"The core of the problem" he explained, "is that the AFL-CIO has consistently opposed significant cuts to climate-destroying projects, like Dakota Access, while failing to adequately advocate for policies that would actually address climate change in a worker-friendly way."

This is not to deny that some climate-protecting policies will have negative impacts on specific sets of workers--like pipefitters and coal miners--whose jobs or industries need to be changed, or ended entirely, in order to protect the climate. "So the solution is quite straightforward," argued Brecher. "We need to have strong protections for those workers and communities who are directly affected. And more broadly, we need a full employment policy based on putting hundreds of thousands, or millions, of people to work fixing the climate. This is an emergency like World War II, and we need an emergency response like the mobilization of the 1940s."

In fact, all of this comes as a new report (.pdf), released Thursday, argues world governments simply have no choice but to end the building of new fossil fuel infrastructure projects. "This does not mean stopping using all fossil fuels overnight," the groups behind the report note, but "governments and companies should conduct a managed decline of the fossil fuel industry and ensure a just transition for the workers and communities that depend on it."

A 'Just Transition': New Research Offers Hope

The notion that a war time-style mobilization is needed to tackle the problems of a rapidly warming planet has been around for years, but an in-depth story in The New Republic last month by Bill McKibben, author and co-founder of, has helped propel the analogy back into the forefront among climate action campaigners and labor unions.

Within the framework of forging a solution that can both address climate change while protecting workers, one of the key concepts is that of the "just transition"--a set of economic and policy reforms which recognizes that while a rapid transformation from a fossil fuel energy system to one built on renewable energy is imperative, the workers and communities directly upset by this transformation must have their standards of living maintained, or improved, as a part of that process.

One of the leading researchers on the just transition is Robert Pollin, co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at UMass Amherst, who is on the verge of publishing new research on the topic. In a forthcoming working paper from PERI, some of which was previewed earlier this year in the American Prospect, Pollin and co-author Brian Callaci show that not only would a generous program for displaced fossil fuel workers be possible, it would actually be much more affordable than even many mainstream politicians have estimated.

"If we are going to avoid managing to burn up the planet we have to eliminate fossil fuels and everybody--including union leaders and union members--needs to recognize that and then fight for a just transition."
--Economist Robert Pollin, PERI
The findings of the working paper, reviewed by Common Dreams, show that a "rough high-end estimate" for just a transition program designed to serve American workers and communities currently dependent on domestic fossil fuel production would be a "relatively modest $600 million per year." Projected over a 20-year transition period, the total program would cost just $12 billion. According to the paper's introduction, "This level of funding would pay for 1) income, retraining and relocation support for workers facing retrenchments; 2) guaranteeing the pensions for workers in the affected industries; and 3) mounting effective transition programs for what are now fossil-fuel dependent communities."

In a conversation with Pollin, he joined with others in expressing both sympathy and disappointment over the AFL-CIO's position on the Dakota Access Pipeline.

"It's a totally understandable position. But it's also short-sighted," he said.

"It's obviously true that a green transition out of fossil fuels into green energy is not favorable for jobs in the fossil fuel sector or related jobs like laying pipeline," he continued. "Those jobs will not exist. But to just out-and-out denounce the opponents of this pipeline, chastising the 'extreme environmentalists,' and so forth is not constructive, it's not helpful, and it's not on the side of history. If we are going to avoid managing to burn up the planet we have to eliminate fossil fuels and everybody--including union leaders and union members--needs to recognize that and then fight for a just transition."

Pollin points out that the $12 billion price tag over two decades for such a program should make it an easy sell among policy-makers. Hillary Clinton's campaign, for instance, calls for a $30 billion package for coal workers and others displaced by a clean energy transition. During his presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders called for as much as $41 billion for a similar kind of program.

And the other key factor when it comes to cost is that, ultimately, the green jobs transition pays for itself. "I mean, even if just talk about federal government doing energy efficiency retrofits for the buildings it owns and leases, you're gonna come out with twice as much in savings than the $600 million," explained Pollin.

Meanwhile, if lawmakers are looking for other ways to fund this kind of program, an analysis out this week by Oil Change International showed how the key owners of the Dakota Access project--Energy Transfer Partners and Enbridge Energy Partners--collectively avoided paying over $650 million in taxes in 2015. Given Pollin's new research, that amounts to a well-endowed federal transition fund for all out-of-work fossil fuel sector workers--with money to spare.

Citing his previous research on the green economy and job creation (.pdf), Pollin noted how spending on the energy transition generates roughly three times the number of jobs as maintaining the fossil fuel economy. "It's just massive," he said. And though that doesn't help the individual worker who just lost his or her job on a pipeline, his study shows how policy changes can take care of those workers. "So we say those workers need to be supported. We say they deserve job guarantees and must have their pensions protected. And we also say compensation insurance for these workers, so that even if you get a job in a green sector that pays less than your old job, you're covered for the differential."

And so, concluded Pollin, "I absolutely sympathize with those workers. But unless we want to dismiss the climate science--like Donald Trump--we simply have no choice but to get off fossil fuels as quickly as possible. And this research is an effort to really pin it down. And maybe it has faults I haven't noticed yet, but at least it tries to be very specific."

The Missing Link: Political Will or Necessary Pressure?

What all of those now standing against the Dakota Access Pipeline appear to be clamoring for above all else is this: a shift. What one hears them say repeatedly is that they want another way of doing things, because the current path--whether of the pipeline itself, the political situation, or the energy system as a whole--is just no longer sustainable or tolerable. The tribal resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline is evidence of that, but so are the deeper issues--including the sacredness of water and land or assaults on sovereignty and dignity. These larger arguments are repeatedly raised by opponents of the pipeline, proving that while this is certainly about the Dakota Access Pipeline project, it's also about much deeper existential concerns and desires.

"[Those pipeline workers] are right. They should be mad. They're just mad at the wrong people."
--RoseAnn DeMoro, NNU executive director
And the same could be also be said of the very workers McGarvey is defending in his letter to the AFL-CIO. Everyone interviewed for this story spoke about recognizing and sympathizing with what it's like to be threatened with losing your job and what that means in terms of providing for oneself or one's family.

"For those building trade workers," said NNU's DeMoro, "this is a threshold issue--their jobs. And it should be. That's why this is so horrible--because they're right. They should be mad. They're just mad at the wrong people."

Peter Knowlton, general president of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), explained that even though he doesn't agree with position taken on behalf of the building trades union on the pipeline, he says he totally understands it.

Though the UE is not an AFL-CIO affiliate, many of its members work in the fossil fuel and energy sectors. "But here's the thing," Knowlton told Common Dreams: "If we don't move to renewable energy, humanity is toast. And it will be the poor and the working class--not the rich--who pay the biggest price. We need all the workers to unite, but we'll need a common understanding in order to do that."

Both Knowlton and DeMoro pointed to the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders which, for them, provided a glimpse of what it would mean to actually foster such common understanding. The creation of the 'Labor for Bernie' effort within the Sanders campaign, in Knowlton's words, "was truly amazing." What was so impressive, he explained, was how Sanders' presidential campaign was able to be a vocal advocate for workers--the "strongest we've seen in our lifetimes"--while simultaneously demanding urgency to act on climate.

"If we don't move to renewable energy, humanity is toast. And it will be the poor and the working class--not the rich--who pay the biggest price."
--Peter Knowlton, UE general president

Though many people remain unable, or unwilling, to grapple with these issues, Knowlton thinks it is the responsibility of workers and their unions do so. "We have to deal with this, but we don't have a lot of time," he said. "The problem is that there's too little urgency among too many people."

What he understands about those working in the fossil fuel industry is that those workers--and "not for nothing"--do have pensions, decent health care, solid wages, and safety laws designed to protect them on the job. In contrast, he says, many of the new jobs in the renewable sector have comparably "lousy pay, lousy benefits, and shitty health insurance." Pollin also noted this dynamic and deals with it specifically in his transition plan.

That reality of job quality has to be dealt with, Knowlton argued. "It's not a winning strategy to tell workers to just 'Suck it up.'"

Drawing from his experience working with both environmental and labor groups, Brecher thinks there are plenty of reasons--despite the resurfacing of old tensions--for optimism.

"Just as in the rest of society," he said, "there is a growing recognition within the labor movement--both among the rank-and-file and the lower-down leadership--of the realities of climate change which includes fear, worry, and concern. And out of that is a growing willingness to take action. And that's what really has to develop and be mobilized in order to change the behavior of those at the upper reaches of labor leadership."

Indeed, said DeMoro, what's really troubling about the position of the AFL-CIO--and especially how it was articulated in McGarvey's letter--is that it "basically creates a class war within the working class in order to protect the company's profits. So that's a narrative we see out there, but it's a false dilemma. And it's a false dilemma, especially in the unions, because everyone wants these workers to have jobs."

Meanwhile, in a fresh article published Thursday, 350's McKibben renewed his long-held argument that the physics, chemistry, and math of global warming are simply not concerned with politics or labor disputes. "This is literally a math test, and it's not being graded on a curve," McKibben writes. This test, he warns, has "only has one correct answer" and "if we don't get it right, then all of us--along with our 10,000-year-old experiment in human civilization--will fail."

Putting that idea together with her concern for workers, DeMoro said the nurses at NNU and her fellow union leaders standing against the Dakota Access Pipeline understand the totality of what's at stake. "What we understand is that people's health must be protected, that the planet must be protected, and that people's jobs and livelihoods must be protected."

"That's not radical," she said. "That's just right."

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