AFL-CIO's Trumka Acknowledges Labor's Divisions Over
by Mike Elk
Working In These Times
January 17, 2012
On Thursday January 12, at the UN Investor Summit on Climate
Risk, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka spoke publicly about
divisions in the labor movement over the proposed Keystone
Pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada to the Gulf of
Mexico if built.
Disagreements between unions over the pipeline wasn't news,
but the fact that Trumka acknowledged them was. It was the
first time I've heard Trumka say that unions that were on
different sides of the politically sensitive issue - some
for, some against. Several AFL-CIO observers also commented
that it was the first time they had a president of the labor
federation talk about why unions were divided on key issues.
(They declined to speak on the record because of the
Unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO remain divided over the
project, which President Obama has delayed approving or
rejecting. The Building Trades Council of the AFL-CIO, whose
members would be employed in constructing the pipeline, are
in favor of it. In response to a recent effort by
congressional Republicans to force Obama to permit the
Keystone Pipeline in exchange for passing an unemployment
extension, AFL-CIO Building Trades Council President Mark
[O]ur unions have been steadfast supporters of the
Keystone XL pipeline, a project that is truly "shovel-
ready" and a privately funded endeavor that would put
significant numbers of American skilled craft
professionals back to work under a project agreement
that ensures safe and efficient construction.
Regrettably, both of these issues have now been usurped
and transformed into political pawns, where political
posturing supersedes the need to create sound public
policy that benefits working Americans.
....President Obama should immediately grant a
presidential permit for the construction of the Keystone
XL Pipeline, and congressional Republicans should craft
and pass a `clean' unemployment insurance extension;
because partisan politics has never paid a mortgage or
put food on anyone's table.
Whereas two public transit unions, the Transport Workers
Union (TWU) and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), said in
a joint statement last year:
We need jobs, but not ones based on increasing our
reliance on Tar Sands oil. There is no shortage of water
and sewage pipelines that need to be fixed or replaced,
bridges and tunnels that are in need of emergency
repair, transportation infrastructure that needs to be
renewed and developed. Many jobs could also be created
in energy conservation, upgrading the grid, maintaining
and expanding public transportation - jobs that can help
us reduce air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and
improve energy efficiency.
The division between the unions has led to a heated exchange
of words. ATU President Larry Hanley told me in September
that "It's a short-term gain of a few thousand jobs to
endorse this pipeline, but a big long-term loss for the
labor movement to support this pipeline."
Meanwhile, in conjunction with the Oil & Natural Gas
Industry Labor-Management Committee, the Building Trades
Council launched a website in support of the Keystone
Pipeline that included this statement: "Hollywood elite 1%
should stop flying to DC and speaking out against jobs that
help the other 99% of America!"
And how has the AFL-CIO navigated this sharp disagreement
between its own members? According to staffer in Speaker of
the House John Opener's office (R-Ohio), writing on a Blog,
the AFL-CIO supports the pipeline.
But Trumka clarified his organization's position at the UN
Investor Summit on Climate Risk last week, saying, "The AFL-
CIO has not taken a position on the Keystone pipeline -
unions don't agree among ourselves."
Speaking earlier in the speech about why many working people
are wary of slogans like "End Coal," Trumka, a former coal
miner from a coal mining family and former president of the
United Mine Workers of America, said:
Nemacolin lives on coal - the coal mine my grandfather
and my father went down to every day of their working
lives, the power plant the mine feeds, the rail lines
that carry coal to other plants. When these folks hear
"End Coal," it sounds like a threat to destroy the value
of our homes, to shut our schools and churches, to drive
us away from the place our parents and grandparents are
buried, to take away the work that for more than a
hundred years has made us who we are.
So why, in an economy without an effective safety net,
would the good men and women of my hometown and a
thousand places like it surrender their whole lives and
sit by while others try to force them to bear the cost
The truth is that in many places - and not just places
where coal is mined - there is fear that the "green
economy" will turn into another version of the radical
inequality that now haunts our society - another economy
that works for the 1% and not for the 99%.
In a sign that Trumka wants to continue a dialogue between
various sides on climate change and jobs issues, Trumka
[W]e cannot have a trust-building conversation about it
unless opponents of the Pipeline recognize that
construction jobs are real jobs, good jobs, and
supporters of the Pipeline recognize that tar sands oil
raises real issues in terms of climate change ...
[W]e need dialogue between environmentalists and workers
and communities about the future of coal. About what the
global labor movement calls a Just Transition to a low
carbon emissions economy. And the AFL-CIO is ready to
host that dialogue.
It's unclear if the various unions that disagree about the
pipeline plan on talking to each other. ATU Communications
Director David Roscow declined to comment, referring back to
a previous ATU/TWU statements about the pipeline. The TWU
and the AFL-CIO Building Trades Council did respond to a
request for comment on how they plan to move forward on
having constructive dialogue.
But what is clear from Trumka's speech is that he is willing
to openly discuss significant divisions within the labor
movement. That's a very rare thing for a labor leader to do,
and an important first step.
[Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular
contributor to the labor Blog Working In These Times. He can
be reached at [log in to unmask]]
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