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Do we build the Dakota Pipeline? unnecessarily exposes a rift between the union building trades and environmentally conscience labor organizations

Brian Young's picture
Oct 20, 2016

The Dakota Pipeline is a project that will bring crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois.  Stretching across hundreds of miles of the American heartland, this pipeline would be one of the largest providers of American made oil for the rest of the country and would create 4,500 jobs for the Building Trades.  As with any pipeline project, there are some environmental risks.  Members of the Dakota Indian Nation have been protesting the proposed pipeline saying that it will destroy scared burial grounds and could poison the Missouri River.  For the past few weeks, Native Americans, celebrities and eco-mentalists have been trying to stop the construction of the pipeline.  In doing so these protestors have gained the support of some of the more activist unions within the AFL-CIO, like the Communications Workers of America and the National Nurses Union.  Since the protests began, the AFL-CIO has come out to strongly support the project, largely thanks to the pressure put on them by the North American Building Trades. Below is the aired dirty laundry style story from liberal online news outlet Take it for what you will. – Brian Young

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.

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