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Building Their Own Gallows: The Oil Pipelines

The debate surrounding labor’s support for oil pipelines has largely centered on a false dichotomy: jobs vs. climate.

A worker coats part of the Keystone XL pipeline after welding it. (Photo: Public Citizen / Flickr)

The debate surrounding labor’s support for oil pipelines has largely centered on a false “jobs versus climate” dichotomy. But labor’s position is also alienating them from their potential allies while strengthening the hand of their sworn enemies.

There’s a popular saying on the left that organized labor would build their own gallows if they were offered the jobs, and nowhere is this more true than in labor’s support for the environmentally disastrous Keystone XL, Enbridge Sandpiper and Bakken oil pipelines.

As in much of the debate surrounding climate change, proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline, like Teamster president James P. Hoffa, generally argue that short-term job creation and economic growth trump environmental concerns about the long-term fate of the planet.

“America needs more good-paying jobs that support middle-class families. This project supplies them,” Hoffa wrote in a letter published by The Detroit News in December 2014. He went on to claim that environmental concerns have been addressed by state and federal regulators, as well as by the oil company itself.

“It will be safer than any other domestic oil pipeline system built under current code,” he added.

In reality of course, it is the jobs argument that is overblown, and it is the environmental threat to the survival of every living thing on earth that labor habitually understates or ignores.

The bottom line is there won’t be any jobs, or an economy at all, if the planet is no longer hospitable to human life. There’s no such thing as a safe oil pipeline because extracting fossil fuels from the ground and burning them into the atmosphere is what causes catastrophic climate change, not accidental oil spills.

But while the “jobs versus climate” debate is likely to continue inside mainstream circles for some time, the left also needs to begin discussing in more detail two other important aspects of the issue: 1) The impact pipeline politics has on labor’s relationship with other social movement actors. 2) How labor’s position could actually strengthen the hand of the same corporate power players that are hell bent on destroying organized labor and relegating effective workers’ organizations to the dustbin of history.

“Labor isn’t exactly endearing themselves to rural landowners,” Ross Grooters, an environmental activist with the Bakken Pipeline Resistance in Iowa and a unionized train engineer, told Truthout.

“If labor wants to grow, it can’t have people who should be sympathetic to them standing against them. In the long run, labor risks becoming exactly what they are so often accused of, a thinly veiled extension of the corporation,” Grooters said.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what is happening in the Midwest. In Iowa, a December 15, 2014, public hearing on the Bakken oil pipeline saw more than 40 statewide labor leaders standing on the opposite side of hundreds of environmental activists and family farmers.

“I don’t think the unions are taking how the landowners feel into consideration,” said Arlene Bates, a family farmer and rural Iowa property owner. Her farm sits in the path of the proposed Bakken pipeline and she is concerned about the impact it could have on her crops, soil and the state’s water quality.

“They need to realize this is going to do more harm to the state of Iowa than good,” Bates told Truthout. “Everybody needs a job, but I don’t think they are looking at the full picture. This is a short-term project, and the environment is my biggest concern.”

In Minnesota, labor union officials packed a January 5 public hearing on the Enbridge Sandpiper pipeline and their support also drew criticism from property owners opposed to the project.

“When we went to the meeting, it was kind of bizarre because labor said they needed the pipeline for jobs, and I don’t think that’s what this is about,” said Steve Schulstrom, an organic farmer and member of the Carlton County Land Stewards, whose property sits just two miles south of the proposed pipeline route.

“The question should be whether or not this pipeline is needed for the public good,” he said.

Schulstrom added that labor officials at the meeting wouldn’t even consider changing the route of the pipeline in order to avoid sensitive farmland, even if it might have created more work for them.

“It’s like they were given talking points that they couldn’t deviate from. It’s strange that you have a labor union that is being dictated to by a corporation. That is backwards of my understanding of how labor unions are supposed to work. And it could backfire. In the long run, if they keep this up, labor is not going to have any friends left. You can’t do anything by yourself,” he said.

But labor’s support for big oil pipelines doesn’t just risk driving a wedge between them and everyday Americans like Bates and Schulstrom. Their support could also help grow the power of the same big money corporations that spend billions of dollars every election cycle in a concerted effort to destroy the labor movement once and for all.

Bold Nebraska, a coalition of farmers, ranchers and environmentalists fighting the Keystone XL pipeline, issued a report recently that takes the labor movement to task for forging an alliance with corporate interest groups that regularly oppose workers’ rights.

The investigative exposé, titled “Bold Report: LIUNA Partners with Anti-Union Forces, AFP and ALEC; Advocating with Koch Money for Risky Keystone XL Tarsands Pipeline,” states:

The industry and political partnerships that LIUNA has forged to gain approval of Keystone XL seriously undermines workers’ rights and unions’ strength, and display a complete lack of concern for the broader labor movement or even the longer-term interests of LIUNA members.

In fact, their partnerships with the fossil fuel industry and far right political groups, namely Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), contribute to the vicious attacks on workers, unions and democracy.

And if these pipelines are built, it will ultimately mean even more money in the back pockets of big corporations, which will undoubtedly use the profits to continue to lobby for right-to-work laws, gutting the National Labor Relations Board, privatizing Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and repealing workman’s compensation, workplace safety and minimum wage standards (to say nothing of dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency).

Taking all this into consideration, it becomes clear that labor’s support of oil pipeline projects has ramifications that go far beyond the narrow confines of a false “jobs versus climate” debate. Labor’s inability to see the forest from the trees on this issue could actually strengthen corporate power against the working class’s own self-interest, creating a self-perpetuating downward spiral as destructive as any methane feedback loop.

In that sense, organized labor isn’t just building its own gallows. They are also handing their enemies the rope to hang themselves with, while inadvertently assuring they may have no friends left who are willing to come to their aid and cut the string.

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