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

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.

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.”