The Standing Rock Split

The rebellion at Standing Rock has forced labor officials to choose which side they’re on: fossil-fuel companies’ or the planet’s.

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka at an OECD forum last summer. OECD / Flickr

Our new issue, “Rank and File,” is out now. To celebrate its release, new subscriptions are discounted.

The leadership of the AFL-CIO seems determined to meet the indigenous rebellion at Standing Rock with the most parochial view of trade unionism it can muster.

After Sean McGarvey, president of the building trades, sent a letter declaring those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline “environmental extremists” and “professional agitators,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka quickly followed up with a statement defending the pipeline and lashing out at protesters for “hold[ing] union members’ livelihoods and their families’ financial security hostage to endless delay.” Trying to block each new pipeline, he concluded, was neither an “effective” way to set climate policy nor fair to the workers caught in the middle.

In doing so, Trumka and his ilk have advanced a jobs-versus-planet trope that, however common, is a manufactured falsehood. Accepting his and the building trades’ argument that pipeline construction “provides quality jobs to tens of thousands of skilled workers” prevents us from asking key questions not just about climate change, but about the wellbeing of those skilled workers: how long will these workers be employed? How safe will their workplaces be? What kinds of communities will they live in? And how will their work impact their long-term health?

Construction work is, by its very nature, temporary. On this basis, LiUNA president Terry O’Sullivan has stridently criticized people who have questioned the sustainability of pipeline construction as an employment source. “In our business we go from one temporary job to another temporary job,” O’Sullivan explained last year at an American Petroleum Institute event, “and we string enough temporary jobs together and build proud structures as we do it to create a career.”

But oil pipeline work is its own kind of temporary. Even if we wanted to dredge up every drop of oil from the earth, even if we wanted to build every pipeline possible — and we can’t do either one — an unsustainable industry can’t produce sustainable, lasting careers. And in the meantime, each new method of extraction and transportation introduces new forms of accidents and new fatal risks. Heeding O’Sullivan’s call for unabated pipeline construction would mean continuing to sacrifice workers’ lives on the altar of the fossil-fuel industry.

You wouldn’t know it from O’Sullivan’s histrionic statements, but the volatile compounds workers dig up and ship are far more dangerous than any anti-pipeline protest. Workers in the building trades are nearly three times more likely to die on the job than the average American worker — and that figure is on the rise. In 2014, 874 construction workers were killed on the job — a 5.6 percent increase over the previous year, and the highest number since 2008. Extractive industries are even more lethal: workers in that sector die nearly five times more often than other workers.

One hiring ad for a pipeline construction job in Colorado gives a taste of just a few of the hazards workers face: employees “must work in all weather conditions,” including “extreme heat and cold,” and “may at times be exposed to dangerous and/or toxic substances.” In other words, Trumka and the building trades are using their influence to lobby for the very companies driving down workplace safety standards.

Pipeline employment also creates socially corrosive communities. When the industry is booming, oil towns can look good on paper: rock-bottom unemployment and high per-capita incomes. But workers are forced to constantly relocate to remote locations, where they labor for long hours (hiring notices advertise fifty-plus-hour workweeks, excluding potential mandatory weekend work). And when workers really start to stream in, rents soar and living conditions quickly deteriorate.

Marred by a hyper-masculine culture, boomtowns often experience a raft of alcoholism, drug abuse, and sex-trafficking (which disproportionately targets indigenous women, swept up when they travel to cities from nearby reservations). These maladies only worsen when it all goes bust, like it did last year, and energy prices plummet.

In other words, the energy boom — already a disaster for the environment and Native sovereignty — also harms the very workers it’s supposed to benefit. As more and more workers are integrated into the American energy economy on the production end, its destructive effects will continue to soar.

Why, then, has Trumka chosen to die on the hill of pipeline construction? Why has he spoken up for fossil-fuel jobs when a growing number of labor voices are arguing workers’ interests would be best served by signing on to a robust anti–climate change agenda? Why has he ignored calls for organized labor to align with social movements demanding human dignity and improved living standards?

To be sure, Trumka isn’t wholly at fault. The structure of the AFL-CIO is such that the building trades enjoy a disproportionate role in dictating labor’s approach to these questions. But he is implicated in the root of the problem: the weakness of the labor movement and its inability to present a political alternative to destructive energy policies.

Trumka’s pronouncements have real-world consequences, shaping the way energy workers see the world and the political responses available for the crises we face.

Nowhere was this clearer than at the last presidential debate, when Ken Bone, a thirty-four-year-old coal plant operator asked Clinton and Trump: “What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job layoffs?”

Bone was apparently interested in hearing about green subsidies for older coal plants, since he and his co-workers “recognize the need to be environmentally responsible.” The two candidates promptly launched into a well-worn tale: that clean energy and the development of fossil resources aren’t at odds — and that the more energy the US produces, the more jobs there will be. Such a formulation would be easily dismissed if the labor movement clearly articulated the incompatibility between the continued growth of the fossil-fuel industry and good union jobs.

Trumka, of all people, should know better than to collaborate with energy companies in the hopes of improving labor’s fortunes. As president of the United Mine Workers (UMW) from 1982 to 1995, he saw firsthand how quickly Big Energy casts workers aside to boost their profits.

Massive coal layoffs swept across the coalfields in the 1980s, even as energy demand grew and oil supplies remained uncertain. Strip mining and mountain top removal expanded at the expense of underground mining jobs, the lifeblood of the union’s membership. Meanwhile, the energy companies opposed nearly every contract demand from the UMW and worked to push down working standards and benefits (the 1989–90 Pittston strike, which workers ultimately won with Trumka as leader, was sparked by health care cuts).

As the companies beat back the union’s gains, they also continued the environmental destruction of coal country: growing slag heaps, chemical spills that contaminated drinking water, pollution that degraded public health. The two processes went hand-in-hand.

But Trumka, it seems, hasn’t learned.

Not only is his jobs-versus-planet construction a myth, it could also undo some of the labor movement’s recent steps toward embracing a vision of unionism that extends beyond the workplace. From nurses fighting climate change to teachers confronting austerity programs to oil workers connecting workplace safety demands and protection against oil spills, labor’s most successful campaigns over the last few years have linked traditional workplace demands — wages, benefits, working conditions — to the issues affecting the broader community.

Some segments of American labor have demonstrated an eagerness to build on those victories, bringing a much deeper understanding of the issues at play at Standing Rock than Trumka and company. The Labor Coalition for Community Action — an organization of AFL-CIO constituency groups like the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance — recently challenged the AFL-CIO to retract its support for the pipeline, saying 4,500 jobs could not substitute for building “a broader agenda that secures rights for all working people in all communities.”

They understand that workers are not just workers. Pitting a job against a livable planet and indigenous sovereignty can simply exasperate the feeling on the part of some that they must live two lives: one as a worker, another as a person of color, a trans person, or an immigrant.

For the indigenous workers in extractive industries — all but invisible in debates on this topic — the contradictions are even more acute: dangers to life, limb, and community are amplified by the disregard for tribal sovereignty.

Indigenous lands contain more than 30 percent of the coal reserves west of the Mississippi, 50 percent of uranium reserves, and up to 20 percent of the nation’s oil and gas reserves. But the financial windfalls from these energy resources are either entirely outsourced or pooled in the hands of a small Native elite. Indigenous workers are therefore forced to confront another myth: that tribal prosperity rests on the capital development of these energy resources.

Other unions in the AFL-CIO have also voiced opposition to the pipeline, including the American Postal Workers Union, the Amalgamated Transit Union, and the Communication Workers of America — along with National Nurses United, which has a reputation for opposing destructive climate and energy policies.

They have been joined by SEIU, the largest union in the Change to Win Federation, which said in a statement earlier this month: “We stand with the growing movement of environmental organizations, businesses, students, parents and others demanding cleaner air and water and to address the growing threat of climate change for the health and safety of our families and communities.” The pipeline, SEIU argued, fit into a pattern of “[h]istorical disregard for low income communities and communities of color, including those where many SEIU members live and work.”

The rift in labor that Standing Rock has exposed must be resolved in favor of environmental justice. We will either win good jobs and a livable planet, or we will lose both.

The resistance at Standing Rock is a vital part of that struggle. Each time protesters halt construction at pipeline sites, they challenge prevailing myths about the relationship between ecology, work, and self-determination. They remind us that the heavy equipment that has torn apart sacred Sioux burial sites has also killed thousands of American workers.

The exploitation of workers and the aggressive extraction of resources on indigenous land are two sides of the same coin — and, contrary to Richard Trumka and other labor officials, they must be resisted together.

Preview the new issue of Jacobin and get a discounted subscription today.

If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.