The Keystone Fight's Labor Pains

AP Photo/Nati Harnik

“For too long we have allowed some corporations to hold a gun to our heads and demand that we choose jobs or choose the earth.” That’s what Terry O’Sullivan, the general president of the Laborers International Union of North America, told green groups and fellow unions at a green-jobs conference in February 2009, just a few months after the union—one of the largest in the country—joined the Blue-Green Alliance, a group organized to advocate for a “clean economy.”

But by January 2012, O’Sullivan had made a choice. The climate bill had failed, the money from the recovery act had run out, political tides had turned against government spending, and the union was no longer so keen to partner with the environmental movement. “We’re repulsed by some of our supposed brothers and sisters lining up with job killers like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council to destroy the lives of working men and women,” O’Sullivan said. This heady “job killer” rhetoric was aimed not just at green groups but at unions like SEIU and the Communications Workers of America. They hadn’t had to do much earn this scorn. They had just opened their mouth about the Keystone XL pipeline.

For more than two years, the climate movement has focused on making Keystone XL the issue for anyone who cares about combating global warming to organize around, and this campaign has kept both the labor and progressive wings of the Democratic Party on edge. The argument from the climate movement all along has been not just that the pipeline is a bad project but that it’s representative of the kind of thinking that’s going to muck up the planet—that oil has to come out of the ground, that it’s possible to wait and deal with climate change later.

The counterargument has been that Keystone XL is just one, insignificant pipeline. If you ask O’Sullivan about making a choice between the jobs and the earth on this issue, you’ll start hearing about the oil-industry experts who argue that there is no choice here—that tar sands oil is coming out of the ground no matter what. But, in the end, the climate movement has succeeded at giving this project a broader significance—even for pro-pipeline groups like LIUNA.

“LIUNA and Building & Trades get that this is more than one project,” says Sean Sweeney, the director of the Cornell Global Labor Institute. “They see that they're playing a role in a much larger agenda.”

For months now, the pro- and anti-pipeline camps have been bickering over how many jobs the Keystone pipeline will create and whether they’re temporary or permanent jobs. (Pipeline opponents’ last count of permanent jobs clocked in at a whopping 35.) From LIUNA's point of view, though, that number-crunching contest misses the point.

“Our members don't get health insurance the day they walk onto the job—they need a minimum number of hours,” says Dave Mallino, LIUNA’s legislative director. “If they don't have projects to get hours on, they don't get benefits. Our members work temporary job to temporary job. If you're dismissive of the nature of our work, you're being dismissive of our members.”

The jobs on Keystone XL are not necessarily the only ones at stake for unions in this fight. In 2009, less than a year after the Laborers joined the Blue-Green Alliance, the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department (of which LIUNA is a part) signed on to an alliance touted as “the first time that the oil and natural gas industry and its labor unions have agreed to work together formally.” The resulting organization, the Oil and Natural Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee, has two main purposes: to work for jobs—job retention, job growth—and to create communications campaigns around legislation that might squelch oil and natural-gas development. Pushing Keystone XL is the first test for the partnership.

Back in 2009, it didn’t seem so strange LIUNA was playing with two natural enemies, getting closer with the greens while buddying up to the oil and natural-gas industry. Green groups like the Sierra Club were forming unlikely allegiances, too, convincing themselves that the natural-gas industry, with its carbon-light fuel and competition with oil, might just be a new best friend. Like a smart but athletic kid who can hang with both jocks and nerds, the Laborers had interests in common with both groups, and in the economic dung heap of 2009, no union could turn its nose up at an offer that might lead to jobs for its members.

But as the Keystone XL fight has dragged on, unions like LIUNA have found themselves hanging with a rougher, more anti-union crowd. In Nebraska, a Laborers’ local union has worked closely with Koch-affiliated groups; Sean McGarvey, the head of Building Trades, has stood shoulder to shoulder with the American Petroleum Institute’s CEO, and O’ Sullivan has spoken about Keystone XL on the stage at the National Association of Manufacturers, an anti-union organization if there ever was one.

Cornell’s Sweeney and his colleague Lara Skinner have a term for this axis—the blue-black alliance. They’ve spent a good part of the last couple of years arguing that this partnership doesn’t serve the interests of the labor movement—particularly a progressive labor movement—and caters to the extreme right. In the Keystone XL fight, the industry needs allies like LIUNA to argue that there’s an American interest in the project. The new sections of pipeline would bring oil extracted in Canada across the border into the United States, through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas, to Gulf Coast refineries, from which it will be shipped out across the world. The oil will just be passing through the United States, unless, of course, it spills. The project will benefit business, but for most Americans, the only potential impact is a negative one. “They need unions to make the social case,” Cornell’s Sweeney says. “Unions are probably the only social ally they've got.”

But while Keystone XL has been the main focus of this partnership so far, it won’t end once the Obama administration delivers a decision on this one pipeline.

“If you think about a dying labor movement, and you think of all the challenges they're facing to create jobs and make them union, it's one area in the construction industry that has been growing a lot—pipelines,” says Skinner. “And particularly natural-gas pipelines.”

LIUNA is aware of this dynamic. “Pipelines is a huge industry and a huge sector for us. When the Sierra Club comes out and says they oppose natural-gas-fired power plants, it's a huge part of the energy sector,” says O’Sullivan. “It’s way beyond Keystone.”


That’s what climate campaigners have been saying all along, and given the possibility of a pipeline-riddled future, they too see an advantage to having unions on their side. In order to push Obama to take a stronger stand on climate, one that goes beyond his tame fuel-efficiency accomplishments, “it’s important to demonstrate that there’s a broad base of people in this country who support that agenda. And that includes labor and workers,” says May Boeve, executive director of

The first unions to stick their necks out were the Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers Union, which came out against Keystone XL in August 2011. National Nurses United and the Domestic Workers Alliance followed some months later. These unions are relatively small, and while the Building Trades, for instance, has spent part of its ample lobbying budget on this issue, these unions don’t have the same financial resources. Pro-Keystone XL unions haven’t made it easy for them to speak up on this issue, either. Terry O’Sullivan, for instance, isn’t shy about using harsh words—“repulsive” is a favorite—about unions on the other side of this issue, and when a Canadian union wanted to visit D.C. to make the case against the pipeline, the Laborers threatened to picket the meeting. Although more than one group that’s been fighting against Keystone XL mentioned the ATU as a leader in the labor movement on this issue, the ATU declined to speak about that work for this article.

These unions haven’t gotten much support from bigger, green-allied unions, either, who are less interested in making this issue their fight. The Blue-Green Alliance didn’t take a position on Keystone XL at all. A group of unions and environmental groups did issue a limp statement in January 2012, after the State Department turned down TransCanada’s first permit, but, outside of that, most of the unions that had been working on building partnerships with environmental groups have kept quiet.

There are signs, though, that the smaller unions have been able to check the influence of the pro-pipeline unions and that some of the quieter unions may have stronger feelings about Keystone XL than they’ve let on. On February 17, when the Sierra Club,, and the Hip-Hop Caucus led the largest climate march to date in Washington, the Communications Workers of America joined them. And when the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council met in February, after the member unions debated making a statement on Keystone XL, what they released was a statement that was for the idea of pipelines in general. Pro-Keystone XL unions waved the statement around as a vindication of their work, but it didn’t go so far as to say, “Yes, we’re behind Keystone XL.”

“In my 43 years in the labor movement, I can't recall another time that AFL-CIO has remained neutral on any jobs program. And for the last year and a half, they have been neutral on Keystone. That's historic and really important,” says Joe Uehlein, executive director of the Labor Network for Sustainability.

What would it take for a larger chunk of the labor movement to sign up for a hard fight against climate change? Part of the problem right now is that the ideas of 2008 and 2009 are still hanging around, pretending to be useful. LIUNA’s proposal for working together with environmental group is to keep pushing for some sort of comprehensive climate-change legislation. “Green jobs” are ghostly.

The progressive vision of labor and the environmental movement working together goes something like this: Unions like LIUNA oppose Keystone XL. They march with the climate movement, 30,000 hardhats saying, “We want jobs, but not these jobs.” The infrastructure program that President Obama’s been struggling to promote gets a political boost. Instead of building new pipelines, unions repair leaky old ones. They fix roads and bridges and build transit systems.

“It's hard to imagine a more significant employment program,” says’s Boeve. “How is this not the answer? How has this not been put forward by politicians?”

Part of the answer is that no one’s been giving politicians a reason to advocate for that vision—not labor and not environmentalists. When asked how the two movements could work together, Boeve thought for a minute and then said, “A lot of the examples are of things that we want to stop.” That’s not so helpful for labor leaders. “If you're a laborer or pipe fitter in the Midwest, you want to build that pipeline because it's good work. But you would be just as happy rebuilding the water infrastructure" of our country, says Uehlein. But as LIUNA’s work on Keystone XL indicates, it’s almost impossible for union leaders to turn down jobs dangled in front of them, even old, dirty economy jobs. “The environmental movement needs its own jobs program,” says Uehlein. And not futuristic green jobs that don’t exist yet. Jobs that exist now, that give union leaders a reason to fight against projects like Keystone XL, instead of for it.

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