For quite awhile, the AFL-CIO has tried to tread a middle ground on fossil fuel development. Understanding that its constituent unions had differing feelings on the issue and finding itself between the knowledge that it desperately needs alliances with other progressive organizations in order to remain a politically potent force on one hand with the demand for immediate jobs on the other, it tried to remain relatively neutral on the Keystone XL Pipeline and other issues.
That neutrality seems to be slipping as Richard Trumka has recently started supporting the pipeline and other fossil fuel projects.
The nation’s leading environmental groups are digging their heels in the sand by rejecting President Obama’s “all-of-the above” domestic energy strategy—which calls for pursuing renewable energy sources like wind and solar, but simultaneously expanding oil and gas production.
But it appears the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, won’t be taking environmentalists’ side in this fight, despite moves toward labor-environmentalist cooperation in recent years. On a recent conference call with reporters, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka endorsed two initiatives reviled by green groups: the Keystone XL pipeline and new natural gas export terminals.
“There’s no environmental reason that [the pipeline] can’t be done safely while at the same time creating jobs,” said Trumka.
In response to a question from In These Times, Trumka also spoke in favor of boosting exports of natural gas.
“Increasing the energy supply in the country is an important thing for us to be looking at,” Trumka said. “All facets of it ought to be up on the table and ought to be talked about. If we have the ability to export natural gas without increasing the price or disadvantaging American industry in the process, then we should carefully consider that and adopt policies to allow it to happen and help, because God only knows we do need help with our trade balance.”
The call came amidst a series of three speeches by the AFL-CIO leader pushing for more investment in energy and transportation infrastructure. Trumka did not specifically praise Keystone and natural gas exports during the first speech, at the UN Investor Summit on Climate Risk on January 15, and it is unclear whether he will in the remaining two. But the labor leader’s comments on the conference call were enough to peeve environmentalists.
I understand the need for jobs. But the AFL-CIO is just wrong here. Yes, members need jobs. And if the pipeline is going to be built anyway, then they should be union jobs. But there is also some moral component to the jobs that we create and actively supporting the jobs that are contributing to catastrophic climate change is not something the federation should be doing.
I’m sure that no small part of this is that unions like the Laborers who have most actively supported the pipeline are a lot more powerful than the opposing unions and they care more about it. So no doubt Trumka is feeling the pressure internally. But this just reinforces the belief that basically every other progressive organization in the country has toward American unionism–out of touch, inclined toward political reaction, clannish, and old-fashioned. Now, maybe unions shouldn’t care what anyone else thinks. Certainly that’s been the position of many of the building trades going back to their creation. But labor should also stop wondering why other progressive movements don’t take it seriously.