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The AFL-CIO and Keystone XL Pipeline

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On Tuesday, the AFL-CIO gave tacit support for building the Keystone XL Pipeline, a very disappointing development for many involved in the climate movement, as well for some of the federation’s constituent unions that had fought the building trades over whether labor should support it. The Transit Workers’ Union took a particularly leading role on this issues, with the Laborers, IBEW, and Teamsters the unions most pushing for building it. I have more on this at LaborOnline. An excerpt:

I understand the tough situation that Keystone creates for organized labor. A union’s job is to protect the interests of its members, including keeping them employed, all too rare today. But in the early 21st century, with organized labor in deep decline, does it make sense to promote short-term job growth at the cost of telling the thousands of people who care deeply about a variety of progressive causes, including climate change, that organized labor is not an ally?

Let’s also remember that climate change is the greatest issue faced by humans in the 21st century. Events like Hurricane Sandy, the drought parching half the United States, and the massive forest fires in the West that are changing the ecology of states like New Mexico will almost certainly become far more common. Climate change will disproportionately affect the poor. Lack of air conditioning will cause higher death rates from heat exhaustion. Warmer weather will lead to higher cockroach populations that cause elevated asthma rates among urban dwellers. The poor in low-elevation nations like Bangladesh will suffer tremendously, not to mention those living in floodplains in the United States. Climate change is absolutely a working-class issue. Organized labor needs to play a leading role in conversations on how to fight this menace. Building a massive pipeline that makes the problem worse is counterproductive.

So I understand why LIUNA and the building trades are behind the pipeline. I won’t criticize them too harshly for a stance that will create jobs. But if organized labor wants to remain relevant within the 21st century progressive movement, it can’t support policies that intensify climate change. Endorsing more petroleum pipelines may create a few jobs in the short-term, but has starkly negative long-term consequences, both for the planet and for labor’s ability to make much-needed alliances with other organizations.

From my perspective, it just comes down to whether it makes more sense to get a few jobs now or be relevant in the movement to make a world a better place. Labor is getting crushed left and right and part of the reason is that it by and large has not made itself available to be part of the social movements trying to change this country for the better. It’s come around on immigration, much to its credit. Environmental issues are just as hard, but parts of organized labor are excellent on these issues and others are at least willing to have conversation. Some unions though, they just don’t care. Meanwhile, the climate is changing more every day.

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