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More on Workers and Environmentalists



My New Republic essay on how environmentalism needed to get in touch with working-class concerns came out on the day that protestors forced the Obama administration to reroute the pipeline away from the Standing Rock reservation. That was a total coincidence. But the aftermath of this is a good window into a number of related issues. First, it’s well worth noting how the work of the wonderful Bill McKibben has accomplished a great deal of bringing environmentalism back toward a mass movement, making connections with a lot of other left-leaning groups, if not necessarily a lot of organized labor. McKibben has a good essay placing the pipeline movement in the larger context of indigenous activism as well as thinking about what this means in Trump’s America:

Indigenous organizers are some of the finest organizers around the globe – they’ve been key to everything from the Keystone fight to battling plans for the world’s largest coal mine in Australia. If we manage to slow down the fossil fuel juggernaut before it boils the planet, groups like the Indigenous Environmental Network and Honor the Earth will deserve a great share of the credit. Right now, for instance, Canada’s First Nations are preparing for “Standing Rock North” along the route of two contested pipelines out of Canada’s tarsands. But in the Dakotas it’s been particularly special: they’ve managed to build not just resistance to a project, but a remarkable new and unified force that will, I think, persist. Persist, perhaps, even in the face of the new Trump administration.

Trump, of course, can try and figure out a way to approve the pipeline right away, though the Obama administration has done its best to make that difficult. (That’s why, instead of an outright denial, they simply refused to grant the permit, thus allowing for the start of the environmental impact statement process). But if Trump decides to do that, he’s up against people who have captured the imagination of the country. Simply spitting on them to aid his friends in the oil industry would clarify a lot about him from the start, which is one reason he may hesitate.

In any event, though, time is measured somewhat differently in the dispute between this continent’s original inhabitants and the late-coming rest of us. For five hundred years, half a millennia, the same grim story has repeated itself over and over again. Today’s news is a break in that long-running story, a new chapter. It won’t set this relationship on an entirely new course – change never comes that easily. But it won’t ever be forgotten, and it will influence events for centuries to come. Standing Rock, like Little Big Horn or Wounded Knee, or for that matter Lexington Green and Concord Bridge, now belongs to our history.

Meanwhile, while environmentalists need to do much more to connect with workers, it’s not as if the unions involved in the pipeline construction are bathing themselves in glory. Of course, these tensions have a historical context that I tried to address in the New Republic piece, but in the present, it’s fine if you don’t want to support the Laborers or Teamsters position on the pipeline. The IBT and LIUNA reactions are very disappointing:

The Teamsters union warned good jobs are at risk Monday over a decision by the Obama administration to stop construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline.

After twice defending its approval process in court, with victories in both cases, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reversed course when it announced Sunday that it would not approve construction permits needed to finish the project. The Teamsters argued the decision will hurt working Americans.

“The decision will have a direct and negative impact on the hardworking men and women—including Teamsters and other union members—who have invested their lives in building the infrastructure that makes this country run,” the Teamsters said in a statement provided to InsideSources. “The Teamsters Union looks forward to moving past this disappointing decision toward the eventual approval of this easement and completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline.”

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe and its supporters claim the nearly completed pipeline runs too close to sacred tribal burial sites and could affect the tribe’s water supply, though the pipeline never crosses onto tribal land. The Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) argues the Obama administration is “appeasing environmental extremists.”

“Blocking the final portion of construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline after it is 93 percent complete and fully reviewed is a short-sighted, gutless, and irresponsible decision,” LIUNA President Terry O’Sullivan said in a statement Sunday. “It only serves to prolong the conflict that is dividing communities in North Dakota.”

This is ridiculous. The Obama administration did not kill the project. It just sought to change the route. Yes, this means there are delays. But the work is going to happen. On the other hand, I do get the deep necessity of these unions to find work for their members, many of whom are chronically underemployed. The plain fact is that there is not enough good work for working-class people anywhere in this country. But these unions, who desperately need allies to survive in the Trump years, are also acting out of cultural biases and disdain for the hippies and Indians involved in the protest and are doing themselves no favors. In the end, most of the left will barely care if LIUNA is demolished in the next 4 years. And while some of that is on the left activists from various movements who are indifferent or even hostile to collective economic action, a lot of it is the consistently antagonistic positions many unions, particularly in the building trades have taken toward other social movements.

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