The union movement is a tremendously diverse and complex thing. Anyone who says “unions” should do this and that doesn’t know what they are talking about, because these different worker organizations often have very little in common with each other, have different interests, vastly different racial and gender makeup, etc. And the union movement has changed a lot. The growth of industrial unionism in the 1930s and 1940s brought millions of people into the labor movement, provided a stark and politically progressive challenged to the old AFL building trades, and made their voices heard deep inside the Democratic Party, even forcing Republicans to pretend to respect them. But those unions are gone or shells of themselves. The UAW is trying to hold on and survive, as the GM strike is in its 3rd week. The USW keeps losing members. Many of the industrial unions are gone entirely, such as the United Rubber Workers, or have merged into other unions over and over again to find something for their diminishing members, such as the old Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers or the International Woodworkers of America.
The thing about all of these unions, even those who turned anti-communist in the late 1940s, is that they provided serious heft to political progressivism outside of just collective bargaining. Much of that included to environmentalism. The UAW hosted some of the first environmental justice meetings. The OCAW had such strong alliances with the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations that they urged members to tear up their Shell credit cards when the union struck against that company in the 70s. The IWA actively allied with greens to protect wilderness, even though it would take timberlands out of production.
All of this is pretty well gone now. We do have new unions rising up to play that progressive role in our politics. Organizations such as SEIU, AFSCME, and National Nurses United do a lot of great work. But their interests are less about environmentalism because their members have different needs. They take the lead on health care and immigration rights, for instance. And that’s great.
But in terms of environmentalism, there is no one in the labor movement really working with greens on a consistent basis. Meanwhile, the building trades, who usually have allied with employers on all things political, are doing so once again. In the aftermath of the pipeline protests in Nebraska and North Dakota over the past few years, states are attempting to pass ALEC-written legislation to ban most protest at energy facilities. The unions are on board and they are cynically using the issue of workplace safety to justify destroying the First Amendment rights of protestors. After all, they are a bunch of hippies. This is happening in Wisconsin. I was interviewed for this story about it and I think my disgust came through loud and clear.
Legislation that would make it a felony to trespass on pipeline and other energy sites is exposing some divisions among Democrats and making allies of business groups and labor unions.
Critics, principally environmental advocates, contend the measure would stifle dissent against controversial projects. Proponents, including Democrats allied with labor, are defending it as a worker safety initiative and reject the claim that it would impinge on First Amendment rights.
The legislation—Assembly Bill 426 and its companion, Senate Bill 386—follows escalating opposition across the country, especially to oil and natural gas pipeline projects, by activists whose goals range from preventing local environmental damage to a broader attack on the fossil fuel industry for causing global warming.
The bills were authored with extensive input from energy industry lobbyists and resemble a national model authored by the business-backed American Legislative Exchange Council. But they have also drawn together a rare coalition that includes Democrats as well as Republicans as cosponsors, and labor unions along with the business interests. If passed, people charged under the law could be convicted of a Class H felony punishable by fines of up to $10,000 and prison terms of up to six years.
Labor support comes from unions representing workers employed in pipeline construction. Meanwhile, environmental groups are lining up in opposition.
“We feel that the bill is unnecessary, and could cause significant harm to individuals who might be unfairly or unjustly prosecuted under the proposed laws,” Peg Scheaffer, director of development and communications for Midwest Environmental Advocates, told Wisconsin Examiner. MEA has registered to lobby against the measure.
“There are existing laws that protect property and enforce trespass,” she said. “Making this a felony charge puts someone who’s charged with this in the position of having to defend themselves at significant expense.”
The split between environmental organizations and some unions over bills such as AB426/SB386 is being replayed around the country as other states pass similar laws, says a labor historian who has written about the relationship between environmentalists and the labor movement.
But that broader relationship is much more complex than it sometimes appears, said Erik Loomis, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island. In his book Empire of Timber, Loomis explores how the International Woodworkers of America, the union representing timber industry workers in the Pacific Northwest, embraced conservation and challenged the industry’s environmental record in the 1930s and ’40s.
“There’s a much deeper history of much more active cooperation and alliance between environmental organizations and unions that goes much farther back than we think it does,” Loomis told Wisconsin Examiner in a telephone interview.
The United Auto Workers, for example, endorsed Earth Day and even before that established a Conservation and Resource Development Department as part of the union.
Despite that history, the unions backing laws that target protests on pipeline sites do so for a combination of reasons, both economic and cultural.
“In an era where you don’t have a lot of good union jobs any more, the ability or willingness of unions to side with the environmental movement over these questions has become heavily limited,” Loomis said.
In addition, the building trades unions endorsing the bills, such as the Operating Engineers and the Laborers, are often more conservative “and have often sided with employers over things like this,” he added. “They have a developmentalist ideology that coincides with employers, the idea that building anything is worth it.”
Loomis is skeptical about claims of widespread danger to workers from protests at oil and gas pipelines.
“This is a is a manufactured concern,” he said. “In the broad history of environmental protests, there have been occasions where workplace safety has been compromised. But that’s not recent. This is a massive overreaction to what are in fact peaceful protests.”
And in case this isn’t clear, it’s important as a labor activist who has an independent voice to criticize unions who are doing terrible things just as it is important to provide support for unions who are moving forward issues of justice. LIUNA and many of the other trades that are behind this are betraying what the labor movement is supposed to do. If this kind of protest is limited, why couldn’t similar laws be passed to limit the types of protest that unions engage in? And why would any other progressive organization even care if that busted the unions that want to bust them?