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Why Organized Labor Must Stand Against the Keystone XL Pipeline

Why Organized Labor Must Stand Against the Keystone XL Pipeline
Mon, 2/11/2013 - by Mark Vorpahl

Spurred by real urgency over the corporate driven ruin of the environment, a growing social movement is taking shape that will be on display this Sunday, February 17, when tens of thousands descend on the streets of Washington, D.C. in a show of power titled "Forward On Climate."

What is the target galvanizing these forces? The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, to be built by TransCanada, which would carry crude oil extracted from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, some 2,000 miles south to the Gulf of Mexico for export.

What is the outcome hoped for by those who will attend? That President Obama reject the project, finally and definitively, when it comes up for his approval this winter.

Protests, blockades, arrests and disruptions of the pipeline's construction have been ongoing by activists and landowners in East Texas since last summer. Now, the "Forward On Climate" rally marks a huge step forward to enlarge the movement. This is not your typical environmental protest in defense of a limited ecosystem.

Rather, the potential consequences of the XL Pipeline's operations are global and catastrophic because of climate change. And that's why organized labor needs to stand up now in an alliance that has the power to defeat it.

Getting Perspective

To get some perspective on what is happening to the climate let's looks at some data:

  • According to scientists, the average temperature of the planet has already risen just under 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.4 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1880.
  • The last two decades of the 20th century were the hottest in 400 years and, according to a number of climate studies, possibly in several millennia.
  • The 10 warmest years on record have happened in the last 15 years.
  • According to the Global and Environment Institute at Tufts University, extreme heat waves have been steadily rising over the last 50 to 100 years. They are now happening at a rate two to four times stronger, and are projected to escalate to vast extremes over the next 40 years.
  • The annual number of hurricanes has been escalating. There was an average of 3.5 hurricanes a year between 1905 and 1930. Between 1995 and 2005 this number increased to an average of 8.4.
  • Globally the atmosphere over the oceans is 5 percent wetter, setting the stage for massive floods. Rapidly melting Arctic ice and glaciers will lead to the submerging of coastal cities and islands due to rising sea levels.
  • According to Fatih Birol of the International Energy Agency, after examining the rise of carbon emissions: "When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about six degrees (11 degrees Fahrenheit)" by 2100.

Considering the consequences we are already experiencing with a 1.4 degree rise in average temperature, an increase of 11 degrees could transform the planet to such a degree that it would put the survival of most species, including humanity, in peril.

How will the operations of the Keystone XL Pipeline affect this trend?

  • The Alberta tar sands contain enough carbon to raise carbon emissions in the atmosphere by more than half of their current level.
  • In the words of NASA leading climatologist, James Hansen: "If the tar sands are thrown into the mix, it is essentially game over for the climate. There is no practical way to capture co2 while burning oil."

To call the course we are on suicidal vastly understates the matter. There is a wide consensus among scientists that our climate is teetering on the edge of extreme and irreversible change. This danger is being propelled by our addiction to carbon-based fossil fuels -- and more specifically, to the mechanisms of corporate greed.

The world's top five oil companies have made more than $1 trillion in profits since the turn of the century. This money buys influence, steering national policies and international relations towards the goal of their further enrichment.

This influence runs into sharp conflict with what is needed to prevent a global catastrophe. With all the oil, coal and gas that is available, 80 percent would have to be left in the ground to keep the temperature from rising above an extra two degrees Celsius, the limit recognized by the Copenhagen Accord. That translates into $20 trillion in big energy’s assets.

Collecting and increasing these assets is the entire purpose of the energy companies’ existence. Corporate profit rather than human need is the impersonal motor force of this system. All the scientific data in the world along with appeals to the big energy owners' consciousness will not stop the machine from seeking to maximize profit regardless of the devastation.

If this force is to be stopped, it will take a social movement of those who are the primary victims, that is, the majority of humanity. And it will take a movement led by working people who can issue the challenge: that if those in charge of the economy don't find a way to reverse course, it will be us who take control and get the job done.

Where Does Labor Stand?

In the U.S., unions are the primary organizations to defend and promote the interests of workers. Consequently, the role of Labor in opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline is an issue of paramount importance towards developing the popular strength to make a decisive impact.

Where do the unions stand now? AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka stated at the UN Investor Summit on Climate Risk, "The AFL-CIO has not taken a position on the Keystone pipeline — unions don't agree among ourselves."

It is extremely rare for someone in Trumka's position to comment on such a division. As disappointing as this situation might be for many, it is evidence of a needed dialogue taking place within Labor's leading bodies, and of equal importance, among the working members and labor’s allies.

Significantly, the Transport Workers Union (TWU), the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and National Nurses United have come out in support of the February 17 demonstration against the XL pipeline. The Communication Workers of America (CWA), the United Auto Workers (UAW) and others also favor stopping the pipeline.

On the other hand, the Laborers Union and the Building Trades Council have come out in strong support of the pipeline's construction. These union bodies have been especially hard hit by unemployment. As a result, they have been quick to take the bait of several thousand jobs that the XL Pipeline's proponents are dangling.

Laborer's President Terry O'Sullivan defiantly stated, "I am repulsed by our supposed brothers and sisters lining up with job killers like the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council to destroy the lives of working men and women."

In a letter to Hillary Clinton, union leaders supporting the XL Pipeline stated it will "spur the creation of 118,000 jobs." However, as Bloomberg Businessweek reported in an article, "The Questionable Economics of the Keystone XL Pipeline":

"Clearly, the construction of the pipe, most of it below ground, will be a huge undertaking. The estimated numbers of people it will employ in the process, however, fluctuate wildly, with TransCanada raising the number from 3,500, to 4,200, to 20,000 temporary positions and suggesting the line will employ several hundred in an on-going basis. The U.S. State Department, which made its own assessment because the pipeline crosses the U.S. - Canada border, estimates the line will create just 20 permanent jobs. One advantage of a pipeline, after all, is that it's automated."

None of these sources would have any reason to underestimate the number of jobs the pipeline would create, regardless of how widely they diverge from the 118,000 figure cited in the letter to Clinton. It would appear that the leaders of the unions supporting the XL Pipeline are being sold a questionable bill of goods in order to get them behind the project.

Isolating Themselves

The problem with the approach of these unions, however, is not simply that they have the facts wrong in regards to how many jobs the XL Pipeline will create. Clearly the effects of climate change and the XL Pipeline's contribution to it should be of tremendous concern to all workers, including the members of these unions.

By prioritizing their memberships' short-term interests above the interests of all others, the XL Pipeline union supporters are putting themselves at odds with the health of working class communities in general, popular consciousness, and scientific consensus. They are isolating themselves.

If they continue to hold this line, it will likely result in diminishing public support for their contract fights and, therefore, less leverage to use against their employers. They are not only acting against their membership's long term interests in countering climate change, they are weakening their union's ability to fight against their employers' greed and win.

A False Choice

These union leaders are caught in a false choice between supporting job creation or promoting environmental health. However, this is just not the case. A report by Blue Green Canada, an alliance of labor, environmental and civil rights group, found that "if the $1.3 billion in government subsidies now given to the oil and gas sector were instead invested in renewable energy and energy efficiency, Canada would create more jobs: 18,000 more."

The same is true in the U.S. Energy efficiency retrofitting of buildings and the development of renewable energy are "shovel ready jobs" that, if pursued on the necessary scale, could provide full employment.

The main obstacle standing in the way of such a program is the argument that it cannot be done by the private sector because there's not enough profit in it. A publicly funded program would be required, like a modern day Work Projects Administration (WPA) of the 1930s New Deal era, only on a grander scale with the aim of reversing climate change as well as providing jobs.

Yet no politician would touch this plan out of fear of big business's opposition to being taxed to pay for it. And therefore it will take the power of an independent social movement which unites Labor, environmentalists and working people in general to make them do it.

One way of funding such an ambitious but necessary program would be with a carbon tax. This could act as a fee on the production, distribution and industrial use of fossil fuels based on how much carbon their combustion emits. It should be aimed exclusively at big business. If this is combined with scientifically based regulation and community oversight, as well as the subsidizing of green energy alternatives, it could go a long way towards transforming our current energy systems into a more sustainable model.

If the social muscle can be built up to compel the passage of such legislation, it will still not be enough to guarantee compliance because you cannot control what you don't own. Attempts to circumvent and sabotage such restrictions to their profit-making can be expected by Big Energy and their owners' partners in the 1%.

As their efforts continue to result in the endangerment of the climate, it will then become necessary for the social movement to further organize itself and force these corporations to be operated as publicly owned utilities. Only in this way could they be transformed to run according to social and environmental need rather than the 1%'s profit.

February 17 may be remembered as a significant point in the evolution of such a powerful force. If President Obama rejects the XL Pipeline, that would be a significant victory for those who have hit the streets in the interests of humanity. Regardless of the potential outcome, those organizing around the issue of climate change can only rely on their own collective efforts in building the largest movement possible independent of corporate-funded politicians.

At best, the two main political parties in the U.S. can only deliver too little too late because of their dependence on financial contributions from big business. Consequently, the "Forward on Climate" movement needs to build its power broadly by connecting and highlighting the dual issues: stopping climate change and providing full employment with a Green New Deal.

For information and to sign up to march in D.C. for the Forward On Climate Rally this Sunday, (please visit).

Mark Vorpahl is a union steward, social justice activist and a writer for Workers Action and He can be reached at

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