The AFL-CIO is coming under attack from trade unions and their supporters angry about the organization’s support of the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through Native American land in North Dakota.
Demonstrators stood outside the AFL-CIO’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 19 calling on the union federation to renounce its support for the oil pipeline project. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, in a Sept. 15 statement, called on Native Americans and the federal government not to “hold union members’ livelihoods and their families’ financial security hostage to endless delay” and asked the Obama administration to let construction on the pipeline continue.
“This is unacceptable behavior for the AFL-CIO, which has a rich history of supporting the right causes — civil rights, voting rights,” Brendan Orsinger, an activist and organizer, said in an interview at the demonstration. “My grandmother worked with unions to harness that people power and put pressure on Congress to help pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and 1965. My great-grandmother worked on the picket lines.”
The president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) came out with an even stronger statement against Native Americans opposed to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. “LIUNA is a champion of the right to peacefully demonstrate, however, extremists have escalated the demonstrations well beyond lawful civil disobedience,” Terry O’Sullivan, general president of LIUNA, said in a statement. O’Sullivan said he found it frustrating that Native Americans “have disregarded the evidence and the review process to vilify a project.”
Other labor unions have expressed solidarity with Native Americans in their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, proposed by Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners. The Amalgamated Transit Union condemned “the ongoing violent attacks on the Standing Rock Sioux and others who oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline” and noted “these attacks by a private security company bring back horrific memories of the notorious Pinkertons, who used clubs, dogs and bullets to break up peaceful worker protests.” The Communications Workers of America issued a statement in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe ” as they fight to protect their community, their land and their water supply.”
“The AFL-CIO has a proud history of working with oppressed people to gain their rights and worker rights and they need to stake a strong stand on indigenous rights,” Orsinger said. “They have a seal on their headquarters of a black hand and a white hand shaking. It bothers me that they are betraying their history and their moral high ground.”
Activists are hoping to apply enough pressure on the AFL-CIO so the federation finds it politically infeasible to support projects such as Dakota Access. “As many jobs as they may get from this pipeline construction, it is dwarfed by the amount of jobs they will lose elsewhere from the public turning against them,” Orsigner said.
The Dakota Access Pipeline project is a proposed 1,172-mile, 30-inch diameter pipeline designed to connect the Bakken production area in North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois. The pipeline would transport approximately 470,000 barrels of oil per day with a capacity as high as 570,000 barrels per day or more, which could represent approximately half of Bakken current daily crude oil production.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Sept. 16 ordered Energy Transfer Partners to stop construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline for 20 miles on both sides of the Missouri River at Lake Oahe, a dammed section of the Missouri River near the tribe’s reservation, while the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s appeal of its denied motion to do so is considered.
Pipeline Stance Spurs Dissent
Dissent exists inside the AFL-CIO and within affiliated organizations on where the federation should stand on issues related to Native Americans and environmental justice. The Labor Coalition for Community Action, which represents the AFL-CIO’s bridge to diverse communities, on Sept. 19 announced its support for Native Americans in their fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Labor Coalition for Community Action’s six AFL-CIO constituency groups are the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and Pride at Work.
“Though cited to bring 4,500 jobs, the Dakota Access Pipeline seriously threatens tribal sovereignty, sacred burial grounds, and the water supply of the Standing Rock Sioux,” the Labor Coalition for Community Action said in a news release.
“This was about pushing back on corporate greed. This was about standing up for environmental, racial and economic justice,” Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) Executive Director Gregory Cendana said in an interview. He noted that APALA also publicly opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, while the AFL-CIO supported it.
“While this is not in line with the AFL-CIO stance, we want to send a message out to the labor movement and the broader community that there are differing views on this and that the Labor Coalition for Community Action and APALA stand in solidarity with the Native American community and will do what we can to continue pushing back on the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline,” Cendana said.
The AFL-CIO’s support for the Dakota Access Pipeline demonstrates Trumka’s willingness to assent to powerful unions like LIUNA while sacrificing its standing among related social movements, according to an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) organizer who attended the demonstration.
Trumka came to the AFL-CIO from the once-militant United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). The UMWA, as its membership dwindled in recent decades, has found itself on the defensive, fighting to preserve its members’ pensions and turning itself into a political organizing tool serving mostly Republican lawmakers who promote policies aimed at keeping coal companies afloat.
“From a historical standpoint, the labor movement is always weakest when it prioritizes immediate material interests over a larger vision for society,” the IWW organizer said. “And the AFL-CIO and the larger labor movement have been in a backward slide since the 1970s. This is a manifestation of that because it’s becoming a huge issue for so many groups to support the indigenous struggle, but the labor movement is lagging behind.”