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Some Unions Think Supporting Keystone XL Was A Mistake

President Obama vetoed legislation approving the pipeline, and some labor activists think its time for unions to join the climate movement.
Photo by Nati Harnik/AP

President Obama vetoed on Tuesday legislation approving  the Keystone XL pipeline.

Republican congressional leaders have pledged a quick override vote, despite lacking the two-thirds majorities in both chambers that are necessary for bypassing the President. Meanwhile, environmentalists have promised to continue pressuring the administration to go one step further than a veto: He should reject TransCanada's construction permit for the pipeline, which is currently under review by the State Department.


But one interesting — and often overlooked — dynamic within the fight over Keystone has been happening within America's organized labor movement.

Obama vetoes Keystone XL pipeline legislation — but White House says approval still possible. Read more here.

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka angered climate activists and many rank-and-file labor activists when he pledged union support of the project. Trumka pointed to the need to harness any and all infrastructure projects because of their job creation potential. Yet the pipeline promises only 34 permanent jobs. Construction of it is estimated to support more than 40,0000 temporary positions, but many of those jobs include people already employed in the service sector or already working in construction.

Meanwhile, renewable energy production has become somewhat of a boom industry since the Great Recession, with job growth in wind and solar production and installation outpacing most other sectors.

With 16 million members nationwide and yearly budgets that dwarf those of even the largest green NGOs, unions could not only build the "green economy," the could also play a crucial role in pushing a green-growth agenda on the local, state, and federal levels.

But the question is why labor leaders, if they're going to bet on which industry to get behind in terms of job growth, are betting on a project with such anemic numbers.

Joe Uehlein has spent more than 30 years in the labor movement, much of it within the AFL-CIO. As Executive Director of the Labor Network for Sustainability, he says local and regional labor groups are pushing back against the national leadership, emphasizing the potential in labor's embrace of a job-creation agenda that hues more closely to that of the environmental movement and acknowledging the threat of climate change. He told VICE News that the debate over Keystone XL has been a positive step in that it "forced a number of unions to think about these issues."


In college, Uehlein helped construct the Texas Eastern pipeline through Central Pennsylvania. Contrary to many of Keystone XL's foes, he maintains that the project would create genuinely good jobs. Pipeline opponents have been quick to point out how the overwhelming bulk of Keystone work would be temporary. But, says Uehlein, "When you're a construction worker, every job is temporary."

"The Achilles heel of the environmental movement," he says, "is that it hasn't done enough to recognize how important work is in everyone's lives."

Despite the green movement's frequent disregard for the material interests of the nation's blue-collar workers, climate change has begun to resonate among labor unions.

The Service Employees International Union, National Nurses United, the Transport Workers Union, the Communication Workers of America, among others, have begun working on climate issues.

Here's what the only Republican voting against Keystone XL has to say about the project. Read more here.

When hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of New York in September for the People's Climate March, over 80 labor organizations turned out, making it one of the largest contingents, their ranks stretching for several of Manhattan's famously broad avenues.

Larry Moskowitz coordinated labor's participation. He called the task "a real political challenge, in the best sense," referring to the historic antagonism within labor toward environmental causes, which are frequently seen as job killers.


Moskowitz says that the climate march energized local unions, many of which had experienced first hand the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy. The impacts of climate change, from more extreme storms to rising sea levels, are persuading unionists to link up with climate activists.

For both Uehlein and Moskowitz, the real hope for further collaboration with the climate change movement hinges on whether or not each can work together on political campaigns pushing for well paying jobs in low-carbon industries.

Still, neither union nor environmentalist leadership have stepped forward with a concrete plan. Even if both sides could agree on the specifics of a "Green New Deal," any strategic partnership would require each throwing considerable resources into fighting the austerity politics dominating Washington.

In the absence of a national push, collaboration appears more likely on the local and state levels. In New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio pledge to reduce emissions by 80 percent by 2050. New York City's Central Labor Council of the AFL-CIO and the national AFL-CIO — both noticeably absent from the climate march — have been fervent supporters of the project, which could create up to 40,000 new jobs through green infrastructure and renewable energy construction.

Trumka himself has said that, in confronting climate change, the two sides needs to "find common ground, to make the kind of effort we once made to win world wars." Despite broad statements of support for action on climate change, though, Trumka appears to be supporting fossil fuel projects because of the federation's most conservative factions,such as the Laborer's International Union of North America and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, both members of North America's Building Trades Unions.

With climate impacts worsening and solar having created 50 percent more jobs than the oil and gas industries in 2014, the case for collaboration is getting stronger by the day.

"Labor knows, more profoundly today, that it needs allies," Uehlein said.

Oil refinery workers are on strike and they're getting support from environmentalists. Read more here.

Follow Kate Aronoff on Twitter: @KateAronoff