Standing Rock Solid with the Frackers

Are the Trades Putting Labour’s Head in the Gas Oven?

If anyone were looking for further evidence that the AFL-CIO remains unprepared to accept the science of climate change, and unwilling to join with the effort being made by all of the major labour federations of the world to address the crisis, the fight over the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) provides only the most recent case in point. Taking direction from the newly minted North American Building Trades Unions (NABTU) and the American Petroleum Institute (API), the federation stood against the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribal nations.


In a recent video interview, NABTU president Sean McGarvey dismissed those who oppose the expansion of fossil fuels infrastructure. “There is no way to satisfy them… no way for them to recognize that if we don’t want to lose our place in the world as the economic superpower, then we have to have this infrastructure and the ability to responsibly reap the benefits of what God has given this country in its natural resources.”

Although the leaders of NABTU no longer identify with the AFL-CIO and the letterhead does not mention the Federation, the Trades continue to determine the shape the AFL-CIO’s approach to energy and climate. This is despite the fact that a growing number of unions have opposed the DAPL, among them the Amalgamated Transit Union, Communication Workers of America, National Domestic Workers Alliance, National Nurses United, New York State Nurses Association, Service Employees International Union (SEIU); SEIU 1199, and the United Electrical Workers. Union locals (branches or chapters) have also opposed the DAPL, among them, GEU UAW Local 6950 and Steelworkers Local 8751.

These unions have been joined by the Labor Coalition for Community Action, which represents well established AFL-CIO constituency groups like LCLAA, APALA, Pride at Work, CBTU, CLUW and the A. Philip Randolph Institute.

Reacting to the progressive unions’ solidarity with Standing Rock Sioux, NABTU’s president Sean McGarvey wrote a scathing letter to AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, copies of which were sent to the principal officers of all of the Federation’s affiliated unions. In a fashion reminiscent of the Keystone XL fight, McGarvey disparaged the unions that opposed DAPL. A day later, on September 15th, the AFL-CIO issued its own already infamous statement supporting DAPL. “Trying to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects is neither effective nor fair to the workers involved” said the statement. “The AFL-CIO calls on the Obama Administration to allow construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline to continue.”

Split, Coup, or Both?

It is important to note that the AFL-CIO issued its statement on the basis of a generic ‘pipelines’ Executive Council (EC) resolution passed in February 2013. Does this DAPL statement therefore speak for the 55 affiliates of the Federation? Hardly. The use of a vague EC resolution to support the DAPL is therefore something of a coup for NABTU, one that will further damage the reputation of the entire U.S. labour movement both at home and abroad.

In a New Labor Forum column almost a year ago, I tried to draw some of the lessons for the labour movement following the acrimonious fight among union leaders around the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline. I said KXL could be a precursor to a more protracted and serious leadership-level conflict in the years ahead, and that this could be avoided if certain union officers were to rethink their close relationship to coal, oil and gas industry groups (the so called Black-Blue Alliance) and take the lead in driving a different conversation about ‘extractionism’, climate change, and jobs.

The DAPL fight suggests that the split in labour is deepening. McGarvey’s letter to Trumka warrants careful study. Referring to the fact that many of the unions that opposed KXL are now opposing DAPL, McGarvey writes, “It seems the same outdated, lowest common denominator group of so-called labor organizations has once again seen fit to demean and call for the termination of thousands of union construction jobs in the Heartland. I fear that this has once again hastened a very real split in the labour movement at a time that, should their ceaseless rhetoric be taken seriously, even they suggest we can least afford it.”[1] For now, NABTU has managed to align the federation squarely with the fossil fuel industry.

So What is U.S. Labour’s Climate and Energy Policy?

The AFL-CIO’s statement on DAPL says that it is “neither effective nor fair” to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects. So what kind of climate policy does the AFL-CIO support? The 2013 Executive Council ‘pipelines’ resolution begins: “The AFL-CIO supports a comprehensive energy policy focused on investing in our nation’s future, creating jobs and addressing the threat of climate change.” Fine words, but have there been any actions to back them up?

At the global level, the Federation has never supported the International Trade Union Confederation’s (ITUC) commitment to the science-based emissions reduction targets proposed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Every other major national labour body supports these targets, but not the AFL-CIO. Similarly, it was the only major national trade union center to oppose the Kyoto Agreement in the 1990s and, again, the only one to applaud the State Department’s voluntary ‘pledge and review’ approach to emissions reductions expressed in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord. Global labour was unanimous in its condemnation of the weak, non-binding and science-denying content of the Accord – with the AFL-CIO once again being the exception.

During the 2008 Congressional debate on the (failed) climate bill during president Obama’s first term in office, the AFL-CIO, urging ‘a cautious approach’, could only support the weakest bill, one that ensured more free pollution allowances for the fossil fuel sector than any other bill drafted. Following the defeat of the climate bill in the Senate, the AFL-CIO essentially stepped away from energy climate policy altogether. And with Congress obstructing action on climate change, the Obama Administration ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take the lead. The EPA developed the Clean Power Plan (CPP) that seeks to achieve a 32 per cent reduction in carbon emissions from coal and gas-fired power plants by 2025 based on 2005 levels. The CPP was the basis of the U.S. contribution to the Paris Climate talks in late 2015 and in the more recent bilateral climate talks with China.

In a June 2014 statement, AFL-CIO president Trumka expressed concern about the CPP’s impact on the U.S. coal industry and warned that climate protection not “be another excuse to beat down working Americans.” But in the absence of both a coherent policy and a clear lead coming from the AFL-CIO, key affiliates have moved in to stake out their own space. Several energy and construction unions have signed onto a lawsuit to prevent the EPA’s implementation of the CPP regulations, with SEIU siding with a broad set of groups who seek to defeat the legal threat.[2] Led by West Virginia and more than 20 States, the challenge to the EPA would bar the agency from regulating GHGs from existing power plants altogether. If successful, this would essentially wipe out any federal climate policy because the Administration is relying almost exclusively on the EPA to comply with the commitments made in Paris.

Exporting Carbon

Meanwhile, in mid-2015 the Laborer’s Union (LiUNA) and the Operating Engineers successfully linked arms with the likes of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the API in a call on Congress to lift the export ban on U.S. crude oil that was introduced in 1975 during the Middle East oil crisis. The two unions stated that, “Lifting the ban will result in increased domestic crude production and deliver hundreds of thousands of jobs across all sectors of the American economy.”[3]

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka had publicly stated his opposition to lifting the ban in January 2014. Significantly, the reason for Trumka’s opposition had nothing to do with concerns about ‘carbon lock in’ or the need to support the USA’s climate commitments. Rather, the main concern was the impact lifting the ban would have on U.S. refineries, which are well organized by the United Steelworkers (USW). In a July 2014 statement, the Federation said:

“The surge in U.S. oil production should fuel a surge in U.S. refinery investment, creating highly paid construction and refinery jobs. American ingenuity and hard work have put the United States in the fortunate position of being the world’s top oil producer and given us more energy security than we have had in decades. The AFL-CIO believes the nation should build on this success to create prosperity and restore the middle class.”

­­­In lobbying against lifting the ban, the USW (joined by the Sierra Club) acknowledged that, aside from threatening the jobs of U.S. refinery workers, exporting U.S. crude would also lead to 22 million metric tons more CO2 emissions on an annual basis. Within six months of the ban being lifted (December 2015 to May 2016) U.S. crude exports have risen 9 per cent to 501,000 barrels per day, according to the Energy Information Agency.

Avoiding The F Word

With U.S. oil exports rising, LiUNA and other unions have helped the U.S. oil industry meet the growing global demand for U.S. crude. Union concerns about climate change were blindingly absent in this campaign (as was the case in the effort to acquire a permit for Keystone XL). Instead, lifting the export ban would, we were told, help the U.S. become “an energy superpower.”

More recently, LiUNA developed its own Clean Power Progress, an initiative apparently driven by a desire to “fuel a realistic, fact-based conversation” in order to “advance responsible policies that reduce GHGs and reach the climate change goals advanced by the Obama Administration.” With Clean Power Progress, LiUNA is attempting to project a new and greener message. But the union’s plan is focused on helping the U.S. meet its climate commitments – by promoting gas. According to Clean Power Progress, “Transitioning from higher-carbon energy sources (read: coal) toward abundant natural gas will help the United States meet its ambitious and responsible clean energy targets and our country’s growing electricity needs.” This is pretty much the gas industry line. It is also clear that the industry and LiUNA are united on the need to export more gas (maybe to help the world fight global warming?)

Clean Power Progress deserves a more detailed critique, and will be the subject of a future article. But there are some obvious red flags. For example, nowhere in the proposal is there any mention of the word ‘fracking.’ Fracking for gas in shale rock is producing a higher proportion of U.S. gas every year as yields from conventional gas drilling steadily decrease. This can hardly be explained as an innocent omission. It is as if, by not mentioning fracking at all, LiUNA hopes to sidestep rising concerns regarding the health-related and other impacts associated with fracturing. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO has not taken an official stand on fracking, but in states where drilling has proceeded the Trades have moved several State AFL-CIO’s behind a pro-fracking stance.

Greenwashing with the Union Label?

Equally remarkable is that LiUNA is keeping alive the discredited idea that gas is a ‘bridge fuel’ that is good for the climate because, when compared to burning coal, gas generates only half the CO2 per unit of energy generated. But peer-reviewed studies over the past several years have shown that, when methane leakage associated with fracking is accurately measured, gas harvested from shale rock is worse than coal from the standpoint of generating greenhouse gas emissions. Respecting the science, most of the major environmental groups stopped talking about gas as bridge fuel some years ago. Globally, methane emissions levels are increasing, and scientists have estimated that 40 per cent of the increase in the U.S. is due to the growth of the oil and gas sector.[4] The EPA’s ‘inventoried’ methane emissions levels are based on companies reporting their own methane leakage rates. However, the actual atmospheric concentrations have been found to be much higher. This gap suggests that gas companies have underreported the levels of methane being vented or leaking from drill sites, and have funded ‘studies’ that have been used to provide ‘scientific’ data suggesting the levels of methane being released are far lower than they actually are.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the significance of this issue. Even a modest level of methane leakage from drilling sites – between 1.5 to 3 per cent – would erase all of the climate-related benefits of burning gas instead of coal.[5] Statistically, CO2 emissions from fossil fuel have fallen in the U.S. since 2007 due to the recession and switching to natural gas from coal to generate electricity. Leading climate scientist Robert Howarth told the White House recently:

“Total greenhouse gas emissions – after dipping slightly in 2007 – have been rising since at their most rapid rate ever, due to shale gas development and large methane emissions… Reliable data from satellite and airplane surveys show much higher emissions and indicate that global increases in methane in the atmosphere over the last decade may well be the result of increased emissions from the United States.”[6]

According to Howarth, “If the U.S. wants to meet the COP21 target – to which we have agreed – we need to recognize that natural gas – and shale gas, in particular – is not a bridge fuel.”

That LiUNA might be unaware of the data on methane is, frankly, inconceivable. Overall, Clean Power Progress looks like union greenwashing of the most irresponsible kind, a poor attempt to sanitize an industry that resists even the weakest of regulations and refuses to allow independent verification in the chemicals it uses during the fracturing process.

Progressive Labour’s Construction Project

The unions that opposed Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline, along with those who have opposed fracking and coal and gas export terminals, are becoming ‘energy unions’ because energy fights will largely dictate what type of future we can look forward to. For NABTU, having unions in health care, public transport, and public services, etc. invade and trample on the sacred territory they call home – energy and infrastructure development – is beyond infuriating.

Progressive labour must, however, develop its own vision of an energy future, one grounded in fully-unionized public renewable power systems, scaled up low-carbon mass transit, and radical energy conservation in the country’s housing stock and commercial buildings. This is a political ‘construction’ project that, if implemented, could create millions of ‘climate jobs.’ But this will require consistent engagement. Many in the Trades can and will support such a progressive approach to climate and energy policy.

For now, having waged a successful putsch, NABTU is the voice of the AFL-CIO regarding a big chunk of labour’s energy policy. The Federation’s reputation is now so low that it seems to be no longer concerned about ‘reputational damage.’ By linking arms with Standing Rock Sioux, progressive labour is keeping alive the best traditions of labour environmentalism pioneered by Tony Mazzocchi and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers in the 1970s.

If it is constructed, the DAPL will require union labour digging a ditch, and the only difference between a ditch and a grave is that one is normally a little deeper than the other. •

This article first appeared on Trade Unions for Energy Democracy.


Sean McGarvey NABTU, letter to Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO, Sept 15, 2016

Environmental Defense Fund, “List of Supporters of the Clean Power Plan in Court.”

LiUNA and Operating Engineers, Letter to the Honorable John Boehner, Speaker and The Honorable Nancy Pelosi, Minority Leader, Sept 9, 2015. See also: “Oil export ban support pits Obama against allies in Congress, labor,”; Leadership Chairman: Sean McGarvey, President, Building-Construction Trades Department, AFL-CIO; Secretary/Treasurer Jack Gerard, President and CEO, American Petroleum Institute.

Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT). “Oil and natural gas boom causes methane emissions to increase: Study reveals relationship between oil and natural gas production in the USA and increase in atmospheric methane.” ScienceDaily, 15 March 2016.

Alvarez, Ramon A., Stephen W. Pacala, James J. Winebrake, and William L. Chameides. “Greater focus needed on methane leakage from natural gas infrastructure,” Proceedings of the National Academy of the United States of America. 109.17 (2012): 6435-6440. Web. 13 Dec. 2013. Howarth, Robert, et al. Climatic Change, Volume 106, Issue 4, pp 679-690. 6/11. “Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations;” Lovett, Richard A. Scientific American. 2013. “Study Revises Estimate of Methane Leaks from U.S. Fracking Fields Leaks are minimal during removal of fracking fluids but increase once gas is flowing.” Retrieved 1/15/14 from:; Howarth, Robert W., Renee Santoro, and Anthony Ingraffea. Climatic Change. 1/10/12. “Venting and leaking of methane from shale gas development: response to Cathles et al.” Retrieved 1/15/14.

Howarth Alerts White House of the Growing Methane Danger. See also: Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT). “Oil and natural gas boom causes methane emissions to increase,” Science Daily. Science Daily, 15 March 2016.

Sean Sweeney is Director of the Murphy Institute's International Program on Labor, Climate, and the Environment at the School of Labor and Urban Studies, City University of New York. And he writes for New Labor Forum and Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED).