Unions still disagree on Dakota Access pipeline
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In what looks like a rerun of the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline, a group of building trades unions are squaring off against other unions over yet another oil pipeline project: The $3.8 billion Dakota Access line from the Dakotas to Illinois.

At issue: Whether construction should continue on the project, which the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux native American tribes say infringes on sacred lands and imperils Missouri River drinking water.

Construction is supposedly temporarily delayed while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ponders whether to yank the construction permit it had awarded to the pipeline’s sponsors.

The building trades unions, with Laborers President Terry O’Sullivan speaking out most recently and strongly, argue the pipeline has acquired all its required permits and that it should be built, using union labor.

Dakota Access would create 4,500 construction jobs while it is being built, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said last month. The building trades unions wrote to President Barack Obama (D), strongly supporting Dakota Access.

The opposing unions, led by National Nurses United but also including the Postal Workers, the Communications Workers and the Service Employees, call Dakota Access an environmental threat and an insult to Native Americans, too.

Unlike the Keystone case, President Obama has no direct say in the Dakota Access pipeline’s fate. But several Obama administration agencies, including the Corps of Engineers, do. Like Keystone, the Dakota Access project is partially built, though the Standing Rock Sioux contend some of the current construction violates the Corps permit.

But like Keystone, the union positions are starkly different, with the AFL-CIO siding with the building trades unions, as it eventually did in Keystone – with the qualification that pipeline must meet environmental standards. Obama vetoed Keystone’s northern leg.

There is one other difference from Keystone, too: Confrontations between company-hired security guards and Native Americans and their allies, including NNU members, at an anti-pipeline encampment. Positions are stark in the two sides’ statements. Some samples:

  • TRUMKA, FOR: “Pipelines are less costly, more reliable and less energy intensive than other forms of transporting fuels, and pipeline construction and maintenance provides quality jobs to tens of thousands of skilled workers. We believe community involvement in decisions about constructing and locating pipelines is important and necessary, particularly in sensitive situations like those involving places of significance to Native Americans.

“However, once these processes have been completed, it is fundamentally unfair to hold union members’ livelihoods and their families’ financial security hostage to endless delay. The Dakota Access Pipeline is providing over 4,500 high-quality, family supporting jobs. Furthermore, trying to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects is neither effective nor fair to the workers involved.”

  • O’SULLIVAN, FOR: The Laborers leader was the latest, in early November, to speak out for the pipeline. And he called opposing unions “bottom-feeding organizations.”

“Some of our so-called brothers and sisters in the trade union movement have abandoned solidarity with the working class and are instead throwing in with environmentalists who have co-opted the tribes in their effort to fight pipelines,” O’Sullivan wrote to his own members. The Laborers “will not forget the reprehensible actions.”

  • NATIONAL NURSES UNITED, AGAINST: “This has become a seminal battle over the 1st Amendment protection of public protest. It is also a challenge for everyone who is concerned about the rights of First Nation people and their sacred sites and water sources, as well as the threat the pipeline poses to environmental degradation, public health, and to accelerating the climate crisis,” co-President Jean Ross said in a statement.
  • THE SERVICE EMPLOYEES, AGAINST: SEIU stands “beside the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in their fight to protect their sacred lands and burial grounds from being dug up if the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline is allowed to continue as planned…As the largest healthcare union, we stand with the growing movement of environmental organizations, businesses, students, parents and others demanding cleaner air and water and to address the growing threat of climate change for the health and safety of our families and communities.”
  • NORTH AMERICA’S BUILDING TRADES, FOR: “It is highly troubling the skilled craft professionals… who are constructing this pipeline and possess and deploy the most advanced training, safety redundancies, and other operational excellence protocols to prevent negative impacts to the property, the environment and local community, are subjected to intimidation and vandalism as they simply try to do their jobs.”
  • THE TEAMSTERS, LABORERS, OPERATING ENGINEERS, PLUMBERS AND ELECTRICAL WORKERS, FOR: “Intervention by the Departments of Justice, Interior, and the U.S. Army to indefinitely halt a project that is more than halfway constructed and has received state and federal approval raises serious concerns about the future of infrastructure development, and the livelihoods of our members,” they wrote in a letter to Obama. “We urge you to adhere to the well-established regulatory process for permitting private infrastructure projects and approve the easement for the remaining section of the Dakota Access project without delay.”
  • THE POSTAL WORKERS, AGAINST: “What Dakota Access doesn’t say is the jobs the project creates will likely evaporate once the project is complete. Energy Transfer also reports its ‘Dakota Access Team has worked with engineers, agriculture experts and farmers to mitigate risks and accommodate the needs and concerns of the land owners along the proposed route.’ “But the Sioux tribe isn’t buying the sales pitch, and rightfully so. Neither are hundreds of other U.S. and Canadian tribes. The pipeline travels through the Sioux’s ancestral lands and passes within half a mile of its reservation – just upstream from its drinking supply.”
  • THE COMMUNICATIONS WORKERS, AGAINST: “The Standing Rock Sioux and potentially 17 million others are threatened by the Dakota Access Pipeline route…In addition, the pipeline could possibly desecrate the ancestral burial grounds of the Standing Rock Sioux; this utter disrespect and violation cannot be allowed…CWA, through our Committee on Human Rights, stands with working people and against corporate greed, whether we’re fighting for clean water in Flint, Mich., against bad trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership that would hurt U.S. jobs and communities, or the rights of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to safeguard their community.”

Ed. note: For Teresa Albano’s interview on the perils and divisiveness of the Dakota Access Pipeline with Kevin Cummings of the pro-union Native American labor group Council FIRE, see this story.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.