The executive committee of the nation’s largest federation of unions issued a statement on Tuesday saying that “the AFL-CIO supports the expansion of our pipeline infrastructure… The AFL-CIO supports measures that ensure pipeline and other energy infrastructure development creates good jobs and builds America’s industrial base.” Now, you won’t find the words “Keystone pipeline” in this statement as the AFL-CIO apparently prefers to stay officially ambiguous about it, but this ambiguity quickly disappears when you listen to Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO’s president.
The New York Times wrote that Trumka acknowledged that the federation statement “can be interpreted in different ways.” Yet, the Times added “he voiced support for building the Keystone pipeline, saying that “there’s nothing environmentally unsound about the pipeline” and that what environmentalists opposed was opening up Canada’s tar sands.”
This support actually shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who followed the discussions the AFL-CIO had a year ago on the Keystone pipeline. Back then Bloomberg Businessweek reported that neither the AFL-CIO nor Trumka has taken a position on the issue. “Unions don’t agree among ourselves,” Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said in a Jan. 12 speech before a summit on climate risk held at the United Nations in New York.
Now these disagreements seem to almost entirely disappear. Take, for example, the United Steelworkers Union. Back in January 2012, it signed, together with other unions and environmental organizations, a statement opposing the pipeline. “Addressing global climate change, establishing sustainable and secure energy sources, and creating and retaining safe and family-supportive jobs are keys to a positive future for our children and grandchildren,” the statement said.
Now, the Times reports that Leo W. Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, said he would back the pipeline as long as the steel used to make the pipes was produced domestically. How did that shift happen and how did the Keystone pipeline become part of a positive future? It’s hard to tell, but the bottom line is that right now almost all the 57 unions in the AFL–CIO support the pipeline – only the nurses union still opposes it.
The shift from sitting on the sidelines to supporting the Keystone pipeline seems also to reflect a shift that the AFL–CIO’s president has gone through. Only a year ago, Trumka said at Ceres’ Investor Summit on Climate Risk and Energy Solutions (it starts after 3:39 minutes on this video clip): “One, that the time for action or inaction is over. So we do really have to act. And two, there’s a way that we can act and create a win-win situation, where we create jobs, get a good return for investors, and clear up a problem that really threatens the future of mankind.” While it’s clear that the Keystone pipeline can meet the first two criteria, I would doubt if Trumka honestly believe that it also meets the third one.
It is quite troubling however to see Trumka, who really has nothing in common with all the other supporters of the pipeline when it comes to views on climate change, say that “there’s nothing environmentally unsound about the pipeline.” His argument, as presented in the Times, is that “what environmentalists opposed was opening up Canada’s tar sands…if the pipeline were not built, Canada would probably ship crude oil from the tar sands overseas by tanker, a more carbon-intensive means of distributing oil than pipelines.”
Trumka’s argument is basically that the tar sands oil is already there so it’s better that we get it because someone will buy it eventually (and then it will have even worse impacts) seems to be both morally and rationally flawed as he prefers to be part of the problem rather than the solution in the name of job making. If Trumka was an Argo fan, he could easily quote Ben Affleck explaining that “there are only bad options. It’s about finding the best one.” Well, maybe it’s good that he didn’t use this quote because we certainly have, by far, better bad ideas than the Keystone pipeline. This one is maybe the worst bad idea we have.
Still the most troubling thing here is not why Trumka or the unions support the Keystone pipeline, but the fact that it might indicate what President Obama is about to decide. In other words, I might be wrong, but my feeling is that Trumka wouldn’t take this position if it was contrary to the President’s position. If this is true, forget about Trumka’s and the AFL–CIO’s support. We have a bigger problem here.
Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.