The Obama Administration’s decision to forego the Keystone pipeline has forced the country’s labor groups into a bitter civil war. At issue is the central purpose of the labor movement: those who feel it should represent workers in the workplace generally oppose the administration’s decision; those who see unions as primarily political organizations have generally supported it.
Unions that had a stake in the Keystone decision were livid that the administration abandoned it, and equally angry at their fellow union members who had supported that decision, according to a Friday report from Politico Pro ($):
“People are p****d,” said one U.S. labor official who supports the proposed TransCanada pipeline. “The emotions are really, really raw right now. This is a big deal.”
“It’s repulsive, it’s disgusting and we’re not going to stand idly by,” Laborers’ International Union of North America General President Terry O’Sullivan told POLITICO. “The rules have changed. So we’ll react accordingly.”…
“Unions and environmental groups that have no equity in the work have kicked our members in the teeth,” O’Sullivan said. “And anger is an understatement as to how we feel about it. We’re not sitting at the same table as people that destroy our members’ lives.”
But other top figures in the labor movement defended the decision. Their argument: re-electing President Obama is a higher priority than preserving union jobs, and to that end, unions had to prevent Republicans from gaining the upper hand on the top political issue of the day.
But the unions who signed the joint statement said it was the right thing to do and was necessary to help Obama fend off Republican attacks over his jobs record.
“We’ve worked with Sierra [Club] and the others for a long time and we raised the issues about the hypocrisy of the Republicans in our statement,” Communications Workers of America spokeswoman Candice Johnson said. “That’s what we believe and … we thought it was very important to lay out exactly what was happening.”
“It was kind of not explicitly about the president’s decision [on the pipeline] but the main issue was to rally around the president when the issue of jobs was being taken over by the GOP,” said Sean Sweeney, director of the Global Labor Institute at Cornell University, who helped the effort.
“The president’s re-election is at stake here,” he said. “There’s bigger fish to fry. There’s more at stake here than just a pipeline.” [emphasis added]
So while the decision to not move forward with Keystone XL may “destroy our members’ lives,” as Sullivan put it, political issues, per the Johnson and Sweeney camp, must override concerns about the actual jobs of current union members.
Rank-and-file union members are often subjected to the political whims of union leaders who have their own interests – not their members’ – at heart. The fact also underscores the importance of right-to-work laws, which at least allow workers to decide whether their paychecks will be docked for these esoteric political activities.