WASHINGTON—A barrage of industry-led advertising and lobbying urging President Obama to "put jobs ahead of politics" has fueled the impression that labor unions universally champion the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
But that myth was blown apart just minutes after the president rejected the $7 billion project on Jan. 18.
That's when five labor unions that had kept low profiles on the pipeline—including the 2 million-member strong Service Employees International Union—issued a joint statement backing Obama's decision. Not only did they laud him for acting "wisely," but they also emphasized the need to address climate change and find sustainable and secure energy sources.
Since then, a more nuanced snapshot has emerged of where labor unions stand on Keystone XL. That newer picture weakens industry's argument that the pipeline has broad union support. The handful of unions that praised the president and questioned the project’s merits represent close to 5 million members. Membership in the five unions publicly promoting the project is near 3.3 million. (See chart.)
Labor Unions Supporting Keystone XL
|Labor Unions Backing Obama's Rejection of Keystone XL|
|* Teamsters: 1.4 million||* Service Employees International: 2 million|
|* Electrical Workers: 675,000||* United Auto Workers: 1 million|
|* Laborers' International: 500,000||* United Steelworkers: 850,000|
|* Operating Engineers: 400,000||* Communications Workers: 700,000|
|* United Association (Plumbers, Pipefitters and Welders): 340,000||* Transport Workers/Amalgamated Transit: 390,000|
TOTAL: 3.3 million members
TOTAL: 4.9 million members
Source: Union websites and news releases. Totals include active and retired members in the United States and Canada.
Unions rarely march in lockstep on every national issue. But the labor movement has a long tradition of allowing unions with the most at stake on a particular project—in the case of Keystone XL, the building and construction trades—to take the lead.
Keystone XL has disrupted this familiar pattern, in part because unions have growing concerns about global warming. The 1,702-mile pipeline would carry a particularly dirty type of heavy crude oil from Canada's tar sands mines to refineries along the U.S. Gulf Coast. Scientists agree that harvesting and refining this oil is speeding the warming of the planet.
"Climate change demands that we rethink everything," said Joe Uehlein, a former union construction worker and AFLA-CIO officer. He's the founder and executive director of the Labor Network for Sustainability, a nonprofit that educates trade unions about environmental issues.
It's wrong to present Keystone as a choice between jobs and the environment, Uehlein told InsideClimate News.
"This notion that we've never met a job we didn't like has to change," he said. "We need to be looking at jobs through a carbon lens. From carbon emissions alone, all unions have a stake in high-intensity projects such as [Keystone XL]. We can fix the economy and climate change ... but not by supporting 20th century energy projects."
One of the labor unions that signed the Jan. 18 joint statement—the Transport Workers Union—was among the first to speak out against the pipeline.
In August, the Transport Workers' president, James Little, and the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Larry Hanley, issued a statement saying that approving Keystone XL's six-state route would be a mistake. Their concerns included the destruction of Canada’s boreal forest, groundwater pollution, carbon intensity and refinery emissions.
Their announcement didn't garner much attention, perhaps because their relatively puny combined membership of 390,000 doesn't carry much clout.
"We need jobs, but not ones based on increasing our reliance on tar sands oil," Little and Hanley said in a press release. "We therefore call for major New Deal-type public investments in infrastructure modernization and repair, energy conservation and climate protection."
Divide and Conquer
Environmental risks weren't all that prompted the Transport Workers to sign the Jan. 18 statement with the Service Employees International, the United Steelworkers, the United Auto Workers and the Communications Workers. They were aware that the GOP and other pipeline proponents were intent on cleaving the president's base by pitting labor unions against environmentalists.