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Membership in Unions Supporting Obama on Keystone Rejection Outnumbers Those Against

Unions with a substantially larger membership base are supporting the president's environmental caution, despite partisan outcry.

Feb 7, 2012
(Page 2 of 3 )
Construction of a new pipeline

Congressional Republicans tried to ensnare the president in that divide-and-conquer lair in late December by launching legislation that forced Obama to decide the fate of Keystone XL within a 60-day window. They also inflated the number of pipeline-affiliated jobs.

The Keystone XL would require a construction workforce of between 5,000 and 6,000, according to documents filed with the State Department. But recent full-page newspaper ads placed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce put the jobs number at 20,000. Others, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), have claimed the count is 100,000 or more.

Almost 1.5 million construction workers were unemployed in January, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

After Obama said "no" to the pipeline, Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, tipped his hardhat to the president for refusing to bow to Republican pressure.

"The White House is facing forces in Congress that have decided to use this project as a litmus test for their commitment to jobs," Gerard said in a news release. "But the fact is, more time is needed to ensure that this project will have the economic and environmental benefits claimed by the developer."

Gerard and the other signers of the joint statement asked why Republicans have tried to turn the Keystone XL into a poster child for jobs when the GOP has stymied a string of other legislative attempts to expand employment. The joint statement mentioned several examples, including the Restore the American Dream Act, which one analysis shows could create and save 2.3 million jobs this year and 3.1 million jobs in 2013.

Building Trades Irate

The five unions with the strongest allegiance to the pipeline project would benefit directly from any jobs it creates. In addition to the 500,000-member strong Laborers' International Union of North America, those unions include the Teamsters, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the International Union of Operating Engineers, and the United Association, the union for plumbers, pipefitters and welders.

In 2010, they all signed a project labor agreement with TransCanada, the Calgary, Alberta-based pipeline builder. Basically, such a pact defines specific work duties for unions.

Laborers' International was so adamant about the pipeline proceeding that its leaders refused to listen to a Canadian labor union that wanted to discuss their concerns about the project. Late last year, members of Canada's Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union wanted to set up a meeting to discuss issues such as how they feared losing their jobs at oil refineries in Alberta to workers on the U.S. Gulf Coast. But that meeting was canceled after Laborers’ International threatened to picket the Canadian union's U.S. counterparts.

The unions that signed the pact with TransCanada assumed that, following tradition, it would give them the muscle to call all the union shots pertaining to Keystone XL's future. That's why they felt jilted when unions they perceived as not having a dog in the fight publicly defended Obama's Keystone XL veto.

They were especially incensed that the Jan. 18 statement their brethren endorsed was also signed by the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Both nonprofits have spent years trying to halt the pipeline.

Two days after Obama stopped the pipeline, Laborers' International acted on its disgust with environmentalists and its union colleagues by withdrawing from the BlueGreen Alliance. The Sierra Club and the United Steelworkers launched the alliance in 2006 so conservation organizations and labor unions could work together to support the emerging  green economy. The alliance has remained neutral on Keystone XL.

A Laborers' International spokeswoman said the union preferred not to comment for this article. But in a Jan. 18 news release, general president Terry O’Sullivan called the president's ruling "politics at its worst."

"Once again the president has sided with environmentalists instead of blue-collar construction workers, even though environmental concerns were more than adequately addressed," O'Sullivan said. "Blue-collar construction workers across the United States will not forget this."

Mark Ayers, president of the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department, issued an equally withering statement.

With a high unemployment rate in construction, Ayers said, "environmental activists who are not saddled with the economic and psychological scars that accompany long-term unemployment will applaud the fact that they successfully induced the White House to block this project. Meanwhile, thousands of proud Americans throughout the heartland will once again be faced with the terrifying prospect of losing their homes and their livelihoods as they struggle to find work."

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