Labor Leaders Debate Keystone Pipeline at AFL-CIO Meeting

United Labor Front on Pipeline Sought as AFL-CIO Meets
United Steelworkers, the United Auto Workers and the Service Employees International Union joined with environmental advocates in opposing the TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline. Photo: Jeff Kowalsky/Bloomberg

March 13 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. labor leaders, meeting this week to craft an election-year strategy, are seeking agreement on a campaign issue that has so far eluded them: the Keystone XL pipeline.

Neither the AFL-CIO nor its president, Richard Trumka, has taken a position on President Barack Obama’s decision to reject a permit for TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Canada-to-Gulf of Mexico oil pipeline.

“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.

The topic will be discussed as the AFL-CIO’s executive council meets this week in Orlando, Florida. The organization is expected to endorse Obama’s re-election today and hammer out strategies for congressional elections, according to a labor source who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The umbrella group, which represents 12 million workers through 57 unions, endorsed Obama in 2008.

The Keystone issue pits some unions against environmentalists, two groups Democrats rely on for campaign cash and volunteers. Labor groups spent about $450 million helping to elect Democrats in 2008.

United Steelworkers, the United Auto Workers and the Service Employees International Union, representing almost 4 million active and retired members between them, joined with environmental advocates in opposing the pipeline. Those that favor it, such as the Laborers’ International Union, point to the potential to create thousands of jobs for union members.

‘Dug In’

Both sides are dug in with their positions and probably won’t change, said Tom Owens, communications director for America’s Building Trades Union, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO and supports the pipeline.

The meetings should “clear the air,” Owens said. He said he worries environmental groups like the Sierra Club have taken focus away from the priority of finding new jobs.

“How do we keep this from happening?” Owens asked. “How do we not allow outside organizations to split and divide the labor movement?”

Obama on Jan. 18 denied a U.S. State Department permit for the pipeline, saying there wasn’t enough time in a Republican-imposed deadline to conduct the proper environmental reviews. Obama invited the company to apply again with another route around environmentally sensitive areas of Nebraska.

Senate Action

The U.S. Senate last week rejected by four votes an amendment to a transportation funding bill that would have approved the project over Obama’s objection. Another amendment is on the Senate agenda today.

“This is a huge issue, not just for them but for the whole country,” Charles Craver, a labor law professor at George Washington University in Washington. “They should try desperately to come up with a plan that would allow the pipeline and would address environmental concerns.”

The Amalgamated Transit Union, Transport Workers Union, United Steelworkers, issued a joint statement in January with the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council 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,” the unions said in the statement. The three have a combined membership of 1.24 million, or about 10 percent of the AFL-CIO’s total.

GOP Candidates

Republicans, including presidential contenders Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, said Obama’s denial of Keystone would cost U.S. construction jobs and lead to higher energy prices. They criticized the permit denial as a sacrifice of jobs and energy supplies to please the president’s political allies.

The Laborers’ International Union of North America, with 500,000 members in the U.S. and Canada, said the review process has gone on long enough and the pipeline can be built safely. TransCanada applied for a permit for the project in 2008.

“Most of the unions on the building and construction trades are aligned on this,” said Jaclyn Houser, a spokeswoman for the union. “We’re totally in agreement that we want to build this pipeline and do it safely.”

TransCanada, based in Calgary, said the project would employ 20,000 workers to build a line to carry 700,000 barrels of crude a day from Alberta’s oil sands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf coast, crossing six U.S. states.

Seeking Consensus

With union workers needing the jobs and also suffering from high gasoline prices that may eventually be alleviated from the pipeline, union management is in a tight spot if it doesn’t support the pipeline, Craver said.

“A lot of people in the unemployment line who would get jobs from it would benefit from more oil in this country too and would be upset if they don’t allow it,” Craver said.

Larry Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents more than 190,000 workers, said the short-term gain in jobs isn’t worth the environmental risk.

“It will produce very little, with no long-term benefit,” Hanley said in an interview. “It’s not a jobs program, it’s an oil-industry enrichment program.”

Craver said Trumka is probably working behind the scenes to find some consensus that can be announced at the end of the meetings.

Trumka appeared to be seeking middle ground in his January speech.

“We cannot have a trust-building conversation about it unless opponents of the pipeline recognize that construction jobs are real jobs, good jobs, and supporters of the pipeline recognize that tar sands raises real issues in terms of climate change,” Trumka said in January.

Josh Goldstein, a spokesman for the union, declined to comment beyond Trumka’s remarks.

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