Taking Sides at Standing Rock

sept-2016-dakota-fistsBy BILL ONASCH

Socialist Action’s vice-presidential candidate Karen Schraufnagel has filed extensive reports to this paper about the confrontations last month in remote Standing Rock, North Dakota. Efforts aiming to halt construction of a pipeline from the Bakken fracking fields to refineries in Illinois drew world attention to several important issues concerning Indigenous People’s rights, environmental and climate justice, and peaceful protests under violent attack.

Less publicized has been an escalating division among the top officials in the union movement. The AFL-CIO issued a statement endorsing the pipeline and chastising its opponents—nothing surprising in that.

But major AFL-CIO affiliates—Amalgamated Transit Union, American Postal Workers Union, Communications Workers of America, and National Nurses United—took strong principled stands in support of the protesters. So did some non-AFL unions such as the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers and the Service Employees International Union. The Pride at Work constituency group and the Labor Network for Sustainability also weighed in on the side of the demonstrators.

This solidarity infuriated the Building Trades bureaucrats, who were eager to go forward on temporary jobs for their dues-payers—including desecration of tribal burial lands. They called them out through a confidential internal letter to the heads of all AFL unions from Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, representing 14 crafts. The letter also slandered the protesters as threatening violence against union workers. The only violence exhibited at Standing Rock was by the company’s hired “security” thugs. It was no coincidence that the AFL’s official statement soon followed this scurrilous letter.

To the chagrin of the not easily embarrassed pro-pipeline bureaucrats, brother McGarvey’s missive was leaked to Jon Queally, a conscientious journalist at the Common Dreams website. He verified its authenticity before posting a PDF copy online and collected a lot of “no comments.” One of the few to speak on record was the never bashful Rose Ann DeMoro of the NNU, “What we’re seeing here is the pipeline company—and this is nothing new—pitting workers against workers.”

Queally also quoted labor historian and co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability Jeremy Brecher: “The core of the problem is that the AFL-CIO has consistently opposed significant cuts to climate-destroying projects, like Dakota Access, while failing to adequately advocate for policies that would actually address climate change in a worker-friendly way.”

Finally getting these divisions at the top out in the open is progress. The next indicated step is involving the union ranks—and unorganized workers and students—who have a stake in the debates around class and climate justice.