Trades versus ‘bottom feeders’

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Along with multiple other crucial issues at stake in the struggle at Standing Rock Reservation is a growing polarization over climate and environmental issues in organized labor. Some important national unions have condemned the brutality against peaceful protesters and also oppose the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

These include the Amalgamated Transit Union; American Postal Workers; Communications Workers; National Nurses United; National Writers Union division of the UAW; Service Employees International Union; and the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers (UE). So have “constituency groups” like the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists; Coalition of Labor Union Women; and Pride at Work, representing interests of LGBT workers.

The NNU sent volunteer RNs from their Emergency Response Network to treat injured protesters at Standing Rock. Most of these groups are part of the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) and/or Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED).

But literally on the other side of the line drawn at Standing Rock, cheering on the rag-tag company rent-a-cops, police and National Guard units from five states violently attacking and arresting peaceful demonstrators and journalists, is the AFL-CIO—the dominant union federation in the USA.

This reflects the clout of the recently formed North American Building Trades Union (NABTU). This body collaborates with the capitalist American Petroleum Institute, and they’ve never seen a pipeline they didn’t like. Four of their affiliates—Laborers International Union; Operating Engineers; Pipefitters; Teamsters—are especially grateful for the offer of some dues-paying temporary jobs building DAPL.

None of these union bureaucrats are more outspoken than Laborers head honcho Terry O’Sullivan. In a letter to all of his members sent after the riot of the forces of “law and order,” he said, “The facts are on our side, yet in the past month, we have witnessed vocal opposition from groups, including some self-righteous unions, who know little about the project and have no job equity in it. … These unions have sided with THUGS against trade unionists. They are a group of bottom-feeding organizations that are once again trying to destroy our members’ jobs.”

Since the topic was not aquariums, the bottom feeder reference was clearly a slur directed at low-wage workers. That wouldn’t apply to the NNU, whose members are all well-paid health-care professionals. It was probably aimed at SEIU, which is devoting major resources to organizing the working poor around 15 Dollars and a Union.

While none of the “self-righteous” unions have “job equity” in digging ditches and laying pipe, they know all about the disastrous effects of the DAPL project. That’s why they stand with the Native Americans he calls “THUGS.” They are motivated by principles and solidarity—attributes unfamiliar to brother O’Sullivan.

Neither the Native people nor their solidarity allies are indifferent to job losses in the construction trades. The LNS and TUED advocate programs based on the principle of Just Transition that would guarantee generations of work for the crafts during the necessary economic restructuring to replace climate-wrecking fossil fuels with clean, renewable energy such as solar and wind.

The struggles for class and climate justice have become inseparable. They received little attention during the recent election campaign. But they are beginning to be played out in the only class-based mass organizations of American workers—the trade unions.

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