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Dear Labor, WTF?

by Miriam Axel-Lute on February 28, 2013


To “Big Labor,” especially the AFL-CIO, from the diverse and rapidly growing climate change movement:

So the past few years have been going pretty well for you and us, we thought. We got your back in Wisconsin in a big way; did our best in New York. We teamed up on some economic justice fights, minimum wage, reelecting the president. We stood out in solidarity with Wal-Mart workers, and cheered on the fast food workers organizing in NYC. We talked about the connections between our various movements and how we are stronger together.

We probably had some ways to go yet, it’s true.

But it’s a little hard to swallow the idea that you’ve teamed up with Big Oil against us, against the planet, and, incidentally, against the long term best interests and job prospects of your members.

You didn’t talk to us about this, but there’s still enough of a news media out there to keep it from being a secret either. Many of us were scratching our heads about how President Obama could make such a strong stand against climate change in his state of the union address and remain silent on the Keystone XL pipeline—a disaster in the making.

Our opposition to this pipeline is based on science, not bleeding hearts. We can’t lower carbon emissions fast enough to prevent catastrophe if the tar sands are opened to exploitation. Period. And if finished, that pipeline—in all of its dangerous, leaky, stealing-Americans’-land-for-the-benefit-of-a-foriegn-company’s-profit glory—will make it nearly impossible to keep the dirty tar sands fuel under the ground where it belongs.

But Obama is trapped between what he clearly knows he should do, backed up by the pressure of many of his supporters (50,000 of them in the freezing cold February rain the day before president’s day; the Sierra Club lifting its 120-year-old ban on executives committing civil disobedience; colleges divesting from fossil fuels left and right), and his other friends. That would be you (and Canada).

We’ll keep the pressure on the president, but it seems like in the meantime perhaps we should be talking to you.

We get it about the jobs. Jobs need to be a priority. Everyone except the top fraction of a percent is hurting in this recession. But let’s be clear: it’s your new friends Big Oil and their right-wing cronies are the ones blocking jobs bills and public investment that would create jobs left and right just to make the president look bad.

And even more to the point: clean energy creates twice as many jobs per dollar invested than fossil fuel. Twice as many. It’s more labor intensive. That means more of the money goes to workers.

And that’s not even counting the part where it doesn’t destroy jobs and livelihoods by poisoning waterways, wells, fisheries, farmland, and tourist areas like pipelines and fracking do, or destroying entire communities and economies, like climate change is already starting to do.

Supporting Keystone XL is a short-sighted move. We understand that you’re under tremendous pressure to help your members, and that some of them would get well-paying, if temporary, jobs out of this. We understand that that’s hard to resist. We get that it will take new strategies to unionize and fight for the rights of workers in a more decentralized energy production system.

But it can, and must be done. (See the example of the steelworkers working with the Mondragon Coops to develop “union cooperatives.”)

This is a time for courage and vision. This is a time for thinking of your legacy. This is a matter, no exaggeration, of not only your members’ livelihood, but their lives.

Call on us. Call on us to step up more than we have to fight for good jobs, to support unions as an essential bulwark against corporate power, to give to your strike funds. We probably need to be kicked in the behind a little bit more. We probably still forget sometimes how the only balance to organized money is organized people—and that means in the workplace, not just in the streets.

But while we may be a little thick sometimes, those other guys—they don’t care about you at all. They have fought and will fight tooth and nail against all worker protections, wage standards, and the right to unionize. If there’s a choice between profits and jobs, they’ll choose profits, even when their profits are already obscene. They don’t even compete; they just suck on subsidies and gouge customers and screw workers.

You know this. In your heart of hearts, you must know you’re making a deal with the devil, and just hoping it won’t come back to haunt you too quickly.

Please choose otherwise. For everyone’s sake. It’s not too late.