A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Labor coping with short-term vs. long-term gains

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., June 27, 28 or 29

Organized labor has had schisms before, from the upstart CIO competing with the established AFL and the Mine Workers’ 1947 disaffiliation, to the 2013 departure of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Change to Win coalition (now the Teamsters, Service Employees, and Farm Workers after four other unions left).

So it’s nothing new, but when Building Trades unions last month denounced the AFL-CIO’s ties to environmentalist Tom Steyer and a new Super PAC, “For Our Future,” it brought up an inherent problem unions face: short-term vs. long-term gains. Further, even manageable disagreements during an election year sow division that could hurt working people and threaten the years ahead.

The latest dispute revolves around the partnership between Steyer – a wealthy progressive who’s worked against the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline – and the labor federation and major public-sector unions. But it shows the tension between corporations’ promise of construction jobs for a while on the one hand, and the risks of environmental damage from leaks and the increasing reliance on fossil fuels on the other.

That choice has always been difficult.

A long-time director of a downstate Illinois building-trades union group was once asked if construction unions are so focused on immediate employment that they’d support building stockades for union organizers. With a twinkle in his eye, he leaned forward, smiled and asked, “How many jobs?”

But it’s a serious debate, as shown in a May letter sent to AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka.

“A growing trend within the federation seems to consistently minimize the importance of building trades jobs and our members’ livelihoods in the pursuit of a coalition strategy with outside organizations that has produced mixed results at best and disastrous results at worst for our members,” said the letter signed by leaders of the Laborers, Operating Engineers, Plumbers, Plasterers, Roofers and others.

They said they won’t contribute to “For Our Future” and asked the AFL-CIO to reconsider its involvement.

“The AFL-CIO has now officially become infiltrated by financial and political interests that work in direct conflict to many of our members’ lives,” the letter said. “This is a disturbing development.”

The argument grew out of a long-simmering quarrel with Steyer, a former hedge-fund manager who’s said he’d support politicians who opposed the Keystone pipeline, the controversial project to transport dirty tar-sands oil from Canada to Gulf Coast refineries for export. Opponents such as the National Nurses United union said claims of new jobs were exaggerated and the pipeline would dramatically add to global warming. But Building Trades unions had signed a Project Labor Agreement with pipeline developer TransCanada. Nevertheless, President Obama last year vetoed the bill funding it.

Announced last month as a collaboration between Steyer and the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, the American Federation of Teachers and the unaffiliated National Education Association, “For Our Future” wants to raise $50 million to work to elect progressive Democrats to the White House and Congress. Steyer pledged to match donations that unions contribute.

Its potential to add to labor’s resources doesn’t seem a comfortable fit to Laborers president Terry O’Sullivan, who penned a second letter that was harsher than the group’s note.

Accusing the AFL-CIO of selling out to “a job-killing hedge fund manager with a bag of cash,” O’Sullivan added, “this Super PAC creates a significant conflict between the interests of hard-working union members and the interests of those running the Super PAC.

“This scheme is the logical outcome of an obsession with, and a desire to throw open the doors of labor to, outside organizations that are completely out of touch with the needs and concerns of ordinary, blue-collar working Americans,” O’Sullivan said.

One can’t help but wonder whether this will provoke miners (Trumka formerly led the United Mine Workers) to distance themselves from unions such as the Steelworkers that take part in the labor/environmental BlueGreen Alliance because of worries about clean-energy initiatives resulting in fewer coal-mining jobs. And it revives thoughts of the historical disruptions to crafts such as projectionists and pin-setters, coopers and telegraphers, and many others.

The anxiety about climate change is certainly as legitimate as the anger about decent jobs, and if the planet’s climate continues to deteriorate, that will kill a lot more jobs – and people.

This schism needs healing patience, but that’s easier said than done.

As Bohemian novelist Franz Kafka in 1917 said, “Perhaps there is only one major human sin: impatience. Because of impatience they were expelled from Paradise, because of impatience they do not return.”

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