Why Are Unions Joining Conservative Groups to Protect Pipelines?
What Illinois HB 1633 reveals about the split between labor and environmental groups—and how that might change.
In March, the Illinois AFL-CIO, the Illinois Manufacturer’s Association, and the energy company Enbridge shared a flyer with members of the Illinois State House asking them to support the “Critical Infrastructure Protection Bill,” which would enhance penalties for damaging, destroying, tampering with, or trespassing on pipelines, coal mines, and other energy infrastructure. The flyer shows an article from progressive outlet Common Dreams, featuring a photo of climate protesters clad in bright orange safety vests, shutting down two crude oil pipelines in Minnesota.
“This is not okay…” the flyer reads. “VOTE YES.”
The fight over Illinois HB 1633 offers a localized look at why creating alliances between green and labor groups continues to be challenging. The AFL-CIO and the bill’s other supporters said the law would protect “the health and safety of protestors, employees, and communities.” But the bill’s critics, including more than 50 environmental and civil rights groups, saw it as an attack on the right to protest—specifically, to stage the kind of high profile actions at pipelines that have taken place at Enbridge’s Line 3 and 4 in Minnesota and the Keystone XL pipeline in South Dakota.
After passing the Illinois House with bipartisan support, the bill was tabled on May 29th. According to Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council, its senate sponsor, Michael Hastings (D-19), plans to discuss elements of the bill with her organization, the AFL-CIO, and the IMA over the summer, suggesting it may be reintroduced the next legislative session in a revised form.
If it had become law this legislative session, the bill would have made trespassing on a critical infrastructure site a felony—it is now a misdemeanor—punishable by a fine of at least $1,000 and imprisonment. Its passage would mean that “if a protestor trespasses onto a facility just to put up a sign, or blockade a road, they would go from a night in jail to a one-to-three year jail sentence,” says Walling. Damaging or tampering with critical infrastructure equipment could have resulted in a felony charge, prison time, and fines up to $100,000.
Trespassing and destruction of property are already crimes, Sue Udry, executive director of civil rights group Defending Rights and Dissent, points out. “What these bills are trying to do is extract a much steeper price in the hopes that people won’t be willing to engage in civil disobedience because the fines are so heavy and the threat of prison time so dire,” she says.
Five states have already signed bills protecting pipelines into law. The first such one, passed in Oklahoma in response to mobilization at Standing Rock, became the model for critical infrastructure legislation promoted throughout the country by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, and the bipartisan Council of State Governments. The Illinois bill was one of at least seven critical infrastructure bills circulating in state legislatures. If the bill had passed the state senate, Illinois would have become the first blue state to enact such legislation.
“It would be a watershed for ALEC and for the proponents of this bill, ” says Udry.
According to experts, the bill’s initial success in a Democratic state was due in part to union support. Illinois has one of the highest union membership rates in the country, and nearly 184,000 Illinois residents were employed in the construction and extraction sectors last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Illinois bill largely mirrored the others—except that it safeguarded unions’ right to picket, organize, and recruit at the protected facilities. Without that provision, Greenpeace staff attorney Maggie Ellinger-Locke says, union activity at critical infrastructure sites could have been subject to the same penalties as environmental protest.
“The way that the bill is pitting labor groups against environmental groups,” Ellinger-Locke says, “is really dangerous for any kind of climate justice movement.”
Environmental groups and trade unions, like the AFL-CIO, have often struggled to find common ground on major climate issues.
AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka supported the Keystone XL pipeline and spoke out against the Standing Rock protests. “Trying to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects is neither effective nor fair to the workers involved,” he said in a 2016 press release.
Terry O’Sullivan, president of Laborers’ International Union of North America, whose Chicago council supported the Illinois bill, said that the rift between building trades unions and environmental groups over the Keystone XL pipeline was as “deep and wide as the Grand Canyon.” “We’re repulsed by some of our supposed brothers and sisters lining up with job killers like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council to destroy the lives of working men and women,” he added.
More recently, in March, the presidents of the United Mine Workers and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers wrote to Green New Deal sponsors Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) on behalf of the AFL-CIO Energy Committee. “We welcome the call for labor rights and dialogue with labor, but the Green New Deal resolution is far too short on specific solutions that speak to the jobs of our members and the critical sectors of our economy,” they wrote.
The AFL-CIO and other unions that backed HB 1633 did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Unions, of course, aren’t monolithic. In Wyoming and Iowa, state-level AFL-CIO chapters opposed critical infrastructure bills on the grounds that they would have a chilling effect on protest, especially environmental protest. Conservation-minded groups, like the International Woodworkers of America, and coalitions of labor and environmental groups, like the BlueGreen Alliance, have long promoted ecologically sustainable business practices. The BlueGreen Alliance, for example, lobbies for increased investment in public transportation, methane emissions mitigation, and other responses to the climate crisis.
Even trade unions in Illinois have supported environmental legislation with job-creation components. Walling’s organization partnered with the same unions supporting HB 1633 on the Future Energy Jobs Act, which promotes clean energy and green jobs.
Loomis says that health and education unions—whose members are more diverse and mostly female—tend to be more progressive than trade unions. The trades have a membership base of older white men that leans more conservative.
Some Illinois non-trade unions, including the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Healthcare, opposed HB 1633. According to Christine Geovanis, CTU’s communications director, members were concerned about the bill’s impact on civil liberties. “It sets state law on a really dangerous and slippery slope to suppress public opposition and dissent,” she says.
Based on conversations with the AFL-CIO, Walling believes their support of the Illinois bill was about protecting higher-paying employment. Union jobs in extractive industries often pay more than clean energy jobs: a coal miner’s average starting salary is $7,000 more than a solar installer’s average pay. A coal-sector worker is more likely to be in a union than a solar-sector one. “For a lot of working-class people, these are the best jobs available,” says Erik Loomis, a University of Rhode Island labor history professor.
In lobbying for the bill, the AFL-CIO was cementing its relationships with major employers, says Udry. Enbridge operates nearly 1200 miles of pipeline in Illinois. According to their website, Enbridge employed 81 temporary and full-time employees in Illinois last year, and paid $6.5 million in base salary, for an average of about $80,000 per employee. Bill supporters TC Energy and Energy Transfer Partners also operate pipelines in Illinois.
Many union members are skeptical that the green jobs environmentalists talk about will ever materialize. Phil Smith, a spokesman for UMWA, told Reuters in February, speaking of the Green New Deal, “We’ve heard words like ‘just transition’ before, but what does that really mean? Our members are worried about putting food on the table.”
But in a shifting energy economy, Walling argues, the trades stand to gain from alliances with environmental groups. “There are coal plants that are closing in Illinois [because of] competition with natural gas,” she says. “These big companies want to say, ‘We’re closing this plant in 30 days. Workers, good luck!'” In contrast, Walling says her organization supports scheduled plant closures, maintaining workers’ pensions, access to job training for laid-off workers, and using green jobs to diversify small-town economies, so plant closures are less devastating.
“I think in a lot of ways unions and environmentalists can have the same opponent,” Walling adds. “It’s the employer that’s going after workers, the employer who’s taking actions that hurt the environment.”
But after decades of right-wing attacks, “the labor movement does not have the heft to get things done in state legislatures,” Loomis said. “A piece of the slowly dying American labor movement is the inability and, to some extent, the unwillingness to ally with non-labor movements.”
Since the 1950s, the building trades and manufacturing unions have been criticized for a perceived rightward tilt and increasingly cozy relationships with management. These unions have been left in the uncomfortable position of allying with some of the political forces happiest about their current predicament. One of the most prominent anti-union forces historically has been ALEC—the same organization behind HB 1633.
Opponents of the bill were troubled by the AFL-CIO’s decision to ally itself with ALEC. “I had long conversations with AFL and some of the other building trades that are supporting the bill asking them to withdraw it, from the perspective of, we are in this together in fighting the right-wing agenda that wants to end labor unions,” Walling said. “In other states, ALEC is working to kill this union and here they are, presenting this piece of ALEC language.”
Loomis, who has criticized the building trades’ positions on environmental and social issues before, believes that this bill is part of a “culture war” between conservatives and progressive activists. He, and the bill’s opponents, pointed out that no notable protests have halted the construction or expansion of Illinois pipelines.
“There’s no economic advantage around this,” he argues. “What you’re seeing is unions identifying with employers, and a broader conservative movement that’s angry about people protesting.”
As economic and political currents trend toward clean energy, the AFL-CIO and building trades may evolve their stances on climate legislation. In less than three years, the AFL-CIO will hold leadership elections, and Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-Communications Workers of America, is a popular contender to replace longtime president Richard Trumka. The unabashedly progressive Nelson supports greater engagement between labor and climate movements.
Walling believes that Loomis’s “culture war” theory could have some merit. But, she says, “I have had some really great conversations with who you could classify with the old white dudes, who really realize where this going,” she says. “The younger leaders I’m talking to [say], this is not where we want to go.”