Labor can't sit out the fight at Standing Rock

As federal authorities threaten to shut down protests against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, more activists around the country are taking up the call for solidarity and support. Unfortunately, a number of unions, supported by leaders of the main labor federation, have sided with the company constructing the pipeline, on the grounds that the project will create jobs. But other unions, along with rank-and-file union members throughout organized labor, are pointing in a different direction.

Cliff Willmeng is a registered nurse, an environmental activist in Colorado and co-founder of Labor for Standing Rock. Earlier this fall, he was part of a delegation to the #NoDAPL protest camps. He talked with Sean Petty about what he saw and why labor needs to get involved.

The Labor for Standing Rock delegation in North Dakota (Labor for Standing Rock)The Labor for Standing Rock delegation in North Dakota (Labor for Standing Rock)

THE STRUGGLE to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota has become a lightning rod in the concurrent struggle for Indigenous self-determination, to protect the basic water supply for a huge section of the country and to stop climate change. How did you get involved?

SELF-DETERMINATION is a position that cannot coexist within capitalism, since the 1 Percent could never survive an actual democracy.

This is harmful enough at the workplace where the dominant decision-making comes from the CEOs and upper management, instead of those of us actually performing the work. As it's applied to decision-making over the environment, the disenfranchisement of people becomes even more critical. First Nations, of course, have known this for many centuries through the genocide of Western expansion, and the same patterns exist today.

Where I live, my own community and many others attempted to move against the dominance of the fossil fuel industry by enacting local bans or moratoriums on oil and gas drilling in 2012 and 2013.

It resulted in near immediate lawsuits against the communities by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association on the basis that we did not have the authority to stop drilling, since that was in the possession of the state. One lawsuit was even joined by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who, along with the rest of the two parties, don't believe communities should have superior legal power to corporations.

This is playing out very directly and in the harshest sense against Native Americans in Standing Rock. What they have always known--and what more people are waking up to--is the fact that environmental sustainability is illegal under the American system of law.

THIS STRUGGLE in particular and the effort to stop climate change more generally were completely absent from the presidential debates. Why do you think that is?

IF CLIMATE change is addressed at all, the topic is couched in a set of superficial talking points. The reason is that the dominant forces of the U.S. military and economic system are permanently wedded to fossil fuels. So it doesn't matter if the application is fertilizer and industrial agriculture under Monsanto or war efforts.

The two political parties agree that nothing substantial can be done, or should be done, to address climate change. To do so would threaten their very existence.

AS A former union carpenter and current union nurse, what has been the role of unions in this struggle?

THE UNION leadership has centered itself upon a strategy of integrating the rank and file with management, the Democratic Party and Wall Street, which has meant the widespread demobilization of the membership over the prior 40 years.

This strategy, which some call "business unionism" and some call the "team concept," is based on cooperation with the owners, and has been so successful that unions are at a historic low in membership and strength. The strategy is dependent on removing any leadership role for working people at the workplace or the wider political process of the country. It means elevated positions for union leaders and a diminishing share of crumbs for the workers.

This has led people like AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to serve as the mouthpiece of the bosses for some time, most recently through his endorsement of Energy Transfer Partners' Dakota Access Pipeline. Thankfully, this extreme position has opened up a debate within organized labor itself, with many unions and rank-and-file members directly opposing the position of the AFL-CIO leadership.

IT SEEMS like the naked business union strategy within the energy and building trades unions is a key factor in providing political cover for the fossil fuel industry. Can you talk more specifically about the potential for organizing resistance against this strategy?

ANY REAL opposition to the fossil fuel industry is going to have to be led by the rank and file. There is the potential or likelihood that union leadership may be pulled in to assist that fight, but the people to lead it have to be the workers ourselves.

Within the fight against the fossil fuel industry, there is the potential for a new debate on the role of working people in forming our world and constructing a planet that is free of fossil-fuel use. This is already taking place in the ranks of the building trades, and those efforts will be opposed by the union leadership for reasons we've already discussed.

The fact is that we can create the best, safest and fullest employment in the process of a just transition from fossil fuels and the repairing of our infrastructure and environment. Where the building trade workers fight for this transition, they will need the support of all workers, and not in only the symbolic sense.

WHAT DO you see as the next steps for building union support?

THERE IS both a lot of work to do and an enormous potential. The vacuum left by the disastrous and weak strategy of business unionism can be filled by a new mobilization of working people to transform our world and our unions.

The first steps will be through bringing the fight and direct action of Standing Rock to our locals and union bodies, and through the education and mobilization of the rank and file. This work will be depend on building through groups like Labor For Standing Rock and a growing coalition of workers ready to lead.

We can join the fight led by the courageous First Nations at Standing Rock and defeat this pipeline. The moment we commit ourselves and unions to that clear goal, an entire world of possibility opens up. It could mean a new power for working people across the country and a powerful alliance of union labor with the frontline fighters ready to build a sustainable world.

Don't sit this one out. It is a true game-changer for us all.