The Laborers International Union of North America, with about 570,000 members, wants the Obama administration to approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The union has a lot of clout in Democratic circles; according to the Center for Responsive Politics, it has contributed $38,089,860 to political candidates since 1989, with just seven percent of it going to Republicans.
Tom Steyer, the hedge-fund billionaire, wants the Obama administration to block construction of the pipeline. Although a relative newcomer to the political game, he has pledged to give Democrats $50 million, and raise $50 million more, to get his way.
Who has more clout on this issue, the longtime Democratic labor union that has contributed $38 million over the past quarter-century, or the guy who can come up with $100 million for this election cycle alone? The question answers itself. And so no one should be surprised that President Obama has again postponed a decision on the pipeline, and left the Laborers unhappy one more time.
Steyer's contribution alone -- not counting the amount he has pledged to raise -- would top the total donations from almost any major Democratic constituency over the last 25 years. According to those Center for Responsive Politics numbers, Steyer's $50 million is more than the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has contributed in the last quarter-century ($45,516,130, two percent of it to Republicans). It's more than the United Auto Workers has contributed in the same period ($41,669,153, zero percent of it to Republicans). It's more than the Service Employees International Union has contributed ($38,569,790, two percent of it to Republicans). Go down the list. Only two unions -- the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees ($61,339,129, one percent to Republicans) and the National Education Association ($58,783,738, four percent to Republicans) -- have contributed more in the last 25 years than Steyer plans to give this cycle.
Back at the Laborers shop, union president Terry O'Sullivan is not even trying to hide his frustration. In an op-ed for the Washington Post Friday, O'Sullivan complained that, "After nearly six years of delay, thousands of pages of research, five environmental impact statements confirming the evidence and millions of public comments, a pipeline that could put thousands of Americans to work and help ensure our nation's energy security remains stalled." While O'Sullivan expressed general support for the Obama administration, he slammed what he called its lack of courage in the Keystone matter. And then O'Sullivan added this:
Enter Tom Steyer, the billion-dollar man. After long profiting off pipelines and coal, he began trying to save the planet in 2012. The hedge-fund manager and Wall Street tycoon seems to have gained the ears of White House officials and numerous Democrats across the country. He has pledged to pour $100 million into this year's elections, with opposition to Keystone being his litmus test.
Steyer has amplified the rhetoric of the environmental fringe aimed at tearing down the value of Americans who build things with their hands. The rhetoric has seeped into the White House discourse, with the president himself scoffing at the "temporary" jobs that pipeline construction creates.
It's not completely surprising that a hedge-fund manager would fail to understand the kitchen-table economics of a pipeline or its value to working people. Or that construction work is, by nature, temporary and that millions of construction workers lead middle-class lives, own houses and put their children through college by moving from one union construction job to the next.
What is glaringly evident in O'Sullivan's writing is the enormous conflict between the old source of Democratic power and money — the labor unions — and the party's new billionaire environmentalists. It's not that the new billionaires have taken over; they don't have the manpower that union bosses can command to knock on doors, make calls, and deliver votes on Election Day. But on some critical issues, the hedge fund environmental saviors are calling the shots in a way that labor probably never envisioned.