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Sean Higgins: Keystone driving Big Labor's green schism wider

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Several hundred people held a protest last week in Tulsa, Okla., in favor of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline project. They weren't Tea Partiers, either. They were members of the Pipeliners Local 798 union.

The union protesters wanted a crack at the 42,000 jobs the U.S. State Department has estimated would come from the project. They brushed off critics who said the jobs would mostly be temporary.

"Tell me a job today that's not temporary," an organizer said to cheers at the rally, according to the Tulsa World. "We've made a living all our lives off temporary jobs."

They weren't just trying to sway the opinion of President Obama, who is expected to render a decision on the project this summer, but others in the labor movement, as well.

The Keystone issue has caused a Big Labor schism between those who favor the pipeline and those who want to make common cause with environmentalists.

With little fanfare, the AFL-CIO's Building and Construction Trades Department filed an official comment last week with the State Department regarding Keystone.

"America's Building Trades Unions believe that a modern U.S. energy policy should be focused upon enhanced energy security, a self-reliant North American production capacity, economic prosperity, and steady and robust job creation. We firmly believe that approval of the Keystone XL pipeline satisfies all of those criteria," the statement read.

The statement goes on to say that "all of the environmental and national security issues have been adequately debated and addressed."

So, does this mean that the AFL-CIO, the nation's largest labor coalition, has itself endorsed the project? "No, they don't speak for the AFL-CIO as a whole," spokesman Josh Goldstein told me via email. That group only speaks for the building trade unions.

So where does the AFL-CIO itself stand on Keystone? Goldstein said its position hasn't changed since its executive committee issued a February statement that endorsed pipeline projects in general but did not mention Keystone.

Why the reluctance? Well, nine of the AFL-CIO's largest member unions have joined with groups like the Sierra Club to form the BlueGreen Alliance. The purpose of the group (also called the Apollo Alliance) is to push for investments in green energy jobs. It was, they argued, win-win all around.

They were successful in getting Obama to pour billions of taxpayer dollars into such programs, although the 5 million jobs that were supposed to be generated didn't happen. Meanwhile, others in Big Labor claim that the green groups now are calling the shots.

Laborers' International Union of North America President Terry O'Sullivan angrily quit the BlueGreen Alliance in January 2012, blaming it for why Big Labor did not spend more political capital on getting the pipeline project approved. (The alliance has not taken a position on Keystone.)

"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," O'Sullivan said at the time.

Yet, as the AFL-CIO's February statement shows, it still doesn't want to alienate its green allies. The section endorsing pipeline projects in general was preceded by three paragraphs warning of the need to reduce spills and limit carbon emissions.

Indeed, last month, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told C-SPAN he planned to do more to cement Big Labor's ties with outside liberal groups.

"Instead of saying to our community partners and the civil rights movement or the Latino movement, 'That's your issue and this is my issue,' they're going to be our issues, and we're going to work together," Trumka said.

I wonder what the members of Local 798 think of that.

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.

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Sean Higgins

Senior Writer
The Washington Examiner