A new paradigm?

A new paradigm?

Keystone XL pipeline suggests a new course for Labor, Industry

When hundreds packed the convention center in Port Arthur last September for a State Department hearing on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, it wasn’t just oil industry functionaries urging government approval for the massive project. An impressive turnout of elected officials from both parties lent their voices to the effort along with workers who would benefit from the thousands of jobs the Keystone construction would create. Prominent among that workforce were dozens of union members lending strong vocal support including a sizeable contingent from LIUNA — the Laborers’ International Union of North America — who filled a section in their distinctive orange jackets (above).

Did this show of unity that had industry officials, organized labor, Democrats and Republicans making common cause suggest a new emerging paradigm that could transcend traditional positions that pit labor and management against each other? The answer appears to be a qualified “maybe.”

One factor that must be considered is the need of the industry to obtain the approval of a Democratic president for TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline because it crosses an international border. It made sense for proponents to reach out to union allies of the president to build support for the project.

Had there been a Republican president, it might have been a different story. Recall that a decade ago, President George W. Bush threatened to veto the Homeland Security Bill – the post-9-11 legislation that created the Transportation Security Administration – unless it specifically prohibited its employees from forming a union. It wasn’t until 2011 that President Obama and the Senate Democrats finally cleared the way for a unionization vote.

So if there is a new model of labor and industry cooperation emerging, it remains to be seen if it could survive a large-scale resurgence of GOP political fortunes. The Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case has led to the injection of unlimited political cash from billionaire industrialists who aren’t just opposed to what they see as the excessive demands of labor unions. They are virulently anti-union, desire nothing less than the elimination of organized labor from the United States and have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve that goal.

Of course this is nothing new. In 1918, black and white workers at the Magnolia Refinery in Beaumont were the first in history to shut down a refinery during a strike in that summer that ended after two weeks with a 5 cent per hour raise.

There was more than a small element of bravery in their action. That plant, which is still in operation today as the ExxonMobil refinery, was owned at least in part by Rockefeller family interests that also owned Colorado Fuel & Iron Company. In 1914 – just four years earlier – guards from that company and the Colorado National Guard attacked a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners and their families at Ludlow, Colo. The massacre resulted in the violent deaths of between 19 and 25 people; account vary, but all sources say two women and 11 children died, asphyxiated and burned to death under a single tent. The deaths occurred after a daylong fight between militia and camp guards against striking workers.

The Ludlow Massacre was a watershed moment in American labor relations. The right to unionize was achieved in a hard-fought struggle stained with blood, sweat and tears. Company resistance to union organizing remained firm until President Franklin D. Roosevelt insisted that corporations obey laws protecting labor unions if they wanted to continue to participate in lucrative government contracts. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower continued that policy, and unions became a fact of life in Texas refineries.

This background illustrates why the sometimes uneasy alliance between labor and industry in the Keystone XL pipeline matter has aroused such interest.

“The Keystone pipeline is the largest most controversial pipeline project ever been built in America. Everyone has legitimate concerns,” said Black Schroeder, business representative for Pipeliners Local Union 798 in Tulsa, Okla. “I feel our professionalism and experience in laying some of the nation’s largest projects can ease some of the public’s concerns.”
Schroeder sought to allay environmental fears.

“Local Union 798’s sole business is to lay pipelines. We received our charter from the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters on Nov. 21, 1949,” said Schroeder. “We were started by pipeline contractors who wanted to establish a workforce capable of producing craftsmen who took pride in their work. Our contractors have long histories and proven work records.”
TransCanada recognized the importance of utilizing those skills and track record when it began negotiations with Local 798 more than four years ago. The union came to the table and agreed to a reduction in wages and to prices freezes in a project labor agreement that sets forth the terms and conditions of employment so that surprises, cost overruns, work stoppages and delays are avoided.

In the end, there was an accommodation between TransCanada and the unions that will allow the project to be built.

“The entire pipeline north of Lufkin, Texas, will be built with union labor, but south of Lufkin it will be done non-union,” said Schroeder, who has openly questioned that decision.

“The Project Labor Agreement covers half the pumping stations and all the 36-inch mainline from Lufkin north. When asked why they wouldn’t include the southern portion in the project labor agreement, a key person from Keystone stated the last leg would be done by competitive bidding (non-union); he said ‘TransCanada wants to take advantage of the cheap abundant labor in Texas.’ Why would you think people in Texas would not want the same professional job everyone else gets, and why would the working men and women of Texas be worth less for their services?” asked Schroeder.

If indeed the Keystone XL project represents a new model of cooperation between industry and labor, it is an uneasy alliance that might not survive a change in political power should Democrats lose control of the White House and Senate. But there are pragmatists on both sides of this equation who recognize that mutual interest binds this coalition together in ways that transcend short-term interests – if the lessons of history can be applied.