The standoff at North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Reservation — with Indian tribes and supporters on one side, and police and private security for the Dakota Access Pipeline on the other – also finds labor union members on both sides.
North America’s Building Trades Unions and the AFL-CIO have come out in favor of the project moving forward, because it’s a big source of union jobs. But other labor organizations have declared support for pipeline protesters, and in Oregon and Washington, a number of union members have traveled to Standing Rock to take part in the massive protest encampment — a nonviolent uprising that has united Indian tribes nationwide.
Roben White — a retired union painter and former president of Painters Local 10 — is one of them. White is of mixed Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne ancestry on his father’s side, and he’s an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He’s also a staunch unionist who says he was pained to see unions take a stand he disagrees with.
The Standing Rock Sioux object to the pipeline chiefly because of the potential risk to their water supply. When complete, the Dakota Access Pipeline would pump 470,000 barrels a day of light crude oil through a 30-inch-wide, 1,172-mile-long pipeline from the Bakken Oil Fields of northwestern North Dakota through South Dakota and Iowa to refining facilities in Illinois. The pipeline’s route was originally supposed to cross the Missouri River just upstream from Bismarck, North Dakota, but because of concerns that an oil spill could wreck the city’s water supply, the route was changed to cross just upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The pipeline would cross half a mile north of the reservation, 92 feet underneath the Standing Rock Sioux water supply — Lake Oahe, a reservoir formed by a Missouri River dam.
To protest that course, in April, members of the tribe established a “spiritual camp” on Army Corps of Engineers land along the banks of the Missouri river. By August, it had become the largest gathering of Native American tribes in more than a century. With protesters attempting to stop construction, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple declared a state of emergency Aug. 19. Private security contractors, joined by police reinforcements from six states, deployed in armored personnel carriers, and used rubber bullets, tear gas grenades, pepper spray, and sound cannons against unarmed protesters. On Sept. 3, security guards attacked nonviolent protesters with pepper mace and dogs.
Then on Sept. 9, Department of Justice, Department of the Interior and Department of the Army asked that the pipeline company voluntarily halt construction within 20 miles of Lake Oahe, after a federal judge denied the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s request for a temporary injunction.
Shortly after that, national AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka weighed in with an official statement on the pipeline: “The AFL-CIO supports pipeline construction as part of a comprehensive energy policy,” he declared Sept. 15. “Pipeline construction and maintenance provides quality jobs to tens of thousands of skilled workers,” Trumka said. Community involvement is important, Trumka said, particularly in situations involving places of significance to Native Americans, but, he added, “once these processes have been completed, it is fundamentally unfair to hold union members’ livelihoods and their families’ financial security hostage to endless delay.… Furthermore, trying to make climate policy by attacking individual construction projects is neither effective nor fair to the workers involved.”
Reacting to Trumka’s statement, White, the former Painters Local 10 president, picketed with half a dozen other local unionists outside the Sept. 23 annual awards banquet of the AFL-CIO’s Southwest Washington Labor Roundtable.
“I’m all labor. I live and breathe it,” White said. “I’m not questioning the fact that they want those jobs. I made my living in the building trades too. But there is a point that we need to take responsibility. … How ‘bout fixing the pipelines that are busting all over the place? How ‘bout changing the infrastructure so we don’t have to use so much oil and gas?”
For the Standing Rock tribe, protest banners say, “water is life.” But for many union construction workers, pipelines are how they earn their living. After the federal agencies requested a halt to construction, five national union presidents wrote to President Obama. “The [Dakota Access pipeline] project is being built with an all-union workforce and workers are earning family-sustaining wages, with family health care and retirement contributions,” wrote the presidents of Operating Engineers, Electrical Workers, Teamsters, United Association and Laborers. “However, the project delays are already putting members out of work and causing hardships for thousands of families.”
The pipeline is providing work for an estimated 4,500 members of building trades unions.
But a number of labor organizations not directly involved with the project issued statements supportive of the protests, including Amalgamated Transit Union, American Postal Workers Union, Communications Workers of America, National Nurses United, and Service Employees International Union (SEIU).
Calling them out by name, Laborers union President Terry O’Sullivan said in a letter to his members that those statements would be remembered: “Some of our so-called brothers and sisters in the trade union movement have abandoned solidarity with the working class and are instead throwing in with environmentalists who have co-opted the tribes in their effort to fight pipelines,” O’Sullivan wrote.
In Oregon, the board of SEIU Local 503 approved a Standing Rock support resolution Sept. 12 and contributed $1,503, after member Laura John spent time at the protest camp.
And in October, White drove 1,300 miles to Standing Rock with his friend Carolee Morris, a Cowlitz Tribal Council member. White found what he described as a temporary city on the prairie, a self-policing voluntary community with a prohibition on alcohol, drugs or weapons.
“It is absolutely incredible what they’re doing to keep this together, keep this peaceful, keep it prayerful, and feed 10,000 people,” White said.
White spent a week at Standing Rock helping out, setting up stations for supporters to drop off firewood.
By the end of October, rank-and-file union members were maintaining an ongoing “union camp” within the protest camp, set up by a group called Labor for Standing Rock. Labor for Standing Rock was founded by Cliff Wellmeng as a way to coordinate rank-and-file support. Willmeng, a former union Carpenter from Chicago, is now a registered nurse at Kaiser Permanente and a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 7 in Lafayette, Colorado. The group’s Facebook page, which has over 25,000 likes, includes dozens of video testimonials from union officers and rank-and-file members.
On Nov. 10, several hundred union workers rallied in Oakland outside Wells Fargo — one of the pipeline’s funders — in an anti-Dakota-pipeline event sponsored by over a dozen local labor organizations.
The protest encampment continued to grow. On Nov. 21 — three days before Thanksgiving — police turned water cannons on Native American protesters in sub-freezing temperatures.
More than any other issue, that’s what spurred a group of Northwest Longshore union members to take action.
On Thanksgiving Day, International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 4 put out a call for donations of cold weather gear for Standing Rock to be brought to the union hall. By Monday, Nov. 28, they’d filled a 14-foot trailer with warm clothes, boots, food, propane and other supplies.
Longshore worker Steve Hunt was calling into ILWU Local 4 to see what jobs were available when he heard about plans by Tacoma ILWU Local 23 President Dean McGrath and other ILWU members to go to Standing Rock. Hunt ended up joining more than a dozen ILWU members from Locals 19, 23, and 4 for the trek to Standing Rock.
“I wanted to know the truth, to find out exactly what was going on,” Hunt said.
At the camp, finding that camp donation centers were backlogged, Hunt volunteered to help set up tents. He chipped ice so that canoes could get in and out. And he worked kitchen duty, smoking 400 pounds of meat a day.
“ILWU stands behind an injury to one is an injury to all,” Hunt said, “and there’s an injury going on when private security and police are stamping on freedom to protest.”
With the arrival of a contingent of 2,000 veterans, the camp swelled to over 10,000 people the weekend of Dec. 3-4. Hunt was on his way back to Vancouver on Dec. 4 when word came of a seeming victory for the protesters. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it was revoking its permit to drill underneath Lake Oahe on the Missouri River.
The pipeline — for now — is on hold. It appears to be unlikely to move forward while Obama remains president. President-elect Trump has refrained from taking sides on the controversy, but told Fox News Dec. 11 that he will decide quickly what to do about it once he’s sworn in.