A major union official on Monday highlighted the increasingly complicated relationship organized labor has with the Democratic Party on energy issues when he criticized the Obama administration for stepping in to halt construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.
Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, a group of 14 unions with more than 3 million members, said “hundreds of my members were thrown out of work” thanks to “the heavy hand of the federal government. ” McGarvey spoke Monday at an event on carbon-capture technology at the Capitol.
On Friday, the controversial pipeline was blocked, at least temporarily. The Army and departments of Justice and the Interior released a joint statement saying the Army Corps of Engineers would not authorize the pipeline’s construction on federal land in the Dakotas “until it can determine whether it will need to reconsider” earlier steps it took to authorize the pipeline. That announcement came after a U.S. district judge denied the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Tribe’s request to block construction on the $3.8 billion pipeline.
McGarvey’s disappointment isn’t surprising, considering the potential jobs that are at least temporarily cut. The exchange illustrates some unions’ conflicted relationship with Democrats, at least at the federal level. The NABTU has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, and it endorsed President Obama’s re-election in 2012.
But McGarvey on Monday accused the Democratic Party of hypocrisy, promoting a $15 minimum wage but undercutting well-paying jobs tied to fossil fuels in favor of less-skilled jobs tied to renewables. McGarvey said the average wage in the solar industry is $16.01, citing the Department of Energy’s Quadrennial Energy Review.
“The irony of promoting an industry that’s average wage is 16 dollars, juxtaposed against the ‘fight for 15,’ to raise the minimum wage to 15 dollars an hour in the United States, doesn’t give us a great sense of the future,” McGarvey said.
(McGarvey’s $16.01 figure doesn’t appear in the first portion of the department’s paper, but 2015 numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate an average wage of $19.26, and a median wage of $18.19. That’s still lower than several of the jobs working on pipeline, which have average and median wages around $30 per hour.)
The NABTU isn’t the only labor group that wants to see Democrats embrace fossil fuels, or at least accept a limited role for them. The Laborers’ International Union of North America, which endorsed Clinton in November 2015, launched a state-by-state campaign in June advocating for natural gas, pointing to the environmental benefits it offers as a bridge fuel away from coal.
McGarvey pointed to carbon-capture technology as an investment the federal government should make that would help the environment. It would also help keep alive some of the better-paying energy jobs tied to fossil fuels, he said.
Supporters of the technology praise its environmental benefits in other countries, such as China, that are more dependent on coal than the U.S. And they point to the possibility of using the technology on natural gas plants down the road. But an effort to include carbon-capture tax credits in the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill failed in July.
“I’m not saying that carbon-capture technology is a silver bullet to save coal and all things fossil fuel, but I’m saying that it is not being afforded the same federal tax treatment that is afforded to other technologies,” McGarvey said on Monday. “These other technologies are hailed as lowering carbon pollutions and creating new jobs, but those jobs are not highly skilled, middle class sustaining jobs that we’re used to in these industries that are constantly under attack.”