By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer
In yet another indication of conflict between construction unions and environmentalists, seven building trades union leaders and the head of their department told AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka their unions will not participate in a joint Super Political Action Committee headed by rich environmentalist Tom Steyer, known for opposing the Keystone XL pipeline and other energy projects.
The trades leaders, plus North America’s Building Trades President Sean McGarvey, said the Super PAC with the billionaire hedge fund manager symbolizes “a growing trend within the (AFL-CIO) that seems to consistently minimize the importance of building trades jobs and our members’ livelihoods.”
The AFL-CIO is pursuing “a coalition strategy with outside organizations that produced mixed results at best and disastrous results at worst for our members and their employment prospects,” the joint building trades letter stated.
Specifically, they said their unions would send no money to the joint Super PAC, announced on May 12 between the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, both U.S. teachers unions, and Steyer, nor “participate in any manner” in it.
“Compromising our core mission as trade unionists sworn to advocate for the economic well-being of our membership as a trade-off for perceived short-term political gain is utterly disappointing and cannot be supported,” they declared. They also want Trumka to cut ties with Steyer and his Super PAC.
Separately, one of the seven, Laborers President Terry O’Sullivan, sent his own blistering letter to Trumka about Steyer, calling the environmentalist’s stands against infrastructure projects so extreme that Steyer is the equivalent of a right-to-work advocate.
Unlike regular campaign finance committees, where contributions are limited and spending is disclosed, super PACs do not have to identify their corporate, individual or union donors, who can give unlimited amounts. And they can spend funds on campaigns and for or against candidates, as long as there is no coordination with the candidate’s own campaigns.
Steyer, the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, the Teachers and the National Education Association – the largest U.S. union, which is independent of both labor federations – jointly formed the For Our Future Super PAC. Its goal is to raise at least $50 million to elect progressive Democrats to the White House and Congress. The Super PAC will concentrate on battleground states. Steyer says he will match union contributions to the Super PAC. His prior environmental Super PAC, NextGen Climate, helped him pump millions of dollars into 2014 races.
But Steyer also made it clear he would back candidates who opposed the Keystone XL pipeline, the controversial and since-vetoed project to transport Canadian tar sands oil from Alberta to U.S. Gulf Coast refineries.
Keystone became a cause celebre for the green environmental movement, with activists, including Steyer, saying its emissions would contribute to global warming and that it would create few jobs. Several unions, notably National Nurses United, also opposed Keystone.
Building trades unions, which signed a project labor agreement with Keystone sponsor TransCanada, strongly defended Keystone and thousands of jobs U.S. State Department studies said it could create. Obama’s veto bitterly disappointed them.
The eight leaders’ letter did not mention Keystone specifically, but did blast Steyer by name. It also told Trumka their unions would not participate in the joint Super PAC.
“We will not participate in this Super PAC in any manner,” said McGarvey, O’Sullivan, James Callahan of the Operating Engineers, William Hite of the Plumbers and Pipe Fitters, Frank Christensen of the Elevator Constructors, Kinsey Robinson of the Roofers, Daniel Stepano of the Plasterers and Cement Masons and James McCourt of the Heat and Frost Insulators.
“We do not want any of our members’ financial support for this federation to be used against them and their economic well-being in pursuit of this endeavor,” they added.
O’Sullivan was even more scathing in his individual letter to Trumka. He faulted both Steyer for a “leave it in the ground stance” against using any fossil fuels and the AFL-CIO for deciding “to sell out to” Steyer for financial reasons. He said the fed is financially hurting.
Steyer is “a billionaire who not only has little or no stake in our movement, our members or their work, but who has actively fought our members’ interests,” said O’Sullivan in a veiled reference to Steyer’s anti-Keystone stand. Conflict over Keystone led the Laborers to leave the Blue-Green Alliance, a joint union-environmental group, more than a year ago.
“The AFL-CIO has ceded significant control of its political agenda in return for a pittance, and wants affiliated unions to climb aboard,” the Laborers president added. Steyer “and his anti-growth, anti-job, anti-energy cronies will dictate how union funds are spent…We object to our agenda being sold to a job-killing hedge fund manager with a bag of cash.”
With one exception, calls to several of the unions and to the AFL-CIO for elaboration on the letter – and Trumka’s reaction -- were not returned. But Lisa Martin of the Laborers said both the joint letter and O’Sullivan’s separate letter to Trumka “speak for themselves.” She promised to find details about how much the Laborers were asked to contribute to the super PAC.