U.S. labor and the fight for sovereignty by Indigenous peoples

laborforstandingrockThe struggle of the Sioux Nation at Standing Rock, N.D., and its allies to prevent the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline has generated a dispute within the AFL-CIO and its affinity organizations. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka issued a statement Sept. 15 in support of building the pipeline, alleging that it will “provide over 4,500 high-quality, family supporting jobs.” (aflcio.org)

Members and allies of the Sioux Nation have been nonviolently protesting a real threat to not only their sacred burial grounds, but also the potential pollution of their water resources, as well as the emission of greenhouse gases that have a direct bearing on climate change. The protesters include environmentalists as well as non-native Americans from the surrounding areas of North and South Dakota and other states.

Individual unions have expressed strong opposition to the building of DAPL, and its encroachment on Native American land, and anger at the disrespect and marginalization of the Native American people and protesters. (See WW article “Labor groups strengthen solidarity,” Oct. 6)

A group calling itself Labor for Standing Rock has initiated a “coordinated labor mobilization” on Oct. 29-30, including actions at Standing Rock and throughout the country. For more information, visit tinyurl.com/FBlabor4standingrock.

The AFL-CIO support for the pipeline followed a long, vitriolic five-page letter from Sean McGarvey, president of the AFL-CIO-affiliated North American Building Trades Union, which includes 14 building and construction unions. The letter, dated Sept. 14, was sent to all the AFL-CIO’s affiliates at the height of mass opposition to the pipeline.

McGarvey’s letter states: “Due to organized protests and misinformation by environmental extremists, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, professional agitators, and now the vocal support and encouragement from the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), the National Nurses United (NNU), the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) … AFL-CIO members are having their lives placed on hold, their employment prospects upended and have been subjected to intimidation, vandalism, confrontation, and violence both on their job sites and in the surrounding communities.” (tinyurl.com/NABTUletter)

In fact, the violence has been emanating from security guards employed by the construction company; Energy Transfers Partners, the pipeline company; and local police, who have used dogs, pepper spray and mace against the protesters. North Dakota Republican Gov. Jack Dalrymple mobilized the National Guard.

Most construction workers have been off-site during the conflict. The only “workers” present have been ETP supervisors assisting and directing the onslaught against the defenders.

Reactionary old guard rears its head

McGarvey also cryptically expressed his opposition to some of the changes brought about by the leadership of Trumka and former AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. In order to distance itself from the more conservative business unionism of the old guard leadership, the national union federation has attempted to reach out and include people of color, beginning with the Justice for Janitors campaign in 1985.

McGarvey’s letter is unprecedented in its denunciation and attacks on labor unions and AFL-CIO constituency groups that united under the umbrella of the Labor Coalition for Community Action, which includes the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Asian Pacific Labor Alliance, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement and Pride at Work.

“For years during Executive Council meetings,” McGarvey stated, “we have heard the ideas, non sequiturs and dubious pronouncements regarding the future of the labor movement and how to make it stronger by these union ‘leaders’ and even their predecessors. We may or may not agree on the theories about the 21st century labor movement.”

McGarvey’s letter represents the historical rift between conservative business unionism and the dire necessity for social and class-conscious unionism. McGarvey actually demanded that the pro-Standing Rock unions and their affiliated organizations issue “a public apology for … uninformed public opposition” to the pipeline work.

Revolutionary socialists and the communist movement, as exemplified by Vladimir Lenin in his germinal work, “What Is to Be Done?” emphasize that the union movement must be a “tribune of the people” and not focus on the narrow economic issues of the working class. As a beacon against injustice and oppression wherever and whenever it exists, the movement should be true to the statement, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

In our own historical epoch — the age of capitalism at a dead end — this means fighting for the rights of the most oppressed sector of the working class and oppressed people of color. And that means militant labor support for the Indigenous struggle at Standing Rock.