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Enbridge tar sands pipeline break in Marshall, Mich.
Much like the rest of the nation, America's unions are fiercely debating how to approach questions of climate change and energy, a debate that lurks under the surface of a statement on energy and jobs produced by the AFL-CIO executive council this week.

Many unions are actively training their members for and seeking to expand job opportunities in green energy or building retrofitting. But there are still a lot more gray jobs than green ones, and the green ones are often not as good as they should be for the skill levels required. Construction unions, in particular, have desperately been wanting to see the Keystone XL pipeline approved, since it would mean a significant number of jobs at a time when construction unemployment remains high. Other unions are very much opposed to Keystone, which has led to some conflict within the labor movement.

The AFL-CIO executive council, which includes leaders from many of the federation's unions, has now released a statement reflective of this debate, beginning with a call for a "comprehensive energy policy focused on investing in our nation’s future, creating jobs and addressing the threat of climate change." Much of it, though, focuses on the importance of pipelines. Overwhelmingly that focus is on pipeline maintenance and repair, pointing out that:

In Massachusetts alone, pipeline leakage is estimated to cost natural gas ratepayers $40 million per year. As a result of allowing our pipeline infrastructure to decay, leaks from pipelines have become a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, and a totally preventable one.
That said, the statement is disappointing, because while it doesn't mention Keystone by name, when it calls for "the expansion of our pipeline infrastructure," it's not a stretch to think it's referring to Keystone—especially since the building trades department of the AFL-CIO quickly sent out a release applauding it as a "resolution in support of a comprehensive energy policy that includes the expansion of our nation's pipeline infrastructure, including the Keystone XL pipeline."

It's important to understand that this is a very real tension for a very real reason, and that building trades unions are struggling to get their members back to work after years of high unemployment. Unions do have a responsibility to their members, and in this economy it is really difficult to think in the long term. But while they will create jobs in a short term in which few other major job-creating projects are being launched, in the long term, projects like Keystone will hurt the economy and in particular poor people, working people, people struggling to keep working.

The thing is, unions are dealing with an economy created by corporations and a government that works for corporations. Unions and the environmental movement aren't big enough or powerful enough to reorient the economy toward green energy, and right now, for some unions, projects like Keystone represent the best chance for their members to pay the bills. Yes, it's short-sighted. But eviction notices and not being able to give your kids the things their friends have will make you short-sighted. We can wish—I do wish—for unions, all of them, to support better policies and push the government and the market, hard, in their direction. But on the list of forces responsible for America's lousy energy policy and lack of investment in clean energy? Unions are pretty low.

Originally posted to Daily Kos Labor on Wed Feb 27, 2013 at 07:42 AM PST.

Also republished by In Support of Labor and Unions.

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