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Pipe Dreams? Labor Researchers Say Keystone XL Project May Kill More Jobs Than It Creates

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While the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has claimed that the proposed Keystone XL pipeline would create 250,000 jobs, labor researchers say the jobs figures have been vastly distorted. We speak to Sean Sweeney, director and founder of the Global Labor Institute at Cornell University, and Bruce Hamilton, vice president of Amalgamated Transit Union.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from the [U.N.] Climate Change Conference here in Lima, Peru. We’re broadcasting from Peru, which is the first time a COP, the Conference of Parties, this U.N. climate summit, in 20 years has been held in the heart of Amazon country. Well, on Thursday, I spoke to the man who crunched the numbers on the Keystone XL job creation, has raised a lot of questions about.

SEAN SWEENEY: My name is Sean Sweeney. I co-direct Cornell University’s Global Labor Institute, and I’m also here representing Trade Unions for Energy Democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I just tried to ask Secretary Kerry about Keystone XL. He didn’t answer the question. Vice President Gore did: He’s opposed. I asked Todd Stern, the chief U.S. climate negotiator; he wouldn’t answer the question. You have been involved at a high level when it comes to Keystone XL and providing the numbers for President Obama around it, is that right?

SEAN SWEENEY: That’s correct, yes, the job figures.

AMY GOODMAN: What have you found?

SEAN SWEENEY: Well, the jobs debate has been severely distorted by TransCanada Corporation and the American Petroleum Institute. They put forward numbers that really cannot stand up to serious scrutiny, based on normal research practices and methodologies. The numbers are far, far higher than it actually—real. The numbers submitted to the State Department were far, far lower. And this is borne out with the State Department’s environmental impact statement.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you brief President Obama yourselves?

SEAN SWEENEY: No, but we know that the president read the report — it was called “Pipe Dreams: Jobs Gained, Jobs Lost [by] the Construction of Keystone XL” pipeline” — because he made reference to the figures.

AMY GOODMAN: Because that is the issue that’s raised so often, that environmentalists are killing jobs by killing the Keystone XL. Explain how you arrive at your numbers. And how many jobs would be lost or gained?

SEAN SWEENEY: Well, in many respects, the numbers were submitted by TransCanada to the State Department, and we simply interrogated the claims of the multiplier effect, which wonky researchers understand is the jobs that—indirect and induced jobs that would be created by a certain amount of dollars spent on a project. The numbers, you’ll notice, Amy, have not gone down with the jobs, even though the project is half-completed. So, the numbers that they originally claimed three years ago have not gone down at all, but at least—or almost half of the pipeline has actually been constructed.

AMY GOODMAN: Why haven’t they gone down?

SEAN SWEENEY: Because it’s in the—it’s really about the atmospherics around the project. If it’s perceived as being a jobs lifeline for, you know, out-of-work union members, and then that’s the message that they have to stick to.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the division within the labor movement—even here at the COP, the more conservative unions, the other unions? Where do the unions fall?

SEAN SWEENEY: It’s kind of three camps, really. There’s the AFL-CIO itself, which has really got its hands tied by the building trades’ position on climate change, which is “Don’t give away the store to China. There’s no point U.S. having an aggressive emissions reductions policy, because there’s so much coal coming on in China.” So, generally, it’s kind of holding back the U.S. negotiators from—if they were so inclined, to move in a more ambitious direction.

And then, on the other side of it is the unions like the nurses’ unions, the transport unions, healthcare workers, generally, domestic workers. Their policy is much more in tune with the social movements around climate justice, the need for a really aggressive approach to emissions reductions, and the need for real job creation in numbers that would really matter to people.

AMY GOODMAN: And who’s winning?

SEAN SWEENEY: Well, if you had asked me three years ago, I would say that those on the side of climate inaction were winning. I think that has changed dramatically in recent years. Been a very difficult struggle within the U.S. trade unions. They’re under attack on so many fronts. But we’re seeing now the emergence of a cohort of unions who are really beginning to grasp what it means to take on climate change, but also do it in a way that stands for equity, justice and true sustainability.

AMY GOODMAN: And why does climate justice appeal to domestic workers, to nurses and others?

SEAN SWEENEY: Well, let’s take the nurses’ union, for example. They were the first union, probably, to send 3,000 nurses to relief work in the Philippines after Yolanda. They were there when Sandy hit the New York and Northeastern region. They’ve been there when petcoke dust flies all over working-class neighborhoods. So they see the impact of fossil fuels close-up, and they see it as really an extension of advocating for their patients. Same with transport workers. They know what it’s like to breathe in fossil fuel particulates. They know what it’s like to try to service communities that are suffering from asthma. Their own members are suffering from inhalation of diesel fumes and other pollutants.

So, it’s kind of a—the fight against—to transition in an equitable, democratic way over a period of decades, really, is a major struggle within the trade unions, but there’s a belief now that this can be done in a way that is—A, can address the very serious nature of the climate crisis, but do it in a way that really links unions with working-class communities. Domestic workers, many of their members, like the healthcare unions, are not born in the United States. They’re immigrants from countries that have really been severely affected by climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the alternative to Keystone XL?

SEAN SWEENEY: Well, hopefully, there will be a planned—a wind-down of the tar sands. There’s over 75,000 workers in the tar sands. We don’t want to pull the plug on them. We believe that there’s a potential for a massive scale-up of renewable energy, probably done under public ownership and social control. That’s really the most important dimension. To leave it to private corporations who charge high fees for electricity produced by renewable energy in the form of power purchase agreements is not the way we want to go. Trade Unions for Energy Democracy is a network of unions in the Global North and South who are advocating for these kind of public-control measures, sort of the real New Deal approach that really takes a public goods—it puts public goods in the equation. Everybody benefits from emissions reductions, so why can’t we all be part of that solution?

AMY GOODMAN: Any prediction which way President Obama will go on the Keystone XL?

SEAN SWEENEY: Well, I have to believe he is going to say no, not because I’m emotionally attached to it, like everybody else involved in that struggle, but I think that the president has nothing to gain and everything to lose if he goes yes on Keystone. To cave in to the enemies of workers and communities all over the world, in the form of Koch brothers and the big oil companies, to me, would be political suicide, not just for Obama, but probably for the Democratic Party, as well. So I’m really confident it’s going to be a no.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! also spoke to Bruce Hamilton, who is the vice president of Amalgamated Transit Union.

BRUCE HAMILTON: Amalgamated Transit Union. The ATU is here to express the point of view that there is an alternative point of view in U.S. labor, and it’s a point of view that really supports a real deal on climate that is enforceable and that actually reduces emissions.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s your position on the Keystone XL?

BRUCE HAMILTON: The ATU was the first union to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, back in 2011. And since then, some other unions have joined us, which is very good—the national nurses’ union, TWU, some—the CWA and SEIU, a lot of locals, 1199, and a lot of other unions have come into the fight against further expansion of dirty oil.


BRUCE HAMILTON: Well, the primary reason is to save humanity on the planet. We also believe that labor has a responsibility to really lead the transition to a low-carbon, to really a no-carbon economy, because if we don’t do that, then some kind of a transition is going to be made by big business, and it is going to be very detrimental to working people and poor people.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the kinds of workers you represent.

BRUCE HAMILTON: ATU represents most of the transit workers across North America—bus drivers, train operators in transit, you know, bus cleaners and all sorts of people related to transit.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, Keystone XL has always been pushed as a provider of jobs. Wouldn’t that interest you? And how does that divide the union movement?

BRUCE HAMILTON: Far, far, far more jobs are available in fighting against climate change than there ever could possibly be in expanding dirty fuel. As a matter of fact, the biggest job killer really is inaction on climate change. So, ATU also, it’s a natural for us, because we represent mass transit workers. And without a massive increase in mass transit, we can’t possibly reduce emissions to a sustainable level.

AMY GOODMAN: And what would that look like, that mass infusion of funds into public transportation? Where does the U.S. stand in relation to the rest of the world on public transportation?

BRUCE HAMILTON: The U.S. is not in the—not in the top league, shall we put it? But there needs to be—public transportation needs to be so available and so attractive an option that nobody would even think about driving their car to work. That is definitely possible. I live in New York City. In New York City, it’s fairly easy to get around on public transit. I don’t own a car and, you know, certainly don’t need one. But even in New York City, there needs to be a vast increase in what’s available, where it’s available, to make it so that nobody has to walk more than a few blocks to avail themselves of public transit. If that were the case, people would simply not want to drive.

AMY GOODMAN: The alternatives?

BRUCE HAMILTON: The alternatives to?


BRUCE HAMILTON: The alternatives to cars are—well, bus rapid transit, which we see here in Lima. I don’t know if you’ve noticed all the bus rapid transit that’s available here. It needs a lot of improvement, but the infrastructure is there. And it’s actual lanes that are dedicated totally to buses. And fares are paid on the platform so that buses pull up, and multiple doors open, passengers get on very, very quickly, and the bus rolls on, not impeded by any traffic. It’s a very quickly developed, not capital-intensive—certainly not like subways or anything—but it’s a very, very good way of getting people around. Some people in the United States have started sort of like down that road a little bit, but it hasn’t progressed at all.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the country or countries that you look to as a model?

BRUCE HAMILTON: Well, there are—all over. Latin America is really the leader in bus rapid transit, actually, although they need a lot of improvements in workers’ rights, because it’s very rare to find organized workers working in public transit in Latin America. So, that’s one reason why it’s necessary for unions to get involved in this battle, to increase public transit, but also to make it so that the jobs in public transit are decent jobs that can actually provide a decent living for working people.

AMY GOODMAN: I asked Secretary Kerry about his position on Keystone XL; he wouldn’t answer. Are you concerned about which way the Obama administration will go?

BRUCE HAMILTON: Yes, I’m concerned. You know, it would just be—a lot of climate scientists say it really would be the end of the game if Keystone gets built, because it would mean a vast expansion of the tar sands in Alberta that would be brought for export out of the southern United States. And apart from all of the dangers involved to farmers in Kansas and others, there’s just a huge danger of putting more carbon in the atmosphere. We just can’t be doing that.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Bruce Hamilton, vice president of Amalgamated Transit Union. Before that was Sean Sweeney, co-director of the Cornell Global Labor Institute. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we wrap up our week-long coverage here in Lima, Peru. Stay with us.

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