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Why Unions Should Reconsider Support for Tar Sands Oil Pipeline

Presidents of several unions have come out in support of the Keystone XL oil pipeline. But the damage the pipeline will do far outweighs its benefits.

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How many jobs will the pipeline really produce? The US State Department examined that question in its draft  environmental impact statement on the project. Here's what it found, based on information supplied by the pipeline builder TransCanada: 

Construction of the proposed project, including the pipeline and pump stations, would result in hiring approximately 5,000 to 6,000 workers over the 3 year construction period. As indicated above, it is expected that roughly 10 to 15 percent of the construction workforce would be hired from local labor markets, thus 500 to 900 local workers throughout the entire region of influence would be hired.

After the State Department issued its report, TransCanada commissioned a consultant named the Perryman Group. The job estimates it came up with were roughly 13 times greater than those from the environmental impact study. 

The Perryman Group figures added in estimates for "indirect job creation." How reliable are these figures? Take just one example: The State Department, based on figures supplied by TransCanada, said that the pipeline would create 938-1560 construction jobs in Nebraska. The Perryman Group study claimed that this would create 7,551 "indirect" jobs, including more than 800 retail jobs. So every every pipeline worker is expected to create from one-half to one full job for a retail worker! No wonder the Perryman Group study includes -- in fine print -- the following disclaimer: "This news release may contain certain information that is forward looking and is subject to important risks and uncertainties. . . . Readers are cautioned not to place undue reliance on this forward looking information."

What should labor do?

In the midst of the Great Recession, workers and their unions are desperate for jobs. Knowing this, and faced with strong public opposition, TransCanada dangled what appeared to be a sweet deal before major unions: a "project labor agreement" that would provide the hiring of union workers under union conditions on much of the project. They also loudly trumpeted their study claiming that the project would create 118,000 jobs -- when the company's own figures showed that the project would actually hire only 5,000 to 6,000 workers over the three-year construction period, a large proportion of them not high-paid, high-skill jobs but low-skilled, low-paid pick and shovel jobs.

For a long time, many American unions -- including the Teamsters' -- similarly supported oil drilling the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. But then the Teamsters' went through a reappraisal and withdrew from the coalition that supported the drilling. Union president James Hoffa explained why:

Global warming is for real. Air pollution is killing people and making our children sick. And you know what? We share some of the blame. In the past, we were forced to make a false choice. The choice was: Good Jobs or a Clean Environment. We were told no pollution meant no jobs. If we wanted clean air, the economy would suffer and jobs would be sent overseas. Well guess what? We let the big corporations pollute and the jobs went overseas anyway. We didn't enforce environmental regulations and the economy still went in the toilet. The middle class got decimated and the environment is on the brink of disaster. Well I say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! No more false divides. The future, if we are to prosper as a nation, will lie in a green economy.

Clean renewable energy and energy conservation are cheaper than new, unconventional fossil fuels. They are available right now. Many studies have shown that dollar for dollar they produce far more jobs -- including jobs for the very workers who might find jobs on the Keystone XL pipeline.