An Open Letter to the Labor Movement: Stand in Solidarity With #NoDAPL

Editor’s Note: This appeal has been updated to address the attack on the demonstrators were attacked by private security led dogs.

Fellow Workers:

If you’ve not read or seen the news about the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the vast and growing opposition to it (#NoDAPL) by now, you’ve not been paying attention.

According to One Account,

Beneath the cover of the endless presidential election season, which in Iowa started a year and a half ago, the Texas-based company Dakota Access LLC (a division of the corporation Energy Transfer Partners [ETP]) has moved methodically ahead with its plan to build this ugly, winding, and ecocidal tube of death. The $4 billion, 1134-mile project would carry 540,000 barrels of largely fracked crude oil from North Dakota’s “Bakken oil patch” daily on a diagonal course through South Dakota, a Sioux Indian burial ground,18 Iowa counties, and a Native American reservation to Patoka, Illinois. It will link with another pipeline that will transport the black gold to terminals and refineries along the Gulf of Mexico.

Right now, several thousand indigenous tribal members (supported by over 160 tribes), land owners, environmentalists, climate justice activists, and supporters of #BlackLivesMatter have gathered together into two camps in rural North Dakota to organize nonviolent resistance to this massive project which will parallel and match the length of the infamous (but rejected by Presidential order) Keystone XL pipeline.  Several others have been protesting all along the pipeline’s route over the past couple of weeks. These 1000s strong intrepid folks are supported nationally and internationally by 100,000s.

The leaders in this effort have done all they can working “within the system” to oppose this project to no avail:

Anti-pipeline activists have been playing by all the official local, state, and federal rules. They’ve gone through the established channels of law and procedure. They’ve worked the legal and regulatory machinery to the point of exhaustion. They’ve gone through all available avenues of reason and petition. They’ve written and delivered carefully worded petitions and given polite, fact-filled testimony to all the relevant public bodies. They’ve appealed to the IUB. They’ve appealed to the Army Corps of Engineers and to numerous other federal agencies and offices including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Advisory on Historic Preservation, and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration. They’ve sued in court, defending farmers’ traditional American-as-apple-pie private property rights…And it’s all been for naught because the state is stuck in the deep pockets of Big Carbon. Last week a long-awaited district court ruling in Des Moines gave DA, ETP, Enbridge, and Marathon and their big financial backers what they wanted. DA is free to complete construction on fifteen parcels where the farm owners had challenged the state’s right to enforce eminent domain on behalf of the Bakken snake.

This project would represent a disaster for the world’s climate. Already humanity is experiencing a climate emergency–as the increase in the Earth’s average overall surface temperature has surpassed 1°C–brought on by fossil fuel capitalism. Every sensible scientific peer reviewed study dictates that in order to avoid the destruction of the ability of humanity (and much else living) to survive on our planet, the global increase must reach no higher than 2°C, at most (and most agree that an increase beyond 1.5°C would be bad enough). In order to do this, at least 80% of the known fossil fuel “reserves” must remain in the ground. This pipeline would make that prospect increasingly difficult, because it is designed to facilitate the continuing extraction of the Bakken Shale in North Dakota.

Worse than that, this pipeline represents the further colonization of indigenous lands, particularly that which lie adjacent to or solidly within the path of this project.

None of this is necessary. Studies show that all of the world’s energy needs can be met by a combination of conservation, 100% renewable energy generation–which is entirely feasible using existing technology, and a reordering of the world’s economic systems to facilitate production for need, not profit. The 100,000s of people who oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline understand this.

In spite of this massive opposition however, one group, in particular, has remained disturbingly silent, and that’s labor unions.

There’ve been claims made by Dakota Access, Energy Transfer, and law enforcement agencies that protesters have threatened pipeline workers and contractors but have provided no evidence to support such assertions. On the contrary, the existing evidence shows the protesters to be peaceful, non violent, and very sympathetic to the needs and concerns of the pipeline workers. If any instances of violence towards workers have occurred on the part of the demonstrators, they’re isolated and not condoned by the majority of the pipeline’s opposition. Meanwhile, there’s substantial evidence that law enforcement and the state have been heavy handed in their attempts to quell the opposition, using many of the same tactics the bosses use to suppress union organizing.

According to Will Bunch, of the Philadelphia Inquirer

Video taken by…Amy Goodman of Democracy Now show pipeline security workers siccing attack dogs–first on several horses carrying demonstrators and then on the allegedly trespassing but seemingly mostly non-violent protesters. Other marchers were blasted with some type of pepper spray. A tribal spokesman said six people, including a child, were bitten and 30 people were sprayed with pepper spray or maced. Local authorities who only arrived afterwards called it “a riot” that they blamed solely on the protesters, not even acknowledging the injuries suffered by the Native Americans.

This video shows, in graphic detail, that attack:

This attack is being funded, unbeknownst to rank and file union members, in part using union pension funds, particularly those of state employees in Pennsylvania:

It turns out that one of the major investors in Energy Transfer Partners is…the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Records show that as of this June, the commonwealth — through its pension funds — owned some 5 million shares of ETP — valued at some $192 million. That’s more than any other governmental or quasi-governmental agency. Other records show the bulk, if not all, of the investment is through the Pennsylvania Public Schools Retirement System, or PSERS, which has invested quite heavily in the energy sector (and not always for the greatest financial returns.)

The PSERS link isn’t the only local connection. Sunoco Logistics Partners, which is headquartered in Newtown Square, is another key pipeline investor along with ETP, and the Dakota Access Pipeline is slated to feed into a Sunoco Logistics terminal. Sunoco is also slated to operate the pipeline — if it’s ever completed.

What an irony: Pennsylvania science teachers are out on the front lines teaching school kids about the impact of global warming at the same time their retirement dollars are hard at work building this monstrosity of a pipeline. What’s more, many large entities — universities as well as some city and state pension funds — are currently in the process of divesting in fossil-fuel ventures like this one and looking, instead, to finance alternative energy projects such as solar or wind. How typical that the Keystone State is going in the other direction from the rest of the enlightened world.

It is true that several Building Trades unions have supported this project, based on misleading claims told by Dakota Access and its parent company, Energy Transfer, that it would create 1000s of local jobs.

Specifically, Terry O’Sullivan, general president of LIUNA, has declared,

“The men and women of LIUNA applaud the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for its fair and thorough review of the Dakota Access Pipeline. … For the highly skilled and trained men and women of LIUNA, projects like the Dakota Access are more than just pipelines. They are crucial lifelines to family-supporting jobs.”

Also, Laborers Local 563 business agent Cory Bryson has stated,

“We’ve been inundated with calls from all over the country from people wanting to work on this pipeline project. Mainline pipeline projects like Dakota Access provide excellent working opportunities for our members and tremendous wages.”

In reality, however, the project will only create a couple dozen local, permanent jobs and maybe a couple of temporary contractor jobs, which Dakota Access has already said would be hired from elsewhere.

We know from experience that the very similar Keystone XL project was equally oversold as a “jobs creator” when in fact it was nothing of the sort. Many unions courageously opposed Keystone XL, and they should do no less to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

As for jobs, there are already more workers employed in the renewable energy sector than in fossil fuels in the US and Canada, and those differences are only going to become increasingly more stark as the world transitions from a fossil fuel based energy system to one based on renewables.

Yes, it’s true that many of those fossil fuel jobs are unionized and the renewable energy jobs are not, but this is no excuse for unions to oppose the latter. To do that would be to hold back the March of Time; it’s a battle that cannot be won. That transition will happen whether the new green jobs are union or not. It is therefore incumbent upon unions to embrace the transition and organize these new jobs, because green capitalism is still capitalism.

The union movement should therefore take a clue from forward thinking workers and union activists including the fine folks in Climate Workers, Iron and Earth, Labor Network for Sustainability, Movement Generation, National Nurses United, Trade Unions for Democracy, and the IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus (among others), and develop an organizing strategy for a Just Transition that includes and encompasses organizing the unorganized renewable energy workers.

In the near term, one needn’t devise a plan that grandiose, because the fine folks at Labor Network for Sustainability have already shown us that more good paying union jobs involving pipelines can be created by repairing and upgrading existing infrastructure, such as water and sewer mains. And there is an urgent need to focus efforts doing just that. As indigenous activist Winona LaDuke, one of many opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline told Amy Goodman in an interview conducted on Democracy Now! (in response to the statements made by the aforementioned Building Trades Union officials):

[T]he United States has a D in infrastructure. That’s why bridges collapse. That’s why Flint, Michigan, has a problem. That’s why everything is eroding in this country. And what we need is those skilled laborers to be put to work, pipelines for people. I’m saying take those pipes that are sitting there in northern Minnesota, and send them to Flint, Michigan. They need billions of dollars’ worth of pipe infrastructure out there. We don’t need any pipes in northern Minnesota. I say that most of our Indian reservations don’t have adequate infrastructure. We’d like a little help with our water and sewer systems there. I am all for organized labor, but what I want is I want pipelines, I want infrastructure, for people, not for fossil fuels, not for oil companies. So I am all for that. There are plenty of people that could be put to work. And it’s five times as many jobs doing infrastructure for communities, doing for people, than one shot throw a pipe down and hope it works out for you. So I’m asking American labor to stand with us and to say we want pipelines, we want infrastructure, that goes for people, that goes for communities, and not for oil companies that are going to destroy our environment and cause more climate change destruction to our planet.

This statement was echoed by one of the “Raging Grannies” who was arrested in protest of the pipeline, who declared, “We know the Bakken workers need jobs and we are working hard to clean green jobs.”

And let us be absolutely clear: not all jobs are just jobs. One would scarcely be standing upon the moral high ground if they justified the construction of Nazi or Stalinist death camps if the jobs building them were union jobs. In the case of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a “black snake” which threatens to destroy indigenous lands, not to mention our climate, can it be said to be anything less? Let us not forget: there are no jobs on a dead planet!

It is time for the unions to look in the mirror and asked, “Which Side Are You On?”

The bosses and (and some Union bureaucrats) use the poverty and desperation for living wages and security to recruit to and promote the extraction industry. This is a dead end strategy and will only serve to further weaken the union movement. We must break the harmful alliance between unions and the energy bosses and build active working class solidarity with Native people and all those fighting to defend the earth from capitalist exploitation and destruction.

The union movement can be sure to be on the right side by sending members to join the fight, by coming to the Standing Rock or Red Warrior Camps (or at least send money to support them). They can pass resolutions against the Dakota Access Pipeline. They can join or organize demonstrations against the DAPL (or its financial supporters) within their communities.

There are many rank and file union members who already stand in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. The time is now to formally join them and say that another world is not just possible; another world is necessary. #NoDAPL!


To add your name to this list, please send a message to Please include name, union(s), whether you wish it (or them) to be listed for organizational purposes only, and location. Also include the words, “NoDAPL Signature” in the subject line of your message. We will attempt to update this list weekly.

For a complete list of signers, visit the original article.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission