It sounded like a potent combination: unions and other progressive groups teaming up to form a new Super PAC aimed at defeating Donald Trump. The PAC, called For Our Future, was organized by four major labor groups, who hoped to raise $50 million for voter-turnout efforts: the AFL-CIO; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; the American Federation of Teachers; and the National Education Association. Environmental activist Tom Steyer, who’d reportedly been discussing a collaboration with the AFL-CIO for several months, announced that he would give $5 million to the group.
Then, last week, The New York Times published a pair of letters sent to AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka by the presidents of seven construction unions who were “enraged” by Steyer’s participation. The unions would not support the PAC, their leaders wrote, and they asked the AFL-CIO to sever its ties to Steyer. The Times framed the conflict as a “rift between labor and environmentalists” that could derail the Democrats’ voter-mobilization efforts in the fall. But the letters amount to more of a public airing of preexisting, internal disagreements within the AFL-CIO than evidence of a green-labor split. As the partnership with Steyer indicates, labor groups and environmentalists are finding more common ground than ever—leaving unions allied with the fossil-fuel industry increasingly isolated.
The letter from the building trades organizations warns that the AFL-CIO has been “infiltrated by financial and political interests.” Those same unions, however, have nurtured their own relationships with special interests—notably the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade association for the oil and gas industry. Letter signatory Sean McGarvey, the president of the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department, also co-chairs the Oil and Natural Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee (OGILMC), which he describes as “a unique partnership between America’s Building Trades Unions and the American Petroleum Institute.”
The partnership was founded in 2009 to promote domestic oil and gas production. As of 2012, the API had poured over $2.6 million into the group, with at least another $85,000 going directly to the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department. In early April, McGarvey appeared at an API conference on pipelines; less than two weeks later, API chief executive Jack Gerard spoke at the Building Trades Unions’ legislative conference, an event the API has sponsored.