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Union Pushing Keystone XL Faces Racial Discrimination Suit

This March 11, 2020 photo provided by the Bureau of Land Management shows a storage yard north of Saco, Mont., for pipe used in construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline near the U.S.-Canada border.
Al Nash
This March 11, 2020 photo provided by the Bureau of Land Management shows a storage yard north of Saco, Mont., for pipe used in construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline near the U.S.-Canada border.

President-elect Joe Biden is under pressure to walk away from his pledge to block the Keystone XL oil pipeline. On Tuesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justine Trudeau said completing the project is a key priority for him.

On this side of the border, one of the unions that want Biden to allow construction on the pipeline to continue is an Oklahoma local with a history of racism and sexism.

Pipeliners Local 798 faces a new class-action lawsuit that claims Black members were denied promotions that were given instead to less-qualified white coworkers.

The Pipeliners union is a powerful force in pipeline construction. With more than 8,000 members it works on pipeline construction projects across the country and has been a vocal supporter of the Keystone XL.

The union's history is relevant to Biden's position on the pipeline because environmental justice is a centerpiece of the president-elect's plan to address climate change. Biden vowed to protect communities of color that are disproportionately harmed by pollution and ensure people of color are given preferential treatment in developing clean energy jobs.

The plaintiff in this newest lawsuit, which was filed in November, is a Georgia man named Rodney Jones. His attorney says he's not commenting on the case as it proceeds through the court system.

The complaint, filed in federal court in Tulsa, says Jones worked as a welder helper for the union in 2019 and was subjected to racial slurs and jokes from white coworkers. The complaint says when Jones tried to advance to the journeyman level, he was denied that opportunity while less-qualified white workers were allowed.

Another Black member of the union named in the case, J.M. McIntosh, says a white colleague threw a rock at him partially blinding him in the eye. In the complaint, McIntosh says fellow union members refused to take him to the hospital, while a white welder with a similar injury was taken to a doctor immediately several days earlier.

"We're confident in the facts that will be presented. We're passionate about the cause... And we're happy to represent these people and to help them find some justice if we're able," says attorney Matt Miller-Novak.

The company building the Keystone XL pipeline was quick to respond to allegations made against one of the unions that would get work building the project.

"We have no tolerance for racism in our company. Inclusion and diversity are at the heart of who we are and embedded in our core values," TC Energy Spokesperson Terry Cunha tells NPR.

Local 798 is part of a national union, the United Association of Union Plumbers and Pipefitters, which signed a labor agreement with the company last year. The local has lobbied for the pipeline as part of its effort to secure more work for its members.

Pipeliners Local 798 did not respond to NPR's request to comment on the case. But in 2017 Business Manager Danny Hendrix told NPR his union has a clear policy prohibiting discrimination.

At that time, NPR reported that for about 20 years Local 798 was under a strict oversight of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The union was forced to actively recruit and admit women and African-Americans. In the court case leading to that oversight, federal court Judge H. Dale Cook noted in his decision that there were "no black members and there were no female members until the eve of the trial, May 1986, when Local 798 admitted a woman into the membership."

The EEOC ended its oversight in 2007 but members continued to experience racism that included things like nooses left at work sites where Black workers could find them and racial slurs scrawled on pipelines.

Three decades later, when NPR pointed out to Hendrix that his entire leadership team continues to be all white men Hendrix said, "The cream always comes to the top and I've surrounded myself by some of the best leaders in the pipeline industry. Are they white? They just happen to be, yes."

Environmental groups that have long opposed the Keystone XL pipeline were quick to criticize the Pipeliners union.

"Reports of racial discrimination within the oil industry is unsurprising given the history of violence and racism in how fossil fuel corporations have pushed dirty pipeline projects through Indigenous, Black, low income communities of color, poisoning their water and land for profit," said Thanu Yakupitiyage, U.S. Communications Director, at 350.org.

On Monday TC Energy announced it would power pumping stations along the Keystone XL with renewable electricity by 2030. It was an apparent bid to save the project as it was widely reported in Canada that Biden was preparing to withdraw a presidential permit needed to continue construction.

Emissions from operating the pipeline are not what's controversial. Instead it's the oil sands crude the pipeline would carry from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast. What critics call "tar sands" oil emits more of the greenhouse gasses that contribute to climate change because it needs more processing to make it usable.

The 1,700-mile, $8 billion pipeline that would carry oil to the U.S. Gulf Coast was first proposed in 2008 and rejected by the Obama administration, and then revived under President Trump.

The union has not yet responded to the initial complaint, which seeks compensatory and punitive damages but does not name a specific amount. While it's not clear how many black members of the union might be represented in the case, attorneys estimate it is more than 500.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.