As climate change-fueled wildfires ravage the West Coast, the Democratic National Committee voted 30-2 on Friday night in support of a proposal to “welcome the longstanding and generous contributions of workers, including those in energy and related industries, who organize and donate to Democratic candidates individually or through their unions’ or employers’ political action committees.” The move seemingly reversed a ban passed in June pledging that the body would stop taking contributions from corporate PACs connected to the fossil fuel industry.
The DNC resolution also references an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy that directly contradicts the party’s commitment to curbing global warming.
DNC spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa said the decision was made after “hearing concerns from Labor that this was an attack on workers, this resolution acknowledges the generous contributions of workers, including those in energy, who organize and donate to Democratic candidates.” She told the Huffington Post that the change did not represent a reversal on the previous policy, and did not comment on which unions in particular had approached the DNC about the rule change.
Chuck Idelson, a spokesperson for National Nurses United — a union that has been outspoken about the need to confront climate change, and which also backed Bernie Sanders’s primary bid — called the proposal a “blatant appeal to contributions from the fossil fuel industry, which is gorged with profits that they make off destroying the planet and poisoning working people.”
The language of the proposal, though — brought by DNC Chair Tom Perez — centers heavily on the party’s support for organized labor, casting the decision as a matter of protecting workers in the energy sector. One line even references the Supreme Court decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, calling it “the result of blatant and disgraceful union busting that could slam the door on millions of hard-working Americans trying to make it into and stay in the middle class.”
Idelson added, “If the Democratic Party wants to pass a resolution sharply critical of Janus and efforts to deprive working people of their voice, they should do that. There’s absolutely no reason for them to try and cloak it in an appeal to the fossil fuel industry.”
As it happens, the workers and unions that Perez’s proposal alleges to be looking out for would have been free to donate to Democrats, even with the rule from June in place.
That resolution — introduced by party activist Christine Pelosi — stated that the DNC would reject “corporate PAC contributions from the fossil fuel industry,” which would not include either individual donations from employees of fossil fuel companies or from their unions, although a separate measure would have capped donations to the DNC from fossil fuel industry employees at $200. While seemingly re-introducing two types of donations that were never banned in the first place (individual and union donations, including from union PACs) what Perez’s recommendation specifically reauthorizes is donations from “employers’ political action committees”: corporate PACs, entities legally connected to and controlled by the fossil fuel industry. (On Twitter, Pelosi said she was not consulted about the resolution passed on Friday, and that she voted against it.)
According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 4.4 percent of workers in the mining sector were unionized as of 2017. Fossil fuel companies have historically been hostile and, in some cases, violent toward unionization efforts, and coal companies throughout Appalachia and elsewhere have systematically busted unions in the sector via automation and hiring out-of-state workers. Corporate PACs are funded by contributions from company executives who, as employees, are technically “workers,” but generally not the kind conjured up by the DNC statement.
The utility sector — whether it falls under the DNC’s definition of energy companies or not — is more union dense, with around 25 percent of employees covered by union contracts. Workers who build pipelines are typically employed in the heavily unionized building trades, through unions like the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and Laborers’ International Union of North America. These unions do endorse and, in some cases, organize for Democratic candidates, and IBEW has donated more than $300,000 to the DNC this cycle alone. These building trades unions also tend to be hearty backers of fossil fuel infrastructure, and higher-ups in those unions often see their interests as aligned with those of fossil fuel industry executives. Notably, there has been dissent on these issues from the rank and file of those unions, as was the case when members of LIUNA-City Employees Local 236 unanimously passed a resolution against the Dakota Access Pipeline, in support of those fighting it at the Standing Rock encampment.
Until fairly recently, “all-of-the-above” had been a bipartisan euphemism to refer to politicians’ openness to including all kinds of fuel in America’s energy landscape, from coal to solar; it’s also an industry talking point. After a series of lengthy debates in the lead-up to the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, the language was nixed from the party platform, an acknowledgement — prompted mainly by Sanders delegates — that continuing to extract and burn certain fuels is incompatible with reining in greenhouse gas emissions.
Writer Bill McKibben, a co-founder of the environmental group 350.org and a Sanders pick for the 2016 platform committee, called it “both scientifically and politically unwise to return to ‘all-of-the-above’ energy policies” in an email to The Intercept. That language, he added, was “explicitly removed from the platform in 2016 because people agreed that the climate danger was immense and that renewable energy was now ready to go. I don’t know where this proposal came from … but right at the moment when all of us are fighting hard to win back the House it seems a threat to the enthusiasm we so badly need. Also, the record temperatures and record wildfires make it an odd week to revert to old ways.”
The proposal comes as around 900 candidates for elected office around the country have signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, swearing off donations from coal, oil, and gas companies.
Asked whether the language in the proposal around “all-of-the-above” represented a reversal of the party’s position on energy, Hinojosa said in an email, “As stated in our platform, the DNC believes that America must be running entirely on clean energy by mid-century, and any review of our current donations reflects that commitment.” She did not elaborate when questioned further.
Hinojosa did note that the DNC has not accepted donations from fossil fuel industry PACs since it passed the ban in June, which makes its backtracking on the issue all the more baffling.
In effect, the DNC just used organized labor as an excuse to preserve the right of fossil fuel corporations to freely donate and peddle influence within the Democratic Party. Labor higher-ups may well have strong-armed Perez into writing the resolution, but it’s also a convenient cover for some Democrats to continue courting relationships with fossil fuel donors, who, suffice to say, likely aren’t the hardscrabble fossil fuel workers Perez’s proposal references.
Coal, oil, and gas PACs give the majority of their donations to Republicans, but also contribute to a number of Democratic policymakers, including influential party leaders like Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the House minority whip, who in the 2018 cycle alone has accepted $214,100 from energy companies, much of it from PACs.
In this cycle, too, he’s accepted the third-most donations of any House member from electric utilities. In extraction-heavy states especially — like North Dakota, Oklahoma, and California — industry donations tend to be more bipartisan. And while the DNC itself hasn’t directly accepted contributions from fossil fuel companies since passing its ban in June, the oil and gas industry gave $7.6 million to Democratic candidates at the federal level in 2016, with pipeline companies chipping in an additional $1.5 million. That cycle, energy and natural resources companies gave $2.6 million directly to the DNC.
“You’d think the Democratic Party would want to draw a clear distinction between themselves and Republicans’ climate denial,” Idelson said. “Sending a message to the fossil fuel industry and soliciting their donations again is exactly the wrong direction that the party needs to be headed.”