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Open Letter to Virginia Democrats: Beware of “Union Jobs” Lies Delivered By A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing – A Fossil Fuel Lobbyist Posing as a Friend of Labor

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by Jonathan Sokolow

As more and more Democrats #StandWithRed in opposition to the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast Pipelines, we are starting to see an ugly attempt by some pro-pipeline forces to divide our party from within, rather than coming together to block these awful projects that are so inconsistent with progressive Democratic ideals.

On April 18, a group of 14 Democratic members of the Virginia General Assembly held a press conference and rally in Richmond to oppose the pipelines.  The legislators delivered powerful messages of support for landowners like Theresa “Red” Terry, her daughter Minor Terry and others who had taken to trees to block the path of the proposed MVP.

The elected officials joined impacted residents and environmental activists in demanding that Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality do what Ralph Northam himself called for when he ran for Governor – a stream by stream analysis of the more than 1,100 water body crossings in the path of these huge 42 inch diameter methane fracked gas pipelines.

The April press conference in Richmond received wide public attention, including an in-depth front page article in the Washington Post that highlighted the growing anti-pipeline resistance in Virginia.  As the Post noted, “The push got the attention of the pipeline companies. That same morning, Dominion Energy put out a statement warning that attempts to delay the pipelines ‘will cost consumers and businesses hundreds of millions of dollars in higher energy costs.’”

Three weeks later, on May 9, Democratic elected officials and activists held a second press conference – this time in Northern Virginia – to emphasize the growing power of the #StandWithRed movement.  The press conference was part of a statewide tour by Red and Minor Terry, who were forced to end their 34-day peaceful treetop protests on May 5 in response to a federal judge’s order threatening sanctions.  The statewide #StandWithRed tour also received wide press attention, and the momentum continues to grow in opposition to the pipelines.

As the press conference was underway, some Democratic state legislators received a curious email from a lobbyist named Charlie Jackson, who purported to speak for “labor.”  Jackson’s email – published here for the first time – was filled with the same corporate lies spread by the pipeline companies.  Before exposing those lies, however, let me first share what I know as someone who, unlike Charlie Jackson, has been a labor supporter, a union member and represented the labor movement as a committed partisan for more than forty years.

I have spent my entire professional career in and around the labor movement and I was active in union causes long before I became an attorney.  In the 1970’s I supported union organizing drives on my college campus and walked picket lines for striking bus drivers.

In the 1980’s, as a young attorney in a unionized shop in New York, I was a shop steward and member of the executive committee of my union, which was affiliated with the United Auto Workers.

In the early 1990s, I was general counsel to a government employees’ union in Vermont, where I represented workers in grievance and arbitration proceedings, participated in collective bargaining, wrote legislation to protect retiree rights and for a fair share agency fee, and I drafted the first-in-the-nation benefits program for gay and lesbian domestic partners of state employees.

I then spent 21 great years as a senior attorney with the coal miners’ health and retirement plans, where I fought for pension and health benefits for retirees from one of America’s greatest unions, the United Mine Workers of America. I had the pleasure of suing coal companies large and small at all levels of the federal court system to win pension and health benefits for union retirees and their families, including participating in four cases before the United States Supreme Court.  I spent seventeen years in litigation with the corporate thug and convicted criminal Don Blankenship, who recently lost a Republican primary in West Virginia.

I have walked more union picket lines than I can remember, for bus drivers in Michigan, transit workers in New York, communication workers in Maryland and Virginia, air traffic controllers and many others. I also participated in the historic Solidarity Day rally in 1981 protesting the vicious anti-union policies of the Reagan Administration, typified by the firing of the PATCO air traffic controllers.

After four decades of personally being part of the fight for workers’ rights, I know what the great mineworker activist and song writer Florence Reece knew: when it comes to the Labor Movement, you cannot be on both sides: As Florence sang: “They say In Harlan County, there are no neutrals there.  You’ll either be a Union Man or a thug for J.H. Blair.  Which Side Are You On, boys, Which Side Are You On.”

Charlie Jackson is a lobbyist based in Alexandria.  He appears to be about 37 years old, which would mean that he was about one year old when a million union members and supporters, including me, marched on Washington on Solidarity Day in 1981.

I don’t know Jackson – never met him.  But I can tell you this: Charlie Jackson is no Florence Reece. He is one of two “principals” at a lobbying business that does not choose which side it is on.  Instead, Jackson-West Consulting seem to choose every side, or more specifically, whichever side will pay them for their representation.

Don’t take my word for it.  Look at his company’s website:  Jackson-West Consulting appears to make money by shilling for big polluting, anti-union corporate behemoths that have nothing to do with the core values of the Democratic Party:

  • Dominion Energy, the main company behind the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, known for its “extreme positions on a range of hot-button issues, from flirting with climate change denialto fighting health care reform.”
  • American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which has been described by polluter watch.com as “a front group for the coal industry” that uses “lobbying and astroturf campaigns … to convince lawmakers and lay people that ‘clean coal’ is a viable and environmentally sound energy option.”
  • American Electric Power, a heavily fossil-fuel-oriented power utility which fought to delay the Obama Administration’s effort to reduce “toxic air pollution from coal-fired power plants” by having one of its unions claim “jobs will be lost if utilities don’t get more time” to comply.
  • Northrop Grumman, a huge defense contractor with a history of labor strikes that led unions to send petitions to Congress “urging lawmakers to stop funding the new Air Force refueling tanker program and start investigating it.”
  • Lockheed Martin, another large defense contractor with its own history of strikes.

On their public website, Jackson-West Consulting brags about the “results” they achieve.  The first two “accomplishments” touted are their lobbying efforts on behalf of fossil fuel companies.

Jackson also appears to have exactly two union clients, which allows him to pose as a “friend of labor” when it suits him.  For example, in his May 9 email to Democratic state legislators, he does not mention any of his fossil fuel clients, such as Dominion, American Electric Power or Exxon Mobil. Instead, he claims to speak for his labor client, the Laborer’s International Union of North America (LIUNA), when he threatens Democratic elected officials to not oppose pipelines:

“Know that when you’re asked to sign on to a petition or an op/ed or speak at a press conference to seek delays on these approved pipeline projects, one result is you’re advocating for a union member to not begin work when planned. That is literally food off the table for a paycheck to paycheck Virginian.” 

Even though Jackson’s message is couched as coming from “labor,” his email contains all the now-familiar lies that Dominion uses to prop up its pipeline project. For example, Jackson parrots Dominion’s claim that “our Governor Ralph Northam . . . does not have a lever of government at his disposal to stop these projects if he wanted to.”

That is an outright lie.  Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality and the State Water Control Board DO have the power to stop these pipelines dead in their tracks by refusing to give the required approvals under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act.  That is precisely what New York State just did and it was upheld in the courts.  Virginia has the same power to stop the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines and it can do so today.

Jackson also repeats Dominion’s claim that “the approval processes have run their course.”  That is another lie.  Even Virginia’s own DEQ acknowledges that claim is false.

Jackson goes on to assert that “Pipeline opponents continue to drive a wedge in the Democratic Party today” and “it’s time to move on to the many other battles in Virginia that need your attention.”  So, according to this “Democratic” lobbyist, Democrats and people who care about protecting our environment (or their property rights) should simply ignore a corporate project that would spend $10 billion on a fracked-gas infrastructure that would dramatically increase Virginia’s greenhouse gas production, poison our water and other natural resources, violate landowner rights, and set back Virginia’s efforts to adopt clean energy.

No, Charlie, it’s not time to simply move on. Democrats should not just stand by and let corporate profits trump public interest.  And no, Charlie, we’re not the ones driving any wedges – you and your clients are.

Of course, Dominion’s lies might not have their desired impact on Democratic legislators if Jackson had sent this email on behalf of one of his many corporate clients.  So, instead, he dressed up his secret email as intended to “re-state” LIUNA’s position that supposedly “thousands of Virginia’s union members will build these projects.”

As noted above, I have spent a lifetime representing labor unions. And while LIUNA is a member of the labor community, let us be clear about what their priorities are in this instance.  They are not the priorities of the Democratic Party.

Instead, when it comes to fossil fuels and the environment, LIUNA is a big fan of Donald Trump.  It is  on  record praising Trump’s election as a “wake up call for America,” thanking Trump for leaving the Obama Administration’s more environmentally friendly approach to pipelines “in the dustbin of the past” and saying about Trump that it  “looks forward to building the President’s vision.”

On January 27, 2017 – the same day that Trump announced his racist anti-Muslim travel ban – LIUNA lauded the “early commitments from the new Administration” on infrastructure.  A few months later, LIUNA praised Trump’s executive order on offshore drilling as “a welcome sign that means good jobs.”

Could it be that Dominion’s flack Charlie Jackson also drafted these public homages to Donald Trump in his effort to “speak for labor?”  I don’t know, but based on his May 9 email to Democrats, it would not be surprising if LIUNA hired Jackson to issue these pro-Trump messages as well.

Sadly, Jackson’s email is not the only instance of Virginia-based lobbyists using phony campaigns to push methane gas projects.

During the same week, it was revealed that Virginia-based lobbying group, The Hawthorn Group, hired a subcontractor named “Crowds on Demand” to create a fake “astroturf” campaign designed to show “public support” for a proposed natural gas power station in New Orleans.  Crowds on Demand was, incredibly, hired “to pay actors to appear and speak at City Council hearings wearing t-shirts supporting the gas plant. Actors were paid $60 to appear, and $200 for “speaking roles.”

Jackson’s email also is a part of an all-out public relations campaign that Dominion launched this week (apparently in reaction to the growing anti-pipeline resistance), featuring a union worker touting good union jobs.  It is not a stretch to think that Jackson had a hand in that campaign as well since Dominion is one of his many corporate clients.

Which brings us to what appears to be the only matter of substance contained in Jackson’s email to Democrats – that the pipelines will create some construction industry jobs.  And yes, that is true.  We all know that every construction project creates jobs, and some of these jobs are good-paying union jobs.  But does this truism mean that Democrats should support every proposed construction because it will “create jobs?”

Suppose Donald Trump proposes to build a new federal detention center in Alexandria to hold DACA recipients or other undocumented immigrants, mostly Latinos, in a wave of immigration raids.  What if Trump and his new CIA director renew the program to torture terrorism suspects and propose to build a black ops site in Fairfax to carry out “enhanced interrogations?” Or they fund a new healthcare facility in Arlington to compete with Planned Parenthood and to advise women that abortion is evil?  Or fill in the Grand Canyon and build strip malls on top? Chop down Sequoia National Park?

All of these construction projects would certainly “create jobs,” and maybe even some good-paying union jobs at that.  But would any Virginia Democrat seriously consider supporting these terrible projects? If they refused, would the Charlie Jacksons of the world argue they would be guilty of “taking food off of the table” of good union workers?

By the way, the oft-repeated claim that natural gas pipelines are a jobs-creating bonanza is just plain false.  Mountain Valley Pipeline itself says that the $3.5-billion project will create just 34 permanent jobs.  Thirty-four jobs!  That’s roughly the equivalent of one Applebee’s restaurant.

And those who follow this pipeline debate closely have pointed out that “there could be more jobs lost and perhaps a net economic loss to the state of Virginia, and West Virginia too.”  The reasons are obvious – destruction of pristine natural areas, largely agriculture, will harm both tourism and the farm economy of southwest Virginia.  That does not even include the additional expense of increased healthcare costs from the methane spewed by these projects and the health effects of stress on the hundreds of thousands of Virginians whose water, land and way of life are threatened.

All for 34 permanent jobs.

Moreover, studies in the United States and internationally show that green energy produces far more jobs – and good paying ones – than fossil fuel industries.

The World Bank estimates that U.S. wind and solar creates three times as many jobs per dollar spent than oil and natural gas.  The reason is that “renewable energy and energy efficiency clearly are several times more labor-intensive than fossil fuels” and “clean energy jobs also generally are more distributed and are largely higher quality jobs,” which is why “the ongoing shift to clean energy is very good news for employment and workers, and any politician interested in creating jobs should embrace and support the clean energy transition.”

A May 10 opinion piece in the New York Times, entitled “Trump is Wrong About Energy Jobs,” noted that supporters of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (translated: Charlie Jackson) make the same false argument as Donald Trump that fossil fuel projects are great for job creation: “The right way to assess the worthiness of energy projects has nothing to do with counting jobs….It involves doing cost-benefit analyses that include both the projects’ direct costs — the sort of thing that investors base decisions on — and their ‘externalities,’ the costs and benefits to society such as air or water pollution or useful knowledge uncovered by research and development.”  For fossil fuels, this means using “an additional calculation using what has become known as ‘the social cost of carbon’— an estimated number in dollars per ton of carbon dioxide that reflects the climate change consequences of a project’s emissions.”  Under that analysis, renewables clearly win and fossil fuels clearly lose.

All of this puts Charlie Jackson and his Dominion-funded lies on the same side as Donald Trump.  And we haven’t even addressed the question of workers’ health and safety and the fracking horror stories about the harm to workers caused by the fracked gas industry.  Workers and their families are paying the cost of the lies told by Jackson, Dominion and their polluting allies.  Ask any coal miner – I have.

By all means, we should have a debate about pipelines and put all the facts on the table.  Let us discuss whether we need $10 billion of new fracked methane infrastructure in Virginia or whether we should move dramatically towards a green energy economy.  Let us compare the handful of permanent jobs created by what will become stranded assets in a green economy versus creating tens of thousands of jobs in wind, solar and other truly clean energy sources.

But in having this debate, Democratic legislators should also keep this in mind: corporate apologists like Charlie Jackson are not credible sources for what is or is not a pro-union position.

Jackson’s work on behalf of corporate polluters and anti-union companies is hard to square with his claims of allegiance to Democratic Party ideals. (Note that Jackson chaired the VA-10 Democratic committee and sat on the DPVA’s Steering Committee for two terms while shilling for those same corporate clients). And that is because Jackson’s long and public track record of representing anti-union corporate polluters is at odds with everything for which the Democratic Party in Virginia is supposed to stand.

Like any American, Charlie Jackson has the right to work for whomever he chooses and claim whichever political alliances he wants.  But Democrats should not be fooled by a corporate wolf in sheep’s clothing. Jackson’s attempt to threaten Democratic legislators who oppose pipelines is as toxic and antithetical to Democratic Party ideals as the fracked methane gas pipelines that his corporate clients pay him to promote.

  • Sharon Ponton

    Preach it! Thank you.

  • old_redneck

    Have you seen the pro-pipeline ads on tv showing an individual claiming to be a union member heavy equipment operator claiming the pipeline will generate 17,000 jobs? I’m on the Northern Neck. The ads run on all Richmond stations.

    • Yep, they’re running in NOVA as well. Propaganda to the extreme, paid for by…what, Dominion ratepayer’s money? Why is that legal?

      • Laura Lee

        Richmond area too

    • CliosFanBoyNeeWoodrowfan

      are they counting all the jobs created to clean up the messes when it breaks or leaks???

  • Henry Howell

    An opus by a giant. Thanks, Jon.

  • A_Siegel

    Powerful piece with a lot packed into it, from your personal history to Jackson’s to the very telling questioning of whether we should go to bat for jobs paving over the Grand Canyon to make a parking lot.

    Some items to consider:

    1. Jackson-West is named after two people. The other partner, Chris West, is a GOP operative at heart. From their site’s bio of him: “he served in the federal office of United States Senator George Allen …. Chris began his career volunteering and then being professionally hired on a wide variety of political campaigns ranging from local, state and statewide elections to federal elections for U.S. Senate and ultimately a role on Bush-Cheney 2004 in the crucial swing state of Florida. ” (http://www.jackson-west.com/our-team/) Again, while utterly legal to partner and work with whom you wish, it isn’t just Jackson’s client base that stinks when it comes to seeking influence with/on Virginia’s Democratic politicians.

    2. An honest economic analysis would show that these pipelines create — even without the serious climate implications — economic risks and costs for Virginia, Virginia’s economy, and Virginia citizens. As Ivy Main has well put it, “For Dominion, the answer to every question is more gas.” (http://bluevirginia.us/2018/05/for-dominion-the-answer-to-every-problem-is-more-gas) A robust analysis — looking at the plunging price of renewables, moves to electrify everything, the potential for pricing carbon (as it should be … and almost certainly will be, at some time), etc — all strongly point to a high potential for these damaging pipelines to become economic albatrosses, to be paid for by Virginians through higher energy costs that still could be avoided through good governance and oversight.

    Sadly, across the country, LiUNA is on the wrong side of history time after time when it comes to supporting projects that will contribute to climate havoc. Hey, LiUNA, why not invest this sort of lobbying energy to fight for a nationwide infrastructure program to revitalize/rebuild/rejuvenate the raft of systems that rely on pipelines: sewer systems, water, leaking natural gas pipelines in older cities, transit/highway/rail tunnels. I — and so many others — will be glad to fight alongside you for these projects requiring the skill sets that LiUNA members have and that will actually enhance the American economy and solve problems. Stop fighting — viciously — for projects that will create near-term economic benefits while worsening the nation’s and humanity’s problems.