Sometimes A Policy Debate Is Just A Policy Debate

One really impressive thing that I think teachers union communications shops have managed to pull off is to get the debate over school reform framed as largely a dispute about unions rather than about schools. So if Mayor X thinks something would be a good idea and Union A doesn’t like the idea, and then Mayor X complains about Union A for trying to block his policy initiatives this often gets discussed as if Mayor X is pushing the idea because Union A doesn’t like it. Consider a contrasting story about countervailing forces and the Keystone XL pipeline controversy:

In September 2010, four unions — the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States and Canada; the Laborers International Union of North America; the Teamsters; and the International Union of Operating Engineers — reached a tentative project labor agreement with Trans­Canada to build the pipeline, which is now finalized. They say the project will directly generate as many as 20,000 high-wage jobs for their members.

“It doesn’t cost the government two cents,” said United Association General President William P. Hite, whose union represents plumbers and pipefitters in the United States and Canada. “We promote it every chance we get.”

Environmentalists, by contrast, have been agitating to get the pipeline blocked. But I’ve never heard this disagreement between factions of the progressive coalition characterized as a dispute about labor unions in which union-busting environmentalists are trying to destroy workers’ living standards. Rather, environmentalists are trying to block the pipeline because they don’t like its environmental implications. Conversely, building trades unions whose members will be constructing the pipeline would like to have the jobs. And it makes perfect sense for TransCanada to shell out a union wage premium in exchange for unions’ support in getting Democratic members of Congress and a Democratic president to go there way on a very politicized regulatory decision. Still, in really fundamental and important ways this is an argument about a pipeline and the environmental implications of building it not an argument about the cosmic worth of people who build large pipes or the legitimacy of their desire to lobby on behalf of their interests.