Union withdraws from conference over Trump speech

One of the Appalachian shale industry’s biggest supporters and beneficiaries, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 66, broke with the Marcellus Shale Coalition by pulling its sponsorship of the organization’s annual conference because Donald Trump is scheduled to speak there today.

“There’s just no way that I was going to associate Local 66 with any function that gives this guy an avenue to speak,” said Jim Kunz, business manager for the union who called the Republican presidential nominee a “snake oil salesman.”

The union’s sponsorship, at around $10,000, represents a drop in the bucket for the annual event that began Wednesday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown. But it underscores the uneasy position that unions such as the operating engineers find themselves in, having publicly endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton who — judging from the comments and presentations at Shale Insight — is not the industry’s preferred choice.

The keynote address at the conference was delivered by an oil and gas industry legend, and Mr. Trump’s energy adviser Harold Hamm, chairman and CEO of Continental Resource, who played videos of Ms. Clinton talking about her email server controversy and saying that, with enough safeguards, there won’t be many places left in the U.S. where fracking can take place.

“You heard it from her. Not me. She wants to stop it. She wants to stop what we’re doing,” Mr. Hamm said.

The attitude was pervasive among conference participants. Oil and gas company leaders and their suppliers expressed concern that a Clinton presidency would mean more regulation and lead to fewer jobs. At a booth for London-based energy publisher Kallanish Energy, which featured cardboard cutouts of the candidates, several participants took selfies strangling Ms. Clinton. Others overwhelmingly “voted” for Mr. Trump on a white board with the candidates' names.

Mr. Kunz, whose local represents 7,000 members who work on roads, pipelines, and well pad construction projects, said he believes that the vilification is misguided and that the real danger to jobs and working people would come from Mr. Trump.

Shale gas has been a tremendous boost to Local 66.

Half a dozen years ago, Mr. Kunz said his union was nearing 10 percent unemployment. A year later, when the shale industry started to take off, employment ramped up to 100 percent. In fact, Mr. Kunz said, the local had to recruit operators from other areas to fill the need.

And while he’s seen a dip in jobs in the past year that parallels the oil and gas downturn, he expects to be back up to full employment next year.

“It’s all driven by this industry,” he said. Yet Mr. Kunz said he couldn’t allow his union’s logo to appear at the industry conference that would give a platform to Mr. Trump.

Travis Windle, a spokesman for the North Fayette-based Marcellus Shale Coalition, said the conference is “not a partisan event — never has been” and that Ms. Clinton was invited to speak. She declined due to a scheduling conflict, he said.

In a statement, Marcellus Shale Coalition president Dave Spigelmyer said the organization is “excited to hear from Donald Trump at this week’s conference and to put our industry and its shared economic, environmental and national security-related successes on a national state.”

He warned conference participants not to engage with protesters who may show up at the convention center on Thursday, and to remove their name tags to help avoid being targeted.

A coalition of groups have planned a “Love Trumps Hate: Rally for economic and climate justice” in front of the convention center early Thursday afternoon, half an hour after Mr. Trump is scheduled to speak.

Also on Thursday morning, a handful of labor groups, including United Steelworkers and the AFL-CIO, will hold an anti-Trump news conference in the lobby of the United Steelworkers headquarters, Downtown. One of the goals is to dispute the notion that Mr. Trump has wide union backing, despite getting the full endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police last week.

Inside the Marcellus Shale Coalition conference on Wednesday, Roland “Butch” Taylor, retired business manager for the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union Local 396 in Ohio, said he’d heard rumblings going through the organized labor community about protesting the conference because of Mr. Trump. He kept his commitment to speak on a panel about local regulations.

“I'm here because the industry has given us so much opportunity,” he said.

It wasn’t a political decision, Mr. Taylor said. In fact, his message was about how successful his union has been in banding with business groups and members of both parties at the local level to oppose efforts by citizen and environmental groups to restrict natural gas development.

The bipartisan cooperation he has seen, Mr. Taylor said, “I wish it would go national. If you want to make America great again, do that. Don’t be trying to build walls.”

Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.

First Published September 21, 2016 5:24 PM

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