Labor activists for Standing Rock

Nowhere is the battle to protect tribal lands and our country’s environment from the ravages of the oil and gas industry playing out more dramatically than in Standing Rock North Dakota, where the Dakota Access Pipeline threatens the only water supply available to the Lakota and Dakota peoples of the Standing Rock Reservation. Recognizing early on the inherent justice in resistance, NYSNA President Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, RN, with a contingent of our nurses and staff traveled to the Sacred Stone Camp to stand in solidarity with “the largest gathering of Native Tribes in the past 100 years of American History” against the pipeline.

Now labor activists and working people from across the country have followed suit. Labor for Standing Rock is a rank-and-file organization that has joined the First Nations in the fight to protect their water supply, their ancestral lands (and our planet) from the consequences of gas pipeline development. Cliff Willmeng, an RN from Lafayette, Colorado, and UFCW Local 7 member, is one of the organizers. He spoke with New York Nurse about why it is critical to support the Native American right to self-determination and their territories.

It’s a fundamental health issue

NYN: Why is a nurse from Colorado involved with a struggle in North Dakota?

Willmeng: Quite simply, advocating for our patients is a primary role and responsibility of nurses and all health care professionals. When we take a wider view of this, we have to conclude that the fight for the environment is really advocating for patients everywhere.

Where I live and work in Lafayette, Colorado, we are among communities nationally that are fighting the oil and gas industry, or as many people know it “fracking”. We experience the spills, explosions, fires and leaks that the fossil fuel industry is synonymous with everywhere. When Standing Rock began to find its way into the national news, it was an easy connection for many people living in the shadow of the oil and gas industry to make.

NYN: Can you talk more about the healthcare impacts of these pipelines in particular?

Willmeng: When the pipelines leak and fail there are no scientific remedies to restore the comprehensive damage to the environment they affect. Every living thing that depends on that environment is then exposed in multiple ways to the oil — which is both carcinogenic and disrupts the endocrine system.

NYN: What can unions and individual members do to participate in Labor for Standing Rock?

Willmeng: The most important actions have to do with educating and mobilizing support for Standing Rock and the larger fight against the fossil fuel industry. We can pass resolutions, sponsor busses to bring members to North Dakota and start to bring new people into local fights for the environment. With these first steps, we can make the connections between all union members and begin to organize a new labor movement that fights for full employment and builds a sustainable world where working people, not CEOs, are the new leaders.

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