Canada’s Secret Weapon in Fighting Climate Change: Great Trade Unions
U.S. President Joe Biden has been pushing the envelope in bringing America back into the Paris Accord process, setting more ambitious targets for reducing U.S. emissions, and committing to very big investments in renewable energy infrastructure and other climate-friendly measures. This is very encouraging, and will reinforce (and up the ante) for Canada to do better.
One news story about the Biden program, however, got me thinking about Canada’s climate debates. The story cited a statement of public support for Biden’s plan from the United Mine Workers of America – the largest union in the U.S. coal sector. The UMWA endorsed Biden’s proposal to accelerate the phase-out of coal use, so long as strong guarantees were provided for new job opportunities in renewable energy and reclamation activities, support for health insurance and pensions for affected workers, and other sensible transition measures.
This is, of course, a very positive and overdue position for the UMWA (and other U.S. unions) to adopt, and it attracted considerable media attention. Superficially it might seem contradictory for a coal miners’ union to endorse policies that will accelerate the disappearance of its major industry. But the devastation being wrought by the unplanned, unsupported closure of coal mines – which only accelerated after Donald Trump came to power promising to ‘bring back coal’ – is proof positive that doing nothing, or worse yet trying to resist the accelerating energy transition, is not a good way to protect your members. Anyone who cares about fossil fuel workers (and we all should) must acknowledge this entails supporting the energy transition and protecting workers and communities as it happens – not pretending it can somehow all be stopped.
What struck me about media coverage of the UMWA statement, however, is how it highlighted something we often take for granted in Canada. Canadian unions (including those representing coal miners and other energy workers) have been saying the same things here for many years. Indeed, for decades Canadian unions and union leaders have taken generally visionary, principled and ultimately effective positions in favour of a supported, fair, gradual transition away from fossil fuels. A union endorsing climate policies and the phase-out of coal would not generate headlines in Canada: it would definitely be a ‘dog bites man’ story, not the other way around. So as the U.S. union movement (and those in other countries) moves forward, and mobilizes its members, in favour of a supported, fair energy transition, perhaps we should take a moment to acknowledge and thank Canadian unions for their often unsung role. Canadian unions have advanced the debate here in many important ways: negotiating practical but important details of transition, and refusing the bait of fossil fuel lobbyists that jobs and sustainability are somehow incompatible.
There are many outstanding examples of leadership from Canadian unions on climate and transition issues. When strong and representative worker voices reject the false dichotomy between saving jobs and saving the environment, the fossil fuel industry and their allies in politics are prevented in their quest to divide the labour movement from the climate movement. While the debate over the economic effects of climate policy is still smouldering in some quarters (just pick up any issue of the National Post), on the whole I think the Canadian discourse has accepted there is no trade-off between climate policy and economic and employment performance. And the careful, constructive positioning of Canadian unions has been an important factor in that success.
There are many examples over recent years of Canadian unions and union leaders whose efforts to defend energy workers have helped us avoid the jobs vs. environment trap that has bedeviled labour movements in the U.S. and some other countries.
For example, it is significant that one of the first uses of the phrase ‘just transition’ was by a Canadian union activist, Brian Kohler: a member of the former CEP who coined the phrase in 1998 to refer to the needed combination of planned energy transition, alternative job-creation, and income supports and transition assistance.
The CEP (which helped found Unifor in 2013, along with the former CAW) remained very active in advocating emissions reduction initiatives in the energy industry, campaigning for more value-added energy refining and petrochemical activity in Canada, and opposing more exports of raw energy. They showed, for example, that more pipelines and raw bitumen exports could never provide a base for stable, decent, value-added jobs.
Unifor also represents members in several industries with a stake in ensuring that the transition to renewable energy is managed effectively and fairly. One high-profile example is the auto industry, which is now restructuring to produce electric vehicles. Unifor’s success in winning major EV investments in Canadian auto plants (often putting more pressure on company investment decisions than Canadian governments do, by making investment an issue in collective bargaining) has reinforced the public’s appreciation of the economic and employment opportunities associated with the energy transition.
The Canadian Labour Congress has also played a crucial role in advancing a positive vision of planned, fair transition – and then fighting effectively for those principles in federal policy-making. For example, the CLC played a vital role in the federal task force on phasing out coal-fired power, that has become an international example for how to achieve this critical environmental step without undue dislocation of workers and communities.
That federal coal transition plan was heavily influenced by the previous experience of the off-coal transition plan negotiated in Alberta, with crucial input and support from the Alberta Federation of Labour. Indeed, the AFL has been a consistent and innovative force for pragmatic regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from energy production, limits on new energy developments, and defending wages and working conditions for energy workers. This is especially important since Alberta has the largest reliance on fossil fuel industries of any province (direct fossil fuel jobs account for around 7% of employment in Alberta). This makes it harder for unions to reject the false choice presented by fossil fuel lobbyists between employment and the environment, but the Federation has done so consistently and effectively. Its 12-point plan, released in 2019, is an excellent example of the labour movement getting on the front foot on the climate and jobs debate. And the AFL’s President, Gil McGowan, has been an outstanding and visionary leader in the fight for decent, sustainable jobs. He pushes back effectively against the onslaught of right-wing, anti-labour attacks from the provincial UCP government and its big business backers – calling out the hypocrisy of Jason Kenney and his backers, who claim they are standing up for Alberta’s workers while stripping away their overtime benefits, workers’ compensation, and job security. Many individual unions in Alberta have also taken very positive approaches on climate issues, showing their members and the broader public that petroleum and mining companies are not actually interested in stable, secure jobs for workers.
Many other unions in Canada have used their voices, their bargaining clout, and their political influence to advance progressive climate and jobs policies in their workplaces and industries. This database, compiled by the York University-based ACW research project, catalogues many innovative contract provisions negotiated by Canadian unions to improve environmental practices at workplaces, educate union members and employers about climate policy, and implement concrete provisions and supports (like job security and notice, retraining, and adjustment assistance) as energy transitions occur. It confirms that Canadian unions are very much ahead of the curve on these issues: playing a vital role in both winning the broader political debate over climate change, but then demanding and winning concrete measures (not token statements) to ensure that the energy transition is fair and inclusive.
Of course, the approach of Canadian unions to climate issues has not been perfect or uniform: there have been tensions and debates, and at times some unions have supported further fossil fuel developments on the faint hope that the insecurity facing their members could be solved by approval of just one more mega-project. But in general the Canadian union movement has been a consistent and progressive force in climate debates. The idea of a Canadian union endorsing a pro-jobs climate plan (like Biden’s) wouldn’t be news at all here. And that has undoubtedly helped us move the policy needle forward in Canada.
I have worked with unions in several countries around climate, employment and transition planning issues. In my experience, Canada’s trade union movement sets a very high standard with its positive and pro-active approach to these issues. Our campaigns for both sustainability and workers’ rights are stronger, thanks to our union movement’s activism, vision, and courage.