Labour union activists confront climate change at LaborNotes #ln2014

by Graham H. Cox last modified 2014-04-08T16:45:17-04:00
For the first time, unions and how they need to mobilise against climate change made it on the list of discussion points at Labor Notes. There is a lot of history to why it took so long to make climate change and green alternatives a priority (spoiler: it has a lot to do with some powerful trades unions being opposed). However, the progressive (and historically correct) position on this is winning across the labour movement and it is now considered an essential struggle by the majority of workers.

Energy Democracy

The session was standing-room only and Trade Unions for Energy Democracy lead things off with a presentation from Sean Sweeney.

Sweeney stated that there has been a shift in our unions' understanding on the importance of climate change, but we have a long way to go. Unions have to be more effective and more involved in a positive way as the business as usual option is not an option.

Unions as democratic organizations of workers are not always the tip of the spear when it comes to identifying and starting mass movements for progressive change. However, when activists organize and heroic unions take the historically correct stand, it does not take long for the entire union movement to take-up the fight and drive them forward like the political freight train the movement can be.

Sweeney said there are plenty of examples of this through the history of struggles in the US.

Only a few brave and principled unions marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. at first, but no one can deny the role unions have played since in fighting for racial equality.

Only a few brave and principled unions came out against the Vietnam war. However, the labour movement became instrumental in ending that war and promoting peace.

There are still only a few unions taking the brave and principled stand to fight climate change and develop an new democratic energy program. These principled unions will be remembered as those on the correct side of history and will lead this fight as a fight for workers.

Dave Coles, Unifor

One such union driving climate change as an issue for workers is the one that used to be lead by Dave Coles (now of Unifor, but previously as president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union).

Dave Coles first talked about the creation of the new Unifor union. The union was created to promote new principles and a guiding vision of putting progressive action at the heart of the labour movement in Canada.

Unifor represents workers that work in the operation of tar sands, telecom workers, mining sector, autoworkers, airline and rail, health care workers. The union was started in a particular historical moment in Canada where a right-wing government trying to undo progressive history in Canada.

Coles outlined how for almost 20 years the unions in Canada have opposed export pipelines.

Tar sands are neither tar nor really sands. They are bitumen and bitumen needs to be upgraded into usable oil. Unifor represents the majority of the workers in the export and up-grading sector. Coles' argument for Unifor to oppose the XL Pipeline has multiple parts beyond the obvious environmental issues that speak to even those prioritising jobs over the environment.

  • XL Pipeline will only have 13 permanent jobs when finished.
  • Exporting unrefined bitumen cost jobs every day amounting to killing 18,000 jobs in the industry.
  • Tar sands are the biggest industrial project in the history of the world.
  • Building Keystone XL will result in some very short-term pipeline jobs. However, for Canadians it is our sovereign right to decide where the jobs for our natural resource jobs should go.
  • First Nations communities are opposed.
  • When it comes to Keystone XL he asked why would we side with the boss so that they can export our jobs out of the country?

For Dave Coles, climate change is not (just) an environmental issue, it is a labour issue. He knows that workers will bear the brunt of the effects of climate change, not the bosses. Global warming must be understood in a broader social, political and economic context and it likely cannot be fixed in the unregulated, market-driven economy of Capitalism.

There needs to be a conversation on these issues within labour if we are going to find a solution. As workers we should never be scared of having an open debate about carbon producing industries and what our plan should be for them. For Unifor, it is necessary to have nationalisation of energy production on the table to control this industry effectively.

Elizabeth Lalasz

Next on the panel was National Nurses United activist Elizabeth Lalasz who outlined their concern with the known health affects caused by climate change.

National Nurses United and Global Nurses United have traveled the world helping those feeling the effects of climate change. It is clear to them that the impacts on people are large. Specifically Lalasz discussed their recent support to those affected by typhoons in the Philippines.

Nurses responded to the tragedy and built understanding of how far reaching the effects of climate change are.

National Nurses United work through Global Nurses United and the RN Response Network to support those affected by large natural disasters.

National Nurses United has come out against the Keystone XL and produced a document outlining 10 reasons to oppose the KXL pipeline.

Bruce Hamilton, ATU 1700

Bruce Hamilton from the Amalgamated Transit Union 1700 presented on why his union believes that labour must get into the fight around climate change and the shift away from carbon intensive transportation.

For Hamilton, it is because labour is separate from Capital which allows us to be more open in our activism on this issue than most other organizations. While it is obvious that working people have a stake in the effects of climate change, he also reminded the audience that workers have a lot to gain from the fight.

Transport is the second leading cause of putting greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and getting people out of their cars and into public transportation is a great way to fight climate change. Public transportation jobs are climate jobs.

Increasing public transportation also has other great economic benefits. There are high quality jobs in industries in creating the public transportation infrastructure.

May is international transit month and the ATU are taking action to promote bills in US congress to re-authorise transit investments. Hamilton outlined that mobilizations to stop the privatization of transit is especially important if we are going to have the resources and political power to invest enough to tackle climate challenges.

Finally, it is clear that the ATU is pushing to be out front in the push progressive solutions to climate change and for a democratic economy that is run for all.

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