Labour can and must lead the fight for jobs, public services and climate justice
PV Labour Bureau
Without question, one of the most urgent issues facing working people today is the climate crisis and the need for rapid decarbonization of the economy. With so much of production in Canada related to carbon, whether directly or indirectly, millions of jobs and billions of dollars are held in the balance of any transformation plan.
Of course, since we live in a capitalist society, corporations are driving government policy in this area. The drive to maximize private profit largely explains the near-criminal delay in any notable progress toward shifting from fossil fuel-based energy to renewables, replacing gasoline and diesel cars with EV vehicles, or building mass inter- and intra-urban transit and public transportation. Even now, as many of these captains of industry take up the mantle of “green transition,” they do so with an eye toward increasing profit through deskilling, production speedups, automation and, famously, massive public subsidies.
Letting capital lead the shift toward lower impact production means shifting toward higher profits at the expense of jobs, wages and social programs.
Fortunately, labour has weighed in on this issue with a number of unions preparing transition plans that put workers’ needs ahead of profit, usually in the context of their specific area of concentration and representation.
One of, if not the most impressive of these is the Canadian Union of Postal Workers’ “Delivering Community Power” plan, launched in 2016. It’s a comprehensive approach which calls for infrastructure upgrades to lower climate impact, and an expansion of public services available through Canada Post as a way to meet social need while reducing carbon use. The plan promotes several specific initiatives including greening the Canada Post vehicle fleet (the largest in Canada) with union-made electric vehicles, retrofitting Canada Post buildings with solar panels, and expanding the use of Canada Post as the consolidated last mile delivery to ease congestion and pollution caused by too many delivery trucks that aren’t full to capacity.
Critically, “Delivering Community Power” emerges directly from CUPW members’ work, with the union, speaking in its own voice, proposing working-class solutions to social problems. This is an example of labour independently setting the bar for social and economic development, and challenging governments and industry to meet it.
Campaigns like CUPW’s provide a path for public and private sector unions to work together and advance political demands based on working-class experience and connect those to their struggles in the workplace and at the bargaining table. It’s the kind of thing we need to see more of. Imagine the possibilities if Unifor, USW and CUPE launched a joint campaign for publicly owned and operated high-speed electric rail and other mass public transportation, to reduce the number of passenger vehicles and related infrastructure. Combine this with the call for a shortened work week with no loss in take home pay, and we would have a strong labour-led campaign for jobs, wages and climate justice that could engage millions of workers across many industrial sectors.
In the wake of the Canadian Labour Congress convention in May, where delegates clearly and consistently pressed for real action on jobs, wages, public services and equity, working people might have expected the CLC leadership to step up to the plate and lead this kind of strong fight.
But, if its response to Ottawa’s recently announced “green jobs” legislation is any indication, it looks like the Congress reached for a rubber bat and struck out in three straight pitches.
On June 14, a full day before the government even tabled Bill C-50, The Canadian Sustainable Jobs Act, the CLC was publicly championing the bill as “an unprecedented opportunity to foster collaboration” between labour and business, “to strengthen our economy as we tackle climate change.” This narrative was immediately echoed throughout the labour movement, with major union affiliates all chiming in to celebrate the legislation which, they rush to insist, “emerged as a result of the New Democrat and Liberals’ Supply and Confidence Agreement.”
It’s absolutely true that climate change and the related economic impact are enormous and pressing challenges which demand government action. It’s also true that working people – not private capital – need to be driving the solutions to those challenges, if there is to be any hope of success.
But there is a world of difference between being in the driver’s seat and having “a seat at the table,” especially when that table has been built, set and seated according to the priorities of business and its representatives in government.
What does the Sustainable Jobs Act contain that the CLC feels is so unprecedented? It begins with a three-page preamble which repeatedly mentions the importance of decent work in an inclusive economy, the key role that the labour movement has in building a net-zero economy, and the necessity of strengthening collaboration (that word again) with Indigenous peoples. But beyond preambular platitudes, the bill contains very little specifics and a whole lot of weasel words.
The first stated purpose of Bill C-50, before anything about sustainability or net-zero, is “to facilitate and promote economic growth.” To the extent that this discounts zero-growth or degrowth narratives, it’s somewhat useful. But labour or anyone else reading this needs to view it against the backdrop of a federal government which has purchased and bankrolled an oil pipeline and repeatedly sent heavily armed security forces into Wet’suwet’en territory, betraying its own oft-repeated commitments to climate justice and Indigenous rights, all in the name of economic growth. The same energy corporations which are so well-served by the government’s actions are also among the loudest voices calling for state assistance in realizing the “economic opportunities” of the shift to a net-zero economy. Corralling public funding for private profit is clearly job number one for the Sustainable Jobs Act.
The bill also creates a Sustainable Jobs Partnership Council, composed of representatives from government, industry, Indigenous organizations and labour (which is to be one of the co-chairs), whose task is to provide “advice” to the government. Interestingly, all members of this council are appointed by the (unspecified) government minister – there is absolutely no provision for labour or Indigenous organizations to name their own representatives. Would the labour movement accept employer-appointed worker representatives to joint health and safety committees, grievances or collective bargaining?
The legislation compels the government to prepare a Sustainable Jobs Action Plan which, again, has “facilitate and promote economic growth” as its primary goal. But the government doesn’t have to prepare its first plan until the end of 2025, meaning it won’t even be discussed until early 2026. So, this means workers have to undergo at least another two and a half years of corporate profiteering under the pretext of climate justice, or just outright foot-dragging while the environmental crisis deepens.
Disgracefully, after repeating the importance of Indigenous peoples’ involvement in the preamble, which also references the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), Bill C-50 makes not one single commitment to the UNDRIP principles in the body of the legislation. Unquestioningly, this is to avoid committing the government to consulting with Indigenous peoples and receiving their “free, prior and informed consent” to the legislation or development arising from it. This is not an honest oversight – it is a deliberate effort by the government to avoid its obligations under international law. Like the original theft of Indigenous land and ensuing genocide, this is the state acting in the interests of capital in the same way that it acts in capital’s interests against workers. Labour cannot not turn a blind eye to this.
It is peculiar that the CLC leadership is celebrating the class collaborationism which Bill C-50 legislates at a moment when the economic base for “class partnership” is steadily eroding. As the systemic crisis of monopoly capitalism deepens, big business is placing increasing demands on the working class and extracting more and more concessions, not opening its mind to workers’ needs. In this context, labour needs to stiffen its resistance, not seek an accommodation with capital.
There is a lot at stake for the working class as confront the climate crisis and the related economic transformation. We need to press the labour leadership to take a class struggle approach, building on campaigns like “Delivering Community Power,” rather than a defeatist line that jumps in bed with corporations and greenwashes class collaborationism.
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