One would have hoped that Canada’s newest and largest private sector union – UNIFOR, made up of the former Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) and Communications, Energy and Paperworkers (CEP) unions – would have been out front in the growing movement against Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline reversal. This key new organization of Canada’s working-class needs to join First Nations, environmental activists, young people, Occupy veterans, other unionists and working people in communities across Ontario in organizing to demand that Line 9 be stopped.
But in a recent column posted on rabble.ca, “The Line 9 connection to energy security and sustainability,” UNIFOR’s Director of Strategic Planning Fred Wilson argues otherwise. Wilson claims that Line 9 is a progressive tool for helping to address Canada’s need to control its energy resources; making the transition to a less carbon-intensive energy regime and providing good jobs for energy workers. In the process, he portrays the protest movement at times as well-meaning but naive, and at other times as little more than left-wing NIMBY-obsessed populists. Aside from the problematic nature of the arguments Wilson makes, the column disappointingly reinforces some of the weaknesses and limitations of the behaviours of some in the trade union movement toward the environment, job creation and protection, young activists and the working-class as a whole.
Line 9 and “Energy Security”?
Wilson’s principal argument is that the Line 9 reversal is part of a larger effort to substitute oil that is currently being imported from abroad, to be refined in Montreal, with Canadian oil from the tar sands. He argues that this will bring us closer to what he calls “energy security.” This can serve as the base for developing a new “National Energy Policy,” which would include plans for transitioning to energy sources that have reduced Green House Gases (GHG).
Perhaps this perspective made sense in the era before we understood the critical and immediate threat of climate change, and before the tar sands projects were going full blast. But today, with climate change massively affecting people around the word, it is wrong to increase our reliance on fossil fuels, and in particular, the dirty and dangerous bitumen (either raw or diluted) from the tar sands. The tar sands are Canada’s fastest growing contributor to climate change, and the projects associated with them need to be ended.
Opposition to Line 9 is based on this need to reject the reliance on tar sands oil, and certainly avoid its shipment East. Shouldn’t we be calling for the planned replacement of oil (imports and tar sands) with renewables? Shouldn’t a national energy policy include demands to eliminate reliance on the tar sands, rather than making it the foundation of “energy security”?
While he notes that we need to transition to a “more sustainable energy path, substituting less carbon intensive fuel and renewables,” in fact, there are no real references to any plans to move away from fossil fuels toward renewables in the energy policy articulated in Wilson’s article. And here, with Line 9, when we have a concrete struggle over limiting the centrality of tar sands and fossil fuels for Canada’s energy grid, he and UNIFOR call for lining up on the other side.
Wilson repeatedly insists that Line 9 is not the same as the larger, export-based pipelines that he claims are driving the tar sands project. Line 9 may be smaller, but it is also integrated into an export network. And it is still a way of integrating tar sands oil into our plans for the future, and relies on a fossil-fuel base of energy.
The issues he does raise with Line 9 are its potential use of American-sourced shale gas and the dangers posed by insufficient safety measures. His only real mention of the “legitimate” concerns of First Nations people (who are leading the movement in many ways) and the larger protest movement are in relation with the latter. This is a central issue in the Stop Line 9 movement. There are very high levels of rare cancers in First Nations communities affected by tar sands poisons in Alberta. Moreover, potential leaks of Line 9 could negatively affect the 18 Indigenous Communities close to or along the pipeline as well as thousands of others.
But even here, the real dangers posed by the location of the pipeline and the experiences we already have with the massive and long-term environmental destruction associated with pipeline leaks, are given short shrift.
What Kind of Jobs?
Then there is the question of jobs. One gets the impression from the Wilson article that UNIFOR for the most part cares about protecting existing jobs in the oil and gas industry, with little interest in radically downsizing fossil fuel energy, and the necessary “just transition” of workers to other forms of renewable energy and economic activity (regardless of the reference to the term “just transition” in the text).
This raises all kinds of questions. Wilson exaggerates the amount of job creation flowing from this project. Line 9 is already built. But, while former Ontario premier Mike Harris, writing in the Financial Post, claims that, “Ontario will gain 3,250 person-years of direct and indirect employment, and Quebec will gain 1,969 person-years,” from the Line 9 reversal others point out that this is illusory. Dave Vasey, Sonia Grant and Sakura Saunders, writing in rabble.ca note, “this translates at best to 108 jobs per year for 30 years related to Line 9 in Ontario, and about 66 in Quebec…..the majority of the ‘person years’ of employment would be short term and take place during the initial upgrades to Line 9 terminals and construction of a pumping station to reverse the flow.”
Significant new job creation would only come by challenging the paradigm raised by the oil and gas interests and the political parties tied to them. This requires the kind of alliance building that Wilson’s perspective precludes. The kind of job creation needed should be based partly on sustainable, non-fossil-fueled energy development, retrofitting of current housing and buildings, and needed investment in mass transit and infrastructure, challenging dependence on private investment and accumulation. As well, new jobs need to be opened up in the caring sector, with hospitals, educational institutions, social housing construction and other forms of social resources development.
Unions like UNIFOR need to be at the forefront – in partnership with First Nations and young people and the rest of the working-class – in fighting for a different economic and environmental model of job creation. Job security is key, but what kind of jobs? Is the job security strategy one that works against the interests of the rest of the working-class and First Nations peoples, or in partnership with them?
Moving away from the narrow focus on the short-term sectoral interests of a relatively small group of workers (be they in auto, nuclear, oil and gas, etc), whose jobs are currently defined by their employers is a critical way of building unions as fighters for the class as a whole, and for a different, sustainable, and hopefully anti-capitalist future. Narrow, short-term strategies can lead unions into isolation and therefore a shrinking and narrowing space that can only have an ugly end (witness the dropping density of American unions). Unions need to think wider, deeper and farther into the future.
This is an opportunity to build, not to be wasted on narrow, sectional interests, and outdated strategies. People – especially young people – are looking to UNIFOR to create openings for inspiration and organization. Rethinking their position on Line 9 is an opportunity for UNIFOR to demonstrate a new way for labour unions to learn from and engage with other social movements, themselves, rooted in the working-class.
Engaging in a constructive debate with the perspective in Wilson’s column is also an opportunity for the environmental movement to challenge the union movement to step up to the plate.
Finally, implying that Line 9 protesters are no different than those who oppose rural wind farms shows real contempt for the young activists that UNIFOR seems so eager and excited to organize and welcome into the union movement. We expect more from the union that welcomed the passionate and incisive call from Naomi Klein at its founding convention to play a leadership role in challenging climate change. •
Herman Rosenfeld is a retired CAW staffperson, former GM worker, taught Labour Studies at McMaster and Political Science at York University.
This piece was originally published on The Bullet