From Vancouver to Paris: Workers Uniting Against Climate Change

By Daniel Tseghay

There is a great deal to unpack since the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris ended on December 11th. One of the issues to resolve is the labour movement’s involvement in confronting climate change.

Feature image by Mike Alewitz, available at

One of the forums during the conference, “One Million Green Jobs,” saw CUPE’s National Secretary-Treasurer, Charles Fleury, address the crowd. Fleury reached Paris as part of a delegation of 35 Canadian trade unionists organized by the Canadian Labour Congress and the International Trade Union Congress.

Labour and the environment have historically been pitted against one another. But that’s being challenged by civil society and, increasingly, union representatives. At COP21, Jeremy Corbyn and Naomi Klein made the connection during an event entitled “Trade Unions and Climate Change.” The labour-environmental group, Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, also convened in Paris to tackle this emergent issue. In the United States, one important movement that connects labour with environmentalism is the  BlueGreen Alliance, which involves  Communications Workers of America (CWA), the Laborers International Union of America (LIUNA), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA), and the Teamsters (IBT). In light of British Columbia’s move to exploit liquified natural gas (LNG) through the process of hydraulic fracturing, Trade Unions Against Fracking is another meaningful initiative.

And now, former CUPE National President, Paul Moist, challenges the presumed conflict between labour and the environment. In an interview with RankandFile shortly before an event in support of the Leap Manifesto in Vancouver last month, headlined by Moist, Klein, and Stephen Lewis, Moist made it clear he sees no conflict between the two.

“I reject the jobs and the economy vs. the environment argument,” he said. “In fact, many of the new economies, the new green economies, jobs are going to be as labour intensive or more labour intensive than traditional industry. All of the Canadian Labour Congress’ policy statements on the environment – and CUPE’s part of the congress – talk about a just transition strategy. In fact, through the ITUC (the international trade union confederation) we wanted the G20 statements on COP21 to be changed to include just transition strategies and I believe we got that amendment.”

Other unions are taking part as well. Moist says CUPE is working with the Vancouver District Labour Council, the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union, and the BC Federation of Labour on this. Most of the CUPE membership works in the public sector, in municipalities, school boards, and BC health services. CUPE has already signed the Leap Manifesto, which calls for significant action on climate change, because, as Moist says, “we accept that the evidence is undeniable, that global warming threatens a whole bunch of the planet and ultimately affects all of us no matter where we work.”

Even union representatives in industries typically pitted against environmental protection are making the connection. “Ten years ago, there was nothing but resistance from our workers,” said Ken Smith, Unifor Local 707A president, which represents 3,500 Albertan oil workers. “‘This can go on forever, and it’s not so bad.’ But the science doesn’t lie, and we keep watching television. Last summer, northern Alberta and northern Saskatchewan were on fire. We’re seeing stranger and stranger weather.” He argued that recognizing the ecological reality is consistent with a just transition which will ensure there are plenty of jobs in renewable energy.

Considering the extent of the climate change threat, a radical shift is our social structure is required, and the labour movement must play a role in this movement. The Leap Manifesto unequivocally points out that there can be little improvement on the ecological front without changing the economic conditions that have let resource extraction run rampant in our economies. What this means for the labour movement is still an open discussion.

There is, for instance, the network of worker co-ops, like Cooperation Jackson, which took part in the Paris conference. Cooperation Jackson, out of Jackson, Mississippi,  formed in 2007 around democratic control of industries by workers and a commitment to producing only what is necessary for communities rather than what might be profitable. And for that reason, Cooperation Jackson has paid special attention to sustainable food production – inspired by Fannie Lou Hamer’s efforts to form a Freedom Farm Cooperative in 1969, and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund – and the looming ecological crisis.

In Paris, Cooperation Jackson members highlighted the effects of climate change on poor and working people and discussed a plan they unveiled last month called The Jackson Just Transition Plan. The plan for zero-waste-and-emissions from Jackson by 2025 is woven together by an understanding of labour’s role in seeing it through. “We want to encourage the City of Jackson to create a Local Food and Production Charter,” the report reads, “to encourage and incentivize local food production and distribution, to create more jobs and reduce carbon emissions.”

Cooperation Jackson’s call for labour-owned industries  as a necessary part in addressing the broader issue of climate change may not match CUPE’s commitment to addressing environmental devastation, but it is part of an ongoing discussion the labour movement needs to be having.

“Our environmental policies and resolutions book is full of activist resolutions on the undeniable science of climate change,” Moist says. “We’ve got a whole range of resolutions wanting to make our healthcare system greener, our public schools system greener. We represent a lot of energy workers – Manitoba Hydro, Quebec Hydro, Hydro One in Ontario – and energy-efficiency should be at the top of the ladder for all energy utilities across Canada.” Retrofitting homes and expanding public transportation, for instance, would reduce energy consumption and provide jobs for far more workers than the fossil fuel industry.  

For Moist, CUPE and other unions need to become leaders in the transition towards a green economy. “We represent a lot of workers in the public sector who should be setting an example for industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” he reflects.

Workers, after all, have to live on this earth, increasingly ravaged as it is by the actions of a very few astronomically powerful oil and gas tycoons. The science is in and workers in a variety of industries – however implicated in the crisis they might be – acknowledge it. And workers recognize that the labour movement should move outside the workplace and see workers as having a broader interest in ensuring a good life for themselves and their communities.

“Our social unionism principles,” Moist concludes, “demand that we take decisions on issues beyond just collective bargaining and pensions and wages, as important as they are, and this would be right up there with medicare, public pensions, public education, more accessible post-secondary education in Canada, having a progressive position on climate change is absolutely a part of our work.”



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