It feels like the dawning of a new era in British Columbia, and not an era that bodes well for our climate.
Early in September, Jim Sinclair, the president of the BC Federation of Labour, and Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the BC and Yukon Building and Construction Trades Council met with newly-elected Liberal Premier Christy Clark. As publicized on the Premier's website, the meeting was to “discuss strengthening skills training for British Columbians, upgrading the skills of current union members, and making sure the jobs in the North are filled by local people first, and then by British Columbians.” This meeting was also part of the publicity for the Premier's plan to massively expand Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) extraction and exports from BC.
In an article by the two union leaders in the Vancouver Sun, they repeatedly endorsed the LNG plan as a way to provide jobs and economic growth: “Workers in British Columbia are looking to the labour movement to protect our birthright and ensure we have a rightful claim to the jobs that will come about from the economic boom…We are willing and eager to work collaboratively with government and industry in an equal partnership to find solutions to this challenge.” In the same article, they point out the need for “a comprehensive and accessible training plan.”
At the meeting, Premier Clark said, “Labour can't do this alone. Industry can't do this alone. We need to put aside our differences. People don't care about politics. They care about jobs." But there is nothing apolitical about resource exploitation jobs, and this has been proven over and over again.
For many, the awkwardness of the press conference and resulting partnership was that it seemed like the leadership of organized labour was reinforcing Clark’s assertion here. There is no doubt that job creation and training is vital in this province. Organized labour needs to fight for trades training for the jobs that will come from dealing with the climate emergency. Instead of praising the Premier and the expansion of LNG, we need a labour movement that demands that the government spend the money necessary to create green jobs building clean renewable energy sources, mass transit systems that are better than traveling by car, and retrofitting homes and other buildings where they live. This would be a jobs plan that would create even more jobs than the government's wishful thinking over LNG.
The other side of cheering for fossil industries, like LNG, is that climate chaos will directly affect the lives and livelihoods of workers in BC. Due to the global warming that has already occurred, we will see more flooding and forest fires in BC. Construction workers' homes will be destroyed alongside their neighbours'.
Before considering and advocating for the viable alternatives, this partnership was too quickly accepted. At the unveiling of UNIFOR (the convergence of the Canadian Autoworkers Union and Communications and Energy Paperworkers unions), Naomi Klein gave an opening address. In it she explained that workers and their unions centered in unsustainable industries might not be inclined to join environmental movements to combat climate change because this delegitimizes their work, or threatens their livelihoods. She accepted this as a reality, but she also offered the following:
“The renewal of the public sphere will create millions of new, high paying union jobs—jobs in fields that don’t hasten the warming of the planet. But it’s not just boilermakers, pipefitters, construction workers and assembly line workers who get new jobs and purpose in this great transition. There are big parts of our economy that are already low-carbon. They’re the parts facing the most disrespect, demeaning attacks and cuts. They happen to be jobs dominated by women, new Canadians, and people of colour. And they’re also the sectors we need to expand massively: the caregivers, educators, sanitation workers, and other service sector workers. The very ones that your new union has pledged to organize. The low-carbon workers who are already here, demanding living wages and respect. Turning low-paying, low-carbon jobs into higher-paying jobs is itself a climate solution and should be recognized as such.”
Labour needs to be front and center in combating climate change, and this will be driven by rank-and-file labour activists involved in the climate justice movement. The labour leadership’s partnership with the LNG industry and Clark comes from the despair of losing the recent election to the Liberals, and from an environmental movement in BC that organizes to halt construction projects, rarely putting forward a call for climate jobs. Yet a clear and strong commitment to combating climate change and replacing exploitative industries with sustainable industries needs to be part of a new partnership. Not a partnership between the Liberals and labour, but a partnership between the environmental movement and labour. There is a long way to go on both sides.