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The Leap Manifesto and oil workers

By: 
Carolyn Egan

May 9, 2016

The discussion over the Leap Manifesto which erupted after the NDP Convention seemed to reopen the debate over jobs versus the environment. It was suggested that it was a document written by Toronto elites out of touch with the economic needs of the country.

The recent Op Ed in The Globe and Mail written by Crystal Lameman, an Indigenous activist from Alberta who was a part of the gathering of activists who produced the document, took this claim on. As she wrote, “I was one of the first to sign the Leap Manifesto, and I helped write it. You might find that strange if you’ve read the media reports calling its authors latte-sipping Toronto elites. I’m not exactly part of that class: I’m an indigenous mother of two from the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, in the heart of Alberta’s oil industry. From where I stand, the Leap Manifesto isn’t an attack on Albertans or its workers. It’s a gift, offering us a pathway to a more humane, healthy and livable province, one that honours the treaty rights of indigenous peoples and meets the needs of all its inhabitants.”

The group who developed the Leap Manifesto was made up of Indigenous peoples, environmentalists, trade unionists and community activists from across the country. What the pundits are putting forward is a total misreading of the aims of the manifesto, which is a thoughtful document linking the fight against the austerity agenda with the climate justice movement. It speaks of the situation of Indigenous people and the need to create climate jobs and a just transition for workers presently in the resource industries, as we create an environmentally sustainable future.

Oil workers

Workers in the resource industries understand the situation in which they find themselves, trying to make a living and at the same time dealing with the health and safety and environmental issues that are at play.

A recent strike by workers in the oil industry in the United States is an example of this. The United Steelworkers walked off the job at fourteen refineries in 2015, with 6,500 workers striking for six weeks. In the words of a local leader, the members were out because of, “onerous overtime, unsafe staffing levels, dangerous conditions the industry continues to ignore, the daily occurrences of fires, emissions, leaks and explosions.”

They took on the spills and pollution that were affecting local communities as well as the health and safety of the workers. They took on the contracting out of maintenance to poorly trained, non-union workers that was putting everyone at risk, the local population and the workers. They were in the best place to raise the call to protect the environment in which they worked and lived. Workers are not divorced from communities. It is they, their families and their children, as well as those of their neighbours, who are directly affected by spills and pollution.

They witnessed the BP explosion of an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico a number of years back that killed workers and created a massive oil slick which was devastating to the environment. There have been more explosions and deaths since as profits continue to rule over lives and the earth.

The action by the Steelworkers did not go unnoticed by the climate justice movement. They were joined on the picket line by 350.org, the Sierra Club and Rising Tide as well as other unions including nurses. These workers withdrew their labour in the name of health and safety protections and defense of the environment and this was understood in their communities.

They won their strike with this broad local support and gained significant improvements that made the six weeks of lost wages worthwhile. There was also the threat of a nationwide strike in the oil industry that pushed the employer to agree to a settlement.

This is a concrete example of what an alliance between trade unionists and environmentalists can achieve, which will bring gains to both because in truth it is the same struggle.

The discussions going on locally on the Leap Manifesto gives us a tremendous opportunity to bring both a class, and anti-racist perspective to the developing climate justice movement and build the unity we need to win against the corporations.

Join the discussion “Fort McMurray and the Leap Manifesto,” Tuesday May 17, 7:30pm at Steelworkers Hall (25 Cecil St), Toronto

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