When the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and its labour allies seemed to be moving toward a general strike, Premier Doug Ford jumped to beat the news.
He appeared publicly Nov. 7, an hour before a scheduled CUPE press conference, to say his government would repeal its controversial Bill 28. CUPE national president Mark Hancock, flanked by leaders from other public and private unions, declared a few hours later: “[Ontario education workers] took on the Ford government, and the government blinked.”
Ontario Public Sector Employees Union president JP Hornick later threatened, “The workers, united, will shut this province down whenever we need to.”
The apparent victory, secured by the threat of what would have been an illegal general strike, got Toronto-based political researcher and writer Chuka Ejeckam thinking: What else could a general strike accomplish? He sent a tweet, calling on organized labour “to utilize strike action and/or a general strike to help save the lives of billions of people in the Global South by [demanding] immediate climate action, loss and damage payments, and reparations.”
For Ejeckam, the scene Monday morning demonstrated an important precedent. “The most interesting thing about that expression of solidarity from labour groups and leaders was an explicit insistence and recognition that what’s right comes before what is legal,” says Ejeckam. “That’s not a position that we see articulated fiercely in sanctioned political discourse very often.”
Ejeckam isn’t the first to call for a general strike to force governments to take stronger climate action. France’s opposition leader Jean-Luc Melenchon encouraged one last month, and youth climate movements have for years fashioned their movements in the form of “strikes.” Climate organizers around the world have often suggested general strikes to pressure leaders into action.
So what could the tactic achieve for the climate movement, and could it happen in Canada? The short answer is: it’s complicated.
Current relations between climate and labour movements
Some sectors of the labour and climate movements have gone hand-in-hand for years, says Brock University labour studies professor Simon Black. “Organized labour is present at the big climate marches, and there are callouts by local labour councils, provincial federations of labour and the Canadian Labour Congress for members to attend climate justice protests, demonstrations and actions,” says Black. “Labour will sponsor or co-sponsor those events, too, and it’s generally behind the idea of a just transition at the very top.”
Under threat of a general strike, the Ontario government walked back a controversial law. What else could a general strike accomplish?
Black says Bill 28 was seen as an “existential threat” to labour, which is why it united so many different sectors in opposition. “You have to ask, ‘What else poses such a threat?’ Well, climate is an existential threat to humanity,” he says.
But the road to an effective climate general strike is bumpier than the one behind Bill 28. Black notes a huge number of trade unions represent workers in oil and gas sectors, as well as carbon-intensive industries like steel and cement, which limits the potential for unity. “The labour movement is not politically homogeneous,” says Black. “It’s often very fractious, so it’s no mean feat to actually pull something like a general strike off.”
A general strike for climate action would likely be treated as a political strike, which could make it illegal and punishable. Hamilton-based labour lawyer Sarah Molyneaux says Canadian labour law, mostly forged during the Second World War, was established on a “bargain” that included unions giving up certain rights — including many of their rights to strike — in exchange for legal protections and recognition.
Further, non-union workers, who comprise the vast majority of Canada’s workforce, have no legal right to strike, which makes virtually any work stoppage punishable. “There’s a very small number of people who have the legal right to strike, with a small window when a strike is considered legal,” says Molyneaux.
But illegal strikes aren’t unprecedented. They’re tradition. Molyneaux says prior to the postwar period, strikes, belonging to a union and even trying to organize your workplace were crimes in Canada. “They were crimes that people committed because they considered it worthwhile to do so,” says Molyneaux, adding that in the pre-war period, one in three workers went on strike in a given year.
“I think sometimes people forget the fact that unions are political,” she says. “They’re empowered to speak to their members’ interests, not just at the bargaining table but also in society. Social issues, environmental issues, those are workers’ issues.”
While she has a professional obligation that prohibits her from counselling any person to break the law, Molyneaux says, “there is certainly a history of pushing the bounds of what the law means, and questioning whether or not the limits on the rights of workers are constitutional.”
Laying the groundwork for a general strike
Emma Jackson, an organizer with 350 Canada and Climate Justice Edmonton, says too often people involved in climate movements and people involved in workers’ movements are treated as two isolated groups. The reality, she says, is more often than not, they’re one and the same and have shared interests.
“The same corporations that are violating workers’ rights, the same politicians that are trampling over the right to free and fair collective bargaining are the same individuals that are responsible for fuelling the climate crisis,” says Jackson. “There’s such a powerful intersection there.”
Jackson says the best tool we have at our disposal to tackle the climate crisis is the power to withhold labour, and to get serious about that tactic requires environmental movements to “get people to anchor the struggle for climate justice in their own workplaces.” She says that involves committing more resources to sector-by-sector industrial plans for transitioning workers to other jobs in climate-friendly fields. “That’s what is necessary to get climate on the bargaining table to the point where workers really see climate action as intimately bound up with their ability to put food on the table and pay the bills,” she says. Jackson points to the 2021 Canadian Union of Postal Workers’ campaign to fight for better conditions alongside greener operations.
To begin building strong relations with labour, she says Climate Justice Edmonton attends every picket line in the city to show their solidarity and stays up to date on collective agreement expiry dates so they can be ready to show support.
Jackson, like other labour activists and climate organizers, would love to see a general strike in support of climate action. The time to put in the work to make it a reality, she says, is now.
“It’s time to get very real and serious about what that’s going to take,” she says.