Labour leaders from around the globe gathered this week in Vancouver to talk about how to turn good jobs that are bad for the environment into green jobs with good pay, benefits and security.

A movement called Just Transition aims to do just that – phase out jobs in high-emitting industries like fossil fuels or coal and replace them with equally good jobs in low-emitting sectors.

The Paris Agreement mentions just transition in its preamble, as follows: “Taking into account the imperatives of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs in accordance with nationally defined development priorities.”

The two defining problems of our time are climate change and inequality, BC FED President Irene Lanzinger told a crowd of about 100 people at a Thursday event co-hosted by the BC Federation of Labour and several other labour organizations.

“We cannot solve one without the other,” Lanzinger said. “We cannot try to clean up the planet and increase the gap between rich and poor. We can, if we do this right, solve these two problems together.”

Transitioning from good jobs in fossil fuels

It is “incredibly urgent” to start talking about a just transition, Lanzinger said in an interview.

“We absolutely cannot replace these good jobs in the coal industry in Alberta with crappy jobs in the tourist industry,” Lanzinger said. “One of the things we have to do is make the tourist industry better, with higher minimum wages, pharamcare for everyone, and good employment standards that give everybody rights.”

One good example of a just transition is Alberta’s movement away from coal, Lanzinger said.

“Alberta decided to phase out coal and in that phase out, they worked with labour to have a transition fund for workers.”

The two defining problems of today are climate change and inequality, BC FED president Irene Lanzinger told a crowd of about 100 people at a Thursday event co-hosted by the BC Federation of Labour and several other labour organizations. #bcpoli

Alberta has a plan to phase out coal-fired electricity and have 30 per cent of electricity used by Albertans come from renewable sources like solar, wind and hydro by 2030. As part of the deal, the Alberta government created a $40-million fund to support workers who lose their jobs.

From coal plants to clean energy jobs

Samantha Smith, director of the Just Transition Centre, a project of the International Trade Union Confederation, told the crowd that the centre tackles three major issues. The first is transferring people working in high-emitting jobs into low-emitting jobs, sometimes in the same company. She gave the example of an Italian renewable energy company that closed its coal plants, but transferred its employees to clean energy jobs.

When a company cannot transform itself, the second issue is to work with employers and the government to make sure employees have options like early pensions or funds to create new businesses that can employ people who lose their jobs.

The third issue is working to make sure the new jobs that are created by working on climate change – like energy retrofits – are high quality jobs.

Smith said the Toronto carpenters’ union was able to create 46,000 new union jobs through a massive retrofit project that was green. She said Denmark was dependent upon importing fuel and oil, but has now created 30,000 jobs in the wind power sector.

“Just Transition is about the fact that people who have built prosperity working in the oil sector deserve our respect and they deserve either a decent retirement or a smooth passage into another decent job,” Smith said.

Andrea Reimer and Joey Hartman. Photo by Tracy Sherlock.
Vancouver City Councillor Andrea Reimer was interviewed by Joey Hartman, former president of the Vancouver and District Labour Council. Photo by Tracy Sherlock.

Vancouver City Councillor Andrea Reimer spoke at the event, saying Vancouver’s Renewable City Strategy – a plan to get all of Vancouver’s energy from renewable sources before 2050 – is based on equity and just transition. Under the Greenest City Action Plan, Vancouver has 25,000 green jobs, which represent five per cent of all jobs, Reimer said.

The city expected those green jobs to be in the transportation and waste recovery sectors, but when they were counted, the city discovered the green jobs were in local food production, clean buildings and local technology companies, Reimer said.

The city has seen significant change with its outside workers and that has gone well, Reimer said.

“They’ve seen big changes,” she said. “It snows more, it rains more, it’s hot more. They have been heroes on weather-related responses. We have to realize this is not unusual weather anymore, this is usual.”

Although the city has been internationally recognized for its environmental standards, Reimer said that’s not good enough.

“We’re good, but we’re not sustainable. Being the best city, just means you’re doing a little better job than other cities,” Reimer said.

Laures Park, a teacher and labour leader from New Zealand, said the just transition conversations are just starting in New Zealand, although climate change has meant flooding, which has caused entire communities to move. Labour groups in New Zealand have had some success bringing together labour, employers and the government to address safety in the forestry sector.

Denmark has seen the creation of 35,000 jobs in the wind power industry as a result of cooperation between labour, employers and the government, said Jesper Lund-Larsen, a political advisor at the United Federation of Danish Workers 3F, the largest trade union in Denmark.

“As a trade union now we are a serious partner in all this growth and job creation,” Lund-Larsen said.

Also, he mentioned a labour pension fund that has made a significant difference.

“Today they have about $38 billion US to invest in different things and they invest in windmill plants and biogas plants and things,” Lund-Larsen said. “They used the members’ money to create new jobs.”

In Norway, although there is a great diversity of union views, the Confederation of Trade Unions has seen “overwhelming agreement” about the Paris Agreement, said Anne-Beth Skrede, an advisor for climate, environment and sustainable development in the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions.

“We claim that trade unions have a role to play and we demand a seat at the table where the planning takes place on how to reach a low-emission society,” Skrede said. “We want to ensure that the jobs have good standards, with workers’ rights – that they are decent jobs with good pay.”

She’s found that when unions and employers work together, great things happen.

“We have strong unions and we also have strong employers’ organizations. We have found that when we go together and want something and put politics into it, governments rarely dismiss us,” she said. “Together we are very strong.”

Her one caution is that significant change like this is not fast.

“There’s one thing that we need to be very clear on – processes like this take time and democracy takes time, so we better start early. That’s the way forward.”

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I am guessing Premier Notley as the leader of the NDP in Alberta was absent from this Labour conference. Not surprising as she long ago sold her soul to the oil industry in a pathetic attempt to hang on to power in a province where the majority of citizens don't believe in climate change and have voted PC for over a generation. Yes of course fighting climate change and the economy go together its just what you mean by economy as this meeting pointed out so clearly. Notley should be presenting Albertans with a real alternative economic direction rather than opting for short term and ultimately hopeless pandering to an electorate and resource industry that will dump her in the next election just for not being Jason Kenney. That she and her so-called NDP members don't see this is bizarre.

Thanks for reading, Paul. Rachel Notley wasn't there, but in fairness, neither was John Horgan. It wasn't really a political event.