Canada's largest labour organization passed two resolutions Monday vowing to address climate change, a just transition to clean energy and green industrial policy in a way that's fair for workers.

Both resolutions appeared on the affordability agenda at the Canadian Labour Congress’ 2023 constitutional convention in Montreal. The first pledges to tackle the climate crisis while ensuring workers aren’t left behind in the transition to a low-carbon economy. The second deals with industrial policy, including expanding clean energy and creating good union jobs in the process.

“There are no jobs on a dead planet, period,” said Tiffany Balducci, CUPE Ontario second vice-president and chair of the union’s climate justice committee. During debate on the climate resolution, she urged delegates to think of catastrophic environmental events unfolding at home. Disruptions like floods and wildfires will cause an increased need for child care, rising temperatures will put outside workers at risk, and “our pension investments will be worthless,” said Balducci.

“Not only our jobs are at risk, our lives are too. We need a mass movement of working people rising to tackle the climate crisis and create a just and equitable future for all,” she said.

“In the labour movement, we say: ‘Solidarity forever.’ But we don't have forever. What about solidarity now with our planet, for our lives, for our future?”

This week, nearly 2,200 voting delegates and 230 observers representing local, regional and national unions are gathered to debate various action plans and resolutions that aim to make life fairer for workers. This convention sets priorities for Canada’s largest labour organization, representing more than three million workers. The policy directives decided this week will shape what the CLC and its 51 affiliates lobby governments and campaign on.

Monday’s topic of discussion was affordability, with Indigenous justice, climate change, health care and infrastructure slated for the following days. But as several delegates pointed out, these issues are interconnected.

Coal was a focus of the resolution aimed at tackling the climate crisis and ensuring a just transition for workers. It included opposition to both expanding coal export facilities in British Columbia and creating new coal power plants abroad, as well as advocacy for replacing coal power with “clean, affordable alternatives.” Lobbying the federal government to increase its greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals, assume “primary responsibility for preventing a climate disaster” and invest in the transition to a green, equitable and sustainable economy were also included.

The resolution recognized “that climate action cannot be limited to measures that are ‘profitable,’ nor can 2030 reduction measures be based on technologies that are not currently viable at scale.”

Canada's largest labour organization is putting climate change front and centre at the #CLC2023 convention in Montreal. Two climate resolutions were passed on Day 1 of the convention, which dealt with affordability.

Rob Ashton, national president of the International Longshore Warehouse Union of Canada, spoke against the resolution, saying: “All I read in this resolution was … a ban on expansion of coal terminals. That's my people’s work.”

Ashton said a blanket statement about coal, without differentiating between coal used for power generation and steel production, hurts his members, many of whom work at coal export facilities in British Columbia.

Also against the resolution was Galen Crampsey, an electrical worker and rank-and-file member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 353. He said it’s “simply not acceptable” for any workers to be left behind, and pointed to the need for a “concrete and concise plan” on how to transition workers into new jobs with new benefits and acceptable wages.

“I don't see any language in this resolution that identifies the root of the problem,” said Crampsey, who identified the ruling class as the source of the cost of living and climate crises.

“For decades, their leaders in the fossil fuel industry spent millions and millions of dollars and resources lying to the public, convincing us that fossil fuels and coal and natural gas and oil were not a problem, were perfectly fine and good for the environment, and look where we're at now,” said Crampsey. “These people still hold an immeasurable amount of power in our society … we have to start utilizing our powers as the working class.

“I would suggest first and foremost, we push for the government to nationalize the energy sector completely, and stop giving money in tax rebates and subsidies to these private-sector oil corporations and energy corporations that are just using that money to profit from the need that we have for energy,” Crampsey added.

The second climate-related resolution on the affordability agenda advocated for the development of a “comprehensive green industrial policy,” which includes expanding clean energy and creating good union jobs while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Much of the resolution focuses on forestry, steel and critical minerals, for example, calling for governments and employers to invest in mines and ensure the use of “lower-carbon Canadian steel in infrastructure projects.”

Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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There is no valid reason Canada cannot put a deadline on the export of thermal coal. Give, say, 18-24 months notice to the suppliers that their export permits will no longer be granted, or simply let their export contracts expire and be put on notice they won't be renewed. One big supplier is actually based in Wyoming, a company that couldn't get permission from any US West Coast port to export its climate-busting product, but Canada cynically agreed and Ports Vancouver cashed in with a couple hundred jobs. Thanks a lot, Justin. The BC NDP acquiesced, as they saw coal terminals as unionized industrialized environments where workers needed protection.

There is nothing wrong with unionized workplaces (I worked in two over 27 years), but there are internal divisions. Many -- maybe half -- of union members quietly pay their dues and vote for union leaders to strive for better pay and working conditions, but stay away from leftist union politics and environmentalism. Blue collar conservatives have always been an influence in general elections and most do not vote NDP, like their union leaders. Just ask Doug Ford. That's a fact of life. Sometimes you get an anomaly. One union chapter president we had was a closet Trumpite racist who only let a hint of his views out close to retirement. He was probably only in it for the executive union manager's pay, but he was competent enough in the position to get by by keeping his mouth shut.

In any case, all jobs in thermal coal can be transitioned under government programs to other sectors more in keeping with climate objectives, supplementing incomes and providing upgrades to education / retraining where needed. There really isn't a huge number of them. Solar and wind (and hopefully deep geothermal one day) along with our existing legacy hydro power are the direct replacements to coal fired electricity. Solar and wind are also cheaper and are about to be catalyzed by major advances in battery technology where storage will be possible at the hundreds of MW scale soon enough.

Metallurgical coal is a different story. Steel is deeply embedded in our society. The problem is most of it is made in Asia where labour is cheaper. Canadian steel-making coal is exported there and thousands of offshore jobs are created. Embedded emissions from Canadian anthracite are released in overseas blast furnaces and are not accounted for in Canada's carbon budget.

The key is to re-shore steelmaking and electrify it with renewables, creating thousands of unionized heavy industry jobs at home. Subsidies are necessary until Canadian green steel gets on its feet and competition brings down the price. A government with a viable transition plan would create a market for green steel and concrete by directly funding expanded, electrified intercity and trans-Canadian passenger and freight rail infrastructure, a national smart grid, supplying financial incentives to private industry for using green design and materials, and so forth. It can start with merely transferring existing subsidies for fossil fuels to renewables and green industrial initiatives.

The Poilievre's out there will bemoan the notion of subsidies, but they need to be called on their BS for habitually subsidizing the oil and gas industry at every turn when they are in power, or being wilfully blind to the vital role public subsidies have historically played in the development of industry since forever.

It needs to be noted that John Horgan, former BC NDP Premier, is now on the board of Teck's Elk River coal branch. Very disappointing. With a very high salary for yers, and now one of the highest pensions in the western world, money cannot be the primary reason. One wonders.

Natasha, your article deserves the "enlightening the people" journalism prize for its title alone. I am going to put it on my poster for the Fridays for Future rally today. And, many thanks for covering the story the way it did. The electricity guy is right, you cannot pass motions like this without providing a rough draft at least of the plan that will result in a just transition. The workers who read "just transition" without seeing the promise of a transition that treats people justly, are entitled to think they are being told we are just (i.e. only) transitioning into a post carbon world and it is not unreasonable for them to think they will be left behind if we don't show them the plan that shows exactly what we are promising to to and how we will do it.