Mere days before Hurricane Sandy hit North America's East Coast, a tempest of a different kind swept through Ottawa. That tempest was PowerShift 2012, a large-scale environmental gathering that left its mark on participants and admirers alike. The conference ran from October 26-29, ending with a "Toxic Trick or Treat" rally and march of around 500 people.
Wanting to get a better sense of Canada's blue-green alliance, and the potential for climate justice activism in unions, I attended, with several things on my mind.
Many union activists were involved in PowerShift 2012, and union money was pledged to make the conference happen. And, when asked, Canadian unions will say they support the objective of green jobs, and a "just transition" to a green economy from unsustainable industries.
At the same time, Canadian unions represent workers in powerful sectors like automobile production, air transportation, conventional food, and extractive industries like oil, natural gas, and forestry. Talented activists have come from these workplaces, not to mention significant dues revenue for unions.
In the past, some unions have been accused of "greenwash," short-hand for talking green while, in practice, promoting unsustainable industries. In similar terms, some greens have been criticized for using an elitist mindset, where the livelihoods of workers (and the impact of a green transition) aren't given serious thought.
In recent months, we've seen an example of such controversy. It involves the current debate about an "east-west" Canadian oil pipeline, an idea promoted by the federal NDP and several unions to counter industry demands for export-focussed oil pipelines elsewhere (e.g.: Northern Gateway, Keystone XL).
Advocates for an east-west pipeline say that oil mined from the Athabasca tar sands should be refined in Canada and distributed across the country, not "ripped and shipped" (largely to the U.S.) as it is under current practices. The issue is framed as a matter of Canada's national energy security, and an effort to promote "good, family-supporting jobs." To that end, the case is for better use of current pipelines, or the expedited construction of new ones.
Opponents say this undermines a more aggressive pursuit of green alternatives, and that free-prior-and-informed-consent (or FPIC) from affected Aboriginal groups must be sought for any project (the FPIC strategy for an east-west pipeline is unclear). The nationalist terms in which the demand is framed also evoke concerns, given climate change is an issue of global importance.
With all of this in mind, I talked to union participants in the October 29 PowerShift rally and march.
The first union contingent I encountered was made up of folks from Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 2357, an Ottawa-based union that represents over 900 workers at the Ottawa Catholic School Board. When I asked why they came out over lunch hour, their response was both blunt and interesting. "We work in the education sector," said one, "and a lot of these people have been active in supporting our cause, so we want to support their cause."
"I look around and I see a lot of seniors and other union groups," she said. "This may be a rally that is led by young workers, but it's really for everybody. We need to remember that austerity is everywhere, and that this is really about people telling us there's no money for things that matter."
Chris Sutton is a young worker at IMP Aerospace in Halifax, and member of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) Local 2215. He was flanked by co-workers who'd also made the long trek to Ottawa, all of whom agreed this event was transformative for them. They linked the conference to green issues at home: the campaign against fracking for natural gas; reliance on gasoline-based cars; and dangerous weather patterns.
Sutton talked about how powerful it was to hear from those affected by the Athabasca Tar Sands. Particularly notable were folks from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, who sold popular t-shirts and scarves that read "I stand with the ACFN." "It's one thing to read about this stuff, but another to see and hear it up close," Sutton said. "This was an eye-opener for me."
Sutton knows there are green concerns with the aerospace industry in which he works, and is aware of those who say unions shouldn't be backing green ideas that will eliminate union jobs.
"Look," he said, "there's no question that some of what got discussed at PowerShift, if done immediately, would be tough for unions. But that's why this process has to be done right. It may be tough but we still need to do it."
As I was talking to Sutton, the PowerShift Canada media team, an adept, well-organized crew for a grassroots operation, asked if I wanted to speak to an official spokesperson. I welcomed the invitation, which led me to Melissa Larue, an auto worker and CAW activist from Windsor, Ontario, who was representing her union at the conference.
"This has been a phenomenal weekend," she said, "and the largest environ-mental convergence in Canada, ever. It was a chance for young people to learn movement-building skills, and this march is about practicing those skills." Organizers are now talking about regional PowerShift conferences in the future, to make them more green, accessible and affordable.
Green ideas and job security
When I mentioned the claim that green ideas undermine job security, Larue said, "That may be true that we'll see job losses from traditional sectors, but there are also so many potential gains we can look at. I am an automotive worker, and I'm not suggesting that cars aren't part of the future. But I am suggesting that we innovate with greener cars, and we create new technologies. We don't have to be stuck on fossil fuels."
"What if we created a light rail train system in Canada?," she asked. "That would create many, many jobs. There is a way to integrate the issues of jobs and the environment. Quite honestly, the way it is portrayed in the media, we're led to believe that it's one or the other. But it doesn't have to be that way. There are real jobs we can create, but the problem is, people who have all the money influence media, so it is really hard to have this debate, and realize we can do both: have decent jobs and a green future."
"At the end of the day," Larue says, "we want to be able to go to work, to make a good wage,and come home. If that can mean making the environment better, that's the best outcome we can hope for."
Not surprisingly, there were many rousing speeches at the PowerShift rally and march. We began in front of Parliament Hill, and then snaked through the streets of Ottawa, pausing at times for creative street theatre and remarks from various speakers.
One popular speaker was Larry Rousseau, the regional vice-president for the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), who spoke from the front steps of Parliament Hill. "We have a common cause," he said, "and that is opposing the corporate interest. The greater gathering storm will unite us."
After outlining various environmental misdeeds of the federal government, Rousseau urged everyone to remember an oft-cited green slogan: "As we nurture planet Earth, so planet Earth will nurture us."
I spoke to Rousseau after the speech, and asked how the east-west pipeline debate might affect Canada's blue-green alliance. His response reflected the intense politics of the issue. "Labour is here in solidarity," he said, "and we will continue to be here in solidarity, even if we have conflicting aims at times. We have workers in the oil sands, in the pipelines. But even if we do build those pipelines, I think everyone agrees that should lead to enhanced Canadian refining capacities. Most people agree that if we are going to have pipelines, we shouldn't be exporting our natural resources overseas."
Pipelines and blue-green tensions
I asked Rousseau if building more pipelines would exacerbate blue-green tensions, recalling to him a conversation I'd had with a young conference participant who had lamented that less economic growth, and less consumption, were not on the table for discussion. This same person wondered if unions, as defenders of their members' interests, could even participate in that kind of discussion. Rousseau responded: "The one word that comes to mind is sustainability. If we don't have sustainable growth, we'll be prone to boom-and-bust cycles. And if we are to keep long-term interests in mind, sustainable development, it's true, must be less intense."
The mood at PowerShift Canada was reminiscent of global justice organizing a decade earlier, as activists of all stripes came together to oppose crooked trade deals, or the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Enthusiasm and good will remain in the activist layer of Canada's environmental and labour movements.
That said, it is equally clear to me that tensions remain, and the east-west pipeline debate is likely the tip of the iceberg. More creative thinking must happen to bolster blue-green organizing; this is particularly true at the leadership level, where divergent aims threaten to derail momentum that exists on the ground.
In a pathbreaking book published a decade ago (Globalization from Below), Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith discussed strategies for handling contradictions in blue-green organizing. They noted moments where greens and unionists found moments to come together and work on joint projects. They have since updated that work by documenting blue-green conflict in the U.S. on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, where some unions (who are otherwise green-friendly) are pitted against pipeline opponents.
For Brecher and Smith, the outcome of this conflict hinges on effective dialogue, discussion, and opportunities for blue-green organizing to happen in practice. As union activists head home from their PowerShift experience, they are likely to want more of that in the months and years to come. And there are good examples to follow on.
On November 7, 2009, a huge "Green Jobs for All" conference in Toronto hosted debate and discussion that included union, green, and other social justice activists. We need more action-oriented discussions to put energy and momentum into Canada's blue-green alliance.
This article was originally published in Our Times and is reprinted with permission.
Joel Davison Harden is the founder of Bottom-Up Politics (an Ottawa-based social justice consultancy). He is the former registrar of the Labour College of Canada, director of the CLC's Labour Education Department, and chair of the Canadian Federation of Students (Ontario).