Pierre Ducasse | CUPE Staff

Just transition policies are a critical part of our response to the climate crisis. They have been a central focus of unions’ demands regarding the necessary changes to address environmental challenges.

But what those policies would entail, exactly, is still a subject for much discussion. We asked two members of CUPE’s National Environment Committee for their perspective on the future we are all facing.

Tiffany Balducci, a CUPE 1281 member, is active locally with Green Jobs Oshawa. After GM closed down the Oshawa car plant, the community needed to find solutions to keep good jobs locally. After many efforts, some of those jobs returned to Oshawa. And, surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic helped: part of the plant has now re-opened to produce masks.

When we asked Balducci how she perceives a just transition as a tool to fight climate change and provide new ways of working and living, her answer was very succinct and spot-on.

“A just transition is a framework for change, for addressing the climate emergency through a worker-lead lens. The role of unions like CUPE is crucial when it comes to approaching it,” she said. “We also need a local lens, because what works in one community may not work in another. We must help workers retain work while we reduce emissions. We need to shift to greener ways of working.”

“We also need to look at environmental policy and a just transition with a gender-lens and from a feminist perspective,” Balducci continued. “Women are already, and too often, in precarious and less secure jobs. And that’s not counting the unrecognized and unpaid work done by women. It is also clear that violence against women increases in times of crisis, unemployment or uncertainty. While building a greener economy, we must also build a more equal society. A just transition must take into account women’s needs.”

“But in order for the transition to be fair, it must not leave behind workers or traditionally vulnerable or oppressed groups,” highlights CUPE 1281 member Tiffany Balducci.

We know that the climate crisis affects women disproportionately. Women are also often the ones bearing the mental load of caring for their family. With natural disasters on the increase, but also with new eco-friendly requirements for cooking, cleaning or buying produce, while prices keep rising, women are experiencing higher workloads, and higher levels of stress, globally.

Carina Ebnoether is a member of CUPE 4091, the union representing 1300 flight attendants at Air Canada’s Montreal base. The aviation sector was hit hard by the pandemic, as thousands of jobs were lost. Some flight attendants, for instance, found temporary jobs helping provincial vaccination efforts, while staying eligible for benefits from their airline.

“We can learn from this experience, and see what worked as a solution and what didn’t. Some lessons we learned by the pandemic could be applied, even if indirectly, to the environmental crisis and the need for a just transition,” Ebnoether said.

Like Balducci, she believes that we need to see just transition tools through a gender lens.

She says we must take action at all levels to face environmental challenges and to fight inequalities, especially against women.

At the macro level, climate change is affecting our planet and is exacerbating social inequalities. Ebnoether is concerned about natural disasters, poverty, poor access to food and water, non-recognition of women’s work, and their many daily struggles. Women in developing countries are showing remarkable resilience, but they need global support. In fact, the Paris climate agreement requires parties to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women in coping with the hazards of climate change.

At the micro level, she recognizes that local hazards of climate change are just as important: job loss and displacement, marginalization of vulnerable people or those already living in poverty, lack of new infrastructures, and systems that are poorly adapted to women’s needs.

“For instance, if training and retraining are offered, there must be flexibility in order to accommodate women who may have family commitments or face other challenges. We also need to protect women’s wages and benefits, and their access to good, unionized jobs,” Ebnoether argues.

The pandemic has decimated many industries, causing job loss and community upheavals that can only be solved with just transition programs. The shift toward a zero-carbon economy will also mean significant changes that will affect workers, and women the most.

“In our thinking, we must be careful about our blind spots and take into account the needs of groups that suffer from inequality,” insists CUPE 4091 member Carina Ebnoether.

Balducci and Ebnoether both agree that just transition policies won’t only have an impact on the private sector. The public sector will also be greatly affected by environmental and technological change. This is why CUPE will make sure that our public sector members will be part of the solution.

Download CUPE’s updated National Environmental Policy in response to the deepening climate crisis.