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The inter-relation between green work and climate change was the focus of a recent workshop in Toronto organized by W3: Work in a Warming World, a research network between academics and community partners, including trade unions. I participated in the conference. 

Research was presented on a number of ways that a transition to a green economy can be planned to benefit both workers and the environment. One example was the idea of “circular economies” in Canada’s forestry sector. Buildings could be designed to make it easier to disassemble wood construction components in order to recycle them as furniture and then later as packing crates, then paper, and finally bio-energy. Jobs would be created at every step, while carbon would remain locked-up in the wood for longer periods of time. 

But despite many innovate ways to create green jobs, it has become clear that green work is not automatically decent work. First, green jobs will only be good jobs if they are unionized jobs. Without unions, solar panel manufacturing jobs could just as easily be unsafe jobs that pay only $10 per hour and fail to give workers decision-making power on the shop-floor. 

Second, federal and provincial training programs and financial supports are desperately needed to ensure that the green transition is a Just Transition for workers who lose their jobs in carbon-intensive industries. Workers in polluting industries need to be reassured how they will be able to pay their rent or mortgage during a green transition. 

Third, it is critical that we take proactive measures to ensure that women and racialized workers can participate equally within the new green economy to avoid reproducing the same inequalities that already exist. This requires more targeted green training programs and equity policies achieved through collective bargaining.

It is also important that provincial and municipal governments maintain their right to “buy local” (local procurement) and to set domestic content rules within green industrial policies as we see with Ontario’s Green Energy Act. But this right of governments to plan and support local and regional economies in Canada, is currently being challenged by existing WTO regulations as well as the Canada-EU Free Trade Agreement that is secretly being negotiated by Stephen Harper’s Federal Government. We must as a union demand that our governments fully disclose the job-loss and environmental implications of any proposed free trade deal.

A concluding message of the W3 conference in Toronto was that the goals of unionized green jobs, Just Transition, equity and democratic accountability can only be achieved through alliance-forming between workers, their unions, researchers, other community members and the environmental movement. These alliances will help give organized labour the political clout they need to ensure that the promise of a green economy is realized by all workers rather than simply corporations.

James Nugent
CUPE Local 3902