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Unions and environmentalists: working together for strong communities and a healthy environment


There was a time when you wouldn’t walk into the local union hall wearing your organic cotton “Save the Whales” t-shirt, and also when you probably wouldn’t take part in the local Earth Day parade wearing a hard hat and well-worn safety boots. But fashions change and so do perceptions. Union members and environmentalists have discovered they have much more in common than anyone once thought.

Like with any relationship, the road from mutual mistrust to grudging acceptance to warm embrace has had its share of potholes. But what we have come to recognize is that our planet needs us – and not us and them.

What we’ve realized is pretty simple – no one wins a race to the bottom, not workers, not wild species, and not communities. So cutting down every last tree, shipping out every last barrel of bitumen, catching every last fish in the ocean may fatten some offshore bank account, but it isn’t going to leave us with good jobs for our kids, healthy communities, or a productive environment.

Looking back, it may have all started in the woods, with a few furtive glances and a chance encounter or two, but unionists and environmentalists eventually came to understand that “environment” includes people too. So we sat down and broke bread (and a few other things) together and figured out a way forward in places like the Great Bear Rain Forest, northeast B.C. and the whole vast green boreal forest stretching across Canada. Despite our differences, we knew that the end result of successfully balancing ecosystem protection and economic development would be much more mutually satisfying than another photo op in a clearcut. 

Then another light went on. We looked at the colossal collective challenges facing our world -- like climate change -- and saw that this big black cloud could have a silver lining – if we were smart. Good jobs could be built out of new ways to make energy, new ways to conserve it, new ways to move people, and new ways to meet their need – in fact, all species’ need -- for clean air and clean water. Studies and real-world experience have shown that this approach has much stronger jobs potential than simply putting all our eggs in the export-raw-resources basket – in fact, as many as seven times more jobs for every dollar invested in things like developing renewable energy or improving energy efficiency instead of simply digging more sticky tar out of Alberta.

Together, we’ve been strategizing on how to put Canada out in front in developing and deploying these clean, green solutions. Some unions are investing directly in green solutions, such as through Cycle Capital Management, a venture capital firm supported in part by union dollars that is investing in cutting-edge products and services that help our environment. More broadly, we’re advancing a “jobs of the future are green” agenda through the Blue Green Alliance, which has become a powerful voice trumpeting the connection between action on a healthy environment and action on jobs. 

Now, to some folks in Ottawa, this may actually be seen as something of an unholy alliance. These folks haven’t quite got the message about where the world is heading when it comes to getting serious about sustainability. They hail more from the old “pillage and plunder” school and see anything that gets in the way of all-out exploitation of raw resources – and workers -- as weak-kneed. “You have to be tough,” they bark from the windows of their limos, “What’s a few caribou when jobs are at stake?” Except they don’t mean good pay-the-bills-and-buy-a-home-in-your-community jobs – they mean jobs at oil refineries in China and in bank executive suites in Toronto.

We’re on to them, though. We’ve seen how working wages – and working conditions -- fall where union membership declines. And we’ve seen how one environmental protection law after another is stripped away when governments decide that only the “invisible hand” of the market should pull the strings, leaving whole communities – human and natural – dangling by a thread. 

A recent report by the Broadbent Institute documents the connection between a strong union movement and greater levels of social equality. Included in that idea of social equality is the need to look out for present and future generations through far-sighted actions, such as strong environmental stewardship. Today, the bulwark that unions provide against short-term economic impulses that worsen social equity and social cohesion really needs strengthening, not weakening.

Fortunately, we’ve come a long way from the days when unions and environmentalists stared each other down across protest lines. Standing together on the lawn of the British Columbia legislature last fall for the “Defend our Coast” rally, we saw how powerful this emerging alliance really could be. Now more than ever we need to keep this connection growing – for the sake of strong communities, good jobs and a healthy environment.

Tzeporah Berman and Steven Guilbeault are well-known authors and environmentalists based, respectively, in British Columbia and Quebec.

This article is a response to the Broadbent Institute's report on the labour movement and social prosperity, "Union Communities, Healthy Communities."

Photo: Kris Krug. Used under a Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 licence.