Fate of 3,500 coal-power workers, and more, at stake with new ‘just transition’ task force

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The task force will lay out a path to help Canada transition to the new, job-rich low carbon economy.

 

It has been a long time coming. The Trudeau government is poised to launch Canada’s first federal task force on a “just transition” for workers affected by policies intended to mitigate climate change. In this case, it’s the government’s plan to virtually eliminate traditional coal-fired electricity generation by 2030, which may put up to 3,500 coal miners and power workers out of work in several provinces.

The task force announcement comes more than a year after the government declared its intention to phase out coal in November 2016. Since then, coal-dependent communities have been left wondering if they had been forgotten by the federal government, and labour leaders have been calling for action by Ottawa.

Establishing the Just Transition Task Force for Canadian Coal-Power Workers and Communities is more than good policy— it’s good politics.

Policy-wise, the terms of reference released by Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna on Feb. 16 task the nine-member panel and two cochairs with providing knowledge, options, and recommendations to the minister on implementing a just transition for workers and communities directly affected by the accelerated phase-out of coalfired electricity in Canada. The federal budget included $35-million to support those efforts.

Politically, by acknowledging and acting on the need for a just transition for coal miners and power workers, the government is helping to ensure that it continues to generate the social licence required to combat climate change, and to move the country down the challenging path to a low-carbon economy.

Public opinion currently supports climate change-fighting efforts, but if working people are left with greater economic insecurity than before, a backlash could be generated—the same kind of backlash that generated millions of votes south of the border for Donald Trump and his anti-Paris Agreement stance. Nobody wants that.

In affirming this proactive approach, Ms. McKenna acknowledged in a statement that: “We know the environment and the economy go hand in hand, so we’re committed to making that transition a fair one for coal workers and communities.”

Members of the panel will have diverse backgrounds, including workforce development and sustainable development experts, a past executive from a major electricity company or utility, and a municipal representative appointed in consultation with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. The five remaining members will be drawn from labour, including the Canadian Labour Congress, a provincial federation of labour, and three from unions representing affected workers.

It makes sense that there be strong representation from labour.

Unions support the kind of action that links reducing the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, with the growth of jobs that “green” work itself. Active workplace environment committees promote and practise conservation. Unions provide green education programs for their members, and have been on the front lines with allies in the environmental movement demanding positive change. Recently, Canadian and European Union unions have begun exchanging “climate bargaining” clauses when negotiating with employers.

Unions have also been working closely with Canada’s universities to research the best approaches to climate action in the workplace. The Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change (ACW) project based at York University brings together 56 individual researchers and 25 partner organizations and unions in seven countries, and its ground-breaking research on the idea of “just transition” has been recognized by the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The world of work is both a major cause of climate change and a potentially powerful actor in slowing global warming. Unions and professional associations are very well placed for adapting work itself in order to mitigate greenhouse gas production.

Despite generating only 11 per cent of Canada’s electricity supply, coal-fired electricity is responsible for 72 per cent of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector, which is Canada’s third highest greenhouse gas-creating sector after oil and gas, and transportation.

This makes ending coal a good place to start. Achieving a just transition to a low-carbon economy on that scale calls for strategic creativity in repurposing coal communities so that new enterprises are enticed to set up shop in a former coal region, creating a need for new and retrained expertise.

Federal and provincial governments will need to contribute to every phase of these green transitions. It will take some years, but there are already models in Australia, Germany, and elsewhere, for transitioning not only fossilfuel workers but also formerly fossil-fuel communities.

That’s why this important first step will teach us a lot about how we can help workers and communities join the emerging renewable energy boon. The task force will hear from stakeholders from local communities, labour, industry, clean tech, finance, academics, and non-governmental organizations, and will make site visits to a representative number of facilities and communities that will be affected by the coal phase-out.

When the task force makes its recommendation in the fall, let’s be ready to ensure that there is the political support to turn these ideas into action.

Carla Lipsig-Mummé is a professor of work and labour studies at York University, and winner of the 2018 Sefton-Williams Award for Contributions to Labour Relations.
The Hill Times

 

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Trump’s first 100 days – Pipelines and immigration policies strengthening Right and dividing Left

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During his first one hundred days President Trump delivered on some of his ‘promises’, failed in others, and changed his mind in many instances. But, overall, he has promoted a politics of intolerance and authoritarianism while, at the same time, he has been ‘disciplined’ by US capitalism and its aggressive geopolitics that have been evident for some time now.

 

In evaluating Trump’s first 100 days it is important to recognize that he has given voice to some nativist elements within US politics that had hitherto been marginalized. But it is also important to underscore that he has given voice and a cover for even larger intolerant elements that have been integral parts of the Republican coalition for several decades.

Immigration

Trump’s travel orders and immigration practices breed authoritarianism not only because they are taking place but, also because they are justified in nativist terms. The relevant state agencies have become more aggressive and, unfortunately, unions in the sector are supportive of such politics. The continued shift of some of these unions to the right is adding to the authoritarian wing of the US labor movement that includes substantial elements of the police and other law and order entities. It is not surprising that Republicans, in states where they have recently attacked public sector unions, have sought to treat law and order unions differently from other unions.

Pipelines

The Administration’s decisions regarding pipelines have reinforced the fossil fuel economy while Trump’s gestures towards the building and construction unions have found some willing responders and are reinforcing their business unionist tendencies. It is not likely that renewables will decline as a component of the US energy mix. In fact, they are likely to grow. For every California, however, there will be a Texas where the production of renewable energy is a purely economic act unassociated with a climate or broader environmental policy plan. We can well look down the road to another Superfund, except that the next time around it will involve abandoned solar and wind farms.

Health care

Trump’s health care proposals are drawing the line against any broadening of the public domain. His choice for Education Secretary deepens the parasitical privatization of the public sector that allows profiteers to have access to and benefit from the public budget while limiting their risks. In all these moves he continues to appeal to those elements of the working and lower middle classes who need someone to blame for their precarity –whether women, blacks or immigrants- other than the real culprits.

At the same time, however, the new president is contributing to the reassertion of US capitalism over US society and beyond. His claims about keeping jobs in the US are revealed to be empty public relations, while US capital and capitalists – and the associated geopolitics – are “disciplining” Trump. Increasingly his broad economic and strategic choices affirm the direction of US imperialism as it has unfolded over the last few administrations – from the pivot to East Asia to reorganizing West Asia.

Trump as cover for “crony capitalists”

But here it is important to understand that it is not just Trump that is moving the USA in an authoritarian direction. Rather, the intolerant, crony capitalist elements that have long controlled the Republican Party and the USA House and Senate can now use Trump as an excuse or a decoy for accomplishing what they have been seeking for decades.

If Trump is someone we can readily associate with regressive policies, we should not lose sight of the class-based and conservative social politics emanating from the rest of the Republican Party, as evident in the priorities of Vice-President Mike Pence, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The irony may be that by the time they are done hiding behind Trump they may discover that it is too late to reverse the road to a deeper authoritarianism that will devour them, as well.

Democrats struggle to respond

And, of course, Trump and his allies are successful because the dominant forces within the Democratic Party, in their obsessive determination for centrism, have allowed these reactionaries to move the center very far to the right. Moreover, they have resolutely resisted those elements of the Democratic Party that could, in fact, spearhead an alternative agenda.

This has not taken place simply because the Democrats are tactically forced to follow the Republicans in their rightward move. Rather, it is evidence that the dominant forces within the Democratic Party are themselves central elements of the capitalist alliance that rules the USA and which supports the privatization of the public domain and the atomization of society. President Obama’s decision to speak to a financial entity for $400,000 should not leave us with any doubts about who controls the Democratic Party at present and the long road facing those who want a more democratic and egalitarian USA.

 

Dimitris Stevis is Professor of the Department of Political Science at Colorado State University, and Co-investigator of the Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change research programme.