As a practicing environmental and labour historian, I am often struck by how Canada’s current debate about “just transition” (for and against aiding workers in the transition away from oil sands, natural gas, and other fossil fuels) would be improved by a more informed sense of the past. To be sure, many political leaders, media commentators, and laypeople alike point out “just transition” demands in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, and a few even recall that the phrase was around in the late 1990s. What nobody ever acknowledges, however, is that Canadians were already intently discussing the idea (if not using the phrase) fifty years ago.
This discussion came out of efforts initiated by the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), efforts that culminated in 1978 with an Ottawa conference on “Jobs and Environment.” The conference title, the final report explained, intentionally used “and” rather than “or” to reject the notion that protection of jobs and environment were “mutually exclusive objectives,” and the meeting’s primary aim was “to reconcile the livelihood of workers faced with environmentally induced unemployment.” To that end, delegates called for government coordination to enforce environmental standards and develop renewable energy sources, both of which they insisted would create more jobs. And for those workers harmed by regulatory enforcement or made “redundant” in an unavoidable energy transition with the exhaustion of nonrenewable fuels, they proposed a multi-faceted “Environmental Unemployment Compensation Fund,” with a lengthy period of income replacement as well as generous retraining and relocation assistance.1
Organized Labour’s Commitment to Environmentalism in Alberta
Organized labour’s commitment to environmentalism also has deep roots in Alberta, and contrary to critics’ assumptions about who can be an environmentalist, this was largely due to leaders from the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW).
Despite what fossil fuel-obsessed “just transition” critics like Premier Danielle Smith might have you think, organized labour’s commitment to environmentalism also has deep roots in Alberta, and contrary to critics’ assumptions about who can be an environmentalist, this was largely due to leaders from the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW). In May of 1970, the Canadian Labour Congress held its 8th Constitutional Convention in Edmonton, and president Donald MacDonald opened the meeting with a call for the CLC and its unions to “become a major instrument for social change,” after which delegates passed a policy statement on pollution and established the Social and Community Programs Department (SCPD), the department that would eventually organize the Jobs and Environment conference.2 Parallel to this, Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) president Roy Jamha established the federation’s “Pollution Committee.” Jamha belonged to a United Packinghouse Workers local in Edmonton but almost half of the committee membership was from the OCAW, including Reg Basken, an international representative organizing workers at Suncor and Syncrude and who would succeed Jamha as AFL president in 1972, as well as Neil Reimer, the OCAW’s Canadian National director and, like Jamha, a member of the CLC executive council.3
Reimer chaired the new committee (which was soon renamed the “Environment Committee”) and under his guidance members wasted no time getting things done. They started what would become a decade-long working relationship with Alberta’s main environmental group, Save Tomorrow Oppose Pollution (STOP). They also produced a booklet for distribution to local unions, “What is Labour’s Stake in Environmental Pollution?,” which reprinted speeches by SPCD director Jim MacDonald and others and included model contract language for workers bargaining rights to a workplace and community free from pollution.4 Additionally, the committee arranged for the AFL to adopt “Our Environment” as the theme for its May 1971 convention, where delegates called for stronger laws to address a range of environmental problems.
Later that summer, the Alberta OCAW contingent attended their international union’s biennial convention in Florida, where delegates passed an environmental resolution that keynote speaker Ralph Nader called “the strongest and most specific” ever made by any union, as well as a second detailed resolution declaring the need for government assistance to workers “displaced from their jobs due to measures taken to stop industrial pollution.”5 Meanwhile, the Canadian Labour Congress had selected “Our Environment” as its 1971 Citizenship Theme too, and in the fall the CLC held its regular health and safety conference in Calgary, with panels highlighting the links between workplace hazards and environmental pollution.
Ottawa’s 1978 “Jobs and Environment” Conference
Back in Ottawa, frustrated by the minor role federal ministers offered to organized labour for a “Man and Resources” conference, Jim MacDonald assembled a group of union leaders interested in environmental issues and at the end of 1972 they started planning their own “Jobs and Environment” conference. “Though the Congress has adopted some general principles in its policy on environmental matters,” MacDonald explained, “there is a great need to work out detailed application of such principles—especially in relation to the impact on jobs.” In hand-written notes for a draft program, the SCPD director specifically emphasized a compensation fund for workers affected by “environmental concerns.” This would be paid for by government and industry and cover lost wages, retraining, and relocation, and if comparable alternate employment was not possible then there should be a pension. “If workers are protected financially,” he noted, “they will be able to view more objectively environmental evidence against their industry,” stripping away the power companies had to blackmail them into silence and continue polluting.6
“If workers are protected financially, they will be able to view more objectively environmental evidence against their industry.”Jim MacDonald, Save Tomorrow Oppose Pollution (STOP) Director, 1972
Although delayed a few years (for a complicated set of reasons), the Jobs and Environment conference did eventually happen, in February 1978, attended by 200 delegates from labour unions, environmental groups, First Nations organizations, and churches, along with representatives from four federal government departments. Among the labour delegates was OCAW’s Neil Reimer, who MacDonald tapped to co-lead a workshop with scientist Barry Commoner on “Energy and Jobs.” Not surprisingly, that workshop emphasized the need for developing renewable energy sources as well as retraining and other support for workers in phased out industries, very much in line with the conference’s main recommendation, establishing an Environmental Unemployment Compensation Fund.7
Hope for Labour Environmental Movement Fades
Later in May, the Alberta Federation of Labour held their 6th annual Health and Safety conference in Calgary, with the theme “Environment, Health, and Jobs,” and Jim MacDonald was one of the featured speakers. In his remarks, he highlighted the leading roles Reimer and the new AFL president Harry Kostiuk played in the Jobs and Environment conference, reiterated the notion that pollution abatement and “alternate energy sources” would produce jobs, and outlined the compensation fund necessary to deal with any adverse impacts on workers. The hope, MacDonald said, was that over the next three years the necessary provincial and federal policies would be in place to make the fund a reality.8 The next day, conference delegates approved recommendations to government that included heavier penalties for “environment infractions,” legislation to stop plant operation if pollution problems were not corrected, protection for employees from discipline or discharge for reporting environmental offences, as well as income compensation and retraining programs for workers who lost jobs because of environmental standards enforcement.9
The historical record shows that organized labour in Alberta and across the country recognized what was on the horizon a half a century ago, and they started to think and act accordingly.
But, of course, none of this happened. During the 1980s, as unemployment spread and politics took a rightward turn, organized labour in Canada and elsewhere went on the defensive, limiting what had become a broad environmental perspective to a narrow concern with occupational health and safety. Neoliberalism’s consolidation during the 1990s proved an unlikely context for that to turn around, although there were flashes of promise for renewed labour environmentalism after the turn of the twenty-first century. At the same time, political leaders dithered about how to address fossil-fuel driven climate change, which had overtaken worries about a shrinking supply of nonrenewable energy sources. And that dithering continues in Canada, even while the window to do something is closing.
As the recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “Synthesis Report” makes clear, we do not have another fifty years to figure this out, which makes the current stalemate about how to go about a “just” energy transition more maddening.10 Yet the historical record shows that organized labour in Alberta and across the country recognized what was on the horizon a half a century ago, and they started to think and act accordingly. Perhaps we can take a lesson from that and continue with the worker-centered agenda they proposed.
1 Canadian Labour Congress, Report of the Conference on Jobs and the Environment (Government Conference Centre, Ottawa, February 19-21, 1978), 3-4.
2 Donald MacDonald, “Presidential Address,” in Canadian Labour Congress, “Report of Proceedings, 8th Constitutional Convention,” p. 8, Folder 544, “Conferences, Conventions + Schools; Conventions – CLC 1970; Correspondence,” Box 1, Alberta Federation of Labour fonds, Provincial Archives of Alberta (Edmonton, Alberta) [AFL PAA].
3 Pollution Committee Meeting Minutes, December 21, 1970, p. 1, Folder 428a, “Standing Committees – Pollution, 1969-70,” Box 16, PAA AFL; “Report of the Committee on Environment” in Alberta Federation of Labour, “1971 Convention Proceedings,” p. 46, Folder 85, “1971 Convention,” Box 7, AFL PAA.
4 “What is Labour’s Stake in Environmental Pollution?,” File #149, “Pollution 71,” Box 14, CLC: Calgary Office Files (1955-1977), Glenbow Archives, University of Calgary (Calgary, Alberta) [CLC GA].
5 “Union Resolutions on Policy Blueprint Progressive Action,” OCAW Union News, Vol. 27, No. 7 (September 1971), pp. 1, 6, and 9, File 21, “OCAW News, 1971-72,” Box 3, Energy and Chemical Workers Union fonds, Provincial Archives of Alberta (Edmonton, Alberta). The OCAW became the ECWU, an independent Canadian union, in 1980.
6 Jim MacDonald to Pat Kerwin, September 14, 1973, Folder 1, “Environment – Jobs versus the Environment, 1973-1980,” Volume no. 674, Jim MacDonald (Social and Community Programs) files, Canadian Labour Congress fonds, Library and Archives of Canada (Ottawa, Ontario).
7 Canadian Labour Congress, Report of the Conference on Jobs and the Environment, 25.
8 Jim MacDonald, “Environment and Jobs,” in Alberta Federation of Labour, “6th Annual Health and Safety Conference, Summary of Proceedings,” pp. 24-27, File 262, “Occupational Health + Safety 76-9,” Box 26, CLC GA.
9 “Summary of Recommendations to the Government,” in Alberta Federation of Labour, “6th Annual Health and Safety Conference, Summary of Proceedings,” p. 39, File 262, “Occupational Health + Safety 76-9,” Box 26, CLC GA.
10 https://www.ipcc.ch/ar6-syr/ [accessed March 20, 2023].
PDF Document Credits
- “The Environment: Fact Sheet” – 1971. Canadian Labour Congress (Calgary Office) fonds. Glenbow Archive, University of Calgary.
- “Labour and Social Involvement” – 1971 (pamphlet). Canadian Labour Congress (Calgary Office) fonds. Glenbow Archive, University of Calgary.
- Conference on Jobs and the Environment Programme – 1978. Canadian Labour Congress (Calgary Office) fonds. Glenbow Archive, University of Calgary.
- Report of the Conference on Jobs and Environment/Rapport de la Conference sur Les Emplois et L’Environnement – 1978 Michigan State University.
- Alberta Federation of Labour, 6th Annual Health and Safety Conference, Schedule of Proceedings – 1978. Alberta Federation of Labour fonds. Provincial Archives of Alberta.
- Alberta Federation of Labour, 25th Annual Convention – 1981 (cover and agenda). Alberta Federation of Labour fonds. Provincial Archives of Alberta.
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