President’s Commentary: Why workers must join the call for climate action

In the face of the climate emergency, workers and their unions must take action to ensure a more just and sustainable future. As the young climate strikers have underscored, we have an obligation to act — not only for ourselves, but for generations to come.

by Larry Brown, NUPGE President 

Today, millions of people around the world are set to go on strike for the climate. Led by students demanding urgent action on climate change, many workers, unions and other allies will join their call to action — in person or in spirit. And we should.

The Global Climate Strike is organized by students around the world who, led by the inspiring Greta Thunberg, have been engaging in regular demonstrations and walkouts over the past year. These efforts have culminated in a week of global climate activism that, last Friday, saw 4 million students and their allies participate in climate strikes in cities around the world, according to estimates from the organizers. Today, the student strikers are calling on adults to join them.

Labour organizations in Canada and around the world have stood up in solidarity with these young activists, including NUPGE, which endorsed the Global Climate Strike. We acknowledge that most workers cannot themselves walk out alongside these students, but we have encouraged Canadians, where possible, to show their support however they can, such as sharing messages of solidarity, joining a local action on their lunch hour, helping to raise awareness about the strikes, or talking to their elected officials about the need to act on climate change. Those who do join the strike efforts should consult their union or legislation to ensure they are informed of the implications.

It is important that the labour movement join these young activists in calling for urgent, transformational climate action — today and going forward.

Climate action matters to workers

Climate change affects all of us, and that includes workers. While one’s mind may first go to those workers employed in the fossil fuel industry, in fact workers across sectors are affected by the impacts of climate change.

In our union, public sector workers have already begun to see the impacts. Our members are the health care workers, first responders, wildfire fighters, and caregivers that are providing support on the frontlines as communities across the country experience increasingly severe weather events, food and water insecurity, and displacement due to climate change.

Workers and their communities are already seeing that the effects of environmental degradation and climate change are unevenly distributed, with marginalized communities bearing the brunt. All workers and their communities have an interest in fighting climate change.

Members of the Canadian labour movement, including the National Union, have advocated for action on climate change that involves a just transition.

Climate action matters to unions

The role of unions goes beyond workplace matters like fair wages, health and safety, and retirement security. We believe in social unionism, which means that we care about wider societal issues in addition to labour rights.

That is because we know our members’ lives are affected by more than what occurs within the walls of the workplace. Although it is a crucial role of unions to negotiate fair and decent working conditions, we would not be doing our best to fight for workers if we simply stopped there. We care about — and believe in fighting for — workers’ rights, health, and wellbeing outside of the workplace, too.

Climate change is one of those “big picture” issues that affects us all. Not only will the effects of climate change increasingly permeate work and workplaces, but they will also impact all workers as members of their communities.

In this tradition of social unionism, we believe that unions must be part of the broader movements to advance economic, social, and environmental justice for all workers, their families, and their communities.

Workers and their unions can be part of the solution

Governments need to take the urgent action required to tackle climate change. Through their collective voice, workers and their unions must continue to push governments to enact legislation and regulations to mitigate climate change and adapt to its effects.

Tackling climate change will require addressing its uneven impacts across countries and communities. Workers must be a part of ensuring the transition to a decarbonized economy is a just and equitable one. In other words, the struggles for equality, social justice, and sustainability must all be linked.

Important changes in how our workplaces operate can make a significant contribution to cutting greenhouse gases and in protecting our environment. Through collective bargaining, workers and their unions can build greener work and workplaces.

Whether it is through providing an example of how green workplaces can look and function, enforcing government regulations, responding to emergencies, or informing the public, workers — including those in the public sector — have a strong role to play in the transition to a sustainable future.

The time for action is now

Time is running out to take the necessary action to prevent climate change from becoming even more catastrophic. Building on the work of an active climate movement, the student strikers have succeeded in capturing the public’s attention in this moment with their bold message of urgency.

The labour movement must amplify these voices at the frontlines of climate action, which includes young people as well as Indigenous communities, and stand in solidarity with them.

In the face of the climate emergency, workers and their unions must take action to ensure a more just and sustainable future. As the young climate strikers have underscored, we have an obligation to act — not only for ourselves, but for generations to come.

In urging unions to back the climate strikes, Rosa Pavanelli, the General Secretary of Public Services International, underscored the importance of supporting broader movements for change: “This is about more than climate. This is a struggle to recover democracy and make our governments serve the people, not the powerful. We will only win if we exert our collective strength, if we grow our power by building strong coalitions between students, campaigners and the labour movement.”

Our union will be part of the movement. Will you join us?


The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE