President's Commentary: Why would unions care about the environment?

Canadians believed they were electing a different kind of government than we had in the last decade. We need to make sure that they will meet that promise, for the common good of all of us. 

Ottawa (03 Oct. 2016) — People still ask, what’s the point in joining a union? 

Some people would respond by saying that unions give workers the ability to negotiate with their employer. Unions negotiate for decent wages, health and dental care to keep families healthy, and for pensions so that we can retire with dignity. These are all very important functions of a union. 

But for many unions, our work doesn’t stop there. We believe in social unionism.  In social unionism, unions see the big picture. It’s not just about the pay cheque. It’s about the world we live in. We care about how society treats all people. We care about having a voice in our relationships — not only with employers — but with our governments as well. 

Because how can we negotiate decent collective agreements if no one else in society has a decent wage?

How can we bargain strongly for extended health care benefits, when many people are struggling to pay for prescriptions? 

How can we bargain for a pension plan, when our neighbours are living in poverty?

How can we have a good contract but allow for social decay?

What good is a decent contract when the environment is destroyed? 

We can fight for these things for our members because we fight for everyone to have them. 

We represent our members. Period.

No other organization has the sole preoccupation of representing working people. We are part of a movement that believes in fairness, respect, and decency for everyone. And it’s that world view that makes us one of the strongest forces out there. 

And if, together, we have that strong voice, we need to use it in the best interest of our communities. We must take on the “big” issues and bring people together to have a say. 

Now that we have a new federal government in Ottawa, we have an obligation to raise our issues and to hold the government to account for its promises. But already we’re seeing worrying signals.

One of their biggest planks in their platform was a commitment to provide leadership and action on climate change. While in opposition, Liberal MPs quite properly hammered the former Conservative  government, berating it for its inaction on the environment, its false carbon emission targets and lack of green infrastructure. After 10 years of the Conservatives  denying climate change existed, the Liberals made Canadians an impressive list of promises. In their own words, the Liberal platform said, “We will end the cycle of federal parties — of all stripes — setting arbitrary targets without a real federal/provincial/territorial plan in place.” Yet, now we see the government sticking with the sub-standard targets used by the Conservatives. 

They stated that their government would live up to our international commitments and reduce carbon emissions here at home. One of their first actions was to sign the Paris Climate agreement, which commits Canada to a global action plan to put the world on track to avoid dangerous climate change by limiting global warming to well below 2°C. All of this, they said, would be done through meaningful consultation with Indigenous communities. Yet, it’s unfortunate that, in just 11 months, the government has started deflecting questions, providing vague answers and even backtracking on promises in one of their biggest campaign pieces. 

Using the most recent example, we see the Liberals are, with one hand repeating the promise to fight climate change, while with the other hand giving the greenlight to the controversial Pacific Northwest LNG project in British Columbia. 

This is the project that the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency calls “one of the largest single greenhouse gas emitters in Canada.” The project that will produce and ship 19 million tonnes a year of liquefied gas a year to Asian markets and thereby pump more than 5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year into the air. 

It is disappointing to hear that Indigenous leaders in B.C. have not had meaningful consultation with the government, given the government’s commitment to rebuild the relationship between the federal government and Indigenous communities. Some Indigenous leaders are so frustrated that they have said that if the government doesn’t want to sit down with them, they will take the government to court. 

The Liberals said they had a plan to fight climate change, but so far we have heard more words than we have seen real action. Genuine progress in the fight against climate change will not be accomplished by more hot air from the government. 

The climate change portfolio explains why trade unions must keep an eye on what is happening outside the workplace. 

As a nation, we need a government that is committed to its promises, especially on the issue of climate change. Climate change is one of those big issues that affects us all us. In Canada and around the world. 

Canadians believed they were electing a different kind of government than we had in the last decade. We need to make sure that they will meet that promise, for the common good of all of us. 

In solidarity,

 Signed, Larry Brown

Larry Brown
NUPGE President


Larry Brown is the President of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 360,000 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

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