Sid Ryan on the unstoppable alliance of labour, environment and Indigenous groups

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At the July 5 March for Jobs, Justice, and the Climate, Sid Ryan, President of the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL), sat down to discuss the emerging affinities between labour, Indigenous rights groups and environmentalist groups around the climate.

Ryan discusses the potential power of such a movement, what labour brings to the table, and the some of the challenges of supporting a transition from a carbon-intensive economy.

The interview has been edited and condensed for flow and clarity.

 

The recent March for Jobs, Justice, and the Climate brought together -- among others -- Indigenous, labour, and environmentalist groups. What do you expect to arise out of such a diverse movement of groups and communities?

The march is a way to announce to the world that there is a very powerful coalition coming together. I think people are beginning to believe that a lot of what we need to be doing is dealing with the climate. We know that all of our different groups, labour, First Nations, environmentalists, if we don't come together to put the pressure on, we're not going to be successful.

I was at the Battle in Seattle. You had the community activists, environmentalists, and you had a lot people from around the world and different organizations coming into Seattle. The labour movement had its own separate demonstration in a football stadium five miles out of town in a football field. There were all these wonderful speeches taking place in this football field.

But downtown Seattle was erupting with running battles between police, environmentalists, students and activists from around the world. We were completely disconnected. I thought "wow, now I can see why sometimes these other organizations say to the labour movement that we don't see you guys involved in the fight." Even though we think we're supportive of all of their issues, we seem to be doing it apart from them.

I see the July 5 march as a coming out of a new movement -- the beginnings of us saying that we're willing to work together. We know that shifting away from a carbon-based economy is a difficult decision, certainly for labour. But we're going to be there and we're going to be a part of it, and the hope is to build something much much bigger.

The aim is to say to the world that there is a new game in town, and keep your eye on it because it can build into something very powerful.

 

What do you think that the labour movement brings to an alliance of labour, environmental, and Indigenous groups?

I think we bring resources. Most organizations are lacking in financial resources.

The labour movement has an independent supply of revenue that is not dependant on government to provide. We can be critical of the government and not be afraid that they will cut our funding. Most environmental and community-based organizations rely on funding from the federal government and when they're critical of government, we know full well what happens. They can get defunded.

Secondly, we have some organizational skills that most other organizations don't have and that's through decades of organizing workers and organizing through political action campaigns. We're not as effective in our campaigning sometimes as Indigenous communities are. They appear to be much more politicized and can get bigger results from their actions. They're actions tend to be somewhat more militant. We've seen Indigenous groups block railroads and roadways to bring an issue to a head, for example. First Nations people had a huge impact in stopping the pipelines out west. It was primarily the First Nations peoples that put a spanner in the works of the Harper government.

So when First Nations peoples act in concert and get in behind an idea, they are very powerful. When you join that up with the labour movement, community partners and the environmentalists, it basically an unstoppable force.

 

You mentioned earlier transitioning to a greener economy means some tough choices for labour. Can you speak to the challenges for labour groups in advocating for the climate? Because there are so many jobs related to the oil and gas industry, is it difficult for labour groups to campaign for a shift away from the carbon economy?

Well, the challenges are not over. I mean there is the Line 9 pipeline that some folks in the labour movement are supportive of because it creates jobs and I guess the final product will be the refining of raw material, which will create more jobs.

So in the short term, it's difficult for the labour movement to say to their members that "we're going to oppose 'X' project, and that may result in less jobs because of that decision." That makes it difficult for union leaders to have to make those types of decisions.

But if they're willing to look at it in the longer term, over a 10-, 20-, 30-year period and the transition away from the carbon-based economy to new technologies -- and you can show them where those new technologies will produce as good as paying if not better than current jobs -- there is less resistance to it.

For example, I used to work at the Pickering and Bruce nuclear power plants. There I was conflicted by the fact that I'm basically opposed to nuclear power and at the same time there are good-paying jobs.

The labour movement was part of a group within the NDP -- when the NDP were opposed to nuclear power -- the compromised position was that the party would be supportive of refurbishing of existing plants and oppose the building of new future power plants. That policy has worked out relatively well because there have been no new nuclear plants since that policy was passed. Even the expansion of Darlington hasn't got off the ground.

This is a good example where there are some really good-paying jobs, but after Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, people are rightfully very concerned about the byproducts of nuclear power and what could happen in the event of an accident. That drives people to say you shouldn't be tampering with or building nuclear power plants.

Particularly if you think about where the Pickering nuclear plant [30 KM east of Toronto], is close to one million people, and the fact that it was built in the 1970s, I can't imagine that it will be refurbished any further. More than likely the dismantling of the Pickering power plant is coming soon.

But again, that's one of those tough issues for the labour movements because we represent thousands of workers in those power plants. And what do you replace the power with?

At this moment, it doesn't seem feasible to replace all of the nuclear power with windmills to anybody who is in the industry. But when you go back 20-30 years, who would have thought we would have so much power being generated today by solar and wind? The amount of baseload that solar and wind provide now was unthinkable 20-30 years ago.

And when you look at Germany and Denmark, you can see where wind power is a huge industry. They've built an entire economy around good paying jobs with green energy and they've cornered the market in that area. Can Canada do the same thing? I believe we can.

 

The Green Energy Act, which is aimed at stimulating the growth of green energy in Ontario, has been in place for some time now. Could you speak to whether there has been growth in jobs associated with green energy in Ontario, and to what extent these jobs have been unionized?

There's been a bit of spike in the number of green energy jobs, but I have not seen a spike in the unionization of those particular fields.

It's brand new technologies, so it's challenging for the labour movement to move in while the industry is getting off the ground. The critical mass is not there that attracts the attention of the labour movement. It's not like manufacturing industries before it became decimated through free trade agreements. There doesn't appear to be the same concentration of workers in any one sector of the green energy industry. There are 15 workers over here and 20 over there, and spread around different parts of the province.

Unless it was a factory that was, let's say, dedicated to manufacturing auto parts and they switched over to making solar panels. In that instance I would say, 'yes, let's organize them.' But I cannot say that there is a growing industry as of yet of workers concentrated enough to organize in the green energy sector.

However, the green economy offers many skilled, well-paying, and stable jobs. For example, a windmill structurally speaking consists of about 200 tons of steel, about 2,000 moving parts that have to be manufactured. They have to be installed, they have to be maintained.

These are highly skilled jobs in some cases; you need tool and dye makers, the application of the steel has to be done by steelworkers in factories and they're the type of jobs that can't be sent offshore.

And if we can shift the economy to these kinds of jobs then we would do two things: create better paying jobs that can't be shipped offshore, and at the same time, preserving the environment.

 

Steve Cornwell is interested in social movements, science and technology. Steve has worked on energy issues with Greenpeace Canada, Environmental Defense, Safe and Green Energy Peterborough, and SumOfUs.org. Find him on Twitter @steve_cornwell

Photo courtesy of Rebel Sage

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