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Labour + Industry

In BC, Ample Fuels for Union Debates

Pipelines spark support, opposition, from labour groups in province and across Canada.

Tom Sandborn 10 Jun

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy stories for The Tyee. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at [email protected]. Find his previous Tyee stories here.

If you want jobs, you need to pump and transport oil and gas, albeit as safely as humanly possible. That's been the mantra from B.C. premier Christy Clark -- a key, many would argue, to her surprise victory in the 2013 provincial election.

It's a message one might assume resonates with organized labour in B.C., given that resource extraction has been vital to the province's economy. But union support for Clark's agenda is more complex and even fragmented.

The arguments within, and among, unions turn on a couple of debates:

Whether, while creating jobs, mining gas or transporting bitumen can in fact be done safely and socially responsibly.

And whether various petro-projects will produce significant numbers of good, lasting jobs at all.

In B.C., there's no union consensus even about the build-up of a liquefied natural gas export industry, despite the fact that labour-aligned NDP leader Adrian Dix was, like Clark, pro-LNG development in the last election.

The promised LNG boom requires "fracking" -- a process that gulps water, mixes it with toxic chemicals, and by injecting the fluids into the ground shatters buried rock formations, releasing trapped gas.

Proponents of the LNG industry, including Christy Clark, portray fracked natural gas as a greener alternative to coal or oil.

But there is nothing ambiguous about the view of the nationwide Canadian Union of Pubic Employees, which "Says Frack Off."

And in November the leadership of Unifor, the massive new private sector union created last year when the Canadian Autoworkers merged with the Communication, Energy and Paperworkers, called for a national moratorium on all fracking.

Unifor cited pollution risks and opposition by First Nations who oppose development while their land claims are unresolved. Those First Nations, said the Unifor statement "would be hard hit by the heated, profit-hungry rush which the [LNG] industry is set to quickly unleash."

Lee Loftus, president of the BC and Yukon Building Trades Council, told The Tyee he was disappointed by Unifor's call for a fracking moratorium. He added that he thought that First Nations concerns about resource projects were legitimate, and that government needed to engage First Nations in a respectful conversation.

The Building Trades Council has also spoken out strongly in favour of both the Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan pipelines that would deliver Alberta bitumen to B.C ports.

"There's nothing wrong with pipelines," Loftus told The Tyee. "We build pipelines and modern pipelines are very safe," Loftus said. "B.C. is already safely crisscrossed with pipelines. Even building one LNG plant would keep all my local's 500 members employed for five years."

"We have taken a position," said Loftus. "We are not going to idly stand by while others do our work. If these projects are built, we should build them."

Benefits vs. risks

Other large unions officially backing the Enbridge and Kinder Morgan bitumen pipeline projects, as well as fast tracked LNG infrastructure, include the Teamsters, Plumbers, Operating Engineers and Labourers unions.

"As proud trade union members representing tens of thousands of hard-working Canadians, we believe that Northern Gateway will benefit working families. It will create thousands of well-paying jobs and training opportunities we need to build strong communities," stated Lionel Railton, acting Canadian regional director of the Operating Engineers, signaling his union hopes the federal government's decision on the pipeline, due any day, will be a go ahead.

Labour groups who take the opposing view include the BC Teachers Federation and the Pulp, Paper and Woodworkers of Canada, which has posted a statement on its website declaring,"We strongly believe this project is not in the public's interest and would cause long-term damage to our environment."

Building pipelines to tankers, concludes the Pulp, Paper and Woodworkers, doesn't do enough for B.C.'s economy or workers. "Shipping raw bitumen foregoes important value-added economic development opportunities involving refining and upgrading the oil in Canada."

A more radical denouncement of unions that back more fossil fuel extraction comes from the Vancouver Eco-Socialist Group, a dozen rank and file members of various unions who pronounced in May: "We should oppose the climate-wrecking agenda of the fossil fuel industry and its government backers. We believe there is a better way forward for unions and for society."

That includes liquefied natural gas, according to one of the group's founders, retired millworker Gene McGuckin, who says "balderdash" to the claim LNG is a clean fuel. "If you measure all the emissions, well to wheels, LNG is as bad as bitumen."

Burnaby as ground zero

The bitumen pipeline debate literally hits home in Burnaby, where Kinder Morgan's proposed TransCanada pipeline expansion will increase the amount of crude flowing through the community and onto more numerous, bigger tankers.

Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the Building Trades Council, told Burnaby Now that union support for pipelines such as the Kinder Morgan line expansion that will end in Burnaby does not mean that unionized building trades workers were indifferent to the environment. "We share the same concerns as the public when it comes to ensuring that these projects are built with the highest quality and the most minimal impact to the environment," Sigurdson told the local paper on May 8.

Sigurdson said the project should undergo a "rigorous and thorough set of hearings" to ensure it meets environmental standards before any ground is broken. We are not going to, for the sake of a couple of paycheques, put the environment at risk. We want to make certain that it is done safely."

"That's not how Patrick Parkes, outgoing first vice president of the Burnaby Teachers' Association, (BTA) reads the balance of risk and reward regarding the Kinder Morgan expansion. "To be promoting policies that destroy the environment, " said Parks, is "cynical and counterproductive."

Parkes coordinated anti-pipeline activity between his union, the BTA and BROKE, a Burnaby citizens' group against the project.

The BTA's pipeline stance "is ethical and moral," said Parkes. "We think there should be a moratorium on anything that adds to climate change. But we are also concerned about the number of schools close to the proposed route."

Jobs in transition?

Estimates of how many and what sorts of jobs B.C.'s various proposed oil and gas pipeline projects would create vary widely depending on the source.

Last year, for example, Dave Byng, deputy minister of jobs, tourism and skills training predicted in a paper on job training in the north of B.C. that LNG pipes and plants in that area would create 354,200 person years of employment, with 74,700 full time jobs in the predicted peak year of 2017.

Last year, too, Sandy Gorossino, writing in HuffpostBC said the job creation potential in natural gas was quite modest, arguing "While natural gas contributes fully 3.2 per cent of our total GDP, its work force is tiny, just 3,500 souls, or .15 per cent of provincial employment. Electrical equipment manufacturers employ more people in B.C. than oil and gas."

On the website of the Canadian Labour Congress, the national umbrella group that represents the majority of Canadian workers who belong to unions, can be found a 25-page document dated 2000 and titled "Just Transition For Workers During Environmental Change." The policy proposal argues for funds to be created so that workers displaced when fossil fuel operations are shut down can be retrained and moved to equally well paying jobs in other sectors, especially ones tied to the expansion of the non-carbon economy.

Having resources and a strategy for transitioning workers is the "flip side," says the document, of policies to promote the creation of more green jobs. In this province an organization formed to help do that, called Green Jobs BC, boasts a steering committee drawn from both labour and environmental organizations, including the Building Trades Council's Loftus and the Sierra Club's Bob Peart. Green Jobs BC has not taken positions on the contentious resource projects like Northern Gateway, co-chair Lisa Matthaus told The Tyee.

"We try to focus on common ground," said Matthous. "We want green job expansion, and we don't want the province tied to a dying fossil fuel economy. There is no conflict between the jobs and the environment. A non-sustainable economy is bad for jobs."

The Just Transition blueprint for greening jobs "is a fallacy," in the view of Steve Hunt Director of District 3 (Western Canada) for the United Steelworkers. "It looks good on paper, but it isn't practical."

McGuckin of the Vancouver Eco-Socialists rejects the Green Jobs BC initiative, too, but because he doesn't think it goes far enough.

"It isn't an answer to climate change," said McGuckin. "It is only a reform to shift jobs to less hurtful activities. We won't end human contributions to climate change until we make basic changes. Capitalism by its nature demands constant growth. We can't get rid of climate change without eliminating capitalism."

McGuckin and likeminded critics, said Hunt, "are living in Nirvana. If we shut down extractive industries in Canada, they will go elsewhere."  [Tyee]

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