journalism that swims
against the current.
Labour + Industry

The 'Jobs or Environment' Choice Is 'False' Says Mega-Union

The question divides progressive voters. In Canada's 2015 election, can Unifor unite them?

Geoff Dembicki 24 Nov

Geoff Dembicki reports on energy and climate change for The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

Funding for this article was partially provided by the Climate Justice Project of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, with support from the Fossil Fuel Development Mitigation Fund of Tides Canada Foundation.

It's one of the oldest environmental clichés around: by protecting Mother Nature we destroy the economy. Even though mounting evidence suggests the reverse is true, and that an ecologically sustainable economy is stronger than one that isn't, the polarizing choice between jobs and the environment still defines most climate change debates. That's especially the case in Canada, where Prime Minister Stephen Harper has vowed he won't allow climate action to "destroy jobs and growth."

You might expect that to play well with Canada's largest private sector union. Yet Unifor, which was formed when the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW) and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) merged last year, "rejects the false conflict often posed between 'jobs' and the 'environment.'" By doing so it's claimed middle ground between activists fighting to shutter Canada's oil and gas sector and the corporations demanding zero limits to its expansion.

From that position labour has both aided and hurt climate action. In 2002, industry groups launched a media offensive against the Kyoto Protocol, arguing it would destroy 450,000 Canadian jobs. Though CEP at the time represented 35,000 oil and gas workers, it found "no evidence" Kyoto would cause an "economic disaster," thus giving the then-federal Liberal government political cover to ratify it. But in 2007, CAW's critique of Kyoto as "suicidal" was used by the Harper government to argue aggressive climate action would put a "foot on the throat" of struggling workers.

The merger of CEP and CAW in 2013 created a mega-union representing 305,000 workers. The first true test of Unifor's power will come during next year's federal election. If Harper succeeds in defining the election as a choice between jobs and the environment, one academic study suggests, he'll divide progressive voters. Can Unifor's rejection of that tradeoff unite them? "The short answer is yes," said Simon Fraser University political science professor John Calvert. "But the details are more complicated."

Ratifying Kyoto

To grasp them it helps to go back to 2001, when the "timber wars" in B.C. between green activists and loggers were being resolved by economic forces -- namely, the growing market desire for sustainable forestry products. So the guiding logic for CEP as it developed a response to climate change that year was that "it made good sense economically to be on the leading edge as opposed to kicking and screaming and pretending the world is flat," then-CEP president Brian Payne told The Tyee.

On that basis CEP decided to support the Kyoto Protocol. That put the union at odds with the Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, which in 2002 claimed that ratifying Kyoto would destroy 450,000 jobs. "I remember others in the labour movement and industry saying, 'what are you guys doing promoting Kyoto -- it's like biting the hand that feeds you,'" Payne said. The CEP after all represented 150,000 workers (35,000 of them in oil and gas). But its leadership felt climate change was too big to ignore.

And when legislation on it came, the CEP wanted to be prepared. After studying Kyoto for two years it found "no evidence" ratifying the climate treaty "will mean layoffs for our members, or an economic disaster for Canada." Still, some polluting industries would no doubt suffer. So the CEP called for a "just transition" strategy that provided strong income and retraining support for affected workers. "We had to be pragmatic," Payne explained. "You can't throw employees to the wolves."

Union support for Kyoto gave political cover to the federal government. "I would like to salute the Canadian labour movement," then-Liberal environment minister David Anderson said in October 2002. "There has been a little too much in the way of crocodile tears from lobbyists from big business on this issue." With the backing of energy unions like CEP, Kyoto didn't seem like a job killer. "Anderson needed that," said Shannon Daub, a researcher at the Canadian Center For Policy Alternatives. "It gave him a place of strength to argue from." Canada ratified Kyoto in December 2002.

Kyoto is 'suicidal'

But many still find what happened next perplexing. With a majority government, a supportive public, buy-in from unions and an international duty to reduce Canada's carbon emissions to six percent below 1990s levels by 2012, the federal Liberals instead did little to prevent their rise. Three years after ratifying Kyoto, emissions were up 33 percent above the target. "[Kyoto] meant actually taking on certain vested interests in a serious way," Calvert said. "Clearly the [Liberals] weren't prepared to do that."

By 2007, neither was Canada's largest auto union. Five years earlier, then-CAW president Buzz Hargrove had swung hard at the big auto companies, calling their objections to new climate rules "unfounded." But facing an extended manufacturing downturn in Canada costing tens of thousands of auto sector jobs, he called Kyoto's targets "suicidal" and lamented "the insanity of this environmental movement." "I was trying to be realistic about what was happening," Hargrove told The Tyee.

Harper's Conservatives had by then replaced the reigning Liberals. With the oilsands industry exploding, they released a climate plan incapable of meeting Kyoto's targets. Hargrove, a vocal Harper critic, nevertheless praised the plan as "right on the money." For the Conservatives it was a political blessing. They mentioned Hargrove over 12 times in Parliament. And when then-NDP leader Jack Layton sponsored a bill calling for more decisive climate action, Conservative auto caucus chair Jeff Watson called it a "foot on the throat" of the workers CAW represented.

"Harper's a pretty clever politician," Hargrove explained. "So it wouldn't surprise me if he used me to his benefit." Yet a 2010 Labor Studies Journal article suggests CAW made it easy for Harper, by having "succumbed to the 'jobs versus the environment' logic" favored by Conservatives. Harper used that logic to great effect in the 2008 election, when the Liberals campaigned on a national carbon tax. His insistence that such a tax would "undermine the economy" was a major factor in the Liberal defeat.

Unifor emerges

But why exactly? Wilfrid Laurier University assistant professor Simon Kiss decided to investigate. He went through federal election data from 2004 to 2011, and found when the environment becomes a high profile issue (like in 2008) it tends to widen class divisions among progressives, with working class voters unlikely to support strictly environmental policies. "We can... expect Conservatives to capitalize on this division," he wrote, "and to emphasize a 'jobs versus the environment' narrative."

Harper's government has done exactly that. In December 2011 it pulled Canada out of Kyoto, arguing its targets would be equal to "closing down the entire farming and agricultural sector." Then came its January 2012 attack against green "radicals" who want "to stop any major project no matter what the cost... in lost jobs"; the May 2012 contention that a carbon tax would "kill and hurt Canadian families"; Harper's claim in August 2013 that the Keystone XL oil pipeline is "important... for job creation"; and his vow earlier this year that climate action must not "destroy jobs and growth."

While all this was happening CEP and CAW began holding joint talks. And on Labour Day in 2013 they merged to create Unifor, Canada's largest private sector union. The 305,000-worker union released a position paper not long after explicitly rejecting "the false conflict often posed between 'jobs' and the 'environment.'"

"In the long run," Unifor economist Jim Stanford told The Tyee, "employment will be enhanced by taking advantage of the potential to invest in sustainability, green energy and transit."

For now Unifor thinks Canada can and should produce fossil fuels. But the 40,000 oil and gas workers it represents are best served by a carefully regulated sector that expands in sync with Canada's energy needs, respects strict climate guidelines and where possible avoids exporting raw fossil resources to foreign markets -- policies which Stanford argues are "diametrically opposed by the oil industry." It's why Unifor supports Enbridge's plans to ship Alberta crude oil to refineries in Quebec, but opposes Northern Gateway, Keystone XL and the Kinder Morgan expansion.

Looking to 2015

The Liberals and NDP are staking out similar ground in the lead-up to next year's election. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau argues the federal government should be a "responsible referee" to the oilsands instead of a "cheerleader" -- while supporting Keystone XL. NDP leader Tom Mulcair opposes Gateway and Keystone but favours a west-to-east oil pipeline across Canada. Neither leader's stance is very popular with Canada's green movement, which by and large argues new oil pipelines are bad for climate change.

It may all prove confusing for the potentially 59 per cent of Canadians who think the climate should be a top federal priority. "Who are environmentally aware Canadians going to support in the coming election?" one observer has wondered. Yet Stanford thinks it's a "stereotype" that most such voters want to see the oilsands totally shut down. "We have to be very careful not to be played off one against the other by companies who would like to see a big division between labour and environmentalists," he said.

If past federal elections are any indication, that division benefits the Conservatives. To prevent them from winning in 2015, Unifor is urging its 305,000 members to vote strategically against Tory candidates. Such a strategy may have contributed to the surprise defeat of Conservative leader Tim Hudak in Ontario's recent election. Yet the political influence of unions in Canada has been in steep decline during the past decade, leading Unifor to worry "too many union members are disengaged from politics."

Can Unifor reengage them, and in the process dispel the argument that a vote for the environment is a vote against jobs? Such a feat could have consequences far beyond next year's election. At Unifor's founding convention in 2013, Naomi Klein argued that environmentalists on their own can't build a sustainable economy. "We need you to lead," she said to the union delegates. What did Stanford think? "If we can show that Canadians from coast to coast, working at all stages of the value chain, find common cause in a vision of sustainable full employment," he said, "that's a model for the whole country."  [Tyee]

  • Share:

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context


The Barometer

What Would You Save First If You Had to Evacuate Your Home?

Take this week's poll