Sustainable development: a labor view

The real choice is not jobs or environment. It is both or neither.

by Brian Kohler, Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada
(This presentation was given at the Persistent Organic Pollutants Conference, held on December 5, 1996, in Chicago, Illinois.)

think we often fail to understand each other's positions because we don't try to put ourselves in their shoes. So, I'd like to start by asking you to imagine yourself in this hypothetical situation. The example is deliberately stereotypical - any resemblance to real persons is entirely coincidental.

Imagine yourself to be a worker in a chemical plant. You have a steady job that pays well and twenty years' seniority. If you lose this job, you know in your heart that you will not get another like it; in fact, you will be lucky to retain half your present purchasing power and you will lose your pension, benefits and the dignity and pride that go with being able to provide for your family a reasonably comfortable life.

You have been told by the company in meetings that the success of the new production facilities under construction are the only hope that this plant will remain open at all. On the other hand, you also have some health concerns related to the production of certain materials at the plant and you don't know if you entirely trust the management to protect either your health or your job.

There do not seem to be many options open to you. Your understanding of production economics, labor relations and occupational health is highly effective, but at a practical get-the-job-done level. You have not necessarily given a lot of thought to political decision making processes or environmental ethics.

One day you arrive at work to find several million dollars' worth of construction equipment sitting idle and a couple of hundred construction workers standing around, unsure of what to do next. You hear that an environmental group has won a court order halting the new production facility from being built. How would you react?

This debate is only partially about who is right, and who is wrong, about toxic pollution levels or economic impacts. Much more fundamentally, it is about how society will make decisions about sustainability, and who will pay the price of those decisions. Will it be those who have the deepest pockets or will it be those who can get the best press?

Taking both sides

To those of you who feel most sympathetic with environmental activists, I would say this: We in the labour movement are your best friends and your strongest allies in the search for a sustainable future. Workers have been the "canaries in the mine" for society, and the corpses of our brothers and sisters have identified most of the chemicals that you are now campaigning to rid the environment of. However, if you attack us in our workplaces, if you fail to understand the jobs issue, you will create a confrontation that you cannot win. You will force us into an alliance with our employers and you, we, society and the environment will all be the losers.

To those of you who sympathize most strongly with the business side, I would say this again: We in the labour movement are your best friends and your strongest allies in the search for a sustainable future. Workers depend on your economic success for our jobs and our future. We understand that as long as there is industrial activity, there will be an environmental impact: There is no "clean" production; only "cleaner" production... the second law of thermodynamics will get us in the end. However, if you continue to treat us as commodities instead of human beings, if you continue to shed jobs at every opportunity using the excuses of globalization, automation, downsizing, mergers, and contracting out; if you continue to poison our bodies and then fight our attempts to obtain even workers' compensation in return, you will have to forgive us for being somewhat skeptical when you promise to save our jobs.

At the recent National Convention of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, a resolution was passed calling for the creation of a "Just Transition Program." If society must make some tough choices about which economic activities we are willing to continue and which we are willing to forego, a structured transition or "just" transition program is necessary, if the costs of those decisions are to be shared fairly. For it is absolutely clear that without such a plan, the people that will pay 99 percent of the price of change will be the workers in the affected industries and the communities that rely on the income of those workers. Capital can write off losses, collect insurance in some cases, and re-invest elsewhere. Workers do not have these kinds of options. Without a "Just Transition Program" you guarantee conflict, and possibly violent conflict. That is your choice.

There is no future for our unions and the legitimate interests of our members by throwing our lot in blindly with either environmentalists or employers. We have our own legitimate perspective. We must, however, do a better job of articulating it.

If we fail to preserve the environment, we face global catastrophes. On the other hand, if we ignore economic and social needs, we will face catastrophe of a different sort. It is clear that major structural changes in the way society and the economy operate must take place if we are to move towards sustainability. These changes will cause massive shifts in employment patterns. Workers, their families, and their communities must not be asked to bear 100 percent of the costs of a transition to sustainability.

What would such a "Just Transition Program" provide for? 1. Protect the purchasing power of workers and their families. 2. Facilitated transition of environmentally displaced workers to new employment. 3. A redefinitio,n if necessary, of the term employment to reflect the principles of sustainability. 4. Support for communities dependent on sunset industries.

How will we win a just transition? First, by setting our own house in order. Second, by working within the organizations we already have, belong to, or are affiliated with. Third, by explaining our position to the public. Fourth, by educating our members, and finally, by building alliances with environmental groups or employers who accept the "Just Transition" concept as a precondition to debating any question of environmental change.

Defining values

Since we all still rely on an economic system that rewards production, consumption and growth over sustainable practices, we may have to find a way of defining the "value" we place on the environment, as well as on social needs. This value may or may not be fixed in terms of dollars, but somehow it must be real value in "God's currency," if you will.

Our present governments seem unresponsive to environmental concerns and certainly to labour's concerns. Yet, environmental issues consistently place high in public opinion polls asking people what is important to them. We have a problem if industry is moving public policy in one direction, while environmentalists are moving public opinion in the opposite direction. This is a recipe for confrontation, and possibly a violent one. Working people are caught in this confrontation, "sympathetic to the one side, but dependent on the other."

Are some environmentalists just alarmists? Does "good science" show us that our problems are really minor? Experience in the occupational health field has taught trade unionists that when scientists disagree, the worst case scenario usually turns out to be closest to the truth. In any case, if we want to guarantee the worst case scenario, the best way to do that is to pretend that problems do not exist.

Sustainable development theory says that we must meet the "needs" of today's generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. "Needs" does not just mean economic needs and environmental needs, but includes social needs as well.

What we are asking for, fundamentally, is that public policy be set by the public and not just by those with the best press or the deepest pockets. The debate about what exactly we mean by sustainability is also a debate about what we mean by democracy.

For example, sustainability does not mean that economic concerns override all others. But neither does it mean that environmental purity is the only consideration when we make decisions as a society. Suppose that I discover a drug that will cure cancer, or AIDS. Suppose that the manufacture of this drug will create an extremely toxic waste that I cannot dispose of, that I can only store. Do you suppose that society will tell me not to make it? Would you?

People who are desperate are not worried about the environment. Right now, Canada and the United States have a lot of desperate people, the result of deliberate government policy decisions. Are we going to tell desperate and worried people and communities that their factories, mines and mills must close for the good of the environment? Perhaps we can, but only if we can tell then what will happen, and what they will be doing, afterwards. And what happens when the generation and accumulation of wealth by the few no longer produces jobs so that the rest can earn a small share in that wealth? Perhaps we need some new ground rules for society, again in the form of public policy set by the public.

Remember that our members make their living working in so-called "toxic production," and therefore this debate means more to us than just an academic discussion about economics and the environment. The sustainable operation of these facilities is as important an issue to us as it is to any other group. We are stakeholders, and important ones, in this question and we are pleased to participate in your process.

The planet Earth has been compared to a spaceship. It is a finite environment, with finite resources on board, and no new supplies coming in. I will therefore conclude with this thought: On spaceship earth, there are no passengers, only crew. You, me, all of us - we are that crew. It is time for some decisions. We must decide wisely, for this may be our last chance to do so.

Brian Kohler is the National Representative - Health, Safety and Environment Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada, 350 Albert Street #1900, OTTAWA, Ontario K1R 1A4. E-mail: