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Democracy, jobs & the environment.

Is there an inherent link between the struggle for social justice and the growing concerns for environmental reform? This question provokes a lot of controversy today.

It has bee pointed out that environmentally destructive practices victimize workers, women, native people and visible minorities more than others. In both their workplaces and neighbourhoods, they get greater exposure to dioxins, lead, toxic waste, carbon dioxide, radiation, PCBs, asbestos and other contaminants.

Environmental justice, then, is justice for the poor, the exploited, the powerless and the discriminated against.

There is another link between social equity and the ecology. The same imbalance of power in society that created social and economic injustices has also produced environmental damage.

For 40 years Uniroyal's chemical factory in Elmira, Ontario made products for the rubber industry and various herbicides such as Agent Orange. Its waste emissions included the cancer-causing substance NDMA that contaminated the surrounding towns, poisoned drinking water all along the Grand River and exposed workers inside the industry. Yet none of these affected parties had the right to tell the corporation that it had to use other materials in production or spend its money differently. When such attempts were eventually made, people were faced with economic penalties in the form of job loss.

Here, as elsewhere, the environmental issue brought out the contradiction between community health and the unfettered rights of private power, between the public interest and undemocratic authority.

To some of the social movements in Canada, therefore, environmental changes have to be brought about in a way that empowers workers and communities. Free trade and the recession have enabled the corporate agenda to chop away at our ecological and economic well-being. Unless key decision-making power over these issues are taken away from businesses and rooted in the people and communities that are affected, we will continue to see both increasing pollution and increasing job loss. The fight for both the environment and justice revolve around the issue of democratic control.

Green jobs not pink slips

This struggle for grass-roots empowerment is the focus of the Green Work Alliance, a new labour/environment coalition that has developed during the last year in Ontario. It is composed of Greenpeace along with 10 locals of the Canadian Auto Workers, three labour councils in the Toronto area, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty and others. It has held a number of demonstrations, lobbies and conferences.

The Alliance's slogan is "Green Jobs Not Pink Slips." It wants green corporations created in the public sector to develop projects that enhance the environment and generate employment. The capital should come from a re-allocation of the enormous subsidies governments are currently handing out to dangerous industries like nuclear energy, asbestos and others.

The Green Work Alliance (GWA) is unique for the level of union activism it has generated over environmental issues. This is partly due to its program, which incorporates more social content into traditional environmental demands. Its workers' perspective has resulted in a grass roots, community-based agenda for green reform.

The GWA's focus on empowerment is not surprising when you look at the experience of some of the major unions that launched it. Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) Local 1967, for example, represents workers at the large McDonnell Douglas Aircraft factory just north of Toronto. In November 1987, over 3,000 of them used their legal right to refuse unsafe work because of toxic exposures to substances like aluminum, chromium and chlorinated solvents. This landmark struggle persisted for six weeks and led to major improvements in health and safety. The example of workers engaging in massive direct action to get a healthier environment inspired workers all over Canada. It showed how to extract gains through bottom-up collective struggle rather than pleading with hostile governments or begging companies whose only consideration is the dollar bill.

Another local union that was prominent in the formation of the GWA was Local 252 of the autoworkers. It represented workers at the Caterpillar heavy equipment plant in Brampton, Ontario, just outside Toronto. It was shut down in 1991 as the company found cheaper wages and looser regulations in the American South. This was one of the hundreds of factories closed as free trade proceeded to devastate Ontario's industrial base. The 400 workers occupied the factory in protest.

With leadership from the national office of the CAW, the Caterpillar struggle became a high-profile public campaign, drawing participation from many other sectors of organized labour. It highlighted the issue of holding a corporation responsible to the workforce and community which had given it sustenance and profit for decades. The occupation was unable to prevent the shut down but it did extract a better severance package.

In February 1992, eight months later, the same Caterpillar workers were marching in front of their plant demanding jobs, but jobs of a different sort. The several hundred demonstrators wanted the closed factories in Brampton reopened in order to produce goods and services needed for environmental protection. The Caterpillar plant chairperson, Joe Albanese, was one of several union leaders who spoke along with ecologists and the antipoverty movement.

Greenpeace had long been campaigning to wean Ontario away from its dependence on nuclear and coal plants for electricity. These dirty technologies create acid rain, contribute to global warming through carbon dioxide emissions, release radiation into the air and water and run the risk of a Chernobly-type accident. They should be replaced by a program that develops both conservation and alternate energy sources like solar heating, natural gas, co-generation and others. Public pressure had already spurred Ontario Hydro to start modest efforts in this direction.

Hydro often said that while the clean energy program made sense in theory, many of the goods and services needed for that alternative weren't now available on the Ontario market.

To Greenpeace and union activists, the answer seemed obvious. Idle plant capacity and unemployed workers co-existed with a pent up demand for environmental products that no one was making. Why not reopen the closed factories in order to manufacture these items? We would be enhancing the environment and creating employment at the same time..."green jobs not pink slips."

As to a source of capital, it was right there in the enormous public subsidies given to dirty industries. The federal and provincial governments, for instance, have handed out over $14 billion to the nuclear industry since 1947. But nuclear is very capital intensive and creates few jobs for the money spent. One example is the new problem-plagued Darlington station in Ontario. It has cost $13.8 billion so far and will create only 850 permanent jobs if and when it is up and running.

The Worldwatch Institute has shown that nuclear and coal are the least labour intensive industries in the energy field. The environmentally sound technologies are all more job-creating.

The Green Work Alliance's proposal, then, was simple and clear redirect the toxic subsidies. Open up the Caterpillar plant and others to produce the goods required for clean energy and clean production: gas water heaters, energy-efficient light bulbs and motors, thermally resistant windows, turbines for industrial co-generation, recycling equipment, etc

Nuclear power in Ontario has become a notorious economic drain as well as a safety risk. In 1990-91, for example, Ontario Hydro lost $600 million in 18 months due to delays in starting up Darlington; that plant is currently drawing away about $4 million per day in interest payments alone. Hydro plans to spend $2.7 billion to rebuild four of the eight units at the aging and deteriorating Bruce facility. The province's nuclear stations are idle a third of the time, mostly due to safety-related breakdowns.

Energy studies show that it would be cheaper for the government and utility to pay the entire cost of conservation and clean energy programs, rather than build new nuclear capacity. The savings thereby created could be used for investment in more sustainable industries. The alternate energy programs would also require the manufacture of new goods and services. On that basis, environmentalists and workers joined forces to compel a redirection of spending.

Democracy and empowerment

The GWA's perspective goes beyond green job creation measures. As Nick De Carlo, President of CAW Local 1967, explained,

"We felt we had to address the issue of decision-making power or we would get nowhere. If the ecology is being progressively contaminated and jobs are disappearing, it is due to decisions made by a few strong corporations and their government allies. Those decisions are driven by considerations of profit, not community well-being."

The GWA believed it had to start challenging the right of powerful elites to make life and death decisions for all the rest of us. That is the only way the public good can override the unrestricted right to pollute, to poison, and to lay-off.

So the GWA raised the issues of democracy and community control when it campaigned for green economic conversion. A peoples' agenda means popular control over institutions that decide issues of environmental and employment impact. It wanted a green strategy implemented through democratically responsible public bodies, such as "green crown corporations" --municipal, provincial and federal. The alliance discussed new mechanisms to render these institutions accountable to the community, such as direct election of their boards of directors.

Some GWA members focused on regional planning for sustainable development. For example, they lobbied the City of Brampton to build its new housing project with energy saving light bulbs and water heaters manufactured in a re-opened Caterpillar plant.

Elsewhere, there has been a push by municipalities to build their own co-generation plants that use cleaner fuels to create electricity and recycle the steam to heat homes and power local industries.

The Ontario Liquor Board Employees Union (OLBEU) is fighting government attempts to privatize their work and lay off many of their members. It has highlighted areas of wasteful spending that support management luxury but does not benefit the public. It is campaigning for a comprehensive plan to re-use and return liquor bottles, based on a deposit system. The union has demonstrated that its proposal is not only economically sound but will help the environment by reducing waste. It will also create several hundred new jobs.

Free market agenda

In fighting to empower workers and communities, the Green Work Alliance was running up against the free market agenda that has dominated government and corporate policy. The business framework is profoundly anti-democratic because decisions of enormous social consequence are made by a few people pursuing their own enrichment. This cutthroat logic has led to the poisoning of our air and water, the accumulation of greenhouse gases, the depletion of our forest resources and the hole in the ozone layer.

The free market agenda has progressively disempowered Canadians. When our federal and provincial governments went on a binge to deregulate industry in the last decade, the public lost not only quality of service but also any residual means of influencing decisions that affect them. The same thing is happening as the public sector is gradually privatized and sold off to profiteering enterprises (e.g. rail and air transport, energy, postal services).

For all these reasons, the Green Work Alliance proposed a revitalized, democratically controlled public sector as the engine of green economic development.

This position emerged after considerable internal debate. One of the first decisions the alliance made was that it would not become a promotion agency for "green businesses", or a front group for a new breed of entrepreneurs pushing" green bonds" and other corporate ventures. To empower businesses rather than workers and communities was to travel down the path that had led to disaster in the first place. Nor did the GWA favour the tailoring of its environmental demands to fit business interests--for example, to make sure that reforms demanded are "cost effective" or otherwise in tune with corporate bottom lines.

Private enterprises in the so-called "green sector" aren't necessarily favourable to workers or positive to the environment. Asbestos consulting and removal companies, for example, have often hidden and covered up toxic hazards for the employers who hire them. They have been in continual battle with parents, workers, teachers and others exposed to asbestos contamination. Many cleanup firms pay dirt cheap wages and abuse their workers through substandard working conditions.

Popular struggle

Government authorities won't move on their own because they are intimidated by business. When the Mayor of Brampton, for example, attended a GWA rally, he asked the workers not to have any more demonstrations. He thought the media images or labour militancy would scare away potential investors.

Similarly, the GWA met with stubborn indifference when it sat down with staff of the Ontario Cabinet in April 1992. We were told that the government will bend over backwards to help and subsidize any entrepreneur with venture capital. But it will not even consider putting money into public sector green development.

What their position boiled down to was that it's fine to give out tax-payers' money to enrich individuals but not to benefit the public good. It was quite a surprise to hear this, not from Margaret Thatcher but from officials of an NDP government.

For the GWA members, it became clear that a peoples' agenda on jobs and the environment can only be the product of considerable struggles, and these will only be built by mobilizing an independent power base.

In forging this strategy, the alliance was taking its distance from a certain sector of the environmental movement. Many of the latter had opted for behind the scenes consultation with business and government, divorced from a social base. Others were committed to maneuvering and intrigue in the corridors of power, focusing on regulatory agencies and bureaucratic in-play. All were hoping to empower themselves within a relatively narrow framework where the parameters were dictated by business and government elites.

Job blackmail

It has become clear that some environmental reforms can be done at the expense of workers and communities. We have already seen job losses in the forestry and chemical industries. In Sarnia, Ontario, plants that produce chlorine and tetraethyl lead have reduced or ceased operations because of green pressures. The business community is currently howling for massive layoffs at Ontario Hydro, hoping to cut rising electricity rates by curbing the labour force and slashing conservation programs rather than abandon the nuclear mega-monsters.

Job blackmail has been used attempts to intimidate workers and communities from seeking environmental protection. One of the effective ways of handling this corporate bullying is for labour/environmental coalitions to sponsor green conversion projects that are job creating. This puts a positive rather than a negative economic spin on ecological reform. Such plans have to be combined with a legislated "workers environmental compensation fund." This would cover the lost wages as well as the retraining and relocation expenses for workers whose jobs are affected by environmental reform. Such conversion programs will ensure that workers are the beneficiaries and not the victims of the greening process.

There are other answers to corporate blackmail. One of these is to look at the money that polluting companies are taking out of the community, monies that could be used for plant upgrading and cleaner technologies. In August 1992, for example, Greenpeace published an accounting report that demolished the myth about the so-called hard times endured by Canada's pulp and paper industry. It showed that from 1981 to 1991, the five largest companies had net earnings of $2.3 billion and paid out $2.1 billion of this in dividends. Yet these same companies claimed they couldn't afford measures to halt the flow of toxic contaminants like dioxins and other cancerous organo-chlorines.

The Greenpeace report showed there was enough money to finance modernization and pollution controls in the mills. But those funds were being siphoned off to Wall St. and elsewhere, paying for, among other things, Olympia and York's Canary Wharf debacle.

Like at Caterpillar, the struggle for environmental protection in pulp and paper entails a struggle against corporate irresponsibility. It means worker and community control over the corporation's exclusive decisions on how it spends its money.

Greening the society will involve redressing the imbalances of power. If we are going to protect our environment we will have to fight for democracy as well.

There are no magic formulas for waging this struggle, especially in the hard times imposed by free trade and the recession. But labour and community participation will help inject a new perspective and agenda into the green movement. It may help fuse the movements for social justice with the mushrooming concerns for environmental protection.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Canadian Dimension Publication, Ltd.
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Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Gray, Stan
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Date:Nov 1, 1992
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