Jobs guarantee key to likely success of any green transition

Ken Smith is a union leader in Alberta who supports ambitious climate action that begins with a managed energy transition plan

THE GOVERNMENT OWES US A JOB. It seems like a crazy idea: something only a communist like Che Guevera, or a “socialist” like Bernie Sanders, might promote. Except it’s not.

American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt thought is was a great idea. In 1944, he was ready to proclaim that every American citizen had a right to a “useful and remunerative job”; and that the federal government had an obligation to make that right a functioning reality. It was to be one part of what he called “a second Bill of Rights”.

Roosevelt died before he got the chance to do it. But the idea of a job guarantee didn’t die.

Jobs guarantee essential

Now, it’s an article of faith in every “green new deal” on offer. It’s considered an essential to achieve “a just transition” from a fossil fuel to a climate-friendly green economy.

Over 832,000 Canadians make a good living in the oil and gas industry. Experts estimate living up to our commitments to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will eliminate almost 60,000 of those good livings. Throwing that many people out of work without a jobs guarantee will make broad support for any kind of a green transition difficult, if not impossible.

However, oil and gas workers are not stupid or blind climate change deniers. They can see how poplar support for climate change action is growing and that doing nothing about it is a threat to them, as much as it is to everyone else on the planet.

Worried but on side

In fact, a recent poll of oil and gas workers conducted by Abacus Data found that two-thirds of fossil fuel industry workers believe “climate change is an emerging challenge that we need to address”.

The poll also found that if the government were to commit to a “good jobs guarantee” for current fossil fuel workers, 73 per cent became more supportive of ambitious climate action.

The poll also found 60 per cent of workers worry they’ll be left behind in this transition.

Ultimately, it all boils down to jobs, says Ed Brost, who worked for Shell for 30 years before retiring to start his own consulting company.

“People need jobs, they need income, they have to take care of their families and their needs, and people are talking about changing your job … of course you're gonna be apprehensive. I would be,” he said.

No one has to be left behind, says Brost, but it’s up to our governments to show there is a path forward.

Iron & Earth, an oilpatch worker-led organization, is pushing for the federal government to support a national upskilling initiative so workers can be confident they won’t have to pay out of pocket for training, and it will allow displaced workers to make a quick switch to new jobs at the same pay.

Job guarantee a must

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), said coal transition policies the AFL helped create when Alberta began phasing out coal-fired power plants could serve as a valuable guide for the much larger transition away from oil and gas.

The AFL negotiated to get the Alberta government to provide wage top-ups for unemployment insurance, training vouchers for $12,000 and pension-bridging packages as part of the coal transition package. But they couldn’t get what they wanted and needed most: a jobs guarantee.

Workers deserve a just transition plan they can believe in, with a solid jobs guarantee, says McGowan. But his fear is the Alberta government will continue to bury its head in the sand until “our federal government actually starts implementing policies for a just transition, instead of just talking about them.”

Waiting on the feds

In July 2021, our federal government declared that they would be holding a public consultation on the just transition. The goal of the consultation will be to create a Just Transition Advisory Body.

From October 12 to 17, grassroots organizations across the country mobilized to hold more than 50 events in nine provinces as part of a “Climate Code Red” week of action to demand immediate action on the introduction of community-led just transition legislation.

“So there’s the question of whether and when Trudeau will introduce a just transition act and there’s also a question of what’s going to be in it,” says Dylan Penner, a campaigner with the Council of Canadians. “That’s why it’s so important for people and communities to articulate the priorities that are important to them and to define what’s in a just transition so it’s not left to corporations and the one per cent.”

It will be up to unions and their supporters to make sure a jobs guarantee is a top priority in whatever the Liberals include in their just transition plans and programs.

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