International conference highlights union initiatives for public ownership and democratic control of energy

TUED 2019 conferenceAn international conference, “The Green New Deal, Net-Zero Carbon, and the Crucial Role of Public Ownership“, brought together more than 150 trade unionists, activists and policy allies in New York City on September 28, 2019. In November, a 50-page summary of the conference was released by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), with summaries of presentations (including many links to related documents), as well as links to video of some sessions.

TUED Coordinator Sean Sweeney described the context of the conference:  “The world is completely off-track to avoid catastrophic climate change, and we can’t wait any longer. Fortunately, unions and their allies around the world increasingly recognize that only comprehensive public ownership and democratic control of energy gives us a chance to achieve the scale of change needed in the time available.” Speakers from the U.K., South Africa, South Korea, Zimbabwe, the U.S., among others, addressed the key themes through their own experiences, including:  “Privatization of State-Owned Electricity Utilities Has Failed, But Alternatives Exist”; “Defending and Reclaiming Public Energy Requires Building Union Power”; “The Transition Must Take into Account the Development Needs of the Global South”. As for next steps, Peter Knowlton, outgoing President of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), proposed a specific mobilization for 2020: “to bring millions of workers into the streets for Earth Day on April 22, 2020. But we need to have a continuous series of actions, … A week of activity between the “bookends” of Earth Day and May Day could be a wonderful opportunity to bring the labor and environmental movements together in a way we haven’t seen before.”

The conference was organized by Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED), with support from Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (New York Office) and the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Labor and Urban Studies, in partnership with unions – from Canada, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE). Local 32BJ SEIU  hosted a two-day retreat in advance of the full gathering.

Green collective agreement language achieved by Canadian Union of Public Employees

CUPE LOGO   “Bargaining language for a green agreement” , posted to the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)  Table Talk newsletter on July 25,  is a brief article highlighting some of the innovative bargaining done by CUPE locals on the issues of environmental stewardship, transit passes, bicycle reimbursement, sustainable work practices and green procurement. The Table Talk article reproduces the actual language of the agreements; for links to the full agreements, and almost 200 others by many unions, go to the Green Collective Agreements database maintained by the Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Climate Change project (ACW).

Scrap the Infrastructure Bank, says CUPE

GO transit stationThe federal government first announced its plans for an Infrastructure Bank in the Fall 2016 Economic Statement, and fleshed out an implementation schedule and funding in the Budget released in March 2017   .  The  Infrastructure Bank website here  describes: “If approved by Parliament, the Bank would invest $35 billion from the federal government into transformative infrastructure projects.  $15 billion would be sourced from the over $180 billion Investing in Canada infrastructure plan, including: $5 billion for public transit systems; $5 billion for trade and transportation corridors; and, $5 billion for green infrastructure projects, including those that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, deliver clean air and safe water systems, and promote renewable power.”  It will function as an arms-length Crown corporation “and would work with provincial, territorial, municipal, Indigenous, and private sector investment partners to attract pension funds and other institutional investors to new revenue-generating infrastructure projects that are in the public interest.”  A May 13 press release from the responsible Minister of Infrastructure and Communities announces that the selection process for senior management positions has begun, and the goal is to launch the Bank in 2017. The enabling legislation is buried deep in the enormous Bill C-44, the Budget Implementation Act  (as Division 18 of Part 4) . Bill C-44 is now in 2nd reading in the House of Commons, and the Finance Committee began a clause-by-clause review of the legislation in the week of May 29.

There is no shortage of criticism and critics of the Infrastructure Bank, from across the political spectrum.  In “Where Were They Going Without Ever Knowing the Way? Assessing the Risks and Opportunities of the Canada Infrastructure Bank”,  (May 4) economists at the University of Ottawa Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy argue that the case for the infrastructure bank is weak since Canada doesn’t yet have a comprehensive inventory of the status of existing infrastructure. (The May 18 report  submitted to Canada’s Climate Change Adaptation platform may answer some of those objections) .

The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) is leading the union charge of criticism , mostly on the grounds that the infrastructure bank encourages and enables privatization of public projects. Even before the March budget was delivered, CUPE Economist Toby Sanger wrote  Creating a Canadian infrastructure bank in the public interest  , published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.  After the budget was delivered,  CUPE’s initial response  was published in April .  In May, CUPE compiled expert criticisms here   , and on May 29, the union issued the call to  “Scrap bank of privatization, build infrastructure for Canadians” . CUPE also presented a detailed brief  to government committees in May, with ten points of criticism and recommendations for change so that public bridges, roads and waterways remain under public control.

CUPE’S STRATEGIC PLAN INCLUDES NEW INITIATIVES TO “PROTECT THE PLANET”

CUPE LOGOThe Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) held their national convention in Vancouver from November 2 – 6, 2015 . Delegates heard Naomi Klein, attended a rally in support of the LEAP Manifesto , and supported a Strategic Planning Document  which includes new initiatives under the heading “Protect the Planet”.   Previous resolutions had included commitments to lobby the government, collaborate with environmental and civil society allies, and develop policies, action plans, and tools for member education. Amongst the new commitments in the 2015 document: “We will offer concrete support to First Nations and others taking action on the front lines to prevent further environmental degradation resulting from oil and gas extraction….Attend COP21 as part of the union delegation…. Educate CUPE pension trustees about the risks of climate change to pension investments… Help locals undertake workplace initiatives that reduce pollution and the use of toxins, and that tackle global warming.”

On November 17, CUPE issued a press release concerning their participation and goals for COP21 in Paris.

INTERNATIONAL UNIONS LOBBYING FOR CLIMATE ACTION

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) continued its Climate Change campaign with a Global Week of Action, from June 1 – 7, 2015. To support the campaign, the ITUC has released two Frontlines Briefing documents: Climate Justice: There are no Jobs on a Dead Planet (March 2015), and Climate Justice: Unions4Climate Action (May 2015)    .   In May, the ITUC also posted a Sustainlabour report, Reducing emissions from the Workplace and Creating Jobs: 4 European case studies, which describe commitments and proposals from British, Spanish, Belgian and German trade unions. As part of the Global Week of Action, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) sent a letter to Canada’s Environment Minister , urging Canada to participate ambitiously in the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, restating a commitment to a Just Transition for workers, and urging a national energy plan for a low-carbon economy.   The ITUC is organizing a Union Climate Summit in Paris on September 14 – 15.