Workforce implications of innovation in Canada’s Forest Sector

On May 4th, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Natural Resources  released its report,    Value-added products in Canada’s forest sector : cultivating innovation for a competitve bioeconomy . The report  is the latest discussion of  advancing Canadian value-added forest products and a forest-sourced bioeconomy, and addresses five themes: (1) protecting Canadian forests and primary resources (which recognizes the threats of climate change and beetle infestation); (2) advancing industrial integration, innovation and talent development; (3) strengthening partnerships with Indigenous peoples; (4) maximizing market opportunities in Canada and abroad; and (5) a case study on building with wood, with a focus on advanced mass timber construction.

Discussion of the issue of training and talent development (beginning on page 18), calls for  more internships and employment opportunities for engineering and science students and highly trained post-graduates;  the need to develop a well-educated forest-sector workforce in rural areas; and the need for diversity and gender equity.  Employment implications are present in the discussion of wood-based construction of homes, where witnesses talk about transforming wood construction from a craft-based industry to a more mainstream manufacturing process, where “prefabrication in a factory environment would make wood construction more cost competitive and less wasteful, with greater potential for automation, customization and design accuracy.” The report also provides a case study of two Canadian examples of “tall wood buildings”: including Brock Commons, a new 18-storey student residence at the University of British Columbia , and Origine, a 13-storey building in Quebec City’s Pointe-auxLièvres eco-district.

The United Steelworkers , who represent over 18,000 forestry workers after their 2004 merger with the  Industrial, Wood and Allied Workers of Canada (IWA), presented a Brief to the Committee in November 2017.  The Brief identifies  the main challenges facing the sector, as low harvest volumes, insufficient infrastructure funding, and decreasing raw log exports, and concludes  that, although it’s a provincial jurisdiction,  “The Steelworkers submit that Canada needs a national forestry strategy that recognizes while the challenges within the lumber, pulp, paper, or value added sector are unique, … the whole sector is highly integrated, and dependent on each facet of the sector succeeding. “  The Brief also states  “The costs that the industry as a whole faces will further increase with the federal government’s plan to roll out a $50/tonne price on carbon by 2022. This new carbon pricing regime will not only risk further impacting tight margins in regions like Ontario, but also risks leading to carbon leakage. Canadian companies are now operating in the southern USA which does not have a carbon pricing regime.”

Unifor, which represents approximately 24,000 forest workers, also issued a report (not submitted to the Committee)  in October 2017:  The Future of Forestry: A Workers Perspective for Successful, Sustainable and Just Forestry .  A key message from Unifor is the need to involve workers in a in  a national  policy-making process: “forestry ministers must lead efforts to bring together business, government, labour, Indigenous leaders, environmental organizations and community leaders in a reinstated National Forestry Council.”  Also on this topic, a 2017 report by the Innovation Committee of the Canadian Council of Forest Ministers,  A Forest Bioeconomy Framework for Canada . 

Alternative Economic Models proposed for the 21st Century by a new U.S. Group

The Next System is a new project “that seeks to disrupt or replace our traditional institutions for creating progressive change”. Its backers include Greenpeace President Annie Leonard, clean energy champion Van Jones, United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, Gerald Hudson, Mark Levinson and Peter Colavito from Service Employees Intl Union, Ron Blackwell, UNITE and AFL-CIO, Joe Uehlein from the Labor Network for Sustainability, climate activist Bill McKibben, and hundreds of other prominent academics including Noam Chomsky, Frances Fox Piven, and Jeffrey Sachs. The project launches with a webinar on May 20th, and has already released its inaugural report, The Next System Project: New Political Economic Alternatives for the 21st Century. The report states that such new movements as the Next System “seek a cooperative, caring, and community-nurturing economy that is ecologically sustainable, equitable, and socially responsible”. It draws inspiration from a variety of alternative systemic models and ideas, including employee ownership and self-management, cooperatives, social democracy, participatory economic planning, socialism and public ownership, localism and bioregionalism, and ecological economics.

Environmental Groups Stand with U.S. Refinery Workers on Strike for Safety

The United Steelworkers union represents workers at 65 oil refineries in the United States. On February 1, the union announced an unfair labour practice strike at 9 locations, with the remainder operating under a rolling 24-hour contract extension. In a media advisory, the head of the USW National Oil Bargaining Program states: “This work stoppage is about onerous overtime; unsafe staffing levels; dangerous conditions the industry continues to ignore; the daily occurrences of fires, emissions, leaks and explosions that threaten local communities without the industry doing much about it; the industry’s refusal to make opportunities for workers in the trade crafts; the flagrant contracting out that impacts health and safety on the job; and the erosion of our workplace, where qualified and experienced union workers are replaced by contractors when they leave or retire”. Indeed, the dangerous working conditions of the oil industry have been well documented by no less than the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. These safety and health issues have been at the heart of the dispute, and have resulted in widespread public support from environmental and community groups, as summarized in “Striking for Climate Justice” in Dissent Magazine (Feb. 21). The Sierra Club issued an almost immediate statement of support on Feb. 3, ready to do so because of an earlier agreement spelled out in A Common Position on the Future of Oil (September 2013). Public statements of support from other green groups: Oil Change International; Labor Network for Sustainability, and Communities for a Better Environment, a California-based group  which sums it up: “Environmental justice demands everyone’s right to a safe and healthy work environment and challenges the false choice that would force us to choose between our health and our jobs. Indeed, fighting for worker rights protects community health and safety”.

Good Jobs, Green Jobs Conference in Washington

Over 1,800 union workers, environmentalists, business and non-profit leaders gathered from April 16 to 18 for the 2013 Good Jobs, Green Jobs National Conference, sponsored by the BlueGreen Alliance Foundation. This year’s official theme was Let’s Get to Work: Climate Change, Infrastructure and Innovation. In the opening panel, the message was the common cause in the fight for workers rights and environmental rights: speakers were CWA President Larry Cohen, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, USW President Leo Gerard, and SEIU Property Services Division Deputy Director Jon Barton. Videos, summaries and blogs from the proceedings are available at the conference website at http://www.greenjobsconference.org/.