Monday, May 12, 2008

Guest Editorial - Janice Hagan - Why me? Why us?

"It’s not that I’m against the environment. I recycle. I clean with baking soda. I even take public transit. But I have enough to do already: organizing, mobilizing, defending, supporting, meeting. Why can’t the environmentalists fight for the environment? My members didn’t elect me for that. They want OPSEU to fight in the workplace and at the bargaining table. These social issues take time and money away from union work."

Decades ago, critics used the same reasoning against sisters and brothers who wanted our union to fight sexism, racism and other social injustices.

Defending human rights is now a core duty for unions. A more tolerant and equitable workplace is essential for (1) quality of life, (2) health and safety, (3) fair compensation and (4) employment stability. The fight for human rights has resulted in huge gains in all of these areas for all workers.

In addition, in the fight for human rights, (reason #5) union activists contribute powerful tools that have made social change happen in our workplaces, communities and beyond. Through grievances, legal challenges, negotiations, equity seeking caucuses, public debate, and a conscious, steady commitment to increased expectations of tolerance and respect in the workplace, unions and union activists have lead the way like no other individual or social organization could.

And now, while we continue that fight, we must also use the lessons we have learned and fight for the same steady, long term improvement of our environment, with the same passion and for all the same reasons.

(1) Quality of Life

OPSEU cannot sit on a fence in this hazardous environment. We are either part of the problem or part of the solution. Our green stewards must lead the way to reducing the ecological footprint of our union and our work. This will be achieved in our usual manner: by organizing, educating and fighting the power of the greedy, self-interests that stand in our way. We must seek out ways to remove unsustainable practices at work and in the union with the same relentless vigilance we use to remove Health & Safety hazards and barriers to equity and human rights.

(2) Health & Safety.

Last year, more Canadians died from work than in decades, due to the growing incidences of environmental diseases. New laws in the European Union, based on the precautionary principle, have resulted in the banning of 60,000 chemicals. In Michigan, if substitutions to workplace hazardous chemicals, materials or processes are available, workers can demand they be used, by law. In Ontario, we rely on manufacturers to tell us if their products are safe. It’s time to go beyond MSDS and start insisting the precautionary principle be applied at work. We need to educate our occupational health & safety reps about the science of pollution. We need to share and compare what we have learned.

(3) Fair Compensation and (4) Employment Stability

The rapidly increasing price of oil and food will soon have a catastrophic impact on our wages and pension sustainability. Eventually, it will lead to large scale, employment instability, such as we’ve never seen. We are running out of oil as fast as we are running out of fertile land for food. Who will suffer from this gross lack of governance? Those made rich off the exploitation of the land? Or their workers and the unemployed? I once heard an environmentalist measure the success of the British, anti-coal campaign by the number of lost jobs. These unionized workers were replaced by non-unionized wage-slaves in a more competitive and fragmented market.

What will happen to our jobs due to global warming or as a result of the changes we must make to the way we live in our environment? It is critical that unions organize, educate and demand a JUST TRANSITION from problem to solution, which is fair to the working class. If we plan and strategize now, we have can protect our younger brothers and sisters from irreparable harm. Otherwise, everything we have gained will be lost.

(5) Unions Possess the Tools for Social Change

Finally, unions must involve themselves actively in this fight because we may be the only organizations capable of creating the social change we need. We have rights under the Occupational Health & Safety Act, and the ability to organize, mobilize, negotiate, educate and withhold our labour. Our commitment to social justice is also key, because along with everything else, it will take global, social justice to save the human species. That is because the developing world will soon be emitting more greenhouse gasses and using more resources than their rich cousins to the North.

If unions are not part of this historical fight for change, then who will represent workers and the most vulnerable in our communities as critical decisions are made? If not me, if not my union, then who?

Janice Hagan is Green Steward, Healthy & Safety Rep., and Chief Steward, Local 561 at Seneca College. She has a Masters Degree in Environmental Studies from York University, specialized in Labour, Work and the Ecological Crisis.

Janice has committed to providing regular articles for this blog!

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