SUMMARY OF A FOCUS GROUP MEETING BETWEEN
REPRESENTATIVES OF LABOUR AND THE
INTERNATIONAL JOINT COMMISSION

TORONTO, ONTARIO
JUNE 25, 1997

The following is a summary of comments presented at a meeting between various representatives of labour unions and Commissioners as part of the International Joint Commission's (IJC) public consultation process in preparation of the ninth Biennial Report on Great Lakes Water Quality. The comments are reported without attribution and in some instances they are reordered to integrate similar ideas. This summary is meant to reflect the views of individual speakers, however, and not necessarily a consensus of the meeting or the views of the Commission.

Representatives of the following unions participated:

AFL-CIO
Canadian Auto Workers
Canadian Labour Congress
Canadian Union of Public Employees
Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada
Construction Trades Council
Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union
Ontario Federation of Labour
United Steelworkers of America

The Commission welcomed the participants, thanked the Waterfront Regeneration Trust for hosting the meeting, and outlined the session's purpose: to hear labour's concerns about environmental quality in the Great Lakes basin specifically progress under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. It is one means of gathering input to assist the IJC in advising Governments by encouraging dialogue with specific interest groups not most effectively heard in a large meeting.

The key concern raised by labour was attaining a "just transition" whereby the costs of protecting the environment are shared fairly by all participants in the economy. Unions want to become involved in environment, health & safety issues to make a better world but may be obliged to place economic issues ahead of environmental ones, driven by a fear that jobs will move elsewhere. The participants said, however, that the issue should not be seen as one of jobs vs. environment -- both need to be resolved together. To do so, we need to reconsider how society makes decisions (social planning) as experience has shown that, without a just transition process, labour will lose out. A diagram was circulated that showed a structure which takes workers' concerns into account and a role for the IJC as a catalyst for the process.

Commissioners were asked to work with labour and others on a case study of how to achieve a just transition. In some areas, as a result of decisions taken in the 1950s, unemployment has lasted for decades. In a just transition program, workers and communities would have some say in the decision-making, a role in defining the future. We can start by recognizing that such a transition is achievable, and apply a model process. It is important that the IJC say that this process is a central component of an overall environmental strategy.

Labour wants to participate in the process but needs tangible proposals for future action that will protect its interests as well as those of others. It was pointed out that workers who produce toxic chemicals that can end up in the Great Lakes, or work for industries that use such materials, are being encouraged to support the use chlorine and related products. The unions would like to prevent that formulation with the IJC playing a pivotal role in bringing people together for "transition planning" to ensure serious pollution prevention to protect the Great Lakes, and if "sunsetting" is needed, to develop a just and equitable process for change. One participant stated that the IJC has a moral obligation to do so and could explore, develop and itself serve as a model of how to move forward.

Some unions have a broad reach beyond their original manufacturing sector. In working to reduce harm to health in work situations, they can extend the bargaining process to protect the surrounding community including, for example, environmental compliance for emission pipes and landfills. They can ask questions about what's being produced, what is going out of the pipe, or to the landfill. The CAW, for example, has a direct economic interest in that it represents commercial fishers who depend on viable fish stocks. How unions can help to reduce pollution and enhance health & safety was the subject of a recent conference. If fish are polluted or absent, there are no jobs.

The CLC, with a broad spectrum of interests and national outlook coordinated on an international scale, has developed a strategy/program for pollution prevention and control. It includes legislative review, financing and a transition process, e.g. through the taxing of chemicals. How this relates to the Great Lakes and to the IJC is not explicit but links can be forged. The Steelworkers, with members in various sectors including the chemical industry and people who work with chemicals, has a 1990 policy and comprehensive commitment respecting the environment, outlined in the report "Our Children's World--Steelworkers and the Environment". The Canadian Union of Public Employees, though new to the environmental role and feeling its way, wants to ensure sustainable communities.

Speakers emphasized that neither environmental organizations nor business represent labour which has its own distinct viewpoint. Yet, there was a view that there is no conflict between the environmental and labour movements. They are distinct but have cooperated; both can be protected at the same time. It was noted also that many people do not share the same priorities as governments. This was indicated by a recent press report that ¾ of people support the environment over economics.

Government funding and policy cuts was seen as resulting in the loss of both jobs and environmental and health protection. A view was expressed that the IJC Biennial reports are the only "official" documents to recognize the harm that deregulation is doing. The IJC may claim that it is not an advocate but its reports support advocacy. The IJC message on deregulation and cutbacks needs a wider audience. It should also forecast where this will lead us. For example, speakers stated that some Ontario issues have recently been neglected. In 1986, Ontario proposed the MISA (Municipal-Industrial Strategy for Abatement) to focus on virtual elimination of persistent toxics but now Ontario is focussing on only the most obvious problems. It should be re-energized: the IJC should examine what was intended for MISA and what has been lost, and create a model sewer usage by-law for municipalities following Toronto's example.

More education and information materials are needed to spread awareness about these issues among workers; the IJC and the unions could work together to spread information. A concern was also expressed, in the context of the Detroit River findings, that the IJC should resist the watering down of its assessments and reports to governments. Commissioners noted their willingness to accept views including those of governments on their findings, but that it would not be bound by them. They undertook to follow up on ways to reach out more. A Commissioner noted that labour could help by providing more specific examples on the impacts of cutbacks for use in IJC reports. Reference was made to a recent CAW report ("Nothing Left to Cut") on the effects of government cutbacks. Commissioners requested written material on this subject.

In addition to deregulation, the issue of privatization was raised. Specific reference was made to privatization of the Hamilton water treatment facilities possibly linked to a subsequent large spill into Hamilton Harbour. The Labour / CELA (Canadian Environmental Law Association) conference in January 1997 ("In the Public Good") addressed who was benefiting and losing from privatization.

The concept of "re-engineering" the environment rather than living ecosystemically and managing our demands on it was seen as a problem. There is a great potential for environmental programs, for retooling plants, product substitution and "greening" existing buildings which will yield greater energy efficiency and reduced pollution, as well as needed jobs for trades people. How can society address this with commitment from labour, governments, investors, etc.?

The current strategy of removing environmental requirements from the building code was also raised, e.g. code changes concerning energy and water efficiency will lead to increased energy use, CO2 emissions and health impacts. Policies are encouraging urban sprawl leading to lost wetlands important for Great Lakes filtering and cleanup and transportation impacts. More generally, recent Ontario policies for cutting back on environmental programs including the Waterfront Regeneration Trust were seen as turning back the clock on water and air pollution and human health. Parallels with what happened in the United States, when business drove the agenda, were noted and it was stated that the private sector should not be allowed to lead Governments into another series of restructuring actions without considering the long-term impacts -- health & safety are the first to go. The Canadian federal international commitments, such as the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and Rio were raised, with specific concerns about green house emissions, changes to CEPA (Canadian Environmental Protection Act) and devolution of power to the provinces. At the same time, it was stated, business is being allowed to abandon its responsibilities as the governments leave the field.

Forecasting and monitoring is another issue of concern. Concern was expressed about self-reporting and self-regulation by industry which can thereby claim progress despite continued emissions, accidents, spills. There should be an independent investigation board for these incidents. (The IJC was not seen as doing this work.) There is no pressure to maintain a workforce for monitoring and prevention. This attitude is seen by some in business and government as a small price for progress. The effectiveness of "volunteerism" was questioned, given past and current experience. The CAW study saw this as "a recipe for cancer" with a need for education, assessment of synergistic effects from multiple sources and accountability.

The question of voluntary versus regulatory standards is among the issues the IJC could examine. It was stated that business is trying to privatize the regulatory process (e.g. CSA, ISO). There is a need for the IJC to initiate a collaborative process. Commissioners noted that a central IJC role is to build consensus. This should lead, if true consensus can be reached, to a just transition strategy.

In response to a request for examples of where we can create partnerships among labour, ENGOs, business, etc., the following approach was suggested:

  1. Create a "table" or forum with the IJC, ENGOs, business, labour participation.
  2. Agree to address sunsetting for a specific problem of a manageable but significant scale.
  3. Review the alternative strategies that would lead to eliminating that substance or process from the Great Lakes economy, examining experience elsewhere, impacts on labour including free market absorption, automation, remedial jobs to be done, "green" jobs created, and the absorption of remaining workers.
  4. Assess funding questions, time frame and other implementation issues.

The proposal was seen as requiring a process that can be undertaken with IJC staff and union resources over 1-2 years, hopefully leading to consensus.

It was suggested that a framework is already available and examples, e.g. the Canadian steel industry as well as the electrical, mining, and automotive parts industries. It can be adapted and implemented with a strong effort. It was also suggested that it is important to go beyond one industry by selecting a range of chemicals as a starting point. If job security is addressed and a tangible plan provided, labour would be supportive as would the environmental community. Involvement of the business community was perceived as being is less certain though there may be circumstances, including less rhetoric, within which they can become involved. It was suggested that if we build a process, they will come, and we need to proceed. Either we make history or watch it happen.

The discussion turned to how the IJC might help governments address the environmental challenges in the 21st century, given its basic roles to prevent conflict and to resolve disputes. The following suggestions were made:

The relationship with the Commission on Environmental Cooperation (CEC) was raised. The motives and actions that led to the CEC pose a dilemma for labour and possibly for the environmental movement as they opposed NAFTA. The CLC has moved beyond this and will engage the CEC if it will provide environmental improvements. It is working to ensure that the CEC can be effective and will try to ensure that the CEC acts on its potential. There is a need to look at the powers of the institution and how they could best be exercised. It was suggested that, since the CEC is mainly to address the proper enforcement of existing laws, it may recommend but not aggressively pursue higher environmental standards including pollution prevention for more than a very select number of chemicals covered by regulations, e.g. PCBs. There was also a more pessimistic of the CEC: rather than share knowledge and capacity, the focus seems to be on spending money. There will be a dynamic tension between the CEC and IJC that the latter will have to handle.

It was suggested that the IJC has difficulty in recognizing implications for policies at a national and international scale -- this should always keep this in mind when addressing specific Great Lakes actions. The IJC should also examine pollution prevention policies which are weak in the U.S. and almost nonexistent in Canada.

The session ended with a discussion of how the IJC would intend to proceed on the just transition concept and an undertaking by Commissioners to examine the topic within the next biennial priorities. A specific case study approach was supported one Commissioner who said he would carry that idea forward in further discussions. The need for a "champion" of just transition and a determined process for generating the project was emphasized, including an early session to scope the proposal. The Commissioners reiterated their interest in the concept and their understanding of its importance in ensuring further progress under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.


Revised 14 November 1997
Maintained by Kevin McGunagle, McGunagleK@ijc.wincom.net

URL: www.ijc.org/php/publications/html/labour.html