Expert Perspectives

Toward a Just Transition

It has been several decades since the demand for a just transition for workers was introduced as a key goal in the efforts to tackle environmental degradation. There is a saying in the labour movement about how our society will respond to climate change: “Transition is assured, justice is not.” Worldwide experience has shown that economic and social justice is attained only with full engagement of workers and their unions, with the power to negotiate effective agreements with business and government. The pioneering work of Tony Mazzochi of the US-based Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers helped show that to be as true on environmental issues as it has been on impacting incomes and working conditions.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) begins its policy statement on just transition with the following concepts:

  1. The four pillars of the Decent Work Agenda—social dialogue, social protection, rights at work and employment—are indispensable building blocks of sustainable development and must be at the centre of policies for strong, sustainable and inclusive growth and development.
  2. Sustainable development means that the needs of the present generation should be met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainable development has three dimensions—economic, social and environmental—which are interrelated, of equal importance and must be addressed together.

There are many examples of transition due to economic restructuring or technological change. A century ago there were a million men working underground in Britain’s coal industry. Ports and steel mills employed tens of thousands. Teamsters drove teams of horses instead of transport trucks. Clerks typed documents in triplicate.

We know that dramatic adjustment is necessary to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Moving to low-carbon buildings, transportation, energy, and industrial production will take place at the same time as global trade and new technologies impact traditional employment patterns. I will explore four different experiences of “change” in Ontario, each of which saw a significant adjustment to the historical dynamic that existed before. These can help to shed light on various options for a comprehensive approach to just transition.

  1. Ontario is the industrial heartland of Canada. The 1988 Canada-US trade agreement had a devastating impact on manufacturing—nearly a third of all jobs disappeared immediately. Federal and provincial governments responded with a series of measures to soften the blow. Funding was provided for retraining, unemployment insurance benefits were extended, English-as-a-second-language courses were offered to immigrant workers, some regional development investments were made to diversify local economies. Together these provided a modest social safety net for workers, but the duration of these efforts was limited, and later governments cut programs dramatically. The long-term impact was a significant reduction in earning power for working-class families, and many smaller industrial communities were severely impacted. While this experience was not as brutal as others around the world, the post–free trade transition could hardly be defined as just.

  2. A much different experience was the implementation in Ontario of an ambitious agenda around Occupational Health and Safety. The 1960s and 1970s saw ongoing agitation around unsafe working conditions and workplace fatalities. Workers connected with health experts to detail the devastation caused by exposure to toxic materials—particularly asbestos and other carcinogens. This led to campaigns for legislation and a bargaining focus on the “right to know” about workplace materials.

    Unions developed a widespread approach to training activists, but they were often met with strong employer resistance. Finally in 1990, the Ontario legislature passed Bill 208, establishing full workplace committees with authority, giving worker health and safety representatives some power, and mandating a clear legal obligation for employers to ensure safe work processes. An agency was established to set training standards for both worker and management representatives, and renewed emphasis was placed on having competent supervisors to oversee every workplace. Over the years, the initial employer resistance gave way to broad embrace of a health and safety culture based on both strong enforcement and an internal responsibility system.

    This has resulted in a dramatic reduction in accidents, workplace fatalities, and exposure to occupational disease. The “business as usual” approach was transformed into a provincial economy that boasts one of the best safety records in North America.

  3. In the early 1990s, the collapse of the real estate market across all of eastern Canada hit the Toronto region particularly hard. The construction industry went into a free fall, as work dried up, companies went bankrupt, and the jobless rate skyrocketed. Up to 40 percent of skilled workers in different trades were unemployed, and the industry tried desperately to find new work opportunities. Labour and management came together with civic leaders to search for solutions, but the market was not supplying them.

  4. The source for new optimism came from the one engineering firm in Ontario that had had managed to maintain its full workforce. It was focusing on a new field of energy retrofits of existing buildings to achieve cost savings as well as improve environmental performance. The building trades started to advocate for the City of Toronto to create a program to encourage building owners to carry out such retrofits. With the leadership of the City Council, the Better Buildings Partnership (BBP) was formed in 1994 to support this concept and provide government validation of the program. Money was set aside to create a revolving fund to securitize loans for the construction work at reduced interest rates, and City staff assisted in doing preparatory building audits.

    There was initial skepticism among some in the industry until a major office tower tendered a $40 million contract that put hundreds of unemployed tradespeople to work, including apprentices who were finally able to complete their training. As the BBP program spread, the Building Owners and Managers Association became a strong advocate for this effort, and contractors and design firms adapted to the different tasks required for success. Since its inception, the BBP has provided 45,000 person years of employment while reducing CO2 emissions by 680,000 tonnes.

    This success also led to a greater acceptance of other “green building” techniques. Union training centres started to offer courses on new heating and cooling systems, solar, geothermal, and wind energy. Some progressive developers experimented with design features to reduce the carbon footprint of their buildings or subdivisions. Toronto adopted new green building standards, and architects and engineers embraced new design standards such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). Today net zero carbon buildings are being planned for major developments across the waterfront, and the next generation of tradespeople are conversant in the latest techniques needed construct them.

  5. Toronto is a city of immigrants and refugees. Half of its residents were born outside of Canada, and half of its residents are racialized. Unemployment among young people of colour is over 20 percent, bringing all forms of associated social problems. While workforce transition is usually thought of in terms of those who are losing jobs, an equity analysis must include communities that have been afforded little opportunity to secure good jobs in the past.

    In 2013 the government of Ontario announced a bold mass transit initiative, with billions to be invested in light rapid transit lines across Toronto. The Labour Council approached the CEO of Metrolinx, the public transit authority, to propose a “community benefits” approach for these projects. Drawing on examples in the United States and Scotland, a community benefits agreement would call for hiring from diverse communities, women, and indigenous people, as well as seek resident input on design and environmental features of the project.

    A coalition of labour and community groups came together to develop the concept and engage local residents and the construction trades. After negotiations, a framework agreement was signed by Metrolinx and the Toronto Community Benefits Network outlining general principles that would guide future developments. When the first major project was awarded, the constructor was tasked with establishing both a community benefits plan and an apprenticeship plan. A declaration has been signed by all the parties setting a goal for the percentage of hours to be performed by workers from equity seeking groups, and training centers are recruiting candidates to reach that target.

    However, there was a gender imbalance in the benefits of this investment, as there are relatively few women working in the trades. The framework called for a jobs pipeline to be created for the professional, administrative, and technical positions that would be needed for projects of this size. This would assist internationally trained professionals and recent postsecondary graduates from newcomer communities to secure these jobs—apparently a first for any community benefits agreement in North America.

    As Ontario continues with major infrastructure projects across the province, the concept of community benefits will help add extra results to this public investment. Unions, contractors, and training centres are all adjusting to the recruitment of people from newcomer communities, and those with foresight recognize this as a real opportunity to invest in the future workforce.

Lessons Learned

What lessons can be drawn from these four experiences? The fundamental lesson is the need for strong public policy and programs. Whether to incubate new business models, encourage innovation, or force a change in negative behaviour, government has a key role in ensuring success. In each of the positive stories there was a role for trade unions in shaping policies. Sometimes that involves a clash of ideas, other times close collaboration. But without a collective voice, workers will be the victims of change rather than participants in it. Any successful process will value and leverage the knowledge and commitment of workers to a just and effective transition.

A just transition model must include the following:

  • Income support for workers during the full duration of transition
  • Local economic development tools for affected communities
  • Realistic training/retraining programs that lead to decent work
  • Knowledge sharing—the adoption of best practices from other jurisdictions
  • A framework to support labour standards + collective bargaining
  • A sectoral approach customized to regions and work processes
  • Research and development to provide support for technological adjustment
  • An equity lens to understand the impacts on racialized and indigenous communities

Just transition is a long-term commitment from all of society, not merely a fleeting purchase of social licence by private capital. It is based on a clear understanding of the urgency of climate action to limit the rise in global temperatures to less than 2°C. It recognizes the impact of extreme weather events, and the history of both economic and natural disasters that impact dramatically on the poor and marginalized. Adaptation and mitigation are vital factors in preparing for the future; the goal of resilience is not just for physical spaces but also social infrastructure, which will be tested by storms, droughts, and wildfires, as well as the migration of millions of climate refugees.

Just transition cannot be achieved when political leaders are embracing the austerity agenda that has swept the world in recent decades. Neither can it be achieved by reproducing the systemic racial and gender inequalities that have been a basic feature of many economies. There must be policy coherence across levels of government and major institutions to support the required outcomes, so that economic growth is aligned with social and environmental objectives.

The International Trade Union Confederation has collaborated with a number of civil society and environmental leaders to outline a comprehensive approach to just transition. In addition to the elements listed above, they note the need to

  • guarantee social protection and human rights;
  • invest in community renewal to gain the hope and trust of regions and townships at the forefront of the energy transition, industrial transformation, or climate impacts;
  • involve workers and communities in the sectoral plans for transforming megacities; and
  • formalise jobs associated with rescue, restoring communities, and building resilience to climate disasters.

The ILO refers to social dialogue, social protection, rights at work, and employment as indispensable building blocks of sustainable development. The concept of social dialogue has deep roots in some parts of the world, but it is seldom the norm in North America. Bringing together leaders and experts from business, labour, and government to tackle the urgency of climate change is crucial if we are to arrive at a sustainable economy. That dialogue must be respectful, authentic, focused on real outcomes, and based on the principles outlined in the Paris Agreement and the ILO Guidelines.

Long-term planning, focused investment, and deep respect for workers and their communities are the only way that justice will be assured in this global transition.

All the interpretations and findings set forth in this expert perspective are those of the author alone.