Carla Lipsig-Mummé is a Professor of Work and Labour Studies at York University, and the Principal Investigator of the seven-year SSHRC grant titled “Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change: Canada in International Perspective.” She leads the Work and Climate Change (WCC) international community-university network partnership, which has grown from five partners and eight researchers to 52 partners over the past two decades. The WCC addresses the intersection of climate change and the working world. She is also the recipient of the 2018 Sefton-Williams Award for Industrial Relations and Human Rights, and of the 2018 SSHRC Impact Award for Research Partnership.
You began your working life as a trade union organiser in California, Quebec, and Ontario, working with farmworkers, garment workers, and teachers. Can you elaborate?
I come from three generations of active unionists. Earliest, I worked for the then International Ladies’ Garment Workers, in San Francisco, and later joined Cesar Chavez’ campaign to organise farmworkers. The union ended up sending five of us driving across the continent to Canada to launch a wine boycott in Quebec and Ontario, which was eventually successful.
Then I became a member of the steering committee of the first union in the US to organise and strike for unionising graduate teachers. As government employees we were technically not allowed to strike but with support from the Teamsters we held on for 19 days before being forced back to work.
As a PhD student at the Université de Montréal I researched for the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN) and when teaching industrial relations at ULaval I was ‘liberée’ for one year to work for the Centrale des enseignants du Québec (now the Centrale des syndicats du Québec).
In the early 2000s while on leave from York, I was a national representative of Australia’s National Tertiary Education Union and helped prepare the union to negotiate the first national and university-specific ‘green plans’. Some of those green clauses are still operative in Australia.
Your project about adapting work and workplaces in order to mitigate the impacts of climate change is crucial and timely. Why is it important to bring Canadian workers and workplaces into a green transition?
In industrialised countries, 80% of the greenhouse gases created by human activity are produced by work itself. Greening every part of the work world is essential for slowing the heating of the planet. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in 2018 that if we do not reduce within 12 years the speed by which the planet is heating up, it will become impossible to slow climate heating. Realistically, some industries will shut down and others will continue to operate because they have discovered cleaner alternative sources of energy. But to get buy-in from workers, it’s crucial for national governments to adequately fund transitions to avoid premature unemployment and allow them to remain in their communities and with their families. You can find successful examples in Germany of how to green large areas when industries are closed, without losing their communities and occupations.
How can Canadian work and workplaces contribute to slowing global warming?
I reiterate: climate literacy. Retrofit every building in the country built up to 1950. Rethink the design of modern Canadian work, province by province. Today, transportation of goods is the second largest source of work pollution in Canada.
Most industries have broken production steps into many small mini-factories, so that trucks of all sizes move around a province picking up parts and dropping off others, dramatically upping the use of fossil fuels. Instead, we should reintegrate the components of factories so that work transportation is minimized with most production in one factory. Alternately, cluster work in an eco-park of small-parts factories.
What can academia and academic institutions contribute?
Maximize unionization in universities, CEGEPs and colleges. Currently a plethora of unions compete with each other for fragments of universities, and there is very little collaboration among university unions, both within and between universities, which makes it very difficult for the university sector to engage in a creative and forward-looking strategy to slow the climate crisis.
You teach a course called “Work in a Warming World.” How do your students react to the climate changes and threats you discuss in class?
The students are protective and passionate about Earth and every year the course has a waiting list. But it is clear that they do not link protecting the earth with protecting the rights of workers to decent work and working futures, even when they themselves are precariously employed. I have the students fill out eco-questionnaires and discuss their working conditions and fears for the future. I’ve found that this circular, critical engagement has unexpectedly drawn them into awareness linking their own precarity and the climate struggle.