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Thinking Outside the Politico-Bureaucratic Box: Learning from Blue Collar Expertise

June 20, 2019
By: 
Kelly Bronson
Canada Research Chair (II)
Science and Society
Professeure Adjointe, École d’études sociologiques et anthropologiques
Université d'Ottawa
Alana Lajoie-O'Malley
PhD student in Sociology
University of Ottawa

One thing is clear from Canada’s “Changing Climate Report”: we need to achieve deep emissions reductions and also adapt to the changing climate we’re now experiencing. If we are going to succeed at these twin tasks, policy-makers, academics, and political leaders will need new and better ways of bringing blue collar workers into climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.
“Blue collar workers” are those who do manual labour in construction, manufacturing, transportation and warehousing, automotive services, maintenance, agriculture, forestry, fishing, hunting, or utilities. Scientists agree that fundamental change to these sectors is necessary over the next decade. This means that labourers are at the coal face of climate mitigation and adaptation.
Yet pressing questions linger following the Changing Climate Report: Where are the meeting points between Canada’s blue-collar workers and governance institutions charged with leading climate mitigation and adaptation? How are blue collar workers being invited to define their identities and shape work they will be proud to do in a post-carbon world?
Blue collar workers know things about their sectors that no one else does. We need their know-how. But is their expertise being recognized? Click A recent survey of over 500 blue collar workers in Canada found that a majority (88 per cent) are proud of their work, but 49 percent report feeling devalued by the rest of society and 47 say they feel like “second class citizens” because of the type of work that they do. This combination of well-deserved pride combined with a sense of being devalued is concerning especially when such a big part of the national and global conversation on climate is about how to realize a transition, which includes major shifts in labour.
We know that blue collar workers in the American Midwest believe that government should act on climate, but that this action should not be taken at the expense of their jobs. These same workers expressed increased general concern about their economic security. We should take this as instructive; researchers already believe that economic insecurity contributed to declining concern about climate change in the US after the 2008 financial crisis. We know that feelings of displacement and economic insecurity are contributing to stalemates over carbon pricing and pipelines in Canada.
The Government of Canada has undertaken extensive public engagements as it has developed policies and plans such as the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate and the Impact Assessment Act. Labour’s voice has been at the table for quite some time. Unions are strongly represented in the Task Force on Just Transition for Canadian Coal Power Workers and Communities, the Canadian Labour Congress has been engaging on Climate issues for years.
But not all blue-collar workers are unionized, and not all unionized workers are blue collar. More importantly, there is evidence that current approaches to engaging blue collar workers in the climate conversation do not fully benefit from the essential know-how they possess. Research suggests that even the best attempts at achieving grassroots participation in environmental policy issues tend to force engagement on governments’ terms. By not being fully alive to how those being consulted actually think and work, these approaches render many kinds of crucial know-how and expertise invisible. In the case of emission reductions, for instance, the very category of greenhouse gas emissions is vexingly abstract and distant from day-to-day realities: keeping large buildings warm during the winter and cool in the summer; keeping traffic moving in inclement weather; and maintaining reliable power for homes when natural disasters strike.
So, in the case of Canadian climate policy action, government ought to develop evidence-based strategies in ways less customary for politico and bureaucratic cultures--in ways that begin with understanding the realities and expertise of blue-collar workers. We ought to take the 49% of blue-collar workers who feel like their work is devalued by the rest of society as an invitation to ask, “How can government decision-makers learn from labourers and do more to empower them to green their jobs and build the green economy we all agree is needed?” Many workers are already taking important steps that remain invisible to governments’ ways of knowing and doing.
The Changing Climate Report highlights that fundamental change is inevitable. The question now is whether we will succeed in reorienting our infrastructure, food, energy, and transportation systems in ways that avoid unpredictable and expensive responses. With a challenge this serious, we need a plurality of expertise, including that of people tasked with literally building our collective green future.