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Labour and the Global Climate Strike: An interview with Nigel Barriffe

By Spencer Bridgman and Nigel Barriffe - Spring, September 20, 2022

For thousands of years, Indigenous Peoples across Turtle Island have cared for and protected the land and water we all rely on. This is especially true in settler-colonial Canada, where Indigenous Peoples have always been at the forefront of the climate justice movement. Two recent examples of this is the work of the Wet’suwet’en People and the Keepers of the Water. Their calls for climate justice have been amplified in recent years through the blossoming of Fridays for Future: a youth-led, international movement demanding immediate action to address the climate crisis. Under this banner, student strikes have been held across the globe, from Tokyo to Tehran to Toronto. 

This year, a Global Climate Strike is taking place on September 23 and Fridays for Future TO is leading the Toronto action. A number of groups are joining the strike in solidarity, including a Labour and Allies Contingent, who are meeting at Steelworkers Hall, 25 Cecil St. at 12:30pm and will unite with the main march at Queen’s Park at 2pm. 

Spring Magazine spoke to labour organizer and elementary school teacher Nigel Barriffe about the climate strike and the many intersections between the labour and climate justice movements. Nigel is active in a number of roles including as Vice President of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto, President at the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, and a board member at the Canadian Anti-Hate Network and Good Jobs For All

Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and how you got involved in the labour movement?

Yeah, for sure. Back in 2005 it was the “summer of the gun” in Toronto. I was working in another industry (sales and marketing, I was working for the man) and there were a bunch of shootings in the Black community that affected a lot of the families and friends that I went to high school with up in north Etobicoke. One of the issues was that there weren’t a lot of male teachers, specifically Black male teachers, in elementary schools. So I quit my job and went back to teachers college. I was really fortunate and ended up getting a teaching job in north Etobicoke at the school that fed into my old high school. 

Within a few months of teaching it became quite obvious to me that a lot of the challenges that students were facing—and particularly young, Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ, and students of colour—were high dropout rates, a lack of resources, and crumbling infrastructure. A lot of these challenges weren’t going to be fixed only in the classroom and it was at that point that, as a teacher, I started connecting with folks in the community. It was amazing because I started coming across so many other labour activists who were working in housing, climate justice, voting reform, and so on. I saw that there were so many people in labour who understood how important it was to have common cause with community. That’s what really drew me in.

Building off that theme of solidarity between movements, how are you involved with the Toronto Global Climate Strike this year?

I’m currently the vice president of the Elementary Teachers of Toronto and my passionate work is with the Urban Alliance on Race Relations. In my opinion, environment is union business and environment is social justice. We have to be involved. When I saw this student movement—which has been going on for years—I thought: how can we be an ally to the youth and not adults that take over their movement? How do we act in common cause and help to amplify the social justice message of Fridays for Future? How do we bring out the voices of our youth that are so needed in this fight?

That’s why I felt it was really important to get involved. As a unionist and as a Black man in this society, I’m acutely aware that climate change is having a profound effect on my community and many equity-seeking communities. We are feeling the effects first and worst. We’re bearing the brunt of it. When you look at what COVID exposed, when you see all the flooding in First Nations communities, and how First Nations are always the people impacted first. It’s a moral imperative for us to use our privilege and to be a part of this fight.

Where do you see overlap between labour justice, climate justice, and Indigenous justice? You talked about this in your last answer, but I think it’s so important to flesh out these connections. 

There’s so much research which demonstrates that our current economic model—capitalism—is the core cause of climate change. Unrelenting growth, the digging up of oil and gas, when we know that if we keep burning them we’ll go extinct. The IPCC report is pretty clear that we have to stop. We have to transition ourselves off of fossil fuels. 

At this moment, we have an opportunity. We need governments, communities, and unions planning together how we can move off of fossil fuels and lead a just transition. We need to create new jobs that are good for the environment and help lift people out of poverty. All these decisions that governments make, these are human beings that are making these decisions, and they keep making them for the betterment of oil and gas companies. We need to start making decisions that are good for our planet and good for the people. I love the phrase ‘people over profit’, it’s a union mantra that we have always said. It has to be the working people over profit since it’s working people that make the profits for the large corporations and multi-billionaires who are driving the climate disaster.

You mentioned the importance of transitioning off of fossil fuels as being a big demand. Are there any other demands that you think need to be amplified during this year’s climate strike? 

Yes. Along with a just transition to make sure that we are phasing out fossil fuels and ensuring that we create good jobs at the same time, I think it’s important that we demand a $20 minimum wage to pay people a decent wage. I think it’s important that we make sure everyone has status—Status for All—so we stop abusing “foreign workers”. We need to make sure that the ODSP rates are at a level that allows people to live with dignity. We need to make sure that we have housing that gives people a decent place to sleep. 

One point that I want to dive a little deeper into is the #StatusforAll campaign to grant permanent residency to all migrants in Canada. This is a really good example of how all of these struggles and movements—climate justice, worker justice, racial justice, migrant justice—intersect. Another connection that fits in with this movement—and the labour and climate justice movements—is that they all have an intrinsic international dimension. What do you see as Canada, Ontario, or Toronto’s role/responsibility in these larger movements?

I’m a school teacher and my students always ask: how is it that we in North America have so much wealth and we’re the ones who are emitting so much of the global emissions? Since the industrial revolution, Canada has been contributing way too many emissions, considering how many people we have, and now we’re in a climate crisis. The IPCC has indicated that change needs to happen right now. Canada has a huge responsibility, so much more than countries in the Global South who didn’t contribute emissions at the same level. 

Toronto is home to a lot of corporate head offices, certainly in mining, and most of the oil companies have large offices here as well. It is an economic hub for them. We here in Toronto have a responsibility to hold these corporations accountable for the decisions they’re making. Every time they open a new oil well, every time they start scraping and digging a new mine, it contributes to climate change. As activists, we have the privilege to organize and not worry about being shot like our compadres in other countries. We need to share all the stories of the many communities that have been under siege by violence—violence that has ultimately been created because of the mining and resource extraction activities of these corporations.

Are there any lessons you think the labour movement can learn from the youth-led, climate justice movement?

First we have to remember the lessons from where the labour movement came from—whether it was the suffragette movement, the civil rights movement, or earlier versions of the environmental movement. Labour was an important voice in those movements, and the neoliberal agenda has had a profound effect on what people see as the power of the union. We have to remember where we came from and the role we played in making sure that we have sick days, pregnancy leave, pensions, a five day work week, and so on.

The youth movement has continued to demonstrate solidarity across movements. Fridays for Future is about the environment, but it is not only about the environment. You see it and feel it in their actions, in the way they are organized, and in the voices they are amplifying. 

Solidarity is one of the things that worries me now about the labour movement. The current Ontario government uses construction trade organisations; they stand behind the Premier while he talks to the media and says that he’s a friend of the worker. We know that his policies are the opposite of friendly. He is picking and choosing which unions he’s going to make ‘winners’. The leaders of these unions are people that are elected in their positions and have a vested interest in making a deal with the government, but at what price does that come? Sacrificing the solidarity of the movement for a couple bucks is dangerous. I think that people can come to a decent deal without kowtowing to the government and allowing themselves to be used as props in his media campaigns. 

On that point, I think it’s important to recognize that the unions that endorsed the Premier represented somewhere around 5 per cent of all unionized Ontarians, so it’s important for people in the labour movement to remember the bigger picture as well. We at Spring are very fond of discussing organizing tactics. Are there any tactics you’ve seen used recently that have been effective and that you think should be employed more often?

One-on-one conversations with fellow working people—both inside the workplace and in the community—is the Cadillac of organizing. Whether you’re at work, your child’s soccer game, or your place of worship, you can have one-on-one conversations about what kind of world we want to live in. What kind of world do we want to see in 50 years? What kind of world do we want to see in 20 years? If that’s the world you want to see, what are you willing to do right now to make sure that it exists? That is the conversation that needs to happen everywhere and all the time.  

The other opportunity that is available to us to compliment one-on-one conversations is digital organizing. We’ve seen Bernie Sanders do an amazing job using many of the digital tools that are available. These tools compliment the on-the-ground, face-to-face conversations. They can do many things including helping identify leaders and supporters in the community. There are good Canadian examples of effectively utilizing digital tools as well. For instance, Tim Ellis from Not One Seat. That digital organizing campaign raised awareness both online and in the mainstream media around the broken-down electoral system and how we elect a government that represents the true voice of the people.

Those two tactics go hand in hand. It’s not going to take some charismatic leader to make real change happen, it’s going to take a movement. I think this is reflected in the activities of Fridays for Future and the Global Climate Strike. 

Where would you like to see the labour and climate justice movements in five years?

I believe that we have to change the way that we elect our governments. We have a small group of folks that get to make all the decisions. Large corporations and billionaires have direct access to politicians and so we see the policies they keep passing: privatize the public sector and transfer public wealth into corporate coffers. We need to stop that. We have to get rid of first past the post. When you say to somebody on the right or left, “shouldn’t we have a government that represents the popular vote?” No matter where they are on the continuum, they’ll be like, “hell yeah of course that’s the way it should be.” So if that’s what we all believe, then let’s get rid of first past the post. 

If we have a government that represents the voice of the people, then we’ll stop seeing decisions being made like creating highway 413: a highway running through farmland and provides no real benefits. Maybe we’ll have an immigration policy that respects people and is just. Maybe we’ll start finally having disability justice. Maybe we’ll clean up the water system with our First Nations. It’s just ridiculous that, in a country as wealthy as Canada, we continue to allow these problems to exist. And as I’ve said, it’s because of the greed and selfishness of the corporations and billionaires that control the government coffers. That’s what we have to change in the next five years, and if we don’t, our children and our grandchildren are going to be in a hell of a struggle. 

That leads into my next question about how the labour movement and climate movement can increase their power. Pushing for electoral reform is a part of that, and what strategy we use to make that happen is one question… The other side of the question is: if we are able to elect politicians that better represent the people, do you think that the labour movement should be focused on getting more socialist-minded people elected into positions of political power? 

I know there is a big debate about electoral politics and if it can deliver us to the promise land. I don’t want to go that far. I do think it’s a credible pathway to building the widest tent possible. The mainstream media and the business class have been quite efficient at undermining the socialist message and socialist organizing. They try to equate our movement and this moment with 1950s Russia, making socialism the boogeyman. 

That’s why we have a lot of work to do around education and it’s why those digital tools like TikTok, YouTube, and Twitter are important. A lot of younger people are getting information from these channels and we have seen what the right-wing is doing with things like Rebel News and all those other organizations and the different channels they are using. I’ve seen through my work in the Urban Alliance on Race Relations and the Canadian Anti-Hate Network that young people are being recruited to the right-wing movement and a lot of it is happening in these new digital channels. As socialists and progressives we can use similar tools to reach working class people. This is a fight for the soul of our country and unions have a huge part in it. 

I think there’s also a practical piece that unions can play. For instance teacher unions negotiating a new collective agreement: why can’t we work in a joint environmental committee or have environmental clauses built into our collective agreements? We can actually fight for those things. As a school teacher, I work with other like-minded school teachers to push for reform in our pension fund to make sure we’re not continuing to invest in the old grey economy. There are ways that unions can help in the struggle both in the “boardroom” through our collective agreement fights, and as part of the broader labour community movement—and in the streets.

I hope that folks will join us in the streets at the climate strike and will support climate justice in whatever way they can. We need to act now to create a liveable and just world for our children and grandchildren. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

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