Radio — Unions, the climate crisis, and the latest UN climate conference

Dave Bleakney is the second national vice-president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW). In that role, he attended the COP 25 United Nations climate change conference in Madrid in December. Scott Neigh interviews him about how his union is responding to the climate crisis, and about what CUPW has previously described as the “dismal failure” of the UN process in Madrid.

Every year since 1995, more or less, there has been an annual United Nations Climate Change Conference referred to officially as the “Conference of the Parties”, or COP. The goal of these intergovernmental meetings is to negotiate global approaches to responding to climate change and to assess progress in doing so. It is these conferences that resulted in the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted in 1997 and came into force in 2005, as well as the Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015. Civil society organizations also gather each year at these conferences, to observe the official proceedings and to participate in their own events.

The goal of the COP 25 meeting was to reach a new global agreement, ostensibly to implement the Paris Agreement’s commitment to limit warming to an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. However, despite increasingly stark warnings from scientists and the upsurge in grassroots mobilizing on this issue in the last couple of years, the negotiations were a complete failure. Not only was an agreement not reached, but the substance of the negotiations, particularly on the part of the world’s most powerful countries, were broadly condemened by civil society organizations as completely inadequate to the crisis the world faces.

For instance, Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists said, “Never have I seen the almost total disconnect we’ve seen here at COP25 in Madrid between what the science requires and what the climate negotiations are delivering in terms of meaningful action.”

One Canadian organization that attends the UN Climate Change conferences is CUPW. Some unions understand the interests of their members in the context of a fairly narrowly conceived picture of the workplace – and, for sure, wages and working conditions of members are definitely important. But CUPW is among those unions that recognize that their members’ lives don’t stop at the metaphorical plant gate. Workers live in communities, and they face shared issues with other working-class people in those communities and around the world. Whether it was their pivotal role in the struggle for parental leave, their longstanding collaboration with anti-poverty groups, their history of international solidarity work, or their involvement in fighting trade agreements that hurt working people, CUPW has often acted from this broader sense of solidarity.

CUPW’s engagement with climate issues comes from a few different places. To an extent, it has roots in the union’s participation in global justice struggles in the 1980s and 1990s. It is also a recognition that many postal workers have to work outside, so the higher summer temperatures and the increased frequency of extreme weather events that are part of the climate crisis are a direct workplace issue. And partly it is an act of taking seriously things like the slogan “system change not climate change” and the approach that goes under the banner of “climate justice” – both of which in part mean that what we need is not a simple technical fix, but social transformation, and all of us must do our part to reach it. An important expression of CUPW’s commitment to climate issues is their Delivering Community Power project, a far-reaching set of proposals to make use of the vast existing infrastructure of the post office in the service of a just transition to a post-carbon economy.

Though a CUPW media release in the wake of the conference described the talks as a “dismal failure” and spoke scathingly of the “criminal organizations masquerading as democratic governments [that] have aligned themselves with industry and capital,” Bleakney also sees reasons for hope. UN meetings are usually very staid and reserved affairs. But he saw an unprecedented willingness even among professional participants to speak out about our current crisis and to name the system as the problem. And there was a level of disruptive and confrontational organizing from grassroots attendees beyond what previous UN Climate Conferences have seen, a sign of the growing and increasingly combative global climate movement.

Image: By Malopez 21, from Wikimedia.

Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter


Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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