·  by Marty Warren   ·  iPolitics.ca

Liberals failed to protect steelworkers caught in green shift

By Marty Warren

On the surface, it sounds like nothing but good news: a $420-million investment in one of Canada’s largest steel mills — Algoma Steel in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.

The federal Liberal government announced the investment — amid a flurry of other pre-election spending announcements — to help Algoma Steel convert a blast furnace to an electric arc furnace (EAF), which emits significantly fewer carbon emissions than blast furnaces.

So, this is a win-win for workers and the environment, right?

Not so fast.

While the plan has positive implications, and could bolster the longevity of steel production in Sault Ste. Marie, the entire process leading to the announced investment missed one crucial component: the workers who are affected.

Our union represents about 2,700 Algoma Steel employees. Steel has been the economic engine of the community for decades, and we want to keep it that way, of course. We also know that steel production is carbon-intensive.

As a union, we’re committed to reducing carbon emissions from steel production, while also ensuring we maintain a steel industry in Canada. At Algoma, our members produce steel products that are essential to a low-carbon economy, including key components for bridges and other public infrastructure.

The Algoma announcement should have been a great opportunity for the Liberals to follow through on numerous promises to protect workers while Canada decarbonizes. But this would have required actual consultation with the steelworkers, which, unfortunately, did not occur.

When steel production shifts to EAFs, some skills are no longer needed, even if overall employment stays more or less the same. When this impact on workers is ignored, understandably, workers oppose it, and fear for their jobs, families, and communities.

Proper consultation, planning, and co-operation in seeking solutions can minimize such negative effects. Solutions can include job guarantees, with retraining tied to new positions, and pension bridging for workers nearing retirement.

The bottom line is that workers must be included and involved in the process.

Just as important, the long-term future of Algoma Steel — and Canada’s steel industry in general — can only be secured if we protect our market from high-carbon offshore steel imports, and by ensuring that we use Canadian steel in all Canadian infrastructure projects.

The Liberals failed to engage Algoma workers, and their union, in developing a clear transition plan that includes a long-term commitment to keep jobs in the community. Instead, the government worked unilaterally with the employer, and came up with an announcement that could leave many workers behind.

Our union and our members were shut out of the process. As far as we can tell, the Liberals will not require Algoma to make any long-term commitments to workers, nor to the community, in return for this massive outlay of taxpayers’ funds.

An initiative that should be a concrete example of a “just” transition appears to be yet another promise that leaves many workers in limbo.

Clearly in election mode, the Liberals appear more interested in making flashy announcements than protecting workers and their families. They succeeded in grabbing the headlines in Sault Ste. Marie, but failed workers who are left to worry whether they have a future in the community.

- Marty Warren is the director of United Steelworkers District 6, which represents workers in virtually every sector of the economy in Ontario and Atlantic Canada.

Read Marty Warren's column on iPolitics.ca

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