Green Syndicalism and Tar Sands Worker Deaths
BY JEFF SHANTZ
A central position of green syndicalism is that the destruction of nature and the destruction of workers’ lives and communities are inextricably linked and proceed together. Both are probability outcomes of exploitation and the pursuit of profit, as capital seeks to increase extractive value while keeping costs of extraction as low as it possibly can. The connection between the violence and death inflicted on nature and on workers’ bodies is given a rough measure by the fact that those jobs most directly involved in the destruction of nature are also typically the deadliest for workers (logging and mining, for example).
While some argue that these are simply “dangerous” jobs, the reality is that their dangerousness is not natural but rather an effect of extractive practices carried out in a context of cost management, capital mandated labor processes and time frames, and profitability.
Similarly, what are called workplace accidents are typically not accidents at all – they are reasonably expected, probability, outcomes of capital making decisions to keep costs down and profits up at the expense of workers. They happen because companies try to save money by cutting costs on equipment, training, staffing levels, protective gear, etc. They happen because of speed-ups, lack of breaks, and scheduling.
The interconnected violence of extraction is powerfully displayed in the case of tar sands developments – the desperate drive by capital to squeeze some saleable amount of oil out of tarry deposits in sands, bitumen – a last gasp attempt to siphon profit out of a peak oil economy in sharp decline. While the devastation of nature resulting from tar sands extraction – consuming vast territories and turning rich ecosystems into contaminated wastelands, chemical poisoning of watersheds and rivers, annihilation of wildlife, and tailings pond wastewater leaks – have been widely commented on, the long-standing harms done to workers in the tar sands developments, including workers’ deaths, have received very little attention.
The extraction of tar sands is the world’s largest industrial project. It is also among the most deadly in Canada.
Death in the Tar Sands
On July 7, a 26-year-old contractor died after being struck by equipment at Suncor’s Base Mine near Fort McMurray, Alberta. The worker, employed by Komatsu, was pronounced dead at around 3:00 a.m. that morning at a shovel maintenance pad in the mine. Incredibly, but in no way surprisingly, the death was the fifth workplace fatality at a Suncor tar sands site in Alberta since 2021. Since 2014, there have been at least 12 deaths at Suncor tar sands sites.
This awful toll includes the death of a contractor in a truck crash at the company’s Base Mine site in January, as well as an incident in 2021 in which a bulldozer collided with a pickup truck at the Fort Hills tar sand mine. That incident killed two contract workers. Another incident in 2021 saw a worker killed when the bulldozer he was driving fell through the ice of a tailings pond at Suncor’s Base Mine. That same year the company also had a fire at a refinery that resulted in an injury in March.
Indeed, the last few years have been particularly deadly in the tar sands. In addition to the Suncor worker deaths, in June a person was killed at the Syncrude mine. Additionally, two workers were killed in December 2020 at the Fort Hills mine.
The spate of tar sands deaths is nothing new in the industry. In 2007, two Chinese temporary foreign workers died at Canadian Natural Resources’ Horizon project near Fort McMurray when an oil storage tank they were building collapsed. And the deaths are not only related to workplace mechanical, or material issues (link crashes or structure collapses). They often relate to issues of the labor process and scheduling. In 2020 there was a massive COVID-19 outbreak at Canadian Natural Resources’ Horizon tar sands work site in northern Alberta. At least three workers at that site died of COVID, including a 60-year-old worker who had two children and seven grandchildren. He had only worked at CNRL’s Horizon site as a pipefitter for a few months.
The CNRL Horizon outbreak was the largest in Canada, infecting 1,496 workers. There were dozens of other COVID-19 outbreaks at other tar sands operations across Alberta.
These deaths and illnesses are attributable to profit-making conditions of labor and government protection of capital at the expense of workers’ health, wellbeing, and lives. Despite the extremely dangerous conditions of the pandemic, workers had no choice but to leave their lives at risk in order to meet the financial needs of themselves and their families. Even under COVID conditions, many were made to work a 12 days-on and two days-off rotation. This meant that they remained at camp even when they were off work. Workers who showed symptoms or even had tests comes back positive had to stay in the isolation wing of the camp.
This left them without adequate care or follow-up assessments from health care workers.
The governmental response showed unequivocally that the state’s interests were simply with protecting capital and sustain company profits. Throughout the worst parts of the pandemic the right-wing United Conservative Party that rules Alberta designated tar sands mining operations and their work camps as essential services. Even when the COVID situation became so dire that the government was moved to institute a new health rule
that workplaces with 10 or more infections must close, the energy sector was still excluded as an “essential service.”
The most recent death had one symbolic impact on the company as Suncor Energy chief executive Mark Little stepped down as president and chief executive officer and resigned from its board of directors just one day after the July 7 death. This was largely about responding to the wishes of investors, certainly not concern for worker safety, as prominent investors were worried about the “look” the death numbers were giving the company.
And the ploy seems to have worked, at least immediately. Nothing shows the intersection of profitability and playing fast and loose with workers lives quite like the jump in stock prices in the wake of workers’ deaths. And the tar sands operations are no different in this regard. Suncor’s stock price jumped 9.5 percent when management announced minimal reforms, including a third-party review and the implementation of new fatigue management
and collision avoidance technology, following the 2021 deaths and is now up 40% since January. The company is currently valued at $52 billion. It is the largest tar sands operation in Canada.
Workers’ Control for An End to Death and Destruction
From a green syndicalist perspective there is a pressing need for workers’ control of the industry to stop tar sands developments and to begin ecological restoration work. This is by no means a farfetched approach. While environmentalists have long stressed the necessity of restoration, coalitions of tar sands workers, including Iron and Earth, have taken up this orientation toward restoration (while perhaps lagging on calls for workers’ control). A recent survey of tar sands workers by Iron and Earth found broad support for this approach among them, as I have detailed previously in Anarcho-Syndicalist Review.
The tar sands workers have the essential knowledge about how to shut down operations safely and as cleanly as possible. They also have many of the skills necessary to dismantle those operations, as well as skills needed in restoration work.
In a green syndicalist approach industrial workers would take the lead from and work collaboratively with local Indigenous communities on whose territories the tar sands, and connected environments (watersheds, rivers, forests), are situated. This is a matter of properly decolonial practices. While multinational companies like Suncor have no reason to respect Indigenous sovereignty and knowledge, which impede profit-making, workers certainly do – as a matter of life and death, individual and ecological, now and in the future.
And in this we must remember that many tar sands workers are themselves Indigenous.
A serious solidarity and allyship in anti-colonial action is essential for ending tar sands developments and the destruction they inflict on Indigenous lands and the bases for survival of Indigenous communities, including wildlife habitats. It is also essential in ending the other great human harms of the tar sands, including the elevated rates of cancer among Indigenous people living on those lands.