Open Your Mind: A Q&A with Carla Lipsig-Mumme, professor of work and labour studies

Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, “Open Your Mind” is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University professors, researchers and graduate students champion fresh ways of thinking in their research and teaching practices. Their approaches, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, are charting new courses for future generations.

Today, the spotlight is on Carla Lipsig-Mummé, the principal investigator of the seven-year SSHRC grant titled “Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces to Respond to Climate Change: Canada in International Perspective”. She was also the principal investigator of the tri-agency research project “What do we know? What do we need to know?” and principal investigator of the CURA research program “Work in a Warming World.” 

She is also a professor of work and labour studies in the Department of Social Science, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.

Carla Lipsig Mumme
Carla Lipsig-Mummé

Q. Please describe your field of current research.

A. Climate change, work and labour – exploring the ways in which workers and labour unions can change how we work in order to slow global warming.

Q. How would you describe the significance of your research in lay terms?

A. In industrialized countries like Canada, the world of work is responsible for 80 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions that humans create. Workers in all lines of work, including universities and their unions and professional associations, know where their workplaces and work practices can shrink their carbon footprint. Adapting all steps in the long chain of production to mitigate the greenhouse gases that work produces has the potential to significantly reduce Canada’s carbon footprint as a whole.

Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way?

A. In three ways, I think. First, we bring the world of work and its workers “in” to strategize how to reduce the causes of greenhouse gas emissions. Second, we work with labour unions as crucial partners in discovering where the carbon hotspots are and how they might be dissolved. It has been many years since labour unions have been encouraged to use their professional know-how in the service of transitioning work. Third, the research we co-produce is turned into education and training for environmental literacy.

Q. Every researcher encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry. Can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?

A. Candidly, we were cautioned to walk softly during the years the Conservative party was in office because our project rejected climate denial, worked to bring broader and broader groups in the workplace into climate action, and was dependent on federal funding. Those challenges never became roadblocks because we have had the support and encouragement of all three of the national funding agencies: Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), and Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council (NSERC). Without them, we might not have been able to continue this work.

Q. How has this research opened your mind to new possibilities or new directions?

A. I’m a labour relations and sociology of work scholar. I never thought about the relationship of work to the changing climate before working in Australia during the seven-year drought. Working in Australia at the beginning of this century opened my eyes to how absolutely critical climate change was going to be for work and working lives, and how potentially effective work and workers could be to reduce the greenhouse gases that so threaten the planet.

work in a warming world book coverQ. Are there interdisciplinary aspects to your research? If so, what are they?

A. The work and climate change research is entirely interdisciplinary. It also partners academic scholars and community experts for each and every project within the research program. Some examples would be: environment law and labour law are brought together to see if we have the law we need to “green” work and workplaces, or if we need new ways of bringing the two legal fields together to be more effective in greening work practices; and greening manufacturing research draws together industrial geographers, experts in the political economy of industrial food production etc.

Q. Did you ever consider other fields of research?

A. Other fields of work, not research.

Q. Are you teaching any courses this year? If so, what are they? Do you bring your research experience into your teaching practice?

Q. I teach a fourth-year co-op course for work and labour studies students and other labour-oriented students. The students work one day a week for a year for labour and social justice organizations. I also teach, at Glendon, a fourth-year seminar called Work in a Warming World. Yes, I bring my research into my teaching.

Q. Tell us a bit about yourself:

A. I’ve been married to an architect who builds social housing since we were young, and we have one daughter, who is labour lawyer who studied at Osgoode. Unions are central to my family – my father was a labour leader of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union.

I started as a civil rights and union activist in high school, and went on to win a scholarship in labour economics for grad school when I was in my first year of university, which led to a meeting with JFK in the Oval Office. I worked with Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers grape strike in the Coachella Valley and was sent to Montreal for the union’s Canadian grape boycott, where I fell in love with Quebec.

I then went underground to organize outsourced garment workers in San Francisco, my garment union in competition with the Teamsters’. I worked for the formation of the Teaching Assistants’  Association in Wisconsin, the first TA union in the U.S.

I got my PhD in sociology from the Université de Montréal; negotiated for the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN); then taught at Université Laval, where I became a full professor and where the CEQ/CSQ (Teachers’ Union) “borrowed” me from Laval for the Common Front labour negotiations.

I’ve been at York since 1990, and was the founding director of the Centre for Research on Work & Society. I took a lengthy leave of absence from York to work in Australia, where  I held a research chair in social and political inquiry at Monash University.

Since the middle of the last decade, I’ve been focusing on the labour/climate change relationship, in research, publishing, and working with young activists.

Carla Lipsig-Mummé’s work explores the ways in which workers and labour unions can change how we work in order to slow global warming (image: Wikimedia Commons)

Q. How long have you been a researcher?

A. Since I was a student. I’ve always used research to further social justice causes. And research can be used in so many forms.

Q. What advice would you give to students embarking on a research project for the first time?

A. Choose a topic you care passionately about; equip yourself with the whole range of social science methodologies; find a mentor for coping with the inevitable obstacles; always publish, and publish in general interest as well as scholarly venues.

Q. What are you reading and/or watching right now?

A. Nate Silver; Borgen; Wolf Hall; Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo series; Jacques Le Goff; Georges Duby; The Guardian; anything from PBS.

Q. If you could have dinner with any one person, dead or alive, who would you select and why?

A. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He emerged as a creative and courageous leader in the depths of the Depression; he knew that strong and pro-active government was necessary; he knitted the economic with the political and the social; he believed the welfare state was necessary to face the changes and threats that face society; and he knew how to inspire people to work for the collective good.

Q. What do you do for fun?

A. Long suppers cooked with friends; gardening in Australia and Toronto; hanging out with my husband and my daughter; writing fiction; reading a “real paper” book, preferably medieval European history or mysteries; exploring old cities.