Students in hundreds of locations across the UK will walk out on 20 September on a global climate strike. Students in over 100 countries will be participating, and it looks likely to be the biggest yet.
This time, prominent school strikers have called on workers to join them.
On 8-11 September the Trades Union Congress — representing 5.5 million workers in affiliated trade unions — voted to support the 20 September climate strike, and called on affiliated unions to show solidarity with 30-minute walk-outs.
On 16 September, a poll found that 61% of teachers support students missing lessons for protests. The National Education Union — the main teachers’ union — has voiced support for the strikes and the 30 minute walk-out.
Restrictive legislation and a timid trade union movement means that teachers, like many other workers, will as a whole not be joining for a full strike on 20 September. Indeed, many teachers who privately support the walkouts and are members of the NEU will likely end up enforcing policies which prevent school student strikers from leaving.
In some places teachers and other workers are organising lunchtime protests or photoshoots. Some will then join local demonstrations or even stay out all afternoon.
This all provides an important step for further action around climate and workplace issues. Some workplaces are seeing large turn-outs, often larger than they have seen on more “conventional” workplace issues, such as pay or conditions, for years or longer.
However big or small an action has been organised in your workplace, school or campus, the important thing is to use it to get organised for more.
Plan and discuss with your colleagues how to hold even bigger and bolder actions in future months. Let Solidarity know how it went, and about future plans, to inspire others around the country.
Turn attention to the workplace and the employer. Are there workplace environmental issues which you could organise around? Doing so can raise environmental consciousness, the idea of workers’ control of our workplaces, and can highlight some of the class dimension of climate change. It can build confidence and organisation to fight on other workplace or environmental issues.
Turn attention to the social roots and answers of global warming. Bring motions for a “socialist Green New Deal” to your union branch. Start a reading group around on Workers’ Liberty’s climate pamphlet.
Rekindling workplace climate action
Union climate action is still taking place. Union environment reps in a variety of unions are organising audits, inspections, member meetings and newsletters in their workplaces.
A number of national unions – notably PCS, Prospect, Unison, UCU and Unite – still organise networks of green reps and provide them with guides and campaign packs. Even more unions provide some training on environmental issues as part of their courses.
Yet previous surveys indicated more than 1,000 green union reps active across workplaces. At present the number of activists is far smaller and the scale of action often limited..
A decade ago there was high level TUC coordination of green reps networks, with useful reports, conferences and other resources, such things are almost entirely absent at present. Over the last decade of economic downturn and subsequent Tory-led government austerity, TUC leaders have consciously downgraded climate campaigning as a priority.
The recent upsurge in climate protest has triggered a resurgence of interest in these issues within the trade union movement in the UK. The recent TUC Congress carried resolutions supporting the 20 September climate action and renewed calls for the public ownership of key polluting industries.
Can that spur new workplace activity?
The Labour Research Department’s latest booklet, Union action on climate change — a trade union guide, has a comprehensive summary that activists should assimilate to guide their own activity.
Some reps and officials are still negotiating “workplace transition agreements”, “sustainable framework agreements” or similar arrangements with their employers. The LRD guide highlights a multi-union agreement negotiated at the Devonport Royal Dockyard in 2016. Other examples of very active large workplaces where green reps are doing useful work include the National Library of Scotland and at Surrey County Council.
National trade unions and union-based campaigns have continued to produce valuable reports on industrial issues with a wider climate perspective. PCS union has been particularly prolific in recent years.
Unison has produced Power to the People – how to achieve zero emissions through public ownersh
ip of the big six — and other reports, such as on hydrogen. There are important guides opposing fracking from the TUC and PCS. Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) has published weighty reports on the public ownership of renewable energy and public transport.
The LRD guide gives useful insights into the current industrial landscape in the UK. There are currently 15 nuclear reactors generating around 21% of its electricity, but almost half of this capacity is to be retired by 2025.
It also briefs us on a whole range of health and safety concerns, both for the public and for workers, such as clean air and chemicals exposure, where unions can campaign successfully for the wider interest.
This new LRD booklet demonstrates that there is still life in the unions on environmental matters. However it is clear by comparison with previous editions (in 2007, 2009, and 2012) that union activity on climate change has been thrown backwards.
One consequence of this has been the disappearance of campaigning around winning legal rights for union reps to take action at work on environmental matters, similar to the rights gained by safety reps. This is a crucial area of the anti-union laws and positive rights that much of the trade union movement appear to have forgotten. One of the virtues of the Free Our Unions campaign has been to keep alive the links between these issues.
Another consequence has been the emergence of what might be called “energy workers sectionalism” about climate issues. The 2018 TUC Congress carried a resolution, driven by GMB, Prospect, Unite and Unison, which stated that energy workers “should be paramount and central to the development of all TUC policies on energy, industrial strategy and climate change”.
This was a slap in the face for workers in other sectors, ranging from transport, education, health, fire and civil service, with a significant industrial stake in environmental matters. Giving UK energy workers a veto makes no sense for the political economy of climate change, which is global and interdependent.
The statement these four unions produced last year, along with the TUC’s own report, A Just Transition to a greener, fairer economy, only compounded that sectionalism. Both conveniently ignored widespread union policy for the public ownership of energy and other carbon-polluting sectors. They failed to explain what the end point of the “transition” will look like and fudged the means by which climate targets might be met.
These backward steps underline the need for rank and file organising within and across the trade union movement on climate politics
There are some existing campaigns, such as TUED, the Campaign against Climate Change and Trade Union Clean Air Network, which have continued to promote a radical climate politics. We are not starting from scratch. But the level of organisation is lower than a decade ago.
This could change very quickly if we can mobilise workers in large numbers.
A working class-based climate movement is irreplaceable. It is the job of socialist activists at work to make it happen.
Cambridge Workers’ Climate Action
In solidarity with the youth strikes and aiming to build a worker-led campaign against climate change, Solidarity readers in Cambridge have taken the initiative to launch a Cambridge Workers Climate Action campaign.
Whilst a major initial target of this campaign will be encouraging university workers in scientific disciplines to take action on 20 September, efforts are being made to orient the campaign more widely – engaging with local shopworkers, catering staff and construction workers. Climate change is a class issue, and we need to unite all workers in fighting it.
The first campaign action will be a large solidarity strike photo on 20 September, for which bulletins are being prepared. Over 250 leaflets were delivered to various workplaces last week inviting all nearby workers to join, and UCU reps have been sending emails and making announcements at staff meetings in their various departments.
The campaign will be holding a larger meeting early into the start of the next term, with the aim of linking up student and worker activists to take climate action.
FE strikers to join Climate Strike
UCU members at Nottingham FE College are continuing their industrial dispute against the imposition of draconian new contracts.
Their first strike day out of a planned 15 was on 11 September. Their next strike days are 19-20 September.
The trade unionists are planning to link up with the climate campaigners on the 20th. They are printing a leaflet drawing the links between their struggle and the political fight to save the planet.
Supportive students are working to maximise the student turnout on the picket line and then in Nottingham’s Market Square, where there will be a Climate Strike rally from 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
We look forward to more unions looking for ways to support the young people’s campaign for their future, and find ways around the anti-union laws which aim to stifle our voices.