The call for a general strike against climate change, now gaining traction across much of the climate movement and taken up by prominent figures such as Greta Thurnberg, has a meaningful latent power. School climate strikers are calling on workers to join them in striking on 20 September.
At its most sophisticated, this call represents an acknowledgement that a confrontation with capital is required to arrest and reverse climate catastrophe, and that direct action in workplaces, the site where capitalism most fundamentally “happens”, must be a key form of that direct action. The call poses important questions about climate politics, tactics and strategy for workers’ organisations, and how we can overcome the obstacles that stand between where the labour movement is now, and the genuine possibility of mass strikes.
In a briefing addressed to London Underground workers, published prior to their recent planned disruption of Tube services, Extinction Rebellion (ExR) wrote: “As with a labour strike, economic disruption is key in forcing the government to come to the table and negotiate our demands.” Their attempt to explicitly reach out to Tube workers was welcome; the briefing goes on to say, “addressing the climate crisis will need a massive expansion of our public transport infrastructure. Union workers are important stakeholders in the fight for climate justice, and [we] hope to build relations with workers going forward.”
Setting aside the debate around some of the other problems with ExR, including its frequently naïve attitude to the police and state power more widely, their perspectives neatly express the limitations of a movement that has reached a semi-formed understanding that disrupting capitalist economic functioning is essential to preventing climate change, but is almost completely divorced from the agency that can actually affect that disruption: organised labour.
Research into the economic impact of ExR’s sustained, week-long protests put the figure at around £12 million. In 2017, the Evening Standard cited London Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Federation of Small Business research that suggested a single day’s strike on the Tube would “cost” the London economy £300 million.
The difference is stark. But “give up going on climate protests, agitate amongst workers for a general strike instead” is hardly a useful conclusion. Strikes have to be built, not simply called for, and for strikes to be effective, they need clear demands, not just a desire for “leaders” to “act”, or for “Government” to “come to the table.”
Two unions, the University and College Union (UCU), and the Bakers union (BFAWU), passed policies at their 2019 AGMs in support of the school climate strikers and the general strike call. That is positive; the endorsement of motions needs to be followed up with on-the-ground organising to make that support a reality. And the debate at another union AGM shows how far there still is to go in the labour movement in terms of winning unions to a radical environmental politics: a motion at the RMT AGM proposing support for school climate strikers was opposed by the union’s leadership, and narrowly voted down, because it called for the “ending of fossil fuel extraction” as part of a “worker-led transition to a zero-carbon economy”. RMT General Secretary Mick Cash argued that, because RMT organises offshore energy workers, passing the motion would mean advocating that these workers lose their jobs – even though the RMT Offshore Industry Liaison Committee (OILC), the branch of the union which organises most of its offshore energy sector membership, has a pro-transition policy, and argues: “We should be developing standardised safety and competence/training standards which allow our workers to move seamlessly from oil and gas, to decommissioning and renewables.”
The ongoing dominance of short-termist, sectional attitudes in unions organising workers in frontline high-emissions industries – displayed perhaps most starkly by GMB and Unite’s support for airport expansion, and the GMB’s support for fracking, on the basis that to oppose these things would be to oppose job creation – shows the urgent need for a real discussion across the labour movement about the issues.
As an immediate organising slogan, against the backdrop of a historically low level of strikes, and against the backdrop of passivity and even hostility on environmental issues from major unions, the general strike can seem abstract. But mass working-class direct action, including mass strikes, in support of radical demands around climate change, is essential. The call for workers' action on 20 September should be the catalyst for discussion about how to build to a bridge from here to there?
The transformative – one might even say, revolutionising – struggle necessary to reinvigorate the mass industrial labour movement from its current condition of weakness and retreat, and turn it into a combative, militant social force, has many fronts. One where the immediate political interests of organised labour and the developing anti-capitalist perspectives of the radical climate movement directly intersect is around the question of fighting anti-trade union legislation.
It is a simple fact that a general strike, or any kind of strike, directly about climate change policy is illegal in Britain, as all “political strikes” have been since the 1980s. Employment Acts in 1980 and 1982 restricted “lawful trade disputes”, around which unions could legitimately strike, to disputes between unions and employers over pay, hours, conditions, etc. Striking to support or oppose a political or legislative change, or striking in solidarity with another group of workers, was outlawed.
Anti-union legislation imposed under Thatcher, added to by Major, maintained entirely untouched by Blair and Brown, and then added to by Tories’ 2016 Trade Union Act, leaves workers in Britain with some of the poorest rights of any democratic country. Even repealing the 2016 Act, which requires, amongst other things, minimum turnout thresholds in strike ballots, would leave Britain with what Tony Blair once proudly called “the most restrictive labour laws in western Europe.”
With a radical Labour government now a serious prospect, trade unionists have the ability to pressure the political leadership of the labour movement to give unions the legal right to take the kind of action necessary to push back climate crisis.
Socialists active in the rank-and-file of the labour movement who acknowledge the vital necessity for working-class direct action against climate change are working to build the levels of consciousness and organisation required to take such action, whether it is “legal” or not. But fighting against the current legal restrictions placed on unions, and for a positive charter of workers’ and union rights, can be part of the process of developing that consciousness and organisation.
In 2016, activists around the Clarion magazine founded the “Free Our Unions” campaign, to revive campaigning against anti-union laws and to press the left-wing Labour leadership to properly commit to the policy now passed by successive Labour conferences: for the repeal of all anti-union laws, not just the 2016 Act. Free Our Unions is now backed by dozens of union branches and regional organisations, as well as three national unions (IWGB, FBU, and RMT); participation from climate activists, making the arguments about why radical climate action needs free and fighting trade unions, would be a hugely invigorating development.
Perhaps the historic high-point of working-class direct action around environmental issues is the “Green Bans” movement of Australian construction workers in the 1970s, who refused to work on socially or ecologically destructive building projects. That movement was the zenith of a hard-fought struggle by radical rank-and-file activists to transform their union, the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation – a struggle which began with fights for democratic reform within the union, and workplace campaigning over issues as basic as the right to toilet breaks.
In my own workplace, we are already campaigning over issues of air quality, an obviously environmental issue. Could we organise action over this, as an "immediate", "basic" industrial issue, but in a way that connects it to a wider set of climate politics? The RS21 group has produced a video suggesting ways of organising workplace climate action, and the Workers' Climate Action network's briefing on how to be an effective climate activist in your workplace, although a few years old, also includes helpful advice on how to make climate change an organising issue at work.
If activists undertaking similar work elsewhere in the labour movement in Britain today are able, in dialogue and collaboration with climate activists, to connect it to the aim of mass working-class action against climate change, via immediate political struggles over issues like trade union freedom, we may be able to accelerate the building of the bridge between our current position and our aspirations.