On 20 September, it is essential that socialists and trade unionists support the climate strike, writes Richard Allday
On Friday of this week, school students the length and breadth of this island will, once again, be protesting against the utter failure of governments and industry to pay anything more than lip service to the threat to future of their world.
They will be joined by their peers throughout the world, and increasingly they are finding support from organised labour, socialists of all descriptions, and faith groups. They are largely responsible for forcing the issue into the front and centre of political discourse, and indirectly could be a significant factor in determining the outcome of any general election, despite the media’s (and Johnson’s) attempt to pose it as a Leave/Remain election.
The explosive growth of the school students’ movement, from the lone protest of Greta Thunberg outside the Swedish parliament a year ago, to a global phenomenon, which has forced government after government to accept the reality of a ‘climate emergency’, has significant lessons for socialists.
The first lesson is: what individuals do, matters. If Greta Thunberg had only thought ‘the government should do something’, we would never have heard of her. It is when she acted that other young (and old) people could think ‘she’s right. I agree with her.’ and act in solidarity.
The second lesson is: what individuals do has far greater impact if they act collectively. By adopting a common day (Fridays) for their actions, school students throughout the world know they are not isolated voices, that there are others that feel as passionately as they do; that even if they can only win a handful of fellow students at their school to stand with them, they are part of something far bigger – and those students who may agree, but lack the confidence to walk out, can gain in confidence as they see the movement grow. In turn, they raise the arguments with their peers, and you get (if you’re lucky) the snowball effect.
The third lesson is: by taking action, collectively, they put the argument in the public domain, and offer the possibility to people outside their ranks to show solidarity. In Ipswich, two school students were offered the chance to speak at the Ipswich MayDay Fair. They spoke from the main stage, to applause, and in the process moved a lorry driver to invite them to speak at Unite’s Suffolk Road Haulage branch.
The consequence of a twelve year old speaking to 15 reps and activists from 7 different haulage companies was the unanimous decision to applaud the school students’ courage and commitment, and to offer support to their campaign, and actions going forward, insofar as the union’s rules and policies allowed.
The school students have since addressed Unite’s Suffolk Area Activists Committee (including Unite reps from the Port of Felixstowe, Ipswich Docks, the local authority, and road transport), and the Burston Rally, and have been invited to speak to other Unite committees. The London and Eastern Region of Unite has expressed their admiration and support, and the North West Region proposed a similar motion to the National Executive, calling for the union to encourage our reps and activists to show support and solidarity to the school students’ action this Friday.
All fine and dandy, but here’s the rub: the union’s support is limited – by the law, which makes it unlawful to take industrial action in support of the climate movement (it is not a ‘trade dispute); by the harsh reality that support for the climate strikes is currently limited to a small fraction of union activists and reps – the argument has not yet reached the bulk of union members; and economic practicalities – it’s fine to offer moral support, but if we are seriously going to address the climate emergency, it is going to affect hundreds of thousands of workers and their families who depend on the wages they earn to keep a roof over their heads. They are not going to be very happy with a union that puts their jobs at risk for the sake of ‘moral posturing’.
This is where the Corbyn project, and the ‘Just Transition to a Green Economy’ become so vital. The climate emergency is real, and gathering pace. It will have to be addressed, seriously, if we are to have a world worth living in.
The necessary changes will either be made by those who currently run the world (and got us into this mess) – and reflect their interests - or they will reflect the interests of the vast majority of the world’s population. There is no middle way.
If we go for the democratic alternative, there will be difficult conversations on the way – what will be the future for the tens of thousands of workers in the automotive industry? For the tens of thousands in the aviation industry? For the hundreds of thousands in the haulage and logistics sector? They will not be satisfied with any solution that provides ‘green employment’ in the future, because they need to pay the gas bill this month.
This is why it is essential that socialists and trades union activists support the school strikes this Friday, but do not leave it as a moral gesture. We need to raise the question of climate change in our unions and in our workplaces, as a matter of urgency. The price of ducking the argument is that we sell the pass to Johnson, Trump and Bolsanaro.
We cannot address climate change without a government of the many, not the few. We will not get that government if we duck the issue, and allow Johnson and company to set the agenda.
Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage. A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.
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