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Protests in Glasgow.

Protests in Glasgow. Photo: John McCarthy / CounterfireProtests in Glasgow. Photo: John McCarthy / Counterfire

While world leaders fail to agree on meaningful change at COP26, the city of Glasgow has become a hub of protests and strikes, reports John McGrath 

The clear, cold morning of November 4 found GMB bin workers in Glasgow continuing their strike for better wages and working conditions. They began their daily action at 7 am at Anderston Centre Depot on Argyle street. 

Long-time bin worker Ray Robertson says with a smile, “I’m too old to be out here.” Robertson is joined by about a dozen fellow workers who plan on spending the day picketing on the sidewalk. “We’re striking for the way we’ve been treated for the last 15-20 years,” he insists.

“There’s been no investment, no infrastructure, no new trucks – nothing the men need. This depot used to have 50 men working, now we have maybe 10-15. They’re not replacing anyone and now sweepers are doing three times the work. We’ve always been the lowest-paid bin men in Scotland. Always. And for the past two years, they’ve been using Covid as an excuse. ‘We can’t do anything now because of Covid’ they say. But the fat cats get richer, and nobody cares about the bin workers.”

Continuing westward on Argyle Street, which becomes Stabcross Street, the street is closed to traffic this week. 10-foot steel fencing fortifies the road and groups of semi- militarised police officers dressed in fluorescent yellow coats and black caps cluster in bunches of six in the middle of the pavement. Apparently, the Glasgow Police aren’t leaving anything to chance.

Further down the road, the Scottish Event Campus (SEC), where the talks are taking place, can only be accessed with special passes. A parade of corporate professionals and government officials from around the world pass through the security gates flashing their credentials.

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Outside the gates, protesters gather and demonstrate, although not in overwhelming numbers. A group of XR campaigners sit crossed legged appearing to hold vigil. Next to them are a group of young students associated with Fridays for the Future who travelled from Japan. There are nine of them and they pass a megaphone sometimes speaking in English, sometimes in Japanese.

“It’s the fourth day of COP26 and we haven’t seen anything meaningful happen. The developed countries have the means. They are not doing anything. It is the developing countries that have to suffer because of their indifference. It is time that we demand those who have power – Japan, America, the UK – to step up and do something. It is time for the powerful to pay reparations for all the destruction and exploitation they have done around the world.”

Moments later a group of US activists emerge with a 30-foot banner that reads: “No New Federal Fossil Fuels”. They are a coalition made up of a handful of like-minded organisations in the oil-rich US gulf states of Texas and Louisiana. The protesters call this part of the country the “the sacrifice zone” and point to recent hurricanes and the vulnerability of the black and brown communities living in the shadows of oil refineries. This year saw a tropical storm bring 5 feet of rain to Port Arthur, Louisiana. “The sea is rising and so are we!” they chant in unison.

They are protesting the departure of Joe Biden and his lack of leadership. Biden arrived in Glasgow empty-handed and was unable to get his Build Back Better bill voted through congress even after most of the meaningful climate provisions had been gutted by conservatives in his own party. Like Boris Johnson, Biden has repeatedly refused to ban fracking.

One of the US protesters holding the banner is Miguel Esroto, a west Texas field advocate with an organisation named Earthworks. He is fixated on the expanding oil production in his home state. The Biden administration is expanding oil production in the Permian Basin, which covers 86,000 square miles along the Texas-New Mexico border and accounts for 4 million barrels of gas pumped each day.

Esroto points out that the Biden administration has agreed to new drilling leases in the region at a rate that outpaces his predecessor, Donald Trump. The US Interior Department has approved nearly 2,500 permits to drill on public and tribal lands in the first 6 months of 2021. 

While in Glasgow, Biden took time to deflect from the US government’s inability to introduce climate legislation by attacking China, who attended the conference virtually, claiming President Xi Jinping made “a big mistake”. His comments reflect a trend by US and European politicians and Western media outlets to place the ultimate responsibility for defeating climate change on China. 

“It’s a distraction!” counters Esroto. “If we want to point fingers, we have to start with the Permian Basin. Before we start getting angry at any other countries, US citizens should look at where we have power, where we can contribute. We can start finger-pointing when we don’t produce this extreme level of oil and gas production. We have a clear mission: transition to renewable energy, stop oil and gas production and protect our communities from the fossil fuel industry. We have to stick to that!” 

Historically, the US has produced over twice as much CO2 as China has despite being a much smaller population. The US has been responsible for 25% of global CO2 emissions cumulatively.

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In the afternoon, roughly 200 people join journalists and a television crew near the steps of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall to listen to the anti-war campaigners: Stop the War Coalition, Veterans for Peace, World Beyond War, CODEPINK and others. Attending the event is the former leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Richard Leonard.

Sheila J Babauta, an elected representative from the US-controlled Mariana Islands, addresses the crowd,

“I travelled almost 20,000 miles just to be here in Scotland. In my homeland, we have one of our Islands used solely for military activities and training purposes. Our local people have had no access to this island for almost 100 years. The military poisoned our waters and has killed our marine mammals and wildlife.”

Babauta explains to the crowd that the airplanes that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki departed from the Marina Islands. “That is how interconnected the islands are to the US military. It’s time to decarbonise! It’s time to decolonise! And it’s time to demilitarise!”   

Stuart Parkinson of Scientists for Global Responsibility educates the crowd on the size of the military carbon footprint. According to Parkinson’s research, last year the UK military emitted 11 million tons of CO2, which is roughly equivalent to the exhaust of 6 million cars. The US, which has the biggest military carbon footprint by far, emitted about 20 times as much last year. Military activity accounts for roughly 5% of global emissions and that doesn’t factor in the effects of war (deforestation, rebuilding bombed cities with concrete and glass, etc).

Equally concerning, Parkinson points out the misappropriation of funds for such projects:

“In the UK government’s recent budget a few days ago, they allocated more than 7 times more money to the military as they did on reducing the carbon emissions in the whole country.”

This begs the question what exactly are we building when we “build back better”?

An hour later, this question is more or less addressed by David Boys at the COP26 Coalition nightly assembly in Adelaide Place Baptist Church on Bath street. Boys is the Deputy General Secretary of the trade union Public Services International (PSI). The COP26 Coalition has been meeting nightly since the conference began and Thursday night’s event is centred around the trade unions role in avoiding climate catastrophe.

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“Who’s heard about Build Back Better?” Boys ask the crowd packed in the church. “Anyone hears about that? We don’t want to keep what we had. What we had sucks. We need to build something new!”

Thursday night’s speakers repeat the term “a just transition”. Some credit the phrase to deceased Tony Mazzochi of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union, others attempt to reframe it, calling it a “justice transition”. According to Boys,

“When you tell somebody that your job is threatened and you might not be able to feed your family, that’s not the best message. Those people need our help because this transition is not going to be easy. We got to stop consuming, we got to stop buying shit we don’t need for the Pentagon, we have to change how we do things. But what we need is strong public services, start at home and mobilise.”

Trade unionists from Scotland, North America, and Uganda relate to the audience the importance of democratising the economy and demanding public ownership of their transportation and utilities.

Scotland is currently planning to increase the number of buses that come into public ownership and the country witnessed the establishment freak-out when renationalising the rails was up for discussion. The neoliberal era has damaged nations around the world with rampant privatisation of public assets. According to Boys, the privatisation of energy has been uniquely difficult to stop:

“When we get into stopping energy privatisation, the military moves in. When we threaten to stop privatisation, which we did recently in Nigeria, the military comes in and either arrests the union leaders or kills the union leaders, and stops the movement cold. It takes over the energy companies and does what it wants. And that is just a symbol, sort of, of what’s going on with energy. Because we know it’s the big oil, and big gas, and big coal who has spent billions over the last 30 years to support climate denialism and maintain the status quo.

“The system we have is now controlled by the WTO, World Bank, IMF, and the military-industrial complex. It’s only by organising where we live that we build a movement big enough to stop what is now corporate globalisation that is run amok by a handful of multinationals”.

Corporate globalisation and multinationals? Aren’t world leaders making decisions and calling the shots? Don’t ask them. They’ve left Glasgow already for the most part. On Friday, the students of Glasgow marched with Greta Thunberg together with the striking bin workers. Saturday, November 6 is the day of action and hopefully, the turnout is strong here and across the UK.

The chant which closes the assembly in the church Thursday night is “The people, united, will never be defeated!” There isn’t any other solution.

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