By Tara Ehrcke
The last six months have brought a seismic shift to the climate justice movement. The publication of the latest IPCC report, indicating we have less than 12 years to massively transform society if we are to have a fighting chance of avoiding the worst of climate catastrophe, was a serious wake up call. This was followed by the sudden emergence of several new movements calling for radical climate justice: the Friday student strike, Extinction Rebellion, and in the United States (the biggest GHG emitter on the planet) the Sunrise movement and their proposal for a Green New Deal.
The impact of these movements should not be underestimated. And they are strengthened by what is now a clear message from the global scientific community, both of the urgency of change, and the magnitude of the change required. It is no wonder, then, that after years of struggling to counter corporate green-washing, the jobs-versus-climate divisions, and climate ‘delayers’, there is a new mood of taking no bullshit. Now, young climate strikers hold banners with the slogan, “It’s not about recycling!”, and the favourite chant is “System change, not climate change!” Finally, there seems to be an opening to win the majority of the working class into the fight for climate justice. And we don’t have a moment to lose.
The confluence of the climate movement and the workers’ movements is happening in a myriad of places and from many directions: environmental activists are understanding the necessity of broad social power to win change, and workers are understanding the necessity of climate justice. This presents an opportunity for the climate justice movement to make real strides forward in the coming period. Key to this progress will be the conscious work of activists to build links and organizational connections between the determined and energetic new climate movements, with the socially powerful workers’ movements.
The new direct action climate movements
Perhaps no single person has done more to highlight the emergency nature of the climate crisis than Greta Thunberg. The 16-year-old from Sweden began to strike for climate on each Friday, and what began as a one-person action has swelled to international strike days, such as March 15, in which over a million participated worldwide.
Three features stand out with the student Friday strike movement. First, the students are actually striking—that is, they are leaving school to protest. While this is not so powerful as a worker strike, as there is no immediate economic consequence, it nevertheless involves a degree of actual disobedience and potential personal risk. The second remarkable feature has been the rapid growth of the movement. Greta’s one-person strike grew to a million in less than one school year. The third remarkable feature has been the consistent demand to continue until our climate is no longer in crisis. Greta Thunberg is an astonishing speaker, who genuinely speaks truth to power when she states what is necessary: that we disobey until the climate is no longer in crisis, and that no nice words, vague commitments, or personal accolades are a substitute for actually doing what is necessary. She has shocked the establishment by speaking to politicians and telling them the truth: they have failed, no one should trust them, things must change.
While students have been busy striking, a second direct action movement has sprung up, first in the UK, which is now spreading across the planet. Extinction Rebellion organizes mass numbers to commit acts of civil disobedience to demand climate justice. Their demands, like the student strikers, are serious: carbon neutrality by 2025, one of the tightest timelines demanded, but also probably necessary—particularly if the global north is to actually do its extra share proportional with its ability and responsibility. Like the student strikers, a remarkable feature of Extinction Rebellion is how fast it has grown in the context of calling actions that are focussed on civil disobedience and arrest. The recent week of protests in London is one of the largest mass civil disobedience actions in modern memory, with thousands taking part and getting arrested.
Finally, we have the youth-oriented Sunrise movement, which has been instrumental in pushing for a Green New Deal — a massive, public spending commitment aimed at everything from a just transition to green jobs with guaranteed employment, to massive new public infrastructure projects, to serious investment in green technologies to get the United States off of fossil fuels. Although directed specifically at getting a piece of legislation introduced, the types of actions taken by the Sunrise protesters have nevertheless been designed to provoke and challenge complacent politicians. Young people confronting high ranking democrat Nancy Pelosi made viral media when they questioned her patronizing response to their demands for urgent action. When Pelosi remarked that she was more knowledgeable then they were, with years of experience as a law maker, the young protesters rightly told her that that was exactly the problem: look what 20 years of this type of lawmaking has got us!
The student strike movement opens a number of possibilities to build connections with related groups of workers and community members. Already, in countries around the world and several cities across Canada, groups of parents have formed to act as support for the student strike movement. These various incarnations of “parents for climate” are taking their lead from the student strikers but actively organizing parents and family members to get involved. This has the potential to grow the student strike movement into a much larger and broader social force, with hundreds of thousands participating, as we have seen already in Europe and Quebec.
Teachers and school workers at both the K-12 and post-secondary level also have a unique connection to the student strike movement. These groups of workers are unionized in most school environments, and have the potential to pull unions, institutionally, into the student strike movement. There have been fledgling starts in Canada, with CUPE Quebec endorsing the March 15th student strike, and a handful of local teacher unions actively supporting the strikes. In Vancouver, the local student organizing group, Sustainabiliteens, successfully convinced the Vancouver District Labour Council to endorse the student strikes. If these connections are strengthened, it could be the first link to building worker strikes in solidarity with student strikes.
Extinction Rebellion similarly has the potential to make links with the trade union movement. In the UK, teachers worked with Extinction Rebellion to jointly protest the Department of Education for failing to meet Paris climate targets. In Victoria, the Free Transit campaign is building links between community environmental groups, trade unions who have endorsed the campaign, and neighbourhood community groups working through local civic government. These examples demonstrate how in the context of specific demands, we can build solidarity between specific groups of workers, community groups and the broader environmental movement.
Finally, the campaign to nationalize the Oshawa car plant has demonstrated how unions can work with each other and their local communities to put forward innovative pieces of what could become a Green New Deal. The proposal, initiated by Unifor local 222 (the impacted workers of the Oshawa plant closure) and CUPW, and supported by community groups, called for the nationalization of the plant and for repurposing production to electric vehicles, such as those used by the post office. Unfortunately this proposal was pre-empted by the announcement from General Motors that they will be keeping the plant partially open for autonomous vehicle testing. But the campaign nevertheless demonstrates how the climate movement can begin to join with workers to create an actually existing “just transition”. Had workers and environmentalists occupied the plant Extinction Rebellion style, perhaps this could have become a reality.
Green-friendly worker demands and worker-friendly green demands
The Oshawa campaign is a terrific example of how climate influenced demands can make sense in the context of what would otherwise seem to be a narrow worker issue of job loss. That the campaign chose both a green friendly proposal (to build electric fleets for pubic services) and a public service friendly proposal (to nationalize the plant) exemplifies how the trade union movement can harness traditional “social justice” issues to build broad community support. It is not unlike the social justice unionism prevalent in some areas of the public sector, in which there is a natural linkage, for example equating teachers working conditions with student learning conditions.
The onus also lies with the environmental movement to put forward worker friendly green demands. A recent interview with Sara Nelson, the president of the air traffic controllers union in the US, provides insight into why much of the labour movement has not come on board with the Green New Deal. As she explained, “A few hours of training is not a just transition. The transition needs to begin before the jobs go away. A just transition must ensure pensions and healthcare are protected for workers who spent their lives powering our country in the fossil fuel industries.”
Yet many aspects of the mass transition we need to make to reduce our emissions are of course job creators, and many involve workers in already unionized sectors—like the call for free, expanded mass transit, the retro-fitting of all buildings, the conversion to non-fossil energy sources. These are campaigns that can unite climate activists with workers in a meaningful and non-threatening manner and make the slogan “just transition” more than an empty promise.
While the Green New Deal attempts to capture these ideas on a national scale, working on the ground at the local level is also critical. A campaign for free, expanded transit, for example, has the potential to unite transit workers, transit users, civic government, climate activists and low-income/poverty activists. It captures the essence of “climate justice” in real and concrete terms that can make an immediate difference in people’s lives, and is winnable. Moreover, in the context of building such a campaign, personal and organizational links are established, and the more grandiose components of a Green New Deal become imaginable.
Public sector services and institutions offer a natural entry point for these types of campaigns—school districts, health authorities, public housing commissions, transit commissions, city governance. Most have mechanisms for public input and influence, and many are unionized workplaces. If a public governance body can be convinced to declare a “climate emergency”, as so many municipalities have begun to do, then the community can demand action to make it meaningful. This can produce real, quality, climate jobs.
Finally, non-unionized worker’s rights campaigns, such as Ontario’s Fight for $15 and Fairness, also hold potential to build networks between climate activists and workers—both unionized and non-unionized—while at the same time raising the issues of worker’s rights as central to the climate justice movement. The campaign’s climate caucus is one example of connecting a specific worker’s rights campaign directly with the climate justice movement. In this committee, worker rights activists specifically target and engage with environmental protests and actions. The Fight for $15 and Fairness has been an active climate supporter, and has signed on to endorse the Green New Deal.
Direct action and the strike
One of the most exciting aspects of the new climate movement is its courage to use direct action tactics, in large numbers. Unlike many of the black bloc actions of the anti-globalization movement, Extinction Rebellion, in particular, has used mass direct actions effectively. Although perhaps overly focused on gaining public attention, rather than asserting power, they nevertheless have engaged and disrupted in ways that have increased public support and increased their own numbers. Likewise, the strike tactic of the student movement has brought the idea of the strike as a legitimate and necessary protest tactic back into vogue.
The obvious next step for the global climate movement is to incorporate worker strikes, the most economically powerful form of direct action. Global earth strike has made a call for a strike on September 27th, and Greta Thunberg, along with a number of leading activists, have called for an adult and student strike on September 20th. These are first steps, although it appears, right now, that neither campaign involves enough trade unionists to achieve significant support at the official levels. It may be that encouraging individual unions to first endorse, and then join, the student strike movement will be a more effective conduit for established trade union participation in the climate strike movement. Alternatively, if large numbers of individuals decide to strike in September there could be pressure from below on trade unions. There have already been two unions who joined the March 15th student strike in Belgium. However since that time, there have not yet been official trade union calls to strike.
A call for a global general strike may therefore at this moment feel far fetched. Yet the potential is there. If student strikers and extinction rebellion activists can join campaigns for specific demands that involve workers directly, in addition to empowering workers in these struggles, it could convince workers to take on the seemingly more abstract demands of the climate movement. This, in turn, can draw workers and their unions towards joining the large climate protests. This would be the path to bringing together the social force capable of the system change we so urgently need.