Building Environmentalism into Workplace Struggle

With catastrophic climate change to the world today, the term “climate emergency” has entered common use. The environmental crisis continues to grow day by day, and whilst the responses of our and other governments continue to be woefully inadequate, the movement demanding action continues to grow.

For the trade union movement, the question continues to be how we can use our industrial muscle in this battle. This is particularly relevant given the successive global climate strikes by school age children, and the question now being asked of how we can build towards climate strikes by workers.

A Crisis of Capitalism

The first thing that needs to be recognised is that the environmental crisis is fundamentally a crisis of capitalism. The position we find ourselves in, both in terms of how much we have already contributed to climate change and of the resistance to serious action to reverse course, both have their roots in a system built around unrelenting economic growth.

Capitalism, fundamentally, means money making more money. Whilst it may be easier to think in terms of greedy bankers or similar, this ignores that the CEO of the most ethical company in the world, with the greatest social conscience, is beholden to their shareholders. Their business must grow, not only making profit but increasing profit. Just as we see situations where factories are closed and workers laid off not because the company is making a loss but because the profit it makes is slightly less than before, so this ideology of continuous growth drives the aggressive resource expansion polluting the environment and heating up the planet.

Against this, it simply isn’t true that “every little helps.” It doesn’t. Certainly, it’s good to recycle and to re-use your plastic bags, but it’s not going to stop climate change and having a narrative tying the destruction of the planet to individual guilt – including horrendous anecdotes of disabled people being guilt tripped for needing to use straws – does nothing to solve this crisis.

Equality in ecology

Climate change will affect the whole planet, but we also know it will affect different communities differently. Class struggle is at the heart of this, since the bosses exacerbating the crisis, funding those who deny it even exists, or perhaps offering piecemeal, PR-friendly answers are best placed to remove themselves from the worst of the damage. The working class of the world are the ones who will bear the brunt of the damage.

Within the working class, we also know that it will be people of colour in the third world at the sharpest edge of this. The negative effects of climate change are primarily felt in countries that are majority people of colour, especially black and brown people, even though most of the planet’s CO2 emissions come from China, the United States, and Russia. People of colour are also more likely to be exposed to industrial pollution.

Disabled people can often have a greater vulnerability to environmental disasters such as storms, floods and extreme heat, meaning that in those communities at the sharp end of climate change disabled people are particularly threatened. Closer to home, we have already touched on how reducing environmental issues to personal and consumer choice does harm to those who need even as seemingly insignificant a thing as a straw to do that which others might take for granted.

70% of the world’s poor are women. They are often tasked with gathering and producing food, collecting water and fuel, and so on, all tasks that become more difficult with extreme weather events. Massive pre-existing gender inequality will only be exacerbated by this crisis.

The movement to tackle climate change must be rooted in equality, and take these issues and concerns to heart. This is why, whilst many have applauded the willingness of Extinction Rebellion to use civil disobedience and direct action, the way they have gone about it has raised considerable red flags. The legal observer organisation Green and Black Cross has distanced themselves from the group, saying they do not believe XR does enough to safeguard its activists. Tactics of soliciting mass arrests, even aside from utterly naïve pronouncements such as that jail time allows for the pursuit of yoga or falsely claiming racism isn’t an issue in prison because most guards are black, puts those without a high degree of privilege in serious danger.

Diversity of tactics

Though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, it is worth counterposing civil disobedience to direct action. Where civil disobedience’s shows of mass disruption are aimed at getting their protagonists arrested to show off the injustice of the system and give them their day in court, direct action is fundamentally about leverage. The working class, taking matters into their own hands, forces their target to meet their demands or face the consequences. Arrests may happen, but they are certainly not sought, and the movement does what it can to prevent them, so that those taking the action now are not removed from the fight for the future.

Strikes are a form of direct action just as much as occupations, blockades and sabotage are. In the new unions such as United Voices of the World, and even in more militant struggle from traditional unions such as the fight against blacklisting, we often see strikes accompanied by road blockades, occupations of business premises, and so on. That diversity of tactics, which the traditional unions are more often fearful of due to strikes done in the “right” way having lawful protections and the rest not, is something we need to see in environmental struggle.

So how do we get from the school strikes over climate change to strikes by workers in pursuit of the action necessary to save the planet?

Making radical demands

The fact is that the broader trade union movement is in a position now where engaging most of its members in lawful strikes is difficult. In specific workplaces with high levels of organisation, the response is strong, but across bigger bargaining units the difficulties arise. The UCU has had to disaggregate its ballots to be able to take some colleges and universities out on strike over what are effectively national issues. The CWU built for seven months to decisively win the ballot at Royal Mail over its “four pillars” campaign, and even that was subject to a legal challenge. PCS has now twice failed to pass a 50% turnout in an aggregate ballot of the whole civil service.

It would be easy to instead demand unlawful strikes, circumventing the requirement for a 50% turnout in a secret ballot. But if we can’t deliver a lawful strike, what suggests there is a mood for unlawful strikes, except in pockets? The call to a climate general strike on a certain date, like previous calls for general strikes through the height of the Occupy movement back in 2012, is unlikely to yield any actual strike action.

That doesn’t mean nothing can be done. It just means that we have to start from the shop floor, to organise around genuinely radical demands tied to the sort of massive, social change we need to see to address climate change.

Take, as one example, the demand for a shorter working week.

We already know that this “unrealistic” demand is absolutely necessary in purely economic terms. To increase work life balance, to stop workers burning out particularly in hostile environments like contact centres, and to allow workers to feel the benefit of digitalisation rather than it leading to job cuts and spiralling workloads. The Industrial Workers of the World have been calling for it for the better part of a century and now some businesses have come around to the idea even before some trade unionists.

From an environmental point of view, it also starts to address the problems of pollution caused by mass commuting and congested motorways. Replacing petrol cars with electric equivalents, even by as late a date as 2050, requires massive resource extraction. This just shifts the carbon emissions from the UK to the global south, as well as putting communities there in the firing line of further neo-colonial violence and exploitation.

This is far from the only such area of struggle. The government estates strategy means closing countless local workplaces and forcing civil servants to make longer commutes, increasing congestion and pollution. Rigid shift patterns rather than flexible working hours contribute to the pollution pinch points of rush hour. The successive attacks on our pensions and the driving up of the retirement age force people to work far longer than they would otherwise need to, because working class people are meant to pay into pensions and then die so that rich people and pension companies can reap the rewards. And so on.

Struggles around these issues won’t end capitalism or solve climate change. But by tying demands which don’t just resist the slow decline of the last three decades but actively seek to make things far better for workers to environmental issues we reinforce the point that climate struggle and class struggle are connected. By rooting these struggles in serious, systematic organising on the shop floor we start to rebuild a fighting culture that teaches workers they are the agents of change if only they harness their own collective power.

And if we spread these struggles, link them to external direct action over the environment, and make explicitly and unapologetically the point that capitalism is the problem, we might just have the start of something big.


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