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‘We should strike to save the planet,’ say trade unionists

This article is over 4 years, 11 months old
After the inspiring school student strikes over climate catastrophe, activists in workplaces are fighting to get action off the ground this September. Sadie Robinson spoke to some of them
Issue 2658
An RMT union banner on a school strike protest earlier this year
An RMT union banner on a school strike protest earlier this year (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Young campaigners have appealed to workers to strike over climate change in September.

The call follows successful school student strikes and road blockades by Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists.

Lots of workers are worried about climate change—and many union activists are now thinking seriously about what kind of action is possible.

Pippa Dowswell is an NEU union rep at Islington Sixth Form College in north London, and president of Islington NEU. “I’m absolutely for a strike over climate change,” she told Socialist Worker.

“It’s such an important issue—the whole world is at stake.

“I think the vast majority of union members at our college will support the idea of striking.”

Stuart Graham is a social worker convenor for Glasgow City Unison union. He said, “Many young people don’t know what a union is or what it does.

“This is how we can make trade unions relevant.”

On the London Underground, RMT union members are ­discussing what action to take after hearing student strikers speak at their meetings.

RMT rep Phil Rowan told Socialist Worker, “Workers I’ve spoken to on the underground have been inspired by the school strikes.

School student strikes have inspired many trade unionists

School student strikes have inspired many trade unionists (Pic: Guy Smallman)

“And they saw solidarity photos from teachers who were under pressure not to support it.

“People are saying if the students can take action, then we should.”


Many national unions have backed the school strikes. The UCU union agreed to “support and promote calls for a general strike for action on climate change”. Sandy Nicoll, Unison branch secretary at Soas University of London, said this has “made all the difference”.

He told Socialist Worker, “There’s now a chance we could have something significant at Soas. The key thing is giving people confidence to take unofficial action.

“That’s a big ask, but we had unofficial walkouts earlier this year. If you do it in sufficient numbers, there’s not a lot that ­management can do.”

Stuart said he expects there will be “some sort of solidarity action”. “There’s a reluctance among some, maybe because of fear,” he said.

“But last year refuse workers in Glasgow struck unofficially to support equal pay strikes and there were no consequences.”

XR member and student Patrick Thelwell said workers’ strikes would escalate the struggle.

“Strikes are incredibly powerful and have won major concessions from powerful business interests and elites,” he said.

“Climate breakdown poses a ­catastrophic threat, particularly for ­working class people and those in the Global South.

“We can’t succeed without a much broader groundswell of support from workers across the world.

“This would hit the capitalists where it hurts most—their wallets.”

Sandy added, “We shouldn’t have an ultimatum of all or nothing. Everyone can do something.

“We shouldn’t run away from the idea of general strikes, but delivering that is a serious business. The people calling for it are right to say that’s what is needed.”

Fridays for Future walkouts have spurred on workers

Student strikers have spoken at NEU, UCU, RMT, FBU, PCS, Unison and other union branch meetings and conferences.

Stuart said Glasgow Unison is “trying to introduce climate strikers into as many branches as possible”.

He explained how unions can give practical support to students.

“We agreed to offer them meeting space, printing facilities for leaflets and flyers, and to make a budget available for them,” he said. Ken Muller from Islington NEU told Socialist Worker, “Half a dozen local school students attended one of our association meetings.

“We passed a motion welcoming the strikes and listed things that we could do, including taking action.”

And when national unions have taken a stand, activists feel more confident.

Kieran Picken, NEU Derby City district secretary, said, “We invited two student strikers to our AGM recently.

“It came off the back of the NEU national conference, which passed a motion supporting the student strikes.

“The mood among teachers is supportive of the students. But there isn’t always confidence to take action themselves.”

Pippa said, “Some people might worry about being punished for taking time out of work.

“But if enough people do it, that will be a protection for people if employers try to discipline people.

“They can’t sack everybody.”

‘How can I organise at work?’

There is a global week of action on climate change from 20 to 27 September. Students plan to hold another walkout on 20 September. Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg—who started the climate strikes movement—has called on workers to join it.

And there are calls for a Global Earth Strike on 27 September.

  • Make the argument for strikes from the beginning. If you have numbers, it will deter management from disciplining anyone. The key thing is, how can we build confidence for people to take action?
  • You could go around work with a petition in support of action on the climate. Or if there’s a canteen in work, why not set up a stall during breaks This gets people talking about the issue.
  • There might be more than one union in your workplace. Schools, for example, may have the NEU, Unison and GMB and other unions. Can you organise a cross-union meeting? Invite a school striker or Extinction Rebellion activist to speak.
  • You might convince your workplace to take unofficial action. Arguing for one and organising will win some of your workmates to the need for a general strike to save the planet. There will be more people making the argument for unofficial walkouts alongside you.

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