If we are to have an “honest dialogue” between the labour and climate movement, we need to see ourselves as one. This means ensuring we join these spaces as much as climate activists are now giving support to trade unions on the picket lines.
By Sam Mason
When Extinction Rebellion announced at the end of last year “we quit” it was a shift in tactics rather than giving up the fight. As they said, when they arrived on the scene and along with them the school climate strikes, this spurred a new level of climate activism, including in trade unions.
Unlike the school strikers who called on the trade union movement to join their strike, a call many got behind in September 2019, it often felt that XR were less concerned about workers’ demands – in short, to ensure that workers are protected in the rapid and far-reaching economic transition required to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises.
Over the weekend of 21 to 24th April, XR are holding their first major event since announcing their change of course and comes at a time of a mass wave of strike action. The first day headlined as “Unite to Survive” will see People’s Pickets outside main government buildings, and on the Saturday, Earth Day, there will be a trade union hub and bloc set up to join the march for biodiversity.
Trade unionists exist within XR and will have joined previous actions but they would have done so as climate activists. This time we need trade unionists joining as labour movement activists. The struggle for action on climate change is the same struggle faced by workers. Whether more repressive anti-trade union legislation being fast-tracked by the Tories linked with increasing restrictions on protest, the blatant trampling of workers’ rights as we saw with P&O ferries, or the failure to see a just transition for workers in the growing transition to renewable energy, we are in the fight for our lives.
To say “our lives are at stake” – as XR’s ‘Unite to Survive’ headline suggests – might seem like a non-typical way for the labour movement to speak about its demands, but far from it. It was actually the title of a pamphlet telling the story of the 1973 Shell oil workers’ strike in the US, said to be the first strike for the environment. It’s a story worth remembering for our struggles today.
At essence in the dispute was a fight for health and safety rights being sacrificed over profit. To quote from the pamphlet “Shell’s position was that health and safety was none of the oil workers business.”
As one of the key unions involved, the Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers union well understood, challenging poor labour and environmental practices in the workplace were just as important to communities outside. Therefore, building alliances with the growing environmental movement was key to winning demands.
Today, the lives and livelihoods of workers and the communities we live in are under even greater threat. For those on the frontlines of climate change, particularly in the global south, millions are already facing its realities. Therefore, how we respond to it is all our business. And if, as some trade unions have called for, we are to have an “honest dialogue” between the labour and climate movement we need to see ourselves as one. This means ensuring we join these spaces as much as climate activists are now giving support to trade unions on the picket lines.
This is how we influence and develop our collective demands, and through processes of participatory democracy and debate which is at the heart of trade unionism. Above all, we all agree we are running out of time on climate change. Too much is at stake to leave it to the politicians and corporations who are engineering the transition based on their profit interests rather than what’s needed for people and planet.
As we will be saying on 28th April, International Workers Memorial Day, remember the dead and fight for the living. The coming weekend is part of this.
- Sam Mason is the coordinator of the Climate Justice Coalition trade union caucus. You can follow her on Twitter here.
- You can follow the Climate Justice Coalition on Twitter here.
- The ‘Big One’ is a four-day action from the 21st to the 24th April 2023. People from all groups and movements will gather throughout Westminster to demand climate action. Full details here.