RAAC-ed with guilt, our struggles are connected


“Without challenging the establishment that is controlled by the biggest oil polluters and Sunak’s super-rich mates at the expense of workers, indigenous people, refugees, children and public services, any action is pointless.”

By Jenny Cooper, National Education Union

Unlike Gillian Keegan, who believes she’s done a “f****** good job” dealing with our crumbling RAAC schools while others “sat on their arses”, many of us in the climate and trade union movements live with an almost constant, simmering guilt that we are not doing enough to save our planet and nature, mitigate global warming, smash the system, keep to 1.5 and protect people in the process.

Even the oft-apolitical non-unionised white male commentators have waded in with a cry for collective action on system change. Chris Packham calls us to “march, lobby, sign pensions…demonstrate” and “give ourselves a hard slap” because this is a “very real ecological apocalypse.”

But, as trades union activists, how do we know what to focus on and how best to expend our limited time and energy (whilst holding down the day job)? There is so much to sort. Increasingly we see how it is all interconnected: loss of funding of public services, austerity as a political choice, a poor safety culture, lack of regulation in building, labour practice and even the air we breathe.

At the root cause, of course, is our largely unchallenged system of extreme capitalism in which state, politics, mainstream media and big business are so completely intertwined that there is no proper accountability for any actions taken, even those that have fatal consequences.

The Grenfell deaths and Awaab Ishak (who died from chronic exposure to black mould at home) were both the result of poor building and housing regulation. Ella Kissi-Debrah’s death from asthma was the result of an Overton window that leads citzens to accept that dangerously high air pollution is okay and London’s ULEZ is an attack on people; in fact, the reverse is of course true. As I write this, the death toll in Europe from extreme end-of-summer floods is rising and is occurring whilst Rishi Sunak faces rebellion from his own MPs on onshore wind farms. If the floods move here, God help all those in Raac buildings which are now proven to not only collapse, but to expose occupants to asbestos whilst collapsing and to be even more likely to collapse in extreme rainfall events.

Society really is on a “suicidal drive to hurl ourselves off the cliff”, or at least the Tories are; it’s enough to make us want to run off to the hills, go off-grid, grow our own…sadly though most of our incomes don’t facilitate this…

As trade unionists we are inextricably tied into the system that oppresses us. I would argue this actually makes it easier for us to find our niche within the wider climate and environmental movement. We must work from within the system to decarbonise, decolonise and make fair and just the transition to a kinder world. Fighting against privatisation and exploitation (which includes unfair pay) IS a fight against climate change because these are the very things that have led to the mess we are in.

The NEU made the right call in September 2022 to press ahead with and prioritise the teachers’ pay campaign through industrial action on a grand scale and this was intrinsically linked to our policy on climate change. We are campaigning for a world in which children come first, workers are valued and funds are redirected from the oppressors back to the workers (whose labour, of course, created all we now have).

A huge wave of multi-sector strikes swept the nation and we experienced trades council Whatsapp groups pinging with “advent calendars” of which pickets to support on which day! In the midst of this, Extinction Rebellion and high profile climate activists including Mikaela Loach instructed all those that care about “climate justice” to support strikes, visit pickets and join unions.

The mainstreaming of the term “climate justice” is a big advance for our movement because we have never wanted fossil fuels simply replaced with renewable energy and companies’ guilt offset with tree planting. To be clear: we do want an end to fossil fuel extraction and we want forests of trees but a new world is possible.

Without challenging the establishment that is controlled by the biggest oil polluters and Sunak’s super-rich mates at the expense of workers, indigenous people, refugees, children and public services, any action is pointless; we would merely be exchanging one cruel system for another with all the same barons still in the control seats.

Trade unions need to stand squarely on the side of anti-poverty and speak for those that have no voice and the disenfranchised: children, refugees, those in social care, those that have already died as victims of the system.

We should reclaim the term “Just Transition” (which was grabbed by Saudi Arabia at COP 27 to justify only a slow transition from oil). The term was originally coined in 1970s USA by OCAW (Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union) to take an environmental approach towards empowering workers to get safety where they could and actually scrap jobs where they couldn’t (an example was making nuclear weapons). Over time the concept has been contested in many ways ranging from “a simple claim for jobs creation in the green economy to a radical critique of capitalism and refusal of market solutions”. It is the latter approach which empowers us to bring different work sectors together and to align with those trying to smash the system, so to speak.

Unions need to coordinate strikes wherever and whenever possible but we also need to coordinate protests alongside radical direct action groups wherever and whenever possible because this is all that is left and we are on the edge of a precipice with no time to waste on excessive bureaucracy or caution. The danger is immediate (as it was when our reps issues “Section 44 notices” at the start of the pandemic).

Whether the Labour Party proves to be our saviour come election time will depend on the extent to which they are prepared to unite with the wave of organisations expressing discontent and demanding radical change of an unjust system that will otherwise soon kill us all.

‘Green Not Greed’ banner held at The Big One demonstration organised by a wide-range of environmental and socials groups on April 21st, 2023. Photo credit: Sam Browse, Labour Outlook archive

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