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Workers and the World

On International Workers’ Day it’s never been clearer that the climate movement needs unions – or that unions need the climate movement.

The trade union movement saves the world for thousands of people every day. It combats discrimination and exploitation with dignity and justice and won us decent working hours and sick pay. It saved my world: without it I would not be writing these words, confident, hopeful and happy, instead of the shy, anxious and miserable worker I was before I became a shop steward. So this International Workers’ Day I’ll be raising a glass to all of that. But I’ll also be drowning my sorrows. The union movement saves the world, sure, but it is steadfastly refusing to save the planet. 

It’s not simply the fact that various unions support fracking, or the car industry, or carbon-based energy industries – it’s that most seem to have no real urgency around developing or thinking about the radical alternatives we need. The result: our best plans to deal with climate change have been dreamt up by middle and upper-class environmentalists who place more importance on a few green spaces than on workers’ rights. We end up with proposals to scrap vast numbers of decent, well-paid jobs in carbon-reliant industries – but no substantial plans for what to replace them with. 

On top of this, the union movement is withering. 40% of union members are over 50; whereas just 4% are under 24. The average age of someone who has never been in a union is growing. Every trade unionist under the sun sees this, and is in a panic about it. Recent campaigns such as the TGI Fridays strike and Ritzy Living Wage show that young workers can be recruited and organised, but no one has yet worked out how to do this on a large scale.

However, we are now seeing the emergence of a generation which could be the union movement’s salvation. One problem with recruiting young workers has been that many of them are unfamiliar with the ideas behind unions – withdrawing labour, and collective action. But the students who have walked out of school over the government’s failure on climate change over the past few months have all gone on strike without ever being members of a union. According to Youth Strike 4 Climate, at least 15,000 children took part. For a union movement struggling to recruit young members, that’s a huge number.

Thousands more are likely to join them as the strikes continue. They will all go into the workforce with increased awareness of their own power, with experience of organising and enacting collective action, with a set of political principles they are prepared to take risks for. Union organisers could spend a lifetime waiting for a few dozen young workers like that to bring into the movement, let alone tens of thousands of them.

If you’re a union organiser, you might well be rolling your eyes at this article. Unions exist first and foremost to serve members’ interests, you’ll be saying. You might think that while workers want to protect their industries, their unions will never be able to advocate for dismantling them, no matter how environmentally destructive. I understand where these arguments come from.

But I also believe that unions are more than capable of educating their members about alternatives. There have been many excuses about failing on social change in the trade union movement’s history – from the ones Victorians used to prevent women joining some unions, or the one used by a TGWU committee to prevent Black workers working on the Bristol buses. When we look back on the movement’s proud history, these are its stains. 

But even without appeals to a higher purpose, the union movement has to face facts. If it wants to grow numbers or even just reverse decline, there are only two paths available. It can either persuade non-members of its own agenda, or accept theirs. It would be pretty difficult for anyone to recruit the same young people who walked out of school en masse over climate inaction into unions which lobby for fracking and bad-mouth renewable energy.

Accepting this fact will be difficult. But once it is accepted, things become more straight-forward. Most unions have young member structures full of bright and committed activists. Those activists, with officials, should build links with the school strikers; not to persuade them to tone down their demands but to listen to them. The movement could offer the strikers resources: meeting rooms, blank placards, money for travel, training on recruitment and campaigning. It could introduce them to energy workers: students should be learning about the importance of a just transition which protects livelihoods for older workers and creates decent jobs for newer ones; and workers should be challenged on their own responsibilities to future generations. Perhaps most radically, it could consider supporting school strikes with forms of industrial action.

The power created could be significant: a green movement led by young people, backed up by organised workers. Campaigns grounded not in abstract politics, but in how climate change materially affects people; school strikes backed up by union mobilising; planet-destroying employers held to account by workers and their children. 

We held an event last month at the New Economics Foundation which brought together senior trade unionists with environmental campaigners and school strike activists. And we’re working with grassroots union organisers to build power amongst the most precarious workers, while developing new policy to build worker power.

Perhaps all of this sounds like a dream, too radical, too hopeful. But on International Workers’ Day we celebrate that the union movement’s radical tradition of hope, and making its history of making dreams realities. It’s time to be brave and include a new generation within them. If the movement cannot, there will be no more of those traditions: they will be histories. And the planet is one step closer to being history too.