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How the Climate Strikes Can Win

Today's student climate strike is another example of grassroots activity challenging the environmental crisis – but in order to win, the movement will need to build deeper links with workers and unions.

Young people bring compelling energy and zealousness to the climate movement. School climate strikes like today’s show the escalating anger felt by young people across the globe, fuelled by government inaction and short-sightedness. As the generation most impacted by climate change, young people are uncompromising, and value driven in their struggle. They show international solidarity, which deserves recognition as they dissent over the privatisation and pillaging of rivers, land and forest together with indigenous communities, central American farmers and climate refugees. However, the next ten years are going to be critical in determining the future of this planet. With the scale of change needed, what happens between this strike and the next is key.

The revival of the word ‘strike’ has seen an exciting shift in the way social movements operate worldwide. The climate strikers have been innovative in drawing on the militancy, non-compliance and conflict-based approach of classic labour movements to stage mass classroom walkouts. But there is a temptation to fetishise the strike and to remove it from its history and function.

Fundamentally, the strike is only effective as a display of direct democratic power, which relies on high levels of participation, unity and willingness to take high risks and confront power. To reach its full potential, the strike needs to be built off the back of deep, slow work that breaks down divisions and builds a critical mass to force through change. It is one tactic in a theory of change, which relies heavily on sustained work of political education and the building of strong networks based on solidarity.

A strike is a test of the hard graft of deep organising – face to face, one on one. The success of the Chicago teachers was based on exactly this kind of work. They placed issues felt by their students and parents at the centre to win their fight: challenging racist policing, the housing crisis and poverty. They did not abandon the hard graft of day-to-day power building within the community to force through huge change in limited time.

The connection between the crisis of work, inequality and climate needs to be underlined here as an opportunity to build this power in the UK. For a long time, the climate movement has struggled with the charge of elitism and lacked the scope of support needed to force change. It has been stuck in ‘fight or flight’ mode with an over-reliance on shortcuts as quick mobilisations. Most have been ‘self-selecting’ initiatives, which draw upon the same crowd and lack appeal to a broad base (a common problem critiqued by labour theorist Jane McAlevey).

Extinction Rebellion’s action at Canning Town can be seen as an example of one which alienated both ordinary people and caused disruption for public transport workers – precisely the kind of workers that a just transition will rely upon. A process of democratisation is beginning to happen in the climate movement, as ordinary young people are engaging within their education structures and even with some workplaces. The youth-led action against the British Museum and its sponsorship by BP is one example of careful coordination between PCS cultural workers and the climate movement. However, there is a need for greater effort in aligning with the immediate needs of ordinary people to demand an end to the climate disaster.

The unique energy of the climate strikers could spread beyond the confines of climate and towards a mass movement with workers at the centre. Young people will face some of the worst effects of climate change, but they’re also at the sharp end of a precarious labour market right now, with many working in hospitality and retail in zero-hour contracts and under precarious conditions. Much of this labour is also rooted in high-carbon industries.

One of my first jobs as a college student was cheffing at Gatwick Airport: it was the main source of work for people of all ages in my town, everyone I knew worked here, including family members and neighbours. It is also a key site of struggle, home to the second biggest migrant strike to take place in the UK by Gategourmet; and it also felt the hit of striking mixed fleet workers, one of the most profound victories of recent times, which brought British Airways to a standstill.

The majority of these workers are young and earning under £25,000 per year. Despite this link between climate and labour, there’s still a disconnect between the climate and labour movements. We need to stand with all workers that are fighting against exploitation, but this is particularly critical for high-carbon and transport industries. These are the key areas for the just transition. At the same time, it is about solidarity between movements fighting together for better pay and security, as well as rethinking business models and their compatibility with climate change.

There’s a practical need to build democratic support for our sustainability as movements, in line with the sustainability of our planet. The Green New Deal would unify movements by focusing on the issues that bring us together: tens of thousands new, well-paid and secure green jobs, and greater investment in infrastructure and public transport for those that most need it.

The key challenge will be to cultivate solidarity through the wild entangled growth of our movements by fighting both for workers’ rights and environmental justice. This means showing a deep commitment to methods of organising which prioritise high levels of participation, unity and willingness to take risks and confront power. A strike is more than just a strike, it is a test of collective strength. There’s a lot to be learned about building this strength across the climate and labour movements in tackling the issues we all face in the transition towards a zero-carbon future.