Support the Striking School and College Students!
I don’t need to start this by outlining the latest predictions from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). All reasonable people recognise that without serious and significant intervention on a global scale, the planet is heading towards a drastic increase in extreme weather conditions which will have a disastrous effect on the world’s ecosystem and future generations.
Given the scale and seriousness of the issue, it’s hardly surprising that a movement to fight climate change has taken off, the significant feature being that it is led by school and college students, determined that their future will not be characterised by a political and economic leadership that fails to act.
As an antidote to the idiocy and short-sightedness of Trump and Bolsonaro, Greta Thunberg’s call to action has been a welcome change. Her example of striking from school as a protest against the inaction of the Swedish government has found an echo, and become an inspiration for thousands of young people across the planet. In February, the Youth Strike 4 Climate Change began organising demonstrations in Britain.
The movement of school and college students has shown an inspiring militancy, determination and seriousness. An estimated 1.5 million participated in the global student strike on 15th March, adopting the method of strike action from the trade union movement. It is enormously significant that walking out of school to effect change is seen as the best tactic.
20th September 2019 is the next significant date for this movement. The “Earth Strike” announced for that day has the support of lecturers’ union UCU and BFAWU, which organises workers in the catering industry. The active involvement of working people and trade unions would prove decisive in moving the campaign to the next level.
UNISON has put forward the idea of Green Week, 16-20 September, giving “members the chance to show support for the school climate strikers ahead of their campaign to raise awareness and the school climate strike on 20 September.”
This proposes individual branches campaigning to “green” their workplaces and show verbal support for those participating on 20th September. Whilst raising awareness of the issue and taking up some of the arguments, what’s missing here is a willingness to do what the students want (getting involved on the day by walking out of workplaces) and proposing what measures are necessary for reversing climate change.
The anti-trade union laws not only impose very restrictive measures on how industrial action ballots can be run (postal ballots to home addresses and a 50% turnout threshold), they also outlaw all “political” strikes i.e. those that do not relate directly to a dispute with the employer over pay, pensions, terms and conditions etc.
(For this branch to legally strike, we’d need to formulate a trade dispute relating to climate change, negotiate with the University and then declare a dispute. Then once negotiations are exhausted, we’d need to formulate some demands, win a ballot on the back of that with a 50% turnout and fend off any attempts at court action along the way. The entire system is rigged in favour of the employer where business as usual e.g. imposing real terms pay cuts, is seen as perfectly legal and non-controversial behaviour.)
So, given where we are, this branch can and does give full material and practical support to those students taking strike action.
Our members who feel strongly enough to get involved on the day will need to be imaginative about how they do that. We would argue that the University should take a flexible approach in the application of annual leave, flexitime and unpaid leave if necessary. If members of staff want to get involved in events in Brighton or elsewhere then this can easily be managed with some planning.
As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, we have asked the University to declare a climate emergency and commit itself to reducing carbon emissions to zero by 2030. Other Universities have already done this and we think a declaration from such a large and influential employer and higher education institution is long overdue.
Demonstrating a serious commitment to tackle the problem also sends out a message to students and potential students that this university has not totally lost its reputation for being prepared to take risks and being audacious in its ambition. Brighton has been at the forefront of campaigning for LGBTQ+ rights, which all trade unionists have supported. We’d like to see a similar commitment to the fight against climate change.
At the time of writing, we’re still waiting for a response to our proposals.
However, the campaign cannot be limited to putting pressure on institutions or individuals to reduce their carbon footprint. Greta Thunberg told the UN “if solutions within this system are so hard to find then maybe we need a new system”. The slogan of “system change, not climate change” has been taken up by many striking school students, but with many differing ideas of what system change might look like.
For socialists like me, the old saying “you can’t control what you don’t own” is particularly relevant. As long as a small group of people prioritise their need to make short term profits over the longer term needs of the planet then the battle is lost. Governments can attempt to legislate against the worst excesses, but as we’re witnessing in Brazil, the US and China, since those in power rest on the profit-based system, climate change will continue.
This is not limited to the most extreme, unhinged right-wing leaders such as Bolsonaro and Trump. Successive governments East and West, from Clinton to Obama, Blair to Johnson, have either opposed measures to deal with the problem or, to loud fanfares, agreed minor changes which are either unenforceable or ineffective.
In my opinion (not necessarily UNISON’s!), it is absolutely necessary to establish democratic control over the agri-business, fossil fuels and large-scale manufacturing sectors so that they can be planned on an environmentally sustainable basis. Even now, giant corporations like BP and Shell use their power and influence to block binding measures on climate policy whilst promoting themselves as institutions which care about the planet.
Taking the large corporations into public ownership, linked to democratic workers’ control and planning would allow these companies to be run on an accountable basis and transitioned away from destroying the planet, to providing climate change solutions.
Without a significant change in how the world economy operates, capitalism will destroy the planet. Where profit and private ownership of the world’s resources comes first, the longer term future of humanity will lose out.
The trade union movement should support immediate measures which will make a difference. Calling for massive state controlled and funded investment in green energy and a thorough housing insulation programme, combined with free and integrated public transport, would be a start. It could also create thousands of decent jobs.
Fundamentally, transforming society to one based on human need, rather than profit, provides the solution. A democratic socialist society which plans how to sustainably use the resources to meet the needs of everyone should, as far as I’m concerned, be our ultimate aim.
Ivan Bonsell (in an entirely personal capacity)
(If you have any points about this or anything else, feel free to post them, or send me an article and I’d be happy to post it.)