Striking for Climate Safety

The climate and ecological emergency is such that additional approaches to activism for transformative change must be examined and experimented with. In particular, approaches that offer opportunities for mass participation, globally, should be considered, as they enable wider understanding and support for the necessary livelihood and lifestyle changes to reduce harm from climate chaos.  

The ‘global climate strikes’ that are co-organised by the climate campaign group 350.org have not involved actual workplace strikes organised by trade unions in dispute with their employers. Instead, they have involved young people taking time away from school, with some supportive demonstrations by adults, sometimes encouraged by trade unions and permitted by employers. 

The following idea about striking for ‘climate safety’ outlines a different approach, where adults show greater solidarity with young climate strikers, by challenging employers to adopt policies which make meaningful the notion of a climate emergency. That will involve the employer making carbon cuts, drawdown and adaptation to disruption the central organising principle of the organisation. Such challenges to employers will need to be real, by being backed by trade union bargaining processes and the threat of lawful official strike action. The recent evolution of the concept of Occupational Health and Safety to include climate risks provides the context for such trade union leadership and action. Ultimately that action might enable a transformative agenda onto the mainstream of political agendas. 

Elements of the following proposal have been sense-checked by a senior official at the UN’s International Labour Organisation and a leading British academic on industrial relations. I share the idea here in an unpolished way, to get it ‘out there’ and discussed by people with more time, energy, resources and talent than me to make something happen. In particular, I hope that people in strategic leadership roles in climate activist movements, trade unionists with climate concerns, and activist lawyers, will read this proposal to the end and decide to explore it further. 

I explain the idea through a set of propositions. Each could be elaborated on and referenced, but that is not important now as I wish to quickly communicate the ideas with people who already know something about these topics. I number the paragraphs for ease of reference in future discussions. 

In my next blog I will share further information on the context for this proposal. 

Striking for Climate Safety – a rationale and first steps.

  1. To make a serious effort at reducing the speed and harm of climate chaos, while giving us a better chance at avoiding near term human extinction, we need transformative change of the whole of society and economy.
  2. Arguments for bringing down governments, creating alliances with elites, or imposing changes to cut carbon without the major changes in wealth distribution to share the burden (and legitimise difficult changes), may soon be regarded as rushed responses to personal panic about climate chaos.
  3. To make a serious effort at transformative change we can try to enable coalitions across economic classes, in all countries, that combine environmental expertise and concern alongside expertise and concern for social justice.
  4. We can invite people to move through a sense of personal vulnerability to a need for solidarity with others and then towards a desire for liberation from the current system that compels us to destroy our future to ‘get by’ today. Personal vulnerability arises as people begin to realise the fragility to climate impacts that the systems they depend on for their everyday lives. Solidarity arises as people realise both that individual defensive reactions will make matters worse and that they seek mutual care with others in the face of crisis. A desire for liberation can arise as people come to see how our culture and economic system has taught us – and driven us towards – destructive competition and striving.
  5. Most people work in organisations. People’s places of work are where they engage with each other and organise resources within society, including directing budgets and resources that they do not have privately. Organisations influence government. Organisations both influence and are being influenced by climate.
  6. Organisations have a duty of care for their employees, including in the area of Occupation Health and Safety (OHS). Increasingly, this is understood as extending beyond the workplace to a range of locations the employee works from or passes through to attend work. Recently, climate change is being regarded as an issue of employee health and safety, both within the workplace and more broadly. This raises the question of what the duty of care of employers is as the reality of disruptive climate change grows – something we can call “climate safety”.
  7. Organised labour is a key global network of people that understand aspects of vulnerability, solidarity and liberation. Trade unions have worked on environmental issues, in limited ways, but have done a lot on health and safety. Although their existence is restricted in a few countries, notably China, they are an influence in most of the world.
  8. While response from employers to climate change are welcome, the content of recent employer declarations of climate emergencies raise questions about whether they are really treating it as an ‘emergency’. When one evacuates a building on fire, for instance, one doesn’t stop to collect certificates of savings and shares. When employers declare emergencies (including universities, local governments and the private sector) they have not been placing climate as priority alongside, let alone above, organisational growth or (for the private sector) profit. Most have not included adaptation to the unfolding damage from climate change. They have not established performance requirements on chief executives. They typically create a new target for carbon neutrality, a budget line, a consultation process and reporting commitment. As such, while welcome, they are not emergency measures and can isolate the matter from core strategy and financial concerns. Representing the true interests of their members’ health and safety in the face of vulnerability from climate chaos, trade unions could develop more appropriate agendas for employers on climate safety policies that respond to the nature of the emergency.
  9. As part of its bargaining on employee conditions, branches of unions could ask their employer to declare a climate emergency that would mean credible plans for attempting to improve the climate safety of employees. The UN’s International Labour Office advises promoting “the inclusion of specific environmental provisions through collective bargaining and collective agreements at all levels… including but not limited to emission reductions” (in section 18d). In addition, the premiere global organisation of the labour movement, the International Trade Union Congress has called for more employer responsibility on climate change. They have called for companies to “climate proof our work” and for unions to get involved in activism and lobbying on climate change, including by considering strikes and other forms of engagement with the youth climate strikers.
  10. Climate emergency policies from employers that might support transformative change, and be requested by trade unions in their bargaining processes, could include the following areas. Near-term net zero carbon operations, changing investments to a zero carbon portfolio, transforming products and services to respond to the crisis, supporting employees to reduce risks to their future livelihoods and safety, aligning all direct and indirect political influence with significant government action on emissions cuts, drawdown and adaptation. None of these areas are alien to the corporate sector, and could be evidenced as good practice. However, unions could request that these areas be made higher priorities than either business growth or profit maximisation and become a key criterion for assessment of the Chief Executive by the board.
  11. Trade union rights to challenge employers and then take industrial action if not satisfied, differ around the world, and are generally limited to direct disputes with their employers and their pay or conditions. Secondary action in support of other workers in other organisations is not lawful in many countries, as it is not a trade dispute with one’s own legal employer. However, a union can take advice from a coordinating organisation to help it consider demanding particular decisions from employers as part of their bargaining. It can then choose to ballot its members on industrial action, if the response of employers is not considered sufficient. Such balloting could be done in a way that means a union could consider striking on the same day as other unions. Perhaps globally.
  12. Initially it is the choice of a union to decide what is a matter of employment conditions, and if not satisfied, to ballot its members on strike action. Thus, if a union recognises that climate is a matter of employee health and safety then it can act on that view. However, an employer would challenge the unions’ views on climate safety as being a matter of employment relations and take the matter to an employment tribunal or higher court to gain an injunction and try to prove that the union were acting unlawfully. Unions would need to make the case that this is a key matter of employment conditions right now, due to the increasing vulnerability employees face due to climate change impacts both now and in the near future. There is increasing authoritative research to support this perspective, especially in some sectors and regions. In particular, the world’s leading authority on labour relations, the International Labour Organisation of the UN, advises climate is a serious workplace issue. In addition, unfortunately the impacts of climate change will get worse, and therefore this argument about climate safety may become easier to demonstrate.
  13. Children and youth taking time off school, often without permission, have raised attention that some young people see their activism on climate as more important than their personal conformity and progress through not being truant from school. This has inspired adults and triggered debates about what adults can do in solidarity with them.
  14. In 2019 the youth school strikers called for adults to join them in a ‘global climate strike’. A workplace strike is where workers withdraw labour without permission of the employer, as part of an industrial dispute. The list of actions in support of the September 2019 ‘global climate strike’ indicates there was not a single official trade union strike in support. Instead, some unions supported demonstrations, and in many cases “employees were also permitted to strike” by their employer – which means it was not actually a strike. Often, trade unions asked employers to let their staff take symbolic action in support of the youth activists. Therefore, these actions did not involve trade unions developing their own requirements of employers on environment or climate safety, nor pressing for their adoption.  Some individual members of individual trade unions have called for actual strike action, but this has not translated into union ballots for actual strikes.
  15. The current advice to adults and youth on potential workplace strike action is insufficient and risks misinforming young activists about what real strike action involves and could achieve. The campaign organisation 350.org is linked to by Fridays for Future and others as a hub for the ‘global climate strike.’ The group offers principles for engaging with youth led climate strikes, that are aimed at nongovernmental organisations, not trade unions. Their guidance for people wanting to organise a strike does not provide guidance for organising an actual strike. For instance, it tells activists “once your employer has agreed to support staff participating” then the next steps can be taken. Such information could be upgraded to provide advice on the rationale and methods for actual workplace strikes, while alternative sources of advice and coordination from labour organisations are important. If that does not happen, then using the language of workplace strikes while having no intention to consider them may lead to claims of misleading young activists and to conflict with the trade union movement.
  16. Adults’ response has currently not matched the young people’s self-sacrifice. Non-Violent Civil Disobedience (NVDA) appears close, but it is questionable whether it impacts the personal livelihoods or futures of participants in the same way as principled truancy from school. Nor is it likely to provide a pathway to the same level of mass participation – whereas any child can consider boycotting school, NVDA is suited for only some people. As described above, the trade union response has been limited, not involving lawful official strikes in dispute with employers after demanding transformative climate safety policies. The NGOs involved have not yet encouraged or enabled that kind of response, instead promoting modes of protests which have not had a track record of success on environmental issues. It is time adults who support the youth strikers to do more than support them in words or optional extras to their normal lives. Real solidarity will involve making personal sacrifices. Therefore it is time to explore means of enabling worldwide official strikes for climate safety.
  17. There will be a benefit from established law firms or chambers in every country of the world to issue guidance on how climate safety is now a matter of employer responsibility. That should include how the nature of this responsibility is evolving but is likely to focus on adaptation to growing risks to employee health and safety as much as carbon emissions and drawdown.  This guidance can then be used to inform judges that may serve on future tribunals, and in the UK the Law Lords, so they can understand the latest developments in both climate change and implications for health and safety. One particular issue for legal research and opinion could be on political influence. The duty of care on climate safety cannot be fully carried out through workplace practices alone, and requires government action, so that might mean how the employer directly and indirectly influences relevant government action now becomes a matter of employment relations.
  18. There will be a benefit from these ideas being discussed with youth leaders within the climate strike movement, so that they can become clear on why and how adults can explore joining them in lawful strike action for climate safety – and how current ideas and actions fall far short of that. This is urgent, as some elites, often well-meaning, are trying to co-opt the youth activists and distracting them from the history across decades and centuries where people struggled to hold power to account. Instead, they say that the older generations have not done enough for the younger generations. That intergenerational framing also overlooks how today a Western teenager has a far higher carbon footprint than the average person of any age in Africa or India. Instead, strategies to create massive change are needed that involve intergenerational learning and cooperation between those who are prepared to take risks to create transformative change.
  19. There will be a benefit from activist groups like Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise Movement, Greenpeace, and Fridays for Future, approaching trade unions with requests that they take the lead on defining what employer climate emergency policies and actions should look like. They might need to follow up such requests with some playful direct action.
  20. There will be a benefit in organising a range of communications approaches and outputs to raise awareness, initially amongst climate activists, of the need and processes for promoting climate safety policies from employers, as part of a wider effort at social transformation. That might include articles targeting progressives with the following kind of message:  “Your outrage at stupid men does nothing to help Greta: Time to organise union strikes yourself?”
  21. During the days taken off school while striking, children and youth could be supported to learn what will help them in a climate stressed world. Their current curricula expect the current world economy to continue, as if climate change will not damage it. A range of soft and hard skills to be better prepared for future distress could be taught. Some of those striking from work might be able to support that learning. Other adults who strike could engage in adaptive or regenerative activities in their local communities during their strike days. Such activities could be supported and coordinated by significant NGO programmes.
  22. There will be benefit in major funding (i.e. millions of dollars) of a global initiative to encourage the constituent parts of this effort. This includes the wider establishment of the concept of climate safety as employer responsibility amongst the public and legal profession, outreach to youth strikers on this topic, the influencing of trade unions to demand meaningful policies on climate safety, technical advice to activists and trade unionists on processes for demanding that, financial support for strikers in case employers delay salaries, legal support for unions when challenged in courts over lawfulness of industrial action on climate safety or if employers try retaliation against staff, public communications around court cases and decisions, education and public communications about the connection to the wider solidarity and liberation agendas that climate chaos invites.
  23. The success of this effort would not be in a few employers adopting a significant climate emergency policy in accordance with the requests of a union. It would not be in a few unions successfully balloting members to strike and then choosing to do so on a specific ‘global climate strike’ day. It would not be in assuaging the guilt of adults that they have not shown true solidarity with striking children beforehand. The success of this effort could be threefold. First, in helping establish collaboration between environmental activists, trade unions and some employers on the climate emergency. Second, by establishing enacted narratives that show we can move through vulnerability to solidarity and liberation as we face increasing climate anxiety and disruption – something that may help societies prepare for “deep adaptation” to very difficult futures. Third, by enlisting some employers to align their political influence with their responsibilities to their employees on climate safety, and therefore support more government action.
  24. Given the failure of reformist efforts over the past decades to curb atmospheric carbon levels, to not align one’s language and actions towards a real transformation of the current economic system would be counter-productive. Therefore, if climate-related adult activists and professionals continue to use the terms “emergency” and “strike” in ways that are not consistent with their true meaning, then they would be undermining the possibilities for transformation. If questioning this proposal as “too political” or “too divisive” or “too left wing”, then one could be enacting an ideology of neo-liberal capitalism that ignores the centuries of evidence of the merits of organising against incumbent power to generate transformative change. If using radical terminology for reformist approaches that don’t actually challenge power, one might be extending the implicative-denial that has afflicted the environmental movement over the past decades (which I explained in the Deep Adaptation paper).

Thank you for reading. If you find this proposal worthy of your time, please find a senior trade unionist, activist lawyer, or climate campaign leader to discuss it with. I will not be engaging further, as I must return to working on Deep Adaptation, where activism is only one strand. Therefore, as I would not be able to engage you on it, there is no need to reach out to me. If you want to explore with others how this “climate safety strike” concept relates to Deep Adaptation, please join the Narrative and Messaging group in the Professions’ Network of the Deep Adaptation Forum.

Note to members of the Deep Adaptation Forum – this does not constitute an input from me on the Deep Adaptation Strategy Options Dialogue, which begins Feb 2020. The field of DA is wider than activism and the work of the DA Forum is mainly focused on social learning.