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climate change

How to Force Your Employer to Help Save the Planet

Your company is probably contributing to climate change. Here's how to demand it do something about that.

by Geoff Dembicki; illustrated by Koji Yamamoto
19 September 2019, 6:00am

Photo illustration by Koji Yamamoto

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

This article is part of a series on climate change activism VICE is running in the lead-up to the climate strike on September 20. Read the other entry in the series here.

Climate change is terrible for workers and the economy. Midwestern farmers are suffering billions of dollars in losses after historic floods, a Fortune 500 company filed for bankruptcy in the wake of last year's California wildfires, and powerful financial actors like Bank of England governor Mark Carney are warning of an impending human and financial catastrophe.

Yet the 100 CEOs who run the companies responsible for 71 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions continue to act on the powerful, short-term incentives to demolish the climate. Even executives who talk about the importance of sustainability, such as BlackRock's Larry Fink, profit from fossil fuel extraction and tropical deforestation.

If we can't rely on business leaders to fix the climate emergency, then workers may have to force them instead. On September 20 and 27, thousands—and potentially millions—of people will walk out of their workplaces to demand that politicians phase out destructive carbon industries and create millions of new high-paying green jobs.

Labor experts and social movement organizers told VICE the climate strikes not only provide workers with an opportunity to protest a capitalist system hell-bent on planetary doom, but could also help you form powerful bonds with your coworkers and push your company’s management to do something about the crisis.

Here are some of those experts' suggestions for how to do that.

Start talking with your coworkers instead of avoiding them

Let's face it: coworkers can sometimes be weird, unpleasant and annoying. But they can also become close friends and allies if you give them a chance.

"That's actually the biggest thing people need to do, build relationships," said Carlos Saavedra, who has been active in the DREAMer movement for undocumented immigrants and founded the Ayni Institute, which helps train activist organizations to be more strategic and effective.

In the lead-up to the climate strikes, ask around to see if anyone is interested in doing something on climate change. Once you have a few names consider hosting a potluck after work or just go for drinks somewhere. Keep it relaxed and welcoming.

"Assess whether you're ready to strike or not. Maybe you're not. Maybe you'll be like, 'Look, this is great, but we're not ready, we need six more months,'" Saavedra said. "That's the beginning, you start with the dialogue."

Take part in the climate strikes—and make sure to publicize it

Let's say you and your coworkers do decide to join the climate strikes. There is no single template for what this could look like. You may decide to host a climate emergency seminar in the lunchroom, organize a demonstration outside your workplace, or join one of the larger public actions planned by organizations with the Global Climate Strike coalition.

There's a strong precedent for this type of coordinated action. In 2006, over 1.5 million immigrant workers and their families took part in the "Day Without an Immigrant" strikes to protest harsh laws on undocumented workers proposed by Republicans. (The tactic was repeated in 2017.)

Media coverage of the 2006 strike, along with all the workplace organizing that went into and resulted from it, helped push many Latinx voters to favor Democrats in national elections. "There's a clear political shift that then allowed for an Obama presidency to happen," Saavedra said.

Whatever action you choose for this September's strike, publicizing it by contacting local media or posting on social media with the hashtag #ClimateStrike would be a visible representation to politicians and businesses that people want major change. The goal of the strikes is to show political leaders that there is a huge constituency of people who want transformative solutions to the climate emergency—and also to help build mass social movements capable of pressuring leaders to enact those solutions. Like in 2006, that happens faster if strike events are highly visible.


Use the strike as an excuse to demand a greener workplace

While you should always keep one eye on the wider goal of revolutionizing our political and economic system, it can also be useful to put forward smaller and more attainable demands during your climate strike action that can directly affect the lives of you and your coworkers.

One way to approach this is to articulate demands "in a way that tackles climate change and improves your working environment," said Ian Allinson, a labor organizer based in the U.K.

So for example your climate strike group might decide to push for meals served in your lunchroom with ingredients that have as little environmental impact as possible. Or you might push, like some "degrowthers," for a shorter work week. "If people were working four days a week instead of five then that would massively reduce commuting," Allinson said.

Winning small workplace improvements won't save the planet, but it could build energy and enthusiasm for more ambitious demands.

Pressure your employer to dissociate from fossil fuels

At some point you want to consider how your employer's business model specifically contributes to the climate emergency and where you and your coworkers can most effectively apply pressure to change it.

One of the classic case studies for this type of action is the "green bans" that took place in Australia in the 1970s. The ban movement started when the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation refused to work on projects that were damaging to the environment or historically important buildings.

From 1970 to 1974, they mobilized hundreds of people to block projects worth at the time more than $4 billion, transforming urban planning in Australia and leading to the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act of 1979.

"They stopped [dozens] of buildings and urban renewal projects from going forward," said Erik Forman, a Bronx-based labor organizer and educator. "Basically it created the political impetus that eventually resulted in ecological conservation laws in Australia."

There hasn't been that type of movement to that scale in the U.S., but for inspiration you could look to the alliance Labor for Standing Rock, which arose to show solidarity with the indigenous people fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline. There’s also the hundreds of Amazon workers who plan to strike on September 20 to pressure the company to stop working with fossil fuel companies and go carbon-neutral.

Get creative in strategizing about how to force your employer "away from carbon-based capitalism," Forman said. "That kind of movement needs to happen."

Do monthly dinners afterward to keep the strike energy going

The climate strikes won’t do much long-term good unless the energy and attention they generate can be channeled into something concrete and long-term. One way to do this on a small scale is to schedule monthly get-togethers with everyone in your workplace who took part in the climate strikes. Make it celebratory.

"Get some food going," Saavedra said. "You cook on Sunday, someone else cooks the Sunday of next month." The goal is "to be able to keep the relationships going," he explained. This would also be an ideal time to connect your workplace to a national climate organization like Sunrise, 350, or the Climate Justice Alliance.

You could also start undertaking the types of political actions that social movement experts described to VICE earlier this year, which are potentially more effective and transformative than marginally reducing your personal carbon footprint.

The key is to treat the strikes as one tactic in a larger strategy rather than as an end to themselves. "Organizing is a process," Forman said. "I think it's a success if it puts us in a stronger position to organize more effectively next time."

Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change . Follow him on Twitter.