Remember the IPCC report which gave us 12 years to sort our shit out? Well, now, we’ve got 11 and a half. That’s why Greta Thunberg and 46 other young activists have called for a general strike against climate change this September:
“We have learned that if we don’t start acting for our future, nobody else will make the first move. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” they wrote in the Guardian. “But to change everything, we need everyone. It is time for all of us to unleash mass resistance...”
School strikes are one thing. They’ve been responsible for putting immediate action to prevent climate change onto the agenda and further radicalising a generation. But a general strike is a big escalation. It involves all workers in all industries stopping work at the same time. At the start of the 20th century, when workers were just figuring out how to use a general strike, socialist leader Rosa Luxemburg argued that it was “the living pulse of the revolution, and at the same time its most powerful driving wheel”.
The last time British workers launched a general strike was 1926. A day before the strike, the Daily Mail wanted to led with an editorial arguing against it: “A general strike is not an industrial dispute. It is a revolutionary move which can only succeed by destroying the government and subverting the rights and liberties of the people.” The only problem was the printers were in a union and they refused to print it.
The strike, initially called in solidarity with the miners who were fighting a pay cut, involved millions of workers and lasted nine days. On the ninth day, there were more people on strike than the first – but Trade Union Congress (TUC, the organisation that collectively represents most of the trade unions in the UK) panicked, realising that the workers were getting more militant by the day and they were losing control. They reached a deal with the government that allowed them to call the whole thing off.
Things might have got really interesting if the strike had come sooner after the end of the First World War, when the grassroots trade union movement in the factories hadn’t yet been smashed by a period of high unemployment. As it stands, however, 1926 just looks one more missed opportunity to escape a failed system.
A general strike against climate change might seem even more unlikely today. After all, levels of strike action are at historic lows. But over the last couple of months, bit by bit, things have started to move.
First, the University and Colleges Union (UCU) passed a motion at their congress in May to back the youth climate strikes – and amended it to go even further to “support and promote calls for a general strike for action on climate change, and call on the TUC to organise this.”
This motion was then followed up by the UCU’s national executive committee. Given the fact that the union is led by a radical, newly-elected general secretary, you might imagine that they did what their members told them to. In fact, however, the call for a general strike was watered down into a call for a 30-minute work stoppage. If UCU is going to commit to an actual strike, it will only be as a result of pressure from a militant rank-and-file.
But the call for action hasn’t just been limited to one union. Now the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), who organised last year’s strikes at McDonalds and Wetherspoons, has unanimously passed a similar motion to endorse a general strike. Niamh Galwey, the 22-year-old shop steward for Greggs in Northern Ireland who proposed the climate strike motion, is going all in. “The union is dedicated to standing by this historic decision and is ready for the reality of a general strike,” she tells VICE. “For those in recognised workplaces it’s highly possible that strikes will take place.
“A successful strike would be a mass demonstration by all unions across every industry, forcing the nation to fully grasp the drastic nature of this crisis. Our goal is to shake the government into action, to ensure that they’re promises of change are not just an empty gesture."
Technically, a general strike is against the law. Under UK trade union legislation, workers can only go on strike “in furtherance of a trade dispute” – basically, when they have a specific issue with their employer. Admittedly, lots of employers are fucking up the environment in lots of ways, but striking over climate collapse would be defined as political in most cases and therefore unlawful –even if the political cause at stake is the survival of our species.
Anyone fired while taking part in unofficial strike action loses their right to claim unfair dismissal, and the unions involved would be under pressure to repudiate the action as unofficial and thereby save themselves from being sued for damages or slapped with an injunction by a judge. If they get did get served an injunction and carried on anyway, they’d be in contempt of court and face a massive fine or their funds getting taken away (known in legal terms as being “sequestered”).
The law is more flexible when you’ve got power on your side. For billionaires and bankers, this is just common sense – their money and their connections are like a ‘get out of jail free’ card. But workers, too, have their own form of power, and it can have a similar impact. The Communication Workers Union has spent the last year showing just that. Instead of repudiating local walkouts at delivery offices, General Secretary Dave Ward has taken to Twitter to congratulate workers on their action. At the time of writing, it hasn’t led to any legal action. Royal Mail doesn’t want any trouble.
And climate collapse is exactly the kind of issue that could give organised workers some power. After all, 54 percent of people in the UK think climate change could lead to human extinction, so they’re probably willing to find a solution by just about any means necessary. If a crisis-stricken Tory government was challenged by a trade union on an issue with massive public support, they too might decide that they don’t want any trouble.
If workers are a bit smart about things, and say that they’re refusing to work because of the serious and imminent threat that climate change poses to their health and safety, that might give them some legal cover and further reduce the likelihood of reprisal. But there’s a big difference between a hypothetical general strike and an actual general strike. At the moment, no one seems to have agreed on a definite plan of how to get from A to B. We could end up thinking that 2019 was just a missed opportunity, just like 1926.
There are, though, not many strategic options left on the table. If the reports of impending climate collapse are true, we don’t have much time left to work with. At a certain point, climate change is going to force us to start thinking differently – not just about what is possible, but about what is necessary.