The Climate Strikers Walked Out of School. Next, Let’s Walk Off the Job.

Sydney Ghazarian

Thousands of Irish schools students participate today in the Global School Strike for Climate Action march on Friday, March 15, 2019, in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

This Sep­tem­ber, the world erupt­ed when over 7 mil­lion peo­ple — young and old — poured into the streets for the Glob­al Cli­mate Strike. The mass action, which made a Green New Deal a top demand, was sparked in the lead-up to Sweden’s 2018 gen­er­al elec­tion, when teen activist Gre­ta Thun­berg began ditch­ing school to protest Sweden’s inac­tion on cli­mate change. Gre­ta, who was already inspir­ing more stu­dent strikes through social media, cat­alyzed the Fri­days for Future move­ment when she decid­ed to con­tin­ue strik­ing on Fri­days after the gen­er­al elec­tion. Over the past year, young lead­ers—par­tic­u­lar­ly youth of col­or—have been on the fore­front of build­ing Fri­day Cli­mate Strikes into a world­wide stu­dent civ­il dis­obe­di­ence move­ment, tak­ing aim at the polit­i­cal fail­ure to address the cli­mate emergency.

The log­ic of the Cli­mate Strike move­ment was sum­mat­ed by Gre­ta at the World Eco­nom­ic Forum in Davos in Jan­u­ary 2019. Some say that we should not engage in activism, instead we should leave every­thing to our politi­cians and just vote for change instead,” she said. But what do we do when there is no polit­i­cal will? What do we do when the pol­i­tics need­ed are nowhere in sight?”

In oth­er words, Cli­mate Strikes are hap­pen­ing for the same rea­son labor strikes often hap­pen: Nego­ti­a­tions have bro­ken down. CEOs prof­it­ing from the exploita­tion of work­ers and the Earth are unwill­ing to cede to demands that would improve the lives of those affect­ed by their prac­tices. And politi­cians are unwill­ing to put the good of ordi­nary peo­ple first. 

Like labor strikes, cli­mate strikes are premised on the prin­ci­ple that orga­niz­ers won’t get what they want just by ask­ing: They have to cre­ate the polit­i­cal will for their demands by caus­ing dis­rup­tion that is impos­si­ble to ignore. The use of this tac­tic sig­nals a shift away from the evi­dent­ly floun­der­ing strate­gies of online peti­tions and behind-the-scenes talks with key decision-makers.

How­ev­er, labor strikes are more like­ly than stu­dent strikes to be suc­cess­ful for a key rea­son: Work­ers are strate­gi­cal­ly posi­tioned to lever­age their col­lec­tive pow­er because labor strikes halt pro­duc­tion and there­fore prof­it-mak­ing by employ­ers, which forces their boss­es to cede to their demands or lose out. Unlike stu­dent strikes, work­er strikes cause direct eco­nom­ic impact, which affects what key deci­sion-mak­ers care about most: prof­it-mak­ing and eco­nom­ic con­di­tions that are favor­able for re-elec­tion. The path­way to vic­to­ry for Cli­mate Strik­ers is build­ing an inter­na­tion­al move­ment of peo­ple act­ing in their capac­i­ty as work­ers to dis­rupt the econ­o­my sig­nif­i­cant­ly enough that politi­cians are forced to cave to the demand for a Green New Deal.

The chal­lenge is to turn the pow­er­ful move­ment for cli­mate strikes into a move­ment capa­ble of orga­niz­ing actu­al work­ers’ strikes.

Build­ing towards labor strikes

Teach­ers have been on the fore­front of the recent strike wave, and the Mass­a­chu­setts Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion (MTA) may have advanced the move­ment fur­ther when its mem­bers passed a res­o­lu­tion stat­ing that the MTA del­e­ga­tion to the 2019 NEA [Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion] Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Assem­bly pro­pose a nation­al teach­ers strike in sup­port of the Green New Deal.” Unfor­tu­nate­ly, NEA del­e­gates vot­ed down the pro­pos­al — but that doesn’t mean it’s the end.

One pos­si­ble route for­ward comes from Fran­cis­co Cen­de­jas, a long-time labor orga­niz­er who helped start Nation­al Union of Health­care Work­ers (NUHW). He sug­gests that unions could resolve to strike for a Green New Deal if a num­ber of oth­er nation­al unions agreed to do so as well. The sim­ple expla­na­tion for this strike pact” approach is that there is safe­ty in num­bers, but the rea­son­ing goes deep­er. The Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB) and U.S. labor laws overt­ly favor employ­ers over work­ers — and place strict para­me­ters around strik­ing. This imbal­ance has cre­at­ed a moun­tain of legal bar­ri­ers pre­vent­ing an entire union from going on strike — espe­cial­ly for a Green New Deal or oth­er demands for the com­mon good.

How­ev­er, there are no ille­gal strikes, just unsuc­cess­ful ones. We make them legal” by win­ning our demands. West Vir­ginia teach­ers did this when they launched a suc­cess­ful wild­cat strike last year. If many large unions with high-stakes dis­rup­tive pow­er can agree to strike in sol­i­dar­i­ty with each oth­er and their com­mu­ni­ties, we could have the pow­er to win. 

If you belong to a union, you can start orga­niz­ing sup­port for Cli­mate Strikes and a Green New Deal by intro­duc­ing a local union res­o­lu­tion in sup­port of each. Pass­ing this res­o­lu­tion will fur­ther align the Labor and Cli­mate Move­ments, and could move your union toward endors­ing pro­gres­sive cli­mate can­di­dates, col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain­ing for green con­tract pro­vi­sions, and show­ing up to cli­mate actions. Once you pass a res­o­lu­tion in your local union, you can move toward pass­ing a sim­i­lar res­o­lu­tion at high­er lev­els, like city and coun­ty labor councils.

Get­ting your union to sup­port a Green New Deal or Cli­mate Strikes will not nec­es­sar­i­ly be straight­for­ward. Unions have dif­fer­ent pol­i­tics, dif­fer­ent struc­tures for mem­ber par­tic­i­pa­tion, and some have been hos­tile toward the Green New Deal. Addi­tion­al­ly, many unions have set­tled for oper­at­ing in accor­dance to a ser­vice mod­el,” mean­ing they aim to sat­is­fy their mem­bers’ demands through han­dling griev­ances, lob­by­ing and secur­ing ben­e­fits rather than direct pres­sure on their employ­ers — which dimin­ish­es the pow­er a union could have against threats to work­ing class inter­ests. Turn­ing Cli­mate Strikes into a win­ning strat­e­gy will require turn­ing unions into a fight­ing force. For lessons in how to achieve this, we can exam­ine the suc­cess­ful tac­tics of Cau­cus of Rank-and-File Edu­ca­tors (CORE) with­in the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU).

Towards social jus­tice unionism

When CORE mem­bers were elect­ed as CTU lead­ers in 2010, they for­feit­ed CTU’s ser­vice mod­el for a social move­ment union­ism approach, which they first demon­strat­ed in a 2012 strike that cen­tered on the improve­ment of pub­lic edu­ca­tion and form­ing alliances with par­ents and stu­dents. The union’s ded­i­ca­tion to bar­gain­ing for the com­mon good was on full dis­play dur­ing its recent strike, in which union mem­bers won a con­tract secur­ing sup­port staff for home­less stu­dents, a dec­la­ra­tion of Chica­go schools as sanc­tu­ary spaces, a cap on class sizes, and a nurse and social work­er for every school. 

CORE’s con­tin­ued mil­i­tan­cy and suc­cess has spread to teach­ers’ unions around the coun­try through UCORE, includ­ing MTA — the union that passedthe res­o­lu­tion to pro­pose a gen­er­al strike for a Green New Deal. If work­ers orga­nize their unions to fol­low CORE’s approach of rank-and-file democ­ra­cy, com­mu­ni­ty alliances, and using bar­gain­ing pow­er to win demands for the com­mon good, they could build labor sup­port for a Green New Deal and even align unions around a Cli­mate Strike Pact.” 

If you are not part of a union, you can gain inspi­ra­tion from the 2006 Day With­out an Immi­grant” mass strike. Immi­grants and sol­i­dar­i­ty strik­ers were able to par­tic­i­pate due to the pro­tec­tion of con­cert­ed activ­i­ty” includ­ed in the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act. Legal pro­tec­tion of con­cert­ed activ­i­ty allows union and non-union work­ers to act col­lec­tive­ly to improve the terms and con­di­tions of their work, which is some­thing a Green New Deal could do. With less than 12% of U.S. work­ers belong­ing to a union, this pro­tec­tion holds par­tic­u­lar impor­tance. How­ev­er, some employ­ers might still try to fire work­ers for par­tic­i­pat­ing, which means we would need to mobi­lize work­ers and the broad­er com­mu­ni­ty around protests, pub­lic sham­ing and boy­cotts tar­get­ing the offend­ing employ­ers until they cave and rehire the workers.

The bot­tom line is this: Cli­mate Strikes can win a Green New Deal by build­ing com­mu­ni­ty and Labor alliances around demands for the com­mon good. We can lever­age our pow­er as work­ers through high-impact, dis­rup­tive labor strikes that halt the economy’s gears until politi­cians can no longer ignore us, and are forced to cede to demands that will save the world.

Syd­ney Ghaz­ar­i­an start­ed the Nation­al Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA) Ecoso­cial­ist Work­ing Group and is a mem­ber of its cur­rent Steer­ing Com­mit­tee. She is also a cli­mate orga­niz­er and an advi­so­ry board mem­ber for The Trou­ble. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @SydneyAzari
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