The Unions Backing Friday’s Global Climate Strike—And What It Means

Sarah Lazare

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) union workers with SEIU Local 1021 hold signs as they picket in front of the Lake Merritt station on July 2, 2013 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

When asked why he’s plan­ning to sup­port the Glob­al Cli­mate Strike slat­ed for Sep­tem­ber 20, Lar­ry Hop­kins, a rail crew dri­ver for the trans­porta­tion and main­te­nance com­pa­ny Hall­con, says the rea­son is sim­ple: I want to help pre­serve and pro­tect our per­son­al safe­ty. Because right now, we’re in a cli­mate emer­gency that is very bad for our health and our safety.”

Hop­kins is pres­i­dent of Local 1177 of the Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (UE), one of sev­er­al U.S. unions that endorsed the cli­mate strike, which is expect­ed to hit all 50 states and 150 coun­tries. Del­e­gates to the nation­al con­ven­tion of UE, which rep­re­sents rough­ly 35,000 work­ers, vot­ed on August 29 to offi­cial­ly endorse the cli­mate strike, call­ing on mem­bers to find cre­ative ways to participate.”

UE is not alone. The Glob­al Cli­mate Strike lists 56 unions, trades coun­cils and fed­er­a­tions from around the world that have declared their sup­port, hail­ing from Aus­tralia, Cana­da, France, Ger­many, South Africa, New Zealand, the Unit­ed States, the Unit­ed King­dom, Ire­land and Italy. The South African Fed­er­a­tion of Trade Unions and the Fed­er­a­tion of Unions of South Africa, which togeth­er rep­re­sent 1.3 mil­lion work­ers, have notably signed on.

Among the list of par­tic­i­pat­ing unions are eight based in the Unit­ed States, includ­ing the Ser­vice Employ­ees Inter­na­tion­al Union, which rep­re­sents near­ly 1.9 mil­lion mem­bers, and the Mass­a­chu­setts Teach­ers Association.

Sara Nel­son, pres­i­dent of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Flight Atten­dants-Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca (AFACWA), told In These Times her union will absolute­ly sup­port the Glob­al Cli­mate Strike and actions around the world.”

The Sep­tem­ber 20 cli­mate strike is timed ahead of the UN emer­gency cli­mate sum­mit, with anoth­er coor­di­nat­ed strike planned for Sep­tem­ber 27. On their web­site, strike orga­niz­ers declare that mil­lions of us will walk out of our work­places and homes to join young cli­mate strik­ers on the streets and demand an end to the age of fos­sil fuels. Our house is on fire — let’s act like it.” Accord­ing to the UN’s Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change report released in Octo­ber 2018, we have just 12 years to stave off the worst effects of the cli­mate cri­sis by mak­ing rapid, far-reach­ing and unprece­dent­ed changes in all aspects of society.” 

While the 16-year-old Swedish cli­mate activist Gre­ta Thun­berg has attract­ed sig­nif­i­cant media atten­tion, the strike on Sep­tem­ber 20 is being orga­nized by young peo­ple across the world. In an open let­ter pub­lished in May, 47 youth activists called on adults to sup­port cli­mate strikers.

Nel­son says those young peo­ple deserve labor’s sol­i­dar­i­ty. In order to cre­ate change, the first step is defin­ing the prob­lem for the mass­es and the urgency of fix­ing it,” she under­scores. Col­lec­tive action is an effec­tive way to draw atten­tion to an issue, inject it into the pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive, and demon­strate what peo­ple are will­ing to do to force a polit­i­cal will for solutions.”

The Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Work­ers of America’s Next Gen­er­a­tion” pro­gram, which aims to iden­ti­fy, recruit and train young CWA mem­bers,” released its own state­ment declar­ing it stands in sol­i­dar­i­ty with young peo­ple all over the world.”

The biggest U.S. demon­stra­tions are expect­ed in New York City, where the pub­lic school sys­tem recent­ly announced that its 1.1 mil­lion stu­dents have per­mis­sion to walk out in order to par­tic­i­pate in the cli­mate strike on Sep­tem­ber 20 if they have parental con­sent (while younger stu­dents can only leave school with a par­ent”). Alexan­dria Vil­laseñor, a 14-year-old strike orga­niz­er, said that the announce­ment came after many months of hard work and con­ver­sa­tions between we activists and the city.”

Yet the Unit­ed Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, the union that rep­re­sents most teach­ers in the New York City pub­lic school sys­tem, has not released a pub­lic call for teach­ers to join those stu­dents in a walk­out. The union is, how­ev­er, invit­ing mem­bers to par­tic­i­pate in a labor sol­i­dar­i­ty con­tin­gent for a stu­dent rally. 

Notably, the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers has not called on mem­bers to walk out, but the union’s pres­i­dent, Ran­di Wein­garten, did release a seem­ing­ly sup­port­ive — if some­what vague—state­ment: If we can help stu­dents learn about the sci­ence of cli­mate change, help them under­stand free speech and cit­i­zen advo­ca­cy as part of civic edu­ca­tion, and encour­age their belief in them­selves, we’ve done our job in help­ing the next gen­er­a­tion secure their future,” she said.

The AFL-CIO, the labor fed­er­a­tion of 55 unions that togeth­er rep­re­sent 12.5 mil­lion work­ers, has not called on mem­bers to par­tic­i­pate, although some of its affil­i­at­ed locals have.

In many cas­es, union par­tic­i­pa­tion will not look like a typ­i­cal strike, in which work­ers walk off the job against their boss­es’ wish­es. Hop­kins says he’s not plan­ning to strike, but he will attend Chicago’s stu­dent strike and march that will take place Sep­tem­ber 20. I’m in sup­port, but my con­tract I’m present­ly under has a no-strike clause,” he explains.

UE Local 255, which rep­re­sents work­ers at Hunger Moun­tain Co-op in Mont­pe­lier, Ver­mont, is par­tic­i­pat­ing in a cli­mate strike ral­ly on Sep­tem­ber 20. It is imper­a­tive that work­ers remain on the front lines of cli­mate jus­tice and par­tic­i­pat­ing in the upcom­ing cli­mate strike is just a small part of that,” Autumn Mar­tinez, a mem­ber of UE Local 255, told In These Times.

UE mem­bers will also join Ware­house Work­ers For Jus­tice and Sun­rise Move­ment Chica­go in a ral­ly on Fri­day to sup­port Ama­zon tech work­ers who have vowed to strike against Jeff Bezos. Tech work­ers are demand­ing that Bezos achieve zero emis­sions by 2030, stop fund­ing lob­by­ists and politi­cians who are cli­mate deniers, and get rid of all con­tracts for fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies to accel­er­ate oil and gas extraction.”

Orga­niz­ers acknowl­edge that unions’ par­tic­i­pa­tion in the cli­mate strike won’t nec­es­sar­i­ly take the form of tra­di­tion­al labor strikes. Stephen O’Han­lon, com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor for the Sun­rise Move­ment, one of the groups orga­niz­ing the strike, tells In These Times, It looks dif­fer­ent for each union to sup­port the strike, but in gen­er­al it looks like encour­ag­ing mem­bers to join in and walk out of work. Or if some peo­ple are not work­ing that day, they can show up to a ral­ly.” O’Hanlon adds, Peo­ple are gen­er­al­ly doing dif­fer­ent things in dif­fer­ent places.”

An orga­niz­ing resource on the Glob­al Cli­mate Strike’s web­site encour­ages work­ers to make a pro­pos­al to your employ­er, out­lin­ing how and why your work­place should join the #Cli­mat­eStrike.”

Chris Brooks, a staff writer and orga­niz­er for Labor Notes, a media and orga­niz­ing labor move­ment project, told In These Times that, to tru­ly address the cli­mate cri­sis, we need con­fronta­tion­al strikes that are waged with­out the per­mis­sion of – and in direct con­flict with – boss­es. Cli­mate change is a cri­sis caused by cap­i­tal­ism, and address­ing it in any fun­da­men­tal way will require us rad­i­cal­ly reor­ga­niz­ing the econ­o­my,” he said. I don’t think we’re going to get there by ask­ing the boss for per­mis­sion. If the work­ing class is going to address cli­mate change, we’re going to have to break some rules.”

It’s def­i­nite­ly worth sup­port­ing the cli­mate strike,” he con­tin­ued, but the crux of the mat­ter is that busi­ness as usu­al can­not con­tin­ue. As long as we engage in actions that don’t dis­rupt the sta­tus quo, it will be easy to ignore. Strikes are the most dis­rup­tive action you can do in society.”

Rober­to Jesus Clack, the asso­ciate direc­tor of Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice, told In These Times that he thinks Brooks’ cri­tique has mer­it, and empha­sized the col­lec­tive action of the cli­mate strike is still mean­ing­ful. The rea­son we’re jump­ing on this is we want to agi­tate the labor move­ment to take this more seri­ous­ly. It’s still an agi­ta­tion of the work­ers in the work­place around cli­mate change.” 

For some, the cli­mate strike is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to build towards a tra­di­tion­al labor strike. Mar­tinez of UE Local 255 told In These Times, If we, as work­ers, are seek­ing a true just tran­si­tion, we must demand it through all means pos­si­ble. And although the upcom­ing cli­mate strike is not like your tra­di­tion­al labor strike, as to stop pro­duc­tion, it has the pow­er to get there and I envi­sion and hope it will. When we real­ize the pow­er to cre­ate change is with­in us all, unit­ed we become unstoppable.”

There are signs that some work­ers are gear­ing up for a con­fronta­tion with their boss­es, although it’s dif­fi­cult to know exact­ly how many will with­hold their labor. About 700 Google tech work­ers, in addi­tion to Microsoft employ­ees, are plan­ning to walk off the job on Sep­tem­ber 20, along with over 1,500 Ama­zon employ­ees, most of them in Seattle.

Bezos appears to be feel­ing the heat. The morn­ing of Sep­tem­ber 19, he announcedcli­mate pledge, which Ama­zon describes as a com­mit­ment to meet the Paris Agree­ment 10 years ear­ly.” Accord­ing to a com­pa­ny press release, this includes a com­mit­ment to net zero car­bon by 2040 and 100% renew­able ener­gy by 2030.”

But Ama­zon Employ­ees for Cli­mate Jus­tice, the group coor­di­nat­ing the work action, said in a press state­ment that the strike is still on. Amazon’s new­ly-announced Cli­mate Pledge’ is a huge win for Ama­zon Employ­ees for Cli­mate Jus­tice, and we’re thrilled at what work­ers been able to achieve in less than a year,” said the group. But we know it’s not enough. The Paris Agree­ment, by itself, won’t get us to a liv­able world. Today, we cel­e­brate. Tomor­row, we’ll be in the streets to con­tin­ue the fight for a liv­able future.”

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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