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 passed the 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.