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Heather Connolly

A week of strikes and coordinated action across the world is planned for September 20-27 to demand that governments around the world take decisive action to combat climate change, ahead of a major United Nations summit in New York on September 27. Millions are expected to take to the streets across the world in this collective call to action.

If you’re thinking of striking, there are a few things to bear in mind, particularly if your employer is not supportive of you taking to the streets during working hours. Here, would-be strikers can look to trade unions for support and inspiration, and understand that in order to achieve progressive change and combat the climate crisis, workers need to help build a movement powerful enough to challenge the status quo.

Some organisations – both public and private employers – have come out in support of their workforce taking action against climate change. In the UK, this includes local councils, universities and employers in the creative industries. But the level of support varies, with some employers telling workers they need to take time off if they want to support the action, or arranging activities during sanctioned work breaks to coincide with the action.

If companies claim to be ethical and responsible employers they may want to be seen to be supporting their staff’s wishes – even if this means taking the hit on productivity in the short term. Workers can use their company’s claims about social responsibility to leverage them to support striking.

Pictured: San Francisco Youth Climate Strike, March 15, 2019.

Pictured: San Francisco Youth Climate Strike, March 15, 2019. Youth strikers have called on adults to join them.

From the perspective of managing human resources, there is evidence that supporting these campaigns could lead to better recruitment and retention of staff and even behavior at work. But this is more likely in professional occupations than low-skilled jobs where this is less of a concern as workers are easily replaceable.

Taking up the call

Trade unions in many countries have taken up the call. The International and European Trade Union Confederations spoke out in favour of solidarity actions under the banner of a “just transition” – moving to a carbon neutral economy in a way that is fair to people working in industries that will be required to change.

But the International Trade Union Confederation clearly frames action as taking place “within the constraint of the law” and that strikes, stoppages and demonstrations should take place “where the law allows”. This makes things difficult in many countries that have heavily restrictive strike laws – including the UK.

Laws introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s were designed to curb industrial action. Secondary or sympathy action – which is where workers go on strike in sympathy with people who work for a different employer – are illegal, and so is striking for a wider political or social interests. The Trade Union Bill in 2016 put further restrictions on industrial action by requiring trade unions to meet a voter turnout threshold when holding ballots to strike and must give employers a fortnight’s notice.

In light of this the Trades Union Congress passed a motion to support workers engaging in a “30-minute working campaign action” on September 20. The Universities College Union tabled a motion calling for trade unions to support a 30-minute workday stoppage to coincide with the global school student strike.

The wording is significant here. Other unions were concerned about the legality of saying “stoppage” without a ballot. Union laws make it difficult to obtain a legal ballot over climate change and even if a union could find a way (such as its impact on health and safety) they would need to adhere to 50 percent voter turnout thresholds and strict timetables before being able to take industrial action.

Another worry is that taking strike action could put union members at risk of victimization by their employers. This is a legitimate worry. Union members going on strike risk being breach of contract if they take action (especially without holding a ballot), and losing their jobs. Workers who are not union members risk having no immunity at all.

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Trade union support

One thing trade unions can do to back those who want to strike is demonstrate that there is widespread support for this action. This will make employers less likely to take action against workers for striking for fear of looking bad in the eyes of employees and the wider public.

Unions can do this by framing climate change both as a class issue – the poorest in the world are the most likely to suffer from the effects of climate change – and as a moral imperative. It is not a given that the issue of climate change will trump the desire for profit at any cost. “Greenwashing”, where companies pay lip service to environmentalism, may be as far as some companies go, but this could be unsustainable if workers become more climate conscious.

All of us experience the effects of climate change. If employers fail to support this cause, it is a bleak day – not for workers, but for the human race.

The Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Group argues that “trade union history is filled with examples of workers breaking laws to ensure that society can progress. When a law is unjust it’s the duty of the trade union movement to challenge that law”.

History shows the power of trade unions for progressive change, from the Ford Dagenham women’s strike and it’s influence on the UK's Equal Pay Act in 1970 to the understated work by UNISON to scrap employment tribunal fees, allowing greater access to justice for all workers. Trade unions need to take bold action once again – not only to embed climate change as a union issue, but also to shift the balance of power in favor of those promoting a more sustainable future.

Heather Connolly is an Associate Professor of Employment Relations at the University of Leicester. She is a British Academy Mid-career Fellow and Associate Professor of Employment Relations. Prior to coming to Leicester, I spent five years at De Montfort University and have held positions at the Universities of Manchester and Warwick.

While working on her PhD (Warwick, 2003-2007) she was a Researcher for the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) in Brussels and a visiting researcher at the IRES research institute in Paris. She maintains strong links with research institutes in France (CRESPPA-CSU, Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris-Dauphine) and am part of the broader international CRIMT network. She is a Senior Fellow of the HEA, an Academic Member of the CIPD and on the Associate Editorial Board of Work, employment and Society (WES). I have experience of teaching on a wide variety of employment relations and HRM modules and research methodology for postgraduate and doctoral students. 

Her research interests center around the possibilities for trade union renewal, and how trade unions across Europe shape and are constrained by their institutional contexts. My in-depth qualitative research, in France, the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK, explores how trade union activists respond to contemporary challenges, particularly the possibilities for radical unionism and the innovative role that trade unions might play in the social inclusion of migrant workers. 

She has published a number of articles and books in these areas and am currently finalizing a co-authored research book from a Leverhulme Trust funded project on comparative trade union responses to migrant workers. For the academic year 2017-18 she was a British Academy Mid-Career Fellow and researching the possible futures of trade unions in Europe, with a focus on how trade unions in France and the UK seek to represent precarious workers.

Disclosure statement : Heather Connolly has received funding from the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust on the broad topics of trade union organizing and representation in European countries. She is a member of the University and College Union (UCU).

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