Teachers and Students Must Strike Together For the Climate

- Articles

Author: Josh P
First Published: Newsletter 12/04/20

In the forgotten period of pre-covid history known as ‘2019’, the UK climate movement surged, then reached an impasse. School strikes, the media-savvy activism of Greta Thunberg and a summer of Extinction Rebellion demonstrations raised public consciousness of environmental breakdown to unprecedented levels, whilst Labour for a Green New Deal activists pushed a concrete programme to reach net-zero carbon within ten years.

The alarm has been raised and a feasible plan exists - but in the wake of December’s catastrophic election defeat, the mechanism by which we can force the state to enact it seems unclear, despite Labour’s climate policy having won over a majority of the working-age population at the ballot box. As libertarian socialists we believe in the decentralisation of power, but in the context of a nail-biting deadline to stave off civilisational collapse, we must accept the need for a sweeping governmental response in the short term.

Creative mass protests have sharpened public awareness of the crisis, but proved easy for the powerful to co-opt or ignore; with another general election up to four years away, immediate progress must be made ‘from below’. Alerting the public isn’t enough - we must exert actual leverage over the government, by withdrawing the labour that keeps the wheels of capitalism turning.

Rebuilding the breadth and depth of labour organisation required to exert sufficient pressure will likely be the work of years. It’s important, then, to identify the areas in which immediate efforts should be concentrated for maximum effect.

The level of class struggle - as measured in working days lost to strike action - is at an historic low in the UK, at just 273,000 in 2018 according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). But union density remains comparatively high in the public sector, with recent strikes led by the University and College Union bucking the trend towards decline. And in 2018, striking teachers won big victories across conservative states in the USA, providing a model for industrial action winning changes in government policy as well as improved conditions.

As Eric Blanc argues in his book Red State Revolt chronicling these strikes, teachers are well-positioned in society to take political strike action. Trusted figures in their communities, their strong relationships with parents enabled striking West Virginian educators to build widespread support for political demands that went beyond improving their own pay and conditions, including increased funding for the education system as a whole. Political strikes, and indeed public-sector strikes of any kind, were illegal under state law. It didn’t matter. They were so broadly supported that the Republican state administration knew prosecuting strikers would be electoral suicide.

This is the key advantage of public-sector strikes for climate action: rather than indirectly pressuring the state by paralysing a single point of production, they create a social crisis the government is expected to resolve, directly targeting the body with the power to enact our demands. As Blanc notes, “Politicians who are unable to resolve the conflict on terms supported by the electorate risk getting voted out of office.”

It remains to be seen whether UK teaching unions could pull off strikes of even greater magnitude, with demands for climate action interwoven with those for improved funding, pay and conditions. The mobilisation would need to be widespread and immense. Such action would be unprecedented, and impossible without years of committed work from grassroots organisers to prepare the ground.

With little time left, however, ambitious action is needed to break the deadlock on climate. When students go on strike for the planet, their teachers should walk out beside them.