Why the TUC must support UCU’s motion calling for a 30-minute stoppage
Guest post on Campaign Against Climate Change Trade Union Group website by Sean Vernell, University and College Union National Executive Committee
UCU, at this year’s TUC congress, has tabled a motion calling for the trade union movement to support a 30-minute workday stoppage to coincide with the global school student strike on the 20th September.
Almost 2000 people and 90 union branches and climate campaign organisations have signed a petition in support of the motion (you can add your name here). The catastrophe that is unfolding in the Amazon has sparked outrage across the globe. The G7s response of agreeing a £18 million donation to resolve the problem is wholly inadequate and confirms the urgent need for the trade union movement to step up the campaign for climate justice.
Unfortunately, rather than seeing what is taking place in the Amazon as a signal to renew efforts to rise to the challenge of climate change, there now is an attempt to water down UCU’s motion call for a 30-minute stoppage. An amendment tabled by the train drivers’ union ASLEF attempts to replace the word ‘stoppage’ to ‘working campaign action’.
Some unions seem to prefer the ASLEF wording and say they will be supporting the amendment. UCU believes that this would be a mistake.
UCU accepts that a motion that is supported by the TUC calling for ‘a 30-minute working campaign action to coincide with the global school strike on the 20th September’ (which is what the ASLEF amendment says in full) would be a step forward for the movement against climate change. However, it is clearly not the bold and audacious call that is needed at this crucial juncture we have arrived at.
We are unclear what ‘working campaign action’ actually means. If it is a survey or quiz about climate change then clearly this will be nowhere near what is needed.
Those supporting the ASLEF motion do so because they are concerned about the legality of the UCU’s motion calling for a workday ‘stoppage’ without a ballot. They also argue that, if passed, it could put union members at risk of victimisation by their employers.
On the first concern raised, the way the unions laws are designed makes it near in possible for workers in Britain to obtain a legal ballot over climate change and even if a union could find a way (ie impact on health and safety) they would need to adhere to the new 50% thresholds.
The movement has to face up to the issue of taking action ‘illegally’. Trade union history is filled with examples of workers breaking laws to ensure that society can progress. We as a trade union movement exist because six rural farm workers took ‘illegal’ collective action less than 200 years ago. They did so because for them it was a matter of life and death. To ensure that their families did not starve they had to take ‘illegal’ action. When a law is unjust it’s the duty of the trade union movement to challenge that law.
On the second concern raised about putting at risk union members it is clear many employers are very supportive of their workforce taking action over climate change. For example, Patagonia, the outdoor gear company is actively encouraging its workers to take action on the 20th. It also has global policy of providing bail for workers arrested during climate protests! Germany’s GLS ethical bank says it will close on the 20th September to allow staff to attend marches on the day. Tower Hamlets Council is supporting the students protest on the 20th and are keen to create opportunities for their staff to show their solidarity and are looking to organise a rally on the day with unions. There are many employers that are sympathetic to the school student climate protests and of their workers showing their support for them.
The trade union movement mustn’t lag behind what some of the more advanced employers are saying and doing – it must put itself at the forefront of this global uprising both with alternatives to fossil fuels and action.
The 20th September will be the biggest day of action organised labour, in the UK, has ever participated in. But it could be a lot bigger if the TUC throws its weight behind calling for real solidarity action.
The UCU motion is not prescriptive. It will be down to individual unions and workplace branches to decide what they can and can’t deliver on the day. The call for a 30-minute stoppage is merely a guide.
The Tory government cannot fight its way out of a paper bag. It is in no position whatsoever to take on the might of the six million trade union members if they acted collectively, or even a sizable portion of them did so.
Many union members are already preparing to take action on the 20th in solidarity with the school students. In Portsmouth the council, who have declared a climate emergency, have met with unions and agreed to allow staff to attend the protests and will be sending an email to all staff encouraging them to attend. Salford Council have agreed with unions to allow staff to attend the protests ‘in solidarity with Greta’ and the unions are putting on coaches to take members to the protest. The council has agreed to allow unions to have stalls in all the main buildings to give out literature encouraging staff to attend. The local union branch will be producing 1,000 bamboo wrist bands with the slogan ‘system change not climate change’. At Manchester University staff are planning to march from the university to join up with the school students. In Scotland six walkouts are being prepared in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen. UCU and NEU members at Capital City College group have voted to join the students’ protest in central London on the day.
Some UCU branches, like Croydon and Nottingham, will be organising their next round of strike over pay to coincide with the school students strikes.
Climate change is a class issue. Whilst the impact of climate change is felt by the whole of humanity it’s the poorest that will feel its worst effects most quickly. It is those living in the global south who work in the textile plants in Mumbai for less than a dollar a day who feel the full blast of extreme weather conditions brought about by climate change. It is working class communities in Blackpool whose homes are being threatened by earthquakes due to the multinational company Quadrilla drilling for gas whose quality of life is being sacrificed for profit.
Working people are not only passive victims of climate change they are the active agents of change. It is only they who have the interests to put an end to the fossil fuel company’s destruction of our planet. As it was for those six rural workers in 1834 who became known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, so it is for us today, climate change is a life and death issue. Their action changed the world in favour of working people. Our action over climate change can do the same.
Our school students’ have asked the trade union movement to join them on the 20th September we mustn’t let them down. As Grunwick shop steward Jayaben Desai once said, when frustrated at the lack of meaningful solidarity coming from the Trade union movement for her dispute, ‘Solidarity is like honey on your elbow: you can see it, you can smell it but you can’t taste it…’
Let’s make sure that the school students when they strike to save the planet on September 20th they can taste the solidarity the trade union movement delivers.