The left and the climate movement

Submitted by AWL on 30 October, 2019 - 10:04 Author: Misha Zubrowski

This article is a second excerpt from a document on climate change to be discussed by the forthcoming Workers’ Liberty conference.

On paper, almost all trade unions recognise climate change as a grave danger, and demand state action to combat it, with workers having a role in “a just transition”.

For the most part, the policies are close to those of the “One Million Climate Jobs” (OMCJ) project of the “Campaign Against Climate Change” (CACC), from about a decade ago.

CACC often functions to “outsource” climate activism from the labour movement itself.

Some unions, and the TUC, have policy supporting youth climate strikers, and called for 30 minute stoppages on the 20 September. We want to make union support for the climate strikes real, and see grass-roots union activists bring delegations of workers to climate protests, or hold their own, following the model of Salford refuse workers and the “Workers’ Climate Action” initiative carried out by our comrades in Cambridge.

We will work with colleagues to formulate and agitate for environmental changes that could be made at work, environmental demands that can be made of our bosses. We contextualise these and keep them in proportion, chiefly through organising around a wider SGND programme.

To this end we will become or engage with workplace environmental reps, and networks of environmental reps.
TUC congress 2019 resolved “to campaign for national and regional Just Transition Commissions including full union and education representation to develop, monitor and implement the process.”

We want to make such Just Transition Commissions real at the level of industry and local government. We advocate representative, activist bodies made up of workers’ representatives which make their business the property of local communities and the broad labour movement.

We seek to nourish the embryos and cohere a network of workplace environmentalists, to fight for independent working-class environmentalism in workplaces and the labour movement.

Environmental movement: a new “wave”, two “poles”

After the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, a big wave of climate struggles in the UK petered out. Big ecological struggles have gone on around the world in the intervening ten years and NGOs have organised fair-sized demonstrations.

But ecological struggle has returned to the UK on a mass scale only in the last 18 months or so.

Extinction Rebellion and the Climate Strikes could broadly be described as the two “poles” of the new “wave” of climate protest.

XR, for all its vitality and all the self sacrifice of many of its activists, represents a survival of the middle-class minority-heroism school of ecological activism. The Climate Strikes are centred around the idea of mass involvement, and hint at the solution that is really needed: mass workers’ action.

So far worker participation in these strikes has been very limited. But we think that the radical potential of the Climate Strikes far outstrips that of any other contemporary or recent form of ecological protest. We want to realise that radical potential and build a strategy that centres on spreading, deepening and radicalising the Climate Strikes.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) has massively helped to raise the urgency of tackling climate change, and of courageous and audacious actions against it. It has drawn in many thousands of people into environmental activism, many politically active for the first time. Beyond those drawn into it already, many look to it as the climate movement.

The dominant (even, defining) XR strategy relies on a middle class pattern of heroic individuals getting arrested. The dominant strand of politics in XR erases class dynamics in society, speaking of being “beyond politics” and advocating “citizens’ assemblies” drawn by lot.

XR presents no genuine political programme which a government could agree to implement, or not. They also have and perpetuate an incredibly benign attitude towards the police.

XR is, however, open, and tremendously diverse socially and politically. We will engage with XR actions and local groups, make the case for class-struggle environmentalist strategies for these groups and to individuals engaging in those groups. It is possible to create local or even national Extinction Rebellion “affinity groups”. It may – or may not – be worth establishing such groups as part of an intervention.

Youth climate strikes are the other major aspect of the resurgent environmental movement. UK Student Climate Network (UKSCN), the main associated organisation in the UK, has substantial left-wing currents within it and its leadership, and some democracy.

They — and Greta Thunberg — the international “leader” of the youth strikes, have pointed out the need for workers, for trade unionists, to take action on the environment. UKSCN advocate a form of “Green New Deal”.We will continue engaged with it in local areas and campuses; through Student Left Network and their Icecap zine about climate change, class struggle, and the student movement; and through activists we know in the leadership of UKSCN.

We want to help the Climate Strikes develop two crucial elements: a clear programme, and mass workplace participation.

That means, on the one hand, developing a political culture democratic forums within which a programme could be debated and agreed; and on the other, breaking through the token participation of left wing trade union officers and organising real and direct workplace agitation to bring groups of workers out as conscious, leading participants in Climate Strikes.

Where organised groups of workers have really participated in the Climate Strikes, as in Cambridge, Salford or Lambeth, we will trumpet their example and seek to extend it. Where well-meaning trade union officers propose inadequate activity, we will help make it adequate; where green-washing bosses allow (or oblige) their employees to participate in Climate Strikes, we will seek to organise the latter against the former.

In universities, we strive to build student walk-outs, engaging with staff, with other workers in nearby workplaces, and with youth strikers across their town or city.

Divestment campaigns have been the dominant environmental activism on university campuses for some time. We support them while critiquing their limitations and pushing for more radical politics. These often associate with People and Planet, a left-wing campaigning organisation which lacks any democratic structures.

Reclaim the Power is in many ways the successor to the Climate Camps. Its politics are more explicitly anti-capitalist and pro-migrant. Its politics are anarchist-influenced, and lack serious orientation to the working-class. Its response to the revived climate movement has been largely aloof and sectarian and RtP has failed to lead.

We will continue to engage with it, advocating for it to turn outwards to win a wider audience, and to pursue class politics.
Green Anti-capitalist Front is a new and small initiative, largely an alliance between ultra-left anarchists and Stalinists, who engage in and around XR, Youth Strikes, RtP and the like. We work with it where we come across it but make no extra efforts beyond that.

The revolutionary left

On much of the anarchist and would-be Trotskyist left, radical “mood music” (“system change not climate change”; “one solution: revolution”; “socialism is the answer”) drowns out the “words” of coherent programme.

The result is vagueness from the left which allows labour opportunists to get away with programmatic murder – as with the story of Labour Green New Deal.

Likewise, abstract recognition of the links between capitalism and climate change, for some would-be revolutionaries, fails to progress to the next logical step: the centrality of the working class in combating it. “Movementist”, popular-frontist, and statist approaches to fighting climate change are, combined, more common amongst would-be revolutionaries than independent working-class approaches.

The SWP, to their credit, have organised debates in the labour movement about how to support Climate Strikes, and have thrown many of their trade union cadres into that work (such as the CCCTU). But their efforts on the industrial front have been inadequate and superficial. Politically, they are the same SWP: controlling, sectarian, covering opportunistic lack of programme with “revolutionary” sloganeering.

As events develop, they will become a hindrance to the democratic debate, programmatic clarity, and effective workplace organising which we advocate.

Our tradition, perspectives, activism

There are rich traditions of both working-class environmental action, and Marxist environmental thought, that we seek to uncover, and build upon.

We set up and ran Workers’ Climate Action (WCA), over the period of the last major upsurge in climate activism, 2006-11. WCA aimed to bring radical class-struggle environmentalism into environmental movement and the labour movement:

• intervening in the “Climate Camp” movement across that period;
• engaging with Kingsnorth power station workers from a nearby Climate Camp;
• standing in solidarity striking aviation workers and raising environmental dimensions;
• initiating and stoking agitation against the closing of Vestas wind turbine factory, culminating in an occupation of the factory against its shutdown — demanding its nationalisation by the Labour government.

The Vestas struggle, in particular, represents the pinnacle of WCA’s struggle, and a part in which we were central. It is replete with lessons for today, and documented in our pamphlet on the topic.

With the downturn in the climate movement, we let climate politics slip too far from focus for some years. Around the beginning of 2017, our student fraction initiated the “Nationalise the Big Six!” (NtB6) campaign.

As well as labour movement, Labour party and environmental movement oriented propaganda and petitions, NtB6 organised delegations to anti-coal and anti-fracking protests, and a Climate Camp in Germany. The campaign fizzled out due to insufficient central resources.

From 2018 we increased our focus on climate change again, in our publications, events, and activities.

All our members should – and hopefully do – see class-struggle socialist environmentalism as a crucial part of our, and their, work. To aid increased climate activism, we have started convening an AWL climate committee.

As well as the interventions and activity described so far in this document, we will promote class-struggle environmentalism through our publications and meetings. We will organise a day school on the topic in early 2020.

Supporters of Solidarity and Workers’ Liberty should read or re-read the latest edition of our climate pamphlet, “For workers’ action on climate change”, from late 2018, replenish their stocks, and then discharge them again.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.