From 23 August, environmental activists from across the UK descended upon London for thirteen days of bold and creative direct action against climate change and its financing, XR’s “Impossible Rebellion”. It was smaller than previous pre-Covid rebellions, but still numbered thousands every day. And not just for a single march, then a coach home: for marching, actions, and confrontation with the police all day long, day after day.
Class-struggle and workplace activists, from Workers’ Liberty, “Empower the Unions”, and beyond, have been participating: supporting the protests, while trying to raise the urgency of organising at work and in trade unions to fight climate change.
Activists who had come down for the rebellion, sympathisers of XR who had heard it was in the area and popped by, curious passers-by, all were open to conversations about the need for radical working-class climate action.
The minimal political basis upon which XR organises — climate change is bad, something must be done, but we won’t directly say what — and their historic visibility have brought in people from a wide range of political backgrounds. XR has offered them ideas which have been rudimentary, politically light, and often not-very-left-wing.
But many activists, seeing environmental emergencies becoming sharper, and XR’s successes being limited, have a thirst for discussion and answers as to how we can actually halt it.
Our stall, draped with a “fight climate change, organise at work” message, attracted people for discussions. We handed out leaflets on climate change, class struggle events in the rebellion, and the fight to abolish the anti-union laws. We sold pamphlets on different environmental topics.
And we collected many signatures for a petition “Fight climate change - Expropriate the banks!” Workers’ Liberty had an additional stall and activists circulating through the crowd, likewise drawing activists and sparking debates.
We organised two street meetings during the rebellion, and one delegation of climate activists to a nearby strike.
The strike — organised by the PCS and UVW unions, and over sick pay, conditions, and redundancies — was of outsourced Royal Parks workers, cleaners and attendants for many of London’s beautiful parks. Supporting strikes, by building workers’ confidence and power, is important in itself for the fight against climate change. This strike had a workers’ rights element; a public health element, the demand for full sick pay; an anti-racist element (outsourced Royal Parks workers, on worse conditions, are disproportionately more BAME than in-house workers); and an environmental element, as the workers look after important green spaces.
There was a lot of enthusiasm for the two street meetings: “How workers can fight climate change”, co-hosted by Empower the Unions and Free Our Unions; and “Break the finance-fossil fuel link — Expropriate the banks!”, co-hosted by Workers’ Liberty and Extinction Rebellion. (For the latter meeting, XR pulled out from publicly advertising it at the last minute as it was “too political” – i.e. too left wing!)
On Monday 30, as Hurricane Ida, second in power only to Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana’s recorded history, left a million without electricity and forced thousands to evacuate, we held our meeting on banks by the steps of the Bank of England. Perhaps 150 police officers lined up surrounding us, and our speaker had to shout over the helicopter circulating ahead. As she pointed out, all that reminded us of the importance the state places on defending high finance.
In the end, the turnout to the meetings was not great. With the fraught excitement of XR’s actions, and the heavy police presence, lots of participants in the rebellion were caught up in the moment. They were not checking their watches as to when they needed to walk over to our street-meetings. Because of the necessary secrecy in XR planning actions, the timing and location of our street meetings relative to other activities was sometimes off. Nonetheless, the meeting on the banks was very valuable.
As XR’s tactics are working less well than previously, the importance of rethinking them becomes clearer. Where previously XR was garnering widespread media attention, this time the media showed less interest, despite on some reports over 300 arrests. The net disruption, too, was significantly lower.
Environmental activists must organise and build democratic power in the workplace, where we can create widespread disruption in a productive way, and force change without relying on favourable coverage from the billionaire media as our intermediary.