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Why it matters that XR’s “Big One” has trade union support

A shared sense of injustice across the climate and labour movements is re-galvanising issue-based politics.

By India Bourke

Paris in May 1968, London in June 1985, Germany between 2008-11. At each of these moments in history, trade unions have lent their support to issue-based protests and tipped the dial of change. From women’s and LGBT+ rights to ending student fees, all benefited from the shared momentum. Could this weekend now see similar energy injected into the push for climate justice?

On Friday 21 April, Extinction Rebellion’s multi-day climate protest, known as the “Big One”, will see thousands of protesters gather on the streets of Westminster for the start of the four-day event. “People’s pickets” will be formed outside every government department, as well as 55/57 Tufton Street (the address of various right-wing lobby groups). The demands entail an end to new fossil fuel development and the creation of “emergency citizens assemblies”.

Among the demonstrators will be members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), one of the UK’s largest trade unions. In some ways, this should be no surprise. The Paris Agreement enshrined people and workers as central to the new energy future through a reference to the “creation of decent work and quality jobs”. 

[See also: Are trade unions facing their own #MeToo moment?]

Since then, trade unions have become increasingly active in supporting the idea of a just transition for their members, from involvement in Scotland’s Just Transition Commission, to the Yorkshire and Humber Trade Union Congress’s support for the region’s Climate Commission. At the same time, the Extinction Rebellion Trade Unionist group has been encouraging XR members to join trade union picket lines and strikers across the country.

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Yet the official presence of PCS at this weekend’s event (as well as the Equity Union and the climate caucuses of the National Education Union and Unite), also marks a new level of trade union engagement with climate activism, and its political weight shouldn’t be underestimated.

“Throughout the 20th century and onwards, getting unions involved is like a gold star,” Lucy Robinson, professor of collaborative history at Sussex University, told Spotlight. “There’s an anxiety around identity politics and issues-based movements being seen as fringe, so having unions behind you is important.”

The support is by no means universal. Concerns about job losses and disruption in the face of the low-carbon transition have alarmed some in the trade union movement, especially those whose jobs are reliant on fossil fuels. The GMB, for instance, which has members across industry, has previously backed fracking in the UK and did not respond to my request for comment about the weekend’s protest.

[See also: With trade unions gutted, workers have no protection against soaring inflation]

Disruptive protest tactics (of the kind Extinction Rebellion have been known for in the past), could also serve to alienate a public already strained by the rising cost of living. Just look at the gilet jaunes’s 2018 response to a French fuel tax hike, warned Brendan Curran, a senior policy fellow at the Grantham Institute: “If working people do not feel a sense of ownership of the transition to a low-carbon economy, then it is inevitable there will be backlash and apprehension.”

But with the growing cost-of-living crisis being driven by dependence on fossil fuels, this year’s protest is a much-needed “opportunity to show how climate and nature action can be shaped to benefit people through a just transition with workers at its heart”, added the Grantham Institute professor Nick Robins.

Moreover, a shared sense of injustice across the climate and labour movements is helping galvanise both, argue Extinction Rebellion. In an echo of the solidarity that the film Pride dramatised between miners and LBGT activists in the Eighties, one XR spokesperson told me: “Extinction Rebellion and striking workers are both regularly charged in the media with ‘stopping ordinary people getting to work’. And both movements have been vilified and criminalised by a desperate government with no plan to get us out of the mess we’re in.

“There’s never been a better opportunity for people who are fed up with the way things are to find common ground, put differences aside and build a mass movement to create a better society and end the fossil fuel era.”

Government crackdown on the right to protest and strikes is underlining this need for solidarity, argued Sussex’s Robinson. Changes in trade union legislation from Margaret Thatcher onwards have resulted in a massive decrease in their power and reputation, she notes, for example by making it harder for unions to cross the ballot threshold to strike. A profusion of identity and issues-based groups sprung into the resulting void – making the alignment of Extinction Rebellion and trade union groups all the more noteworthy.

“The PCS union’s support for Extinction Rebellion’s ‘Big One’ is a microcosm of the wider context in which unions and individual issues are coming together once again,” said Robinson. “The most exciting political movement of the moment is XR, so the Labour Party’s loss is XR’s gain: they are the ones restructuring the relationship between unions and issue-based politics.”

[See also: What are trade union government negotiations like?]

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