Guest post 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.