It is up to us ordinary people to do it for ourselves and for all living things.
Greta Thunberg and her student comrades have called for adults to join them in a world-wide #Strike4Climate on Friday September 20. This is a beginner’s guide to what you can do to help make that strike bigger. And we’re all beginners here. Our species has never organized a global strike.
I am deeply grateful that I should have lived long enough to see this moment. I have spent my adult life in trade unions, and helped organize many strikes, persuading my workmates out the door.
Between 2006 and 2009 I was international secretary for the British Campaign against Climate Change and helped coordinate global climate demonstrations each year. One year, 2009, we had demonstrations on the same day in 52 countries. Here, I draw on my experience, and I draw on insane hope too.
Look at the photos of the student strikes from around the world, month after month, and you can see the numbers grow. Look at the homemade placards too. In the early walkouts they are about polar bears and heat.
Now they talk also about climate jobs, a green new deal and system change. The call for adults to join in is a new step. Out of the shadows and confusion, we can see a new power emerging that may be able to rescue life on our planet.
Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein and many other adults I admire have written an open letter calling on adults to respond to the students. It’s a wonderful letter. However, there’s one bit I would put differently. They say that some people won’t be able to afford to strike. And, they say, some employers won’t let them.
But most people fall somewhere in the middle on that continuum. The boss is a problem, money is a problem, but you can still dare to strike. This article is about how to persuade the people in-between to act.
Why Strikes Matter
The student strikes have changed the conversation about climate. That’s not just because they demonstrated. It’s because they went on strike. Greta and the rest understand that.
That is why they use the word strike again and again. It’s why they have called on the rest of us to come out on a Friday. To break the discipline of work, to take the emergency seriously and answer a higher call.
A student strike is collective defiance. So is an adult strike. A strike is different from a demonstration because people act together to defy the people who have authority over them – teachers and employers.
They act against the aspects of their lives which are least democratic and most resistant to change. When you are part of a majority who defy power, this has an enormous emotional charge.
The collective defiance of a strike is important for the future too. The people who run our world have not acted on climate change. They know what is happening, but to preserve profits, they have chosen not to act.
To make them act we will need power as great as theirs. We have two powers, the vote and the strike. Both powers are great because they depend on majorities, and we need both to stop climate breakdown. A big strike will tell everyone that the ordinary people are on the move.
Persuading people to strike in a union workplace is not easy. It’s even harder with no union and a bullying management. But this time is different for two important reasons. We are defending the future of all living things. And we are responding to the immense moral authority of our children and grandchildren.
Those two things give us moral standing. Think about the kind of employer you have. Do Starbucks, United Airlines, the hospital or the school want to be on television news and social media sacking people for marching with the children?
No, they don’t. They may well threaten you, workplace by workplace. But once it looks like the strike will be big, they will probably back down.
Find a Friend
Every one of the school strikes all over the world happened because a small group of organisers inside the school persuaded their friends and classmates to act. You have not heard their names, and do not see them, which is part of how they do it.
Grassroots workplace organisation will be even more important on September 20. Everyone is frightened at work, with reason. That’s how capitalism works. Building a strike is a process. It takes time.
We have to build confidence on our side and reduce the confidence of the employers. If people are fearful, they will book annual leave in ones and twos. If people are confident in each other, they will come out in tens, hundreds and thousands.
The first and most important step is find one other person at work who thinks the way you do. Then talk with them about what to do. You need that person because you will be frightened and scared of losing your job.
But there is always another kind of fear looming over us at work, creating anxiety. It is a generalised fear of provoking authority. So finding that first friend is important. They need you too. You can do it this week.
Meetings are important too – first the two of you, then in fours and fives, then twenty or a hundred in a room. The key thing is not what is said. It is that those people have come together, and in the act of entering the same room they gain courage from each other.
Have the meeting in a break room, maybe in a pub or a fast food joint or a park or someone’s home. It depends where you feel safe.
Have a real discussion with those first four or five people who want to join in. Take turns talking, listen carefully to what everyone says. If you’re political, don’t try to make them to do what you think is best, do what they collectively think is best.
The most important thing is not what you do, it’s that you are doing something together.
Whether you have a union on not, you don’t tell people they ought to be brave. Instead, you ask how many of us do we need to take action carefully? Ten, or twenty or forty? What you need is for someone to say: ‘I’ll come out if there are twenty others up for it.’
There is more to say about workplace organising, but first let’s think about organising via networks outside work.
Networks and Examples
From the start, there are many ways you can use networks outside work to encourage yourself and people you work with.
We have just under four months. The great majority of groups who decide to join the strike or the marches will make that decision in the last three weeks. Very few groups will decide on action quickly. But those who do will be very important, because we can tell others of their example.
Some workplaces will be easier than others. It may be easier if you work in a global development charity, or an environmental agency workplace, a union headquarters, a wind turbine factory, a radical website or some other group of committed people.
Maybe you’re a teacher in a school where the students have already been on strike. If you can get a quick decision on action, it will stand as a beacon for everyone.
Most of us can’t do that. But we can spread the word of the first group of workers in Britain to declare for action, or the first teachers in Portugal, the first group in Silicon Valley, the first nurses in your city or the first national church anywhere in the world. The more examples, the bigger the wave.
Timing is everything, at work and between workplaces. The ripples of June will become the tsunamis of September. But mass action on the 20th will not come without the initial meetings of four people in the pub in the coming six weeks.
There are all kinds of networks you can use. If you go to church, mosque or synagogue, bring it up there. If your church, or just some people from your church, agree to help each other join in the strike, it will make all of you stronger, and spread the idea to other workplaces.
‘I want a day of unpaid leave to join my church group at the children’s climate strike,’ is a strong sentence.
You can just call up your friends and have a few people over to your house to talk about the strike, and what you can do.
Bird watching groups are important. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds mobilized the largest number of people for the biggest climate march we ever had in Britain. But again, just an informal chat at the end of an afternoon birding can kick-start a miracle.
Whenever you have a meeting, even five people, see if you can get a school striker to come. You probably know someone whose fourteen-year-old child walked out. Ask that teenager please to come. She does not have to be expert. But her moral authority will transform the room.
Also, if there has been a school walkout near you, then you are surrounded by experienced organisers. They know more than you – not because they’re younger, but because they’ve done it already. Ask them for advice.
Those schoolkids have big networks. The parents of the students are proud of them. Get the kids to put you in contact with their parents. Have small parents’ meetings and big ones. Have meetings in people’s houses where people invite their relatives.
Try chatting to other people at your queer bar on Friday night. When you find two friends who are into it, suggest organising an informal fundraiser. Book clubs are golden. Maybe you belong to a network of feminists in tech. Model railway clubs are good – we need a return to rail to stop climate change.
Yoga. Buddhists. Football teams. Rugby clubs. Mother and baby club. Local history societies. Count up the networks you know. Start where you feel most comfortable. But think big and dare to face embarrassment.
If possible, try to get meetings in your town to bring together potential activists. If you don’t know how to do that, you know someone who does.
In a big city, you can have specialist meetings too. A meeting for student nurses in London, transit workers in New York, musicians in Austin, scientists in Cape Town, and so on.
Make sure you invite a wide variety of people. Don’t let one organisation dominate the meeting. Give everyone a chance to speak. The people who come will take the spirit of those meetings back to dozens of workplaces.
Talk, Talk, Talk
Every step of the way, everyone working for the strike is talking, talking, talking. Not the political rhetoric of social movements or the comments on social media. You hang in there with every conversation. Treat everyone with respect.
You are not mainly trying to win an argument about climate. People already hear those arguments. You are trying to help a group of people be braver. At base that’s what’s wrong with the world and the precondition of every inequality – we the people are more afraid than they are. And with reason, they have the big guns on their side.
Respect people’s fears and hesitations. Don’t tell them they’re cowards or don’t care enough about their grandchildren. We all feel small enough already. That’s the problem.
We have to be brave and passionate to build a global strike. But if people see you take stupid risks, they won’t trust or follow you. And if you get fired, everyone at work will be more frightened.
One reason people will give for not striking is they cannot afford it. I do wish Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein had not said that. Because in every country in every period, the majority of strikers have been people with little money. That’s who built unions. If people with low incomes are not going to change the world, it’s not going to change.
Some people will be worried about possible violence or arrests on any demonstration. That’s what they see on television. Reassure them. The student strikes and other union marches are not like that.
Another reason people will give for not taking part is that it won’t make any difference, and we won’t win with a one-day walkout. This is a serious consideration. One day strikes have become a strategy adopted by unions which feel themselves weak. They are usually a recipe for defeat. But this time is different.
One half is that a big global strike, even only one day, will make everyone in the world who wants to save the Earth more confident, simply because we have never done anything like that before.
The other half is just as important. A big global strike, for one day, even by tens of millions, may well be enough to get more governments to declare a climate emergency. But it will not be enough to make governments act decisively. So don’t happy talk. It’s going to be a hard road. But this is how we start.
Read up on climate jobs and green new deals. There are some links at the end of this article. Don’t insist that people agree with your views. But if they ask what’s your alternative, be prepared.
Another thing - people always surprise you in strikes. A deep green will refuse to do anything. A racist will stand with you. Happens every time. Presume nothing.
Finally, when the talking is done, you have a bigger meeting. And there perhaps you decide to strike, or for some of you to walk out together, or to send a delegation. Whatever the decision, you have made history and prepared the ground for the strikes to come.
If you’re in a party, good. If not, maybe go to a meeting anyway. The minimum you want is a mention of the global climate strike on September 20, and an informal discussion afterwards. Whatever else, you find a few people who will want to get on board.
But if you’re in a party, think big too. If Caroline Lucas and the Green Party all around Britain have strike rally after rally, they will double the Green vote in the next election. If Corbyn does that, he will pull the Labour Party back together. Doing that could transform the chances of Bernie Sanders or the Democratic Socialists of America.
Maybe you’re not in a party. But you are gutted after the elections in Britain, Italy, India, Brazil or Australia. You are confronting the prospect of a world dominated by bullies and racists. What makes it hurt worse is that some ordinary people like you voted for Trump, Putin, Modi, Duterte and the rest. You want to cry and not stop crying.
But the new right are not just misogynist and racist. They are the prisoners of fossil fuels. Remember how the women’s marches, the school anti-gun walkouts and #MeToo have weakened Trump. Look how the student and teacher education strikes in Brazil have weakened Bolsonaro. This is how you get up off the floor.
If you have a union, great. Talk to you union rep and branch from the start. Unions are sometimes a miracle of solidarity. But unions have suffered many defeats in recent years, and some have grown timid. Maybe you’ll get a knock back at first. Maybe they’ll tell you a strike would be illegal. So what? No one is going to be fined or imprisoned for a climate strike. Not in this real world.
Often unions are under pressure from the top of the movement not to do too much, but the union leaders dare not say that. So they mention other difficulties. In that situation, the four or five of you keep talking, keep building support, and take all those people back to a union meeting.
Make it clear to the union reps that you will act anyway. Probably they will come over to you. If not, you may still win over the union meeting.
Some local and national union leaders will seize the time. They will remember this: the women and men who first built our unions did so because they wanted to change the world. A new passion can do more than rebuild unions. It can change the balance of power between corporations and workers across the world.
For those of us who are union deep in our hearts, this is our moment.
Greta Thunberg and the others are urging us to understand that there should be no more pleading for the powerful to grant us a just transition. No more standing on the sidelines commenting. This is our territory. We know strikes. What we do now matters to everyone.
A simple truth stares everyone in the face. The rich, powerful carbon elite are not going to save the Earth. It is up to us ordinary people to do it for ourselves and for all living things. This is our time. Eyeballs out.
Jonathan Neale is a writer, climate activist and trade unionist, the author of A People’s History of the Vietnam War and Stop Global Warming, and the editor of One Million Climate Jobs. He blogs at Anne Bonny Pirate.