Strike before the climate gets hot

Precarious workers at universities are striking against climate breakdown.

The strength of members’ mandate for climate action has allowed UCU to push for improvements across the labour movement.

It’s not a great time to work in universities. Years of austerity have meant that funds are tight and jobs are increasingly competitive.

Read: The UCU struggle is a climate struggle

You would be forgiven for thinking that action against climate ‘change’ is a marginal workplace concern, particularly amongst those whose jobs are most vulnerable, in such an atmosphere.

Instead, however, precariously employed members of the Universities and Colleges Union have organised to put the climate and ecological emergency at the centre of their union’s work.

Insecure

This provides a model for how environmentalists and trade unionists can collaborate in a combined struggle for a fairer, more sustainable world.

The temptation to marginalise action on climate breakdown until ‘after’ the employment situation has improved is great. That temptation applies to any industry – but it is a false choice.

We know that the effects of climate change are fall disproportionately upon those with the least resources to cope and the least responsibility for causing the problem.

This is often imagined exotically, such as droughts or the submergence of ‘tropical islands’ in the global south, or dramatically in the global north as the loss of heavy industry and flooded housing. Yet climate breakdown also takes its toll in more creeping ways, particularly when work is precarious.

Insecure employment is not a good foundation for reducing environmental impacts. Stopping climate breakdown will require people to acquire new skills, develop new career-specialisms, and be open to changes across every aspect of society.

Competition

To understand how climate progress is held back by insecure employment it is important to get a sense of how it ruins lives, both in and out of work.

The strength of members’ mandate for climate action has allowed UCU to push for improvements across the labour movement.

Insecure work isn’t just a question of sometimes having and sometimes not having a job. Insecurity affects how work happens: it alters which hours are paid or go unpaid, it prevents career planning, and it gets inside your mind.

The more that workers know they are in competition for a small number of jobs, the greater the pressure to do extreme hours and unpaid extra work to get their contract extended or build their CV.

The more that people are hired to deliver specific tasks, the more they can be expected to develop new skills in their own time, using their annual leave to conduct research.

It forces workers to focus on the knowledge and the skills they need for a new contract, rather than public benefits over the long term. It’s hard to act as an engaged citizen when your evenings are spent marking student essays.

Activism

But how bad is the situation - aren’t universities full of cushy jobs and academic freedom? Not really.

A total of 67 percent of research-only staff are now on fixed-term contracts, contracts that end on a pre-set date. And 41 percent of teaching-only staff are paid by the hour.

There are more than 3,500 academics on zero-hour contracts. Female, ethnic minority and disabled academics are particularly affected.

There are not even figures on the conditions for non-academic staff, such as librarians, careers teams, student support officers, porters, and cleaners. Conditions in further education are similarly difficult, but that is another story.

Overall, university staff are striking against a new round of pensions cuts and since 2012 have seen a 20 percent real terms pay cut. It might be expected that these precarious workers do not have climate activism at the top of their priorities.

Decarbonise

There has often been a problem in trade unions of marginalised workers being spoken for and spoken about, rather than being directly listened to.

In this context, casualised workers from higher and further education have organised themselves to be clear: sustainability is a casualisation issue.

In March 2021, at an open meeting of union members on casualised contracts, it was agreed by democratic vote that their representatives should view action on climate change as supporting casualised members, rather than being in tension with their needs.

In parallel, a self-organised ‘Climate Action Network’ brought volunteers together from across the union - establishing collaboration between the insecurely employed, students, retired members, and those with permanent contracts.

They campaigned to raise the importance of the climate and ecological emergency, including international climate justice, by integrating it across all the union’s training and bargaining, to decarbonise the union’s own activities, and to support branches to mobilise for local action.

Sustainable

In combination, anti-casualisation and climate activists convinced delegates to congress, the union’s highest policy-making body, to commit the union to campaigning for a Green New Deal that reduces casualisation.

This would require employers to reduce their environmental impacts at source and pay for the costs of transition themselves including paid time for retraining, rather than transferring the costs to employees.

The importance and success of this campaigning by anti-casualisation and environmental activists goes beyond the internal politics of a small union.

The strength of members’ mandate for climate action has allowed UCU to push for improvements across the labour movement.

Agreeing to proposals put forwards, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) has now voted to campaign for education for sustainable development to be embedded across the education system.

Campaigning

It also committed the trade unions to carrying out their own education and training activities, supporting their members to understand and respond to climate change.

With a combined 5.5 million members this decision is a historic step forwards for the environmental movement, and a fundamental change in how the labour movement equips its members to deal with climate breakdown.

Leading by example, when UCU members from 58 universities went out on strike during the first week of December, UCU’s practically brought students and staff together in a national training programme to support the development of ‘fossil-free careers’ and to mobilise for a Green New Deal in our universities.

The lessons of this anti-casualisation environmental activism should hopefully inspire the environmentally concerned to engage with trade unions in larger numbers.

Trade unions are increasingly shifting significant campaigning and educational resources into taking action against climate breakdown.

Voice

Whether they are successful will be dependent upon how many people are willing to join them to fight for progress in the workplace. In this respect, eliminating casualisation will give people the time and the resources to fight climate breakdown.

For many with environmental concerns, the size and formal democratic processes of unions can seem intimidating, even arcane.

But the example of UCU shows that huge changes can be driven by a small group of activists who decide that, rather than be spoken about, they will organise to speak for themselves.

Environmental awareness has grown and people are ready to hear about solutions that have previously been marginalised – so long as they strengthen the forces struggling for fair and good jobs.

Any environmentalist who agrees that solutions to the climate emergency require greater equality and security in the workplace should join their trade union and make their voice heard.

This Author

Dr Peter Wood is an associate lecturer in environmental studies at The Open University and the co-chair of the UCU Anti-Casualisation Committee. He tweets at @peterrhwood.

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