England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Why the climate movement must link with the strikes

By Chris Thorley 

In their new year statement, Extinction Rebellion (XR) announced as a headline: “We Quit.” This was not, in fact, the climate activist group shutting down entirely, but a change of tactics which attracted headline news. Significantly, the announcement made high-profile calls for national protest calling for 100,000 outside the Houses of Parliament on 21-24 April. 

Where has this change come from? 

XR’s disruptionary tactics in late 2018 and the Spring 2019 took the establishment by surprise and were, at that time, generally popular with the general public. These actions came at the same time as the massively popular climate strike movement which brought hundreds of thousands of young people onto the streets to protest the government’s inaction against the climate crisis. The slogan of “system change not climate change”, originally taken up by school students, had an influence on XR, whose actions increasingly focused on targeting big business.

However the methods of XR quickly ran into problems. It seemed clear at that time that XR were targeting the financial sector and not the working class. However, by the time of their ‘Autumn Rebellion’ in 2019, the protest movement was entering an ebb. Without the backing of a growing movement behind them, the protests were smaller-scale, often carried out by lone individuals, and their targets less clear. 

In particular an action blocking Canning Town tube station, a working class neighbourhood of London that had been affected badly by austerity, was negatively received. Although this particular action was mostly recognised as a mistake by the XR membership, the main tactic of blocking roads has become a key tactic of climate groups such as XR, Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil in recent years.

Further rebellions after the Covid-19 pandemic have not garnered the same attention, all while XR stubbornly stuck to the same tactics of individualised disruption. However, as the statement from XR’s website highlights: “Despite the blaring alarm on the climate and ecological emergency ringing loud and clear, very little has changed. Emissions continue to rise and our planet is dying at an accelerated rate.” 

Despite pointing toward the systemic nature of the climate crisis, the leadership of XR over this time maintained an ‘apolitical’ approach. Their statement in 2020 that a banner which read ‘socialism or extinction’ “does not represent us” fuelled debates on social media. Many people looking for a radical alternative to capitalist climate destruction were left feeling alienated – even within the ranks of XR itself. 

Change of tactics

While the new year statement does not address all of these problems, it has potential to represent a step in the right direction. The statement announces a turn towards “building collective power, strengthening in number and thriving through bridge-building” and prioritising “attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks”. 

Although it doesn’t explicitly say so, this appears to be a recognition of the importance of supporting the current strike wave. The strikes have highlighted that mass organising and industrial action are the most powerful tools we have as working class people. 

At a time where many members of the workers movement are fighting against their employers for pay rises and improvements in working conditions, it makes little sense for the climate movement to disrupt the lives of working class people, instead of disrupting the profits of big business, fighting side by side with workers. This has clearly been recognised to a promising extent.

The recent re-launching of the XR Trade Unionists group represents an important step in this direction. XR have deepened their presence on the picket lines, such as in Coventry where they and Just Stop Oil joined striking Amazon workers. Building links with organised workers like this has the potential to enormously strengthen the fight for a green transition – on which defends our rights and interests against those of destructive and exploitative corporations. 

Workers’ action gets results

The current strike wave has shown that the working class is fully capable of taking the fight to the capitalist class by themselves. This runs counter to the approach still from some in the climate movement, which sees small groups of isolated activists as central to the fight, with working people relegated to a passive role. The strike wave has already had a bigger impact in involving the widest amount of workers, and has the potential to go even further. 

However, this doesn’t mean that XR has no role to play. Socialist Alternative says deepening links between the climate movement and striking workers is urgently needed, now more than ever. 

As part of their new year statement, XR has called for 100,000 people to protest outside Westminster on 21-24 April. By supporting the strikes and linking the demands of the workers and those of the climate movement important steps could be made towards a general strike, drawing in not just workers but all those against big business’s profit-driven destruction of life and the planet. 

A mass involvement of workers in industrial disputes joining this protest would have a big impact and is something we in Socialist Alternative will actively argue for in our unions. 

Differences in the climate movement 

Without a clear strategy and programme, and organisations containing members of differing political opinions, splits and divisions in the climate movement will be inevitable. One group which does not seem to agree with the new course taken by XR is Just Stop Oil. Led by Roger Hallam, one of the founding members of XR, JSO have also made headlines for their tactics, most notably for the high-profile action of throwing soup on a Van Gogh painting. 

Although these tactics get attention in the press they have proven controversial, and failed to win the level of mass support seen for striking workers. Roger Hallam has launched a number of initiatives outside of Extinction Rebellion including Burning Pink which used similar tactics to Just Stop Oil as well as standing in local elections. 

The differences between Hallam and Extinction Rebellion are clear from their response to XR’s new year statement. The statement is critical of XR’s decision to “quit” and also states Just Stop Oil’s commitment to continue with individual disruption and getting actvists arrested. 

Although the statement does mention the nurses and paramedics on strike, it is important to point out the significant difference between strikes and the actions of JSO. Strikes, organised collectively by workers, represent mass organisation and collective disruption aimed directly at the profits of the capitalist class, as opposed to individual action, which can seriously run the risk of reducing working class people to passive spectators as opposed to being central in the struggle for change.  

However, XR’s change in direction points more towards the creation of a mass movement that involves the wide participation of working class people. With this it could well be possible to organise a general strike alongside the unions to demand action for workers and the climate, which would strike fear into the heart of the capitalist class. 

Climate struggle = a class struggle against capitalism! 

In order to have the biggest impact, XR should use the time before the April protest to coordinate with unions undertaking industrial action. They could take inspiration from Germany where the anticapitalist climate organisation Klimatschutz heißt Klassenkampf (Climate Struggle is Class Struggle) actively helped to link the Fridays for Future group with a workers struggle to save 900 jobs in a Siemens factory in Nurnburg. 

A similar (but even more powerful!) linking up of the climate movement and the industrial struggle in April would show solidarity with the strike wave and help demonstrate how our struggles are connected. This would push back against greenwashing companies attempting to portray striking workers and climate activists as being in conflict with each other. 

Most crucially, the demonstration will need a bold set of demands around which workers and climate activists can jointly organise and fight back. We say:

  • We need rapid expansion and improvement of all public transport, on the basis of public ownership of bus and rail. Free public transport for all!
  • No jobs lost – for green jobs and a just transition! For a democratically-agreed plan of reskilling for workers in fossil fuel-dependent industries towards socially useful and clean industries, with fully-recognised unions and trade union rates of pay. 
  • We cannot control what we don’t own! For nationalisation and democratic workers’ control of the big polluters, banks and major corporations which dominate the economy. Capitalism is crisis – we need a socialist plan for people and the planet! 

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