Skip to main content

labor Unions Must Join the Global Climate Strike to Avert a Climate Catastrophe

The Global Climate Strike, for trade unions, would necessarily mean a call for immediate and significant reductions in emissions while respecting the need for a just transition to protect workers and their communities.

printer friendly  
Hundreds of schoolchildren took part in a climate protest in Hong Kong on March 15, inspired by the 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg., AP/Kin Cheung

Over the past twelve months, groups like the youth-led #FridaysforFuture movement and the civil disobedience network Extinction Rebellion have woken up the world to the climate and ecological emergency we are facing. Earlier this year, over a million students walked out of classes as part of two hugely successful global school strikes against inaction on the climate crisis.

Now young people around the world are calling on workers to join them on 20 and 27 September for the third wave of global climate strikes. While some trade unions have been responding to the call with plans for lunch break actions and workplace climate assemblies, most are constrained by legal restrictions on the right to strike at the national level.

Since taking unprotected action can lead to unions and their leaders being held liable for damages and individual members being disciplined or dismissed, defying legal requirements in pursuit of climate action may not be a viable option for many beleaguered unions across the globe.

A strike is generally framed in national law as either a positive right or a freedom from liability which an employer would otherwise be able to assert in, for example, tort or contract. However, in many jurisdictions the right can only be exercised in the context of collective bargaining and/or a trade dispute. Unions operating in such jurisdictions will find it difficult to formally join the Global Climate Strike as the purpose of the action ostensibly falls outside the strict scope of collective bargaining or a trade dispute. While unions are increasingly bringing environmental issues to the bargaining table with demands for greening or just transition clauses, these efforts are still limited to workplace mitigation and adaptation strategies and do not cover wider commitments on climate change.

In countries where strikes in furtherance of socio-economic aims are permitted, unions will nevertheless need to win the argument that climate change is a socio-economic issue and not just an environmental or a political one.

Here we can, and should, rely on international law.

Committee on Freedom of Association

The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) tripartite Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA) has for nearly 70 years defined the scope of the right to freedom of association, including the right to strike. The CFA has consistently held that workers may engage in collective action, including protests and strikes, outside of the collective bargaining process and over matters beyond the traditional ambit of wages and conditions of work. So long as the strike is not ‘purely political’ in nature, such as an insurrection, the CFA has stated that, “organizations responsible for defending workers’ socio-economic and occupational interests should be able to use strike action to support their position in the search for solutions to problems posed by major social and economic policy trends which have a direct impact on their members and all workers in general, in particular as regards employment, social protection and standards of living.”

In the past, the CFA has given its imprimatur to protests and strikes concerning a range of issues including trade agreements, labour law reform, pensions, tax policy, social protection and similar demands. While it has not yet had occasion to consider a climate strike, it should find such a strike to be protected. Indeed, there is no issue today that has a more direct, immediate and serious impact on the world of work than the climate emergency.

Already, the ILO has explained that climate change, if not addressed, will have a serious impact on employment in all sectors and in all regions. These impacts include significant climate-driven migration for work, dangerous working conditions from extreme heat, job loss in rural areas due to crop failure and job loss in urban areas due to extreme weather events. Also, the actions we will need to take to mitigate climate change may be deeply disruptive, as the ILO Commission on the Future of Work has underscored. Conflict over how this is carried out and who benefits is certain to happen. Indeed, this is why Sustainable Development Goal 16 calls for broad social engagement in order to attain economic, social and environmental sustainability.

The Global Climate Strike, for trade unions, would necessarily mean a call for immediate and significant reductions in emissions while respecting the need for a just transition to protect workers and their communities.

The concept of a just transition of the workforce is firmly embedded in the legally binding Paris Agreement. Furthermore, in 2015 the ILO’s tripartite constituents unanimously endorsed guidelines for a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies. The promotion and realisation of fundamental principles and rights at work, which includes the principle of freedom of association, lies at the heart of the guidelines. It is evident that without the right to strike workers will not be able to effectively demand investment in new green jobs, training, income protection and other necessary measures for a fair and just transition.

Strengthening the green-red alliance

After the climate strike, we will urgently need to think about how to deepen policy coherence between the labour and environmental justice fields. While they have some different objectives, both share a common history of resistance to dominant economic and political structures which have subordinated the interests of individuals and communities. Indeed, a new field of ‘just transition’ law may be a way to bridge the fields of labour and environmental law and transform these into a coherent legal discourse.

We would also propose as an important step the recognition of the right to strike in cases where an employer engages in activity which is demonstrably harmful to the environment. This is in a sense the extension of the long-standing principle that workers can remove themselves immediately from dangerous work without fear of retaliation. What can be more dangerous than activity that threatens our workplace, our communities and indeed life on Earth as we know it.

With only 11 years left to avert climate catastrophe, trade unions must be given the means to help prevent irreversible damage from climate change.

The right to strike is a human right protected under international law. Strikes have been, and can continue to be, a tool for major societal transformations, such as the democratisation of countries, from Poland to South Africa to Tunisia, and a just transition to a low carbon economy is just as significant. Without the industrial muscle of unions, we will not be able to effectively achieve the profound transformation of our economy, including the investment needed to create millions of new sustainable jobs.

A determined labour movement can face up to the ultimate challenge of climate change. 

Ruwan Subasinghe is Legal Advisor to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

Jeff Vogt is the director for the Solidarity Center’s Rule of Law department and was previously the legal director of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

The authors write here in a personal capacity.