“Power is when a labour union like UAW can make the most powerful company in the world, General Motors, say yes when it wants to say no. That’s power.” (Walter Reuther, cited by Martin Luther King Jr in “Where do we go from here?”)
September 20, 2019, around the world workers will go on strike in protest to what is now being increasingly recognised as a climate emergency. Students from many schools left the classroom to engage in such a protest. It is now the adult’s turn to follow suit.
In achieving worker’s rights, the power from union strikes is the ability to shut down or minimise business operations, thus impacting their profit. This is the kind of collective power Walter Reuther was mentioning.
On September 20, a one day strike will impact on businesses and the economy only if enough workers take annual leave, refuse to accept casual work offered, call in sick, and so on.
On this same day, it will still be the case that there will also be many workers who will continue to work due to financial necessity, pressure from employers, not believing in the climate emergency, and other reasons. In response to this, people can demonstrate their power not as workers but consumers. Martin Luther King Jr in his where do we go from here? speech points out that although individually many African Americans may be poor, collectively they are worth millions. And that is a buying power that can demand attention from businesses. On September 20, if enough people also refuse to go to any stores or buy anything online, this too will impact businesses and the economy enough to draw attention.
Just one day will not motivate businesses to minimise their carbon footprint overnight. Businesses and the economy will bounce back from one day of hurt. However, this will demonstrate what collective power we still have as workers and consumers. And this is a power we need to remind ourselves of as well. After the strike, we need to continue to vote with our wallets. Put our money into businesses that are doing their part against climate change and take our money out of those who are not.
It is a mistake to interpret this as going through all winter without a heater and all summer without air conditioning. It is merely to discriminate our choices towards companies that are taking action, whilst doing so within our means. Those of us in a more privileged position will be able to do more than those more disadvantaged. We would not expect someone on the poverty line to be donating to charity, whilst we would expect a wealthy person to be engaging in at least some degree of charity. But the more of us who will do what we can, when we can, will increase the effectiveness of our collective action.
And it is also a mistake to see this as removing the government’s responsibility to invest in renewable energy, honour the Paris agreement and their agreed targets to reduce carbon emissions. This is however, something we can do in absence of government action. We can use our collective power to send a message to both companies and governments.
The message of the climate strike will be clear: If you do nothing about climate change, we too will do nothing. We will not work in your factories and we will not buy your products. This is the power we have collectively. And it will be demonstrated on September 20th, 2019.