Worlds of Education

Photo:  Markus Spiske / Unsplash
Photo: Markus Spiske / Unsplash

“Climate change action: organising to win”, by Adam Lincoln.

published 23 July 2019 updated 23 July 2019
written by:

As education trade unionists gather together for the 8th EI World Congress, it is clear that working people and students are on the front lines of climate change. Already 83 million climate-related refugees have fled from disaster. 72 million jobs are threatened. Climate change affects our brothers and sisters – especially our sisters – across the world. UN figures show that 80 per cent of those displaced by climate change are women.

Despite a growing body of evidence showing the current and future impacts of climate change, governments are not responding fast enough: education unions can play a pivotal role in the global climate movement, if we build alliances with other trade unions, students and environmental organisations. At UCU this work began ten years ago with the creation of the Greener Jobs Alliance.

The Greener Jobs Alliance(GJA) is a coalition of unions, environmental groups and student organisations. It was born at the Glastonbury music festival in 2009. Michael Eavis (the founder of the festival) and Battersea and Wandsworth TUC(a south-west London trade union council formed of local branches of English trade unions) met to discuss ways to overcome the perceived divisions between trade unions and environmentalorganisations.

For the past 10 years the GJA has worked to raise awareness of climate change with trade union activists and to build alliances and networks with other organisations. This has been done primarily by:

•Publishing a bi-monthly newsletter plus breaking news stories

•Producing on-line courses to support union activists training

•Setting up and participating in a range of forums to promote a trade union voice

The University and College Union(UCU) is a founding member of the Greener Jobs Alliance. In 2005, Graham Petersen (a UCU activist and founder of Greener Jobs Alliance), was appointed as the UCU Environment Coordinator to develop the union’s work. The decision to commit staff resources enabled UCU to greatly expand our work on climate change. A network of over 150 UCU Environment Representatives was created. This was achieved through regional and national events, a mailing list, and a monthly news update. This was supplemented with training courses on the Role of the Environment Rep. A range of resources werealso produced for UCU members and reps including the ‘ Staff Organising for Sustainability’ handbook.

A crucial element to our climate change work is building alliances with students and their organisations and campaigns. The UCU and GJA established strong solidarity links with the National Union of Students(NUS) and People & Planet around climate change campaigning. The NUS is presently establishing its own Students for Sustainability organisation and has been at the forefront of global student work.

Following my appointment as a UCU Bargaining and Negotiations Official (Health, Safety and Sustainability) in 2017 we have worked to build and expand upon the strong foundations already in place. Our three priority areas of climate change work in 2019 are:

  1. Working within the Trades Union Congress(TUC) to build a collective position around climate change work and Just Transition. The challenge is to unite trade unions with members working in carbon-intensive industries and the energy sector with public sector trade unions and others campaigning for urgent action on climate change. If trade unions do not speak with a united voice on climate change and just transition then the employers, multi-national corporations, and anti-worker governments will simply make decisions on industrial strategy and economic change without workers’ voices being front and centre. This is the central fallacy of the ‘jobs versus environment’ debate. The TUC has launched a Just Transition statement and strategy-which UCU played a key role in creating - placing workers’ at the centre of the debate, and recognising the key role that UCU and education trade unions have in delivering the skills and knowledge required to transition to a zero carbon economy by 2050. The UCU and GJA will be launching a new on-line course in the autumn on Just transition.
  2. Building the Trade Union Clean Air Network(TUCAN). UCU was the first UK trade union to establish policy in 2017 to campaign on air pollution as a way to build practical alliances with other trade unions, environmental and community campaigns. TUCAN was launched by UCU, the Greener Jobs Alliance and the Hazards Campaign in 2019 to support air quality and clean air campaigns both inside and outside the workplace. Having decent work means being able to breathe clean air at work. The idea is to join up workplace action on air quality and hazardous substances with community action on air pollution. Following two years of events, workshops and regional briefings, hundreds of activists from all the major trade unions are now involved in TUCAN. This is a very practical way to build alliances between unions and workers and overcome the ‘jobs versus environment’ divide. Thirteen UK trade unions have signed the TUCAN charter and we published a guide for union reps on National Clean Air Day.
  3. Supporting the global youth strike movement. Millions of students across the globe have struck for climate justice. Their action has forced governments across the world and the UK parliament to declare a climate emergency. Greta Thurnberg has called for a climate strike and for trade unionists to join this strike on 20 September 2019. In line with UCU policy our union submitted a motion to the 2019 TUC Congress calling on all the TUC affiliate unions, student unions throughout our colleges and universities and politicians and community groups, to support a 30-minute workday stoppage in solidarity with the climate strike on 20 September. UCU is organising practical solidarity with the UK Student Climate Network.

Organising around climate change provides education trade unions with a huge opportunity to bring new members into our unions, campaign for a just transition, and fight for clean air in our workplaces and communities. In the education sector we also play a crucial role in educating students on sustainable development and conducting climate change research.

And the alliances we build must be international in scope. As the people most affected by climate change are from the poorest sections of society there is a crucial role for international solidarity in the climate justice movement.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.