It might seem strange that bringing things to a standstill might help bring about a rapid transition, but that is exactly what a huge number of young people globally believe is necessary to win change and prevent climate breakdown. What is more, history suggests that they are following in the footsteps of many others who have gone on strike to fight, often successfully, for progress.
Millions of young people around the world are preparing to emulate the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and strike on September 20th and 27th to protest at the lack of action on climate change.It represents a whole generation standing up to something which jeopardises their future. One one level, this surge of young radicalism seems unprecedented, driven by a global goal the like of which we have not seen before. On the other hand, they continue a great history of protest in refusing to work that has been used across the world. It has started whole movements for social justice, radically changing our laws and societies. Indeed, despite the claims of democracy as an effective instrument for delivering the will of the people, striking has often been the only way to wrest power from those who control it, abuse it, and are reluctant to share it.
The right to strike was not even enshrined in law in most countries until the 1960s, and is still banned in some places. But many people brave or desperate enough to risk their livelihoods have used strike action. From the 1830s Chartist Movement, strikes by miners and millworkers in the UK, and the widespread General Strikes of the 1920s industrialised world strikes have been used to win the basic rights and protections that became taken for granted by later generations. Some strikes define their times: in 1968, a small student strike in the French town of Nanterre decamped to The Sorbonne in Paris, lighting a tinderbox at a time of huge social change. The strike escalated quickly in response to the police crackdown, until 6000 protesters faced 1500 armed police in a street riot. Unrest spread quickly to the working population until a massive 10 million – two thirds of French workers – were on strike. More recently, the tradition continued through to the 1980s miners’ strikes in the UK, and nationwide strikes in Poland, to today’s Yellow Jackets in France. Refusing to work or participate en masse makes a powerful statement and can force action from recalcitrant governments. Although by no means successful in all cases, strikes have also stimulated empathy, changed public opinion and contributed to longer-term change.
The Fridays School Strike is perhaps unusual because it is led by young people, not exclusively but often from places of comparative privilege internationally; it is global in scope thanks in part to the ease with which social media can spread messages and calls to action; and, unusually, it is not to do with their own immediate living and working conditions. However, the methods are similar: a single person – this time a 15 year old Swedish schoolgirl (she is now 16) – walks out of school and sits in a public place in protest until others join her . Her demand is that her government listens to the scientists and moves urgently to address climate change. On September 20th 2019, for the first time adults are being urged to join their children and strike, taking time off work in support of their demands. In March 2019 over two million young people took part in the first climate strike across 135 countries; this time, the numbers involved are expected to be much higher.
Most strikes throughout history have been caused by people demanding better living and working conditions. Interestingly, although they had so little power economically or politically, it was young women who led the UK’s first major strike by match girls at Bryant & May’s London factory. Encouraged by an expose in The Link newspaper by activist Annie Besant, 1400 girls eventually came out on strike, winning support from other workers, a fund to help them survive while protesting and, finally, better conditions. Strikes were often started by those in the most dangerous jobs – such as miners and mill workers – these strikes have on occasion become of national importance as others stopped work in support. The Great Unrest of 1910-14 in the UK, saw a wave of strikes by miners, railwaymen, dockers and others across the country, often as unofficial action taken in sympathy. Women led the way again in the US in January 1912, when workers in the American Woolen Company Mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts, left work and took to the streets in protest at pay cuts. Many of the workers were immigrant women and children, speaking many different languages and shunned by the unions as unskilled. They disrupted daily life and carried a banner proclaiming, “We want bread and roses too.” Roses signified the respect due to them as women, rather than just cheap labour – and this became a popular song still associated today with the struggle for rights.
As each group of striking workers won their battles, they vowed to stay out until others had won. This show of solidarity was successful and also terrified the ruling classes, because it was not controlled by any external power – even the unions. It was followed in 1926 by a General Strike, started in response to mine owners’ attempts to cut wages. Under the slogan of “Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day”, over 120,000 left work and there were pitched battles on the streets against government forces. In 1927, The Trades Disputes Act attempted to stop this being repeated by banning sympathy strikes.
Meanwhile, in the US, the General Motors Sit-Down Strike of December 1936 was a relatively small but significant strike, often credited with fostering the modern American labour movement. The workers were fighting for the recognition of their union, higher wages, better safety procedures, and—incredibly—permission to speak in the lunchroom. After 44 days, the company compromised, which led to the auto workers’ union becoming a major political force in the US. The sit-in nature of the protest had been inspired by similar European protests and in turn inspired workers in other countries to do “sit-down strikes.” This kind of strike is more inconvenient than walking out, because replacement staff cannot be drafted in to work in place of the striking personnel if they are still occupying their workspace.
Strike action does not necessarily bring about speedy results. In the 1950s, Cesar Chavez rose to prominence as a civil rights activist in California and by 1962, he was focused on workers’ rights. In 1965, when a group of Filipino farm workers went on strike against grape growers in the California city of Delano, protesting years of poor pay and terrible working conditions, Chavez’s group joined in, bringing a range of non-violent protest methods to bear. They organised a consumer boycott of non-union table grapes, which spread quickly across the country and helped to create the United Farm Workers union. It took until 1970 for the grape growers to relent and grant workers better pay, benefits, and protections. But Chavez’s tactics of nonviolent protest caught on, inspiring labour protests around the world.
In many countries, including the UK and in Poland, strikes have been responsible for the fall of governments – and in the Polish case, perhaps the collapse of a whole communist system. Miners strikes in the UK in 1972 and 1974 resulted in huge wage increases but not before a country paralysed by fuel shortages directly brought down Ted Heath’s conservative government. The world watched in amazement in 1980-81 as strikers in Poland’s Gdańsk Shipyard, led by the charismatic leader of the Solidarity union, Lech Wałęsa, and the following 1981 Warning Strike, contributed to the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of communist party rule in Eastern Europe. A general strike was called in protest at police brutality, but its magnitude shocked the leadership of the Polish United Workers’ Party. At that time, Solidarity had some 9 million members, but 12–14 million people took part in the strike. Even those in the emergency services, who maintained their posts, wore armbands to show their support. After four hours, the sirens sounded and Poland went back to work – and the government agreed to the peoples’ demands. Since then, miners have taken similar strike action as far afield as South Africa under the apartheid system and in China in 2016, when thousands of people took to the streets in Heilongjiang province to protest a lack of back pay from their government-owned employer.
Striking for environmental or conservationist purposes is comparatively new. During Australia’s development boom in the 1970s, strikes by construction workers known collectively as the ‘green ban’ successfully saved many vital urban spaces and over 100 buildings considered by the National Trust to be worthy of preservation. The unions believed that buildings and spaces for public use should be prioritised over development for wealthy individuals or companies. They debated whether to get involved in protecting land in a suburb where working class people could never afford to live, but decided that this was something worth fighting for. A public meeting was attended by hundreds of residents and – with this show of support, the unions placed a green ban on the area.
Students and young people have long played a huge role in striking for social and political change. In 1970, Nixon’s government announced it would be ramping up its military presence in Vietnam and students organised strikes on campuses across the US to show their objections. Just this last month in Hong Kong, students refused to return to school in solidarity with those protesting for democracy on the streets. Teen survivors of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida organised school walkouts for stricter gun control laws – and inspired some of today’s young climate strikers.
Today’s strikes for climate change is perhaps uniquely global thanks to the internet and rapidly shared films of Greta Thunberg making her calm, precise and powerful factual speeches. Appearing even younger than her 16 years, Greta has Asperger’s, which she describes as seeing the world in black and white. This may have contributed both to the clarity and unequivocal style of her declarations; it certainly also reminds audiences that she is herself a vulnerable person and gives courage to other shy, introverted people who normally remain unheard in our media.
Greta made her first strike protest on August 20, 2018. Just six days later, other people joined her and by September she had started her regular Fridays for Future strike campaign. By November over 17,000 people were taking part in 24 countries and protests increased in early 2019. Greta speaks at Davos and in the EU parliament, famously refusing to fly and travelling by train. In March 2019 she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and the head of OPEC described the school strikes as the greatest threat to the future of the oil industry. In August 2019, some 450 young “Fridays for Future” climate activists from 37 European countries gathered for a summit in Lausanne, Switzerland to discuss the movement’s development and work on international cooperation. And Greta headed to the US for the UN climate meeting on a solar powered boat as the world watched and her social media following of many millions continued to mount.