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Global Climate Strike: From Protest To Power?

Above Photo: Marcus Coblyn – CC BY 2.0

Climate justice advocates enthusiastically report that the recent Global Climate Strike involved 7.6 million people in 6,500 events that took place in 185 countries, supported by 8,500 websites, 3,000 companies, and 73 trade unions. Behind the headlines is this fact: with the exception of Morocco, no country in the world is complying with its Paris Climate Accord commitment, and the U.S. has dropped out of the international agreement.

There is undoubtedly a climate justice movement, especially among young people who will pay the highest price for failure to heed nature. Times of social movement are times of hope, great excitement at new possibilities, and times when hopes are dashed and disenchanted participants return, now more cynical than they were before, to business-as-usual lives. If this movement unfolds on what appears to be its present course, will it be sufficient to meet the task at hand?

In his new musical, The Moment Was Now, playwright/organizer Gene Bruskin has Frederick Douglass convening a meeting of four major post-Civil War Reconstruction era leaders: women’s suffrage and, less known, union organizer Susan B Anthony, African-American abolitionist and suffragette poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, “Colored” national labor union organizer Isaac Myers and William Sylvis, president of the National Labor Union. Lurking in the background is robber baron Jay Gould who says, “I can hire one half of you to shoot the other half down”. Douglass gives the foursome a mandate:

So I have come to the conclusion
That I must bring together
The people who can unite our great movements
Before it is too late
To create a plan for massive foment
In the moment,
For moments come and movements pass
But moments don’t last forever
And we cannot freeze them
If we do not seize them.

The four failed. Black people and the country continue to pay a price. There are exceptions to this pattern. They deserve careful study: recall George Santayana’s admonition “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

The Protest Cycle

The international protest pattern for the past 50 or more years has more-or-less been this: large numbers of enthusiastic people amass in visible places. They may or may not nonviolently disrupt business as usual. Extensive media coverage makes their story THE STORY for a few days, weeks, or, in the best of circumstances, months. Social media buzz with exchanges among the committed, interested and curious. Concessions are won, though some are more symbolic than substantive, but the basic goals of the protestors are not accomplished.

Self-defined realists among them argue for entry into electoral politics. Some of them win elective office. But they are not majorities. In parliamentary systems, they enter into often-unusual coalitions to form a government—in exchange for control of a department whose jurisdiction addresses matters particularly of interest to them. But this body lacks authority to really solve the problem. In the U.S. and systems similar to it, they become permanent minorities in legislative bodies.

In either case, they are limited to tinkering at the edges of the problem. They are coopted.

Self-defined radicals among them argue for disruptive (or more disruptive) direct action, and sometimes include destruction of property and throwing bricks and stones at police among their tactics. Many supporters are not ready to go that far, especially because the actions may entail arrest. Resistance to change is met by escalating tactics that lead more initial supporters to drop out.

Most initial participants return to their normal lives, their initial view that “the system” doesn’t respond—temporarily held in abeyance because of some dramatic incident or extraordinarily persuasive message—is reconfirmed.

A downward cycle falls into place. The activists are marginalized.

From Protest To Power

The positive and purposeful energy of protest must be organized to avoid the twin dangers of cooptation and marginalization. What might that look like? A product-targeted boycott aimed at a specific corporation with a demand that it be withdrawn from the market according to a timeline negotiated between the boycott organization and the producing corporation can serve to illustrate. (Alternative campaigns might be political—aimed at electing a candidate or candidates, passing legislation, or tightening or implementing regulations, and would have the same specific character.)

A boycott offers lots of opportunities for different levels of involvement: a volunteer could staff a table for an hour at her local market, be part of a delegation that seeks endorsements from civil society organizations and asks members of such groups to adopt a store as their boycott responsibility, seeks endorsements from local political bodies, engages in a quiet “shop-in” at a neighborhood store to escalate pressure on the store owner or manager to positively respond to the boycott…and there are others.

Boycott demands can range from not stocking a product to burying it on shelves to labeling it so consumers know before they buy what they would be supporting with their purchase. The goal is for the boycott organization to meet with executives of the polluting corporation to reach agreement on a timeline for withdrawal of their offending product from the market.

The 1960s international farm worker boycott decreased by 20% the number of people who consumed table grapes. It won. It forced growers to negotiate collective bargaining agreements with the farm workers union. It harnessed the energy of activists by enlisting their time, talent and energy to staff tables outside thousands of stores across the globe. It deployed another group of them to present the union’s case to religious bodies, other unions, civic associations and others to win their endorsement and the increased legitimacy that came with it. (The tragic decline and fall of the union in the 1970s should not obscure its earlier accomplishments.)

Here’s a challenge: according to a recent article in The Guardian (“Revealed: the 20 firms behind a third of all carbon emissions” 10/9/19), “household names such as Chevron, Exxon, BP and Shell” are among them. Michael Mann, the researcher, says, “It is a great moral failing of our political system that we have allowed this to happen..” Can the climate justice movement mount a boycott targeted at one of these corporations that will bring it to the negotiating table? If it can’t, or if it can’t demonstrate some similar exercise in people power, we who suffer the results will continue to complain about “moral failings” but remain powerless to do anything about them.

Horizontal Relations: Thwarting Divide and Conquer

Unlike the grape boycott, boycotts targeting climate change polluters are likely to threaten the jobs of specific groups of workers. “The smoke in the sky is the dinner on your table” was a slogan used by steelworkers and their union to oppose environmentalists. Similar formulations are made by coal, construction, oil, gas and other workers and sometimes their unions, and by politicians who are supported by polluting industries. To win continuing and broadening support that can hold corporate executives’ feet to the fire requires avoidance of this trap.

Similarly, green legislation that omits from its provisions a carefully crafted and fully-funded, negotiated with worker organizations, conversion plan to sustainable energy uses falls into the same trap. Saying “we’ve taken your interests into account” isn’t sufficient. Note that italicized provision, and take it seriously. The slogan “nothing about us without us” captures why. If environmentalists don’t think the organizations that are the voice of a group of people whose interests are directly affected by their policies are important enough to negotiate with, then it’s not likely they take these interests are taken very seriously—though they may be given lip-service. When unions of jurisdiction don’t exist—the rule, not the exception, in the current weakened state of organized labor—it is incumbent on environmentalists to (a) support unions and their organizing drives, and (b) find another legitimate worker spokesperson—like the AFL-CIO’s Energy Committee or such a committee in an international union whose workers do related work.

Failure to do so leads to results like the AFL-CIO’s condemnation of The Green New Deal. Here’s what Federation President Richard Trumka said at the time, “We weren’t part of the process, so the worker’s interest wasn’t really figured into it. We would want a whole bunch of changes made so that workers and our jobs are protected in the process.”

What if unions won’t negotiate? If good faith efforts to reach agreements with organized labor’s leaders fail, then target them for action—just as another status quo power center would be the object of action. But a different kind of action is required, one strategically aimed at talking with the members of unions and their children so that the former put heat on their leaders (or replace them), and the latter put heat on their parents. Implementing such a strategy would require identifying where members work or otherwise congregate, where their children go to school and get-together with their friends, and developing direct relationships with both.

Recognize that with careful tactics it is likely possible to win support from both members of a targeted union and from other unions. Remember: workers and their children and grandchildren will pay a perhaps-higher price for global climate disaster than middle-to-upper class people who don’t live in flood plains or fire-prone mountain areas. Keep this caveat in mind: the purpose of the action is to make a new ally who will be part of a coalition. That is different from the purpose of action against a multi-national corporation who you are seeking to hold accountable.

A similar problem emerges with things like an increased tax on gasoline purchased at the pump. For lower-income drivers of old clunkers who can’t afford a Prius, such a tax is an onerous burden. It was the trigger of France’s Yellow Vests, who were initially condemned by some environmentalists for their opposition to it. Imagine a tax on concentrated wealth that offered such car owners a buy-back plan for their old car with a subsidized electric car in exchange. Winning such a tax would require a lot of people power. Building that power on the climate issue is the challenge of our times.

The divide and conquer strategy by incumbent power that doesn’t want to tamper with the status quo must be taken seriously. Doing moral chin-ups by naming climate change as a crisis requiring immediate action because it affects us all, and will disastrously affect future generations, is neither moral nor effective. It isn’t right to tell people whose economic security may be at stake that for the common good they have to accept unemployment, and its accompanying loss of income and dignity.

Is It Realistic?

In fact, it is more realistic than a go-it-alone, mostly middle-class, young people, protest, electoral, direct action and media-based, environmental movement that wins small victories and increases awareness of the problem, but neither broadens nor deepens its base along the way. Assuming the 99% of scientists who agree that we face an unrelenting, human-caused and irreversible timeline, it is easy to conclude that wins are required NOW. There is a caution, however, that must take precedence. A course correction downward of .02 degrees on the thermometer is not sufficient to halt and reverse our direction. Such wins are only useful to the extent they allow the climate change movement to deepen relationships among its participants and with allies, open doors for relationships to potential ones, and deepen its base of support in the people as a whole. In the absence of that broadening and deepening, we will not win.

Is There Time?

Those who are thinking strategically about our climate fate need a ten-to-twenty year timeline, not the evening news, next election cycle one. Developing such a strategy will require careful consultations with unions, religious bodies, interest and identity organizations—indeed with anyone who represents a piece of people power—in order to make them part of a campaign effort, as well as with the now-growing sustainable energy portion of the business community. That will take time. But once in place such a coalition and its sustainable energy business allies would have the power to quickly accomplish broad corporate, legislative and administrative reform goals. It would be able to directly negotiate transition plans with major corporations, and to similarly negotiate progressive taxes with politicians that would pay for major governmental involvement in planning a lasting green new deal.

I am not involved in, nor privy to, the discussions now taking place in leadership bodies of organizations leading this fight. I hope there are people there engaging in these conversations. Woe to our children and grandchildren if there aren’t.

A Postscript from History

Tens of thousands of young African-Americans propelled civil rights center stage in American life with their 1960 sit-ins at segregated lunch counters throughout the Deep South. By late 1961, they recognized a fact they had not earlier considered: rural southern blacks—the vast majority of the African-American community in the Deep South—didn’t have the money to go to a Woolworth’s lunch counter. They asked older black veterans of what came to be called The Movement what made sense to them. “Voter registration” was the overwhelming response. Some two dozen of the sit-inners dropped out of school to become fulltime “field secretaries” for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. They embedded themselves in rural poor communities where black sharecroppers, day laborers, tenant farmers and domestics constituted as much as 80% of the population. Their work contributed to the creation of a mass movement of everyday people, a base comprising people very different from themselves. Not only did they work with people different from themselves, they also thought that the people with whom they were working had the capacity to create and lead their own organizations; that these organizations would be democratically constituted so that the members elected the leaders and were the ultimate decision-makers on the organization’s policies and the way it went about conducting its business. They walked alongside the people with whom they were working, not in front of them. They were, in a word, organizers.

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