Capitalism and Climate Change – 19 October 2019

I was asked very specifically to talk today about trade unions supporting school strikes. Thank you Alex, for inviting me to speak.

UCU, University & College Union is the biggest trade union for education professionals in post-16 education in Europe.

I ran a UCU stall at Jamie Driscoll’s ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ event in April this year. And some of the comments I received were quite interesting.

“Who would think UCU would be campaigning on the environment? … well, well, well?”

And “well” I told them.

UCU has a history of campaigning and leading on environmental issues.

We held our first environment conference in 2009, working with the NUS, the National Union of Students and other organisations pushing together for Climate Action Groups.

We have consistently supported green issues and environmental policies – at home, at work and in the community.

We were there at the inception of the Campaign Against Climate Action Trade Union Group – and we are flogging the third edition of this publication *show booklet* on the bookstall today.

UCU was the first trade union to campaign against air pollution.

We built alliances with other trade unions and organisations to address the public health emergency of toxic air.

This month we launched TUCAN – the Trade Union Clean Air Network- working with the Greener Jobs Alliance and the health and safety campaign group, Hazards. If you go on to the website you can download the TUCAN literature there.

AND in support of September’s global school strikes UCU lobbied TUC Congress who agreed to support 30 minute walkouts.

Now that might not sound like much and I’ve had comments from university colleagues – but if you work in colleges, in schools, in other industries you don’t have flexibility with your time – 30 minutes walkout plus 30 minutes lunch gave people, blocked otherwise by anti trade union legislation, the opportunity to attend strike demonstrations.

That TUC Congress supported these walkouts, that so many industries represented supported these walkouts, indicates the importance given to the climate issue by the whole community. This is a human issue.

The issues involved in climate change – I’m not going to repeat what you know – are important.

UCU activists, UCU executive and UCU staff recognise the emergency for what it is.

We want to secure a future for our young people and for the planet.

And because we’re a trade union especially, we know the need for a just transition of jobs and industry.

We support Frances O’Grady’s lead on putting jobs at the heart, at the centre, of transition planning.


So trade unions supporting school strikes.

UCU has a consistent history of working on joint campaigns with the NUS.

We are used to aligning our campaigns. We are used to working with and listening to, our students.

In our professional roles, UCU activists are teachers, lecturers, librarians, coaches, mentors.

Our entire working week is focused on building, developing, guiding young people.

And like being a parent – you see in your students your link to the future.

A kind of proxy selfish gene maybe.

Maybe? Maybe.


I am not a teacher. I support learning.

This week I have been working with students on perimeter and volume, structuring assignments, comprehension on Dickens, dissecting newspaper articles, developing employability skills. I also ran a quiz with adult students on the UK citizenship tests – that was really quite ‘interesting’, but I digress.

That list sounds like a broad range of things covered, but I believe and I will always tell you, that I learn more from supporting students to learn than they will ever learn from me.

And with my colleagues, with my team, we’ve been delivering training to all our new students on Preparing To Learn. This is all about bridging from school to independence.

It is clear from feedback and contributions in sessions, that independence means different things to different people to different students.

What we make clear is that being independent does not mean being on your own – it means knowing when to ask for help and knowing where to find that support when you need it.

Student strikers do not need us to take a lead.

Student strikers are not on their own.

Student strikers have our support and we are right here. They know where we are.

This summer, in this region, activists from trade unions and community organisations came together to support the school strikes.

We are meeting again. Thursday 7th November 6.30pm in the Art Centre on Westgate Road.

We will be meeting to evaluate summer activity, to consolidate, to build for the climate conference 9th November in the Unite Building and to build for the next school strike action in November . And we will be taking a lead from the student strikers.

Please join us. You will all be very welcome.


But back to my union. Back to UCU.

Last year UCU led unprecedented strike action on our university campuses.

We fought a two-prong attack on the USS pensions dispute.

We fought an actual, real time strike with strong picket lines – and with strong picket lines after 14 days, after people had lost a lot of pay.

And we also fought a virtual strike – online and on social media.

Our incredible teachers taught alternative lessons on history, socialism, politics – they built and delivered an alternative curriculum in pubs and clubs and directly on the picket lines themselves.

UCU mobilised in a new and different way that enabled active participation.

Our narrative was so strong and our media campaign was so dynamic that we involved people who had never been on strike before – we brought in young workers, women workers, casualised workers.

Our membership grew exponentially – thousands upon thousands of new members.

What we hadn’t planned for was our amazing students.

We knew some students would want to get involved.

What we hadn’t expected was the level of support – it was phenomenal.

They mobilised, they organised, they marched, they collected strike funds for their lecturers.

Thousands of students engaged in UCU strikes because they understood the dispute and because they were part of the narrative.

Students were involved. They had a voice and they had a say – and a right to a say – in matters that concerned them

⁃ of cheapened wages, diminished pensions, increased workloads, increased levels of casualisation –

Issues that affect their learning, their future, their outcomes.

Does this sound familiar?


In the student strikers we have young people with new energy, new enthusiasm, new activism.

They have a strong narrative. Arguments they understand.

They are using their right to use their voice to effect positive outcomes for their future.

In building their message they are building a movement.

Is this not what we are doing too? Just in a new and different way?

As Belinda Carlisle was singing long before our student strikers were even born:

“We dream the same thing, We want the same thing”


UCU campaigns for a better working world and a better community world.

We want the same thing.

But they are doing things in a different way.

So trade unionists, activists, seasoned campaigners we need to shift the prism through which we regard the student strikers.

Rather than think “What support is it that I can give to you?” –

We should approach this as a lesson:

“What can I learn from this? What can we learn from this?”

Student strikers are not meeting like we do.

Student strikers are not organising like we do.

Student strikers are not building campaigns like we do.

But they are building, they are organising and their movement is growing.


We have so much to learn here.

Let’s shift our starting position and let’s shift the paradigm.

Let’s move from a top down, parent child model of trade unions supporting student strikers.

Let’s move away from this transactional analysis model of working.

And move towards a partnership model of working, such as that espoused by the cultural historian, Riane Eisler:

⁃ where all are valued

⁃ where difference is equal

⁃ where the power comes from values of respect, kindness, generosity

⁃ where we do not need to bestow or withdraw patronage and power

⁃ because we are confident in our positions

⁃ where there is no need to dominate.

This is a big ask.

This means stepping outside of our comfort zones, our safety net of the familiar, our known way of building.


We have confidence to come out of our comfort zones when we know that there is support – just here – if we need it.

It is in stretching the comfort zone that learning happens – and so our comfort zone grows.

As we stretch, as we learn, we grow.

And so we grow – as individuals, as organisations, as trade unions, as a movement.

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