Friday’s climate strike was a brief but exhilarating dash of hope amid the dispiriting intransigence of Australian environmental politics. Standing among the 100,000-plus crowd in Melbourne, with hippies, suits and tradies embracing in raucous chants, one could briefly fantasise that we were winning; that the political climate, if not the physical one, might be changing for the better.
Significantly, the third global climate strike was the first in Australia to include mass participation of workers alongside students. Indeed, the protest rivalled the largest worker-dominated rallies in Australian history, despite the teenage organisers lacking the resources and networks of the Australian Council of Trade Unions.
The youth-led movement did face difficulties in encouraging workers into the fold, though not for lack of adult enthusiasm. The problem is that workers are subject to myriad restrictions on their right to peaceful civic engagement.
You can’t sack students
When organising students, Greta Thunberg’s disciples had a clear theory of change — young activists could pressure powerful adults to act on climate change by making inaction costly. They did what workers once could, absent legislative barriers — disrupt the daily operations of important institutions and cause headaches for those in power. Conservatives whinged but were powerless to stop it, as disciplining students remains the purview of teachers who often encourage their students to be civically engaged.
The power of workers to similarly disrupt “business as usual” has been systemically stymied by draconian legislation that severely limits their right to strike. The Fair Work Act affords no legal protection for striking except in limited circumstances, such as during EBA negotiations. Striking for non EBA-related matters, particularly political issues, can see your pay docked or your contract terminated.
On Thursday, the Fair Work Commission reminded workers that if they wanted to attend the climate strike, they would require permission from their employer and/or may need to use their annual leave (if they had any). Unions agreed these were the only options for many workers. The only workers known to have taken industrial action to attend the climate strike were some Sydney wharfies whose EBA negotiations fell at a coincidental time.
So for most workers it wasn’t really a “strike” at all. It was a protest, lacking the central element of industrial action: the collective withdrawal of labour to coerce institutions to alter their actions. Many workers missed out on attending the protest, unable to forego the income or defy the boss for fear of retaliation.
Some employers granted their workers time off and a select few actually paid their staff to attend. Such supportive corporate interventions rightly place the burden back on institutions to make the necessary sacrifices. However, they still disempower workers and reinforce that these are decisions for boardrooms, not breakrooms.
Hostile companies were answerable principally to consumers and competitors, coerced only by the threat of a socially irresponsible image. Yet many employers simply don’t care, opportunistically “greenwashing” for brand exposure while doing little else to affect change.
While institutions are far more responsible than individuals for the environmental crisis we face, corporations still largely insulate themselves from adverse consequences and outsource the moral burden to resist.
The workers united need legislative support
The protected right to strike, enshrined in global standards, must surely be extended beyond its current limited remit.
Firstly, workers should be afforded legal protection for strike action on any matter that directly relates to their workplace pay and conditions, whether during a negotiating period or not. Secondly, legal protection should be afforded to a specified number of non-workplace-specific strikes per year for workers in large companies (the use of which must be negotiated in good faith between unions and employers). This would allow workers and their representatives to prioritise and pursue pressing political goals, including issues that affect all workers, such as a just transition to a low-carbon economy.
I doubt Scott Morrison has any intention of facilitating the positive freedoms required to foster a vibrant civic culture. After all, a truly liberal framework would allow even more protesters to highlight his government’s callous disregard for our planet’s future.
But the union movement, currently mulling its next move after the “Change the Rules” campaign, should take heed of society’s growing appetite for civil demonstration and imagine the possibilities that could arise if workers’ passion was less shackled.