The striking climate: If emissions get up your nose, picket

The information below is intended as a guide that trade unionists can share with climate activists, who are not already involved with the trade union movement, about supporting striking workers. And of course to encourage climate activists to get further involved and join a union.

We have a flyer about links between the right to strike and climate campaigning which you can download from our resources page or request copies.

Quick links: How do I support a picket line?, Dos and Don'tsIf you can’t physically get to a picket line (inc hardship fund links)

Strikes - what, where, when

On 1st February, teachers were joined by university lecturers, civil servants and train and bus drivers in the biggest day of industrial action in a decade.

Upcoming strike dates (BBC website)

Why climate activists should support the strikes

Workers on picket lines are challenging the power of their employers, showing bravery and determination and deserve respect. The long days of picketing, cold and wet through the winter, allow plenty of time to build comradeship, find common interests, explore ideas and discuss issues of the day. For millions of trade unionists in the UK, the issue of the cost-of-living crisis is forefront in current struggles. For climate activists the costs to people and planet of the current fossil fuel economy is urgent. For both, we need system change.

As the climate catastrophe deepens, the need for cheap renewable energy to end reliance on fossil fuels will require radical action to ensure people's homes are insulated and transport is electrified using wind and solar energy generation. The fight of workers to be able to afford to heat their homes and travel to work becomes a fight to end the super-profits of oil and gas corporations and stop investment in new coal mines and oil fields when the money should be used for investment in renewable energy and climate jobs.

Whilst the cost of living crisis involves a rate of inflation at above 11%, the current price inflation of staple foodstuffs is running at between 18-30% a year in the UK. The extreme weather events this year alone, caused by accelerating heating of the planet from gases emitted from current methods of production, has seen food harvests severely affected and some completely destroyed, here and across the world leading to food-price hikes and, in the worst cases, famine. 

In the media, public sector strikes are often presented as being solely about pay. In fact they are broader than that, and are a fight against cuts damaging public services which provide the essential social infrastructure of this country. And in some cases these services play a key role in reducing emissions, for example public transport. 

In the short term, rail unions have basic demands like safe staffing levels being maintained. In the long term they generally call for renationalisation of rail. This links directly with climate action: to cut emissions we need investment in electrification of rail, bus and coach services and an integrated not-for-profit public transport system, affordable and dependable to move passengers and freight out of polluting cars and lorries. The strike action is therefore directly linked with environmental issues, and that discussion can encourage trade unionists to take-up climate demands inside their union and with the employer.

The growth of trade union strike action as well as direct action by environmentalists has once again raised the need for solidarity. Solidarity is more than just a feeling of unity. Solidarity includes practical material support such as standing on the picket line, marching on the protest, collecting and donating funds to keep the fight going, and spreading the call for more to join and help. And supportive, open democratic organisation of the campaign, facilitating and welcoming debate around demands and tactics, helps engage and activate more people.

In the current wave of strikes in the UK, the majority of people want to support the public sector workers such as railworkers, posties, nurses, civil servants, care staff and others. Most support is passive and unseen because it can be hard to know where to start or what to do to show solidarity.

Strike facts

  • Strike action is a form of collective direct action where workers employed in one workplace or whole industry refuse to work until their employment rights are met - perhaps a rise in pay, or better working conditions and even against the behaviour of supervisors and managers.
  • There are limited legal rights to strike in the UK, with the current Government seeking to further limit them, having voted to let agency workers cover for striking staff, and planning new legislation targeting transport workers’ strike rights.
  • To be legal, trade disputes over 50% of the entire union membership have to vote in a secret postal ballot, with the majority voting yes to action. In England and Scotland, for workers whose role involves the delivery of “important public services”, at least 40% of all workers eligible to vote must send in yes votes.
  • Picket lines are made up of members who would otherwise be at work but are instead on strike that day. Not all employees may be union members or they may be members of a different union. Workers on the picket line can persuade others not to cross the picket line or at least have a discussion about the dispute, how they can support and even offer a day's pay to help. 
  • People on strike do not get paid, so the strike fund is important in avoiding hardship.

How do I support a picket line?

Trade union websites can tell you where their picket lines are nearby (see above). They will appreciate your support, but it can be daunting to walk into the "line" for the first time. In fact, you'll be welcomed if you let them know your name and your wish to support.

Often a one day strike requires a 24-hour picket-line for the duration, especially where the business involves shift-work, so there's always a period where you will have time to drop in. If you can take a sheet of signatures you've collected of people pledging their support - and even better still a cash collection for donation to the strike fund, your help will be gratefully received. Food and drink for sustenance would also be appreciated, especially in cold weather!

Trade union officials will organise and coordinate the official picket of the individual dispute at the entrances to the workplace where union members have withdrawn their work. Trade unions members elect local representatives who have responsibilities for organising and defending members and the union itself. Above them are officials employed by the union and representing the power vested in the union hierarchy. So union structures do not have the "horizontal" consensus structures which may be more familiar to climate campaigners.

The government's Code of Practice on Picketing, which is not in itself legally enforceable but which can be taken into account in legal proceedings, suggests that in general the number of  pickets at any workplace entrance or exit should not exceed six. Some unions separate the 'official' picket of six from a solidarity picket alongside or nearby, in order to be seen to comply. This shouldn't prevent anyone approaching and offering support to the pickets, or talking with them about the dispute and other issues.

Discussion on picket lines

It is quite usual for discussion on a picket line to begin by asking what the strike is all about from the perspective of those picketing, how it's going - strengths and weakness - and what they think needs to happen for the union to win. These discussions can develop into more general, political debates about where the strike, the business, and the working class fit into issues of wider society.

The picket line is a good place to link economic and political issues, and talk about how trade unions can lead in the climate movement, with the collective power to demand changes to production as well as investment in climate jobs. After decades of engagement with climate activists, most trade unions have 'Green Reps' or 'Environmental Representatives', volunteers elected in the local union branch to lead on climate and environmental issues. Where they haven't there's a discussion to be had around why they should!

Locally, Green Reps can and should be organised into a joint unions group to develop and coordinate campaigns - the local Trades Union Council, affiliated to the Trades Union Congress nationally, can be of help in developing this. Inter-union liaison and organisation also strengthens the local Branches and is valuable in building confidence and activity of members and communities.

Individual union branches and Trades Councils should be in touch with and, where possible affiliate to, local and national climate campaigns, and can be a source of financial support towards local campaign groups. 

Striking for the Future!

Debate about 'the state of the country" and "where we're heading", the future for our children, routinely occurs on the picket line. Undemocratic authoritarian controls and the rise of the far right, the crisis of democracy, are often discussed, with issues of women's oppression, inequality and institutional racism offering consideration of issues of global climate justice. Any general discussion inevitably raises the crucial question. How are we going to survive? 

Whether it is to achieve a pay rise, secure decent employment, prevent a Police State or stop climate change from causing complete social breakdown, the base issue is where does the power exist to make the changes needed. The Employers and their State apparatus have enormous resources to deploy in order to maintain the status quo. But their business as usual approach will most certainly put an end to everything workers have fought for and won up to now. 

Shared repression - if it works, they’ll try and outlaw it

Strike action and direct action by climate activists face the same opposition, largely from the State on behalf of the employers, using the Police to challenge and arrest in order to weaken the campaign. Such political opposition - whether to prevent workers from achieving a living wage or climate activists stopping environmental destruction. The severe repression of Just Stop Oil activists, from media offensives whipping-up scare stories of people dying because of blocked roads, should help trade unionists make links and build solidarity. 

Recent strikes of nurses have seen the media seeking to whip-up the same opposition, public opinion sticking with the strikers rather than accepting the Establishment narrative. Climate activists can win trade unionists to support and solidarity with direct action over the climate crisis.  

The UK Government is challenging the right to protest by using the Police, Crime Sentencing & Courts Act 2022 and the Public Order Act 2023 to place such restrictions on protests and pickets that they become wholly ineffective. The political propaganda surrounding this is attempting to split public opinion, but the overwhelming majority of trade unionists do not trust the politicians.

A recent climate poll by Ipsos found more than 8 out of 10 people in the UK are concerned about the climate crisis and over 50% think government plans are inadequate. It is time for trade unionists and climate activists to join together and force change. The trade union slogan, "Unity is Strength" has never been more important. The starting point is the picket line - visit one near you soon!

Dos and don’ts on the picket line

✔️ Introduce yourself and let the picket leader know which group you're from and why you've come down to support them.  

✔️ Ask what you can do, and be respectful of the picket line (for example: ask before bringing out your own flags and group banners)

✔️ Bring snacks and/or drinks, and cash for the strike fund

✔️ Bring signs or a banner supporting the strike and, if possible, linking with climate demands

✔️ Have climate leaflets/info sheets/model motions for union branches on hand in case people show interest in discussion - but strike solidarity is the top priority

❌ Don't block access (unless led by the union)

❌ Don't attend a picket line if picket leaders ask you not to

❌ Don't attend a picket line if you have any covid symptoms or have been in contact with anyone who does. 

If you can’t physically get to a picket line

Many people signal their support for strikes on social media - don’t forget offline support as well, for example putting a poster in your window.

If you can afford to donate to a strike fund, some links are below:

Nurses (RCN) 

Postal workers (CWU)

Rail workers (RMT)