British Airways plane

A quiet revolution is underway. Across two weeks and through three days of industrial action by the RMT trade union, the British public may have rediscovered what it feels like to take the side of organised workers against a recalcitrant UK government.

Amid soaring bills and prices, and with the Tory government steadfastly refusing to put people’s lives before profits, it is easy to understand why sympathy for striking workers is growing.

Of course it would be easy to overstate this case. Trade unionism never left these shores, and the power of militant unions like the RMT has been built up over years of hard organising work.

Equally, it would be presumptuous in the extreme to argue that one still-ongoing dispute could undo decades of neoliberal policies designed to mute and muzzle trade unions.

Nevertheless, something is taking hold. Polls revealed that striking railway workers have the undisputed support of a majority of people in the UK, should they opt for further industrial action. What’s more, that support has grown with every media performance by the RMT’s general secretary Mick Lynch, whose directness and refusal to pander to the nonsense so typical of broadcast media has proved a winning combination.

This progress is precious, and it is our responsibility as trade unionists and the broader Left to preserve and expand it.

For Greens and environmentalists, the response to the RMT strikes so far has an additional, special resonance.

In June, hundreds of environmental justice campaigners joined RMT members on picket lines, raised money for their national dispute fund, and made their public support for the strikes impossible to ignore. This included many Greens across England and Wales, led by the party’s Trade Union Group. The Greens were the only UK parliamentary party to be unambiguously supportive of the RMT’s actions.

Defending and expanding national and municipal railway networks is centrally important to winning a just transition to a zero-carbon economy. Without massively increasing our capacity to move around using collective and sustainable modes of transport, the work of the environmental justice movement is over before it has begun.

In this process, protecting jobs and improving the pay, conditions and security of workers on our railways is key. There can be no just and fair transition to a zero-carbon world without worker empowerment.

Environmental justice campaigners and Greens should take this insight and apply it to workers’ struggles across all sectors.

Workers at British Airways (BA) are currently fighting for a 10% wage increase, after the company savagely cut 10% from their pay packets during the height of the Covid pandemic.

BA bosses claimed this was a necessity during a period when they couldn’t fly, but their actions since have shown this to be a lie. As passenger numbers have recovered, the bosses have recovered their bonuses. But now BA’s workers demand the restoration of their pay, amid skyrocketing inflation, the same executives are pleading poverty.

This wretched display of corporate greed cannot be allowed to continue. Greens should be in the front ranks of those supporting BA’s workers to get what they deserve.

At times, environmentalists and unions in carbon-intensive industries have found themselves on opposing sides of a destructive divide: environmentalists calling for the industry to wind down, unions calling for the industry to be supported through a crisis in profitability.

But this divide is ultimately false and only serves the bosses who exploit workers in these industries and environmental resources alike.

When corporations like BA are bailed out by the government in times of crisis, it is the shareholders and executives whose interests are protected. Any cuts, restructures, and so-called ‘efficiency savings’ made as part of the deal come almost exclusively at the expense of the company’s workers. BA’s current actions are an example of this grotesque opportunism in action.

To put this another way – cutting BA workers’ pay does not keep a single drop of oil in the ground. Axing airline workers’ pensions does not keep a single gram of CO2 out of the air.

Workers in carbon-intensive industries like air travel and freight know their sector better than anyone. They know that air travel has suffered a prolonged crisis of profitability. That fighting the climate emergency involves massively reducing air travel is no surprise.

But workers whose jobs are highly exposed in a just transition also know their history. Recent decades have witnessed the destruction of extractive industries like coal mining – and with them, whole communities and ways of life. Workers have repeatedly been told that these changes are nothing to fear, that their unions are resisting ‘progress’ or ‘modernisation’, and that government schemes will support them through the transition to a new way of things.

In each case, the promises of investment and renewal from politicians have come to very little. Many communities and regions of the UK continue to suffer from generational decline and impoverishment as a result.

To the extent that some workers and their unions are sceptical of grand designs from politicians promising a better future, that scepticism is well-earned.

The answer to this is for Greens and environmentalists to support workers to keep building their power in their current context. Years of retreat and defensive manoeuvre have made some highly protective of what they have, sceptical of alternatives, and with good reason; but this is not a posture that sets us up for the future.

Many in the climate justice movement have recognised this for some time. The likes of the Campaign against Climate Change trade union group, Platform, and Tipping Point UK – to mention just a few – have long been engaged in the hard and slow work of building solidarity between the movement and workers in carbon-intensive sectors. This incredibly valuable work should be encouraged and continued apace.

Communities and unions can continue to grow in confidence, become more forward-looking and gain the power to bargain effectively through a transition. The more confidence and power they enjoy, the more disposed they will be to demand more than just the preservation of the status quo. A real transformation of their conditions and the very work they do will become a horizon to reach for, not an implicit threat.

Greens must do our part by showing explicit and constant support for workers in carbon-intensive industries. We must never confuse support for airline workers with support for the airline industry. To do so would be to collapse workers, senior management, and shareholders all into one block – a deadly analytical and political mistake.

Let’s take the spirit of the past few weeks straight from the RMT picket lines and onto the Unite and GMB picket lines at British Airways.

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Image credit: brYYZ – Creative Commons