Sab is the organiser for Earth Strike UK in the South West. He’s an active and well known voice in Bristol’s syndicalist and Environmental movements. He kindly took the time to meet us down the pub for a chat about Earth Strike and the upcoming Global Climate Strike.
Organise: Could you start by giving us an introduction to Earth Strike?
So, Earth Strike is a grass roots organisation, that is creating a worker led movement to tackle climate change. We believe that the most effective way of doing that is to organise both in unions and in autonomous groups, and build towards a global general strike to shut down capitalism. Thus removing peoples participation in the system that is fundamentally the cause of ecological crisis.
Why should people get involved?
I actually really like this question. I’ve come up with a way of putting it. I think anyone, no matter what their background, whether they are a workplace activist, or environmental activist, or totally new to organising, should take a moment to ask themselves three questions.
Firstly, do you think we’re in an ecological crisis? It doesn’t take very long if you look around to realise we are. Our air is polluted, it’s estimated air pollution kills 300 people a year just in Bristol. The Amazon is on fire, Siberia is on fire. A heck of a lot of shit is on fire. A worrying amount of shit is on fire. Species are disappearing at a rate not seen since the last mass extinction, sea levels are rising. Even the United Nations is freaking out a bit at this point. The science around it has been clear for a long time now. So I think most people would say yes to this, if not well… they need to take a long hard look around them.
The second question that people should ask themselves, is, if we are in an ecological crisis, do you think the current capitalist industrial system is going to voluntarily change itself enough to prevent this? I don’t think you have to look at the world around you for long to realise no. Those that run this system can spend plenty of time talking about the issues, but even after declaring a climate emergency we’ve seen a continuation of business as usual, with highly impactful industries continuing to damage the environment. The governments and corporations have taken next to no action, and given us no indication that this will change. The whole capitalist system is based on endless growth, and can’t meet the level of sustainability we need.
So you don’t have any faith in the likes of the UN climate change conferences, and other international political efforts?
We had the Paris Agreement, which, fell really far short of what needed to be done, and we couldn’t even hold countries to account for that. Now we’re seeing figures like Trump and Bolsonaro come to power, who are making things even worse for the planet. They didn’t come out of some vacuum, they aren’t some anomaly, they came out of the current political system. This is how it responds to crisis, protecting the needs of the ruling elite, protecting the needs of capitalism. We’ve got to understand if we want a different future, one that doesn’t involve environmental destruction and millions of deaths as a result, we need something more.
That leads us on to the third and final question. If we are in an ecological emergency, and if the current system isn’t going to change itself voluntarily, what the fuck are we going to do about it?
Well, what the fuck ARE we going to do about it?
That is where Earth Strike comes in. At the moment, all of us, everyone, we’re contributing to a system that is inherently suicidal. We are working towards the destruction of our own planet. The thing we have to do, if we are to have any chance of changing this, is to organise the working class to take part in mass industrial action.
Do you think it’s possible, if a global general strike is achieved, to force capitalism to be ecological sustainable?
Hah, that is kind of a trick question. We’re not really trying to force capitalism to change, we’re not interested in just lobbying MPs to make reforms. We are saying we can no longer participate in this system, full stop. We are building a new system outside of the existing structures. We have to build, what autonomous thinkers like Antonio Negri call a counter-empire. We don’t want to take over the existing structures, we’re not seizing control of the system, we’re saying it has failed. We want to end the current system of techno-industrial capitalism. To build up alternative systems, inspired by the likes of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, the revolution in Rojava, by social ecology, by movements rooted in mutual aid and direct democracy. As the Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World – IWW) say, we need to build a new world in the shell of the old. So when the old system collapses, we have the foundations ready, systems of direct democracy, mutual aid and solidarity.
That’s the why folks should get involved, now how do they get involved?
Get in touch! The easiest way is probably our website, but there are also numerous local and national pages on social media you can reach out to. We’ll be able to get you in touch with existing groups near you, or help advise you on setting one up.
There’s not really a huge amount of requirements. We’re not a membership organisation, so there is no formal joining process or payment of dues. If you agree with Earth Strike and believe to the basic principles of a worker led, horizontal, response to environmental crisis, you can organise in your own space. Our groups are fairly autonomous, and we trust people to find the tactics which will work best depending on who is involved and the environment in which they are operating. They can cover a local area, a specific workplace or school, or even be formed from an existing group, like a trade union branch or activist group. Whilst we are international, we want as much planning and organising as possible to happen at a local level.
How do the mostly autonomous Earth Strike groups organise with each other?
Most of our organising is done online, through platforms like discord and loomio, which has presented a number of challenges, especially when trying to work on a large scale. To help with this we have a co-ordinator for a region, that is responsible for ensuring the various groups with in it are communicating and coordinating. This co-ordinator also acts as a delegate bringing input from the region to other regions from around a country. This input is how we develop specific demands within each country, we also do that at a local level. For example, in Bristol we’re demanding there is no airport expansion. On an international level we organise similarly, with delegates from each country feeding in.
How are these coordinators chosen?
By local groups, where they exist already! The coordinators are always accountable to the local groups, if at any point a group thinks they are acting in a way they disagree with they can call for an election of a new coordinator(s).
You’ve become the coordinator for the South West, what led you to get involved in Earth Strike ?
I first became involved in January this year. I’d been involved in Extinction Rebellion (XR) for a period of time before that, but felt dissatisfied with where the movement was going. I wanted to do something that was more focused on working class organising, and on more intersectional issues than XR was offering. So I started looking for alternatives, and came across posts about Earth Strike on reddit. They were looking for new people to get involved, so I dropped the UK organiser an email, and set up a Bristol group with other members of the IWW. We held out first demo on January 15th, and had about 60 people show for it.
In what ways do you feel XR failed to be intersectional or a movement that involved the working class?
So, with respecting the St Paul Principles, I don’t want to be too open in discussing my criticisms of other movements, who I feel are doing good things, or have members who are taking actions I support. However, I did feel that quite a lot was being asked of individual members, things like getting arrested, giving up all their time, this felt like it was coming from a very privileged place, where these things were easier and had less risk attached. I’d been active up to that point, but I had felt that a lot of the potential for the movement to really address working class concerns had been lost. Stuff like reskilling workers, and calling for a “Just Transition”. The chance for it to highlight the gendered issues of climate change, and the racial issues of climate, had been stifled, quite actively stifled. So that left me dissatisfied with things.
What is a “Just Transition”?
It’s a way of moving to a sustainable society whilst still protecting workers rights, and ensuring the continued well being of communities. A way of ensuring hardships don’t just fall on those at the bottom of society. Kind of the opposite of things like Marcon’s attempt to impose a fuel tax that would hit France’s poorest hardest, and of schemes that see waste ‘recycled’ from wealthy countries only to be dumped in poorer ones.
In what ways do you feel it is important that ecological campaigns recognise these intersecting oppressions and struggles?
Firstly I think it’s important to point out that the people on the front lines of climate crisis are almost entirely people in already precarious situations, or with the least rights in society. So indigenous peoples threatened by fascists like Bolsonaro, people forced to become refugees who are drowning in the Mediterranean and being put in concentration camps by Trump. Really any strategy to counter climate change has to genuinely engage with people on the sharp end of things. To put forward their concerns more than, say, those of a middle class white activist. I was really impressed that Earth Strike was a movement that seems to be doing this.
For example, one of the first things earth strike did as a movement, was to hold demos all over the world in response to a call for solidarity from the Unist’ot’en. At the time the Canadian government was trying to clear the way for a pipeline to be built across Unist’ot’en land. The government had sent in police to violently evict the Unist’ot’en and clear their barricades. These pipelines are of course damaging to the whole of the world, but on the ground it was the Unist’ot’en who were suffering the most as a result of it. Other actions have included Earth Strike groups in the US joining coalitions to shut down ICE concentration camps. It’s also important to recognise the impact of the arms trade and of the huge amount of resources burned to maintain vast standing armies. We can’t separate out these overlapping struggles militarism, imperialism and climate change.
How long had Earth Strike been around at that point?
Not long, it started towards the end of 2018. It had actually started on the r/chomsky forum on reddit. I can’t remember the user name, but someone put a message up saying they were feeling a real sense of grief about the climate crisis, and they wanted to do something about it. They said that what we really needed was the whole Earth to go on strike. A lot of people agreed, and decided to form an organisation. Being an online space from the start there were people from all over the world, who could start talking with others in their communities and build outwards from there. Initially in fact some of those involved were calling for the strike day to be in January,
As if organising a general strike wasn’t ambitious enough!
I know, but quite quickly those of us with experience in workplace organising, said we can’t have that kind of call out. It takes time to build up a base of support.
So that brings us to the days of strike action, I understand its Friday 20th of September in the UK and the 27th in most other places?
Yes, the 20th in the UK, the 27h in the US. In the UK we thought we’d have the most impact striking together with the youth strike in the UK on the 20th (there have been calls from the movement known as ‘fridays for future’ ‘school strike for climate’ and ‘youthstrike4climate’ for workers to join them – which matches up nicely with Earth Strike’s stratgey) . Some of our other European groups are organising for both days!
What is it you are hoping to achieve on those days?
There’s multiple layers to that question. Obviously on the days themselves what we want to achieve is a mass turn out of working class people, all withdrawing their labour. Of course a strike isn’t a goal, it’s an action towards an end. The goal is to avoid the dystopia we’re heading towards if we don’t derail the current course of history. I guess that is quite a vague far off thing.
A bit! What is in between calling this action and saving the world?
The purpose of that day specifically, the day of our call for the first UK general strike since 1926, is to really raise working class consciousness, especially in relation to environmental issues. We want to say that, if we want our whole society to be sustainable, we’re going to have to start exerting our power. One day of strike actions won’t change the world, but it is the start of showing the sort of tactics that will in the long run. Hopefully new people will see the strikes and be inspired by them. From there we need to build on what we have so far, we need to escalate, more strikes, longer time periods. We need to connect up the various people in struggle, connect up workplaces and working class communities. We need to start doing, well, it’s back to the Wobbly thing of building the new world in the shell of the old again. What if we withdrew our labour from the capitalist system, but continued to occupy our workplaces. How could we use them to sustainably build things we really need?
How do we go about distributing these things? This is going to be a long process. It’s not just going to be one day and then done. This is just the first stage in building the kind of militancy and the kind of organisation we will need to push for a real future.
What is your response to criticism that gets levelled at Earth Strike, and also previous calls for general strike actions, such as those came from Occupy, on May Day, on the day of Trumps Inauguration, and for a women’s strike on international women’s day? Namely that they don’t come out of unions or of organised workplaces so can never lead to meaningful strike action?
First off, a lot of people shit on the women’s strike, and wrongly so. Reproductive labour, which was one of it’s focuses, is incredibly important, and more strikes and more union activists should realise the place it has to play. It’s an important part of Earth Strike as well.
I also think a lot of the people levelling these criticisms at us, haven’t actually looked at the organising that is happening within Earth Strike. We’re not some force external to working class organising. There are plenty of workers, in workplaces, really leading the call for more action. Just recently we’ve had the Harland and Wolff workers in occupation demanding a switch in production to renewable energy, and we’ve been in contact with them via the IWW. That is the sort of thing we want to promote, this kind of ‘Lucas Plan’ style of changing workplaces. Earth Strike isn’t divorced from the workers movement, it’s come from people inside the workers movement. Workers organisations are realising they have to act on climate issues. These are things that do, or will, directly effect their members, both at work and in the community. Earth Strike members haven’t just been organising online, we’ve been pushing for actions in our workplaces and our unions. We’ve grown as part of the workers movement.
What is your relation to these workplace organisations, both the radical syndicalist ones, and the more mainstream unions?
The IWW were one of the first groups to take an active role in earth strike, especially in the UK. Like the IWW, we believe we must abolish the wage system and live in harmony with the planet. Earth Strike sits at the intersection of ecological struggle and class struggle, and we want to spread the idea of environmental unionism. We’ve been working with and within the syndicalist unions to educate people about striking in general. Some of the syndicalist groups are organising via strike notices, where workers sign up and agree to strike if a certain percentage of the workers also agree. Whilst this doesn’t have a legal protection, if solidarity is maintained it is as much protection as is possible outside of the legal protections offered.
This is one of the differences with the mainstream unions. Those unions, even when they endorsed Earth Strike in principle, haven’t been as forthcoming for calling for actual strike action. These established organisations don’t want to break the law of course, but, under existing UK law, it is impossible to call for a strike ballot on broad issues like climate change without breaking the law. We have had statements of support from PCS, BFAWU, UCU, (three trade unions that between them have 400,000 members) and a number of local branches. There have been calls from within UCU for all TUC (Trade Union Congress, a federation of UK trade unions) unions to endorse the Global Climate Strike and to back a limited action on the day. If the TUC do endorse this on Sept 8th it’d be the most radical thing they’ve done in a long time. (Since the interview took place, the TUC have published a message of support with the Global Climate Strike). Despite that, we are going to need more, we’re going to have to rely on wildcat action. That is why having one unified day is important, it means that people aren’t just acting as one work place, they are part of something bigger, and there is more and power and more security in that.
We need to be far more disruptive than the constraints of legally protected trade union action. It’s one of the reasons that having a group like Earth Strike is important is that we can call for things that the Trade Unions can’t.
If the TUC unions are so constrained, what is the point in reaching out to them?
Well, we’re based in the workers movement, and we have to start from where we are. We’re pushing the unions to do as much as they can. We recognise that we’ll have to move beyond the restrictions of union bureaucracy as well. It’s also a practical thing, it is where we can find other workers who are up for organising around these issues.
A while back you mentioned a ‘Just Transition’, and you’ve also mentioned the Lucas Plan, do these things tie in with what people have been calling the ‘Green New Deal’ ? Do you see Earth Strike as linked to these calls that tend to come from within political parties, such as Labour(UK) and the Democrats(US) ?
Similar to the IWW we don’t form any alliances with political parties. We believe that labour organising has to come directly from workers, not from politicians. Things like the Green New Deal, and I don’t want to be too critical of it, seem to be a way of making concessions within the capitalist system. So they’ll push green industries, but still within a system that requires perpetual growth. Rather than the de-growth of harmful industries that is necessary to both mitigate climate change, and stop the continued exploitation of the resources and people of the global south – who are the ones facing the brunt of ecological disaster already. They’ll fund more green jobs, but we’ll still have the inequality that is such a major driver of ecological damage. We won’t be tackling the root causes. So, the Green New Deal is a good starting point to talk about but it falls short as an end goal, it is too focused on sustaining capitalism for as long as possible.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, any final thoughts?
Just that we’ve got a limited time to do a lot of shit.
So don’t wait around, get involved! ■
Organise! has added links throughout the article for more information on the the ideas and organisations mentioned. We hope this acts as a glossary, because not many people will know what all of them are (if you do, you have an impressive memory for abbreviations!).
Organise! would also like to thank the JustSeeds cooperative who kindly allowed us to use the artwork of its members. In order of use that would be Roger Peet, Josh Macphee and Jesse Purcell.
You can find the entire set on their website justseeds.org