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GM Strikers and Climate Strikers Belong Together

At first glance, the two strikes might not appear to have much in common. But the working class is the only social force that can reorganize the economy. Workers need to take the lead in the climate strike. 

Nathaniel Flakin

September 26, 2019
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In the last week, two strikes shook the United States. One was the Global Climate Strike: around the world, four million people took to the streets to demand urgent action against climate change. In New York City, where the U.N. Climate Summit just started, it was up to 250,000. 

The other was the General Motors strike. Across the United States, 50,000 workers have walked out to demand better wages and an end to the inequality between so-called “temporary” workers and the permanent workforce. This strike is already affecting the global automobile industry. 

At first glance, these strikes might not appear to have much in common. In fact, they might seem directly opposed. Greta Thunberg and other climate strikers are calling for an emergency mobilization against CO2 emissions—which would necessarily require drastic reductions in the number of cars. GM workers, in contrast, are trying to win secure employment producing cars. And cars make up at least a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.

So how could these two movements possibly unite?

Workers For Future

The young people who took to the streets on September 20 were not alone. Especially in Germany, where 1.4 million people participated in 500 actions across the country, countless workers joined the youth protest. 

All over the world, trade union leaders expressed their support for the action. But it was a rare exception that they organized their members to strike. They were afraid of anti-union laws, or their own ability to mobilize. Even in New York City, where countless teachers were planning to join the demonstration but were then prohibited from doing so, the union leadership refused to call people out.

At the UN Climate Summit, Greta Thunberg expressed her rage at world leaders who consistently refuse to take meaningful action against climate change. Over the last 30 years, these capitalist politicians have shown they are utterly incapable of reducing CO2 emissions. They are committed to maximizing the profits of their country’s capitalists, quarter for quarter. Even if some politicians might be seriously concerned about the prospect of the collapse of human civilization, they are subject to constant, fierce competition amongst themselves. If one company or one government tries to limit or reduce emissions, its competitors will have an advantage.

So if we really do need an emergency mobilization, who is going to carry it out? People who do not profit from environmental destruction. In other words: working people. 

Workers keep the entire world running—including mines, oil refineries, car factories, airlines, and every other activity that releases greenhouse gasses. Workers are uniquely positioned to take the drastic actions that are necessary to stop the climate crisis. Right now the workers of GM are putting this on display: If they want to, they can stop the production of cars from one day to the next. They have an incredible power if they just refuse to work.

Producing Under Workers Control

Workers can do more than shut down a factory, though. They can also take it over and run it without bosses. Workers in a car factory, for example, could reconfigure production: Instead of making individual cars with gasoline motors, they could build public transport based on renewable energy.

This is exactly what’s happening at the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast. To protest against the closure of the facility that once built the Titanic, the 122 workers occupied their workplace. Their demand is that the government nationalize it in order to produce turbines for renewable energy.

This is more than a pipe dream. There are several examples in recent years where workers took over their factories in this way. 500 workers occupied the Zanon ceramics factory in Argentina in 2001. They organized production in democratic assemblies. They were able to save their jobs and produce ceramic tiles for the community. This has been working for more than 15 years. Something very similar happened at the Madygraf print shop, also in Argentina. 

Climate change is a monumental problem. It would require millions of workers all over the world taking over whole swaths of the economy. And yet, this is by far the most “realistic” solution. Revolutionary action by the workers, deliberately violating the property rights of capitalist owners, is the only chance we’ve got. 

There are over three billion salaried workers in the world today. If the working class were organized, we could start an emergency plan against climate change with the snap of our fingers. This would include nationalizing the fossil fuel industries, putting them under the control of workers and investing in renewable energies. All these measures would need to be carried out by workers.

From Climate Strike to General Strike

And this brings us back to the General Motors strike. The workers are showing their incredible power—they are costing GM up to 100 million dollars a day. If they could throw that power into the struggle against climate change, we could finally see meaningful action against the crisis. 

The only thing holding us back at the moment are the privileged bureaucracies that control the trade unions. They are refusing to call for real strikes against climate change—these bureaucrats see themselves as co-managers of capitalism. Workers in the rank-and-file need to organize themselves to pressure their leaders to call real strikes.

The young climate activists don’t need to waste their time appealing to capitalist politicians. Instead, they need to appeal to working people. There is no point appealing to “world leaders” and the powerful. The only chance we have is getting rid of these power structures. The climate strikes have already inspired huge swaths of workers. But now climate activists need to begin to organize workers, with a program for radically changing the economy.

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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French. He is on the autism spectrum.


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