How to be an effective climate activist in your workplace

A Workers’ Climate Action briefing written by Paul Hampton

April 2010


Collective action

The major decisions about energy and transport, which produce most greenhouse gas emissions, are made by private companies and by the state. Workplaces account for at least 50% of total emissions, according to official figures. According to the DECC, 2 February 2010, greenhouse gases by end user come from business (31%), transport (24%), residential (24%), agriculture (8%) and industrial processes (3%). Transport includes commuting and work-related driving. But business and government rely on workers’ passivity to do what they want to do – which is to make profit, while polluting freely. Therefore workplaces are an important site of struggle to reduce carbon emissions.

Individuals have little influence; but workers at the point of production have tremendous collective power. Five fingers on a hand are weak; a clenched fist makes those fingers strong. Workers’ collective action at work is an absolutely central part of any serious effort to tackle climate change. And this needs to be part of mass action with workers at other workplaces.

Green reps

One of the results of concerted trade union campaigning over a number of years around issues of workplace health and safety was the winning of “health and safety reps”. These are union members, elected by their members, who have some responsibility for overseeing health and safety in the workplace. These positions are recognised by management.

As the climate crisis has worsened and the environment has become more of a frontline issue, many unions have fought for the election of “green reps” to play a similar role. In many places unions have now won management recognition for such positions.

Of course, the mere existence of green reps does not lead to the development of radical working-class action on the environment. It is entirely possible for green reps to be management toadies, allowing themselves to be used to publicise and promote management’s environmental policies which often seek to shift the blame for environmentally-damaging waste in the workplace onto workers.

But green rep positions can be used in a radical way if the activists elected to such positions develop a working-class understanding of fighting climate change and put workers’ self-organisation and a struggle for workers’ control at the centre of what they do in the post.

Get organised

Green reps will only be effective if they are organised. Everyone should join a trade union, organise workplace meetings for all workers (members and non-union members), and set up democratic rank and file committees. In some unions it is possible to be accredited officially as a green rep. This is worth doing, to provide a bit of a shield against victimisation by bosses. It may even involve some time off during work time to organise.

In many workplaces, even where unions are recognised, union membership density and workers’ confidence are so weak that you may almost be starting from scratch. This still means joining the union, though you may not get much help from officials. It is still possible to form a climate solidarity group – these are being set up across education, in central government and on the post and telecom by unions at the moment. A handful of people willing to meet, plan some activity and carry it out is all it takes to start things off. From an acorn, great oaks can grow…

Class struggle, not partnership

To really make a dent on workplace emissions and rebuild workplace organisation requires radical activity. Green reps should be fighters, rather than a management stooge who just goes round telling workers to turn their lights off. Bosses and management are not our allies in this or other struggles – they are the reason we have problems at work.

Radical green reps should use whatever opportunities their employer offers to engage with climate issues at work. This means taking part in their working parties, joint committees and consultations. Hundreds of these committees have been set up on climate change in recent years. But this activity should not at the expense of building collective strength. What is needed is independent action by workers – going beyond the boundaries set by the bosses.

It may be possible to get an agreement with management to allow green reps officially in the workplace. With more government targets and employers promises to reduce emissions, there are official footholds that can be used. For example Bristol City Council recently signed an agreement to officially recognise green reps. Even big power firms like EDF have negotiated agreements to recognise union involvement in this area.

A lower-level approach is to organise a green day, show a DVD or environmental awareness film, or run a Q&A or informal debate, or some other public event to start discussion and meet people. When unions at the British Museum did this, hundreds of workers came – many who had not been active on other issues.

Others have started workplace newsletters on green issues. These can be sent round the intranet, posted on notice boards and distributed in canteens. Communicate successes, tell people what you’re organising, invite them to take part. A lively workplace bulletin, clear on the political issues but also with some humour and snippets about management greenwash is a powerful tool to building collective strength and confidence.

What to fight for

Energy efficiency:
Argue for your employer to carry out a feasibility study to install wind turbines and solar panels in the workplace. This has already happened in many workplaces, such as Tilbury docks, the BBC, BT, numerous universities and other big sites. Renewable energy means the workplace can have its own power source, provide jobs, probably save money in the long run and reduce the organisation’s carbon footprint. Reps in fossil fuel firms should fight for their employer to convert to lower-carbon alternatives and to cut their carbon footprint. Union reps in EDF, Western Power Distribution and Sellafield have already made a start in this direction.

Insulate the workplace:
Insulation makes the workplace more comfortable to work in, as it balances out the seasonal impact on internal temperature, and saves money while reducing emissions. Old buildings should be upgraded – new buildings should adopt the best available technologies.

Electrical equipment:
Lighting accounts for a large chunk of workplace emissions. Automatic sensor lighting and energy-saving bulbs make a big difference. Similarly, new IT equipment will make workers jobs easier while using less energy, if power-saving devises are included.

Get the boss to commit to a green travel plan. This means the employer subsidising public transport use e.g. by paying for annual travel passes. A loan is a start, but better if it is free for workers. Bosses should also be paying for bikes, as well as the safety equipment, storage and showers to freshen up. Where driving is essential, employers should buy duel fuel and electric vehicles, especially for urban areas. Drivers should get training for fuel efficient driving.

Workplaces use tonnes of resources – employers should organise schemes for metal, plastic and other materials, not just paper. It should include food waste, water use (e.g. rainwater for toilets).

Strategy and tactics

The basic strategy of a radical green rep is to reduce carbon emissions in the workplace by imposing workers’ control. This means workers taking decisions usually left to management’s prerogative. It is imposed because management will probably not allow it without a fight.

Open the books:
We fight for the right to know about real scale of workplace, industrial and employer greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, transport arrangements, waste etc. Demand your employer account for all their emissions – and not fob them off by carbon credits, outsourcing or cuts.

If workers feel strongly about the issue, just stopping work, even for half an hour, makes the point. Workers do this every summer when it’s too hot to work – often walking out until the problem is fixed.

Walk out:
Leaving the workplace together is a very graphic way to make the point. Postal workers threaten this all the time, and actually do it when necessary, because bosses know even a brief interruption can disrupt work for hours.

Go slow:
Collectively deciding to work slowly, without actually halting production, is effective, especially in workplaces where just-in-time techniques mean supply chains are very taut.

Work to rule:
Collectively refusing to do overtime, or additional duties, can impact on the employer.

The refusal to work until the issue is resolved, officially after a ballot, or unofficially after a workplace vote, is one of the most effective ways to win key demands. In the 1980s workers struck over dangerous chemicals and toxic wastes, forcing management to back down.

Faced with the threat of closure or a lock out, occupying the workplace is a highly effective tactic to get bosses’ attention. Occupations at Vestas, Visteon and Waterford Crystal last year showed that this approach, backed by solidarity from outside, gives workers tremendous leverage.

Safety and health

Climate change is a class issue, with significant health and safety implications. Workers have long recognised that safety and health issues in the workplace that overlap with environmental concerns – going right back to the match workers’ strike. In the summer, many indoor work places are stiflingly hot and unbearable to work in. This will only get worse as climate change increases average temperatures and leads to more extreme weather. The government says workplaces need to adapt to climate change. Safety law says temperatures inside should be “reasonable”. Green reps can organise around this issue to ensure that when a temperature (of say 24°C is triggered), measures like ventilation, blinds, a relaxed dress code and other changes are brought in.

Safety law is also useful in another respect. When workers are in “serious and imminent danger”, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations permit them to stop work legally. This happens over high temperatures, but is also important in floods and storms – when carrying on at work puts workers at risk.

Who benefits?

Energy efficiency at work does reduce carbon emissions. It also saves bosses a lot of money. These funds should be used to benefit workers, not swallowed up by shareholders as profits, or given to managers has fat-cat bonuses. Right now, serious energy saving could be used to stop job cuts. Workers need to see that action on climate change leads to direct, tangible benefits for them and their workmates. Radical green reps can ask questions, and demand answers about who pays and who benefits from climate-related measures.

Bosses’ greenwash

Many employers talk about greening their business or organisation. Sometimes this is a cover for cuts or charges. Many public sector bodies have closed car parks, selling off land for rebuilding – or charging workers a packet just to park. This is not about being green, it’s naked revenue-raising off the back of workers. No doubt senior managers still get to park for free – or their salaries are upped to cover it. Similarly, office closures are dressed up as green measures, sometimes allowing workers to work from home. This might save on heating and lighting, but only by passing on the costs to workers at home and by increasing emissions from long distance travel. Radical green reps want consultation on these issues, and a veto if the changes hit workers.

Climate activists should encourage workers to discuss the costs and benefits of climate-related changes to the workplace: who benefits and who pays for targets on workplace emissions, assessments of embodied energy of new infrastructure, waste reduction, offsetting and other schemes. Many employers think they can “shop their way out of climate change” – as happens with carbon trading scheme. But profiting from climate change means exploiting workers while degrading the environment. Workers should demand more. We only want the earth.

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