#ShutItDown: Organizing to Strike for Climate Justice

Patrick Young
Jul 13 · 15 min read

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Throughout the 2018–2019 school year, young people around organized massive school climate strikes to demand that the world’s leaders take immediate action to address climate change. The strikes started first in Sweden, then spread throughout the European Union and around the world. By March, 15 tens of thousands of students in more than 100 countries around the world walked out of school as part of the first Global Climate Strike for Our Future issuing a strong challenge to the world’s leaders. Greta Thunberg, one of the strike’s leaders wrote in an open letter in the Guardian,

“We, the young, are deeply concerned about our future… We will no longer accept this injustice… We demand the world’s decision-makers take responsibility and solve this crisis. You have failed us in the past. If you continue failing in the future, we, the young people, will make change happen by ourselves. The youth of this world has started to move and we will not rest again.”

Inspired by these bold youth-led actions and motivated by the increasing urgency of the climate crisis, others in the climate movement have issued calls for climate strikes starting as soon as September of 2019. Starting on September 20, the students who have been organizing the weekly climate strikes are launching a major strike and week of actions. Then starting on September 27th, Earth Strike is calling for a general strike demanding immediate climate action from governments and corporations worldwide. WeRise2020, a widespread network of climate action groups across Europe is planning on mobilizing alongside EarthStrike starting on September 27th for four to six weeks of escalated actions before pausing to regroup for another wave of action.

These calls for climate strikes offer an inspiring vision for action at the scale and scope needed to disrupt the entrenched power structures that have created the climate crisis and continually blocked the serious measures needed to combat it. But beyond calls to walk out of school and work, truly effective climate strikes will require a strategy for mass participation and disruption to seriously threaten the entrenched power structures. It won’t be easy but by drawing on the lessons from previous mass strikes and tested organizing principles we believe that it is possible to build mass climate strikes that can offer a credible threat to the governments and corporations that have failed to address the climate crisis.

Strikes — A powerful tool in the toolbox

The term “strike” comes from a maritime tradition of workplace action where sailors would lower or “strike” the sails of their ship at sea demanding better treatment and working conditions from the ship’s captain and officers. Sailors would refuse to raise the sails and the ship would stay adrift until their demands were met, or at least an acceptable agreement had been reached. There was an art to organizing these early strikes. A large enough portion of the crew needed to be ready to take action so that they couldn’t be overpowered by the officers and loyal crew members. And the strikes were most effective when winds were high and the cost of lowering sails was greatest. If the strike failed the consequences to the unlucky sailors who overplayed their hands would be great. And ship captains knew that if the unrest was not addressed quickly it could escalate to a full blown mutiny.

Strikes moved ashore in the early 1600s with relatively small groups of indentured servants, slaves, apprentices, and craftspeople laying down their tools and refusing to work to demand better working conditions. While workers from all walks of life participated in different forms of strikes, skilled craft workers whose skills could not easily be replaced won the biggest gains during these early work stoppages. But as the industrial revolution and the introduction of steam-powered railroads transformed the organization of the economy, larger groups of unskilled industrial workers gained the ability to cause mass disruption by idling the factories and infrastructure that early industrialists relied upon to make their fortunes.

In 1877 workers on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) went on strike to protest wage cuts, choking the nation’s arteries and cutting off the lifeblood of the country’s commercial and industrial systems. The strike started in Martinsburg, West Virginia before spreading to Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and as far west as St. Louis, Missouri and as far north as Albany, New York. Thousands of railroad workers took part in the strike but its effects were much more widespread because the stalled rail line blocked factories from getting supplies or transporting their goods to market and brought passenger travel to a standstill effectively shutting down a large portion of the commercial and industrial activity in the country.

Later, in 1934 when Longshore workers in San Francisco and Teamsters in Minneapolis commercial activity in both cities ground to a halt. With the docks in Seattle’s ports effectively shut down and drivers refusing to move struck cargo, all of the businesses that relied on trading and transporting imported and exported goods were shut down. When Seattle’s truck drivers struck, “flying squads” of picketers refused to allow any truck roll through the city’s streets without a special permit from the union (strikers granted special permits to trucks moving supplies for hospitals as well as farmers from the supportive Farmers’ Holiday Association traveling into the city to sell produce in street markets). And as recently as this year, the wave of teachers strikes across the country rippled through entire communities, with parents of school children calling off work to stay home with their children while schools were closed (many parents and students used the time to join their teachers on the picket lines).

Mass Participation and Mass Disruption

Strikes are a very powerful tool, but they aren’t a tool to be used lightly. Strikes are, by their very nature, tools of mass participation. Just a handful of workers walking off the job isn’t likely to have a significant impact on operations. For a strike to be successful at impeding operations, large numbers of workers must be ready to collectively withhold their labor. This requires serious discipline and commitment. The costs of missing work — and a paycheck — can be significant for many workers. And the risks of being fired or retaliated against are serious. So the informed consent and active participation of large numbers of workers — particularly those most implicated in the strike activity — are essential ingredients in organizing a credible strike.

While some moderately successful strikes have been limited to specific workplaces or industries, throughout history, the strikes that have won sweeping societal changes won because they were able to spread throughout the economy, generating popular support, mobilizing mass participation and creating mass disruption. During the railroad strike, a large number of railroad workers walked off the job, refusing to work after management instituted pay cuts. But even more workers didn’t work because the trains were not running. Picketers refused to let trains leave stations or roundhouses, supplies weren’t delivered to factories, and passengers weren’t able to travel to conduct business. In Minneapolis, Teamsters made the decision that allowing any driver to move goods at substandard rates hurt every trucker so flying picket squads refused to let trucks driven by would-be strikebreakers move during the strikes.

Modern Labor Law — An uneasy compromise

Today’s labor strikes are much different than the strikes that led to the massive workplace gains a century ago. Because early strikes proved to be so powerful and disruptive, politicians offered something of a compromise, allowing strikes, but only under certain conditions. Anthropologist David Graeber observes,

“Unions are, paradoxically, the only organizations in the US legally permitted to engage in direct action; but they can do so only if they do not call it that; and only at the cost of accepting endless and intricate regulations over how and when they can strike, what kinds of pickets they can set up and where, whether, they are allowed to engage in other tactics such as secondary boycotts or even publicity campaigning, and so on.”

This uneasy compromise has been the subject of much debate within the labor movement. On one hand, federal labor law has offered some important protections for workers engaging in union activity, on the other hand, the legal framework of the National Labor Relations Act has dramatically constrained the repertoires of contention that are available to modern labor unions.

As a result of this uneasy compromise, the strikes that observers of the modern labor movement are familiar with bear little resemblance to the massively disruptive general strikes that led to the huge gains of the labor movement in the years before 1936. Early strikes relied on two essential components to create mass disruption: First, workers would organize large numbers of their co-workers to withhold their labor for the duration of the strike. Second, those workers and their supporters worked to actively disrupt commercial activity through pickets, blockades, social persuasion, and direct action.

This second, more active, component of early strikes was essential to creating mass disruption because it made the decision of whether or not to strike a collective one, not an individual one. Once workers collectively decided to call a strike, individual workers were no longer forced to make the tough individual decision of defying their employers and refusing to work — factories were inaccessible because their gates were blocked by strong picket lines; trains and trucks would not move because even if there were drivers and rail crews on hand willing to defy the strike, roads and rail lines would be blocked; shops would close partly because even if there were retail clerks ready to show up to work there would be no way to get goods to stock the shelves and customers would be discouraged from shopping.

Today, constrained by the framework of federal labor law, unions generally rely primarily on the more passive component of strikes — withdrawing labor en mass. Popular movement to fight climate change, however, are not bound by the constraints of the uneasy compromise of federal labor law, we are only bound by our ability to build mass participation, create mass disruption and withstand mass repression.

Striking for Climate Justice

The bold and courageous leaders of the student climate strikes captured the imagination of the world by walking out of school, Friday after Friday, eventually mobilizing millions of students in more than 100 countries around the world to take action. They have called for another round of mass strikes in September of 2019 and issued a challenge for older generations to join them.

“Millions of school strikers have shown us they’re serious about climate action. Adults, will you join our youth? School strikers are calling on everyone: young people, parents, workers, and all concerned citizens to join massive climate strikes and a week of actions starting on September 20. People all over the world will use their power to stop ‘business as usual’ in the face of the climate emergency.”

To date, climate strikes have relied mainly on large numbers of students withdrawing their participation in the status quo by walking out of class and joining demonstrations. But this round of climate strikes could truly jump scale and pose a credible threat to the politicians and corporations that have failed to take action on the climate crisis if we are able to combine organizing walkouts at massive scale with active disruptions to bring the economy to a screeching halt.

Building massive support and participation is one essential component of organizing for this September’s climate strike. But planning for mass disruption to actively shut down our political and economic system is what will make the difference between a powerful week of action and a serious challenge to the entrenched power structures.

If our movements can credibly plan to shut down the arteries of commerce and transportation we can transform a climate strike from an individual decision to withhold labor to a collective decision to shut down the economy until our demands are met. If we can ensure that commuter trains cannot run, key bridges are impassible for vehicular traffic, and major highways into commercial centers are blocked people will not be forced to make the tough individual decision about whether or not to go to work — going to work won’t be an option — they’ll be able to decide whether to stay home or to come out to the streets to join the demonstrations.

“But what about people just trying to go about their day? Won’t we just be inconveniencing them?“

To be sure, massive participation and broad popular support is an essential component of a successful climate strike. But if we are serious striking for climate justice we need to be serious about creating mass disruption. If we are going to invite individuals to give up pay, risk their jobs, or leave their classrooms to join a strike, we owe it to them to be serious about making it work. There can be significant personal costs to participating in a strike and strikes aren’t a tactic to call for lightly or to deploy as half measures.

The question of whether or not to organize mass disruption is an important gut-check for our movement. If we don’t think that the situation is urgent enough to warrant creating a mass disruption then the situation probably isn’t urgent enough to encourage large numbers of people to risk their livelihoods by going on strike.

A strike will be disruptive. Some people who want to go to work won’t be able to get to their jobs. Some parents will probably have trouble getting to their kids’ daycare to pick them up. Some people may have trouble getting to the pharmacy to pick up their medicine. Many people will miss paychecks. We can come up with plans to try to mitigate as many of these problems as possible, but if we aren’t ready to try to solve the problem of helping parents get their kids at daycare or finding ways people to get their medicine from the pharmacy, we aren’t ready to invite daycare workers or pharmacy techs to walk off the job.

From Individual Decisions to Collective Action

Organizing mass disruption to the key arteries of the economy also transforms participating in a strike from an individual decision to a collective action. If the strike just relies on individuals making the decision to withhold their labor or walk out of their classrooms, every person who participates in the strike is forced into a situation where they must personally decide whether or not they are going to strike and bear the full weight and responsibility of that decision with their employer or school.

But as the size of the strike grows, the risk becomes more distributed and dissipates. A boss can fire one or two workers for refusing to come to work during the climate strike. But can that boss afford to fire 100 workers for participating in the climate strike? 200 workers? 1,000 workers?

And if transportation infrastructure is shut down or the doors to the workplace are blocked, workers won’t need to make a decision about whether or not to go to work — they can’t go to work. And faced with the prospect of a mass strike and disruption that would make business as usual impossible, many employers would respond the way that they do in anticipation of a major snowstorm or the day after the home team wins the World Series — by simply closing their business for the day.

This doesn’t mean that a strike can be imposed from the outside or orchestrated by some vanguard of militant activists. Without the active participation of large numbers of people and popular support from many, many more — particularly those with the most at stake — a disruptive strike will almost certainly create an ugly backlash. And to the extent that disruptive activity impedes people who aren’t inclined to participate in the strike from getting where they want to go or doing what they want to do during the strike, it is best if the people doing the disruption are the ones with the closest relationship to the nodes of the economy they are disrupting. If commuter trains are going to be blockaded, people who normally ride those trains should lead those blockades; if bridges are going to be shut down, the people who normally rely on those bridges should take the lead in those shutdowns; if school buses are going to be kept in their garages, students who normally ride school buses should take the lead in keeping the buses in those garages.

Organizing at Scale

While organizing a climate strike that can credibly disrupt commercial activity within any city or region requires organizing at a massive scale, it doesn’t require unanimous participation. In a groundbreaking study of civil resistance campaigns around the world, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan found that movements that mobilized at least 3.5% of the population in sustained civil resistance were successful in creating transformative political change. While much easier to build towards than 100% participation, mobilizing 3.5% of the population is still an ambitious mobilization. That means engaging 25 thousand people in Seattle, 95 thousand people in Chicago, 290 thousand people in New York City or 11.4 million people nationwide in sustained civil resistance.

Right now there is no organization or party structure in the United States that has the resources or capacity to build a program to organize at this scale. But working alongside each other many different types of organizations can cobble together the best practices and traditions of a wide range of social movements to organize huge numbers of people to take bold and dynamic action.

From the labor and community organizing traditions, organizations can adopt the models of disciplined, structure-based organizing. Tools like mapping workplaces and communities to build lists and identify organic leaders and one-on-one organizing conversations with clear action steps to push people into action can allow us to go beyond ‘hand raisers’ and ‘usual suspects’ to go deep into our communities and engage people we would have never thought about engaging.

We can use structure tests like strike pledges and practice actions to find out where we have strong support and participation and spend time and energy going towards our “biggest worsts” to break down barriers to action. The Central American Solidarity Movement, Anti-War Movement, and Climate movements used these tools to great effect with “Pledge of Resistance” campaigns where people publicly committed to taking bold action in support of their movements. As more and more people sign pledges, the more timid and skeptical supporters of the movements became more confident that the actions were going to be powerful and they added their names. Pledge organizers could also identify key areas and communities that had not signed the pledge, identify what was holding people back, and work with those communities to break through barriers to action.

From the direct action organizing tradition, a movement to build a climate strike can adopt models of decentralized and autonomous organizing through affinity groups that take responsibility for making their own plans to meaningfully participate in the strike. During the WTO in Seattle in 1999, the Direct Action Network divided the city into sections surrounding the convention center like pieces of a pie. Different affinity groups or groups of affinity groups made plans within their own sections of the city to shut down traffic. Some organized marches or rolling blockades, others organized mass sit-ins, and still others organized lockdowns in key intersections. With the city shut down, the trade summit was delayed and talks eventually collapsed as delegates from the global south who were being strongarmed into the disastrous trade deal became emboldened by popular resistance from around the world.

From the Momentum model that has informed the great work of the Sunrise Movement, If Not Now, and Movimiento Cosecha, a mobilization for a climate strike can adopt the practices of frontloading and mass training to breakdown the bottlenecks and onboard huge numbers of people in the ‘moment of the whirlwind’ — when the movement begins to take on a life of its own. By developing a strong program of training and onboarding, new participants are able to quickly learn the structures, stories, norms, and repertoires of contention of the movement and jump into meaningful action right away. This allows the movement to quickly scale up and absorb the time and energy and capacity of huge numbers of people during times of peak activity — when it’s often hardest to meaningfully integrate new energetic participants — and harness that energy when the wave of action recedes as part of the natural cycle of social movements.

To be sure, the conditions for organizing a climate strike are not ideal. Many of our movements are on the defensive, facing down new attacks from the Trump administration at every turn. The organizational infrastructure to support massive direct action is relatively weak right now and September is only two months away. But time is running out and the climate crisis is on our doorstep. The conditions for organizing are only going to get more and more challenging in the months and years to come. Young people around the world have challenged all of us to take bold direct action to turn the political tides and seriously confront the climate crisis. Their visionary leadership has created the momentum and opportunity we need to take serious action for climate justice. This September, let’s give it a shot. Let’s go big and strike for climate justice.

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