(Frann Michel for the Old Mole Variety Hour March 11, 2019; School Strike image by Leonhard Lenz [CC0])
Young climate activists have called for a one-day school strike on March 15th. Earth Strike, as it’s also called, is expected to be the largest yet of these events, with over 900 actions in nearly 80 countries. In Portland, organizers from The Raven Corps and Global Climate Strike will be at City Hall, 1221 SW 4thAvenue, from 11am to 12 noon on Friday.
But in what way is this a “strike”?
Classically, of course, a strike action is a collective work stoppage.
The term in English dates to the eighteenth century, and may come from the action of sailors who protested a wage cutby taking down the sails—which is called ‘striking the sails’—indicating their refusal to work at lower pay. Or it may derive from the idea of a strike or blow against the power of an employer.
By halting production—or, in the case of sailors, halting transport—workers deprive their employers of profit, demonstrating that workers are the ones who create wealth. When a strike is successful, it compels an employer to meet the demands of workers.
Strikes are usually accompanied by pickets, in which workers carry signs and distribute leaflets explaining their grievances and demands. Insofar as a picket line deters customers, it can have additional economic impact, like a boycott, or a sympathy strike of other workers. In writing leaflets and producing signs, workers clarify the nature of their situation, and educate themselves and others. Insofar as this educates fellow workers and deters them from breaking ranks, it builds solidarity.
Like other forms of protest or demonstration, then, strikes can bring public pressure. Strikes explicitly directed at government rather than a business, or directed at concerns beyond immediate working conditions, are known as political strikes.
But strikes can do more than win concessions from business or raise public awareness or political pressure. Strikes can also build the skills, confidence, and expectations of workers and the power of their collective organization.
This building of collective power can come even from one-day strikes, despite those not exerting the economic pressure of strikes maintained indefinitely until demands are met, strikes that genuinely disrupt a business’s income.
Writing a few years ago in Dissent about one-day strikes in the fast-food industry, Max Fraser suggests the right historical comparison is not to the famous Flint sit-down strike of 1936 and 37 that unionized the American auto industry, but instead to “the many smaller, subtler job actions that led up to it.” As Fraser notes, “neither Rome nor Flint was built in a day,” but “Each coordinated slowdown, each act of illicit machine-breaking or tampering with the line, each wildcat strike in 1934 and 1935 made possible the major confrontation of 1936 and 1937, by making Flint workers bolder, more confident about taking risks, and finally more willing to defy authority and trust that their coworkers would do the same.”
Not every action is equally empowering, but highlighting multiple ways of engaging in action may encourage wider participation; and that, in turn, may create momentum and attract more new activists.
For the one-day International Women’s Strike, organizers suggested striking, marching, blocking roads, bridges, and squares, abstaining from domestic work, abstaining from care work, not smiling, boycotting, calling out, and wearing red.
The youth climate strike website Fridays for Future points out that “Many people do not think they can strike [because] they are worried about their school grades. The Belgium schools all used clocks which then 'struck' and then took a picture and this was their method to strike.... Other groups have other ways to find a way to strike, even churches have their bells strike!”
Clearly, some of these symbolic actions are strikes only by way of pun, and might more commonly be described as protests or demonstrations. But describing them as “strikes” connects them with more militant traditions, and asserts their potential power.
To those who suggest that children should be staying in school rather than going out on strike, the young climate activists retort that in light of accelerating climate destruction, going to school becomes pointless: “Why study for a future, which may not be there? -- Why spend a lot of effort to become educated, when our governments are not listening to the educated?”
They don’t mention—but they might—that by striking they may be gaining skills, confidence, and experience in rebellion—lessons that may be more genuinely useful to them than what they would get in school.
Here’s the recently-released statement of the global coordination group of the youth-led climate strike:
We, the young, are deeply concerned about our future. Humanity is currently causing the sixth mass extinction of species and the global climate system is at the brink of a catastrophic crisis. Its devastating impacts are already felt by millions of people around the globe. Yet we are far from reaching the goals of the Paris agreement.
Young people make up more than half of the global population. Our generation grew up with the climate crisis and we will have to deal with it for the rest of our lives. Despite that fact, most of us are not included in the local and global decision-making process. We are the voiceless future of humanity.
We will no longer accept this injustice. We demand justice for all past, current and future victims of the climate crisis, and so we are rising up. Thousands of us have taken to the streets in the past weeks all around the world. Now we will make our voices heard. On 15 March, we will protest on every continent.
We finally need to treat the climate crisis as a crisis. It is the biggest threat in human history and we will not accept the world’s decision-makers’ inaction that threatens our entire civilisation. We will not accept a life in fear and devastation. We have the right to live our dreams and hopes. Climate change is already happening. People did die, are dying and will die because of it, but we can and will stop this madness.
We, the young, have started to move. We are going to change the fate of humanity, whether you like it or not. United we will rise until we see climate justice. We demand the world’s decision-makers take responsibility and solve this crisis.
You have failed us in the past. If you continue failing us 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.