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Strike Together: Strengthening the Climate Movement and Trade Unions

By Nicolas Rother - Rupture, May 5, 2021

Leipzig, central bus yard, 15 October, 3:30 am - Normally, the first wave of public buses spreads out all over the city to bring day-time workers to their workplaces and the late shift home. But not today. This autumnal and drizzly Thursday morning is a special one. It’s strike day!

Germany’s second-largest trade union, ver.di, called all drivers of Leipzig’s public transport company, LVB, out for a warning strike. It’s the second within a few weeks. And it’s the second time that the picket line looks very different from what most drivers and their bosses expected. You can see bicycles and cargo-bikes standing by the usually empty bike racks. Roughly 20 other Fridays for Future (FFF) activists and I crawled out of bed in the middle of the night to support the strikers for the second time.

The first time we did this, three weeks before, we felt a bit like aliens. Most drivers were reserved and sceptical when we arrived and unfurled our banner. When we explained that we were there to support them, some openly refused to listen to ‘truants’ and ‘intellectuals’. But we stayed, listened, asked questions and discussed until sunrise.

This time we came again to show that we really care. We brought tea, cake, music and even a burn barrel to break the ice. Still, we had to deal with people who were socialised with Stalinist anti-intellectual propaganda in the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or East Germany) and who had a wide repertoire of hackneyed sayings and jokes about people who go to university. But they were doing this while drinking our coffee and standing around our burn barrel which made us feel that we were more than just supporters, we were actually part of this picket line. Our initiative was necessary because the union was extremely worried about getting bad press for supposedly organising a super-spreader event and wanted everybody to strike from home.

Climate activists turn to unions - labour turns to movements

To understand how we ended up wet and tired, talking with bus drivers about urban mobility, we need to go back over a year.

The last global climate strike saw 1.4 million people on the streets of 600 German cities and towns - one of the biggest demonstrations in Germany ever. The climate movement was on the rise. On the very same day, the government published its package of measures to fight the climate crisis, which didn’t even meet the lowest of expectations. This felt like a punch in the face and knocked back a broad layer of activists. The idea that we could radically change course if we just got politicians to listen to science and younger generations had obviously failed.

However, many activists didn’t want to give up. They were looking for new ideas and new ways to fight current politics. This was the time when left activists in the climate movement, mainly organised in DIE LINKE’s university group, Socialist Democratic Students (SDS), pushed the idea of a more serious collaboration with trade unions through a campaign for better public transport. This campaign was mainly brought forward and constantly pushed into SDS, and from there to FFF, by the revolutionary Marxist group, Marx21. In retrospect, it is remarkable how much energy, work and patience they invested over 1.5 years in this Jane McAlevey-inspired campaign to bring the climate movement to the next level.

The basic idea was: FFF has a lot of young, super committed activists with extraordinary social media range and constant press coverage all over Germany, even in smaller towns. Workers usually don’t have these skills or press coverage, but they have economic power. And this is exactly what the climate movement was lacking but - from our perspective - crucially needed; vice versa, workers needed political arguments that appealed to the whole of society. With unions as a hinge between those two groups, we were looking for a campaign to bring their interests together.

We sought out a sector where our common interests were more obvious and easier to communicate. For example, going with a bunch of young vegans from college to autoworkers to tell them they need to stop welding cars together seemed, although true, pretty tough. But going to tram drivers and telling them that they are actually saving the planet by doing their work and that we need more of them seemed pretty feasible and still true. Twenty percent of CO2 emissions are caused by road traffic. It’s the only sector of the German economy in which emissions have increased since the ‘90s. To stop climate change it is crucial to change how we get from one place to another. It also so happens that ver.di managed to set the same expiration date for all labour agreements in the public transport sector to the same date, making it possible for climate activists to get involved all over the country. This clearly seemed like the best way to go. So we had the opportunity to support drivers in their collective bargaining campaign in over 130 communities in summer 2020.

To raise class consciousness among climate activists, we started discussions about how we could convince more people to use public transport and to effect a change in our society’s mobility. For example, the very popular demand of ‘free’ public transport causes fear among drivers that they have to pay for this by lowering (or not raising) their wages. This gave us the opportunity to discuss who is paying for what in society in a way everybody could relate to. To make transport more reliable and convenient, we need a massive extension of infrastructure and human resources. But in fact, the opposite has happened. While the number of users increased by 24% since 1998, the number of workers decreased by 18%. In combination with communal austerity, this working pressure led to a record high average age of transport workers and also of workers getting sick. This, and stories like transport drivers drinking less water on the job to avoid having to go to the toilet, or delays in driving time not being paid [1], were what we wanted to bring to a bigger audience. On the other side, we appealed for the trade unions to start discussions about green jobs and an ecosocialist future. 

Structure-based organising

The first small steps in this collaboration were made earlier in the year. In the spring and summer of 2019, the school strikes for climate reached out to universities. In this period, we saw general students’ assemblies in over 20 universities, with up to 1,500 participants. At the biggest assembly in Leipzig, we managed to get a speech from an LVB shop steward. From then until early 2020, we contacted nearly every German trade union and built a nationwide workgroup within FFF to collaborate with them. Most trade unions saw a way to use FFF for their agenda in a superficial manner. Only the collaboration with ver.di in the public transport sector turned out to be fruitful.

At different FFF network meetings all over Germany, we appealed for groups to support public transport workers in their upcoming struggle and invited some of the workers to the meetings. This was the very first time for many activists to seriously listen to and discuss workers’ interests. On the other side, for most workers, this was the first time they had contact with hundreds of young activists who enjoyed discussing various topics for a whole weekend. One example from the meeting really shows how new this was for the workers, but also the potential for students and workers to influence each other: “My name is Astrid and my pronoun is ‘bus driver.’ Is that okay?”

During that time a relatively small group of activists called all local FFF groups nationwide and tried to convince them to join the campaign. If they were interested, we forwarded their contact to the local union group so that they could arrange a meeting. In the end, we achieved close collaboration (more or less) between FFF and ver.di, in over 30 cities. Together they would organise events and demonstrations. But then Covid hit Germany.

Class struggle as a grab handle

Although Germany’s climate movement was already starting to lose steam before the pandemic as activists were becoming disillusioned, big demonstrations were still the pivot point. Due to the loss of this way of organising and pressuring government and society to take climate seriously, in addition to a structural absence of a strategy and all the insecurities caused by this new pandemic situation, a tremendous number of activists quit. In the end, only the groups who could use the public transport campaign as a grab handle kept on working.

Another complication was that, by the employers’ request, the bargaining rounds were delayed from summer to autumn. That meant we needed to keep the motivation high for a longer time than we had anticipated, but it also meant we had more time to discuss our positions and tactics concerning this new situation. We tried to reach out to the wider community and bring them on to our side. We started a photo petition, collected signatures and handed out flyers at the bus and tram stops. Because we were doing this teamed with transport workers we formed closer bonds. To strengthen the campaign nationwide, we organised mega-zooms with activists and workers all across Germany to share their experiences in gaining public support.

We found there were common arguments we had to fight against. First, public transport itself had lost support because it was seen to super-spread Covid and a lot of people had switched to cars or bicycles. Second, people thought that a strike during Covid was not showing solidarity. They argued that we all must stick together to survive these hard times. The third argument we encountered was that trying to bargain for more was even more impertinent considering the local and state authorities had no funding left due to Covid supports; and, the drivers should be happy they even had a job at all.

Confronted with this, activists had to quickly learn how to argue from a working-class perspective and the transport workers had to connect their interests to the larger societal interest and make political arguments. Climate activists and workers did this together until the first strike days in autumn 2020. 

Of course, the campaign was not the same everywhere. The summer was hot and long, and Covid made it hard to connect to broader layers. In Leipzig, for example, we faced an unmotivated shop stewards’ committee and inexperienced, overstrained union officials. In addition, only 12% of the workers were in the union and most had no strike experience. In other places, it was reported that very committed union groups just couldn’t get on the same page with activists. Again, in other cities, very close collaboration was possible and friendships were even formed between drivers and activists.

What did we win?

Despite the varying levels of collaboration in different cities, the overall plan to connect climate activists and transport workers was immensely successful. Workers gained a self-confidence and understanding that they are not alone. Their fight is about more than just their own direct working conditions. The media, as predicted, was quite interested in what was going on and not only interviewed workers but also the climate activists, which allowed us to emphasise the broader political points about how better public transport benefits us all.

What did we win on paper? In most communities, we won a minimal higher wage (~1.8%), an extra day off, a reduction in the workday by one hour without loss in pay, and apprenticeship time would now be fully counted as working time. This is definitely not as much as we demanded but, considering the situation facing us, for many workers it was acceptable. As well, in Leipzig, something like a non-union interest group of around six employees was formed that is now meeting monthly to discuss workplace and broader issues such as gender equality. 

You could say that this whole campaign is not applicable for sectors where the polarity of interests is much stronger and where the real money is made, for example, the car industry. And we still need to find answers for how unions and parties can connect sometimes totally contradictory interests and bring different struggles together to raise class consciousness. 

However, this was one of the most serious experiments of connecting environmentalists with workers’ issues in a very concrete way in the last decades. Activists could get an idea of the power the climate movement gains by supporting workers in struggle, and unions saw that a turn towards climate issues can empower and not weaken struggles.

Capitalist exploitation of workers and their refusal to stop polluting our environment will continue to force workers into struggle and increase the number of people joining the climate movement. Undoubtedly, we will have more opportunities to use our experiences and strengthen the alliance between the environmental- and workers’ movements, building a bigger, more powerful struggle for an ecosocialist future.


1. When a driver takes longer to complete their route than expected, they aren’t paid for it, they are only paid for the time scheduled.

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