Mark Serwotka: Trade Unions and the Environmental Movement are Natural Allies

The trade union movement and the environmental movement should be “together like hand in glove, they should be allies,” argues Mark Serwotka, the General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) – the trade union for British civil servants.

We should watch out for those who try to divide us and try to get their way by getting us at each other’s throats: it makes life easier for them and worse for us.

We should be absolutely, naturally allies. And that means starting to recognise that capitalism attacks workers who are members of trade unions, and it attacks the environment.

For us, at the moment, we’re dealing with tens of thousands of people being laid off, living standards have dropped at a faster rate than any time since Queen Victoria, and, for the environmental movement, we see a lack of investment in renewables, in public transport, [and] pollution seems to be something the capitalists can get away with willy-nilly.

Common Arguments

We have to say we can join up and actually make common arguments as to why we can defend people, working class people, people in the labour movement, and we can be part of a radical environmental movement that can see us take things forward.

So let me say right from the outset that, conscious as we are in our union that there is a debate around the issue of growth and de-growth and steady state, from our perspective in PCS… we’re agnostic about growth in this sense: growth for capitalists is about quantity, it is about measuring economic activity and they want to see the economy expand. For us, growth should be about quality.

What do I mean by that? In the last two years, allegedly the economy has grown in every single quarter, yet we have millions relying on food banks, we have a homelessness crisis, we have people who need houses and we’re not building houses… there’s been growth for capitalists, but for us it’s been going backwards.

Similarly, in terms of the environment, what we see is that capitalists continue to make their profits and these people do not care about the effect they have on the environment in any part of the world.

Good Growth

We’ve got to come together and say: what we want is growth that is actually good for the environment and good for people.

You can watch Mark Serwotka's speech, along with Russell Brand, in the video below. Photo by Brendan Montague

Here in the UK, for example, if we built hundreds of thousands of houses – environmentally friendly houses to the highest standard – if we invested in public transport; if we invested in renewables, what we could see is one million climate jobs. People [would be] put back to work, they [would] pay taxes that [would] help us buy the things this country so desperately needs, and we would see massive reductions in our carbon emissions.

It seems to me that that is a win-win. People are back to work, we can share in some of the prosperity, and the environment wins as well.

The slogan of one million climate jobs is what should unite the trade union movement and the environmental movement.

But, that means in the unions we have got to confront some of the things we’ve found difficult in the past years; where we see some unions that believe that the interest of their members means they have to stay quiet, or even in some instances take the wrong position on things that affect the environment.

Difficult Issues

Let me say something about my own union. In my union, we represent people in the aviation industry, we used to represent people in the nuclear industry, and we represent people in the Ministry of Defence. And yet, as a union, we have a position of total opposition to nuclear power, we have a position against the expansion at Heathrow, and we have a position of opposition to all nuclear weapons, and indeed we are affiliated to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Now, the question therefore you might ask yourself is: how did we do that? Did we ignore the members, did we keep quiet about it, is it a secret that’s on page 106 of our annual report? Absolutely not.

What we did is we went to the members who worked in these industries (in the nuclear industry, in Defence) we wrote to every single person that we represented and we argued that if we did not renew Trident, if we did not have nuclear weapons, if we freed up the billions and billions of pounds to do something productive, they could be re-employed, re-skilled to do things that would benefit all of us. And you know what, the members actually accepted it.

At Heathrow, when many, many unions have taken the view that there are jobs to be had by expanding Heathrow, our view has been very simple: the expansion at Heathrow is not in the interest of people or the environment and we should oppose it, and that is what we’ve done.

So this tells us that even in the trade union movement you can confront some of these difficult issues, you can turn them around and say “we can all benefit”.

Common Cause

But what does this mean in practice? In practice, I think the union movement must be much more involved in the environmental movement.

It means we’ve got to understand the importance of direct action, and it means we’ve got to understand that one person’s demand does not mean it’s to the detriment of a worker somewhere else, if we can all unite to make common cause.

I’ll give you a real example of where I’ve seen this in the most inspirational way recently. Our members working for the National Gallery, the second most visited tourist attraction in the UK, [last week] finished their 17th day of strike action against privatisation. These low-paid workers, whose representatives today have said they want to vote to escalate this to an indefinite strike, are fighting to keep the private corporations out of our arts and culture sector.

And, do you know what happened when the strike started? A group called Art Not Oil, people who recognised that [many of] these exhibitions [were] sponsored by Shell, came down, took direct action and it was fabulous, because what it showed was workers inside are on strike and the people protesting against Shell made common cause, and actually said “we don’t want any of the polluters’ money in our culture sector, these should be public assets that are publicly owned”.

I’ll finish by saying this: if we can take that forward as our blueprint, if we recognise that capitalists want to divide us, then we won’t fall for the playing of the public sector on the private sector, young people against pensioners, people who are migrants against people born in the UK, and we will not fall for the lie that says if you’re pro-environmental issues then you’re against the interest of workers.

This text is an edited version of a speech given by Mark Serwotka, the General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, made on 28 March at This Changes Everything, a one-day interactive conference on climate change and social justice. Watch the full speech delivered here: