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At COP26 in Glasgow, the Spirit of “Red Clydeside” Inspires Protests for a Green New Deal

The Scottish and British governments are each using the Glasgow COP26 summit to boast of their green credentials. But recent protests by trade unions in Glasgow show that worker solidarity is the best defense of a livable planet.

Protesters dressed as US president Joe Biden and British prime minister Boris Johnson at a demonstration on November 1, 2021, in Glasgow, Scotland. As world leaders meet to discuss climate change at the COP26 Summit, many climate action groups have taken to the streets to protest. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images)

In January 1919, 25,000 industrial workers packed out Glasgow’s George Square to demand their right to a maximum forty-hour working week. Describing the demonstration as a “Bolshevist uprising,” the British government’s secretary of state for Scotland had to resort to sending in soldiers and tanks to quell the unrest.

The so-called Battle of George Square took place at the height of Red Clydeside — a period when revolution and radicalism swept the banks of the River Clyde. Never in Scotland’s history have workers had more power — or come closer to revolution. This was, indeed, a decisive era for the British labor movement. In the first general election following the “battle,” Scotland elected a further 23 Labour MPs, paving the way for the first Labour government in 1923.

A century later, Glasgow’s industrial front has mobilized again. Several essential industries in the city, including refuse and transport, have in recent years seen budgets cut, staff numbers slashed, and demands for better treatment ignored. But in the weeks ahead of COP26, strike action was called — and timed to severely disrupt the summit. This pressure was itself enough to secure major concessions from authorities who feared losing face during the event.

That the city’s George Square will again be center stage for protests demanding system change during COP26 is thus doubly significant. For the weeks in the run-up to the conference have not just seen workers organizing in their workplaces but people from across Scottish society insisting that decision-makers take real action to save the planet and commit to a just transition.

The British and Scottish governments each want to use the summit to pose as leaders of COP26 — and boost their progressive credentials. Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has declared that all of Scotland is grateful for the work that key workers have done and “continue to do.” But her hypocrisy became clear when her own essential workers threatened to shut Glasgow down. The same was true of Boris Johnson’s words of praise for these same workers during the pandemic, pitifully combined with a 1 percent pay raise for nurses — a real-terms pay cut.

Those unwilling to provide for people’s basic needs are hardly going to commit to the action necessary to save our planet. Tackling the climate emergency is about protecting both natural resources and human beings against exploitation, which these governments are clearly not doing. Achieving this aim demands that we end COP26 with a radical Green New Deal and not just more of the status quo.

Railworkers

The protests around COP26 were not the beginning of these industrial disputes. Indeed, the workers of Scotland’s domestic rail operator, ScotRail, have been on strike every Sunday for six months. But their demands for better pay and conditions were ignored by the rail operator Abellio and by the Scottish government. When the dispute began eighteen months ago, bosses refused even to meet with union delegations.

The Scottish National Party (SNP)–led government has had a year and a half to resolve this crisis. Instead, they have continuously delayed, pressuring workers to capitulate lest they embarrass the country in front of a global audience during COP26. Instead of siding with those demanding fair pay, the Scottish government doubled down and gambled on  ScotRail workers buckling amid public and media pressure. They ignored Abellio’s exploitation of its employees, thus siding with employers in their attempts to maximize profit margins.

But at the last minute, their tactics failed. As workers and their unions stood strong, the cost of ScotRail strikes during the conference was too high for the government to countenance. In a testament to the power of solidarity and industrial organizing, a pay raise was reluctantly agreed to.

Eighty-four percent of members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers (RMT, Scotland’s biggest railway union) had backed a twelve-day strike due to last for the duration of COP26. Though the ScotRail dispute has been resolved, Caledonian Sleeper train workers will walk out during the conference. Strike action is not limited to railways — more than a thousand First Bus operators in Glasgow are voting on industrial action after uproar over unacceptable pay offers. These employees haven’t had a pay raise in two years.

Proponents of markets as generators of innovation notably have rather less to say about the industries today fighting tooth-and-nail to prevent the measures we need in response to the climate crisis. In Scotland’s transport industry, the most profitable course for a private company like Abellio has been to keep things exactly as they are. This has meant a total failure to adapt Scotland’s rail and bus services to the demands of the climate crisis by providing cheap and efficient transport. After years of underperformance by Abellio, the Scottish government described Scotland’s rail system as “no longer fit for purpose.“ This is critical considering that domestic transport produced the most emissions of any industry in Scotland in 2019.

Cleaning workers in Glasgow were also preparing to take strike action, commencing on the first day of COP26. Ninety-six percent of workers supported the action in the event that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) did not provide staff with a decent pay raise. This strike has been anticipated for some time; indeed, Glasgow’s cleaning sector has been hit hard by city council–imposed austerity cuts that have seen the loss of hundreds of cleaning workers. However, the thought of Joe Biden stepping out onto rat-infested Glaswegian streets with uncollected garbage bins proved too much for the Scottish government to bear. At the last opportunity, cleansing workers have been offered a pay raise — and strike action has been called off.

Austerian Ideologues

The offers to both rail and refuse workers were clearly not born of noble intentions; if they were, they would have been made months earlier. These last-minute deals are a final resort made to protect the reputation of the British political class. Both the British and Scottish governments remain absolutely opposed to properly valuing the contributions of key workers. These offers were made out of necessity.

The austerity plaguing these industries is rooted in an ideology that places profit and cost-efficiency before people and workers. In a recent Herald interview, the SNP leader of Glasgow City Council declared her passionate opposition to “statism,” or what she deems “the old-style socialism of Scottish Labour.” Councilor Susan Aitken said she “fundamentally disagrees” with the idea that citizens “can’t manage unless the council is there, not just holding their hand but doing it for them.” Eerily reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s call to “roll back the frontiers of the state,” how Aitken expects Glaswegians to build council housing without a council we may never know.

Aitken’s stance is revealing of the low regard in which she holds council employees — and explains her treatment of Glasgow’s cleaning workers. Instead of engaging with citizens and trade unions, Aitken has blamed the state of Glasgow’s streets on “wee NEDs with spray cans” — using a blatantly classist term widely considered to stand for “non-educated delinquents.”

Just Transition

This is where the radical, just transition we need must depart from the short-termist, destructive logic of capital accumulation. Where capitalism exploits the poor to ring-fence the wealthy, our transition must do the opposite. Essential workers, relied upon by all, are instrumental to the work needed to change society — and should be championed, not exploited and derided. A just transition is one that sees the climate crisis as an existential threat, not a new opportunity for making profits.

This same ideology characterizes Abellio’s treatment of ScotRail workers, the conditions imposed on Glasgow’s bus operators, and, on a grander scale, the austerity agenda pushed by Scottish and British governments for decades. Classist comments like Aitken’s are clearly tied to the Ayn–Randian politics she espoused in her Herald interview: the scapegoating of the working class to excuse the failings of an austerity agenda, enforced to protect the market at the expense of workers. In favoring market supremacy and individualism, all levels of the state have deliberately targeted services like cleaning that provide a collective benefit to all.

With the strike called off and concessions made, a very public display of the Glasgow City Council’s austerity agenda has been narrowly avoided. Diplomats descending this week almost encountered a Glasgow with a fractured transport industry and without waste collection. At the last moment, decision-makers have folded, knowing that this is not the look desired for Boris Johnson’s “Global Britain” or for Nicola Sturgeon’s idealized independent Scotland.

For years, the British and Scottish governments have restated their commitment to a just transition, but their neoliberal philosophies and the treatment of Glasgow’s workers and others contradict their supposed priorities. The unrepentant refusal of both parties to pay frontline workers what they deserve in the midst of a pandemic is clear evidence of the actual strength of their commitments to climate justice.

End the Plunder

The talking shop at COP26 will surely emphasize the need for action on the climate, sometime in the future, but do nothing to deliver the radical solutions the crisis demands. We would be ill-advised to believe the propaganda for world leaders attempting to secure short-term polling boosts. Yet there is also hope, for Glasgow is a city with radical traditions, and the atmosphere on its streets in November will only reinforce this. Climate activists gathering in Glasgow must stand in solidarity with the labor movement, for they oppose the same issue: capitalist exploitation.

As Red Clydeside’s revolutionary socialist John Maclean wrote in 1923:

The root of all trouble in society at present is the inevitable robbery of the workers by the propertied class, simply because it is the propertied class. To end that robbery would be to end the social troubles of modern society.

The radical Green New Deal required to confront the climate crisis is one devoted to rooting out exploitation of all kinds. The common ground shared by industrial workers and protesters around the world is their objection to the mistreatment of people, places, and planet.

In 1894, Walter Crane wrote that “the cause of Labour is the hope of the world.” Twenty-five years later, it was the hope of Glasgow’s workers on “Bloody Friday.” Today, “the cause of labor” has brought hope to Glasgow once again, the hope that the COP26 talking shop can be turned into something more. Something that, rather than just playing at crisis management, can be the basis for a material transition from the economic imperatives that have defined our existence since the industrial revolution. Something that can simultaneously save the planet and deliver for workers.