I gave my first blog post about Earth Strike the title "Realism", with the intent of reclaiming the term from those who weaponize it to promote the status quo and discourage optimism. Now, I'm forced to be realistic once again as I lament the co-optation and neutralization of what was once a promising grassroots movement.
I joined Earth Strike in its infancy because I, like many others there, was convinced that class war was the only realistic conduit for climate action. As a pivotal player in the early stages, I helped lay down a set of foundational principles for the movement, and made it clear my view that if we turned out a hundred million people in the streets on September 27, but everyone else was at work, then I would count that as a failure. As part of the copy I put together for our website, I wrote this:
Our general strike is the focal point of our movement – what sets us apart from other burgeoning environmentalist groups working alongside us. The people must tackle climate change from every angle, and our line of attack is through withholding our labour. To this end, our worldwide protests are important for us to spread our message, but they are merely instrumental to our mission. We are not pleading for sympathy, we are displaying our power.
And then, in May 2019, I was in the thick of it as our purpose and our message got forcibly seized from our control. It started when an open letter from an NGO called 350.org was sent to and signed by Greta Thunberg, calling for a single-day general strike - on September 20, a week before our strike was scheduled to start. In their words, the school strikers from Greta's organization Fridays for Future - which had previously endorsed Earth Strike internationally and whose members were in regular communication with us - would be, for the first time, asking adults to strike in solidarity with them. In the letter was a link to a separate website that 350.org had set up, which was a small, single-page FAQ sheet about the event, with a form at the bottom where workers would enter their emails to let people know that they were "striking". There were no demands, no guiding principles, no pools of resources or anything else intended to help people who wouldn't already be inclined to take the day off just for the hell of it. Whatever hint we had of a real direct action movement was being wiped out before our eyes, with nothing to show for it but a nice email list for 350.org's databases.
A few of us at Earth Strike were sent the letter privately, a couple days before it was scheduled to be published in the Guardian, where 350.org's new website would get more hits in one week than our website had gotten in its entire lifetime. I remember the ensuing panic from everyone involved as we frantically tried to speak with reps from 350.org to get them to cancel the publication, or rewrite the letter, or link to our website instead of theirs, or at least change the date to September 27 so the poor unions that had already signed on to Earth Strike don't get confused and bail out. I didn't get to directly communicate with 350.org's representative, but the person who did was convinced that their vague, confusing, indecipherable responses were on purpose.
The article was published, and eventually, we were the ones who had to compromise: Earth Strike teamed up with the big-name grassroots groups (Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, Youth for Climate) to plan an international week of action, which would begin on the 20th and end on the 27th. But at this point, our comparatively small group was superfluous, since no significant labour actions would be taking place beyond that week, and for all intents and purposes this spelled the death of Earth Strike as our members became de facto part of those larger, exclusively protest-oriented movements.
It wasn't long before our message became so disgustingly palatable that corporations and politicians started latching onto it. A friend of mine and fellow refugee from the movement introduced me to the phrase "Ben & Jerry's Earth Strike", which still haunts me in my dreams. Greta Thunberg (who is amazing and we stan) spoke at the UN summit on the 23rd, and although she tried her best not to ingratiate herself at all with the ghouls she was yelling at, I guess she couldn't really help it. Infamously, our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was out on the streets of Montreal on the 27th, protesting himself. It was the largest climate rally in history - and nothing will come of it.
But unfortunately, one thing stayed the same - the word "strike". Not "Earth Strike", mind you - you won't find that phrase anywhere anymore; I guess they were worried people might google it and stumble upon our website - but "Climate Strike" was the less-punchy name given by 350.org to the events on the 20th and 27th. And this marked the conclusion to the gradual, coordinated neutralization of the term "strike" that I guess was initially set in motion by the school strikes.
I spent a considerable amount of effort in the movement's early stages trying, amidst constant bickering from all sides, to help us strike the right balance in our messaging, between mainstream populism that will reach everyone and explicitly left-wing rhetoric that might turn people off. I stressed how important it was that our movement focus not on "meeting people where they're at", but on making them want to come to us; on selling people emotionally but then setting standards ideologically. But if I have any regrets, it's that I didn't push this point even harder than I did. You can scare people away by explicitly denouncing capitalism - people who might otherwise be on your side - but the coalition you end up building will make the movement that much more resilient against liberal co-optation.
I wonder what the new word is gonna be for workers collectively withholding labour as a display of power. The next general strike effort will need to be under a different name. Ah well - we improvise, we adapt, we overcome. There are plenty of words in the English language.