Taking courage from the climate strikers

Tom explains why he and his fellow PCS members Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) office in Bristol are showing solidarity with the youth climate strikers on 20 September

One Friday a month for the past year, we’ve heard the drums and chants of the youth climate strikers through the windows of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) office in Bristol. This time around we won’t be sitting quietly at our desks – we’ll be joining them.

As you’d expect, colleagues here at Defra are generally interested in environmental issues and pleased to see climate change getting attention. Over lunch in the canteen, colleagues speak supportively of the strikes and tell me how they have supported their children to join in. What’s harder is mobilising people to take a more active stand.

At Defra there’s a culture of cautiousness and secrecy. Impartiality is a really important part of what it means to be a civil servant, but I’ve found calls to ‘read the Civil Service Code’ used to intimidate workers into not standing up for their rights and values. Colleagues speak of ‘putting your head above the parapet’.

In trying to get Defra workers involved in the day of action on 20 September my challenge has been about chipping away at that parapet, finding ways for people to speak up without feeling like they’re putting themselves at risk.

Part of this has been about being unafraid to speak openly. The UK’s repressive anti-trade union laws mean PCS cannot call on our members to take strike action. That made me and my branch nervous to organise anything on 20 September.

We’ve shaken ourselves into gear by constantly reminding ourselves of the strength of the school strikers. If they have the courage to miss school again and again to stand up for what they believe in, we have a duty to find a way to stand alongside them.

For me that has meant finally shedding my own nervousness to ‘put my head above the parapet’. I’ve put posters up all around the office, not just on the designated trade union boards. I’ve e-mailed out on all staff mailing lists, not just to PCS Members. I’ve pushed myself to talk to colleagues who I don’t know will be sympathetic with the union. These are small steps but they help bring down that parapet by building a culture of union activities being normal, accepted, important workplace activities.

And to widen participation on 20 September as much as possible, we’ve invited local school strikers into the office to talk to us about why they’ve been taking action. Many colleagues will be able to use their learning and development time or entitlement to volunteering leave. We’ll then head down the road to the main rally in the centre of Bristol, joining union members from other workplaces and school strikers from across Bristol.

Find out more about PCS’s solidarity with climate strikers. More information about the rally in Bristol is available on Facebook.

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