This story explores how climate activists can work alongside trade unionists in what was at first appearance merely an ‘industrial’ dispute, about jobs.
In June 2011 the news came through that the Canadian multinational Bombardier had not won the Thameslink contract. The implications for employment and Derby were horrendous, the direct loss of 1400 jobs in Derby, and many more indirectly in the region. This decision was made with no consideration given to the social & economic impact on the UK in awarding this contract overseas. The loss of the contract could have led to the shutdown of the last railway manufacturing plant in Britain, and one might argue that this has not happened because of the mighty fight back by members of the public and the unions.
Developing the Climate Connection
Some of the sharpest debates we had in Derby in our climate coalition were around the Bombardier issue, and why we needed to relate to it. Such debates, although potentially divisive, needed to take place. Some said that this was not a climate issue. That the carriages were in no way ‘greener’ than those produced by ‘Siemens’ being the preferred bidders.  Others were wary about working with unionists because of their agenda was for growth, leading to an increase in carbon footprints. There was a stress on the need for the environmentalist movement to make connections outside the traditional ‘green boundaries’ and that the unions have a collective tradition which is a useful antidote to the individual and atomised responses we often see amongst environmentalists. However the argument which won the day was this country needed a thriving railway infrastructure, including manufacturing, if we are going to take people out of cars and planes and by increasing the amount of freight carried on rail, thereby reducing carbon emissions
More than 35,000 people signed a petition, in little over two weeks. This was a great many considering this was not an e-petition and the signing up has been done mainly in Derby, with a population of 200,000.
The above photograph shows climate campaigners opposing the job cuts at Bombardier and was taken outside the (George) Stephenson railway shed in Derby.
As a result campaigners were invited to speak at a railway union organising meeting.
That meeting set about building for a demonstration on Saturday July the 23rd. It was massive, the biggest in Derby in living memory. The organisers said there were 10,000 people there.
Paul Routledge wrote in the Daily Mirror:
“I’ve seen a few demos in my 40-odd years on national newspapers, but I’ve never before seen one that drew in the Tories, Labour, the unions and the management.
It’s a bit like Thatcher, the Coal Board, Neil Kinnock and Arthur Scargill leading a march to save the mines. If the ConDems think they have a coalition, they should try looking at this one in Derby.”
The Climate Alliance in conjunction with the Derby Climate Coalition and the Campaign against Climate Change Trade Union Group organised a fringe meeting after the march. 50 people come. The meeting included a contribution from the Derby North MP, the showing of the million climate jobs film, a Right to Work component and so on. This worked well.
Alongside the TSSA union, Derby Climate Coalition organised a general support meeting on September 1st. The report in Derby Telegraph said that:
“MORE than 200 people turned out last night for a public meeting in support of Bombardier, at which they were told that the fight to save city rail jobs was very much alive….”
Many speakers made reference to the environment, and the potential role of railways in combating climate change. John Stewart spoke on behalf of the Climate Alliance The challenge was to get the campaign taken up nationally.
The Bombardier Community Support Group was set up. This group involved a cross-section of the public, from business to left wing activists; and regular meetings were held, accompanied by a great deal of activity
It must be said that there were issues with the work-place inter-union committee and some were suspicious of outsiders trying to take over and use things for their own ends. Some in the largest union (UNITE) said that this was an ‘industrial dispute’. However the ‘outsiders’ emphasised that they wouldn’t do anything the works committee didn’t agree with and we stressed while some of us had a climate change agenda as well these interests would not be brought to the table.
As a result of working alongside members of the workers committee and trade union officers the Derby Climate Coalition and the national Climate Alliance gained some respect and developed working relationships, particularly with the Trades Council which was re-emerging from the doldrums.
Furthermore as a movement in Derby we all learned how to work better with one another, recognising differences in views. We worked alongside sectors of business and even with the Conservative Party, who at that time were making Council employees redundant despite simmering of accusations from some comrades on the left of ‘popular fronts’, of getting into bed with the enemy and being potentially over-influenced by business interests and of giving employers credibility
The Bombardier issue was rather like the campaign against the privatisation of the Forests, insofar as it touched a cord with many people who are not of the left and not from the trade union movement. The other thing these two campaigns was a climate dimension
In conclusion Bombardier was an opportunity for climate activists to work beyond traditional ‘green boundaries’ and to make the connections between the need for investment in jobs and contributing to combating climate change.
There will, be more opportunities like this in the near future!
At the time of writing it seems, but is by no means certain, that Bombardier will not get the Thameslink contract. However it is probable that Bombardier will get some forthcoming contracts, and the government is talking about extended electrification of the rail system, going up through Derby.
And they haven’t stipulated that the electricity will be from renewable energy!.
 there is no environmental case to favour one company over the other (unless someone has done a comparative study on the two companies). What case there is an economic case, but economics of resilience, not of profit and loss. If Bombardier don’t eventually get this contract, the probability of this country losing its last manufacturer of rolling stock is high, leaving the country less able to provide for itself in any future where we will be thrown back on our own resources. Let’s be careful about framing our argument in this way, because otherwise we could legitimately be accused of protectionism