Employers warned staff may walk out during forthcoming ‘climate strike’

Protesters urge employees to leave their workplaces in September, in echo of student action earlier this year

Employers are being urged to consider how they will react if staff members walk out of their workplaces as part of a worldwide ‘strike’ being held in a matter of weeks to draw attention to climate change.

Global Climate Strike – the organisation born out of the recent string of strikes held by students protesting against inaction over climate issues – has called on employees to support their younger peers by walking out of their workplaces on 20 September.

The call has been echoed by a number of prominent figures, including the authors Margaret Atwood and Noam Chomsky, scientists including Gina McCarthy and actors such as Mark Ruffalo.

The Financial Times reported that several large businesses were actively supporting the action. Outdoor clothing company Patagonia said it would “actively encourage” its employees to take part, providing bail for any workers arrested during the actions, as part of a long-standing company policy. Meanwhile cosmetics giant Lush told People Management it was “considering how [it] can get involved with the climate strikes as a business”.

Shell said it would allow staff to take annual leave for the protest, while Ikea said it was “exploring” the issue, according to the Financial Times

However, for other businesses the strike action has raised a dilemma. Many are unwilling to countenance potentially illegal or highly disruptive action, but still want to show they are engaging with important issues and may be wary of adverse publicity.

Such caution towards the action is understandable, said Rachel Suff, senior employee relations advisor at the CIPD. “[Global Climate Strike] raises a lot of questions about how employers should view it because employees cant walk out of work and expect to be protected from unfair dismissal,” she said. “If you do strike, it has to be compliant with detailed, complex legislation.”

Suff said every company had to take its own individual approach to deciding what was appropriate, the potential business impact and its ongoing approach to sustainability. 

While she acknowledged taking annual leave to participate in the strike was an option open to employees, she warned it could pose problems and that a review of company policy could be more beneficial to the movement.

“You have to ask, ‘What action is going to have the most impact on the ultimate aim to counter climate change?’ A lot of organisations will have an environmental policy, so it could be more productive to look at the wider organisational policies and practices.”

Suff added the last thing employers and employees alike wanted was an unofficial walkout, as it could leave employees legally “wide open” and without protection. “It's much better to have a dialogue from management and staff, because they could work together on this issue.” 

This view was echoed by Robbie Sinclair, partner at Allen and Overy LLP, who advised the strike would only be lawful provided the workplace had a recognised union and the industrial action was taken as a result of a dispute between employees and their employer in compliance with strict balloting rules.

“The global movement on climate change is growing exponentially but looked at from any perspective, it is not a trade dispute between employees and their employer,” said Sinclair. 

He suggested businesses follow the lead of organisations who are canvassing their employees to assess what level of support there was for strike action, and whether any special events should be organised on the planned date of the protest.

“Being proactive in this way in support of making some form of a collective stand will put employers on the front foot regarding any potential adverse action employees might otherwise take,” Sinclair said. 

The school climate strikes, inspired by Sweedish teenager Greta Thunberg, saw 1.4 million young people walk out of lessons in March this year, with the aim of addressing the ecological crisis. The movement began to snowball after Thunberg held a solo protest outside the Swedish parliament in August 2018, prompting a global wave of school-based demonstrations.