Guest essay by Eric Worrall
What happens when a middle class climate activist with a professional job gets arrested for glueing themselves to a public building?
Climate change is firing up middle-class activism
Employers are having to think about how to deal with staff who set out to be arrested
In the past 10 days, two friends of mine on opposite sides of the world have both done something I have never seen either do before. One in Sydney cheerfully let her children skip school for a day so they could go to a street protest. Another in London said she was thinking of getting arrested. They do not know each other but both were driven by the same thing: rising impatience with the slow pace of action to curb climate change.
Organisers say 150 people have been arrested so far and claim this is just the start. We shall see. It is hard to imagine hundreds lining up for handcuffs, especially full-time workers. A criminal record can make a lot of things trickier at work: getting a visa, finding a new job and keeping an old one. Many company codes of conduct prohibit behaviour that is criminal or brings a firm into disrepute. Yet a scan through the donors to Extinction Rebellion’s crowdfunding site, which was raising more than £1,000 a day at some points last week, is revealing.
One £200 donation came from Yan Swiderski, a fund manager who was among the protesters who blocked a busy London road near his Pimlico home the other week. “It was the first time I’ve ever done anything like that,” he told me, adding he felt the new movement had “captured the zeitgeist” for people fed up with years of inaction.
What an intriguing issue – how do you deal with otherwise excellent staff who suddenly discover an overwhelming inner compulsion to break the law, often in ways which deliberately provoke arrest?
How do you handle repeat unscheduled absence, with the possibility of a longer period of incarceration, from a personnel policy perspective?
What will be the backlash if an employer fires someone for missing work due to their climate activism? Will FOE or the WWF show up at the employer’s doorstep with thousands of demonstrators, demanding the activist employee gets their job back?