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Children strike for their future

BMJ 2019; 366 doi: (Published 24 September 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;366:l5704

Supporting the school climate strike with a public health “work-in”

Since August 2018, school children around the world have increasingly been participating in a “school strike for climate” to call for action on climate change in accordance with the United Nations Paris agreement. Participation in a strike, like other forms of direct action and protest, can be a very powerful means of groups who are otherwise disempowered gaining power and influence within society, but is also an action with large potential costs for both participants and those in power.

An alternative to a strike is a “work-in”, whereby workers take over the management of their work and determine their own priorities and tasks to meet their own needs. An example of a work-in is that of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) in Glasgow in 1971-2, who continued to manufacture ships by taking over the management of the shipyard following a threat of closure, and ultimately successfully overturned the closure decision.

Public health professionals have a longstanding interest in achieving ecological sustainability both to protect the future of the planet and to realise the potential co-benefits of a successful transition. For example, in the process of reducing carbon emissions in our food system there is great potential to shift from meat to vegetables, reduce inequalities in access to healthier food, and to make the experience of work in that sector more fulfilling and fairer. All of this could have beneficial population health impacts. Similarly, it is possible to achieve health co-benefits in the transport sector if we move from individualised car-based travel towards more active travel and public transport. The urgency of the climate emergency now dictates that we need to further prioritise this work.

In public health we have more day-to-day flexibility in our workload compared to our clinical colleagues. Despite this, we often struggle to prioritise work to achieve sustainability outcomes in the face of (what can seem like) more urgent tasks. We therefore demonstrated solidarity with the school strike by having a public health sustainability work-in, organised by the Scottish Managed Sustainable Health (SMaSH) network ( This allowed us for that day to focus only on our work on sustainability that we too often find it difficult to make time for. This may be an approach that other groups may wish to consider in the future.

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2. Paris Agreement. United Nations Treaty Collection. Paris, United Nations, 2015 [available at on 10th September 2019].
3. Foster J, Woolfson C. The Politics of the UCS Work-In. London, Lawrence and Wishart, 1986.
4. Haines A. Health co-benefits of climate action. Lancet Planetary Health 2017, 1(1): PE4-5,
5. Willett W, Rockström J, Loken B, Springmann M, Lang T, Vermeulen S, et al. Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet Commissions 2019; 393(10170): 447-492,

Competing interests: No competing interests

08 November 2019
Gerry McCartney
Consultant in Public Health
Rebecca Campbell, StR in Public Health, SMaSH network; Ann Conacher, Organisational Lead (Public Health Networks), NHS Health Scotland; Phil Mackie, Consultant in Public Health, NHS Health Scotland
NHS Health Scotland
Meridian Court, 5 Cadogan Street