Sunday, August 30, 2009

Workers' Fightback: Update 16

With local councils around the UK preparing to slash services in the midst of the economic crisis, this week saw the first occupation of council property. The action at the Sedgemoor Splash in Somerset may have been short-lived - lasting just twenty-one hours - but it will surely set an example for others over the coming months and years.

The Tory-run council closed the pool this weekend, and plans to sell the land it lies on. So far, the only bidder has been supermarket giant Tesco. According to Socialist Worker, about thirty people took part in a 'swim-in', "including trade unionists, Labour councillors, disabled swimmers and children. Occupiers include[d] members of the RMT, Unite, CWU, NUS and Unison unions".

Throughout their day of action, the occupiers posted frequent updates on their 'Save Sedgemoor Splash from closure' Facebook group. These included reports that security were trying to starve out the demonstrators, only allowing in one packet of crisps! After a court injunction was granted to the council, the action was voluntarily brought to an end.

Following the look at the situation facing postal workers in last week's update, there has been more 'unofficial' strike action, this time in Dundee. Meanwhile, The Commune argued that such wildcat actions are the way to fight Royal Mail bosses, concluding that:
"It is this kind of action that can put Royal Mail bosses on the back foot and give other post workers around the country the confidence to stand up to management’s offensive — no matter how much the CWU wants to talk about “talks” — in the lead up to the national ballot."
There has also been further reports of unrest in China, with skirmishes here and there showing the extent of anger about to explode in this pivotal nation for the global capitalist system. On 17th August, hundreds of villagers in Shaanxi province broke into a smelting factory widely acknowledged to have poisoned more than six hundred children. Once inside, they tore down fences and smashed trucks.

On 21st August, three thousand people protesting against a proposed canal in the neighbouring Hubei province blocked roads and violently confronted the Special Task Force police. A forced evacuation of the area lies ahead, so it seems more battles over the canal are inevitable.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Decomposition

Soup
Contemporary Urban Centre, Greenland Street (20th - 30th August 2009)

If ever there was a theme designed to get the best out of artists, it is surely how they respond to their immediate environment. After all, this is part of their essential task - to interact with their surroundings and bring ideas and feelings together to create something new for the appreciation of others. Unfortunately, some members of the Soup collective - which is comprised of Tate Liverpool employees - failed to do precisely this, focusing far too much on subtleties of form and technique to truly engage with the concept or the gallerygoer. Matters certainly weren't helped by Anna Hamilton's 'A Life Of Their Own' video, which blasted a twelve bar loop of 1920s-style jazz through the space, and which made concentration annoyingly difficult.

Nevertheless, there was enough good stuff on show to make a visit to the Contemporary Urban Centre a rewarding experience. Roz Vallejo's collages 'Untitled, 2007' and 'Woman In Doorway' are interesting, but her laserprint 'Unintended' is something else, as spectral figures suggest romance and yet distortion.

Rachel Harding's creations deal with the subject matter of environment in a highly symbolic way, with extremely impressive results. 'Escape' is an oil on canvas painting or a bird, which is itself placed in a cage. This raises notions of isolation and repression, repression that seems to preclude the possibility of interaction, except through song - the caged bird's own 'art'. 'Lady Haversham's Bouquet' is another oil on canvas piece, this time of a bunch of flowers, which seems to be shedding petals on the floor (aren't we all?). The character of Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens' Great Expectations is brought to mind, with all her atrophy.

Jacqueline F Kerr's acrylic work shows an inspirational amount of vivacity and imagination, bringing the potentially dry area of map-making to glorious life. Mixing real life city plans with fantastical ones and pleasing colours, Kerr suggests that another world truly is possible.

Finally, Ruth Edwards' 'Duke Street' is an effective look at her environment - specifically during her walk to work each morning. Having noticed the "peeling paintworks", graffiti and "dilapidated fixtures" of the street, she brings it to artistic life by applying acrylic paint to polystyrene and mixed media. The rendering of this - a street that mixes decaying industrial Liverpool with its shiny 'regenerated' façade - says more in a few square metres than many entire exhibitions.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Workers' Fightback: Update 15

With the Vestas and Ssangyong occupations now a couple of weeks behind us, it's time to look at the prospects for future workplace struggles, both in the UK - where industrial capitalism began - and China - where it had been booming over recent decades until the economic collapse. In both cases, tensions have been building up for a long time, and look set to erupt on the surface in the very near future.

The next big dispute in the UK could well be in the postal service. In 2007, Royal Mail bosses forced through an attack on pay and conditions, with the direct support of Communication Workers Union bureaucrats. The union now admits this has led to managers “unilaterally imposing route revisions, shift changes, driving up workloads and slashing jobs”. This is part of the government's 'modernisation' agenda, aimed at making Royal Mail attractive to private sector buyers.

For their part, the union bureaucrats fully accept the principle of 'modernisation'. Their only quibble with the government and Royal Mail is their desire to be part of talks on how it should be implemented. Deputy General Secretary Dave Ward has offered management a three month moratorium on strikes, in return for a seat at the bargaining table.

However, local depots have been pressurising the bureaucracy for a chance to strike. The union's response has been to bring in 'unit by unit' ballots, meaning in the event of a strike the amount of disruption to Royal Mail is kept at a minimum. Finally, a national strike ballot has been conceded, to take place next month.

In the meantime, local ballots have been suspended, and local managers are clearly taking advantage, which has led to illegal wildcat strikes in a couple of areas. Postal workers struck in Wallasey, and the CWU were actively engaged in trying to end the action, which lasted four days. There were similar happenings in Stoke.

With the bureaucracy keen to reach more deals with Royal Mail, and posties already working flat out and being pushed around by management, the potential for widespread conflict between rank-and-file workers and 'their' union definitely seems to be there.

The 'I Support the Postal Workers!' Facebook group is here.

On the other side of the planet, there are signs of social tensions which may lead to a far more explosive worker uprising, against the fake 'Communists' who rule capitalism's biggest sweatshop - China. A month ago, iron and steel workers beat an executive to death in the north-east of the country, when he announced mass redundancies.

Last week, workers at the state-owned Linzhou Steel plant in Henan province rioted against the privatisation of the corporation. Communist Party chiefs were then involved in mediation, which ended in the suspension of the sell-off process.

More generally in China, the economic crisis has meant international demands for its products has been slashed. Officials are concerned that not only will existing industrialised proletarians be forced into unemployment, so will the rural poor, who are being forced off the land in huge numbers, and many students.

A report by the China Labour Bulletin - 'Going It Alone: The Workers' Movement in China' - shows that workers have been increasingly taking matters into their own hands over the last two years, instead of consulting Party bureaucrats. "Strikes ignited other protests in the same region, industry or company subsidiaries", and "Workers’ demands became broader and more sophisticated."

A sizeable and co-ordinated worker rebellion in China would have enormous implications for the global class struggle.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (18)

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
On general release from 19th August 2009


Inglourious Basterds is an utterly preposterous mess of a film from Quentin Tarantino. Even at two and a half hours, it sorely misses some cut scenes. Until the final key moments, it lacks any real structure, and not in a cleverish, knowing kind of way. More like a not properly thought through way. Major characters - including all of the 'Basterds' - get dropped and then lost in the sprawling self-indulgent sweep of the thing. It's often very good fun though, albeit in a mostly empty way.

The 'Basterds' of the title are Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt)'s entirely fictional band of revenge-hungry male Jewish resistance fighters, keen to kill as many Nazis as possible in the most gruesome ways imaginable, so as to strike fear into the German populace and help win the war for the Allies. After a lot of skull-bashing, they hook up with a famous movie star (Diane Kruger) and British intelligence and begin plotting 'Operation Kino'.

Meanwhile, young Jewish woman Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) also has plenty of reasons to want revenge, having seen her family brutally machine-gunned down in their French countryside shelter by the troops of 'Jew Hunter' Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Three years later, she is somehow an undercover Paris cinema owner. When Shosanna gets unwelcome romantic advances from a celebrated German ‘war hero’ (Daniel Brühl), she is very reluctantly drawn into the lives of the German top brass, and into their efforts to successfully premiere a propaganda film in her theatre. Unsurprisingly, she has a better idea.

Inglorious Basterds is only Quentin Tarantino’s sixth feature as director, and it’s clear that he’s put many years and much energy into it. Some elements have been polished to perfection, such as the characterisation of Raine and Landa, both of who seem like real – if extreme – people, in a way that is as wonderful as it has been rare in Hollywood over the last few decades. This often gives rise to some excellent black humour, especially during Landa’s scenes.

But there is an emptiness at the heart of this enjoyment. Of course, the story is completely made-up, and that’s fine (most fiction is, let’s remember). But World War Two happened, and millions upon millions were killed. This can’t honestly be set aside for the sake of a few guffaws and cheers as cartoon authority figures get their comeuppance.

The writer/director told Rotten Tomatoes.com that: "What happens in this movie didn't happen in real life because my characters didn't exist. But if they had, this could have happened in real life."

Tarantino is just trying to have his cake and eat it. The Basterds didn’t exist, but there were real underground resistance fighters, so their story could prove much more inspirational in times yet to come. They might even have had a few laughs along the way.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Workers' Fightback: Update 14

The past week has seen the end of three worker occupations around the world, and in each case, the brave occupiers have failed to win their demands. Isolated in their different ways, each set of workers has effectively been overwhelmed by the force of the state, as it works iron fisted hand in glove with corporate interests. There are therefore many lessons to be learned for the inevitable struggles ahead.

The occupation of Thomas Cook outlets in Dublin proved to be very short-lived. Following the start of the action last Friday, which was aimed at preventing the closure of the shops, Irish police swooped at 5 am on Tuesday morning, and arrested twenty-eight sacked workers. These were later released, having apparently agreed not to resume their occupation or damage the property of Thomas Cook.

Despite the early defeat, this first major occupation of a retail outlet during the current crisis provides plenty of food for thought. Unlike manufacturers (such as the Prisme packagers in Scotland), retailers could not take over the means of production. Instead, they are at the end of a supply chain, and without the financial capital of their employers, they could never take over distribution outside of a mass movement against the profit system. During this economic collapse, demand for consumer goods (in this case holidays) has fallen, but that doesn't mean that less people want to travel. However, fewer people can afford to travel, because of the insane chaos of capitalist overproduction, which has led to a deep recession rooted in the financial system. The isolation of Thomas Cook staff forced them into effectively appealing for their bosses to sacrifice their own self-interest and put more of their money into keeping workers on, rather than appealing for working class solidarity.

The 'Stop Thomas Cook shop closures!' Facebook group is here, and the petition to the Thomas Cook CEO is here.

On Thursday, the occupation of the Ssangyong car factory in South Korea came to an end, on its seventy-seventh day, following massive state repression. Despite ferocious and determined resistance from the occupiers, police finally won control of the building, as the
Korean Metal Workers Union called an end to the action, and declared victory. Throughout the campaign, the KMWU and the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions have worked to isolate the workers, and refused to call for broader support from the wider working class. As a result, the state was able to lay paramilitary siege to the factory, and finally wring favourable conditions from the willing KMWU negotiators.

Friday saw the end of the Vestas wind turbine factory occupation on the Isle of Wight. Following last week's bureaucratic mixup, which saw a judge turn down the company's possession order, the legal formalities were completed early this week, and bailiffs forced their way into the factory office at noon on Friday.

While the commitment of the workers and many supporting activists is beyond question, and the campaign is still very much ongoing, it is clearly lost its best bargaining chip - i.e. the factory itself. By appealing to the government to nationalise the company - in complete opposition to the neoliberal privatisation agenda of all three big business parties - they were limiting their appeal for class-based solidarity. The 'Save Vestas' blog continues to publish here, and the Facebook group is here.

As the economic crisis deepens, and the exploiting class continues to make workers suffer ever more for their profits, resistance will materialise with greater regularity. Links will grow between those in struggle, lessons will be learned, and a working class movement worthy of the name will materialise.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Workers' Fightback: Update 13

The Vestas occupation on the Isle of Wight is continuing into a third week, following the wind turbine company's failure to obtain an eviction order in a Newport court on Wednesday.

Judge Graham White dismissed the Danish company's application to fast-track a possession order, stating he could see "no evidence of any threat of violence to property or person by reason of the individuals who are occupying the property remaining there.” He also criticised Vestas for failing to serve the possession papers to the occupiers. The case was adjourned until next Tuesday, 4th August.

Clearly, the threat of eviction still remains, because the government has made it clear it has no plans to nationalise the plant. Should the state decide to act, it could easily remove the twenty-five occupiers, despite the permanent presence of supporters on a nearby roundabout solidarity camp. Still, the 'Save Vestas' blog continues to provide regular updates from deep inside the industrial estate, and the main 'Save Vestas, Save Jobs, Save The Planet' Facebook group is here.

There was some excellent news for some other occupiers this week, whose determined direct action, with its widespread community support, has seen off police and politicians alike. Yes, Hands Off Lewisham Bridge have succeeded in securing the English Heritage Grade II listing for their school, meaning children should be returning there in September. Lambeth Council had planned to demolish the building, and replace it with a privatised 'foundation school'. They did not bargain for such dogged defiance from parents however, and the roof has now been occupied for more than three months. On Saturday, a press statement from Hands Off Lewisham Bridge concluded:
"The Lewisham Bridge victory sends a message to those in struggle (those who are against the Goldsmiths Trust in Lewisham, parents in Barrow in Furness, the campaign to save Hesketh Fletcher in Wigan) that direct action works. It is a bold step which shows that if we stand up and fight we can win. What we must do now is build on this victory and stand up together. This is a fight against privatisation and the selling off of public services; it’s a fight against redundancies and the selling off of our jobs. It’s a national fight and with our victory we send a message of solidarity to the workers in the Vestas occupation. Stand up and fight – do it together and we can win!"
Over in Ireland, two more occupations began late this week, and they are remarkable for being the first examples of resistance in retail outlets since the economic collapse began. LibCom reports that:
"On Friday 31 July Thomas Cook managers and security went to close down shops in Dublin at 10 a.m. Staff in two of the outlets then occupied their workplaces in response.

The workers, some of whom are members of the Transport and Salaried Staff Association (TSSA), have since been served a court ordered to leave the premises but are refusing to budge."

Supporters of the Dublin occupiers are being asked to 1) hand-write a message and run it through the fax: 00 35316 771258 and 00 35318 783965, 2) send emails to wendy@thomascook.ie and fennj@TSSA.org.uk, 3) Join the Facebook group, 4) sign the online petition.

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