Monday, November 30, 2009

Workers' Fightback: Irish Public Sector Strike/Student Movement Grows

This week's update looks at struggles based outside the UK, but with profound implications for battles right around this ever more interconnected world.

Firstly, 24th November saw a one day general strike amongst public sector workers in the Republic of Ireland. Around a quarter of a million people are reported to have taken part, with teachers, lecturers, nurses, local authority workers, firefighters and civil servants striking against the Irish government's drastic proposed cuts to public service spending. Even police took industrial action short of a strike, by refusing routine tasks. Protests also took place in Northern Ireland, against Sinn Féin/Democratic Unionist administration proposals.

Ireland's economy was among the worst hit by the first wave of the global economic crisis. As in many other countries, the state and national bank funnelled massive amounts of taxpayers' money into backing the elite's gambling debts. The Bank of Ireland has already committed €16 billion to the Irish 'bad bank', and the Fianna Fáil /Green coalition plans to shift that debt onto the backs of the Irish working class, by slashing at least €4 billion from budgets, and enforcing a 7% tax on the pensions of public sector workers.

This dispute is significant for two main reasons. Firstly, although the Irish government's attacks on public spending are particularly severe, they are a foretaste of what other national governments are planning over the short and medium term. Secondly, they show that Irish trade union leaders - like their equivalents around the world - are siding with governments to impose the cuts that the super-rich demand. They only beg to be involved in negotiations, and for the pace of cuts to be slowed - stalling the momentum of grassroots opposition.

This is illustrated by a leaked letter written by Peter McLoone, boss of the IMPACT union. In it, McLoone warned union officials that: "In my judgment the alternative [to pay cuts] is likely to involve a significant reduction in public service numbers over the next three to four years, with the likelihood that some additional exceptional measures will also be needed in 2010 to deal with the budgetary crisis next year."

As the fight against cuts escalate, workers in all nations must discover that they have far more in common with each other than with their national ruling elites - trade union leaders included.

Another truly worldwide struggle is for decent university education. On a global scale, the neoliberal university has been in formation for the past few decades, and this process is accelerating under the crash conditions. Movements continue to build in California, Austria and Germany, where occupations have freed up space for much debate and discussion, potentially helping to radicalise many young people, who are making the connection between banker bailouts and student/worker poverty. An Austrian student statement explains:
"These events are connected to the worldwide development of social movements. In this sense what is being fought for is not only better working conditions for students, teachers and other university personnel – rather it’s a fight for better working conditions across all sectors and borders."
Similarly, a Californian communique announces:
"November 2009, this is what is happening: we have found each other, and we are learning to act, finally. This means developing close bonds, learning what it truly is to say ‘comrade’; someone who shares your conditions, shares your enemies, and who you trust with your life. Someone who knows that it is always necessary to take sides. We have learned what it means to say we."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Union Sell-outs - Disbelief and Dialectics

Many postal workers and their supporters were left disgusted and disbelieving on Bonfire Night. Billy Hayes and his Communication Workers Union executive had unanimously voted to sabotage a series of strikes which enjoyed widespread support, and guaranteed there would be no strikes until after Christmas. What's more, they had gained nothing concrete in return. When the new year comes around, Royal Mail will still be looking to make thousands of workers redundant, and attack the conditions of those that remain. In the meantime, posties are already facing a meagre festive period, having lost hundreds and even thousands of pounds in wages on the picket lines.

A message on the 'I Support the Postal Workers!' Facebook group summed up the thoughts and feelings of many:
"All the postal workers in Stevenage are furious at the strike being called off. They feel that Royal Mail have got what they wanted eg mail being delivered for Xmas. As soon as Xmas is out of the way Royal Mail will be pushing the changes through and not giving a stuff about the workers. Some feel that they have lost wages for nothing."
But if Hayes and his team of bureaucrat fat cats had done anything other than cave in to Royal Mail demands, I'd have been forced to examine my whole outlook on life. Yes, I was disgusted, but very far from disbelieving. Of course, that's all very easy to say with the benefit of hindsight, but then I warned that posties were "...lined up against Royal Mail bosses, the Labour government, and the leaders of their own Communication Workers Union" on October 25th, ten days before the 'interim deal' was announced.

So what is it that makes me so annoyingly good (annoying to myself, that is) at predicting political developments? Well, it's a tool called 'historical materialism', which is the philosophical basis of Marxist thinking. If you want, you can go off and Google how Marx stood Hegel's dialectic on its head, but for my purposes here, I'll quote Marx from The Holy Family, which I think neatly summarises his view of how historical events unfold:
"History does nothing, it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles. It is men, real, living men, who do all this, who possess things and fight battles. It is not 'history' which uses men as a means of achieving - as if it were an individual person - its own ends. History is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their ends."
That is the quote, in all its simple glory. People can best be understood as pursuing "their ends", their material interests. The appreciation of this idea sets Marxism apart from the opportunism of pseudo-leftists, the 'moral' pleading of liberal pressure groups, and the utopian anti-authoritarianism of certain anarchist strains.

Once I grasped it however many years ago, this ideology-free way of looking at the world seemed like a kind of uncommon 'common sense'. It follows from this theory that the CWU executive decided to end the strike not because they really think "workers will get real benefits from the modernisation of the business", but because they believed it would be in their own individual best interests. As a Marxist, I learned to mentally put myself in the shoes of the protagonists - as a detective might - examining the way social forces impact on the choices open to people, and the way the "pursuit of their ends" leads them to make certain choices.

Let's take Billy Hayes then, suspected of crimes against the postal workers he claims to represent. The first thing to note is that he no longer sorts or delivers post. His job - which puts (presumably high quality) food on his table and (presumably expensive) clothes on his back - is to be the general secretary of the Communication Workers Union. He is well rewarded for this, receiving a pay package worth £97,647 last year. But he faces conflicting pressures.

On the one side, his membership are angry about attacks on their jobs, pay and conditions. They want a better deal for themselves, and could even throw Hayes out of his lucrative position come election time in April. On the other side, Royal Mail bosses are teamed up with the government, who want to sell off the company, and need to impose those attacks on jobs, pay and conditions to make it attractive to potential buyers. Big business wants Labour to intimidate the working class as a whole, because it is aware that massive cuts must come after the next election, to balance the books of UK PLC, which is deep in the red after the bank bailouts. For Hayes, another factor is the alliances he will have made with the powerful during his period in office. Many compliant union bureaucrats have been rewarded with titles and House of Lords seats in the past, for example.

Over the past three and a half decades, as hyper-globalisation and profit crises have brought neoliberal governments into power around the world, trade union bosses have everywhere followed this march to the right. Owing their privileges to their role as industrial cops - helping the state to beat down their membership's living standards - they fear rank and file working class solidarity across industries and borders far more than they fear the capitalist class. From this perspective, it was inevitable that the CWU executive would want to throttle a strike movement that was receiving significant popular support, just when all 120,000 CWU members were set to walk out together.

What then of the leading left parties - the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party - both of whom sometimes claim to be Marxist, in favour of working class revolution? How have they reacted to Hayes' betrayal?

The SWP were mildly critical of the strike suspension. Yuri Prasad's 7th November article argued that it was a poor tactical move, with a huge post backlog having built up, and Christmas on the way. Prasad also claimed that "There is no reason for the CWU to have signed up to such an agreement". This statement clearly abandons Marxist analysis (did the CWU 'randomly' sign the agreement then?), and is designed to cover up the real role that union bureaucracies play in controlling their membership. Prasad dared not try to explain why prominent SWP member and CWU vice president Jane Loftus voted for the agreement. Instead, the piece meekly called on rank and filers to keep "arguing hard for the return of national action" (i.e. exclusively within the confines of the current union structure). Three weeks later, Loftus resigned from the party.

The Socialist Party's position on this strike is even more reactionary. In their 11th November lead article 'Postal workers force management back', the Socialist Party declared that the deal "does allow the CWU to regain some element of trade union control in the workplace and therefore does push back the attacks of the bosses." It offered no evidence to back this up, but lionised the bureaucrats as heroic leaders:
"The job of leadership is to know when to advance and when to retreat. In the postal workers’ case it was clear that it was the bosses who were in retreat. But also what has to be taken into account is the readiness of your own troops to continue to advance as well. Many postal workers were looking to Christmas as time to be with their families and to have a well earned rest."
In other words, the deal was the absolute best that could be won, given the postal workers' lack of willingness to fight on. This turns reality upside down.

Even more tellingly, the editorial put particular emphasis on the parts of the agreement that speak of unions playing a further part in the 'modernisation' process': "This issue of trade union ‘control’ is important,” the article continues. "It lies at the heart of the battle in the postal workplace. It means the difference between the workers having some form of protection against a bullying management and none at all."

This is the CWU bureaucracy that has already overseen the imposition of a pay freeze, over fifty thousand job losses in the last seven years, the raising of the retirement age to sixty-five, and now an effective strike ban. The very bureaucracy which, according to the deputy general secretary's recent comments in the Guardian, wants to hold elections less frequently, so they are no longer in "perpetual election mode" - i.e. have to pretend to be concerned with members' interests. Yet their possible control of workplace structures is something to celebrate?

Given that both the SWP and SP leaderships pursue strategies of integrating their members into union bureaucracies (the SP have two people on the engineering section of the CWU executive, neither of whom have publicly spoken on the deal), their betrayal of postal workers' interests is not a shock. But it's not necessarily any fun being right the whole time, especially when you're right about how your team is losing.

No, Marxists use dialectics to argue and plan for a workers' movement worthy of the name, and ultimately for communism from below, because they know that no-one else could make revolution for us, no matter who they say they stand for.

"The philosophers have only interpreted the world...", Marx wrote in 1845. "The point, however, is to change it." Marxist analysis can help us do just that.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Workers' Fightback: Union tops sabotage posties and firefighters/Austria university occupations

The postal strike was sabotaged by the leadership of the Communication Workers Union last Thursday, when chief negotiators called off two scheduled days of all out action following eleventh hour talks, and left their dues payers in dark about the sell-out being prepared in their name.

The inevitable betrayal came at talks brokered by Trades Union Congress boss Brendan Barber. Like CWU general secretary Billy Hayes, Barber's privileges depend on forcing through bargains that enormously favour big business and the government, at a time when all major parties are backing massive cuts in public spending, to cover the gambling debts of the financial elite. For this reason, they fear nothing more than rank-and-file workers building up momentum and solidarity. This is especially true given a BBC poll, which showed widespread support for the posties, despite the mainsteam media propaganda going decidedly against them.

The bureaucrats have guaranteed Royal Mail there will be no more strikes until Christmas, and so are essentially offering their services as industrial police to ensure this happens. The executive includes Socialist Workers Party member Jane Loftus, but she also voted to accept this interim deal, effectively selling her comrades down the river for a seat at the top table.

So what now? An article in The Commune suggests that:
"In the next two months, things could go one of three ways. The workers may be sold out passively, rank and file pressure may generate further official action, or spreading unofficial action may develop. It is in the grasp of workers to avoid the first possibility, and maximise the chances of the other two being effective. CWU members should push inside the union for the action to be resumed, insisting on the most democratic forms of rank and file control. But they cannot rely on this strategy being successful. Therefore, they should also be prepared, should it be necessary, to take, support and spread unofficial action, from office to office, from one end of the country to the other."
The 'I Support The Postal Workers' Facebook group is here.

The problem facing unionised workers in all industries is a structural one; union leaders have different interests to rank and filers, and so must try to further those interests by making backroom deals with those who propose cuts to jobs, wages and conditions. In a further example of this, Sheffield Fire Brigades Union officials also capitulated to management just hours before a strike was due to begin over shift patterns.

The 'Support the South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Operational Fire Fighters' group is here.

Finally, following the California university occupations a month ago, students in Austria are building a much larger movement against poor conditions, and the so-called 'Bologna process', which is aimed at the standardisation of university cuts across Europe. As well as protest marches around the country, Vienna students have now occupied the Audimax central lecture hall for two weeks. There have also been occupations at Heidelberg and Münster. According to the WSWS:
"The students’ demands include the abolition of tuition fees, the lifting of entrance restrictions at universities and colleges of further education, more rights for students to influence what happens in higher education, better equipment in all educational establishments, as well as the provision of sufficient and well-paid teaching staff."
However:
"It is necessary to discuss and develop a political perspective that wages a struggle against the capitalist social order. It is necessary to do the very thing that the ruling class fears most: to orient the protests to the working class."
The 'In Solidarity with the occupations in Austria for Free Education!' Facebook group is here.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Workers' Fightback: Update 21

Postal workers in the UK have now taken five days of strike action against the attacks on their jobs and working conditions, spearheaded by Royal Mail and backed by the government. RM are responding by rolling out Britain's largest strikebreaking operation since the pivotal miners' strike of 1984-85. However, Communication Workers Union bureaucrats - who have been doing their best to dampen down rank and file anger since the early summer - have claimed this is "not a sticking point".

Last Wednesday, members of the Nottinghamshire Industrial Workers of the World branch leafleted outside the Station Road Jobcentre Plus branch, urging centre users not to cross picket lines and undermine the strike. Actions like this are vitally important, because the new workers' movement is starting from a historical low in terms of class consciousness and knowledge of industrial tactics, and under-25s make up nearly four in ten on the UK unemployment roll.

Two days of all-out strikes are scheduled for Friday and next Monday. The 'I Support the Postal Workers!' Facebook group is here.

In another historical milestone struggle, Ford workers in the US have emphatically rejected the latest sacrifices proposed by United Auto Workers president Ron Gettelfinger, with nearly three quarters voting no on the deal. It is the first time a national deal has been rejected stateside since 1976, and the first time at Ford since 1972. Since then, the UAW has helped to wipe out 750,000 US auto industry jobs, leaving Detroit and other manufacturing centres utterly devastated.

Union executives around the world and in every industry have argued that economic globalisation means that cuts are necessary sacrifices, and a whole generation of workers have grown up in that environment, giving more to their bosses, and getting less back, while the bureaucrats have enriched themselves. Ford workers have seen 45% of their colleagues made redundant since 2006, and have overwhelmingly decided that enough is enough, drawing a red line in the sand. They must link up with their counterparts at Chrysler and General Motors (the other two members of the 'Big Three', who had similar deals foisted upon them by Gettelfinger and President Obama at the start of the year), and workers internationally. The nationalist, pro-capitalist perspective of the business unions has been exposed as a dead end, but now the case has to be made for workers' control.

Finally for this week, more than four thousand undocumented workers are taking strike action and holding occupations in Paris. Their demand is for the same legal rights as indigenous French labour. Under the slogan 'Colonised yesterday – exploited today – tomorrow regularised', the strike wave is far larger than a similar uprising in spring last year, which involved six hundred workers and won two thousand regularisations. According to an article in The Commune:
"This exemplary movement perfectly illustrates the contradictions of capitalism. In order to maintain profits, this system has for years carried out a policy of outsourcing and casualising the labour force. This logic is pushed to its extreme with undocumented migrant workers. Furthermore they suffer growing state and police repression with the development of Fortress Europe, a racist Europe, which lauds the free circulation of capital yet allows thousands of people to die every year in the Mediterranean."

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