Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Spectre Of Communism Haunts Chinese Elite

With the US empire in terminal decline, China has become essential to the globally integrated capitalist economy. It is now the world’s second largest economy, having officially overtaken its neighbour Japan, with a gross domestic product of over a trillion US dollars in the second quarter of 2010. It has long enjoyed gargantuan economic growth, and even weathered the storm of the global economic crisis up to this point. But its status as “sweatshop of the world” now seems extremely vulnerable to both internal and external shocks, and a period of huge social upheaval is on the horizon.

China is currently a few decades into its ‘industrial revolution’, which is similar to those undergone by European states a couple of centuries ago. However, there are a couple of important differences. Firstly, the nation is of course playing host to far more technologically advanced production than the Britain of the 1800s. Secondly, the sheer scale of China as a land mass, and the size of the new Chinese proletariat – estimated to be around 400 million and steadily growing – means that it dwarfs that of any other country. International capital now relies on Chinese workers to manufacture a large percentage of its electronics, cars, and clothing at super-exploitative pay rates.

But this summer there have been encouraging signs that this enormous proletariat is starting to feel its objective strength. In June, a wave of suicides at the Foxconn plant at Shenzhen provoked riots amongst workers, who stopped making iPhones for Apple in miserable conditions, and started chanting “capitalists kill people”, while brandishing photos of the company’s CEO. The company responded by announcing wage rises and improved conditions, though these soon proved to be illusory, and the China Times reported that many workers are now even worse off than before, thanks to changes in the pay structure.

Workers at the Denso car parts factory in southern China seem to have enjoyed more success, brought about by their two day strike over the quality of breakfasts. But perhaps the pivotal standoff of the upsurge was at the Honda Lock plant in Zhongshan, which followed hard on the heels of another apparently victorious Honda strike in Foshan. While the exact numbers are unclear – they are quite possibly being suppressed by authorities – Honda Lock workers seem to have won a raise of at least 100 yuan, which is around one tenth of their previous wage.

Zhongshan workers faced down management threats and riot police on their way to the victory. But perhaps more interesting than this was the structure of their ad hoc organization. Feeling unrepresented by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions – which openly acts as an arm of the Communist Party dictatorship – they took collective decisions and elected recallable delegates to set out their demands. So in Western terms, this summer’s Chinese strikes have very definitely been ‘wildcats’ – taken independently of the trade union bureaucracy, which has been identified as a class enemy. “The official union leaders are useless and support management”, as one Foshan striker told the Financial Times.

A China Newsweek profile of the man identified as the Foshan strike ‘leader’ paints a portrait that could easily apply to tens of millions of young Chinese workers. Aged just twenty-four, Tan Ziqing left his family’s small farm six years ago, and takes home 1,300 yuan a month (about £120). Apart from his living expenses, he sends the bulk of his wages back to his family in Hunan province. “Living almost like a monk”, his only entertainment was online chat. More educated than many, Tan researched previous working class struggles, such as the abortive Chinese revolution of the 1920s. He decided that independent working class action was required at the Honda factory.

Tan initiated the strike with a co-worker on 17th May, and the news spread quickly, via text messages. Having decided that a management concession of 55 yuan per month was not enough, the workers resumed their strike on the 23rd. They rallied on the factory’s basketball court and sang the Internationale.

Despite the Communist Party’s attempts to censor the internet, the strikes generated a lot of chat on various online forums. The mainly young workers at factories owned by Honda and Foxconn are part of the peak internet-using demographic in China, so many young people would have sympathized with their plight. Commenting on the Foxconn suicides, one worker claimed that that people like them faced only three possibilities: “revolution, suicide, or dragging on”. There is also much condemnation of the official “yellow unions” whose bureaucrats enjoy “mansions, US dollars, fine wine and beautiful women”, while young workers “labour endlessly like robots in a bird cage for a minimum wage”. A blogger urged workers to: “Rise up, those who do not want to be slaves… the rights of the workers all over the world were won by workers’ strikes, bloodsheds and sacrifices! Not granted from the conscience of the capitalists.”

Even though these strikes have been relatively isolated, fears are now being expressed in financial circles that they may just mark the beginning. Indeed, Bloomberg’s columnist William Pesek made the slightly tongue in cheek remark that “If these factory strikes continue, China may have to go communist.” He then posed the vital question: “...will workers demand a true communism, not just one that abhors Google?”

From our perspective, this is all very encouraging, but what does it say about the possibilities of reinvigorated rank-and-file struggle closer to home? Of course, there are obvious differences to the class struggle in the West, but there are also important similarities. Perhaps the most interesting comparison to be made is in the respective compositions of the official trade unions.

The relationship between the Chinese “yellow unions” and the company bosses could hardly be more blatant. For example, the Foxconn ACFTU president, Chen Peng, is also a senior manager of the company! But when Western trade union leaderships actively seek to disorientate workers and strangle their struggles in the name of ‘social partnership’, their class position is almost the same relative to the workforce. To give a Western comparison, Obama has given the United Auto Workers union a stake in General Motors and Chrysler, the leadership literally does have a seat at corporate board meetings, and directly profits from increased exploitation. As an illustration of this, the UAW bureaucrats are currently trying to force through wage cuts of almost 50% at an Indianapolis stamping plant.

The nascent Chinese uprising illustrates the truth in Sheila Cohen’s March article. In ‘Workers’ Councils: the Red Mole of Revolution’, she asked why workers’ councils spring up ‘spontaneously’ in very different geographic and historic cases. “The answer is simple”, she remarked, “because the form is simple; the form is constructed from the requirements of the situation, not plucked from thin air.” Workers in Chinese sweatshops have now formed workers’ councils, just as – for instance – the non-unionized Vestas workers effectively did on the Isle of Wight last year, as countless workers have over the last one hundred and fifty years. When the avenues for advancement through top-down ‘representation’ have been exhausted, bottom-up, collective decision-making and delegation is the only alternative that fits.

The Chinese economy is under increasing strain. In the wake of the global crash two years ago, the Communist Party government flooded the market with a more than a trillion dollars of loans. But that money has now run out, and with less demand coming from the recession and cutbacks hit West, Chinese manufacture for export is about to crash. It seems likely that a tidal wave of resistance will result, making this summer’s revolts look like a trickle. The repercussions for the global economy would be unprecedented, and the idea of workers’ councils could well spread beyond China. To paraphrase the old Chinese proverb, we may live in interesting times.

This article was also published in The Commune.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Workers' Fightback - Indianapolis and South Africa Wage Battles

Workers at the Indianapolis General Motors plant are on collision course with the company, the political and media establishment, and the bosses of their United Auto Workers union, after UAW bureaucrats were shouted down and driven out of a meeting last week. Dramatic footage of this confrontation can be viewed here.

All union mandarins are tied to the employers by their defence of the profit system, and their opposition to workers' control. Since the economic crisis began in 2007, union leaders around the world have helped employers impose the burden on the backs of their own membership. But UAW chiefs directly profit from increased exploitation, thanks to Obama's restructuring of the industry. In May 2009, they signed up for a 17.5% stake in GM, and these profits find their way into the pockets of union executives. For example, Mike Grimes, the Assistant Director who fled the Indianapolis meeting raked in $132,155 last year. The union also owns a luxury golf course, which is primarily used by tops, as was pointed out by one angry Indianapolis worker:

"The UAW is doing this because they own stock in GM, and they want to keep their business coming in. Once they finish the deal, they’ll build another 100-million-dollar golf course with our strike fund."

The bureaucrats' aim is to slash wages by almost fifty per cent - from $29 an hour to $15.50 - before GM sell the plant to former Wall Street speculator J.D. Norman. Local 23 explicitly rejected the plan by an overwhelming 384 votes to 22 in May, but Grimes and others were trying to re-open the contract before they were thrown out.

The workers at the stamping plant toil in often hellish conditions, with floor level temperatures reaching 48 degrees centigrade in summer. It is common for people to pass out from heat exhaustion, and there is a lack of drinkable water.

"I'd like the see a UAW official do what we do every day; to avoid the molten metal and walk on the oily floors,” said Carla. "I invite anyone who thinks we make too much money to shadow me for a day; this plant is a hellhole. There are cockroaches everywhere and half the bathrooms don’t work."

According to the 'logic' of capitalist globalization, workers have no choice but to compete with their class brothers and sisters around the world, by constantly accepting ever worse pay and conditions. In the wake of the Indianapolis meeting, this is the line that has been trotted about by UAW executives, the mayor of Indianapolis, and semi-fascist national pundit Rush Limbaugh. But this 'logic' can only be pushed so far; at a certain point the rate of exploitation becomes intolerable, and working people fight back.

The Indianapolis GM workers have shown their unwillingness to have their rate of exploitation almost doubled, but this raises the vital question: what is their alternative to the capitalist ‘race to the bottom’? The only other possibility is workers' control, and if they are to have a chance of achieving this, the stampers need to make a broad appeal to car and other workers in the United States around the world. This appeal must be made independently of the union hierarchy, who will do anything they can to strangle the rebellion.

One million public sector workers demanding a living wage in South Africa face the same challenge, following the start of an open-ended general strike last Wednesday. President Jacob Zuma and his African National Congress government are offering a 7% increase, while the strikers’ demand stands at 8.6%, plus another 200 rand per month in housing allowance. For the moment, the Congress of South African Trade Unions leaders are talking tough, but behind the scenes they will be working with the government. Since the ANC came to power under Nelson Mandela in the 1990s, COSATU have been an enthusiastic partner in forcing through privatizations, spending and wage cuts.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Introduction to Philosophy In Pubs

The Nerve Centre, Old Rapid Hardware Paint Shop, Renshaw Street (18th August 2010)

The "second Enlightenment" took a step forward at the Nerve Centre on Wednesday, as a dozen Liverpool philosophers got together to discuss life, the universe, and everything.

The session was much more free-wheeling than a typical Philosophy In Pubs enquiry, which zeroes in on a particular subject that is then dissected over a couple of hours and a couple of pints. But this was clearly the intention of facilitator Rob Lewis, who led us through an intriguing maze of topics with a light touch, introducing newcomers to the world of PIPs.

The concept is simple enough: "to allow people a space to express and discuss their ideas and thoughts, and to learn from each other in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere". But the possibilities opened up by such a set-up seem endless, and the opportunity is precious precisely because it seems so rare in early twenty-first century society. But why is this? Well, I have my ideas, but maybe there’s an enquiry in it...

The afternoon began when Rob read from a prepared document, explaining what PIPs is, and why he believes it is important. The meeting then broke up into smaller groups for more intimate chats, before each small gathering reported back to the assembled philosophers.

Such was the variety of ideas thrown up, it took us until twenty minutes before the end to decide what to have an enquiry about. Of course, by then it was too late, but that didn't really seem to matter. Discussions about the need for and the usefulness of philosophy, the nature of democracy, and "selling-out" all briefly flowered. By far the youngest philosopher - who was on a summer break from primary school - even suggested questions that kept Descartes preoccupied for several years!

At the end, it was clear that everybody had enjoyed themselves, exercising the parts of the brain that most pastimes don't reach. And yet - fun though it is - the PIPs experience is about so much more than having an interesting debate. It is about self-improvement - individual and collective. It's about developing a critical perspective. It's about arming yourself with philosophical tools to take on the "battle of life". And as was repeatedly mentioned at the introductory session, it is needed more in these times of economic and social crisis than it ever was before.

Philosophy In Pubs will be holding several more enquiries at the Nerve Centre, and they frequently hold others in venues around the city and beyond. See the Nerve and Philosophy In Pubs websites for details.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Workers' Fightback - Greek Trucks and US Starbucks

The combined weight of the Greek army, riot police force, media and trade union leadership was mobilised last week, to stop a strike by truckers. The action took place as 'centre-left' Prime Minister Giorgos Papandreou continues to implement European Union and International Monetary Fund diktats. With Greece being seen as a testing-ground for repressing the entire working class of Europe, this episode comes as a stark warning to the rest of us.

From the perspective of the European and international financial elites, Papandreou has been doing an excellent job over the last several months. A report by the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy recently found that his government is on target to force through real wage cuts of between twenty and thirty per cent in 2010, by a combination of attacks on salaries, big rises in VAT, and rising inflation.

Though the bosses of private and public sector unions (ADEDY and GSEE respectively) have called a ritualised series of one day general strikes and protests, the truckers' action has posed the biggest threat so far to Papandreou. By holding out for six days, the 33,000 drivers brought the economy to near standstill during the peak tourist season.

On the strike's third day, the government effectively conscripted the truckers into the army, instantly making the strike illegal. But they refused to restart work, and five hundred fought riot police in an attempt to storm the Transport Ministry. The army was then brought in, and began supplying fuel to economically critical sectors. At this stage, truckers union president Georgios Tzortzatos began concerted efforts to shut down the strike, despite no demands having been met, telling drivers that they "had to consider the difficulties their actions have caused for society at large".

Strikes are powerful precisely because of the disruption they cause to profit-making business of usual, but the union bureaucrat offered to call it off, conditional on the government withdrawing the army. This was agreed, and on Sunday a narrow majority of strikers voted to end their brave action.

Abandoned by their own union, isolated from the rest of the working class (neither GSEE or ADEDY had called any solidarity action), and threatened with five years imprisonment, it is small wonder that the majority decided to give up the fight. But the consequences will be catastrophic.

The dispute was over the 'liberalisation' of the trucker licensing system. Under the old system, drivers bought trucker licenses from the state, for between €100,000 and €200,000. The licenses could then be resold on retirement from the profession. Deprived of this pension nest egg, many now face bankruptcy.

This social tragedy claimed a victim in the days leading up to the strike, when a sixty-seven year old, debt-ridden trucker took his life, hanging himself on a bridge over a motorway. Indeed, the Greek suicide rate has nearly tripled this year, according to suicide helpline Klimaka.

Furthermore, confident in the knowledge that trade union bureaucracies will help them if disputes get out of hand, the Greek state must now turn its attentions to lawyers, notaries, pharmacists, architects, civil engineers and accountants, according to the EU/IMF prescription. If these groups are to have a chance of surviving the onslaught, they must break with the bureaucracy and reach out to working people around Greece and throughout Europe.

One group of workers who won't have a union bureaucracy to worry about are the baristas of the 15th and Douglas Starbucks, in Omaha, New England. Together, they have formed an Industrial Workers of the World branch in response to recessionary attacks from bosses. As staff shut down the cafe on Thursday morning, shift supervisor Sasha McCoy declared:
"We are being squeezed, and we can't take it any more. Since the recession began, Starbucks executives have ruthlessly gutted our standard of living. They doubled the cost of our health insurance, reduced staffing levels, cut our hours, all while demanding more work from us. Starbucks is now more than profitable again. It's time for management to give back what they took from us."
As Phil Dickens recently commented: "Rank-and-file workers are the trade union movement, not those at the top who offer fine words and gesture politics. If the fight against the cuts is to have any success, we need to take it back from the bureaucrats. Otherwise, what the mainstream media is calling an "autumn of discontent" will amount to nothing more than pissing in the wind."

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