Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Massive Public Sector Strike, But How Could We Win?

Occupy is starting to link up with workers in struggle
Around the UK, an estimated two million public sector workers are striking for a day against pension cuts which would make them work longer, contribute more and receive less when they eventually retire. The strikes are both entirely justified and a great illustration of working class power, yet industrial action must be greatly expanded if the ruling class attacks are to be overturned.

Many schools and colleges are closed throughout the country, with the Department of Education admitting that at least 58% of schools are totally shut and 13% are partially affected. Council offices, libraries, community centres, museums, leisure centres, car parks and job centres may be closed or partially closed, and some care services will be reduced. In the NHS, non-emergency operations have been postponed, as have outpatient appointments. Transport links in the Tyne and Wear area, Merseyside and Northern Ireland have been put out of action. Office staff in the civil service are also disrupting government business as usual.

The media has billed today as the biggest day of strikes the country has seen in at least a generation, and it is clear that a certain culture of resistance is starting to build. This can be seen in the Liverpool 'battle bus', which is touring picket lines around the city (complete with serenades from the Socialist Singers), plus burgeoning links between the Occupy camps and the more traditionally-organised labour movement.

The casus belli of the day is the government’s planned pensions raid. But public sector workers face many more attacks from the coalition – including mass redundancies and yesterday’s announcement of a two year 1% pay rise cap, following on from a two year pay freeze. If the government gets its way, by 2015 there will be hundreds of thousands fewer public sector workers than there were at the start of the economic crisis. Those who remain will face the prospect of severely depleted pensions, and will have a standard of living around 20% poorer than previously, once inflation has been taken into account.

A culture of resistance is developing
In the run-up to today’s action, the government propaganda machine claimed that the strike would be irresponsible, because it would supposedly cost the economy £500 million. Setting aside the hypocrisy involved in attacking one day’s inconvenience when you plan to make permanent reductions in such services, and totally ignoring them giving almost everyone a day off for the royal wedding, such quotes actually strengthen the case for industrial action. After all, you can’t attack the strikers for damaging the economy without tacitly acknowledging the huge importance of the work they do. If the £500 million figure was correct, that would mean that the every one of the two million workers currently donate about £250 worth of unpaid labour to the economy each and every working day!

Besides, as Phil Dickens has noted, many well understand that disruption is a weapon with which the working class can resist and/or make their own 'or else...' demands:
"Aside from anything else, the very point of a strike is that it is disruptive direct action. It is the act of workers exercising their economic power and shutting down production, the outcome of the dispute hinging on the balance of power between the strikers and the bosses using scabs to keep the wheels turning. This isn't a matter of opinion, but basic economics. Thus, when [Education Secretary Michael Gove] says that those striking want schools closed and the inconvenience and disruption that goes with it, he is objectively correct."
However, Gove is wrong – no doubt deliberately so – when he declares that union bosses are "itching for fight" (a claim which Mark Steel dismisses in typically surreal style). The corollary of this idea is that if it weren’t for the militancy of the union leadership, the reluctant workers wouldn’t be striking. This is to stand reality on its head.

Even before the last general election – some eighteen months – it was clear that all three big business parties were proposing "savage cuts", in a bid to use the opportunity of the banker bailout to force austerity on the rest of us. Ever since then, working class anger has been mounting as blow after blows has rained down on us. So far, thanks to the chokehold of the union bureaucracy, this has only found major – and very imperfect – expression in the much smaller 30th June strike and the summer riots. However, the grassroots electricians' movement and Occupy show that the accumulating pressure is about to explode.

Police estimated that twenty thousand rallied in Bristol alone

This is precisely why union tops have been forced to call today’s action. Their own jobs would be much easier if rank-and-filers meekly accepted attacks, and the fat cats collected the cream from dues. But of course workers refuse to do this, and this drives the bureaucracy into the studios, with all their tough talk. Behind the scenes though, they are organising a sell-out. They hope that today will be sufficient to let workers let off steam without disrupting the system too much.

The Brendan Barbers and Mark Serwotkas of the world are sure to be disappointed. In spite of a huge government/’Opposition’/media onslaught, polls show that "61% of people believe public sector workers are justified in going on strike over pension changes". Instead of swallowing the nonsense about public sector staff having relatively decent standards at the expense of all other workers, a large number recognise that a government win would mean downward pressure on all wages and pensions. Importantly, they also value the services on which they rely far more than the government does. In truth, almost the entire working class is "itching for a fight" with the coalition and the super-rich elite.

If public sector workers are to win, they must reach out to the 3.5 million of their number not even balloted for today, as well as private sector employees, students and the unemployed. A struggle to bring down the Cameron government is needed, and to replace it with a society run by the working class - emphatically not the parasitical layer of trade union bureaucrats.

Back in September, I made several predictions about how the strikes would play out. So far, the first six have come true, and number seven is pending. Now the only relevant question is this: will demoralisation or fury have the hour when Brendan Barber announces a 'deal' with the government?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Who's Getting Rich On Your Money?

David Metter makes "a killing" out of UK taxes every year
BBC One, 28th November 2011

Last night’s Panorama was a generally well-organised attack on Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs) – which allow already hugely wealthy business people to "make a killing from the taxpayer", and derive "unelected, unaccountable" power from their loans to the government. However, presenter John Ware lacked the final touch, and did not sufficiently explain why PFIs are promoted by key sections of the ruling class.

According to the programme, PFIs now account for £300 billion of investment in the “backbone of civic life” – most prominently hospitals and schools. Private companies raise the funds for construction and fitting, and then usually win the contracts for cleaning and maintaining them, as well as repayments at huge interest rates over a thirty year contract. These massive payments often rise with inflation, and must come before any new equipment is bought, or a single worker is paid. In other words "they buy now, we all pay later."

Typically, operational PFI hospitals have to shell out one fifth of their income in loan repayments every year. It's little wonder that David Metter, the head of a PFI business who personally skimmed £8 million from the government last year, claims that "UK PLC got a good deal". Yet even the fiercest political critic on the show, former Labour minister Margaret Hodge, believes that even though it wasn’t a good deal, "What the public have got is hospitals and schools built that would otherwise not have been built." On a similar line, Dr Mark Hellowell, who lectures in health systems and public policy, takes up Margaret Thatcher’s old ‘there is no alternative' narrative when he claims that "There is no realistic public option for almost all of those schemes. There simply isn’t the capital available in the Department of Health."

This is exactly the case which the Department of Health and the Treasury have been making in Liverpool for a number of years, as bosses scrambled to replace the decaying Royal hospital, once voted the "ugliest building in the city". Yet the programme shows that in December 2009, "PFI was found to be significantly more expensive". According to former Department of Health advisor Andy Black, "they must have been desperate" at that point.

Small wonder then that the study was repeated just four months later, and Ware shows that this time the figures were "manipulated". Essentially, the calculations were based on the bizarre assumption that the lender would accept "lower profits than almost every other PFI deal, and even then PFI only scraped home by a whisker" – 0.03%.

The Royal definitely needs rebuilding, but where should the money come from?
Merseyside’s Keep Our NHS Public group believe that an outright government-financed hospital would cost significantly less, allowing Liverpool people an extra £15 million more healthcare per year for the next thirty-four years – more than the length of PFI contracts. Dr Alex Scott-Samuel equates this money to "nearly two hundred fully staffed beds or five hundred nurses – clearly a lot of healthcare."

The politicians continue talking tough on PFI in opposition, and then equivocating once they get into power. Why? Wade attributes it to the realities of getting to grips with practical politics, before revealing that many of the PFI ‘advisors’ in government have themselves made fortunes from the practice. But then surely another question follows – why would governments allow such people to be appointed to such positions in the first place?

The PFI issue should not be considered in isolation from the other fiscal measures taken by governments promoting ‘austerity’ for the vast majority. Instead, they are part and parcel of the steady erosion of the public sector, and its turning over to those who would profit from our basic needs. John Major’s original establishment of the scheme happened in the context of tax cuts and deregulation for the wealthy, as the UK government sought to increase profitability in an ever more globalised world. Politicians in all other industrialised nations took similar measures. Tony Blair championed PFI because he was even more committed to enriching the wealthiest, who are now lavishing money on him. George Osborne might finally be having a "reassessment" of PFI, but we can bet that he won’t soon advocate taxing the rich to pay for hospitals and schools.

As ever, despite the orthodoxies of ruling class mouthpieces, there is an alternative. But let’s forget the fiction that tax revenues are "our money", as if we give them up voluntarily. Tax money is extorted from us, and then funnelled up towards the super-rich elite. As a working class, our urgent task is to turn the tables on the parasites.

Who's Getting Rich On Your Money? can be viewed on BBC iPlayer.
Read a Merseyside Keep Our NHS Public statement on the Royal here.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Bakers Union Betrays Strong Strike Mandate

Park are using new legislation to force down wages, conditions
Four weeks ago I wrote about the situation at Park Cakes - a baking company based in the northwest of England. I raised points about how the new, trade union-backed Agency Workers Regulations (AWR) were being used as a battering ram to enforce an "equality in misery" between permanent and temporary staff in workplaces. However, now the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) are on the verge of a sell-out, so the immediacy of the situation calls for critical analysis of the union bureaucracy.

The dispute is over the hiring of new permanent workers at a deliberately low levels of pay, on zero hour contracts and few benefits. Because of the AWR benchmark, hundreds of more experienced permanent workers believe that a similar attack on their and conditions is imminent.

On 14th October, BFAWU announced the result of two strike ballots. 79.25% were in favour at Bolton, and 72.2% and 67.8% alongside the two branches in Oldham. But as I described at the start of November:
"[...]BFAWU have been predictably reluctant to translate populist speechifying into action. At Saturday's meeting, union president Ian Hodson fumed that: "A clear message has been sent to the company, they are wrong, wrong, wrong and you are right, right, right. Right to take action, right to stand up and right to fight.” But Hodson is desperate to cut a sell-out deal with Park, which is evidenced by the fact it's taken him two weeks since the initial ballot to announce strike dates[...]"
At the Bolton meeting, BFAWU Regional Organising Secretary Geoff Atkinson told staff that the strike dates would be co-ordinated with Oldham. But in reality, the action was set for November 11, 14, 22 and November 30 in Bolton, and November 8-10 plus December 6-8 in Oldham.

Union fat cat Hodson is a favourite of the SWP
It is now clear that these dates were only ever pencilled in to the diaries of Hodson and Atkinson, because they called them off on 7th November - with one day to spare before the first scheduled stoppage in Oldham. No statement was made on the BFAWU website, and no such statement has been published to date. Instead, regional officer Roy Streeter told the Oldham Chronicle that the cancellations were good news, because "It shows both sides are willing to negotiate. Our general secretary contacted the company for a meeting on Friday and they agreed to look at the situation."

Apart from the slanderous email that went between Unite bureaucrats this summer, nothing could better illustrate the contempt in which relatively wealthy union officials hold ordinary, rank and file workers. For such bureaucrats, workers' concerns are an inconvenience, to be ignored, worn down by attrition, or negotiated away. They would much rather take their wages from the union dues, and sit around doing nothing for their money.

As one worker told the WSWS: "The union came around while we were working and told us the strikes were off. We didn’t have time to think about it. We voted to go on strike and we should have gone on strike. I can see where all this is going. We will all end up on the agency and on their pay."

Indeed, the only way to prevent such a dramatic setback is to bypass the union leadership, and bring-about true workplace democracy, with decisions over what industrial action to take being made by the people who stand to gain or lose from it. Meanwhile, the latest betrayal exposes the reactionary role played by the SWP amongst other fake left parties, since they promote Hodson as part of their sham 'Right to Work' campaign.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Decay and Death Of Bourgeois Democracy

The spectre of fascism is haunting Europe, as the bankers tighten their grip
Events in Europe over the last few weeks have sounded the death knell for bourgeois democracy - the public's right to vote on who will 'represent' them in parliaments. The financial aristocrats are now directly choosing the leaders of nations, and the working classes of Greece and Italy should be in no doubt that these puppets will serve the interests of their masters even more ferociously than prime ministers Papandreou and Berlusconi respectively did before them.

In Greece, George Papandreou had loyally imposed ruination on millions of his voters for two years, going back on pre-election pledges to resist cutting public spending. But following huge strikes and mobilisations of the working class on the streets of Athens and other cities, he called a referendum on the latest cuts package. He did so for his own political reasons, in an attempt to force the hand of opposition politicians who had postured as opponents of the cuts. But Papandreou was punished on the financial markets, and was humiliatingly summoned by Angela Merkel of Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy of France for a dressing down. Days of confusion and horse-trading followed, but finally Lucas Papademos emerged as the new PM.

For the international banking elite, Papademos has impeccable credentials. He worked in the highest echelons of the Bank of Greece for nearly twenty years until 2002, overseeing preparations for eurozone entry. For the next eight years, he was vice president of the European Central Bank - a key member of the 'Troika' now restructuring the Greek economy in its own interests. In the year leading up to his appointment, he had been an advisor to Papandreou. So there will be no deviation from brutal austerity under his leadership - on the contrary, the attacks on working class living standards will be deepened and accelerated. The recent police raid on a Thessaloniki university - the first time they have been on campus since the Greek colonels' dictatorship ended in 1974 - points towards even more iron fisted repression.

Silvio Berlusconi of Italy has also been imposing huge austerity measures on the Italian working class this year, but never enough to satisfy the appetite of the kings and queens of finance. In the week before his own resignation, the country's standing on international markets yo-yoed, depending on whether or not it looked like he would remain in office. This signal was read and understood by parliamentarians, who removed his majority, and effectively forced his hand. Bankers deemed Berlusconi's embroilment in personal corruption charges too much of a distraction from his role as their servant, and so they demanded his head.

His successor, Mario Monti, is a former European bureaucrat and advisor to Goldman Sachs. He heads a government of 'technocrats' in which no cabinet member has been elected to office by the Italian people. Instead, they have been plucked from the worlds of finance, European bureaucracy and the military. Monti has pledged to set a "blood and tears" budget in the coming weeks.

Even in Spain, where a collapse in support for the formerly social democratic Socialist Workers' Party saw the post-Francoist People's Party returned to power just four days ago, the new PM has already been put on notice by the oligarchy. Mariano Rajoy made an appeal to the markets that "there are elections and that the winners must be given a little room for manoeuvre that should last more than half an hour". But then the real rulers of Spain showed him the whip, raising the cost of borrowing close to the levels which prompted Greece, Portugal and Ireland to seek bailouts, and dropping the stock market level by almost 2% in early trading. Having seen what has just happened to Berlusconi, Rajoy knows that the oligarchs have far more power to destroy him than any electorate. 

Democratically-elected politicians have to make some kind of appeal to the electorate, and this is a hindrance to the ultra-rich. This is the reason why the franchise was so hard won from each nation's bourgeoisie in the first place, and why today's ruling class - the international finance houses - will not hesitate to remove it wherever it becomes an inconvenience to them. The appointment of technocrats represents another big step in the eventual abolition of bourgeois democracy. When the time comes, military and para-military forces from the far right will be used in an attempt to crush the fighting battalions of the working class. 

This is the ominous significance of Makis Voridis' and Adonis Georgiadis' elevation to ministry portfolios in Greece. Both men belong to LAOS, an extreme right party founded in 2000, which argues for political decisions to be made by a council including military officers and Church officials. There is also a large anti-Semitic element to their politics, with many holocaust deniers holding high ranks in the party structures. In the 1980s and early 1990s, Voridis became infamous as 'Hammer-Voridis'. He earned this nickname by attacking protesting students with a hammer. He is now Minister for Infrastructure and Transport in the Papademos administration. In short, LAOS' promotion to government is the equivalent of the bankers appointing Nick Griffin to the UK cabinet.

The total enslavement and pauperisation of the western working class cannot be fully imposed by politicians with one eye on the opinion polls, so bourgeois democracy is fast outliving its historical usefulness for those who profit most from our "blood and tears". In this new great depression, the democratically-organised working class is the only force which can resist the new dawn of fascism, and finally organise society in its own interests.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Comparing the Wisconsin and Oakland 'General Strikes' of 2011

This year has seen two serious attempts to organise general strikes in the United States, which had not seen such grassroots industrial action in many decades. The significance of this should not be underplayed, and both struggles are worthy of analysis, to help build an understanding of our strengths and weaknesses in different contexts, as well as the forces lined up against us.

The first took place last winter in Wisconsin, as working people tried to overturn the governor's huge attack on pay and bargaining rights. In 'The general strike that didn't happen', Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) members describe how they were at the centre of efforts to organise a stoppage, but were ultimately frustrated as large numbers were channeled into liberal protest avenues such as recall campaigns. The report describes the high point of the campaign, which in retrospect also prefigured the shift to more reformist methods:
"The public forum held in the evening after the rally had around 200 participants, of which approximately 25 were IWW members. This is certainly one of the largest public meetings organized by the IWW in a long time. Unfortunately the reverse side to this is that we do not have a culture of how to organize public meetings. We did not have a clear objective for the meeting and it became a long list of people speaking eloquently about mass action, but with no discussion of practical steps. To a large extent, the event became a forum for people to get things off their chest. Members of the public sector unions expressed their shock and disbelief."
In the end, "IWW participation in the so-called ‘#wiunion movement’ started to decline as the recall became the popular option, individuals in the branch still maintained varying levels of involvement."

Much more recently - just three weeks ago in fact - a "general strike" shut down the Port of Oakland, in response to police violence against the city's Occupy movement. In 'The Oakland general strike, the days before, the days after', an IWW participant describes how:
"Personally, I had some of the easiest agitating in my life. A class on Monday started with the instructor talking about how he wasn't sure what was going on, but since getting to Alameda pretty much requires going through downtown Oakland, he was cancelling class on Wednesday. Then he goes on about how all the community college instructors are looking forward to this, because most of them are getting hours cut or losing their jobs."
By the strike day itself:
"My medic buddy and I then went back to moving around the plaza and the area around it, worried about tensions developing and bursting out into some sort of confrontation, but, that did not seem to occur. Our numbers, however, were swelling rapidly. Two marches would leave for the port, at 4 and 5 pm, the first, from reliable estimates consisting of at least 10,000 people, the second consisting of 15-20k people. Plus many more people went to the port from elsewhere. The best estimates I have seen for the numbers at the port were 35-50,000, which I can easily believe."
Both articles are full of vitally important analysis and tactical reflection, and as the Wisconsin authors argue:
"As the crisis of capital deepens, more and more misery will be directed at the working class, which will have no choice but to respond in ways that break through decades of working class defeat. The events in Wisconsin were just a preview of struggles to come, and the IWW will have to be involved in all of them, learning and developing each time."

Friday, November 11, 2011

The War To End All Wars

This is my overall prize-winning entry for the 'Dulce Et Decorum...Next!' poetry competition. It is being read at the re-dedication of the war memorial at Port Sunlight, Wirral today, by former Brookside actor Dean Sullivan. The contest was promoted by the Birkenhead-based Wilfred Owen Story.

I could fight for my lover
Because I love the world with her in it
I could fight for my brother
Because we've shared quite a bit
I could fight for my parents
Because they gave me life
And I could fight with my companions
Because solidarity is might

But I could never fight for the queen
She's not lifted a finger for me
I could never fight for 'my country'
I don't own any of it really
I could never fight for a flag
Which could never shield us from pain
And I couldn't fight for wealthy parasites
Who pour blood, sweat and tears down the drain

There are epic battles coming
And we'll have to pick a side
I know my place already
I know who I'll fight beside
I'll fight arms in arms with those who want peace
I'll fight side by side for the turning of the tide
I'll fight shoulder to shoulder for food, clothes and shelter
I'll fight to the end for comrades and friends

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

London Demonstrators Defy Police Intimidation

Hundreds of electricians briefly blocked the City of London this morning
Students, electricians and cab drivers are all demonstrating in London today. Above all, they are demonstrating that they will not be intimidated by police scare tactics, which are aimed at deterring those want to fight for their futures.

Yesterday, Metropolitan Police Commander Simon Pountain launched a full scale media campaign, with the transparent intention of frightening would-be protesters into staying at home. First thing in the morning, Pountain announced that he had given the authority for rubber bullets to be used against students if he decided that police were threatened.

If and when police do use baton rounds, it will be the first time they have been used on the British mainland, having been extensively used in Northern Ireland. Their use on non-violent Occupiers in Oakland, USA two weeks ago served to heighten anti-police feeling, and strongly contributed to calls for a general strike, which eventually paralysed one of the country's largest ports.

When Pountain made his statement, he would have been aware that letters he had signed were about to be delivered to various people at "austerity related" protests over the last year. The Orwellian letters - which were sent in blatant disregard of whether or not the individual had been charged, let alone convicted - warned that:
"It is in the public and your own interest that you do not involve yourself in any type of criminal or antisocial behaviour. We have a responsibility to deliver a safe protest which protects residents, tourists, commuters, protesters and the wider community. Should you do so we will at the earliest opportunity arrest and place you before the court."
News of the letters spread quickly on Twitter, and soon it was picked up by The Guardian - which seized on the opportunity to play up its liberal credentials. But out of context, the article served to intimidate, just as Pountain must have been expecting.

It is therefore great that so many people are reportedly demonstrating anyway, despite the best efforts of the state propaganda machine. However, if the various groups in London today must unite at a grassroots level, if any of their causes are to have a chance of success. Contrary to the deceitful statements put out by National Union of Students bureaucrat Michael Chessum, sheer numbers on the street will not make the coalition back away from introducing tuition fees of up to £9,000 per year, and starving universities of funding.

Instead, students must unite with rank-and-file workers in struggle, and put forward a class-based programme for the overthrow of capitalism. It is highly encouraging that links are being made between students and the rank-and-file 'Sparks' movement of electricians. These links must be extended and hugely strengthened in the months to come.

The intimidation tactics speak of an awareness in ruling class circles that their austerity measures are provoking anger which can't be contained within the traditional framework of liberal democracy. But united, workers and students can face down all the power of the state, whatever weapons it decides to deploy.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Commune on Occupy, Strikes and Students

With the 'Occupy' occupations continuing to spread around the globe, and the 30th November public sector strikes approaching, The Commune's monthly free newspaper looks at the prospects for the emergence of a new working class movement challenging the new normal of austerity for "the 99%".

The editorial declares that: "a one-day strike will not be
sufficient to stop these attacks on our living standards and jobs. We have to build a movement which is prepared to go beyond limited strike action or the aim of trade union officialdom to merely put pressure on the government; our aim should be to go beyond capitalism."

The Commune's correspondents detail the strengths - as well as the contrasts and contradictons of the Occupy movement. Sharon Borthwick's vivid account of her visit to Occupy London sites is a case in point, describing how "There is an air of hippydom floating about the place, but also of serious debate." There are also reports from Bristol, Oakland (online only) and Israel. Meanwhile, Oisín Mac Giallomóir debunks two dangerous myths prevalent which seem to be prevalent amongst many occupations.

Two articles comment on the issues around the brutal eviction of Irish Travellers from their Dale Farm home. Dominic Fitzgerald provides an account of the day itself, while Richard B. takes issue with some ideas in last month's paper.

In other topical articles, Greg Brown looks for a way forward for students, and with the Sparks day of action looming, my own article analyses why "The rank-and-file workers need to develop a resistance strategy, and fast."

All this is available for PDF download here, as well as from radical bookshops, social centres, and by emailing If you enjoy the paper, the price of a couple of pints a month would be of great use to us. Email us, or set up a standing order to The Commune, Co-op sc. 089299 ac. 65317440.

Friday, November 04, 2011

London Guildhall Cleaners Hold International Solidarity Protest

London's Guildhall cleaners at previous demonstration
The following is a press release from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) cleaners branch:

Monday 7th November 2011
10am -- 12pm
The Guildhall, Gresham Street, London EC2V 7HH

On Monday 7th November at 10am, the cleaners of the prestigious London Guildhall will be holding a noisy and lively protest against their direct employers, Sodexo, and also the City of London Corporation, who control the cleaning contract. Their demands are: dignity and respect at work from management, the reinstatement of victimised union rep Wilmer Cardenas and to receive the London Living Wage which is currently set at £8.30.

There will be other solidarity demonstrations taking place by other cleaners, workers and students in Ireland, Canada, France, Colombia, USA and around the globe protesting about workers' rights abuses by Sodexo in solidarity with the US based “Kick out Sodexo” campaign. This protest will be the third demonstration staged by Guildhall cleaners this year, whom have been unionised by the IWW, following a period in July where several migrant cleaners had not received weeks of pay and the contracting company Ocean failed to resolve it in a timely manner until successive organised protest demonstrations were held.

Raquel, a mother of two explains why she is taking part:
“Every day I wake up at 5:00am and get home at 12:00 pm. I receive £6.08 per hour, and my life is spent if not at work then travelling on the Underground going from one job to another. The money I receive after tax and travel costs is not enough for me to survive and support my family, I have no extra help. Often I get more than 20 hours of work, I am one of the lucky ones as many of my co-workers struggle in misery on 4 to 6 hours.”
Chris Ford, an IWW organiser says:
“The City of London Corporation has had plenty of bad publicity due to other recent protests. How can they ‘highly commend’ the GLA Group for its Sustainability Procurement Award in 2009, but fail to apply those standards to its own procurement now in 2011? It should give itself a good news story by ending its hypocrisy on procurement and pay these cleaners the London Living Wage. “
John McDonnell MP for Hayes and Harlington supports the protest and says:
"Low paid workers across the world are demonstrating that they've had enough and are not talking it anymore. Workers are on the march again and are demanding their rights and I am with them all the way."

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Occupy Oakland - A Highpoint for Renewed Class Struggle

The amazing scenes as Oakland docks are shut down
Oakland is now undoubtedly setting the pace for the Occupy movement, following an unofficial 'general strike' which led to hundreds of workers taking the day off, tens of thousands rallying to support the occupation, and the normally busy port being blockaded for hours. The action was called just one week ago, partly in response to the near-fatal police shooting of former US Marine Scott Olsen.

Though it is still very soon after the event, and initial reports are only just coming in, yesterday will surely be remembered as the day US class struggle started to break free from the constraints imposed by Democrat-supporting union bureaucrats. Other groups took direct action against banks. This, this, and this are well worth reading on the momentous events. Below I repost a participant account from the Occupy California blog:

Oakland General Strike: An Initial Review

These are just some thoughts on a still unfolding event. Things might be clarified or updated by the time you read this, so please keep yourself informed. Also, please forgive errors in this text as we write this while still weary and smelling of tear gas and smoke.

We arrived a little before noon to Oscar Grant Plaza (OGP). Other marches had returned already, and still other marches were to come. The atmosphere was festive and joyous, and anyone you spoke to had awe in their voice. With only a week to prepare, there wasn’t a well organized sequence of events – perhaps for the better – so, between marches we looked around and meandered. We spoke with comrades and random folks. We looked to see what we could offer each other, and shared the bits and pieces of news and what we had gathered about the itinerary for the day. We heard the Port of Oakland had already been partially shut down by the sheer volume of sick calls made by port workers. We also heard that several banks through out the city had been closed, while a few others like Comerica continued to function. Within half an hour, folks organized themselves to go and shutdown that branch; this kind of thing was common place through out the day.

Waves of marchers entered our midst one after the other, boosting our presence by several hundred new faces at a time. Within a period of an hour, the General Strike children’s brigade, Berkeley students, Laney students, and various high school folks joined the growing crowd. It was nearly impossible to estimate crowd size as folks were coming and going on marches and the whole of the strike at that point congealed around several spots. We estimated the crowd size to be roughly 5,000 people by around noon. As a portion of the crowd had marched from the UC’s and from other schools, there was a large contingent of 4-500 that split off from OGP to march down to the UC Office of the President to confront rumors that police had set up some sort of intelligence/command center there. UCOP was locked down before we even arrived, so we couldn’t get in, but we did stand outside and chant vigorously at the soundproof, shatterproof glass doors.

"The atmosphere was festive and joyous"
Every time we left OGP and returned, we were stunned by the crowd size; it was always immense and breathtaking. As 2pm drew nearer, folks with a sound system on a large truck announced the planned anti-capitalist march that would be starting shortly. At first many of us were unsure where the march would begin. We saw a seemingly continuous crowd a bit past 14th and Broadway with massive banners – some hanging in the air with the aid of 10ft balloons. It took us a while to realized this 1,500-2,000 strong crowd was here for the march. We took our places near the front with the folks in black bloc, leading the mass of folks behind us. It was an odd mixture of black flags and drums – something all too familiar to anti-globalization protests. As we began, we twisted and turned down different streets, from broadway to webster. This route led us past a few banks. Windows were smashed and walls were tagged with anti-capitalist messages. What can be said here except, “of course?” Those who confused property destruction as form of violence jeered, as would be expected; and those who presumably disagreed with the property destruction on a tactical basis (or as undercover police) tried to intervene. With no doubt we can assure you that, those who tried to intervene physically tackled property destroyers and taggers, if not used violence out right. Indeed, some who disagreed with property destruction somehow felt it was appropriate to go above and beyond documenting the events with discreet photographs of broken windows, but instead actually pursued some people into the crowd with videocameras. Again, these kinds of things are par for the course, but it’s always necessary to say that property destruction – particularly of corporate property – is not an ethical issue, it’s purely a tactical one; beyond anything else, its imperative to remember that the people in this march, the people in the occupations, the people who fight against the 1% and capitalism are comrades, even if they’re not perfect (in whatever way you deem). So, DO NOT endanger or attack them!

With that said, the march eventually approached the Oakland Whole Foods, which was thoroughly pummeled by paint balloons. Others tried to smash the shatterproof windows, while still others tried to intervene; some going as far as grabbing chairs thrown at windows and ejecting them back at the unsuccessful window smashers. Rather than stay to argue and intensify confrontations among demonstrators, the bloc moved on. The crowd had thinned somewhat by this point, but still a large number of people followed. Upon returning towards downtown, on Harrison, we rolled by the large Bank of America branch. It was clearer at this juncture what would happen, and it appeared that for the most part, less people tried to intervene this time. Windows shattered to fine particles along the shaded corridor and messages of class war were scrawled on its walls. The march continued back to OGP, only to make a small detour towards the end at the UCOP office to see if a second attempt at ruffling some feathers might work. Nothing was left damaged as far as we can tell, although the doors were painted a sort of beige color by another volley of paint filled balloons. It should be noted that through out this march, perhaps only four police officers were witnessed during the entirety of the route. As we returned to Broadway, anything that could shatter at the Wells Fargo branch was promptly smashed; citibank(?) was left unscathed in the end as some of the 99% decided to stand in front of the doors and ATM machines – that is to say they put their bodies on the line to defend the property of the 1%. By the time we returned, the designated time to march to the Port of Oakland for the shutdown was fast approaching.

Banks were smashed up and sabotaged
After half an hour and a slew of buses having come and gone to send an advance group to the port, we began to assemble to march. The long march snaked through streets with little excitement, but with a fair amount of energy. After what felt like an hour, those of us in the front reached the first staging area for the blockade. Much to everyone’s amazement, a flood of other marchers could be seen stretching the mile or so of our path behind us – rolling thousands deep. We were greeted by rows and rows of semi-trucks with shipping crates in tow, the critical mass (of bikes) that lead the way, and a handful of bussed-in demonstrators. The march leaders convened to plan out how we needed to distribute ourselves as we stopped for a moment. Eventually a plan was decided upon, and a staggeringly long human mic chain emerged, from bullhorn to masses to masses to masses – one chain behind the other, stretching for what seemed like miles back.

As we marched on, each gate or berth we passed had a contingent of marchers who stayed behind. Shortly before 6pm, we reached the final gate and began a long waiting game. Sitting at one berth, you could see demonstrators come and go, trying to figure out where they needed more people or trying to figure out where they’re friends were. As time passed, we heard reports of the 2nd march coming to the port with details suggesting they were 10,000 strong, streaming continuously from OGP to the Port. We were all low on energy and water, but we stuck together for several hours during the transition between the fading sunlight into darkness, only to be lit by tall lamps and police spotlights from the chopper above. During this time, more rumors spread: this time about a march occupySF was leading onto the bay bridge. Unfortunately, we were never able to confirm that report. Furthermore, around this time we heard that demonstrators were being hit by angry drivers somewhere near 11th and Broadway, hospitalizing at least one. A few twitter reports scattered among the gossip about the incident included details of one demonstrator being fatally injured; however, this too was never confirmed. Despite confusions over the technicalities of blocking the ports to allow the port workers to stay home, we eventually were given confirmation that port workers would not have to go to work that evening. Many of us marched back to OGP lead by the sound-truck blasting classic hip-hop, while others stayed behind with chain linked fences and dumpsters to blockade semi-trucks from leaving or entering the port.

Most of us arrived back at OGP with only half an hour before the 10pm convergence. As 10pm passed, a small group of demonstrators left OGP and marched to 16th st. There we found a two story brick building. On the second floor, a backlit banner read, “Occupy Everything” in painted helvetica font. The crowd roared. News of the building takeover spread quickly, such that the initial crowd of 150 or so swelled to over 700. The building, a former Traveler’s Aid Society, was shut down due to budget cuts and was completely empty, but full with promise. Later, a sound system was erected and a dance party commenced.

Gradually, rumors of cops amassing on streets only blocks away caused folks to start barricading either ends 16th street with dumpsters and newspaper boxes, along with a slew of other randomly collected items. As midnight rolled by, shouts announcing the arrival of police echoed down the dark alley way. We rushed to adjacent streets to find police lined up a few blocks away on San Pablo, Telegraph, and Broadway, somewhere around 19th street. As we got closer, we could tell that the police were several hundreds – maybe a thousand strong – all in full riot gear. What might be generously called a street battle commenced, however to be truthful, most of the demonstrators were only burning trash to create a dramatic bonfire and staring down the police. Although constant calls for non-violence were echoed by folks standing a hundred feet behind the barricades, we weren’t really given a chance to “fight” the police as volleys of tear gas and concussion grenades were thrown into the crowd. This lead to a long back and forth movement: tear gas dispersed one of the barricades, some returned to remove the canisters or others simply waited for canisters to fizzle out, and then police gained some ground. For several hours we stood our ground as best as we could. Police eventually inched their way to the periphery of the plaza, but their slow speed seemed to puzzle us more than create any sense of tension. Many of found us asking each other what the police were trying to accomplish that night? Moreover, people were confused as to why the police even showed up in the first place. The only thing that seems to be clear is that the police were planning some sort of brute response for that night regardless of what the General Strike looked like; the large number of police seems to be evidence enough that the police were planning this from the start.

After we left the plaza, we were disheartened to hear that police encircled some folks around a fountain near OGP, on San Pablo and arrested around 100 comrades.

Two Dramatic Hours at Occupy Bournemouth

I had little idea what the afternoon had in store when I arrived at the town hall at 2pm to visit Occupy Bournemouth. Of course, I knew what was happening in the Occupy movement globally, but I'd recently spent eight months living in the town, and had seen precious little sign that its people would challenge the austerity-blasted status quo. And now? Well, we'll see...

As it happened, 2pm was the perfect time to get there, because three events were about to shed some light on the occupation, and its relationship to the local community.

First was the visit of an extremely posh elderly man, apparently the only person to turn up and seriously criticise, on the fifth day. From the start, he was very aggressive, challenging the right of the demonstrators to camp as a) "How many of you are actually from Bournemouth?", and b) "How many of you have got a PhD? I have!". His approach immediately got some people riled, and they responded in kind. Eventually, cooler heads prevailed, and the man was led away from the main group for a calm down. An offer of tea disarmed him, and eventually he conceded that "It's not your ideals, many of which I support". More to the point, he was concerned that the "ornamental gardens" might be damaged. Eventually he went on his way, offering "best wishes" to all. It was a bizarre incident, and one that said so much about both the mental block that some have about direct action and the defensiveness of some activists.

Not that these were 'activists' by and large, in the sense the word might have meant a few years ago. Far from being part of any local 'scene' (there simply isn't one, or hadn't been), they had met for the first time at the campsite, and were still forming their relationships. Someone was a cleaner by trade though he'd trained in law, someone else had a struggling small business, yet another did something which put his back out with lifting. Yes, in keeping with the Occupy slogan, these really were representatives of the suffering 99%, though the absence of females was very noticeable.

The second scene I wish to paint for you happened maybe fifteen minutes later. A fire alarm went off in the Bournemouth Council building, and hundreds of office staff trooped off for what seemed to be a drill in the pissing rain. Now the council have announced they'll be seeking eviction in court on Friday. Deputy Leader of the Council, Cllr John Beesley, has said that: “What started as a protest march on Saturday has now become an unauthorised occupation of public land and as such we are treating it the same as we would any other illegal encampment."

This is a lie. It was never a march. A group merely crossed the road to the site. And they had council permission to camp there, as they intend to prove over the days to come.

The scene around the brazier at 2.30
But "the 99%" of those tramping wearily into the rain could not be held responsible for this. They are contractually banned from taking 'political positions' (other than those held by the executive of course), and couldn't show much sympathy, for fear of losing their jobs. Still, even from a point of self-interest, Occupy Bournemouth need to try and make common cause with those people. Who knows? A crucial form could magically get lost somewhere...

As the ranks of the oppressed working class filed past the camp to their boss-orchestrated soaking, there was an air of unease at best, and distrust at worst. Someone in camp muttered something about "power to the sheeple". I raised a few smiles by shouting "Thanks for walking out in solidarity", but I was painfully aware that the gap between the camp and the office staff seemed far more than the five metres it briefly was in physical space. If the campers are camping on 30th November, I hope they'll be able to support those council employees striking over pensions. The camp must expand, or it will die.

And there's plenty of potential for growth, if the levels of public support for the camp are any guide. A glance at the comments on a Bournemouth Echo article had suggested this, but nothing had prepared me for the sheer number of supportive honks the campers got from passing motorists - especially taxi drivers. And important though this is for morale, far more vital are the supplies that well-wishers are donating. So far, they have enough food to keep them going, and while I was there a homeless supporter persuaded her brother to bring some blankets.

Battening down the hatches for a long, cold winter
But by four the rain was hammering down, and a chill wind was starting to threaten those high spirits with its promise of a long, hard winter to come. And just at this crucial point, a middle-aged man came with a huge supply of tarpaulin, which was gratefully received. Evidently, he'd seen the weather, and been concerned about the fate of the campers. So he'd got the tarp together, driven to the camp, and handed it over. A reasonably cosy "proper house" was quickly constructed, under the instruction of some guy who knew what he was doing with that sort of thing.

This last event crystallised for me exactly how different this new breed of activism is. Though of course the general public care about the environment, animal welfare and the like, the general public has never got involved in campaigns around those issues en masse. Ultimately, this is because it's easier not to. At the moment, Occupy Bournemouth may only be twenty tents, but even in a town with little to no tradition of militant class struggle, people 'instinctively' know that the campers speak for them, and wish to help in any way they can, even if they cannot spare the time themselves. This is because that 99% is staggering under the weight of the 1%'s massive onslaught against working class living standards.

For all the talk of "no politics" - a persistent hallmark of Occupy around the globe, it is the beginnings of a political movement. It portends a struggle by the immense majority against the tiny minority who are living it up at our expense. 99% of people are aching for something to change, and for someone to show them how to resist. If the Occupy movement links up with workers in struggle, there may be nothing the 1% can do to hold back the tide.

Follow Occupy Bournemouth on Twitter.
Join the Occupy Bournemouth Facebook group.
View my Occupy Bournemouth Flickr photoset.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Bakers' Struggle Highlights Plight of Agency Workers

Park Cakes "baked with love" on £6.08 an hour
On Saturday, seventy workers employed by northwest cake manufacturers Park met to discuss strike action later this month. Bakers are in dispute over the pay and conditions of temporary workers, with staff saying changes could cost them £4,000 per year. But the dispute has wider implications - including the unions' championing of the new Agency Workers Regulations (AWR), which far from their claims, are being used to attack the living standards of temporary workers.

The legislation was passed during the last Parliament, despite opposition from the Conservative Party. However, behind the apparently progressive talk about granting equal pay and conditions to temporary workers, lie two major loopholes, which are now being exploited by businesses across the country.

The first problem with the AWR is that it only applies once a temp has completed twelve weeks of continuous work with the same company. Any firm wishing to circumvent this only has to replace a temp after eleven weeks, leading to even greater precarity for temps. Indeed the Telegraph cites research by the Association of Recruitment Consultancies, claiming that 60% of employers intend to do just that.

Secondly, companies which employ a lot of temps can always - as Park Cakes have done - simply reduce the pay and conditions of permanent workers, making 'equality' for temps much less desirable. New recruits will now be paid just £6.08 per hour - the exact level of the minimum wage. They will be on zero hour contracts, meaning hours can be dropped at a moment's notice, and will get no shift payments or overtime. Sick pay, pension and redundancy rights will be reduced or eliminated.

This comes after 2010, when Park Cakes boss Anne Allen received a 14% raise, after a company turnover of £115 million. The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU) negotiated a wage freeze for the workers.

Under the fresh company plans, temps will have equality in misery, and a new, lower benchmark will be set for those who have been at the company for some time. They are certain to face pay cuts next year unless they can win here and now.

However, BFAWU have been predictably reluctant to translate populist speechifying into action. At Saturday's meeting, union president Ian Hodson fumed that: "A clear message has been sent to the company, they are wrong, wrong, wrong and you are right, right, right. Right to take action, right to stand up and right to fight.” But Hodson is desperate to cut a sell-out deal with Park, which is evidenced by the fact it's taken him two weeks since the initial ballot to announce strike dates, despite a 68 to 32 per cent majority.

Four strike dates have now been scheduled for the 11th, 14th, 22nd and 30th of November, during which workers of course lose four days of pay. Hodson may be calculating that they would be desperate to concede anything after that devastating loss of earnings. As ever, if the workers are to win this struggle, they must take the dispute into their own hands. In the case of Park Cakes, they must reach out to the non-unionised temps, and to the working class of Bolton, Wigan and wider areas, and make demands with an 'or else...' attached.

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