Tuesday, July 31, 2012

California Cops Clamp Down on Disneyland Dissent

Broad sections of the Anaheim working class are seething with anger at cops
Disneyland in Anaheim is emblematic of 'the American dream' - a make-believe world where 'good' always triumphs over 'evil' in the end, and childhood innocence lasts forever. Yet at the gates of this fairytale paradise, torrents of anger are being directed at police for the huge amounts of state killings in the area, and the guardians of the rich are responding with ever more militaristic displays of power.

The wave of unrest began ten days ago, when cops shot and killed 25-year-old Manuel Diaz. The chief of police immediately labelled Diaz a "documented gang member". According to the official version, Diaz and two other men were talking in an alley when police approached them. The men ran, and the officers gave chase, eventually firing at the unarmed Diaz, after he had thrown an object - possibly heroin - onto a roof.

Considering the local circumstances, it is hardly surprising that many of Anaheim's residents didn't find Diaz's supposed 'gang member' status a good enough reason to kill him. After, Diaz was the fourth victim of the city's finest this year alone. He was followed just one day later by 21-year-old Joel Acevedo. As far as gang war death tolls go, five in just seven months is quite prolific.

In the meantime, demonstrators had crowded the lobby of the Anaheim PD, as the chief held a press conference. They chanted "no justice, no peace, fuck the police", and "cops, pigs, murderers". And even as authorities moved to seal off the scene, they were met with rocks and bottles. Cops retaliated with rubber bullets, and a savage dog attack on one woman, which they later labelled "accidental".

Protests simmered throughout the week, before another police shooting - this time non-fatal - on Thursday, when tensions were brought boiling back to the surface. On Sunday, a mass demonstration of several hundred were faced down by mounted cops in riot gear and heavily armed paramilitary-style troopers protecting the police station. An impromptu march towards the tourist haven of Disneyland was headed off by hundreds of security forces. The demonstration was declared an "illegal assembly", and nine arrests were made.

Despite the obvious groundswell of anger, it is difficult to predict where this new movement is going. Liberal Latino group Presente is trying to channel energy behind a petition for an attorney general inquiry. As the history of policing shows ad nauseam, such an inquiry would inevitably whitewash Anaheim cops.

The scene at Anaheim police HQ on Sunday
Ultimately, the brutal policing in Anaheim, the community's response to it, and then the authorities' nervous and draconian reaction all have their roots in the decaying state of American capitalism itself. With Anaheim's tourism-based economy stagnating since the onset of the economic crisis, official unemployment in the area is currently just under 10% - two per cent above the national average and a huge increase on 2006. The poverty rate is also rising, and is particularly pronounced amongst black and Latino people. With cuts raining down from everywhere, and a new wave of job losses about to crest, the authorities can only offer ever more draconian repression.

An inquiry here or there will never fix the problem of the growing police state. That is something only a massive class conscious movement against the super rich can achieve.

My Speech At James Larkin Rally (21st July 2012)

I made my public speaking debut the other week after an anti-fascist rally in Liverpool. Here's the video of my speech (faces have been blurred to protect identities).

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Serwotka Sellout Sets Seal On Olympic Exploitation

Mark Serwotka announcing his non-existent victory this morning
As women footballers were getting ready to unofficially kick off the London Olympics, the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union general secretary was preparing to bow to ruling class pressure, and call off a strike of workers in the Border Agency, Criminal Records Bureau, and the Identity and Passport Service. In doing so, darling of the fake left Mark Serwotka was setting the seal on years of collaboration between union officialdom and the London Olympics authorities.

Tomorrow's aborted strike was originally called as part of a dispute over 8,500 Home Office jobs the PCS say are at risk as a result of government cuts. Had the walkout gone ahead, it would have caused some disruption to last minute Olympics preparations, particularly with spectators, athletes and others in their entourages still arriving in the country.

Serwotka faced a storm of pressure from the right wing abuse over the strike, with the usual papers seizing on the opportunity to bash the supposed "arrogance" of workers choosing to withdraw their labour at a time when it might have most impact. As could be anticipated, the media 'debate' weighed heavily on the 'national pride' side of the Olympics, and against working class consciousness.

The PCS bureaucracy made their statement just minutes before the union was to be hauled before the High Court by the government, over what they had claimed were "procedural errors" in the strike ballot - the now standard ruling class mantra. In his remarks, Serwotka declared there had been "major progress" in talks with the government, which had decided to create eight hundred jobs in the Border Agency, alongside three hundred in the Passport Service.

Now in the context of 8,500 lost jobs, 1,100 would not have been much of an improvement. But it would be the first time the Coalition government had so much as blinked in imposing its austerity agenda, and would therefore be something of a watershed. However, within minutes of Serwotka's speech, immigration minister Damian Green was telling BBC News he "did not recognise that figure at all." He went on: "They knew the strike was irresponsible and likely to be destructive... I'm glad to say the government has not made any concessions at all. I'm glad the union has taken this decision."

It should really go without saying that in a negotiation, if one party publicly denies they have made any concessions, they cannot exactly be said to be 'in the bag'. So doubtless there will be many disgruntled would-be strikers tonight, who must now go to work while 'negotiations' go on behind doors closed.

But the Socialist Workers Party were quick to declare victory, and uncritically quote the bureaucrat who spoke at the closing rally of their recent 'Marxism' conference. They took Serwotka's jobs boast as good coin, crowing that: "...in the end they came up with a new offer. The union said that 800 new jobs will be created in the Border Agency and 300 in passport offices, describing it as enough progress to suspend the action."

The article was updated at 2.25pm, long after Green's denial. But this was not mentioned in the update. All that could be managed is the weak "A number of issues in the dispute remain unresolved." As for the other 7,400 jobs, they didn't even merit a mention.

Brendan Barber (TUC), Sebastian Coe (Olympics) and Ed Sweeney (ACAS)
While this particular dispute wasn't over work at the Olympics itself, the timing of the strike date very much linked it in to the spectacle. And the Serwotka sell-out is emblematic of the way the trade union tops have engaged with the Olympics project from the start.

Even five years ago, the Trades Union Congress were telling the Olympic Delivery Authority that “The TUC and affiliated unions wish to put on record our shared commitment” to the "core objectives" of the ODA. The bureaucracy put forward the business/nationalist line that the Olympics provided an "opportunity" to "showcase" Britain. For the sake of the "smooth running of the games" it was therefore crucial that they should be "consulted at all stages of the planning and operation." In other words, the trade union tops were offering their services to police the working class.

As part of this consultation, the TUC received advance notice that there would be seventy thousand "volunteers" - or in plain speaking, unpaid workers - staffing the games. No protest was raised, though it was initially suggested that a "Volunteers' Protocol" should ensure that appropriate training and meals were given. After no fight whatsoever, this idea fell by the wayside.

Perhaps the most damning indictment of the TUC's role comes from the praise of slimy Organising Committee chair and former Tory MP Lord Sebastian Coe, who - at the signing of a "Games-Time Grievance Resolution Protocol" with the bureaucracy - trumpeted the fact that "We have always enjoyed great support from the trade union movement since the very beginning of the bid, and today’s signing of the protocol with the TUC and ACAS is a natural next step."

At a time of huge unemployment, one of the most expensive sporting events of all time will be serviced by an army of unpaid workers, and any disputes will be quickly sewn up by the union tops at the 'conciliation service' ACAS. What a graphic illustration of the filthy role by those suits who claim to fight for workers' rights, and the even filthier one played by those who cheer them on, while pretending to be revolutionaries.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Donal MacIntyre Plays Into Fascist Hands Over Liverpool March

Photo used with permission from Liverpool photographer David J Colbran
Almost all activists know what it's like to go on demonstrations, then read the corporate press coverage later on or the next day and wonder if the journalist was really at the same event, or simply made up their 'report' based on a few minutes searching Google. And looking at the scant column inches devoted to the ructions between Irish republicans and anti-fascists on the one side and assorted fascists on the other in Liverpool last Saturday, none of the articles particularly capture the full background, depth and nuance of what happened. For that, I would turn to Phil Dickens' excellent report on LibCom, as well as the piece on the Liverpool Antifascists blog.

But while the articles in the Liverpool Echo, Irish Times and Morning Star all had their limitations, Donal MacIntyre's work in the Irish Sunday World - a paper described to me by one veteran Irish activist as making "the British Daily Star look like The Guardian" - belongs in a category of its own. Coming from a man routinely dubbed a "hard-hitting investigative journalist", it displays piss poor investigative powers, little to no journalistic skill, and is "hard-hitting" only in the sense that its fast and loose relationship with the truth adds some 'official' punch to fascist lies. It is therefore important that his errors are corrected, before an already dangerous situation gets any worse. First, some context. As Liverpool Antifascists described in their national callout ten days ago:
"Fascists from North West Infidels, Combined Ex-Forces and Casuals United are already talking big about stopping the Flute Band from marching – and are trying to pin the “IRA” label on them, even though the band have nothing in common with the long officially disarmed paramilitary group."
The march was organised by the James Larkin Society, a group which celebrates the legacy of the Liverpool-born Irish trade union organiser. The flute band was the Liverpool Irish Patriot Republican flute band, who split with the James Larkin Republican Flute Band over political differences. While these arguments are not my primary concern, the Irish Patriots are on record as supporting the "peaceful reunification of Ireland".

Glorying under the highly questionable - though to be fair, apparently sub-editor chosen - headline of "Paddy Whackery", MacIntyre's article ignores all these subtleties, instead allowing a member of Combined Ex-Forces to claim that: "This isn't a union march, it's an IRA march and we don't want the IRA on our streets."

MacIntyre was there on Saturday - I saw him - so I know he heard the chants of "IRA scum off our streets" and screams of "child killers" (a particular reference to the Warrington bombings of 1993). But far from challenging this with anything like the facts, MacIntyre merely parrots pure fascist propaganda with his paraphrasing:
"The Combined X-Forces [sic] organisation, which had a large aggressive presence on the streets, accused the marchers of harbouring members of the Real IRA and the 32 County Sovereignty committee [sic], claiming that they were not anti-Irish but anti-Real IRA".
And further: "[...] he objected to the James Larkin Society band [sic] which he said appeared at Sinn Féin marches." That last sentence is perhaps (hopefully?) the worst MacIntyre will ever write. To unpack it, we have to realise that there is no "James Larkin Society band", because MacIntyre has - like the fascists - conflated the James Larkin Society with the Irish Patriots, the source of the original - and no doubt deliberate - confusion. But maybe even more unforgivably still, in an Irish newspaper, he implicitly allows the fascist to link the Sinn Féin party now gladhanding the British monarch with some kind of ongoing insurrectionist threat!

The absurdity would possibly be comical, if it weren't so damaging, not least because he gave anti-fascists all of two sentences! And I quote:
"These activists are protesting against the Irish and against immigrants," Paul Jenkins, of 'United Against Fascism' [sic], told the Sunday World. He claimed that the far-right groups would not stop the James Larkin Society and union-organised annual march."
Well with the benefit of the hindsight with which MacIntyre wrote his article, 'they won't stop the march' is more than a claim; it is a fact. But leaving that aside, the author leaves no space for any thoroughgoing anti-fascist perspective.

And in the propaganda war against the kind of resurgent fascism which plagued Liverpool 8 two days ago, a bit of perspective is exactly what's needed. The fascist leaders know they could never draw out mass support if they revealed their true intention - the utter crushing of the working class - so they use a mixture of outright lies, emotive slander and distortion to stigmatise different sections of our class. They divide so that they can conquer.

On Saturday the fascists came for "the Irish". Tomorrow they will come for those they call "the Islamics". Next week...who knows? Your workplace? By allowing the fascists a generous platform, Donal MacIntyre has played right into their hands.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Austerity Anger Rising in Spain

A nice symbolic representation of the police's role in austerity-torn Europe
Last week's double whammy of brutal new austerity measures and brutal police repression of miners and their supporters seems to been the spark which has set working class Spanish resistance alight. Six consecutive days of spontaneous protests have now shaken the country, and the Spanish royal family's decision to make a cosmetic cut to its budget speaks of growing unease in ruling class circles.

Seven days ago, the long 'Black March' of miners reached Madrid, where trade union leaders were to give speeches urging concessions on the banker-dictated withdrawal of mining industry subsidies - which is expected to spell the loss of forty thousand jobs. But the march received enormous support from working class Spanish, who saw their own struggles reflected in that of the miners. Tens of thousands lined the capital's Puerta del Sol, where they were set upon by cops wielding batons and firing rubber bullets.

At almost exactly the same time, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the 'centre-right' Popular Party was announcing his third extra austerity package in just six months. As I reported:
"Under this combination of cuts and tax rises totalling €65bn (£51bn), VAT was increased by 3%, unemployment benefits were cut for those claiming for more than six months (against an unemployment rate of 24.6%), and an increase in the retirement age was brought forward. With the bankers breathing down his neck - and as the example of Greece has repeatedly shown - there will be more austerity measures not far behind these."
As these numbers were announced, one Popular Party MP clapped and shouted "fuck them all", referring to the quarter of all working age Spanish who are unemployed. These events were the straw that broke the camel's back, and the past days have seen a rising tide of rebellion.

On Thursday morning, civil servants took action, blocking traffic in some of Madrid's central streets, while others marched to the Popular Party headquarters, and yet another group paid a visit to Rajoy's residence in Moncloa Palace. The latest measures have hit civil servants particularly badly, as they have lost their Christmas bonus (worth 7 per cent of their annual pay), some sick pay, and personal days. This is in addition to the five to fifteen per cent cuts in wages under the previous Socialist Workers' Party government.

That evening, five hundred police and firefighters gathered in front of parliament, in a protest that was organised via Facebook. A firefighter told the Diagonal newspaper that "We are angry because we have lost 30 per cent of our income."

Friday saw civil servants set up more roadblocks, but they were joined on the demonstrations by nurses, doctors, teachers and university professors. In the evening, another Facebook protest brought thousands to the front of the Popular Party HQ, where police charged, prompting a move to the Socialist Workers' Party HQ, and finally to parliament, where police set up a double line of fences to protect the building from the people its members are supposed to represent.

On Saturday, hundreds gathered in Barcelona, Malaga, Valencia, and other major cities, before a Sunday march of civil servants again targeted the parliament, with slogans including "Hands up! This is a robbery!" and "Less crucifixes, more permanent jobs."

Then thousands blocked central Madrid on Monday morning, with firefighters, police in civilian clothes, and civil servants again trying to reach parliament, where their path was blocked by riot cops.

This uprising is still in its early stages, but the royal family's move to falsely claim that all Spanish are 'in it together' proves that the ruling class are extremely wary of doing anything to promote greater public anger in the height of the Spanish summer. For their part, the union bureaucracies must be utterly perplexed at events so quickly escaping their control, and they will no doubt scramble to attempt a recovery. Their task will be to slow the pace of the new movement, and re-segregate workers into sectional blocks, undermining a class-wide solidarity born of class-wide suffering, and given breathing space by social networking technology. The General Union of Workers had already called a demonstration for July 19th - the day the budget is scheduled to be voted on - but this formally involves only public sector workers. The stage is set for a far more combative response to the budget than the UGT bureaucracy had bargained for.

This thread on the LibCom website has excellent regular updates on the Spanish rebellion.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Antifascist Solidarity Needed in Liverpool on Saturday 21st July!

As Larkin himself urged in his time, “Let us rise!”
The following is a repost from the Liverpool Antifascists blog:

At 13:00 on Saturday, 21st July, Liverpool Antifascists will be gathering at Combermere Street in the Toxteth area of the city. We then plan to march to the city centre, for a rally themed around ‘working class unity against racism and fascism’. Liverpool Antifascists would like to ask you to attend, or spread the word about the event if this is not possible. This will be a vital day for Liverpool activism, and even the city in general.
To understand why, it’s important to look at the background to this demonstration. In February, a gang of around two hundred fascists mobilised in the city centre, running amok, and forcing the Irish Republican Flute Band off the streets, before going on to hassle Occupy supporters on an anti-police brutality protest. This was a serious defeat for Liverpool activists, and it is vital that this is acknowledged, so that we can stop it happening again in the future.
The same Irish Republican Flute Band has organised next Saturday’s event, and Combermere Street has been chosen because the great Irish working class organiser James Larkin was born there in 1876. Fascists from North West Infidels, Combined Ex-Forces and Casuals United are already talking big about stopping the Flute Band from marching – and are trying to pin the “IRA” label on them, even though the band have nothing in common with the long officially disarmed paramilitary group.
If the fascists succeed in stopping the anti-fascist march and rally on the 21st, it will be an even bigger victory for them than February was. Their tails will be up, and they will feel confident enough to step up street attacks on activists, which have been at a low but persistent level for almost a year now. Just over a week ago, they violently attacked people on their way to an antifascist gig in the town centre, including a musician with no other link to anti-fascism.
But if enough people from Liverpool and around the country mobilise, our sheer weight of numbers will deter them, and send them back home with their tails between their legs. This applies double since the fascists are making such a public deal of the event, and posting photos of Warrington bomb victims in an attempt to slander the Irish Republicans’ name.
In the words of James Larkin himself, “Those who want to divide the workers have resorted to the foulest methods.” The fascists are the result of this, but for all our sakes, they cannot be allowed to succeed.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Madrid Brutality Demonstrates Ruling Class Fear of Solidarity

This woman was one of many injured as the state clamped down on solidarity
A fortnight ago, I commented on the miners struggling against government and police attacks in Spain. Most crucially, I described how:
"At 150 million euros, the subsidy cuts [to the Spanish mining industry] amount to a tiny fraction of the €27 billion slashed from the national budget in April. For this reason, the nightmare plaguing the ruling class is practical solidarity between other workers and the miners. The trade unions have dutifully played their part in trying to isolate the miners' struggle by calling miner-only demos and asking the government to draw up a new 'plan for coal', rather than calling out all workers against all cuts."
Over the past few days, the trade union leadership's plans to tire and isolate the miners have spectacularly backfired, and the ruling class has responded with wild brutality, in an attempt to smash burgeoning solidarity amongst the Spanish working class. The union bureaucracy had organised a 'black march' across two hundred plus miles from the Asturias mountains to Madrid, where leaders were to once again beg the ruling Popular Party for some concessions. But for many amongst the Spanish working class, the miners became an emblem of the struggles they are already facing, or will confront in the very near future.

The march concluded at the Puerta del Sol - iconic central hub of last year's 'indignados' demonstrations, which proved to be a forerunner of the international Occupy movement. An estimated 150,000 gathered in solidarity, while The Internationale and "we are the 99%" rang out amongst the crowd. Police then entered the fray in frenzied aggression, firing rubber bullets. As RT reported:
"Protesters panicked and sought shelter as police began to disperse the crowd, Olvidio Gonzalez, 67, a retired miner from the northern Asturias region told AP. "We were walking peacefully to get to where the union leaders were speaking and they started to fire indiscriminately," said Gonzalez, who was also struck by a rubber bullet. Witnesses and demonstrators claim that police started the attack without any warning. "We were eating quietly when they began to appear with several police vans. Then we started to shout and some threw a few bottles, which gave rise to the charge".
This vicious state assault - which included the shooting of an eleven year old child - coincided with Prime Minister Rajoy's announcement of still more austerity measures - his third package in just six months. Under this combination of cuts and tax rises totalling €65bn (£51bn), VAT was increased by 3%, unemployment benefits were cut for those claiming for more than six months (against an unemployment rate of 24.6%), and an increase in the retirement age was brought forward. With the bankers breathing down his neck - and as the example of Greece has repeatedly shown - there will be more austerity measures not far behind these.

As governments attack more and more sections of their respective working classes, they inevitably bring ever more into struggle. This necessarily creates the conditions for potential solidarity across industries, across regions, and ultimately across national borders. The unfolding situation seems to recall Marx's famous quote that "What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers."

Monday, July 09, 2012

'Sexism in Activism' Meeting Held in Liverpool

Yesterday afternoon, a group of about a dozen activists met in the Liverpool Social Centre to talk about the problem of sexism in activism. The event was organised by Angry Women Of Liverpool (AWOL), following a recent discussion of the everyday difficulties women face in groups across the left. But over the past few weeks, the issue has been pushed very much to the forefront locally, due to a number of misogynistic incidents in and around the Liverpool activist 'scene'. This session was therefore called to discuss exactly why sexism is endemic in groups avowedly committed to equality for all. 

As the meeting began, we all introduced ourselves and the organisations we were a part of, before naming women who inspire us. We were then asked to think about the gender balance within our organisations, and we discussed some ideas about what factors might play into the large male to female ratio prevalent in almost all (the notable exceptions being AWOL itself and the News From Nowhere women's cooperative).

Practical considerations such as childcare arrangements were raised, with two women reporting they had met with strong disapproval for bringing their children to some activist events. The accessibility of activist meetings was also broached, in terms of both location and of timing. But perhaps a larger role was ascribed to a sexist "organisational culture" amongst men in activism, and even "internalised misogyny" amongst some women.

We then had a Powerpoint presentation about definitions and terms (labelled "Feminism For Dummies" by one woman), and a list of organisations ostensibly there to assist survivors of domestic abuse was displayed. At this point, a woman declared that she was a survivor, and spoke in some harrowing detail about the way this group had "policed" her, even going so far as to try and bully her into silence and compliance with the organisation's favoured process. She had been particularly badly treated when she had tried to bring up the intersectionality of sexism with social class and other multipliers. The point was made that even where there are groups which do genuinely support survivors, they are facing huge cuts as a result of the government's austerity onslaught. There was a suggestion that a new activist approach to survivor support may be needed in the near future. 

'Spot the sexism' was the next section, as the group picked apart the various 'sexist scenarios' and determined where they went wrong. Even more crucially however, the question of what could be done to challenge such behaviour was aired. 

As the meeting ended, the atmosphere was heavy. We had been intensively debating a dark subject for four hours, and they had taken their toll. True, a kind of group solidarity had grown up through this sharing and general agreement, but what about all the people who weren't there? Even amongst Liverpool activism, never mind the city, there was a feeling that - as someone put it - we'd been "preaching to the choir". 

There was talk of having a 'part two' very soon, because we didn't have time to get through all the material which had been prepared. And AWOL will be working on procedures built around the concept of 'safer spaces', by which those who run the social centre can disassociate themselves from offenders. But still, there was an acknowledgement that there are a sizeable minority within Liverpool activism who have refused to meaningfully engage with AWOL over the last few months. This is seriously damaging their own credibility as activists, and also damaging Liverpool activism as a whole, because women in particular are being severely disincentivised to fully take part. And ultimately, the only winners from that are in the ruling elite oppressing us all.

The past few months have been extremely hard for many Liverpool activists, and sometimes the sheer enormity of a task can make it seem not worth attempting. But unless we are to stop being activists, we cannot walk away from this struggle. Sexism and misogyny within local activism must be certainly challenged, and finally wiped out.

I will be calling a men's meeting to discuss this issue over the next few weeks.

Friday, July 06, 2012

A domino falls: Holland & Barrett quit workfare after direct action

Anti-workfare demonstrators on a recent action
The following is a repost of some brilliant news from the Solidarity Federation:

Campaigners are claiming a major scalp in the battle against workfare after retailer Holland & Barrett announced they were pulling out of the scheme. On hearing the news, Brighton Solidarity Federation tweeted "we've won an important battle against workfare, but the war is far from over." The announcement came just 24 hours before a planned national week of action against workfare organised by the Boycott Workfare Network. Holland & Barrett had strongly backed workfare, announcing that they were committed to taking 1,000 people on unpaid work schemes this year alone (out of a workforce of just 3,500). 

However, since their April announcement at a workfare conference organised by Department for Work and Pensions Minister Chris Grayling, escalating protests have singled-out against the firm with regular pickets across the UK turning away shoppers shocked at the firm's involvement in the scheme. Outraged customers have also been bombarding H&B's Twitter and Facebook accounts with complaints. The sustained pressure has forced a u-turn, with Holland & Barrett's official Facebook page announcing late last night that: "the 60 people currently undertaking the work experience scheme will be the last to complete the eight week placement. After this time Holland & Barrett will not participate further in that scheme."

Holland & Barrett intend to replace unpaid work placements from the Job Centre with a salaried apprentice scheme. The Solidarity Federation will keep a close eye on Holland & Barrett and meet any backsliding with renewed direct action, but for now we are celebrating a victory against unpaid work. As a revolutionary union initiative made up of workers and claimants, the Solidarity Federation sees workfare as an attack on all workers by undermining pay and conditions. For example, staff at Holland & Barrett told us that overtime was no longer available in some stores as it was being done by unpaid workfare labour instead.

We will now support the national week of action called by the Boycott Workfare Network against remaining workfare firms before meeting to discuss the next steps.

Solidarity Federation - Brighton Local (workfare working group)

Thursday, July 05, 2012

New York Electricity Workers Locked Out Amidst Heatwave

The ConEd lockout perfectly illustrates the irrationality of the profit system
In some ways it's hard to imagine a more stark illustration of capitalism's essential irrationality. New York City is currently sweltering through a heatwave, with temperatures in the mid- to late-30s centigrade. As a result, there has been a predictable summer surge in electricity usage, with people scrambling to turn on air conditioning. It is at this point that the Consolidated Edison utilities company has chosen to lock out its 8,500-strong workforce.

This is because ConEd's priority is not the safe and efficient provision of electricity and gas for its 3.2 million customers. Just as with every business, profit is its bottom line. Last year the $39 billion corporation paid CEO Kevin Burke nearly $12 million, and the entire board of directors won a 20% pay rise. Dividends to shareholders have increased for every single one of the last thirty-eight years. Of course, these riches have to come from somewhere, and ultimately they come from the labour of those skilled workers. But their rate of exploitation is insufficiently high for the board's liking, so when their contract expired on Sunday, the management pre-empted any picket line rejection of their new 'offer'.

Under the proposed new contracts, there would be a lower rate for new hires, and the company pension scheme would be slashed in a link up to the (now generally downward) fluctuations of the stock market. Even more seriously than this, employee contributions to their health care plan would increase from $20 per week under the last contract to $133 per family - leaving the average worker many thousands of dollars a year worse off.

Yesterday, a manager found out that scabbing can be dangerous
The cuts are so huge, they seem designed to pick a fight with the workforce. Indeed, ConEd President Craig Ivey was notorious for his union-busting activity at Virginia utility corporation Dominion before he came to ConEd in 2009. The arrival of the new contract deadline is clearly an opportunity for which ConEd's board have long been preparing - 5,000 scabs are currently operating, including low level managers and often rusty retirees. Yesterday, it was reported that one manager suffered facial burns during an explosion in Upper West Side.

One LibCom blogger has reported that:
"On the picket line, the workers that we spoke to seemed quite aware of the significance of the dispute. Describing management's attack as a “race to the bottom”, they expressed a fear of being turned into unskilled laborers making $7.25 an hour. When asked if workers who hadn't made it to the picket line were prepared for a long struggle, possibly dragging into weeks and even months, we were told “they have to. This is a fight for their jobs and their livelihoods. They don't have a choice.” In the mean time, workers plan to continue with their round-the-clock 24-hour pickets."
For their part, the Utility Workers Union of America negotiators have agreed to hold talks with management, following pressure from Democratic Party politicians. With the possibility of union-busting - and therefore a loss of a major dues base for union tops - hanging in the air, the bureaucracy will be keen to stitch up a deal and get the employees back to work as soon as possible. To defeat such a sell-out, workers will need to organise on a rank-and-file basis, and reach out to the wider NYC working class for solidarity.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Huge Protests Force Chinese Government Retreat Over Pollution

Shifang demonstrators squaring off against riot cops earlier in the week
Locals are celebrating in the Chinese city of Shifang today, following the government's decision to scrap its plans for a copper alloy plant which many feared would poison them. This sensational policy reversal was apparently forced out of the Communist Party dictatorship by rioting, followed by a sit-in in support of those arrested. In making this concession, the regime has shown its vulnerability at a time when the national economy is being hit by the economic crisis in Europe and the US.

The announcement itself was stark, a mere "Shifang will not build this project henceforth". But just like the official accommodation to mass rebellion in Wukan last year, it demonstrates that the Chinese authorities are doing everything they can to avoid the flames of resistance spreading. In many under-reported cases, they will merely repress any popular uprising. But in others - perhaps those that quickly gain a national and international following - they will give away an inch for fear of losing a mile. The release of twenty-one "suspected criminals" after "receiving criticism and education and repenting for their mistakes", would seem to confirm this analysis.

Shifang is located in Sichuan province, which was devastated by a huge 2008 earthquake. With what passes for a 'recovery' still very much ongoing, the jobs 'carrot' was dangled before the residents of Shifang, in an attempt to overcome concerns that the local water supply would be contaminated. Because of Chinese censorship, it is difficult to find a record of grassroots concerns, but Ma Jun of the liberal Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs commented that:
"Heavy metal projects are always highly polluting. Of course the public has concerns about this. The government only released the short version of the plant's environmental report, which did not have information about the solid waste and waste water. It should have released the full version."
On Monday and Tuesday, demonstrators tore down the door of the municipal government building, smashed windows, and threw bricks at police. In response, police unleashed barely restrained brutality, which was played out across the Chinese-language internet, as users uploaded photos and videos of battered and bleeding protestersThe Tuesday night saw a massive sit-down protest outside a government office, and it was at this point that officials agreed to back down. 

The speed at which the government caved-in highlights Communist Party fears of a nationwide uprising, as the export-led economy starts to show signs of collapse. In the wake of falling orders from Europe and America, export orders are reportedly at their lowest level since March 2009 - the crest of the first crisis wave - and the purchasing managers' index tumbled to 0.2 to 50.4 last month - only 0.5 above a mark which would indicate recession. 

The dictatorship's Shifang u-turn has perhaps bought it more time to prepare, but there seems little doubt that China will be the scene of explosive class struggles will be played out in China in the very near future.

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