Saturday, September 29, 2012

Liverpool Shoppers Turn Their Backs On Workfare Exploiters

A group of around a dozen activists held successful demonstrations at two Liverpool shops taking advantage of the government’s workfare scheme this afternoon. Many refused to cross our picket line and give Poundland and Tesco their business, after finding out that both use what is effectively slave labour to boost their profit margins. While anti-workfare campaigning has had some success, it is vital to keep hammering away at the scheme.

Not only is important in of itself, as any one of us could find us facing compulsory unpaid labour, it can be part of resurrecting narratives of class struggle and working class solidarity. It is essential to get across the fact that the introduction of ‘free’ work undermines the position of all who are paid for it.

As I described in my February article ‘Why Workfare is an Attack on the Entire Working Class’:
"Capitalism is based on exploitation. That's to say at root, it is exploitation. Without exploitation there could be no profit, because profit is the difference between the value of a worker's labour and their compensation for it. This contradiction is the foundation of all class struggle - the employers always want to extract more value from their employees, and the employees desire the opposite. How much better for an employer then - and how much worse for the employee - for there to be a wage of zero!” 
Today we began at the Poundland store on Williamson Square. With its two, big entrances, this posed a challenge, but when we fanned ourselves out with banners, flags and leaflets we were able to form an effective symbolic barrier, and get our point across to each and every customer. We got far more support than criticism, and loads turned away, especially when offered the alternative of Poundworld on Church Street. Those who did go in often looked particularly shamefaced when our megaphone guy announced they were “helping the Tories.”

We then journeyed to the Tesco on Bold Street, where we also got a generally favourable public reception. A far higher proportion crossed us however, with one otherwise sympathetic person returning to go past, complaining that Sainsbury’s “don’t have [their] brand of fizzy water.” 

The revolution clearly has a long way to go, but it was a positive day, and we will be back for more very soon! Every pound lost to Poundland due to workfare is a pound they could potentially choose to pay an employee - just £6.20 per hour would fund a minimum wage! And as for Tesco, they are of course absolute giants, but as they never fail to say, ‘Every little helps!’

The Liverpool Claimant Network write-up can be read here.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Antifascists Escort National Culturists Off University of Liverpool Campus

Buckby (left), Cooke (far right) and their "not racist" minder
The following is reposted from the Liverpool Antifascists website:

Liverpool Antifascists forced the fascist-aligned National Culturists group off the University of Liverpool campus yesterday afternoon, as they attempted to leaflet students attending the freshers’ fair. This was in line with our ‘no platform for fascism’ policy.

The Culturists first reared their heads in the spring, when founding member Jack Buckby (a personal favourite of BNP leader Nick Griffin), announced their intention to recruit in the uni.

A student group responded with disgust, declaring:
“We feel the promotion of these ideas on our campus and in our city goes against all the values of our university and the society we wish to live in, and their presence could leave many of our students and staff intimidated. We call on all students, staff, societies, student representatives, trade unions and faith organisations to oppose the presence of the National Culturalists and unite to make our campus and our city a place that accepts all regardless of ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender or ability.” 
The far right group were not given permission to hold a stall at the freshers’ fair, but Buckby had this week claimed that “we’re going to be attending” the event. Thanks to our actions, his prediction was proved very wrong. The fair began at noon, and antifascists were already in position, ready and waiting. But the National Culturists didn’t materialise, so some of us amused ourselves around the (otherwise almost deserted) Conservative Party stall, and military recruiters.

We were almost ready to write our foes off as a no-show, when “north-west regional organiser” Craig Cooke of the British Freedom Party was clocked standing next to the Blackwell’s book shop. Comrades were rounded up, and we came at Cooke and Buckby – plus a burly skinhead who identified as Buckby’s relative – from two different angles. We then tailed them all the way through campus, chanting “Nazi scum off our streets”. We picked up support along the way, and in the circumstances very few took any leaflets from the suited “social conservatives”. Those that did were instantly told who they had just met.

The trio briefly took sanctuary in the Tesco store on Myrtle Street, before moving on down Chatham Street to Oxford Street. At this point, comrades who had been called in by phone approached from the other side of the road, bringing our numbers up to about fifteen, and leaving the Culturists “shaking like shitting dogs”, in the words of one participant.

Taxi for the fash!
A standoff ensued, during which the Culturists were physically separated from much of their propaganda, and the scene attracted the attention of the two passing police. Buckby essentially begged for their intervention, but they didn’t seem that interested and just asked everyone to move on.

This we did, as far as Hope Street, where the Culturists were effectively kettled against the Everyman, while they attempted to ring for a taxi. This proved difficult, as we raised our “Nazi scum off our streets” chant whenever Buckby tried to use his mobile. Eventually, with time running down on the fair, we allowed the small Culturist posse to leave in a black cab heading out of town, making sure it turned left instead of right at the traffic lights.

There was jubilation in our camp at this important victory, but we are under no illusions. Buckby is being groomed as a rising star of the far right, and his crew will attempt to spread their poison on campus in the near future. We will be there when they do.

The Liverpool Student Media report can be seen here.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Lonmin Miners' Victory Sets "Dangerous Precedent" For South African Elite

Happy rank-and-file miners...
On Tuesday, workers at the Marikana platinum mine decided to accept a pay rise of between eleven and twenty-two per cent. Though this victory falls a long way short of the trebling in wages they had initially demanded, and came at the loss of the thirty-four comrades murdered by police, it represents a huge gain against a background of generally deteriorating compensation packages around the world. It was achieved by a group of miners who had organised and armed themselves, and it is for this precise reason that the head of the establishment Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) has warned his corporate and government colleagues of the miners' "dangerous precedent".

Speaking to an audience of delegates at the equivalent of the UK Trades Union Congress conference, general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi asked:
"If those workers forced the hand of the company in that fashion through an unprotected strike, what stops Driefontein [a gold mine in the West Witwatersrand Basin] in doing the same? [...] We are not saying that workers do not deserve their money, but if we are not careful this may mean an end of the central bargaining system in the country. [...] Workers will just embark on wildcat strikes and steam ahead and force us to follow them."
It is hard to imagine a more stark expression of the separation of material interests that exists between union bureaucrats and rank-and-file workers, in South Africa and around the world. The miners got a much needed boast to their meagre pay packets, and instead of being happy about it, Zwelinzima is worried that their largely successful example will be copied by workers throughout mining, and other industries, ultimately circumventing the unions' role as industrial cops.

...worried trade union bureaucrat
The particular relationship of the South African trade unions to the government and ruling class is an unusual one, owing to the specifics of the post-Apartheid settlement which the African National Congress (ANC) made with international capital. COSATU sits alongside the ANC and the South African Communist Party in government, making only occasional and mild criticisms of the ANC's pro-big business orientation.

But leading members of this 'Tripartite Alliance' - or those connected to them - certainly have the potential to reap big rewards from the exploitation of South African workers. For example, ANC Justice Minister and Jeff Radebe - who has been heavily involved in the Marikana struggle - is related to huge mining riches through his wife and brother in law. The founder of the National Union of Miners, Cyril Ramaphosa, is director of Lonmin, and also therefore has a stake in miners' immiseration. And last week it was revealed that Zondwa Mandela - the grandson of ANC figurehead Nelson Mandela - is at the head of an asset-stripping gold mining company which has not paid its five thousand employees for more than two years.

Elements of the South African elite may have pressured Lonmin to put forward a relatively high offer, because of the effect that the Marikana massacre has had in igniting militancy throughout the lucrative mining sector. But as Vavi warned his co-conspirators, this is a risky strategy. Much now depends on whether the wave of miners' struggles has just peaked, or is only beginning to build.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Truth About the Establishment's Hillsborough Cover-up

The events of April 1989 will never leave me. As Liverpool and Nottingham Forest kicked off their FA Cup semi-final at Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough ground, the seven year old me went for a short walk with my mum to do some shopping. We were over the Mersey in Wirral, but many radios along our route were blaring out strange and horrific commentaries. We knew something was wrong, but we didn't know what until we got home to my dad perched on the edge of his seat, watching the disaster unfold. All was confusion. My abiding memory is of bodies being stretchered away on advertising boards. Ninety-six would eventually die as a result of the crush.

Early the next week, The Sun came out with their infamous headline "THE TRUTH". Under it, lie upon lie slandered the Liverpool fans, who were accused of impeding rescue efforts, pissing on cops, and the ultimate scouse stereotype at its most debased - robbing the pockets of the dead and dying. It was a sickening blow. Everyone knew someone who'd been there, and so everyone knew that this was as far from the truth as you could get. It felt like the whole area was under siege. And because it was from The Sun - a paper which had cheerleaded a decade of Thatcher's attacks on the working class - it felt very directly like we were under attack from the Tories and the rich. It is very difficult to exaggerate the impression this made on my young mind.

Today's official admissions serve to confirm what seemed obvious even to my boyhood self. The Hillsborough Independent Panel - set up by the outgoing Labour government in 2010 after over twenty years of relentless work by the Hillsborough Justice Campaign (HJC) - found:

  • supposedly 'new' evidence of how emergency responses failed, perhaps costing the lives of 55 victims
  • rescue attempts were hampered by poor co-ordination between police and ambulance services
  • police responded with "despicable untruths" about Liverpool fans' behaviour as they sough to avoid blame
  • police officers carried out police national computer checks on those who had died in an attempt "to impugn the reputations of the deceased"
  • 116 out of 164 South Yorkshire Police statements were doctored
  • The Sun got "The Truth" from police sources and a Tory MP

Sheila Coleman of HJC today told the Liverpool Echo that:
"The findings are shocking in terms of the blood alcohol tests and the police computer being activated to look for criminal activity. These were criminal activities. We have got to the truth but where is the justice? That is what is crucial now. It will be even more frustrating if nothing else happens. We want the inquest verdict to be overturned with urgency in all cases. We will be pushing for that and pursuing it legally and having all documents looked over by our own legal team. 
"Where I am disappointed is there was no mention of Margaret Thatcher, Bernard Ingham or Colin Moynihan or the government’s role in the cover-up. The Thatcher government is getting away scot-free. It is not highlighted at all. The blame is being laid at the door of the police and ambulance service. We are pleased with what has happened so far but disappointed with that. It was truly shocking to hear people could have been saved. There are so many shocking aspects. But the fans were totally vindicated."
As always when the establishment is caught lying on a massive scale - think the Iraq war 'dodgy dossier' or Derry's Bloody Sunday for example - the reality of the situation only emerges slowly, after much hard work from campaigners. This is because that establishment closes ranks to protect their own interests. But these interests are very different to the interests of working class people. Doubtless, as Coleman hinted, secrets about collusion at the very top level are still being hidden from us. And today's disclosure can help bring about justice, but it is not that justice itself.

Even now, I feel myself reliving some of the emotions from twenty-three years ago. There's a lump in my throat as I recall visiting the Anfield stadium with my dad, and laying my Tranmere Rovers scarf on what was quickly becoming a shrine. There were shirts and scarves of every colour, though of course red dominated.

But more important than those emotions is the knowledge that the police are servants of the rich, and their actions will always be protected by the establishment, no matter the cost in working class blood and tears. Of course, the police didn't deliberately kill Liverpool fans that day, but by their actions as an institution they partly did, and the blame that was rightly theirs was shifted by the police, media and government onto the backs of Liverpool people, in a massive act of victim blaming. The lesson from this? The politicians, the corporate media, and the police must never, ever be trusted. By their every action, they reveal themselves to be the enemy.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Politics Behind the London IWW Split

The cleaners won at John Lewis, but what does their future hold?
There can be no doubt that the gains achieved by the London cleaners branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) have - together with those won by the Sparks rank-and-file electricians - have been a beacon of light in a year of otherwise deepening austerity gloom. But in mid-August, the branch announced it was breaking away from the IWW, to relaunch under the long-forgotten name of the Industrial Workers of Great Britain (IWGB). Initial statements from both sides hinted at little more than personality clashes, but I can now reveal the political schism which has fed into this split.

As many will know, the IWW is an international, grassroots-controlled organisation aiming for 'one big union' of all workers, which will - so the theory goes - be able to abolish the wage system. Whereas corporate unions have well-heeled bureaucracies which negotiate with the bosses and eventually sell out their memberships, the IWW operate on the basis of recallable delegates, and all decisions are taken by the membership as a whole. The Wobblies - as they are often known for reasons lost in the mists of time - have an extremely colourful history, and at their 1920s peak could boast 100,000 members. Although many members identify as anarchists, this is not a condition of membership.

Nowadays the membership figures are far smaller, but the successes of the London cleaners were beginning to demonstrate the potential of rank-and-file organising to a new generation. As Chris Ford's IWGB (re)founding statement declared with justifiable pride:
"Over the last year, starting with the wildcat actions at Guildhall in August 2011 up to the seminal strikes of cleaners at John Lewis – the IWW Cleaning & Allied Industries London Branch have co-ordinated with bus-drivers, TfL [Transport for London] workers and others in the London Regional Committee in an organising campaign. We have engaged in disputes, which have resulted in major gains by workers in defeating cuts, and securing significant pay rises. These achievements are not minor – they are almost unheard of in the current period of austerity."
But the document went on:
"[...] we have found ourselves in one conflict after another with elements inside our own union. Through our own self-organisation, we have sought to overcome this hindrance. However, the conduct of a small number of members in and around the London General Members Branch, and some bodies outside the IWW, during the recent dispute at John Lewis was the straw that broke that camel's back."
There were also claims of "deeper political disagreements", although few details were given, beyond references to "hubristic anarchists" contributing to the original IWW-IWGB split over a century ago. When he initially agreed to an interview, I asked Chris Ford a series of questions via email. After asking what publication the article was for (Freedom), he declined to answer further, citing concerns over spreading "hysteria". However, the IWW were more forthcoming, and several members offered their help.

One individual in particular, who does not wish to be named, told me that:
"We think it is a personal project of Chris Ford (CF). I think CF reckons we are not worthy of him. At a special conference we held in the spring, CF attended and failed to have his submission accepted. He misjudged the meeting. I think he hoped to be met with acclaim, but the dominant current in the membership was anarchist and he failed to allow for it. I think at that point he realised we were not going to adopt his programme."
According to IWW documents, Chris Ford proposed the establishment of an "Executive Committee" within the union, which would have been a radical break with its long-established federal structure. Though the Executive would be recallable, it would have powers to convene an "extraordinary delegate conference", as well as elect a "Disputes Committee" and three "National Organisers" representing English, Scottish and Welsh members. There would also be "A dedicated worker on a part-time/full-time basis to be employed by the union to administer membership".

So it appears there was a springtime dispute over organisational structure between Chris Ford - who describes himself as a communist - and the majority of IWW delegates, who saw his proposals as tending towards the introduction of a hierarchy within the union. Over the past few months this dispute has become personalised, to the extent that my IWW correspondent described Ford as having "messianic tendencies", and Ford made that "hubristic anarchists" jibe. Furthermore, if Ford is to be believed - and there doesn't seem to be any reason to doubt his word on this - the rancour has impacted on the effectiveness of the cleaners' campaigns.

So where does all this leave us - and perhaps more importantly - the cleaners? Well, the IWGB exists, at least in name, though the IWW are concerned that "many of the 'members' of the IWGB do not realise that there is no IWGB union registered. So they are not able to benefit from the meagre advantages that a registered union has." The IWGB is organising protests, including against the Société Générale bank for cutting hours and making contradictory statements on the London Living Wage. And the IWGB has a website, which bizarrely claims that someone with the name of a prominent Glasgow member from its original incarnation in the run-up to World War One - is "Asst. General Secretary".

Much about the IWGB is still a mystery, but time will tell just what sort of organisation it is.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Why Isn't There A Working Class Movement In The UK?

You feel it too, don't you comrade? Every time you go to the supermarket. Every time you pay a bill. Every time you do whatever you do to bring the money in. We desperately need a new working class movement in this country, if we are to fight back against the ongoing ruling class onslaught. But we haven't got one, and that hurts. So why the hell haven't we?

No-one reading this article needs me to tell them how bad things are getting for working class people in this country, and perhaps the worst thing is that we pretty much all know this is just the beginning. Plus this isn't even a case of 'things have to get worse before they get better'. Who amongst us believes that the government ten years down the line is going to start rebuilding what the current coalition is only a quarter through destroying? Who believes that the current recession will end any time soon? Who is under the impression that real terms wages, pensions and working conditions will ever recover to 2007 levels?

No, this great depression is the 'new normal', and many people are sullenly resigned to it. But others - perhaps those of us politically nurtured on the cataclysmic class struggles of the past - are wishing, waiting, yearning. Somehow, we believe, we've got to get together and tear the world of the rich apart.

The reasons why we haven't yet are complex of course. It isn't simply a case of 'the worse, the better' for working class fightback. After all, this is a truly global crisis, and there isn't a powerful working class movement in any country yet. For example, things are far, far worse for many in Greece than they are in the UK, and there have been umpteen general strikes there since the crisis began. But all of these have been limited to one or two days, and have been safely ignored by policy-makers. There is a significant non-payment direct action movement, but this too has failed to seriously challenge the austerity agenda of the international finance elites.

So while there's no doubt that people with less to lose are more likely to come out and fight for change, that clearly isn't enough in of itself, and so our analysis of the UK - and also societies like Greece - must go deeper.

For me, the trade unions - and different groups' relationships with them - are central to the entire question. The union bureaucracies have separate and distinct material interests to their rank and file, and whenever a dispute occurs, they act in accordance with those interests. Understanding that their privileges depend on effectively policing their membership, they set about this task with vigour, systematically managing the grassroots anger in such a way as it causes the least possible inconvenience to the bosses, while still 'talking a good game' right up to the point of the final sellout.

The last three and a half decades have seen the destruction of heavy industry in the UK as global companies have sought ever cheaper labour platforms. And by their actions if not their public words, the union fat cats have been complicit in this every step of the way. So only a tiny proportion of the UK's workforce are now union members, and these are heavily concentrated in the public sector. Generally in society, and particularly in traditionally blue collar areas, social solidarity has largely broken down.

Union organisation and social solidarity remain stronger in Greece, partly because neoliberal economics is a relatively recent development there, and it comes up against traditions of struggle born in the fire of fights against dictatorships. The general strikes I mentioned earlier have been massive, but even there, they have been called by the same trade union bureaucracies who offer only mild criticisms of austerity, and use strikes as a safety valve whenever a new round of cuts is going through parliament. The next day - with very few exceptions - all strikers return to work, and the government implements its slashing attacks on the working class.

In the UK, the public sector "general strikes" haven't even got that far. Union bureaucrats have responded to anger over job losses and corresponding speed-ups, wage freezes, and pensions raids with a couple of extremely limited one day strikes months apart, focused on the pensions issue in isolation. Not all affected workers were balloted for strikes on the same day, with the result that a potential 'movement' was fragmented and weak. Once wages had been lost, morale had plunged and despair had set in, the tops sold their memberships essentially the same deal.

This is where the fake left parties - in Greece, the UK, and everywhere - step in to play their poisonous role. Despite all pretending to be the one true Marxist party offering the proletariat crystal clear analysis from a revolutionary working class perspective, their real role is to confuse, bemuse and even abuse the well-intentioned class fighter. With illusions in the union bureaucracies being stretched by the evidence of history unravelling, they all praise their favourite tops for even the most timid or hypocritical of statements, whilst often playing down the strength of militancy on the ground.

This can easily be explained by the fact that members of all fake left parties seek well-paid positions in the union hierarchies, and are tied to it by a million other opportunist threads. It's small wonder that so many class fighters quickly get spat out by such reactionary organisations. Nothing would threaten the Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party and Alliance for Workers' Liberty so much as a genuine grassroots movement armed with a Marxist perspective. In Greece, the same can be said of Syriza, Antarsya and the Communist Party.

So much for the fake left. What of the non-hierarchical left? Well last year saw the brief flowering of the Occupy movement, which challenged the right of the state/corporate nexus to allocate space on behalf of "the 1%". But it failed to draw in more people by tapping the material needs of the wider working class, so its decline was a sad inevitability.

This year, explicitly anarchist groups led by the Solidarity Federation have scored some wins by targeting companies exploiting the unemployed and undercutting wage labour in the workfare schemes. Typically, these campaigners have caused great embarrassment to businesses like Holland & Barrett by turning up and picketing their shops on Saturday afternoons, and this has been combined with a social media campaign. Of course, as an injury to one is an injury to all, any prevention of injury to however small amount of our people is a gain for the working class. But SolFed and others have not been able to put down roots through these pickets, partly because they are - almost by definition - outside someone else's workplace.

In the near future, it seems unlikely we'll see a situation where anarchists are able to gain enough influence in any particular workplace to provide a shining example to the rest of the working class. Fortunately, last autumn/winter's struggle by the Sparks group of electricians demonstrated that something approaching full class consciousness can rise almost spontaneously if the conditions are right. The Sparks - having seen the Unite bureaucracy sell out their membership time after time - decided to form a parallel rank and file organisation when their construction industry employers threatened to slash wages by up to 35%. The Unite hierarchy's intrinsic hostility to grassroots self-organisation was soon made clear when chief negotiator Bernard McAulay branded Sparks "cancerous" in a leaked email. A long campaign of direct action culminated in angry electricians literally chasing suited and booted construction executives around a plush Park Lane hotel. Days later, the companies withdrew the threatened cuts.

The question of why this level of consciousness evolved organically amongst the Sparks, and has not in other industrial sectors, is extremely difficult to answer, and to even attempt to do so would take a lengthy article in itself. Construction has a long history of worker militancy, and 35% worth of 'the worse, the better' was surely a big incentive to fight. Yet even if they had lost, the Sparks would have been in a much more favourable position than some - the London cleaners who recently left the Industrial Workers of the World for example.

Employed at a rate far below the London living wage, and treated abysmally by their arrogant employers, the cleaners - many of whom don't speak English as a first language - organised themselves non-hierarchically and made a series of gains. Their departure from the IWW puts their direction in doubt, but like the Sparks, their example points to something better coming in the near future.

Amidst the bankers' crisis, things will continue to get worse for our class in the UK, in Greece, Egypt, South Africa and around the planet. Working class people will increasingly feel they have little to lose from fighting, and everything to gain. Despite the machinations of the union hierarchies and fake left parties, a new working class movement must come, and sooner rather than later. What should it look like? Well that's a subject for another time...

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