Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Pret a Manger Communications Blockade in Support of Victimised Union Activist

The following is a repost from the Pret A Manger Staff Union (PAMSU) website. PAMSU is a new rank-and-file controlled organisation for Pret A Manger workers:

Since forming Pret a Manger Staff Union earlier this year, Andrej and a number of other workplace activists have faced a campaign of harassment and victimisation from management.  For Andrej, this has reached a point where he has been sacked on trumped-up disciplinary charges.  His final appeal hearing against the decision will occur on Thursday the 29th of November at 2:00pm.

PAMSU together with the North London Solidarity Federation, the Alliance for Workers Liberty and Radical Islington call for the Communications Blockade on Wednesday 28th November 2012.
In an effort to show solidarity with Andrej and PAMSU, we are asking the supporters:
Bombard Pret’s Facebook page with messages in support of Andrej:

Feel free to post up this YouTube video:
If you’re on Twitter, please tweet and re-tweet the following message throughout the day:
“@Pret Reinstate Andrej!  Stop Union-Busting at Pret a Manger!  More information:  Please re-tweet!!! #PAMSU”

Many thanks! No pasarán!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Anatomy of Two Liverpool Demonstrations

Recent Liverpool demos have been quite surreal (photo: Chris McCleary)
Something has stayed with me from what Johnny Void wrote about the NUS demonstration in the week. As I quoted in my own report on the event, he stated that:
"A demonstration is exactly what it says. At best this means a demonstration of power as people organise together to take direct action, strike, riot or generally fuck shit up. At worst it can be a demonstration of passivity – a signal to the state that should they continue along the same path then actually no-one will bother to do much about it."
Now I do not believe that a demonstration on its own could ever force a policy change from a government - let alone overthrow a government or a political system. Direct action and mass grassroots organisation have always been the tools which have got the goods. But demos can contribute positively to the building of a movement, by being a 'show of strength' to comrades and enemies, as well as reaching out to others who might want to get involved.

The midweek march NUS singularly failed to do these things. It presented to the government the supplicant face of a long disempowered, demobilised and dejected student movement. The NUS leadership bears a large measure of responsibility for this, especially for refusing to call any kind of demonstration in 2011, and for co-operating with the state to manage student anger at every turn.

But two Liverpool demonstrations a week or so ago were almost surreal in the epicness of their failure. They existed as if their entire purpose was to comfort the participants with a belief that they were doing 'something'. I believe this says a lot about the current state of social movements, at a time of mass crisis but minimal UK fightback.

The first one took place on the 14th, and was billed as an expression of solidarity with the European general strike against austerity day, which was predominantly taking place in Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. Called by the local trades council, the Liverpool event was located in the city's bustling Church Street, at 6 pm on a busy weekday. Shoppers were going home, while others were emerging from workplaces to look for pubs or transport.

The assembled group of around seventy-five gathered about a set of street furniture across from a bank, and maybe ten speakers gave speeches detailing both the pain coming from the coalition's cuts, and the aching need to organise a general strike in this country, with the aim of bringing down the government. There was a lot of passion in these orations, and many of the opinions expressed were clearly very deeply held. The socialist singers sang revolutionary songs of past eras. But despite all this, there was an almost sombre atmosphere.

What was slightly embarrassing and almost tragic about the whole thing was that it existed in something like a bubble. Though many hundreds of people were passing, the participants seemed to be separated from them by a wall of their own inwardly-facing bodies. Little to no attempt was made to engage the general public in what was being discussed, and no proposal for action was voiced, beyond returning to various union branches and putting forward motions, something which many of the speakers had likely been doing to no avail for months if not years. So rather than reaching out to the potential allies for victory who were all around us, it was almost as if we were there to console each other in our ongoing defeat.

Although I believe I was one of maybe only a couple to attend both, the Gaza solidarity demo of the 18th was similar in key ways. With Israel a couple of days into its latest massacre, Liverpool Friends of Palestine had organised a rally outside the BBC Radio Merseyside building on Hanover Street, again in the early evening. Despite the fact we were on quite a narrow pavement, and Hanover Street being much quieter than Church Street in terms of pedestrian traffic, many people still walked past. There was only interaction with passers-by on two occasions. On the first, a woman had been answered after asking "What's a Palestine?", and on the second, a man drove past and shouted "pakis" out of his window, for which he was chased down and received a tongue-lashing from several of us.

At the start, BBC security staff locked the automatic doors which led into the reception area. But after maybe ten minutes, a man came out to accept a letter from those who appeared to be leading the demo from their position relative to the crowd of maybe one hundred. He thanked them, and commented that they get lots of feedback from both sides, so hopefully that helps them find the truth somewhere in the middle. I yelled "Apart from the fact that they lie", but otherwise he - and the entire BBC - went unchallenged.

There was a succession of speeches - generally from white, middle-aged men - which preached to the choir about the history of Zionism, the inequality of arms, and the cruelty of Netanyahu, Obama and Cameron. Once this was over, absolutely no practical suggestions for further action were made whatsoever. The group drifted off, and the BBC unlocked their doors.

The government's austerity measures are only going to intensify, and unfortunately, with Syrian and Iranian targets being lined up, so is Israeli militarism. Expressions of regret and pity will not be able to stop these attacks. Only a strong working class movement armed with an anti-imperialist perspective has this potential power. But right now, for a variety of reasons I have discussed in these pages many times, this seems very far off, and 2012 has been a demoralising year for what we laughingly call 'the left'. This context is the only way that these strangely ritualistic demonstrations of caring but powerlessness can be accounted for.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Anger as NUS Lead Students on Road to Nowhere

Angry demonstrators forced their way onto the stage at the rally
National Union of Students President Liam Burns was booed, egged, and then forced to run for cover by a stage invasion at the end of the union's London march against tuition fees and education cuts.

Labour Party supporter Burns was addressing students who had followed the NUS route from Victoria Embankment to Kennington - far from where politicians were debating. As the crowd made its way through cold November rain, frustrations had become apparent from increasingly angry posts on Twitter.

When Burns took to the stage in Kennington Park to chants of "Liam Burns, shame on you, where the fuck you lead us to?", he was pelted with eggs and a satsuma, before twenty forced their way through barriers and onto the stage, at which point the mic was cut. After all the NUS talk of students ensuring "our voices will be heard", this was the ultimate irony.

The march route had been negotiated between the NUS and Metropolitan Police, both of whom were anxious to avoid a repeat of December 2010, when the police lost control of the streets, and the Conservative Party HQ was overrun. As the demonstration snaked its way through London streets this afternoon, there were complaints that NUS stewards were acting in a way that was indistinguishable from the police.

Metropolitan Police - brought to you by the National Union of Students
Activists from the more militant National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) had hoped to break through into Parliament Square, but after a brief stand-off it was clear that the balance of forces lay with the forces of reaction. There also a brief sit-down protest on Westminster Bridge - the very point where Burns wanted to lead the demonstrators away from the seat of power.

As Johnny Void wrote in his excellent write-up:
"A demonstration is exactly what it says. At best this means a demonstration of power as people organise together to take direct action, strike, riot or generally fuck shit up. At worst it can be a demonstration of passivity – a signal to the state that should they continue along the same path then actually no-one will bother to do much about it."
The ruling class was taken aback by the explosion of student anger in winter 2010. It has since taken measures to reinforce its repression - witness the 'total policing' of the 2011 demo - especially at the point it met up with militant electricians in struggle - and the highly restrictive routing of today's march. At this stage, an effective fightback must necessarily up the ante.

NCAFC have declared December 5th a day of action, coinciding with Chancellor George Osborne's Autumn Statement to the House of Commons.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

IWW Victory! John Lewis Cleaners Win Pay Rise

The following is reposted from the Industrial Workers of the World UK page:

The Industrial Workers of the World are proud to announce their victory in their latest John Lewis cleaners' campaign. On Friday 16 November, the IWW-unionised John Lewis cleaning staff employed by contractor Integrated Cleaning Management won a 9% pay rise as a result of their campaign.
The outsourced cleaners work at four different John Lewis sites in London and are employed by cleaning contractor Integrated Cleaning Management (ICM). This announcement follows a previous press release on Monday 12 November, in which IWW lodged a fresh pay dispute on behalf the IWW unionised cleaners at John Lewis, and a further press release on Wednesday 14 November, in which the IWW announced our intention to ballot the John Lewis cleaning staff for industrial action.

Outsourced John Lewis cleaners have won an immediate and backdated 9% pay rise following their pledge of industrial action. The increase, backdated 5 months, takes their pay to £6.72 per hour at three central London sites, and £6.50 at one outer London site. Supervisors will now get £8.00 per hour and £7.84 respectively.
United in the IWW trade union, the cleaners notified their employer, ICM, last week of the trade dispute and impending ballot for industrial action. This ballot could have seen visible and noisy industrial action by cleaners at four John Lewis sites in London in the run up to Christmas.
John Lewis has seen pre-Christmas profits increase on last year already. The company are proud of their partnership structure, where all staff are ‘partners’ who share in the company’s profits.
But John Lewis’ cleaning contract is outsourced to MML, who outsource it again to ICM. The cleaners have seen their hours reduce and workload increase, while they were paid minimum wage of £6.19 – and they don’t share in the profits.
This increase, including a backdated lump sum just before Christmas, will make a real difference to our members’ lives. ICM further pledged to look at the potential to pay a Living Wage of £8.55 as they enter contract talks early in 2013.
IWW National Secretary Frank Syratt said:
It is our members’ unity, solidarity and courageous stance that has won this increase. They are an inspiration and a lesson to other workers”
There is still work to do. John Lewis needs to ensure all their workers – whether partners or outsourced - take home a Living Wage of £8.55 and receive full sick pay, lifting them out of poverty and insecurity. IWW pledges to continue organising and campaigning to make this happen”.
Contact: south[at] for more information.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Fire and Flames - A History of the German Autonomist Movement

Translated by Gabriel Kuhn
PM Press, paperback

This English language translation of a book long-considered a classic of autonomism provides a good introductory history of the German scene from the tumultuous year of 1968 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But despite its strictly chronological style, it manages to feel weirdly disjointed and dispassionate, and so fails to provide much of a guide for those of us seeking to organise non-hierarchically in the twenty-first century.

As ever for books on the left, there is a blizzard of acronyms, and if you are a non-German reader then almost all will be entirely new. A glossary is provided however, and if you keep referring back to it, this isn't too much of a barrier.

Another common left problem encountered here is the slipperiness of label definitions. This even applies to the term 'autonomism' itself, with wildly different ideologies and forms of activity all coming under the same umbrella term. For some this is a strength of 'autonomism', for others a weakness, but when trying to read a book on the subject, it sometimes feels like particular activities have been shoehorned into the 'autonomist' definition simply because they are in some way anti-mainstream politics, and not 'K-groups' (of which more later).

Geronimo adopts the eight part definition adopted in Italy during 1981: "we fight for ourselves", "we do not engage in dialogue with those in power", "we have not found each other at the workplace", "we all embrace a vague anarchism", "no power to no one", difference from the "alternative movement", "we are uncertain whether we want a revolt or a revolution", "we have no organisation per se".

So vagueness and lifestylist individualism appears to be all, and yet the 'autonomists' as identified by Geronimo did organise huge events, and they did experiment with workplace organising. Focuses changed as history marched on and changes in economics drove changes in society. This mechanism lies almost entirely unexamined, accounting for much of the 'this happened, then this happened' style.

This difficulty is evident from the very beginning when Geronimo deals the year when workers and students rose in Paris, there was upheaval in Czechoslovakia, the Black Panthers battled cops in America, and 'The Troubles' began in the north of Ireland. All this took place as the post-war settlements around the world were breaking down at their first major recessionary test. Instead of looking at this, Geronimo tries to explain nearly everything in terms of US imperialism's carnage in Vietnam. Beyond the immediate trigger for action, the deeper motivations are not considered, and so any thorough analysis of autonomism - or any movement - is impossible. Still, Geronimo notes that a sizeable layer of students broke from the liberalism of the social democratic centre-left.

The next section - and in my opinion by far the most impressive part of the whole book - is actually dedicated to a very decent study of Italian autonomism. It looks at the organic composition of Italian industry, before tracing the shift from Stalinism to operaismo  ('workerism') which - in contrast to a left which now sought to integrate "the working class into capitalist development" - again sought "the complete negation of the existing system". As employers fought back by shipping out of operaist strongholds, the focus shifted to the "social field" - i.e. riots, "proletarian shopping" (organised mass looting), and the creation of a 'scene'.

And - aside from a few abortive attempts to organise factory workers - the "social field" is the only one on which Geronimo describes the various and diverse German autonome as playing on, following their formation in reaction to their own Stalinist 'Communist parties' (those K-groups again).

We are therefore given brief sketches of the rise and fall of the 'spontis' (anti-organisational individuals emphasising the 'spontaneous'), the insurrectionist Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Faction) and Revolutionäre Zellen (Revolutionary Cells) in the 1970s. And then through to anti-Reagan, anti-nuclear and mass squatting actions in the decade which was to catch the autonomen by surprise at its dramatic conclusion - the fall of the Berlin Wall.

When I put down the book for the final time, I was left with a sense that the sometimes massive numbers the autonomen pulled to their events, and the often ferocious intensity of their battles with state forces, very little had been achieved in the way of concrete gains. And this is the case whether you prefer - as I do - to talk in terms of gains or losses for contending social classes, or about individuals extending the reach of their own freedom (as do the autonomists in the 1981 Italian theses).

One prominent exception is the mass squatting of Hamburg's Hafenstrasse, which eventually led to the regional senate granting the squatters the right to stay in the buildings they had brought into use. These then became a prominent base for both a thriving counter-culture - including support of the world-famous FC St. Pauli with its unique supporter comradeship - and the autonomen's political struggles.

But apart from that - and the odd delay to this or that project of the capitalist class - it's difficult to point to much in the way of success. Of course, participants may well argue that I am being far too materialist, and the success was the emotional 'freedom' gained from taking part. Of course, that would be entirely their call. But perhaps that's almost the exact problem with the type of autonomism espoused within these one hundred and eighty five pages - it can be reduced to 'Did the individual have a good time while the world continued to burn?'

So if Geronimo wanted to show the German brand of autonomism as being a way forward for oppressed groups in the wider world - and I think he did - then Fire and Flames utterly fails to convincingly make that case. That's certainly not to say it's without merit - and as a bit of a politics geek I loved the many demonstration photos and posters included - but perhaps there is an even better book on the history of German autonomen just waiting to be written.

Monday, November 12, 2012

December 2012 Issue of The Commune

Below is the editorial I wrote for this month's Commune issue (click here for PDF).

There's no easy time to be a communist in a capitalist society of course, but 2012 has been extremely tough going.

2011 started with the popular overthrow of governments in Tunisia and Egypt, the near-general strike in Wisconsin, and continued with Occupy, big student demos and occupations, the Sparks electricians, a growing public sector struggle, and even the spontaneous elements of anti-state and anti-rich mobilisations in the summer riots. While all of these had important limitations, on what might be called the left there was a feeling that momentum was building, and a global reckoning with the bankers at their governments might be in the making.

This year, all that impetus has dissipated - or rather, it has been repressed in some cases, and misdirected in others. The new bosses in Tunisia and Egypt might not be exactly the same as the old bosses, but they have very similar material interests, and they are backed by the same imperial power. Liberals in Wisconsin were able to channel the anger at state Governor Walker in an attempt to replace him with a right wing Democrat - and even this eventually failed due to an understandable lack of enthusiasm. Occupy eventually collapsed under the weight of weather, police brutality and its general orientation away from the wider class. The student struggle also fizzled out due to its isolation in the face of government intransigence, and union tops sold out public sector pensions - largely contributing to a much-reduced London demo in October. The Sparks actually won - but that was back in February, and feels like a long time ago.

That's not to say there haven't been other promising struggles - the growing resistance in Greece, Spain and South Africa looks very positive. But by and large, 2012 has felt like banging our collective head against a brick wall.

In this context, it's no surprise that: a) The Commune have gone through a bit of a shakeup, and b) our first issue in a few months has a slightly inward-looking feel - looking at different forms of working class organisation. Some times it is useful to pause and take stock, and many of give huge amounts of our time and energy to various struggles, and putting so much in with little success can quickly lead to burnout.

So Simon Hardy of the new Anti-Capitalist Initiative argues that it is time for unity to be built on the left, and he has the model of SYRIZA - Greece's main opposition party - in mind. An interview with Michael Albert sets-out the perspective of his group - the International Organisation for a Participatory Society - based on self-management, equity/justice, solidarity, diversity, ecological stewardship and internationalism - all aims that communists would share. But also John Keeley examines the problems he sees in Albert's vision - particularly its throwing "the Marxist bath out with the Leninist bath water", and losing its "materialist foundations".

The Marx-Bakunin conflict is recalled by David Adam, who reveals that it wasn't the straight battle between "absolute liberty and authoritarianism" that is often painted.  An understanding of this can have a bearing on the struggles of today if self-identifying Marxists and anarchists can find common ground.

Finally, Roy Ratcliffe offers his thoughts on the organisation question, arguing that we should not to attempt to substitute ourselves for the working class, and offer some kind of idealist blueprint or perfect example for others to follow, but to organise where we are, and:
"To my mind the task of revolutionary anti-capitalists is to work alongside such workers [in struggle] and convince them by discussion and by the results of their defensive and reformist struggles that the capitalist system holds no future well-being for themselves, their neighbours, their offspring or the planet."
As I wrote in a recent blog article titled 'Why Isn't There A Working Class Movement in the UK?':
"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... "
That time will come in the next edition of The Commune. In the mean time, keep fighting. Our time is coming.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Pitiful Infidels Humbled in Liverpool

image courtesy of
The following is a repost from the Liverpool Antifascists blog. Other reports on the event can be read here, here, here and here.

I’ve seen few more pitiful sights than the North West Infidels and their ragtag band of allies outside Liverpool town hall last night. A mere twenty of the oxygen thieves made it to the “national demonstration”, and as they huddled around their ridiculous banner, jabbering incoherently about “paedos” and “terrorist supporters”, they demonstrated nothing except the utter bankruptcy of the ‘master race’.
Earlier in the evening, three fascists made what they probably considered a ‘raid’ on local radical bookshop News From Nowhere. While one obviously intoxicated man waited outside and shook his head at a sign for children’s books, another two examined the noticeboard a couple of feet inside, before leaving and muttering about how the place was “disgusting”.
One of this group – who is associated with Combined Ex-Forces – was spotted wandering past and taking photos as a large group of anti-fascists, socialists and Irish assembled on Castle Street, opposite the council HQ, where Labour mayor Joe Anderson and assorted anti-working class suits were gathering for a gala dinner.
The fascists had called their protest against Anderson’s upholding of liberal democratic norms – specifically in this case the right of Irish flute bands to gather and march through the city. Local fash have been trying to link the Irish republicans to the long-disbanded IRA all year, and this reached a high watermark in July, when they managed to mobilise a couple of hundred to demonstrate against a march organised by the James Larkin Society. The anti-Irish racist term ‘potato’ has been bandied about with sickening regularity online.
But despite some big talk on Facebook in the lead-up to yesterday’s event, the far right could only muster a score, who disappeared in taxis to train stations after being vastly outnumbered and outshouted for an hour. And according to reports, high profile local fash Liam Pinkham got a taste of his own medicine, and therefore missed his first demo since doing time for assault. The chant “police protect the fascists” seemed particularly appropriate, because without the cops the balance of forces would have been far in the anti-fascists’ favour.
Without significant support from the Orange Lodge – which they had enjoyed in the summer – the NWI were shown up for what they are – a street gang with no political focus, no strategy, and no future beyond mere thuggery. But as the economic and social crisis deepens – in no small measure due to the cuts that councils like Anderson’s are enforcing – there will be no shortage of disaffected youths looking for scapegoats. We can outnumber the NWI and friends on the streets, but the only long term solution to the problem of fascism is a strong working class movement, fighting for people’s livelihoods.

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