Friday, 1 May 2009

123 years on, the struggle continues: No War but Class War - May 2009

It has now been 123 years since the historic resolution by the American Federation of Labor that "eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labour from and after May 1st, 1886." 123 years since the Haymarket massacre and the defining moment of the modern labour movement, and the suppression of workers and trade unionists by the state continues unabated.

In Turkey, so Reuters reports, "Turkish riot police fired water cannon and tear gas in clashes with May Day demonstrators in Istanbul." "The police fired warning shots near the city's main Taksim square" before they "dispersed the protesters, chasing them down side streets, and several were detained," including "Leftists and Kurdish separatists" who, the report insists, "frequently clash with the police at protests." Similar scenes abound across the globe.

As usual, we are told that "young men threw stones and Molotov cocktails at the police and smashed windows in banks and supermarkets." However, after 123 years, the lesson must be learned that cynicism is advised when told that the state acted in self defence. The case of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 is an ample demonstration of this principle. The Metropolitan Police, however, have not learned this lesson. Thus, they have announced that there will be an "appropriate operation" launched "to deal with the planned May Day protests today." The fallacious principle that protests need "dealing with," of course, remains unquestioned.

In Iran, Amnesty International has "call[ed] on the Iranian authorities to end the repression of trade unionists by immediately releasing those imprisoned for their trade union work; dropping charges against others currently facing trial for similar reasons, and ending other repressive measures which marginalize trade unions and their members." In the Islamic Republic, trade union leaders such as "Mansour Ossanlu and Ebrahim Madadi, leading members of the Syndicate of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company (Sherkat-e Vahed)" and "five leaders of the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane Company (HTSCC) Trade Union "who are serving jail sentences in connection with their trade union activities." There is also the issue of peaceful May Day protests being suppressed by the authorities, and the TUC has, along with Amnesty, "call[ed] on the Iranian Government not to prevent independent Iranian trade unionists from demonstrating this May Day."

And these more high-profile stories are just the tip of the iceberg. Across the globe, trade unions are suppressed with brutal violence, the very title of trade unionist can get you killed, and the brutal injustices of sweatshops and child labour still persist.

Here in the West, we have no reason to be complacent. Only three days ago, Rob Williams, a convenor for Unite: the Union at the Linamar plant in Swansea, was sacked for "for supporting the sacked Ford/Visteon workers in Belfast, Basildon and Enfield," tells us. According to a Visteon support group;
called into the directors' office of the plant on Tuesday 28 April and told that he was being sacked for "irretrievable breakdown of trust". This blatant victimisation of one of the leading left-wing shop steward activists in the car industry was met by an immediate production line walk-off by the day shift. They surrounded Rob's union office after management called in police to forcibly remove Rob from the building.
Though the issue was later resolved, with employers LassCo and Unite issuing a joint statement asserting that "Robert Williams remains employed pending the outcome of further discussions between LassCo senior management and the highest level within Unite the union." However, that a trade unionist could still be removed from his job on such flimsy grounds in Britain is an ominous portent in the midst of recession and "belt-tightening" by employers.

Clearly, the labour movement still has a long way to go before the struggle is over. But, as the Haymarket martyrs showed us 123 years ago, we can move forward in great bounds if only we are willing to fight. Back then, four anarchists died at the hands of the state in order to win workers an eight-hour day. In their memory, today's and tomorrow's generations of trade unionists must ensure that we never abandon the fight that they began. As August Spies, one of the four hanged after Haymarket, said at his sentencing; "Here you will tread on a spark, but there and there, behind you - and in front of you, and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out."