Saturday, 22 August 2009

No War but Class War - August 2009

The beginning of the month saw several crushing blows for the organised working class across the globe.

In South Korea, with the Korean Metal Workers Union (KMWU) and Korean Federation of Trade Unions claiming victory after long efforts to isolate workers, police stormed the Ssangyong car factory and detained and interrogated many of the strikers who had occupied the building. The KMWU negotiators then failed the workers by surrendering to terms very favourable to the company, leaving the majority facing redundancy or forcible unpaid leave, whilst those charged with criminal damage have been hung out to dry.

Analysis of the events by "guadia" on Libcom.org ends with the following conclusion;
The Ssangyong defeat cannot be attributed merely to the lame role of the KMWU national organization, which from the beginning allowed the negotiations to be channeled in a narrow focus on “no layoffs”. (By contrast, the local union president, who ultimately signed the surrender document, stayed in the occupied plant right to the end, even though he was not on the layoff list.) Nor can the defeat be fully explained by the atmosphere of economic crisis. Both of these factors undoubtedly played a major role. But above and beyond their undeniable impact, it is the year-in, year-out rollback of the Korean working class, above all through casualization, which now affects more than 50% of the work force. Thousands of workers from nearby plant did repeatedly aid the Ssangyong strike, but it was not enough. The defeat of the Ssangyong strikers, despite their heroism and tenacity, will only deepen the reigning demoralization until a strategy is developed that can mobilize sufficiently broad layers of support, not merely to fight these defensive battles but to go on the offensive.
A day after the Ssanyong occupation ended, workers at the Vestas wind turbine factory faced a similar defeat when balliffs finally forced their way into the factory office. As the BBC News dispatch states, their "demands [for the government to nationalise the factory and save their jobs] look to have fallen on deaf ears, with the Danish wind turbine firm sacking the workers and taking away their redundancy packages."

A week later, climate change protesters ended the rooftop protest they had begun in solidarity with the workers. However, "they will head to MP Andrew Turner's constituency surgery requesting urging action on the issue." Unlike the occupation in South Korea, the defeat on the Isle of Wight did not utterly crush the workers. The campaign is still very much ongoing, with the Save Vestas blog continuing to announce meetings, pickets, and solidarity action in support of the cause. As they said on the day of the eviction, "it is only the start of our battle for jobs and for the planet! We salute you, guys. You’re the spark that’s lit a fire."

A smaller and much less reported, though nonetheless highly significant, occupation that ended in the same week was that of a Thomas Cook outlet in Dublin. The police raid that ended the sit-in was followed by arrests, the strikers only escaping prosecution by agreeing not to resume the occupation or damage the property. Given the precarious position of these workers, one could argue that the action was doomed to fail from the outset, with the workers having absolutely nothing to bargain with. However, the protesting and petitioning looks set to continue. Clearly, such an action requires a much more integrated and strongly organised working class movement, willing to show solidarity and hold to the idea that "an injury to one is an injury to all."

Despite these defeats, of varying severity, there have also been considerable victories for the working class this month. The parents and teachers who have been occupying Lewisham Bridge Primary School since April in protest at Lewisham council's demolition plans ended their occupation far more agreeably than those mentioned above. The Department for Media, Culture and Sport upheld the English Heritage decision to grant the building Grade II listed status, granting victory to this unprecedented act of community solidarity against an out-of-touch local government bureaucracy.

In Belfast, traffic wardens who were sacked for taking part in wildcat action in April had been engaged in almost daily protest for the following four months. This commitment paid off, with all being offered either reinstatement or substantial redundancy packages. Given that the sacked wardens managed to achieve this victory despite undertaking illegal action, due in large part to the unwavering support of political groups such as the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) as well as fellow wardens, who gave unanimous support to an all-out strike, sets an important example.

In Britain, as elsewhere, the trade union movement is crippled by various anti-union laws put in place by the Thatcher and Major governments succesively. The victory by the Belfast traffic wardens, hardly a large or illustrious group, shows the power of worker solidarity and unwavering public pressure against corporate muscle and a legal system weighted in favour of big business.

A similar lesson can be learned from the bus workers in Cairo. Demanding improved working conditions, the drivers, ticket takers, and mechanics from 14 of the 19 bus garages in the city went on strike. As Infoshop reports, "the effect on the streets was immediate, with far fewer public busses on the street and large crowds gathering at many city bus stops. The government response was equally swift. On Wednesday evening, the strikers received an offer from the Public Transportation Authority meeting most of their demands and agreed to return to work."

This latest victory is just one of a wave of strikes that ave occurred across Egypt recently. Tax collectors, postal and textile workers, and now bus workers have taken part in strikes and sit-ins across the country, and they look set only to increase.

Such a rise in worker activism and uprisings seems even to have spread to the United States, where the trade union hierarchies have been complicit with the state a lot longer than most other Western countries and where laws protecting workers rights are, quite simply, not enforced. The Brandworkers International website tells of how this status quo is finally facing a challenge;
A group of workers and supporters picketed outside Agata and Valentina this past Saturday as part of an ongoing labor dispute with the company. Workers are calling on A&V to respect its workers’ right to organize and stop engaging in illegal anti-union activity.
Agata and Valentina, located on 79th & 1st, is one of many upscale gourmet grocery stores in Manhattan's Upper East Side. Local 1500 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has been organizing the largely immigrant workforce in the gourmet supermarket industry. UFCW Local 1500 has already won union contracts at D’Agostino’s and Gristedes.
About fifteen people were on the picket line on Saturday. Picketers held signs, handed out flyers, spoke to customers about the dispute, and chanted pro-worker slogans. Joining Local 1500 were members of Brandworkers International, a Queens-based workers’ center that works in solidarity with Local 1500.
In the summer of 2008, workers began meeting with UFCW organizers and decided to assert their right to join a labor union. The supermarket responded viciously, using misinformation and intimidation tactics to scare the workers into staying away from the union. In March, Roberto De La Cruz, a counter person in the produce department, was illegally terminated for his union activity. Says De La Cruz: “I was called into the office and fired. They told me it was because I supported a union.”
UFCW Local 1500 has been holding daily picket lines outside the supermarket for six months. Local politicians have spoken out in support of the workers, including NYC Council Member Jessica Lappin.
More information about the campaign can be found at the Nothing Fine About It website.
Given the weakness and lack of organisation apparent across the American working class, especially by comparison with countries where anti-union repression is at a far higher level, this campaign is to be lauded. Workers across the world need to demonstrate their solidarity with their American brothers and sisters as much as with workers from any other country. Perhaps more so, as galvanising the workers of the most powerful capitalist state on the planet to fight for their rights could be a vital catalyst of a much broader level of resistance.