Friday, 18 December 2009

No War but Class War - December 2009

This month saw the anniversary of the murder of teenager Alexandros Grigoropoulos by police in Athens. Whilst his family marked the occasion with a memorial service, protesters took to the streets with banners bearing the slogan "we won't forget, we won't forgive."

These new riots come in the context of the new "socialist" government of George Papandréou agreeing to an EU diktat that allows for even greater repression of domestic opposition and an "austerity programme" that risks bankrupting the entire country. The first casualties will be jobs, wages, and conditions.  No doubt mindful of the further unrest that this will cause, the government has pushed ahead with authoritarian measures against the anarchists, whilst fascist paramilitary groups have firebombed a social centre in Salonica and launched attacks upon the Arab population of Athens. The history of Greek state collaboration with these groups is well noted.

The country's workers have responded with a wave of strikes. In its analysis, Libcom tells us that the strikers include people from all sectors such as teachers, taxi drivers, shipworkers, the media, geologists, designers and mechanics. Echoing the sentiments of working class people across the world, one of their key slogans was "the rich should pay for the crisis."

In Warsaw, members of the tenants Defense Committee have"declared war on city bureaucrats who make horrendous policies to enrich speculators and to redistribute property to elites, heirs of former elites, speculators and developers." At the heart of the protests is that people face homelessness through reprivatisation measures that they see as "anti-social and thieving activities." Their actions are wide-ranging, and include "exposing corruption, blocking the plans of the local bureaucrats and intervening on behalf of tenants with direct actions."

Workers in the country are also facing exactly the same situation that their western counterparts did two decades ago. As the Press Association reports, "thousands of workers in Poland have lost their jobs in the industries amid restructuring and privatisation efforts in this ex-communist country." In response, "workers rallied in front of Prime Minister Donald Tusk's office in central Warsaw, carrying the white and red flags of the Solidarity trade union, blowing on horns and setting a pile of tyres on fire."

In Britain, refuse workers from Edinburgh have told the Edinburgh Muckraker of the management's "bullyboy tactics" during their dispute;
People are working a full shift then not getting paid. Bin men have had the WHOLE day’s wage docked, despite working the full shift. Then the following day they are told they must sign a form admitting they were guilty of ‘partial performance’ or they will be sent home without pay and won’t be allowed to return to work until they sign it. Some workers still refused to sign, and weren’t paid for several days.

Harassment, bully-boy tactics and a form of blackmail were employed to coerce workers to comply.  Management ignored all normal disciplinary procedures, there were NO verbal warnings, NO written warnings and NO information on rights of appeal were offered!
But, as the workers' paper also reports, these tactics are being resisted and "the struggle by council workers against pay cuts could go city wide." "Much will depend on whether rank and file workers take the initiative, as both UNISON and UNITE have been criticised by their own members for failing to defend workers' interests," but an all-out strike remains likely. Workers are outraged that "cuts are coming from the living standards of ordinary people - when council bosses, politicians, and wealthy bankers are retaining their fat salaries, pensions and expenses." As one worker quoted in the Muckraker put it, “the council are talking about a 4–5 year pay freeze. But will the Council freeze the Council Tax? Will my rent be frozen? And what about the c***s at the Council on 100 grand a year? They should try living in the real world.”

Meanwhile, British Airways has gone to the courts in order to declare a vote to strike by members of the British Airlines Stewards and Stewardesses Association (BASSA) illegal. BBC News tells us that the court "agreed with BA that the cabin crew's union, Unite, had not correctly balloted its members on the strike." The supposed contention is that the "ballot was invalid because it included workers that had already accepted voluntary redundancy."

However, betraying the fact that the descision was a political one, the judge declared that "a strike of this kind over the 12 days of Christmas is fundamentally more damaging to BA and the wider public than a strike taking place at almost any other time of the year." This reflects the attitude of BA Chief Executive Willie Walsh on the day that BASSA members  voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action;
A strike is senseless and we urge Unite to draw back. We will not be reversing our changes to onboard crew numbers. Unite must understand that there can be no return to the old, inefficient ways if we want to ensure long-term survival.
Lost in the tirade, of course, was that offering an uncompromising stance by management as a reason to not strike crossed the line from facile to utterly absurd. Especially as the company's pension deficit means that "the company may be forced to renegotiate pension benefits with employees if it is to avoid using more shareholders cash," potentially worsening industrial unrest.

Also lost on the apologists for the bosses was the fact that, with the disputed changes coming at the end of this year, postponing the strikes until the new year is futile. The old cliché of "shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted" springs to mind. This hasn't stopped the likes of the Daily Mail not only repeating the bosses' claims verbatim and brushing past responses from the union but also using emotional blackmail to give people the message that "the strikes are wrong" with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer;
A woman with terminal cancer yesterday branded British Airways staff 'selfish' after they wrecked her dream holiday.

Teresa Biddles, 54, said the timing of the cabin crew strike was disastrous and meant she would not be able to go to New York.

She had been due to fly out yesterday for the two-week break but were told their return flight on December 29 would be cancelled.

Mrs Biddles, of Peterborough, who suffers from a rare form of gastrointestinal cancer, and her husband Steve, 50, were told by BA staff that the only available flight home would be nine days later on January 7.

Mrs Biddles has an oncology appointment on that day which she cannot miss and she says they cannot afford to stay the extra days in the U.S. anyway.

She said: 'This was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime for us. We have been saving up for a long time to see New York and now we can't.'

Mr Biddles blamed 'selfish' BA staff for ruining their trip. He said: 'If we cancel and then they don't go on strike we've lost it for nothing.

'My wife doesn't work because of her illness and we don't have money to stay longer. Now it looks like we won't be able to go.'
The message is the same with every high-profile strike action, no matter who is taking it or their reasons for doing so. "Striking is selfish, counterproductive, and will cause you disruption." And the overtly emotive hyperbole of the tabloids is only the most obvious example of it. Under the influence of the propaganda model, there is no mainstream news outlet which will take anything other than a pro-business line. Hence the headline by the Independent and others of "BA staff: we got it wrong over strike." Allegedly, "British Airways cabin crew facing the grim prospect of taking part in a highly unpopular 12-day strike over Christmas have begun questioning the tactics of their union leaders." However, we see that after making much of the comments of one or two people the paper skips over the fact that "the majority backed the negotiators and directed their anger at Mr Walsh and at hostile media coverage" in a single line.

The problem is that this hostile attitude towards action by workers has seeped into the public consciousness. Unlike with the prior Royal Mail dispute, where opinion polls showed that "striking postal workers ha[d] twice as much public support as the Royal Mail management," it does not seem to be the case here. Of course, no definitive opinion polls have yet been conducted, and Facebook groups such as "I support the BA Cabin Crew strikes!" can boast 2,000 plus members. But, certainly, members of the public oppsed to the strike appear more vocal (or at least more likely to get press attention) than their supportive counterparts.

Although there is much to be criticised in the way the Unite leadership has dealt with the strike, particularly Derek Simpson labelling the action "over the top," action by those on the ground is to be commended. Particularly, the decision by BASSA to "move swiftly" towards a fresh ballot, whilst keeping the option of an appeal against the court ruling open.

COP15, meanwhile, returns us to the theme of police brutality and repression. Via Colonos, we learn that activists are being imprisoned in animal cages, a move branded "illegal" by Amnesty International. According to the Guardian, "the sight of 1,000 activists being held in freezing temperatures without basic rights for many hours clearly exposes the Danish authorities' argument" that "the new [police powers] will in no way affect peaceful demonstrators." "So do reports of pepper spray being used on protesters held in cages, the constant raids on meetings and sleeping quarters, the arrest of a civil society spokesperson on the eve of yesterday's demonstration and the many more stories of serious infringements of civil liberties."

Recently, I wrote that if there is to be any meaningful action over climate change, then we must "reclaim power over our own future." Clearly, repressing that is more important to state authorities than even the peacemeal environmental measures they're proposing. This only serves to demonstrate why working class resistance is the key to serious action, and why standing up to state violence is vital not only in the class war, but for the very future of the planet.