Saturday, 27 February 2010

No War but Class War - February 2010

In the past two months, there has been an incredible international show of support for the Belgrade Six. All being members or associates of Anarcho-Syndicalist Initiative (ASI), the Serbian section of the International Workers’ Association (IWA), they were arrested last September on trumped-up charges of international terrorism. However, as an open letter from Serbian intellectuals to their government stated, "in its essence, the trial against the six young people is a political one. This is why we demand the the withdrawal of this senseless indictment."

After protests and acts of solidarity across the globe, it appears that demand has been met. As the acting IWA secretary, the incumbent being one of the six, said, "the Serbian state is in full retreat as the case against the Belgrade 6 is falling apart. The six comrades are free and unlikely to be returning to jail as the charges against them are reduced hopefully to something very minor."

However, it is important that anarcho-syndicalists are not complacent, as this might not be the end of the road;
The fight is not over, the Belgrade 6 may still face serious charges when they return to court on the 23rd March. We must keep up the pressure on the Serbian state. But the fact that they have been released and the terrorist charges dropped is a massive victory, but the campaign must continue until all charges are dropped and the Serbian state is held accountable for actions.
In Germany, the Free Workers Union of Berlin (FAU-B) faces perhaps an even greater struggle. The FAU-B is, like ASI, part of the IWA. It had been organising workers in the Neue Babylon GmbH cinema and fighting for a labour contract since June of that year. However, Babylon cinema started legal proceedings against them. In Germany, no workers' organisation is legally allowed to take collective action or call themselves a union unless they can demonstrate an ability to negotiate contracts on behalf of workers, and under this rule the FAU-B have effectively been banned.

In this, the mainstream trade union ver.di (part of the umbrella organisation and effective union monopoly DGM) were complicit. This month, a judge upheld the ban. Anarcho-syndicalists have had little voice in the country since they were last outlawed in 1933, and this resurgence offered the threat of a good example in defiance of the country's strongly centralised union structure. However, the struggle is far from over, and the global day of protest at the end of January was just the start of the fightback.

Another anarcho-syndicalist struggle is building in Poland, where the Green Way restaurant chainhas been using unpaid labour. Although illegal, workers were required to do two free 13-hour shifts as a "trial period." This aside from the fact that working conditions were poor. The particular outrage in this situation, unfortunately not uncommon in Poland, arises from the attempts of Green Way to market itself as "fair trade" and supportive of a "healthy lifestyle." The issue has come to a head as the Związek Syndykalistów Polski (ZSP) calling for a boycott of the chain.

The war between the Greek state and the working class has become even more fierce in the wake of the austerity measures imposed from without by the EU. As well as increased fascist activity, with demonstrations in Athens and Larissa smashed by anti-fascists, there have been continuing waves of strikes. The culmination of this was the General Strike which has seen massive protest marches across the country and clashes with the police in Athens.

According to BBC News, this is "the second general strike in two weeks and coincides with growing anger at the EU's response to the crisis." Although the mainstream media is holding to the line that "the brief clashes were a distraction from the union's main message that Greece's rich should pay for the crisis, not the working and middle classes," the fact is that many in Greece want something much more radical. Their country is being torn apart from the inside out and the governmental "socialists" have no better a record than their predecessors on collaboration with fascists and repression of the working class.

It would appear that working class resistance is growing even in America, where a variety of important struggles have been taking place. Most prominent amongst them is the struggle against Starbucks by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). According to Fort Worth organiser Michelle Cahill, their key demands are "better and cheaper healthcare, increased wages, more hours, and better working conditions." The struggle has had an impact even on those outside the union, with district management in New York challenging the sexual harassment of a company vice-president.

Across the US, General Motors and Delphi workers have come out in open revolt against United Auto Workers (UAW) and its plans to concede hard-won rights and get members to open their contracts yet again. As Labor Notes reports, "breaking the agreement makes individual plants less secure," especially as "the union also promised a wage freeze for production workers and a $3-an-hour hour wage cut for skilled trades." However, "at an informational meeting in Lockport, New York, members told officers “they’d had enough promises and weren’t willing to take any more pay cuts.”"
Back in New York, workers saw a remarkable success when "the owner of a New York boutique chain accused of shorting workers by $1.5 million was taken away in handcuffs." After "months of organizing in the stores by the Retail Action Project," the owner "faces up to four years in jail and civil action to recover the wages stolen from 150 workers."
By contrast, workers in Mexico face bloodshed. As Labor Notes reports;
Class war in Northern Mexico, being fought in the Cananea copper mine, could soon turn much bloodier. After dissolving the militant Electrical Workers union in October, the Mexican government is now going after 13,000 striking miners, who are determined to hold their ground—and their mines.
The government is “going to try to take Cananea over by force, to eliminate the most powerful independent union in Mexico,” according to Jerry Fernandez, international relations director of the United Steelworkers union, which has worked closely with the miners throughout the strike.

If this happens, it may mean a bloodbath in Cananea, one of the largest copper mines in the world. Owner Grupo Mexico has declared that “the collective bargaining contract with the mining union from today on does not exist,” based on a court decision designed to break the strike.

The workers disagree. The courts did not allow the union to present evidence, accepting the company’s claim that the mine is inoperable—even though it has plans to reopen the mine as soon as the union is broken and the strikers are dislodged. In fact, Grupo Mexico’s chief financial officer predicted this week the mine would return to production by July.

Given this decision, the Steelworkers doubt the independence of the Mexican courts from the federal government’s offensive against independent organized labor.
This action amounts to nothing less that state suppression of working class organisation, and the Mexican miners deserve the full solidarity and support of their comrades around the globe. Labor Notes is asking supporters to please send appeals to Santiago Canton, executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, urging him to ask the Mexican government not to use force against the Cananea miners, lest they become the mourned Cananea martyrs. Email Dr. Santiago Canton at

In Britain, the contradiction of opposition to privatisation and the willing compromise of union leaders remains painfully apparent. A number of upcoming and ongoing struggles illustrate the stark choices faced by workers.

An unofficial one-hour walkout, sparked by the treatment of two employees facing disciplinary investigations, has reignited the Royal Mail dispute. After being derailed by union leaders who promised (with nothing to show for that promise) no strike action before Christmas, the tightening of the screw in various workplaces threatens to ignite the various issues faced by Royal Mail workers in a way beyond the control of the union bureaucracy.

British Airways workers, denied their right to strike by the courts before Christmas, now find the Unite union leadership putting action mandated by their latest ballot "on hold." As WSWS reports, "Unite refused to set any date for action and instead promised that a strike would not take place over Easter" whilst "claim[ing] that it is possible to arrive at an equitable solution with BA management through negotiations." However, "the airline is pressing ahead with its plans to shed a further 4,900 jobs in addition to the 1,000 already lost, as part of its £80 million cost-cutting drive."

Management's draconian response to the second strike ballot demonstrates the futility of attempts to negotiate;
The vast majority of crew who voted in this ballot will have done so before the High Court decision [on changes to working practices]. We hope Unite will bear this fact in mind as it considers its next steps.

We will not allow Unite to ruin this company. Should a strike take place, we will do everything we can to protect our customers’ travel plans as far as possible.
The clear message is that "as far as BA is concerned, there is to be no future payback in return for supposedly “shared” sacrifices." The only recourse left with any hope of success, despite the timidity of union leadership and threats from management, is direct action.

Unite, of course, is one of the five unions which supported the latest redrafted version of the Civil Service Compensation Scheme (CSCS). Along with unions such as Prospect, which represent the unaffected senior civil servants such as Sir Gus O'Donnell who are actually forcing the changes, it voted for a scheme which would have left the lowest paid public sector workers with no protection and made them roughly £20,000 cheaper to get rid of.

Fortunately PCS, whose members outnumber the combined membership of the other unions five times over, has not agreed and its members have voted for strike action to force the government's hand on the issue. The first action in this campaign, barring a return by management to the negotiating table, will be a two day strike on the 8th and 9th of March.
This issue is particularly vital as we approach a general election, where the parties are competing with each other over who can make the harshest cuts. Make no mistake, however, that these cuts will affect low-level staff and front-line services first. Though all the rhetoric is about senior civil servants and "gold-plated" pay deals, it is ordinary workers who have lost out with the closure of 130 tax office closures, it is 800 ordinary workers who are being made redundant at the end of March, and it is ordinary people who will feel the effect as severely understaffed services become even less capable of functioning efficiently.

In this regard, PCS have a credible reputation as a fighting union willing to stand up for their members. More so than many other mainstream unions, they have responded to the troubles of ordinary workers and been willing to fight for greater concessions from management. However, stuck within the confines of extremely limiting trade union laws, they are far from perfect. Though less timid than the Unite leadership, PCS officials are still part of a union bureaucracy which makes compromise and sell-out part of their self-interest. As such, grassroots level members and organisers should follow very closely the actions of their leadership in this dispute.

As the fightback in this class war picks up pace, however, there need to be more actions organised outside of any formal trade union hierarchy. That is why solidarity with groups willing to undertake such a task, like the FAU-B, ASI, and ZSP is vital in raising the class consciousness required for such action.