Sunday, 30 May 2010

No War but Class War - May 2010

Like the month before, this month began with riots in Greece. And, once again, the event brought with it the tragedy of lost human lives.

Following May Day clashes, there was a 48-hour general strike. All, of course, provoked by the IMF-mandated austerity measures that look set to cripple the country's working class in order to shore up its rulers. It was during the second half of that strike that three bank workers suffocated  in Marfin Bank.

The media followed PM George Papandreou's line that this was a "murderous act" by anarchists. But Occupied London relayed a statement by another worker from the same bank indicating that the deaths were clearly catalysed by gross negligence and dangerous practices on behalf of their employer, whilst the riots were sparked by disturbingly commonplace police brutality. Members of the anarchist squat of Skaramanga and Patision concurred, saying that "the real murderer, the real instigator of today’s tragic death of 3 people is “mister” Vgenopoulos, who used the usual employers’ blackmailing (the threat of sacking) and forced his employees to work in the branches of his bank during a day of strike."

Nonetheless, the police retaliation against anarchists was brutal, and the approval of the IMF measures only exacerbated the situation there. The struggle faced by workers in Greece looks to be a long one. But the question remains as to whether it can go beyond clashes on the street towards workers' takeover and significant change.

In Britain, the May 6th General Election led to the formation of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. The result was not the outright Tory majority that many working class people had feared, but nonetheless it wasn't a good sign. The policies outlined in the coalition agreement included some positive measures on civil liberties, but also the expected attacks on social welfare and favouring of the rich. Then came the announcement of £6.25 billion worth of cuts, and the unmistakable news that the class war would continue under the new government.

How this will play out remains to be seen, as this month we saw workers still fighting the class attacks by the previous government.

PCS won a High Court victory in its dispute over the Civil Service Compensation Scheme. The Government cannot force through changes without the negotiated consent of the union, and so for the time being the payouts members would receive if made redundant are safe.

However, we can be sure that what is negotiated will be a step down from the current scheme, thus still making it cheaper than it would have been to cull jobs. Union members will have to watch how this plays out very carefully. The rank and file must be ready to resist if Mark Serwotka or his fellow bureaucrats take the well-worn road to member sell-outs by full time union officers.

BT workers have joined the ranks of those standing up to the inherent unfairness of the capitalist system. They have voted in favour of strike action to secure a 5% rather than 2% pay rise - as I explained recently, not an unreasonable demand given the chief executive's £1.2m bonus, or the overall 9.8% rise in the cost of living after last year's pay freeze.

British Airways cabin crew are presently in the midst of what has become a 15-day strike. After BA won an injunction to block the strike, an appeal from Unite in the midst of protests by workers' groups saw this latest anti-worker verdict by the court overturned.

The problem that the strikers face, though, is that chief executive Willie Wash has turned this into a zero sum game. By pushing on with strike- and union-busting measures to the detriment of negotiations, he has reduced the union to two choices: total capitulation or all-out war. The former would have rendered all previous fightback efforts void and cemented management dominance over the workers. The latter may well be the path to mutually assured destruction.

It is hard to see what third way there might be as this latest round of strike action drags on. What is clear is Walsh's goal. As former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said of Walsh's tenure at Aer Lingus, we are seeing "a time when management wanted to steal the assets for themselves through a management buy out, shafting staff interests." The BA staff deserve our solidarity as they fight against a repeat performance.

In the United States, workers secured two considerable victories this month. The first, in Oakland, came as a teachers' strike shut down the district for the day and forced officials to back down on plans to impose harsh new terms and conditions. The second came from hospital workers in Philadelphia. They beat back concessions demanded by their employer on union rights, wages, and working conditions after a month-long strike.

These victories are tempered by the tragedy that occurred off the southern coast of the United States. As the media report on BP's failing efforts to contain the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we should remember that this accident claimed eleven workers' lives and may have been entirely preventable.

This is not the first time BP has had a catastrophic breakdown at one of its facilities. The company has a history of unsafe work conditions and environmental problems, largely due to cost cutting measures a congressional committee once described as “draconian.”
As The Trial by Fire note;
It should come as no surprise that the company bankrolling this disaster, BP spent $3,650,000 in lobbying expenses in 2006 alone, no doubt to influence regulations. The company is one of the largest oil corporations in the world.

According to Beyond Petroleum (formerly British Petroleum, or BP), the rig was drilling 18,000 feet down to get to pockets of gas and oil under pressure when it caught fire.

The rig reportedly lacked a last-ditch safety valve, an “acoustic switch,” that could have potentially averted the massive oil spill. Such safety mechanisms are common in many oil rich countries around the world, but are not mandated in the U.S. because of their high cost.

A History of Neglect:

In 2006, BP pleaded guilty to felony charges after an explosion at their facility in Texas City, Texas, killed 15 workers and injured 170 others.

Carolyn Merritt, chairman of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, told reporters while investigating the Texas explosion that:
“[These] things do not have to happen. They are preventable. They are predictable, and people do not have to die because they’re earning a living,”
She was right. Investigators at the sight found problems everywhere:
“There were three key pieces of instrumentation that were actually supposed to be repaired that were not repaired. And the management knew this… They authorized the startup [of the machinery which exploded] knowing that these three pieces of equipment were not properly working.”
Despite Bp’s own rules to the contrary, they had parked trailers full of workers in an open area right next to the broken machinery. At the mandatory safety meeting that morning, management didn’t once mention the dangerous procedure that would soon be taking place.

One worker, scared for his safety, wrote his supervisor: “the equipment is in dangerous condition and this is not taken seriously.” Another wrote “this place is set up for a catastrophic failure.”

But management in London didn’t listen, and the company flourished as a result. BP made a profit of $19 billion that year.

Nearly a year afterwards, the company again faced controversy when it was discovered that one of their pipelines had leaked nearly 4,800 barrels of oil into the Alaskan wilderness. The leak was caused by the company’s refusal to check its expansive pipelines in Prudhoe Bay.

In a leaked memo, inspection and quality-assurance specialist Bill Herasymiuk warned BP’s corrosion, inspection, and chemical team warned of an impending “catastrophe” if practices in the company were not changed.

Sure enough, four years after it was instructed to inspect it, BP found that a six-mile length of pipeline was corroded.
Worker unrest looks set to roll over to Spain and Portugal next. Both have announced significant wage and welfare cuts at a time of record unemployment. Greece is not the only example for workers there to follow, with General Strikes hitting both Yemen and Iran this month.

In Yemen, the protest stems not just from rampant inflation and a devalued currency, pushing workers further into poverty, but also government oppression. The immediate response, as reported by al-Jazeera, was more violence. Clashes erupted "when security forces tried to force shopowners to open the doors of their stores" and it was claimed that "armed men had opened fire on police." The complex situation is a combination of political troubles ongoing since 1994 and more generalised worker unrest as destitution increases.

The Iranian general strike stems from the regime's treatment of dissidents. According to the New York Times, "Iranian Kurds staged one of their largest strikes in recent years, closing shops and bazaars in nearly all Sunni Kurdish cities and towns in western Iran to protest the executions of five people, including four Kurdish activists, on Sunday." This is the biggest act of rebellion since the unrest around the presidential elections.

In South Africa, too, the poor and marginalised are fighting against brutal state repression. Police in Johannesburg have "attacked the Landless People’s Movement (LPM) in the shacks in Protea South." According to the LPM statement, "They went around disconnecting us from electricity and beating those who had been connected to electricity. They tried to burn down Maureen Mnisi’s shack and two people were shot. One died on the scene. Today the police attacked the LPM in eTwatwa, Ekurhuleni. At least three people were shot with live ammunition. One person has died and another is currently being operated on in hospital."

The violence is particularly worrying in the context of the upcoming FIFA World Cup in the country. The Olympic games in China saw a massive crackdown on dissidents, and there is a strong likelihood that South Africa will witness something similar.

As Chris Rodrigues noted in the Guardian, "We should be outraged that a country with such a brutal history of forced removals has, in order to create the right brand attributes, evicted the urban poor and rounded up the homeless. Dumped into so-called "temporary relocation areas" and "transit camps" (during the preliminary draw street children were even held in Westville prison) these disowned South Africans make a mockery of the struggle against apartheid."

The LPM share that sentiment. "We are very worried about the World Cup. Billions are wasted on the World Cup, billions that should have gone to meet the most urgent need of the poor. The government tells us that we must ‘feel it’ but in Protea South we don’t even have electricity. Some of us are in hiding from the police. People have been shot and two people have died in recent days."

This, not an entirely imaginary ban on England flags and shirts, is the real injustice of the coming World Cup. It is also a poignant illustration of how the class struggle is global and why international solidarity is vital.