Monday, 30 August 2010

No War but Class War - August 2010

Easily the most high-profile struggle this month has been that of public sector workers in South Africa. They walked out over pay, the latest in a long-run of disputes in the country, and have promised that the strike will be indefinite until demands are met.

I commented that this tactic should serve as a lesson for British workers, hamstrung by stringent laws and bureaucrats all-too-willing to follow them.

However, Adam Ford notes that the South Africans have bureaucrat issues of their own;
For the moment, the Congress of South African Trade Unions leaders are talking tough, but behind the scenes they will be working with the government. Since the ANC came to power under Nelson Mandela in the 1990s, COSATU have been an enthusiastic partner in forcing through privatizations, spending and wage cuts. 
The question is, with President Jacob Zuma ordering ministers to negotiate an end to the strike, how this will affect the chances for significant victories in the strike.

In Britain, there have been a number of ongoing disputes, though these have been rather more low-key than the South African strike. Part of the reason for this is the ruling class desire to play down industrial unrest, with the cuts still to come. But the unions also seem unwilling to publicise workers' struggles.

Unite, in particular, made a point of claiming that there would be no industrial unrest in response to austerity measures because "we don't have the volatile nature of the French or the Greeks."

This should be seen in the context of the union's recent sell-out of BAA workers;

Last week the Unite union agreed a below inflation pay deal with management of BAA, which owns six British Airports including Heathrow and London Stansted. Under the deal 8,400 employees, including security, firefighting and ground handling staff, will receive a 2 percent pay rise, a one-off bonus payment and other bonus payments linked to a productivity increase. The 2 percent deal is a de facto pay cut as inflation now stands at 5 percent.

Unite claimed the deal was a victory, which it now “expected to set the standard for future industry pay deals”.

Mocking Unite’s rhetoric, the Daily Telegraph wrote, “BAA settles airport pay dispute on worse terms than BA”. The Telegraph noted that the pay deal is lower than that which is mooted to have been offered by British Airways (BA) to its cabin crew staff in their ongoing dispute. That deal is now being put to a ballot.

The stitch-up of the BAA workers came only a week after Unite, the GMB union and BA management agreed that 3,000 BA ground crew workers will face pay cuts and up to 500 “voluntary” job losses. ‘Some 200 workers have already been forced to leave. A pay freeze until October 2010 has been implemented and flexibility arrangements will be introduced. This is also being put to a ballot, with the unions recommending acceptance.
After being forced into militancy during the British Airways dispute by the rank-and-file of the BA Stewards and Stewardesses Association (BASSA), Unite are now trying to calm any tendency towards militancy. They want negotiations with management to be on their terms, not those of the workers.

LibCom, ever a useful resource for this kind of information, offers a round-up of other struggles across Britain;
Bin workers strike at West Lothian council

Refuse workers at West Lothian Council have taken strike action over a pay cut being imposed as part of the downgrading of their jobs.

All refuse workers face a job downgrade which will amount to a cut of at least £2,800 a year. The first 24-hour strike took place on Friday the 27th of August, and was sanctioned by the GMB union.

The action, which involved 93 workers, follows the council implementing what it says are its legal obligations to equalise pay for similar skill levels in order to close the pay gap between men and women in the public sector – traditionally 'female' jobs have historically been less well paid than 'male' jobs of a similar skill level. Strikes have followed similar moves at other councils around the UK, as councils attempt to 'solve' the problem of low pay for female workers being cutting the pay for traditionally 'male' jobs, rather than raising those of 'female' jobs.

Bus strikes in Liverpool

Bus workers have begun a four-day strike in Liverpool over pay.

Workers at Stagecoach Liverpool have been offered a 2% pay offer by management, which represents a real-terms pay cut when inflation is running at 4.5%. The action, backed by the Unite union, involves hundreds of staff and stands to hit one in five buses in the Liverpool area. The strike began on Friday, and is running until Tuesday.

London Underground Strikes Announced

200 Alstom-Metro maintenance workers on the London underground have voted for strike action over a management pay offer.

According to the RMT union, which organised the strike ballot, the offer on the table is significantly lower than comparable pay offers for other parts of the London Underground workforce. The first strike will take place on the 5th of September, with further 24-hour strikes to follow in October and November.

The announcement follows an overwhelming strike vote from RMT and TSSA union members over plans to close ticket offices around the capital with the loss of around 800 jobs. 10,000 workers including drivers and station staff stand to take part in the strike action. The first of four one-day strikes is due to start on September the 6th. An indefinite overtime ban will also apply as part of the action.

Southampton Librarians Strike

Library workers in Southampton struck for two days on the 12th and 16th of August in protest against the council's scrapping of two libraries and the replacement of staff with unpaid volunteers.

The strikes follow earlier action in June, after the council announced the closure of Millbrook and Thornhill libraries last year. Millbrook library remains one of the last remaining public services in that area of the city.

The attacks on public services and public sector workers under Southampton's Tory council are a foretaste of what is looming on a national scale, with the “big society” of volunteers being the pretext for job cuts and rolling back vital services.

London hospital drivers and firefighters balloted

The Fire Brigades Union has launched a ballot of its members in London after management scuppered negotiations and moved to cancel existing contracts and impose new ones on staff, which would involve different shift times and working hours. Ballot papers are due to be issued at the end of the month, with action possible from September onwards.

Meanwhile, members of the GMB union employed by the London Ambulance Service are being balloted at the time of writing over the privatisation of key services. The staff are employed to transport patients across the capital to sites and take them to and from hospital. The South London Healthcare NHS Trust has put the service out to tender.

The contract covers London Ambulance employees in Greenwich, Barnhurst and Bromley, who transport patients to Kings College, Lewisham, Royal Marsden and Guys & St Thomas hospitals, and has been awarded to Savoy Ventures Ltd. At a meeting where Savoy representatives were invited to discuss the takeover with GMB members, they made clear their intention to ignore Transfer of undertakings (TUPE) legislation, flouting employment law, cutting the outer-london weighting allowance and threatening “downward harmonisation” from current pay levels to those of Savoy's lowest-paid workers. Such flouting of the law would be in keeping with the transfer of the contract, as public procurement laws stating that contracts should not be awarded to companies whose directors preciously oversaw insolvent companies were ignored. Robert Lawrence Adams, who runs Savoy, was previously involved in companies still owing money to HM Revenue and Customs. 
Earlier this month, migrant workers at a factory in Malaysia rioted after their employer delayed sending an injured worker to the hospital, resulting in his death.

The fighting, which included rubbish and stones being thrown at riot police, took seven hours to contain. Following the riot, management agreed to meet with a representative of the workers, who are demanding an increase in pay and the presence of a mini-clinic on site to prevent further such fatalities.

These demands have been met. LibCom reports that "management agreed to pay compensation of 10,000 Ringgit to the dead worker's family; increase the minimum monthly salary from 428 to 546 Ringgit; [and] provide an ambulance service for emergency cases and on time treatment at a clinic on the factory premises."

However, the broader picture in the country is no cause for celebration;

This case of exploitation of migrant workers is only the tip of the iceberg in Malaysia. Most of the more than 3 million migrant workers (almost 10% of the Malaysian population) earn very low wages, work long hours and live and work in appalling conditions. According to the Nepalese embassy, during 2009 a total of 183 Nepalese workers in Malaysia lost their lives, and another 81 workers in the first six months of this year, mainly through illness and suicides. There are also many cases of deaths due to industrial accidents involving migrant workers.

In the meantime, the employers are using low wage migrant workers as a ‘threat' to discourage local workers from demanding high wages. The weak trade unions, with a right-wing reactionary and bureaucratic leadership, are not capable of playing a role in leading common struggles between local and migrant workers. At the same time, almost 90 percent of workers are not unionized, and the government's pro-employer labour and trade union law further undermines the rights of workers.

Although local workers are given a slightly better deal in wages, when compared to the high inflation rate their salary is not sufficient to manage their living expenses. Many are doing two jobs to meet their needs, and many even end up in the hands of loan sharks when they see no other way out. Even a recent government survey of about 1.3 million workers has shown that almost 34 per cent of them earned less than 700 Ringgit a month - below the poverty line of 720 Ringgit per month.
This highlights how international capital can use migrants against natives in order to drive down wages and undermine working conditions.

Unity as a class is the only way to combat this. But, as the example of Malaysia's trade union leadership demonstrates, it must be done through workers' self-organisation, by-passing the weak and crippling bureaucracy of traditional trade union structures.

In America, there have been a number of significant struggles which highlight the growing class consiousness and militancy of workers in the US.

Baristas of the IWW's starbucks union shut down a store in Omaha in protest at cutbacks imposed on the staff by management. As one Barista said, "Starbucks rewards workers with a poverty wage while they give their Wall Street pals dividends."

This latest action is part of an ongoing campaign against union busting and attacks on the workers by Starbucks.

In the words of one shift supervisor, "since the recession began, Starbucks executives have ruthlessly gutted our standard of living. They doubled the cost of our health insurance, reduced staffing levels, cut our hours, all while demanding more work from us. Starbucks is now more than profitable again. It's time for management to give back what they took from us."

A similar struggle sprung up almost spontaneously at a hotelin California, where non-unionised workers started a wildcat strike in response to labour law violations and unacceptable working conditions.

California state law requires one unpaid 30-minute lunch break and two paid 10-minute breaks for every eight-hour shift. It also requires one hour’s wages be paid to compensate for any missed break. But workers at the Embassy Suites in Irvine, California were being denied both breaks and pay.

The management were fully aware of the situation, and had even threatened workers with disciplinary action for attempts to assert their rights. But, at 4am on August 9th, the workers "lost our fear."

About a third of the staff formed a picket line, and through conversation with other workers as they arrived during the day, convinced more and more to either join the picket line or head home. They returned to work the next day knowing that their employer would continue to try and subvert their rights, but unwilling to simply take it any longer.

One temp housekeeper, threatened with the sack for refusing to cross the picket line, saw their fellow housekeepers refuse to start their shifts in solidarity, and was able to keep her job. The workers have seen first-hand the gains of militancy and solidarity, but their struggle for real concessions continues.

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) has responded to the anti-Muslim hysteria surrounding the building of the so-called "ground zero mosque" after member Ahmed Sharif was attacked in his cab.

The NYTWA has been organising for 12 years to battle the low pay, long hours, and minimal legal protections afforded drivers. Now, according to Labor Notes, they are using that experience to build strength in numbers against potential hate crimes.

An in-depth analysis of the group's broader organising efforts can be found here.

China has also been experiencing increasing waves of unrest, stemming from a variety of competing factors which have made the country's state-capitalist economy increasingly volatile.

As the Solidarity Federation report in the latest edition of their free newspaper Catalyst (PDF);
Rapid industrialisation over the past few decades has created massive internal migration from the countryside to the cities on an unprecedented scale, dwarfing Britain’s industrial revolution two centuries ago. Now, this new urban working class has begun to flex its muscles, disrupting production in order to assert their demands.

The high-profile suicides at Foxconn, who make iPhones for Apple, were merely the tip of the iceberg. There, angry workers rioted over sweatshop conditions, chanting “capitalists kill people” and brandishing pictures of the CEO of Foxconn, Terry Gou. The company quickly offered improved wages and conditions in an attempt to quell the storm. However these headline-grabbing measures were quickly eaten up by reductions in overtime and speed-ups on production lines.

Elsewhere, 1,000 workers at the Denso car parts plant in the southern province of Guangdong won a two-day strike over poor breakfasts. China’s factories are vast – some the size of whole cities. Some employ tens of thousands of workers at a single site. Coupled with long working hours, this means workers often don’t leave work to eat meals, and the quality of those meals has proved a flashpoint. Workers ignored the pleas of the official union to return to work, and forced company bosses to improve meal provision.

For nearly three decades, corporations have increasingly relocated manufacturing to China to take advantage of a vast supply of cheap labour and lax regulation. The consequences of that lax regulation have also provoked social conflicts. 1,000 villagers in Jingxi county, Guangxi province, near the border with Vietnam recently protested against pollution from an aluminium plant owned by one of the country’s largest aluminium producers. Villagers blocked the gates to the plant and damaged production facilities, and one local government official was taken to hospital after being hit by stones.

In the past two months workers have walked out at three Honda plants, a Toyota supplier, a Hyundai factory in Beijing, a rubber products manufacturer in Shanghai and a Carlsberg brewery. Recently, workers at Japanese electronics firm Tianjin Mitsumi crippled output with a sit-in, complaining they were being asked to work extra hours for no extra pay.

The rising assertiveness of Chinese workers is causing some corporate investors to look elsewhere. However, industrial unrest is a pattern repeated across the region. In Cambodia, workers staged a three-day strike in July in a dispute over the minimum wage, while in Vietnam thousands of workers at a shoe factory staged a strike demanding higher salaries. While wages in Vietnam and Cambodia are still a fraction of those won by Chinese workers, increasing militancy is rapidly closing the gap.
Across the world, the class war continues to heat up as workers realise just how much solidarity and a militant resolve can win them.

Even more hearteningly, the number of instances of workers rejecting the betrayals of union bureaucrats is growing. The recent expulsion of UAW officials from a meeting of workers in dispute with the General Motors in Indianapolis is just one example.

Of course, ramping up the fightback risks more ferocious attacks from the bosses. But in the climate of austerity it seems a risk that many workers are willing to take.

We need to hope that, as the lessons spread and the working class become better equipped to defend themselves, the ruling class finally learn a lesson. Namely, that the threat of mutually assured destruction will not make us accept our lot in life.

We built this world. We created their wealth. And we are not afraid of ruins.