Monday, 1 November 2010

Consumer power, direct action, and scab firms

A new campaign has emerged urging a boycott of the 35 businesses whose chief executives wrote to the Telegraph in support of the cuts. It's a good idea in principle, as our purchasing power is potentially as potent a weapon as our labour power. But it's way off the mark.

The reason that such a boycott can never be more than a token gesture is the same reason that supermarkets and big chains succeeded over local businesses and family-owned stores in the first place: price. The vast majority of the working class, perhaps agreeing in principle to various consumer causes, are simply priced out of participating in them.

This is just one reason why many people argue that basing campaigns - such as organic food or being environmentally friendly - around consumer "choices" and individual guilt rather than challenging capitalism is a sport of the middle classes. The rest of us can't afford to play.

That's why you won't find widespread public support for a boycott of Asda. Least of all from the people who work there and get 10% discount on its goods. Besides which, it might be asked where one would go as an alternative when the store has the most organised employees of any British retailer and alternatives such as Tesco and Lidl could be equally worthy of boycott.

Then there is the fact, as Adam Ford put it in another context, that;
boycotts take us down the road to the lifestylist ghetto, which is streets away from where communism can be built. This is because we tend to isolate ourselves when we make boycotting things a big part of our politics. To boycott is to withdraw into one’s self, not to meaningfully engage with others who could be our allies. It is a passive call for a nicer capitalism, and so a call the powers that be can generally tolerate.
This doesn't mean to say that boycotts can never be appropriate. But, without other forms of protest and action alongside them, they can never be truly effective. And if the impact on the employees of the company being boycotted isn't considered, they can backfire horribly.

But if we want to use boycotts and economic pressure effectively, we cannot simply target capitalists for supporting capitalism. The 35 who wrote to the Telegraph will not be unique in supporting an economic system that boosts their profit at the expense of the working class. Indeed, even those capitalists who disagree with the cuts will not do so out of any socialist impulse or concern for the workers. They'll simply think there is a better way to fuck us over for their gain.

If we want to target campaigns effectively, then we need to go after the companies who play the most destructive part in the class war. That is, those firms who bus in the scabs to break strikes.

In the context of the London Fire-Fighters' strike, that means AssetCo;
This is the strike-breaking force of 27 fire engines that will protect Londoners during walkouts.

The appliances, seen here hidden behind a security fence, were removed from London firestations a month ago as part of a management contingency plan in advance of the first of a series of strikes over new shift patterns.

The engines are parked behind 10ft steel wire fences at a maintenance depot run by private contractors AssetCo in Ruislip, West London.

The firm signed a £9 million five-year contract in June last year to maintain the London Fire and Rescue Service’s 169 tenders and provide a service to cover strikes and other emergencies. The vehicles will be operated on strike days by retained and retired firefighters and crews from brigades outside London willing to break the strike. This force is expected to number 300 – about 12 for each machine – to cover shifts during the industrial action.
There are other firms too, such as Assist-Streetcare who provided scabs during last year's bin disputes, and they need to be taken on. After all, it is companies such as this who will be called in to break our picket lines as struggles get heated.

There are numerous ways we can challenge this. Chief amongst them needs to be educating the workers employed by such agencies - often casual workers with very few rights - about what they are entitled to, organising them to stand up for themselves, and building a culture of solidarity. Leafleting job centres and making the case more broadly for people to refuse scab jobs is also integral.

But there needs to be more.

The bin workers and fire-fighters both blockaded scabs trying to get into work, and those acting in solidarity with strikers need to do the same. But we need to do it before they reach the picket line, at their depots and on the streets. Direct action and sabotage are weapons we should not be afraid to employ. If six people can put a munitions factory out of action, surely we can do the same to a scab depot?

It should not end when the strike does, either. Once the picket line is gone, the attack on the scab companies must persist. The workers still need to be organised to challenge their bosses, and the company needs to face commercial and financial loss through mass pressure and boycotts.

Those who insist on attacking the working class should not be let off lightly. They are waging war, and it is more than permissible that we retaliate.

Boycotts should not be dismissed out of hand. But on there own they are nothing but gesture politics, especially if aimed at the wrong targets. Capitalists will always support capitalism, but faced with the right pressure those who provide scabs will soon think twice.