Monday, 31 January 2011

No War but Class War - January 2011

It goes almost without saying that the most significant events this month have been the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. Tunisia proved only to be the first domino, as protests spread to Algeria, Lebanon, and Egypt.

In Egypt, the people are still in revolt. Curfews have been defied, the police have been chased away by the sheer mass of people, and an uneasy Israel has voiced its support for Hosi Murabak's government. The government responded by shutting down the internet and trying to stop Al Jazeera's rolling coverage, but it has thus far been in vain. A "million people demonstration" has been called in Cairo for tomorrow, with protesters determined to stay in Tahrir Square as long as Murabak stays in power.

But whilst the Egyptian people have overwhelmed the forces of the state, their uprising faces a number of other risks. One of the most significant is outside interference, with Israel supporting the dictator whilst the US and Britain - who have supplied the weapons the regime is deploying against its people - are urging "calm" and that scraps be thrown from the table to placate the revolting masses.

Obviously, this all centres on Egypt's strategic value as an ally in the Middle East. The balance of power amongst the world's elites should be of no concern to the country's working class and it should continue to press only for its own interests against tyranny. But this is not the only concern.

As with any mass opposition movement, there are numerous figures trying to claim leadership of it. Mohammed ElBaradei, former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is viewed by the media as the "leader" of the opposition, but Al Jazeera notes that "while hundreds of demonstrators who surrounded him tonight seized the media’s attention, thousands of other protesters nearby took no notice of his speech."

They are right not to, as he has warned against "the dangers of what could otherwise be a spontaneous explosion of the masses" in a bid to see himself installed as head of an "Alternative Parliament." Though his leadership would be more dovish, as "suppression does not equal stability," he represents no improvement in the conditions of the working class. The Egyptian people will not be free simply because they replace the figure at the top of the state structure. Our solidarity ought to be with those who reject all rulers and fight for self-emancipation.

In Greece, spiraling transport costs have generated mass anger and people have responded with a campaign of sabotage. LibCom reports that "on January 8th angry public transport users sealed ticket machines and refused en masse to ride buses, trains or underground services as part of a nationwide protest against ticket price increases of up to 180%." There has also been a refusal by drivers to pay road tolls. More protests are planned.

In the Netherlands, students have been protesting against education cuts. As Red Rebel Ranter tells it;
Last Friday, January 21, the Netherlands saw student action on a massive scale. Fifteen thousand students and sympathisers, maybe more, came together for a protest rally on the Malieveld in The Hague, the city in which the Dutch government is located. The action was called by student unions.

The rally was preceded by a demonstration in which left wing groups and individuals participated. Rood, the youth branch of the Socialist Party (left wing social democrats) was there; the youth branch of the PvdA (Labour party) was there as well. And the Internationale Socialisten participated, as did anti-authoriarian groups like the Kritische Studenten Utrecht and a radical initiative against austerity, Greece Is Everywhere (GIE), in which I have been involved and to which I remain close.

The demonstration brought between 600 and thousand people on the street, accompanied by an large and quite intimidating police presence: cops on horseback, police vans, etcetera. We got to the Malieveld safely, however, where we joined the rally that was still growing, with al large stream of students from Central Station to the muddy field. There, we got speeches by politicians – even by the Secretary of Education responsible for the attacks that students were protesting against.

After the big rally of January 21, several hundreds of students and sympathizers marched in several groups, one to the vicinity of the governmental center, one to the Ministry of Education. Riot police attacked at both actions, there were clashes, some people got badly beaten,or bitten by police dogs (of the four foot variety, of course; I will not insult other animals by comparing them to police); cops arrested 28 people, five of them will stand on rushed trial this week.

The actions combined were an expression of a growing mood of struggle in various sectors of society. The police violence is an expression of a more and more openly authoritarian trend from the direction of the state. We will see if and how struggle will grow nevertheless, but I think students can be proud of what they did so far, and we all can feel encouraged by their spirit and example.
In the US, workers at a Momentive Performance Materials chemical plant demonstrated the power of a united workforce by walking out in a grievance dispute.

One of their number had been given a 30-day suspension for a safety violation, far above the normal penalty for such a thing. But managers felt confident to do so, saying “there’s no way you’ll shut our business down over this.” The workers thus proved them wrong by staging a three-day walkout, in defiance of management threats to lock workers out afterwards and to cut off health insurance.

Nobody, including building contractors and technicians who were striking on another matter, crossed the picket line. Management lost five days of production, about $3 million. They refused to settle the original dispute, but with the workers ready to take similar action again and the local continually filing grievances where there is unfair treatment, that will not always be the case. The workers have had a taste of their own strength, and that will spur on future disputes.

In Canada, bosses at US steel have locked out workers for three months in a pensions dispute. The company is trying to renege on pensions commitments, and the government is standing idly by. However, in a considerable show of solidarity, 10,000 people joined the protest against the action.

The struggle is still ongoing. But if it can draw that many people together for a demonstration, the union should consider more than just protest and actively strike back.

In the Basque country in Spain, workers are staging a general strike. This is over plans to raise the retirement age, and is supported by the main Basque unions as well as the anarcho-syndicalist CNT. However, the much larger UGT has refused to back the action and is trying to negotiate a compromise with the government lacking a mandate from the workers. The CNT has already denounced them as "lapdogs" of the government and urged workers "to fight for our dignity, our rights, our possibilities of working and our everyday life."

Although the fight against austerity in Britain has been muted between December 9th and January 29th, there has been no "Christmas lull" in the global class struggle. Workers everywhere continue to fight against the ruling class and attacks on their livelihoods, against often insurmountable odds. Long may that continue to be the case.