Thursday, 31 March 2011

No War But Class War - March 2011

This month, the uprisings across the Arab world have been shunted from the media spotlight by the civil war in Libya. Libya's foreign minister has fled to Britain, but the rebels are in full retreat in many places and it is uncertain what will happen next. What we do know is that, even in victory, the Libyans will find it difficult to assert their independence now that the US and Britain have played their hand.

Elsewhere, Egypt is set to hold parliamentary elections in September. But in the meantime the army has succeeded in banning strikes and protests and enforcing a repressive new constitution. The state of emergency which defined the Mubarak regime remains in place, though the military have promised to lift it before elections. Whether or not that's true remains to be seen, as the top brass of the military own lots of land and factories and thus have an interest in repressing strikes.

There has been some continued resistance. The new laws against protesting have been met with calls for demonstrations, whilst the offices of the secret police were raided by demonstrators earlier in the month. Growing distrust in the new regime has also seen a low turnout in polls to rubber-stamp the new constitution.

However, building anything as large as the wave which swept Mubarak out of office will be difficult. Not only has the spotlight and people's attention shifted to Libya, but the US has moved in to consolidate the new regime with a pledge of millions more in aid. This has come as generals have realised that the working class's economic power needs to be curtailled. Those who "organise protests that obstruct production and create critical economic conditions that can lead to a worsening of the country’s economy" are "harming national security."

Even though the media has moved on, we should not forget that these struggles continue. Not just in Egypt, either. Movements are growing in Bahrain, Yemen, Algeria and Syria, too, and unlike the previous month's enthusiastic support for revolutions, we are now likely to see brutal repression under media silence. Those who continue to fight against that deserve our solidarity.

In the US, the IWW's Jimmy Johns union has been engaged in a campaign to force management to allow staff sick days. The company's policy sees workers disciplined if they call in sick without finding a replacement, and the union had been engaged in a propaganda campaign to highlight this to the public and encourage supporters to complain directly to the management. The company responded by firing six workers who had helped put up posters.

However, this has backfired and, according to the IWW website, "thousands of community supporters have jammed Jimmy John's phone lines and flooded the chain's Facebook page with messages of outrage and support for six whistleblowers who were fired for exposing widespread coercion to work while sick at the chain." Workers "plan to escalate actions against Jimmy John's until their demands for the right to call in sick, paid sick days, and reinstatement of the fired workers are met." They could do worse than following the example of workers at the Hilton hotels, who got their employer to listen to them on the back of a year and a half of pickets, lobby takeovers, boycotts, and short strikes.

Strikes have also hit Burma, where more than 1,500 workers at a factory in Rangoon have braved the heavy-handed reputation of authorities to demand an increase in their $0.70-a-day salary. This follows on from strikes the previous month in several shoe factories which won demands for improved working conditions. Likewise, in Vietmam, 3,000 employees from the Yamaha Motor plant struck for an increase in the current $78.57 monthly salary.

In Croatia, people have been taking part in weeks of protests and marches against the government. Different groups involved in the unrest have their own demands, but the MASA (Network of Anarcho-Syndicalists) states that "it didn’t take long for the protests to turn from anti-government into an expression of resentment towards all political elites, both the ruling and the opposition, those servants of capital who have equally contributed to economic collapse we face now." The point now, for them, is drawing focus from the self-publicising union leaders towards the capacity of ordinary people to bring about change for themselves.

In Britain, of course, the biggest event this month was the mass protest in London on March 26th. I have already commented on it here and here, so I won't repeat myself. What is worth noting, in the broader context, is that whilst for the unions this was it - at least until the public sector pensions strike come in June - others have been determined to turn it into a pivot for something far larger. The month before, as councils set their budgets and implemented austerity, their were a number of succesful and attempted town hall occupations across the country. These included Lambeth, Liverpool, Islington, Brent and Hackney.

March 26th added momentum and urgency to these actions. The success of the Radical Workers Bloc in evading the police and acting as a roving blockade to shut down Oxford Street on Saturday was undoubtedly important. It will have seen a surge of interest in anarchist organisations and direct action tactics from ordinary people as much as (more negatively) from the press and the police.

The point now has to be building upon this, and putting the strategy of grassroots mobilisation and economic warfare into practice. At the risk of repeating myself, yet again, only when the country is ungovernable will the cuts cease to be inevitable.