Wednesday, 31 August 2011

No War but Class War - August 2011

The most attention-grabbing point in the class conflict this month was obviously the rioting which spread across England. However, it has been covered to death by this point, and so I will direct anybody who hasn't yet seen them to my analysis of the initial Tottenham riot, my response as the disorder spread across the country, and my notes on the reactionary backlash.

There are also links to other commentary on these events at the beginning of this post.

Elsewhere, one of the major flashpoints in America has been the Verizon strike. The company, which made $19 billion of profits in the past four years, and yet wants to take back $1 billion in health pension and other contract concessions, as well as outsourcing jobs, slashing sick leave, increasing health costs, and eliminating job and pension security. As such, workers ended up on strike for two weeks before the union cut a deal to bring everyone back to work.

However, WSWS reports that workers are far from happy with the deal, since it has seen no agreement from the company to withdraw its demands. "Negotiations continue," but whilst they do the situation still looks an awful lot like a loss.

This is doubly angering given how bitter the dispute became. The bosses used court injunctions and even an FBI investigation to intimidate workers, and set an arbitrary deadline of 31 August (now met) for staff to accept the demands and return to work or face consequences. Pickets responded with mobile picket lines and successful attempts to turn away customers, but ultimately the union sold them out - even going so far as to demand that public protests in support of the strikers stop. Certainly, rank-and-file workers still have a considerable organising challenge as this dispute goes on, not just to fight Verizon but to undo the damage wrought by their own leaders.

Strikes in Chilean mines strengthen workers' struggles throughout the copper industry, and reflect growing political unrest in Chile.

2,300 miners at Chile's Escondida copper mine - the largest in the world - have been out on strike since 22nd July, and were joined by 7,000 contractors on 27th July. The mine is privately owned by Australian firm BHP.

Workers at Escondida are demanding a rise in monthly production bonuses, and initially aimed for $11,ooo per worker to be paid out by the end of the year. BHP have declared the strike illegal, as bonuses are discretionary and fall outside the collective contract and strict anti-labour laws in Chile prevent workers from striking outside of the collective negotiating agreement. The union rejected BHP's offer of $6,000, which has since been lowered to $5,600 per worker. The strike continued, with the union lowering it's demand to $8,700, but BHP are now refused to negotiate while workers are still downing tools. Today, the union has put the $5,600 offer out to be voted on, and if accepted by the workers, the strike will be over. The union is also demanding protection for workers who contract work-related illnesses, removal of surveillance cameras throughout the mine, and improved punch-clocks which monitor their 12 hour shifts.

The Escondida strike is yet another case of workers' struggle throughout the mining industry in Chile and the rest of the world, as workers are demanding their share of record profits. Workers in Zambia and Indonesia have also been striking against private firms such as Anglo-American and Freeport McMoran.
Industry bosses are keen to bring an end to the Escondida strike as they fear a success for the workers here could fuel further strikes across Chile. At another major Chilean copper mine, Collahuasi, workers staged a 24hr stoppage over the weekend in protest against anti-union measures, pressure being placed on workers, and bosses attempts to negotiate with workers outside of the collective union contract. Collahuasi workers have previously held a 33-day strike in December 2010.

The state-run Coldeco mines have also seen their first walk-outs in over 20 years, prompting the increasingly unpopular President Pinera to meet with union leaders and assure them that Coldeco will not be privatised. Previous strikes at Coldeco saw sub-contractors demanding improved conditions. Signs outside the Escondida mine are calling for the mining industry to be re-nationalised.

The miners strikes form part of a wave of growing unrest in Chile, as students and environmentalists have also been protesting against the right wing Pinera government. 
Finally, in Greece, it is worth noting that whilst last month ended with the eviction of the Syntagma square occupation, this month ends with 87 university departments under student occupation as a protest against the recent education reform bill. No matter how much force they use, it seems that Greek authorities simply cannot stamp out the popular resistance to their measures.

There is no doubt much and more that I've left out of this month's update. However, with the English riots forcing everything else into the background, it was worth focusing on the other key struggles that the media has lavished little attention on. The class war is flaring up for a number of reasons all across the globe, and it is now more vital than ever that we pay attention to the ones that cause the most ripples. We have as much to learn from the defeats and sell-outs as from the victories.

Sacked Liverpool Mutual Homes workers demand justice

Today, I was in Liverpool City Centre to pick up some leaflets from the PCS offices on the third floor of Jack Jones House. Across the road, I came across a protest by a small number of workers, with banners decrying City Council contractors Liverpool Mutual Homes (LMH). Many of the cars going past heeded the sign urging them to honk in support.

The protest was one amongst several, it transpires, after workers were left without a job because of their age. Construction firm Kinetics, of whom LMH were a client, went into administration in June and 273 jobs hung in the balance. However, jobs were saved when LMH transferred the workers to the "in-house" service Housing Maintenance Solutions. It was then that staff over the age of 50 were told their services were no longer required.

According to those at the protest, this then saw a dispute over whether a TUPE transfer had taken place, and thus who was liable for their redundancy payouts. LMH claimed it was the government, because they hadn't been TUPE'd, whilst the government claimed it was LMH, because they had. Unite the Union is now looking to settle the matter in court.

In the meantime, workers have been staging protests across from the LMH offices in town, following on from early morning protests at their workplace which drew strong support from their colleagues who still had jobs. There is also strong support for strike action, which following a ballot could see protests become picket lines. I offered my solidarity to the group, as well as support should they find themselves having to stand on picket lines, before moving on as they packed away their flags and banners.

The protests will be in the City Centre for the rest of the week, near to Wellington's Column and St George's Hall, as the fight goes on. They deserve our support and solidarity in their struggle, as do all workers whose lives and livelihoods are left at the mercy of state and capital. An injury to one is an injury to all!

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Anti-exploitation protest at Liverpool John Lennon Airport

Last Tuesday John Foley - a long-time campaigner against exploitation by Ryanair - took to the roof of Liverpool John Lennon Airport. This was the latest in a number of daring stunts with the aim of increasing awareness of how the airline exploits its employees.

John is the founder of the Ryanair Don't Care Campaign, which aims to highlight in particular the airline's recruitment-for-termination scam. New cabin crew recruits are charged 3000 euros for their training and sacked at short notice before their probationary period has ended. You can see videos of John talking about the exploitation here and here.

John released the following statement through Liverpool Solidarity Federation;
The direct action protest is to highlight the recruitment-for-termination policy of Ryanair towards young students wishing to follow their dream as cabin crew. Wrecking so many young lives for profit must stop and we call on all shareholders to sack the whole board at Ryanair NOW.

Direct action protests will continue at all airports where Ryanair do business...

We would also like to thank Liverpool Solidarity Federation for their continued support for our campaign.
This latest protest was met with a news blackout at the behest of the police. As such, Liverpool Solfed have been the only ones to provide coverage of the event. They report that "the airport's management has particular reason to be concerned as they only realised John was on the roof of one of their buildings after he'd been there for over an hour and a local journalist informed them."

John spent 15 hours on the roof before he was removed, and spent 26 hours in police custody. However, this has done nothing to dampen his resolve, and John has declared that he will be at the company's AGM in Dublin in September.

The NHS needs direct action

On the 6th and 7th September, MPs will be going through the third reading of the Health and Social Care Bill. It is widely believed that the passing of this bill "will allow the back-door privatisation of the NHS." As this happens, there will be a lobby of parliament and candlelit vigils across the country. But much more needs to be done to prevent the service being gutted.

Despite some tinkering around the edges which was falsely billed as a "humiliating u-turn," the plans for the NHS remain drastic. A legal review by 38 Degrees tells the full story of what these reforms mean, particularly with regards to the government's duties and competition and procurement. There are set to be 50,000 job losses. And it looks as though private patients may be able to "leapfrog" NHS ones. This is on top of existing problems wrought by previous privatisations - such as the outsourcing of cleaning contracts giving rise to superbugs like MRSA and C-difficile.

But knowing what the problem is and being able to solve it are two different things. In response to the bill, there have been a number of demonstrations around the country. The Trades Union Congress, as the 3rd reading approaches, are calling for people who attend vigils to upload their photos so that they can form part of a giant mosaic, to put posters in their windows, and to send a letter or email to a member of the House of Lords.

The most radical action for the NHS so far has been UK Uncut's "Emergency Operation," which saw direct action against the banks which are being taxpayer-subsidised to the tune of £100bn as our health service is gutted. Not only was this an innovative way of drawing attention to the cause, but it also hit the culprits in the pocket by disrupting trading. Meanwhile, even tentative plans for the very first NHS-wide strike are over the pensions issue, rather than over the attacks we're currently seeing on the National Health Service.

Ultimately, it will only be direct action which wins this fight. Nye Bevin, the Labour Party Minister of Health when the NHS was founded, famously said "the NHS will exist as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it." He wasn't wrong. In fact, the NHS wouldn't have come to exist in the first place without a fight.

The single-most cited ‘benefit’ of so-called workers’ parties is the foundation of the welfare state in 1948. Universal healthcare and unemployed benefits certainly represent gains for the working class insofar as they are paid for by the bosses. But why were they introduced? The foundations for the welfare state were laid by the 1942 cross-party Beveridge Report, which recommended the measures implemented by Clement Attlee’s Labour government when they came to power in 1945. Beveridge himself was a rather unsavoury character, who had supported benefits so long as the “unemployable” were sterilised and stripped of civil rights, but it is the motives behind the adoption of the report’s proposals which are most revealing.
Wary of the worldwide revolutionary wave which followed the end of the First World War, there was a cross-party consensus that war-weary workers would need to be given incentives not to turn their discontent (or even their guns) on the government. The Tory Quintin Hogg summed up the prevailing mood in 1943 when he said “we must give them reform or they will give us revolution.” The welfare state fitted that bill, and the wave of post-war mass squatting of disused military bases by homeless workers convinced the ruling class of the reality of the threat.
As we saw over student fees and EMA, simply lobbying the government in the hope that they come around will not be sufficient. There needs to be direct action resistance - and since we know it is feasible strike action should be at the centre of that.

But that's not all. Economic blockades targeting private providers and/or occupations of the banks benefiting from the money the health service is losing would further emphasise the struggle. If it were possible to coordinate this with protests across the country - perhaps even other public sector strike action - then the momentum would become almost undeniable. Especially if strike action was rolling or indefinite, rather than of the "one-day" variety.

There has been a lot of hard work done by people raising awareness of the attacks on the NHS and researching the proposals. But now the point has to be to fight. We wouldn't have gotten the NHS "without the tangible threat of working class unrest" in the first place, and we certainly won't be able to preserve it without more of the same.

We've been here before...

Housing Minister Grant Shapps has pledged to "get Britain building again." This is in response to the National Housing Federation warning that "unless they do something about it an entire generation will be locked out of decent housing." This has once again re-opened the debate between liberal and conservatives about the "property ladder" and "generation rent."

Rather than re-hash the matter, I'll point readers to what I said back in May;
For most of us, the current economic system is simply the only means for us to secure such dwellings - whether by rent or mortgage. Meanwhile, as Daniel Knowles neatly puts it in his Telegraph blog, "each month, an anonymous company gets to collect more of my income than I pay in taxes. No one getting a share of that money had anything to do with building the house. They are simply profiting from the fact that it’s still useful." Which is exactly what the government does with tax, though so many crusaders against rent-seeking fall silent when the usury is private.

A house is not a luxury akin to a Porsche or "another form of consumption." But, by the same token, it is not simply a capital asset to be used in securing yourself a decent pension pot. It is a domestic dwelling. Or, as the comedian Alun Cochrane put it, we should "bloody live in it."

The "right" to private property not only leaves so many people renting or living with their parents for far longer, unable to take their first step onto the "ladder." It also leaves around 61,000 households homeless whilst there are around 651,000 empty homes in England alone. All for the "freedom" of a minority to seek rent and gamble on capital accumulation. Which is the more important debate we are not having.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Why nobody wants to work in the modern Satanic mill

The Coventry security firm OnGuard24 are "baffled" that they received only two replies for 20 posts, when there are 10,274 people unemployed in the city. The marketing manager "expected the phone to be going non-stop." The Daily Mail's headline implies that the reason it wasn't is that Coventry is "workshy." However, there are other reasons.

It has often been said that call centres are the modern "dark, Satanic mills" - the exploitation of the 19th century factory transposed to 21st century telesales. Anecdotal evidence of conditions is not hard to find, with everything from monitoring the time you're on the toilet to the abuse, grief, and stress to be found on the other end of the phone. More extensively, the group Prol-Position have written an in-depth analysis of the conditions in the industry, whilst only this year PCS members walked out over "sweat shop conditions" in call centres - and that's in the highly-unionised civil service!

In most places, like huge sectors of the service economy, such unionisation would be met quite simply with sackings. It is illegal to sack someone for trade union activity, true, but this fact counts for little without the organisational muscle to back it up. An employment tribunal may get you some compensation, but the employer doesn't have to give you your job back and the threat of an organised workforce is still removed. More than that, it adds further weight to the fear of others about speaking out.

At the same time, when OnGuard24 claims "some of our people here are walking away with £400 a week," everyone who has ever gone through the job hunting process should be able to smell bullshit. Near enough every advert for sales jobs screams of similar benefits, whilst the reality for most people is a low paid, casualised nightmare - and/or much longer hours than advertised in order to meet the targets for commission. I know that, whilst job hunting in the past, I have passed over sales and call centre jobs specifically because I couldn't afford to take them. That's without getting into the nightmare of the actual work itself.

Only one of the two actual applicants was willing to speak to the Mail. The article states that she has been unemployed since 2009, and as a hairdresser was "trying to get a job in a salon for months," but found it "really hard" because "there’s not much out there." Hers was not an application on the grounds of ambition, but of desperation.

Company director David Mawson claims that "if I needed a job and I saw one where I could earn a good wage, I would pick the phone up and come here." He "can't understand why more people haven't." But I can, and most people who've worked at call centres and/or been at the mercy of the job market probably can as well. This is not a case of people being "workshy," but of people not wanting to be treated like shit just in order to barely scrape a living.

Save the Dale Farm travellers

This weekend, over 100 people travelled to Dale Farm - where Britain's largest traveller community is facing eviction. They have set up "Camp Constant" as a site from which to support the travellers and to offer non-violent resistance. In this, they deserve support, and the distortions of the media need to be challenged.

Dale Farm is in Crays Hill, Essex, and comprises nearly 100 separate properties. Most are owned by Irish Traveller families, whilst a few belong to Romani Gypsies. The 45 properties at the front of the farm are not at issue, but the 52 at the back have houses built upon them that do not have planning permission. As such, Basildon District Council has given the families on those plots until 31 August to abandon their homes or faced forced demolition and eviction.

In legal terms, it is planning permission that is the crux of the matter. The land itself is owned by the families and so the only question should be what structures go on said land. But there are other interests at work. Hence why the Daily Mail brands this "Britain's biggest illegal gypsy camp," for the crime of creating homes on the site of a disused scrap yard, yet (as one example) gives an entirely extraneous mock castle which was built in secret the benefit of the doubt by putting "illegal" in inverted commas. But the problem is evident far beyond one newspaper with previous form.

The Commission for Racial Equality (now the EHRC) has found that 90% of requests for planning permission are rejected, compared to 20% more generally. This figure arose in a report (PDF), in which councils admitted that hostile media coverage played a significant part in community tensions, alongside residential complaints.

In the specific instance of Dale Farm, you can see the effect this has had on residential attitudes. Nearby resident Mike Beiley declares that "they seem to think our rights don't matter," but the only substance to this statement is its worth as a tabloid cliché. If the ten-year campaign to see the travellers evicted is a fight for "rights," then there is something seriously messed up with the campaigners' priorities. As the Bishop of Chelmsford put it, "if evicting children is the answer then we must be asking the wrong question."

It is also telling that the residents have been campaigning to get rid of the travellers for ten years, and the dispute over planning permission "has taken 10 years of failed negotiations and legal process to reach this point." The Department of Communities and Local Government talks of "severely damaged community relations," without heed to the source of it amongst those wanting the travellers gone for a decade and the tabloids which whip up a frenzy about travellers and gypsies on a regular basis. Then they go on about "unauthorised development on greenbelt land," ignoring that the area was a scrap yard before they developed on it, rendering the official classification redundant.

The moves to forcibly evict the residents of Dale Farm cannot be justified. Despite owning the land, residents have offered to give it up and provided suggestions for suitable alternative sites. These have been rejected. The legal process has been exhausted. Now, what remains is the direct action resistance of the travellers and those who support them.

As Gypsy campaigner Grattan Puxon put it;
There is bound to be violence because bailiffs themselves are using violence to bulldoze their homes. We hope that people will respond to that peacefully and use a human shield, but people should understand that the violence will come from the bailiffs in the first instance.
This will be the enforced violence of the state and capital, in all its glory. But this kind of force needs to be met with resistance. Solidarity to the residents of Dale Farm, and to all who are able to stand side-by-side with them.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Striking in sports

On Thursday, the Spanish footballers' union AFE and La Liga reached an agreement to end the strike which delayed the opening games of the season. Meanwhile, a similar strike in the Italian Serie A looks set to continue until 10 September.

Image from the 1987 NFL strike
Sports journalist Rich Hook offers some very interesting comment on this over at Left Foot Forward;
Both unions have demonstrated the power they hold, but unlike the NFLPA (American football) and NBPA (basketball), they have yet to use this power outside their own field.

During the NFL lockout, the players’ association lent their support to strikes by Wisconsin public sector workers, California country club staff and Indianapolis hotel workers and in return the players’ unions in hockey, basketball and baseball gave the NFLPA their backing.

For a country with just 12 per cent union density it’s impressive for a group of the highest earnings to say:
“When workers join together it serves as a check on corporate power and helps all workers by raising community standards.”
This spirit is yet to spread to English sport, where Premier League players like William Gallas and Luka Modric are more inclined to threaten to score own goals or refuse to play in order to force through lucrative transfers. Only more socially conscious footballers, like Rio Ferdinand, are even prepared to comment on wider issues such as the riots.

What the AFE and AIC have shown is that it is possible for unions to still have an impact in the modern age with a desire to agree shared terms for all ‘workers’ in their field. Both leagues still have a way to go, with an effective collective agreement based on greater revenue sharing across the league needed (like the new NFL CBA) but they have shown the way forward for the Premier League.

Rather than going on ‘personal strikes’ (e.g. Pierre van Hooijdonk) to engineer transfers they could work together to improve average earnings across the Football League pyramid though it may take a mass-debt situation like in La Liga for this to happen.

Then if they get their own leagues in order, they might even start to come out in support of workers in other industries especially given the economic crisis in the PIIGGS countries.
This certainly goes a long way to answering the question of how unions of professional sports players might fit into the wider workers' movement. Especially given the apparent disconnect from most workers in terms of salary and conditions.

The problem that it doesn't answer is how we get to that point. In October, I wrote a bit about football's capital crisis - which has particularly come home to roost in the Spanish situation - and this may play its part. Certainly, it is likely that any such movement may grow from the poorer clubs first, and exert an upward pressure. At the same time, the debt crisis impacting on how well clubs could meet the demands of personal strikes may also force a move to collective action.

But there is a role too for other groups, and particularly supporters' unions. Groups such as Spirit of Shankly have already managed to link the fight for a better deal for fans to social regeneration and cooperative (if not explicitly anti-capitalist) ideas. Making connections with players' unions fits in naturally to this notion.

At the same time, offering such support opens the way for generalising the struggles of other workers within football - from the referees who are already organised enough to take strike action to the shop workers who sell merchandising and tickets and who would likely benefit from specific organising drives. After all, if there is one group of people best placed to defy the laws on secondary action without fear that such defiance isn't already generalised, it would be footballers. And the influence of such figures doing these things cannot be doubted given how much of a following the sport has.

Of course, we're not at that point yet. But there are enough examples of this kind of culture out there, as well as a capital crisis in football and a broader climate of class conflict to catalyse it, that such a situation is not unthinkable.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Workers need to fight back against Facebook sackings

In the aftermath of the riots, a number of people were arrested for nothing more than comments on Facebook. Two men were jailed for four years for "inciting a riot" that never happened, a teenage boy was named and shamed for similar - despite the tactic seeing an innocent man's home burnt down, and it seems they were just the first. But it is not just the state punishing people for words on Facebook.

Employers have long been using workers' statuses as a way to sack them. Most recently, Argos sacked warehouse worker David Rowat for making general comments about his work. His Facebook profile does not mention where he works, and his comments didn't either. He said "Had a great day back at work after my hols who am I kidding!!" and "Back to the shambles that is work." Hardly a scathing attack on the bosses, and yet he was sacked for gross misconduct because those few words - the grumble of nearly all workers having to go back to the grind after a holiday - could "damage the reputation of the company."

Indeed, I know that when I'm about to go to a shop, I seek out members of its staff on Facebook to see if they've moaned about working there. Or maybe not, since such a thing is fucking ludicrous. More damaging to the company's reputation, in my eyes, is that after "an extensive internal investigation" they deemed somebody expressing opinions on the internet to warrant the same punishment as theft, harassment, racist abuse, fighting, or being drunk on the job.

David's case is far from the first of its kind, and indeed it is commonly accepted that companies have the right to dictate what is and isn't acceptable for their staff to say on the internet. The unions' approach to the issue is generally to warn people to be careful about what they say and their security settings and of course to represent them at procedures, but not to challenge the practice itself.

For that is definitely something which needs to be done. Of course, it is good practice to take precautions against the risk of getting sacked or disciplined for any action. But that doesn't automatically predicate not doing the thing that you could be punished for. As a more obvious example, despite it being illegal, there are still a great many workplaces where trying to organise workers will get you sacked - but this doesn't mean that you shouldn't try and do it, only that you shouldn't be open with the act and risk management knowing before you're in a position to challenge them.

Obviously, having a rant on Facebook isn't in that category. But everybody moans about their job, and it's only natural to want to vent when something is pissing you off. If that takes the form of saying "work is a shambles," or "I hate my job," or (further along the scale) "this place sucks fucking balls and my manager is a worthless piece of shit," then so be it. It may not be the most eloquent way to express your feelings, but it's also not akin to racially abusing someone or fighting, and so shouldn't be met with a sanction by the employer. If the target of the rant becomes aware of it, then maybe some clearing the air is in order, but I wouldn't go further than that. If we're not talking about systematic bullying, which is a whole other matter, having someone pissed off with you or thinking you're a twat is hardly a great affront to your dignity.

So how do we challenge this? The first point to note is that this is a decision that has to be taken by those affected, first and foremost. It is no good parachuting in to protest on behalf of someone whom you've not been in touch with and who wouldn't know you from Adam. But, alongside pursuing whatever appeals or proceedings are open to you, I would advise anybody in this situation to contact groups who can offer practical solidarity.

The Solidarity Federation ran just such a campaign for an agency worker who wasn't paid their full wages, and was able to win. As a revolutionary union initiative, providing support and solidarity to workers in the fight against the bosses is our modus operandi. The Anarchist Federation takes a similar stance to Solfed, and indeed was also part of the Office Angels campaign. The IWW also supported the campaign, and has won its own victories such as a recent strike by Guildhall cleaners. There are also bound to be plenty of individuals locally who will be more than willing to support any pickets and other actions.

Rather than recommending any one organisation, I would say the best approach would be to get in touch with whoever is active locally, whilst making national organisations aware should the employer be part of a national chain and the campaign need to be taken beyond the workplace where the dispute occurred. Such campaigns also provide a good opportunity to organise workers, not only improving their lot but also creating further headaches for the bosses.

But the important point, as Solfed have noted, is that we are not simply moaning about an injustice but actively fighting against it;
Direct action works. We achieved what we achieved without lawyers, courts, industrial tribunals, or even union reps. And we won. We planned and strategised and, despite some inevitable hiccups, we orchestrated an escalating campaign against the largest employment agency in the world. We didn't even play all the cards in our hands and we still forced Office Angel to pay up out of pocket mid-way through our National Week of Action. After all, they still haven't been paid by their client. In the process we strengthened our class confidence. Everything from giving demand letters to managers to speaking to the public to co-ordinating activities, we're better at that now than we were three months ago. 
If we want to stop cases like David Rowat's - and the countless others that have gone before - simply becoming an accepted reality of employment in the social media era, we need to fight it. Not just individual cases, but the very concept that criticising or just being pissed off with our jobs is an offence worthy of punishment.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Anarcho-blogging roundup #10

I'm away today and tomorrow at a wedding. As such, once more I'm going to point readers in the direction of other blogs across the anarchist and left-libertarian blogosphere.

Photo via Adam Ford
Firstly, although they have past and been superseded by events in Libya, it's worth whilst the memory is still fresh pointing at the best commentary on the recent riots. The best organisational responses have come from The Commune, North London Solidarity Federation, ALARM, and Liverpool Antifascists. has collected a number of responses to the riots, whilst Adam Ford, Cautiously Pessimistic [1, 2], and Juan Conatz are all also worth a read.

In the aftermath, Solfed tells us about the Deptford Assembly and demonstration organised as a community response. Adam Ford looks at working class power as a solution and the state's draconian backlash. And AndrewNFlood at Anarchist Writers takes a look at the causes and consequences.

Moving away from the riots, Anarcho Lid has a look at Gaza and Israel. Working Class Self-Organisation examines "partnership working" by trade unions, the recent de-recognition of Unison by Plymouth Council, and takes a shot at the servicing union USDAW. The Angry Women of Liverpool look back at June's Slutwalk in Manchester.

@ndy gives us some typically irreverent reports on what the fash are up to, including the Australian Defence League's English leader and his troubles with immigration officials. His report of a truly pathetic "Ban the Burqua" rally makes entertaining reading. He also points us to the joyously mental rallying cry for Gaddafi by the beyond-irrelevant Workers Revolutionary Party. On a more serious note, he also tells us that jailed anti-fascist Jock Palfreeman has lost his final appeal.

Photo via la quimica de la vida comun
Hannah Kay has also been able to revive the Rebel Cleaners blog, and offers us a counterpoint to the "crabs in a bucket" mentality. The Phoenix Class War Council's "reflections on a crucifixion" is worth reading as an analysis of why A to B marches do not make a movement. Paul Stott looks at the coming anniversary of the Luddite uprising. And Joseph Kay refutes some myths about anarchism.

That should be more than enough to tide people over whilst I'm gone. In the meanwhile, it's about time for a pint, so I'll be seeing you around.
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Thursday, 25 August 2011

The repercussions of a ban on the EDL

Recently, I made the case yet again against using the state to fight fascism. One key point in this was that by calling on the state to stop a protest taking place because those marching are fascists you set a precedent for them to do so when those marching aren't fascists. Thus, the only thing that surprised me was the rapidity with which that point was proven right.

Hope not Hate declared the police's decision to seek a ban "a victory for common sense." They are jubilant that the EDL have been "foiled" in their plan "to bring violence and disorder to the streets of Tower Hamlets." This alone smacks of a staggering level of naivety, given that the police only have the power to ban marches and not static demonstrations - as the EDL themselves proved only this month in Telford. Not to mention Leicester, where a ban didn't stop "violence and disorder."

We are in the process of applying to the home secretary for authority to prohibit a march in five London boroughs for a period of 30 days.
As Dave Hill (who supported calls for a ban) admits, this "applies to all marches in the boroughs concerned," with the exception of "funeral processions and marches that take place annually and are therefore deemed part of local cultural custom and practice."

As a result, the Socialist Worker is calling on "everyone who opposes racism and fascism" to "protest about the ban" and to still "come to Tower Hamlets to show that the racist EDL is not welcome." Peter Tatchell is concerned that the "proposed ban on EDL march may also ban anti-EDL demo & East London Gay Pride." He rightly calls this "a dangerous precedent." And if the ban extends to Newham, the Disarm DSEi protest against the world's largest arms fair is another protest potentially in the firing line.

State intervention is a worrying turn, the State stepping in and banning EDL protests is not a sign of a left wing section of the State acting, or even an Islamic element gaining strength, it is a sign of a further move to a totalitarian State. We already have the camps in Yarlswood, thug police that get away with murder and an ever watching State gathering information on us. We don’t need to campaign for them to ban political groups. Today the EDL, tomorrow us.

We don’t need the State to stop the EDL. We need to do this ourselves. We need our communities to work together, overcome divisive elements and tackle the threat of fundamentalism in whatever forms it takes.
Let's hope that the repercussions of this ban reach enough of the left that Hope not Hate's approach will receive much more opposition next time.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Peter Jackson on the release of the West Memphis Three

The case of the West Memphis Three is something I'd heard of before, but only in passing. The Wikipedia page provides extensive background info, and the website of the campaign to free them can be found here. However, after coming across news of their release last Friday, I've been doing a bit of reading around.

Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson provides the most passionate commentary on the case;
The fight to free the West Memphis Three has been raging for nearly all of the 18 years since their farcical 1994 convictions for the triple murder of three young boys, fueled hugely by the excellent "Paradise Lost" documentary released in 1996. Jason and Jessie were sentenced to life, Damien was sentenced to death.

This morning the State of Arkansas finally released these three innocent men. This was done on the strict condition that they agree the State prosecutors did the right thing in 1993 and their original convictions were in fact, justified. It's called an "Alford Plea", and in theory it allows innocent men to walk free, so long as they are happy to have their convictions stand, and lose any right to claim compensation from the State for wrongful imprisonment.

The last two weeks have been very tense, because the State told the three defense teams that they would consider an "Alford Plea" - but it had to be "all or nothing".  All three men had to accept the conditions of the plea - if one refused, they would all stay in prison, probably for another 2 to 3 years, until their inevitable retrial, which would have almost certainly found them innocent. When he received the plea offer, Jason Baldwin refused to accept it. And why the hell should he? He's an innocent man, who has had the last 18 years - half his life - robbed by the State of Arkansas. This was a brave and noble stand by Jason, but it created a very tough time for Damien, and his loved ones.

You see, Damien Echols had to get out of prison, Alford Plea or not. Unlike Jason, Damien has spent the full 18 years on death row. He has not seen sky for over 10 years. He has not had sun on his skin for over 10 years. He is shackled hand and foot whenever he leaves his cell. His eyesight has deteriorated. Look at this morning's press conference - see how Damien has his hand over his mouth? It's because he has severe continual dental pain, and has had for years. On Arkansas death row, the only serious dental care they offer is extraction. No point killing men with nice new crowns. Everyone who knows Damien, has been fearful for his health. He's very weak, and frail - and has limited ability to fight off any infection. Up there in the Varner Unit death row, they don't tend to be as interested in basic medical care as your family doctor.

For several nerve-wracking days, Jason was saying no to the "Alford Plea", but he has been confined in a different, much less severe prison environment and had no contact with Damien.  Damien's lawyer wrote to Jason, several friends talked with him. They explained Damien's situation to Jason, and he immediately agreed to change his mind. Jason is a decent guy, and did the right thing for his friend, just as he did many years ago when he was offered a much reduced sentence if he testified against Damien. He refused then - because he knows Damien is innocent, as he is - and he wasn't going to take the bait and sell out his friend. He's been in prison ever since as a result.

Why would you take this "Alford Plea" if you were innocent, if you had a strong possibility that the convictions would be overturned at a retrial? I can answer that - because a retrial would take at least two years, and if the convictions were overturned, the State would likely appeal and the process would drag on for several more years. And all this time you are relying on getting a fair hearing from a State justice system that has not served you well during the last 18 years. Last year you finally get a glimmer of hope when the case is heard by a judge who has no vested interest in the original verdict, but who's to say that judge will still be there in several years time? The whole thing is just too fragile, along with a total lack of trust and belief in the justice system of Arkansas. I know what I would do in their position.  

So the "Alford Plea" was entered, and Damien, Jason and Jessie walked free this morning - all that was missing was justice. Justice did not play a role in the proceedings this morning ... not to the 3 men who have been robbed of 18 years, not to the 3 young victims and their families, and certainly not to the people of Arkansas, whom the system is supposed to serve.

There's also a triple child killer who has walked free for the last 18 years ... seemingly an unimportant detail in today's white-washing job.

Back to Scott Ellington, the State's prosecutorial mouth-piece, who lectured the press this morning - take a look, it's online. I'm not going to watch it again, so I can't quote him directly but he managed to state his complete confidence that the three men are indeed the real murderers, and that the State has no intention of further investigation ... whilst also saying that a retrial would likely result in an overturning of the verdicts. Sorry ... how does that actually work? Did I miss something? Compelling evidence of extensive DNA results that were not available back in 1994 ... vastly experienced forensic and scientific experts who were not consulted in 1994 ... prosecution witnesses who now admit they lied under oath back in 1994? Mr Ellington says all that would likely result in a different verdict today, but he still maintains Damien, Jason and Jessie committed these crimes?

And what reasons does Mr Ellington give for Arkansas State not wanting to retry this case - beyond his personal opinion of rampant, evil, satanic worshipping, Stephen King reading, black tee-shirt wearing guilt? Not a lot, but he does refer to the fact that a State Crime Lab employee who specialised in hair and fiber evidence analysis back in 1994 has died in the intervening 18 years. I'm not sure how this hinders the State. He doesn't mention that this very same State employee was very loose with their record keeping, failed to accurately record where key hairs had come from, and submitted questionable analysis, much of which has been rendered redundant by subsequent DNA testing. This same late forensic expert even managed to state that Jason had curious art-work on his bedroom wall - a little outside the forensic brief maybe, but hey, it's good for the team!

It goes on and on ... any serious detailed look into the facts and science of this case quickly reveals what an appalling miscarriage of justice it is. Any vaguely intelligent person would come to the same conclusion, if they take the time - except for Mr Ellington and his justice league. But then, to be fair, Mr Ellington has a job to do, and a good reason to protect his State from admitting any fault. 42 million good reasons in fact. The most telling thing Mr Arkansas Justice Mouth-piece said this morning was that a guy who proved he was wrongfully convicted in another State, was awarded compensation of $14 million.

Follow the money.

What is the price of justice in Arkansas? I don't know, but it seems the price of a miscarriage could be as much as $14 million per person. Or you could look at it another way - investigating and convicting the real killer would cost Arkansas $42m, or $14m for the lives of each of those little boys. A little outside of their "Justice Budget" perhaps? Protect and Serve the people - up to a price?

No, let's not hold our breath for any form of justice in this case.
You can read the full post on his Facebook page.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Quick notes on trade union facility time

A particular favourite line of attack on organised workers comes to the fore in today's Daily Mail. Namely, it is the allegation that the taxpayer is "footing the bill" for all those rabble-rousing trade unionists who do nothing but cause disruption for the fun of it. If you're not outraged enough to demand the abolition of all employment rights, you just might be a commie yourself.

According to the Mail;
Ken Clarke’s Whitehall department has been accused of wasting nearly £6million last year subsidising trade union activity.

The Ministry of Justice is so short of funding it is slashing prison places, but figures have revealed there are dozens of taxpayer funded full-time union officials embedded in the court service, tribunals and prisons.

The data was released under Freedom of Information laws to Tory MP Dominic Rabb.

He said it was a ‘scandal’ that taxpayers fund the trade union duties of public sector workers.

Mr Raab also discovered that, despite the acute pressure accompanying the Strategic Defence Review, the Ministry of Defence has footed a bill for union work that tops £4million.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spent more than £1million last year, with the Rural Payments Agency funding 89 staff to work on union business.

Transport for London – which is often hit by strikes – pays more than 400 staff to work on union duties.

Mr Rabb said the MoJ was the biggest subsidiser of the unions in Whitehall.

He added: 'Taxpayers expect their money spent on providing prison cells – not squandered. It is a basic issue of priorities.' 
Except that, contrary to Rabb, it's a basic issue of employment rights. If you cared to look, you could no doubt find similar costs for union reps in the private sector, albeit smaller because of the reduced union density. Rather than being some kind of cosseted deal for public sector workers, facility time (as it's known) is actually a legal right for all reps of a recognised trade union.

As the ACAS code of practice on facilities (PDF) explains;
Union representatives have had a statutory right to reasonable paid time off from employment to carry out trade union duties and to undertake trade union training since the Employment Protection Act 1975. Union representatives and members were also given a statutory right to reasonable unpaid time off when taking part in trade union activities. Union duties must relate to matters covered by collective bargaining agreements between employers and trade unions and relate to the union representative’s own employer, unless agreed otherwise in circumstances of multi-employer bargaining, and not, for example, to any associated employer. All the time off provisions were brought together in sections 168 – 170 of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act 1992. Section 43 of the Employment Act 2002 added a new right for Union Learning Representatives to take paid time off during working hours to undertake their duties and to undertake relevant training. The rights to time off for the purpose of carrying out trade union duties, and to take time off for training, were extended to union representatives engaged in duties related to redundancies under Section 188 of the amended 1992 Act and to duties relating to the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006.
Moreover, as regards the "squandering" of money, the reality is somewhat different;
A report published by the then BERR (now BIS) in 2007  found that union reps in the public sector contribute up to 100,000 hours of their OWN TIME each week to carry out union duties; time that directly benefits public services and those who work in them.  TUC research has estimated that almost one quarter of union reps have to use their own time to carry out their union duties and almost 10 per cent of reps get no paid time of at all.

Even though its clear that employers don’t pay for all of the time that union reps put into supporting their member they certainly benefit significantly. Once again Government research in 2007 found that union reps in the public sector SAVE the taxpayer between £167m and £397m every year by helping to resolve disputes, increasing the take up of training and reducing staff turnover.

Taking in to account reps in both the public and private sector, workplace union reps reduce dismissals creating a benefit to employers’ worth between £107m and £213m and reduce voluntary exits that benefit employers to the tune of between £72m and £143m.  Union Learning Reps are worth between £94m and £156m to employers in enhanced productivity.
It shouldn't be all that hard to see that, in attacking facility time, those such as Dominic Raab aren't concerned with costs. They're concerned with the threat that an organised workforce poses, particularly in the context of austerity and a deepening sense of discontent and alienation. This kind of disinformation needs to be challenged - so that we can continue to organise and expand that threat.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Taking back control of our own struggles

There is very little news, at present, of any kind of follow up to June 30. The National Shop Stewards Network is lobbying the TUC on the issue, and PCS has issued materials to build for such action, but otherwise there is silence. This should be indicative of the hurdles workers have to overcome in our own movement in order to fight back effectively.

You can be sure that the other side is on the ball. Plymouth Council's decision to de-recognise Unison follows on the heels of Shropshire announcing that it will sack and re-hire all workers at the end of September to force a change of contract. Not to mention the long-running struggle of workers at Southampton Council, where drastic wage cuts provoked a backlash from the workforce. However, this stands out as relatively unique and no doubt the bosses feel safe to attack.

All of this is going on whilst the public sector unions continue to um and ah over whether to take another national one-day strike. A comrade at PCS is of the opinion, based on what they have seen nationally, that plans are being made behind closed doors and - as with June 30 - how events will unfold will have been decided before it reaches the membership. This was apparent last time in that I chanced to read about 30 June in a leaflet from the Socialist Workers' Party long before PCS were even telling reps, but warning them to keep the date from members "in case they decide to take the day as leave." Which just about says it all about the communications and the level of trust for members from some quarters within the union.

We need to change this situation. In the first instance, the strategy being pursued by PCS and others is at best inadequate, and easily scuppered by the reticence of Unison as regards throwing their hat into the ring. Of equal importance, workers need to be in control of their own struggles at the ground, not waiting for instructions produced behind closed doors at union HQ.

There is no single, simple solution to this. As I've alluded to on a number of occasions, building up rank-and-file organisation is a painstaking process and we have a long way to go in order to challenge the monopoly of traditional trade unionism over labour organisation. But that doesn't mean we can't take significant steps as these struggles present themselves. In the instance of strikes, in particular, there is a lot of potential for seizing control from the full-timers and bureaucrats.

One key idea, recently presented as a motion to Liverpool Against The Cuts by Women Against The Cuts, is the establishment of local strike committees. Simply, this would mean assembling people on the basis of workplace and/or geographical area in order to decide how the dispute will play out. A lot of this is practical and logistical, such as picket lines, strike propaganda, local demonstrations, etc. But it can also be an opportunity to start rebuilding the culture of mass meetings and direct democracy that once defined class struggle.

For example, having the discussions openly about how the dispute and the struggle ought to progress emphasises to the workforce that they have a direct stake in what comes next. Even if we aren't in a position for such votes to pass federally and be implemented as the democratic will of the workers, we can still encourage people to have their say, impress demands upon the unions involved in the struggles, and even (depending on numbers and militancy) implement such measures themselves despise what comes from the centre. This last is highly unlikely at present, of course, but that doesn't mean it will always be so, and we should be actively building to that point.

There is no guarantee of success in such a venture, but we must try. What we are seeing now from the unions is beyond inadequate, and only an empowered rank-and-file can challenge that. Only a mass confident in its ability to act for its own interests can shove officialdom out of the driving seat. Because if lobbying the TUC and imploring leaders to lead more in a style we would like is the limit of our ambitions, all we will find is defeat.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

As Gaddafi's end nears...

Libyan rebels are making a push towards Tripoli. Having captured a military base 16 miles west of the capital, it is now almost guaranteed that victory will come soon. Seeing the civil war over and Gaddafi deposed is now far more likely than it was just last month. What comes afterwards, however, is far less certain.

Without a doubt, for the people of Libya getting rid of Gaddafi has to be seen as a good thing. Having kept power through a "mastery of tactical manoeuvring," Gaddafi's human rights violations include everything from a Law of Collective Punishment to placing bounties on the heads of its critics and making the foundation of political parties a crime punishable by death. Moreover, that the uprising began as a protest movement in line with the rest of the Arab Spring before erupting into civil war shows the depth of feeling amongst the populace, and that this was not merely a different faction vying for power.

However, whilst it isn't difficult to demonstrate that liberation is a key motivator of the rebels, the same cannot be said of NATO and the United States. The US severed its support for Libya when it became clear that the violent crackdown on dissidents faced significant opposition across the world in the context of what was going on in Egypt and Tunisia. No doubt, the criticisms that sprung from the more obvious u-turn from support for Mubarak at the height of the movement against him to touring Tahrir Square in the wake of the revolution will have played a part in this response. But the key concern will have been that support for Gaddafi was no longer viable for US interests in the country.

On the same day that the perilous position of the dictator became clear, oil prices climbed to fresh highs. Partly, this will have been as a result of the wider Arab unrest, and "anxieties" that "no one knows where this ends." But there was also the fact that, though it accounts for less than 2% of the world's oil supply, Libyan crude is magnified in importance by its high quality. But the strategic value the country holds wasn't safe in the hands of an already unreliable dictator now rapidly losing his grip on power. Thus, allegiances had to be switched.

Similar strategic calculations can also explain why the US continued to back the dictators when it came to Yemen and Bahrain, and why the brutal repression in Syria has elicited little more than harsh words from the west. Liberals may have lapped up the "humanitarian intervention" line with the Iraq war now fading into the past, but it remains hopelessly naive to believe that states ever intervene in world affairs for that reason.

The exemplars of such a position are Harry's Place. They proclaim that "once Gaddafi is gone, the Libyan people will remember who took their side at a crucial moment, and who didn’t." But it is worth looking back at the support they offered for the Iraq War, and the reality that came from it - not only in terms of atrocities such as Fallujah but also in economic terms, with 25% of the population below the poverty line. Even before this became apparent, to argue that any state would "seek to give real practical support" to opposition movements solely for the cause of " human rights, justice and social progress" is an absurdity. Harry's Place contributor Johann Hari came to realise this fact in 2006, but it seems that his fellow liberals lack even the foresight of a journalist stripped of the Orwell Prize for plagiarism.

True, the critics of the war in Libya that they cite - Hugo Chavez and George Galloway - are not opposing the war from the same position I am. Chavez is an ally of Gaddafi, whilst Galloway is a hardline Stalinist who once shook Saddam Hussein's hand and whose main objection to state violence in Syria is that it "leaves the country at risk of imperialist invasion." But to put everyone objecting to the war on a par with these two is the same as equating them to Nick Griffin, whom they also cite as an opponent of the war in a blatant ad hominem.

However, my opposition (as the opposition of many others) doesn't equate to support for Gaddafi, or whatever other absurdities the "pro war left" cares to concoct. Rather, as I've said before;

The other point in this debate, of course, is that those of us musing on blogs or in newspaper articles are not discussing what "we" should do. We are discussing what the state should do. As we are discussing it whilst in no position to influence government policy and (in my case) from the understanding that said policy has to reflect the rough consensus of the elites rather than popular will anyway, it is something of a moot point.

States will always act as they need to in order to serve the power behind them. The masses will combine when they wish to break free of that power and act for themselves. Rather than speculating on the power plays of the ruling classes and presuming benevolent motives that aren't there, we should be taking the side and agitating in the interest of ordinary people. Everywhere. Always.
As such, I find no contradiction in both supporting the efforts of the rebels to oust Gaddafi and opposing the motivations of the western powers who have intervened through NATO.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

The downfall of TJ Hughes

On Thursday, it was announced that the retailer TJ Hughes was beyond saving. With debts of £433.5m on their hands, administrators declared that there was no chance of selling it on. Six stores have been granted a reprieve but 2,200 jobs have been lost so far and there are more to come. It is a situation which says a lot about the state of the labour movement in Britain.

The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW) responded to the news by saying that "these latest closures are bitterly disappointing but are now entirely predictable." Their members are "understandably angry," and the union will "support and represent" them through the process as well as "provide advice and support to help them find another job" at the end. But their only major contention is that the company weren't "open and honest with staff and their Trade Union" and their only movement on the issue is to call for "Government to review the laws surrounding liquidation and insolvency."

A comrade who works for the company has told me on a number of occasions of the problems which beset the union. They largely match up with my own experience as a shop steward in Sainsbury's (and by all accounts Unite's piss-poor performance is still better than USDAW!) Full time officials who collaborate with management. No active recruitment efforts. Little to no communication with members. Worst of all, management have a say in who gets to be the union rep - with the inevitable result that those who might be effective in the role are vetoed. Needless to say, even as the company was beset by woes, the number of staff in the union has gone down rather than up.

The unions, and with them the left, have largely retreated to the public sector. Beyond that, the vast majority of workers are non-union, and where there is organisation it follows the model set by USDAW. That is, a service provided to clients rather than a body of members who can act to defend and assert their collective interests. Whilst the big unions in the public sector or manufacturing have many structural and tactical limitations, the servicing unions in retail represent a whole different world.

There are initiatives to combat this situation, including the Solidarity Federation's workplace organiser training and drives to raise awareness of worker's rights. The Industrial Workers of the World have also achieved important victories for low paid workers, and there are regular reports of workers trying to organise in areas untouched by the mainstream trade unions - with varying degrees of success. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, and an honest assessment tells us that there is a long way to go before we can build the ideas of revolutionary unionism to the point where we can effectively see off shop closures and massive redundancy.

It also puts a lot of the "general strike" rhetoric coming from the left over the cuts into bleak perspective. We are a long way from 1910-1914, or 1926. If in the most densely organised sector of the working class unions are unable to pull everyone into a limited 24-hour strike, there is sparse hope of bringing the entire country to a standstill even for that same short amount of time.

But I don't say this as an exercise in cynicism or despair. If this shows how far we have to go, then the answer is to redouble our efforts - especially as the ideas of rank-and-file self-organisation are once again in vogue and the most alienated sections of the class lash out in anger at the social conditions they are faced with. The collapse of TJ Hughes may show us just how far we are from a revolutionary situation - but it should also remind us of how important it is to spread the ideas that will push us to that point.