Friday, 30 September 2011

No War but Class War - September 2011

In the United States, unions have declared their support for the occupation of Wall Street and are planning supporting rallies. This certainly adds legitimacy to the action in terms of links to class struggle, however it is still far short of the wave of strikes which accompanied the Tahrir Square occupation, and so we are still a while away from revolution. However, there are still other struggles ongoing in the US from which we can draw inspiration.

I've already previously mentioned the longshoremen in Longview, whose militant picket lines and sabotage have managed to advance their struggle considerably. The latest development is that, as the union seeks legal recourse against “ongoing police brutality and harassment,” ILWU International President “Big Bob” McEllrath turned himself in to face misdemeanor charges for his role in the blockade of a scab train. A number of workers were arrested in home raids after the sabotage of other trains. However, the union posted bail for all those concerned and on the insistence that one-by-one raids weren't safe, negotiated the surrender of all 200 members.

This resulted in 200 workers, accompanied by family members and retirees, filing up to the courthouse and offering themselves up for arrest. The sherriff refused to arrest so many people and in the end handcuffed the local's vice president. A riot police escort meant that grain shipments - blocked since July - have now restarted. Though this was not without resistance, and a peaceful sit in on the train tracks was met with mass arrests and police violence.

At the same time, 4,000 striking healthcare workers in California found their three day strike action over health care and retirment cuts given extra weight when 17,000 nurses held a sympathy strike. The healthcare corporation Kaiser Permanente has made $5.7 billion in profits over the last three years, yet still insists on increasing their margins by cutting back on what staff get for working with them. This is on top of other issues such as hospitals being permanently understaffed with nurses skipping lunch and working up to 20 hours to fill the gaps. For health workers in Britain, it offers a stark warning of what privatisation offers and points to why mass strike action - and not just over pensions - is needed now before we reach that point.

Groups in San Francisco bay held vigils at the beginning of the month outside the Chilean consulate. The leaflets that they handed out, posted online by Libcom.org, give a hint of the struggle going on in that country;
While much of the world’s attention this year has been turned toward events in the Northern hemisphere—the Arab Spring, the Spanish and Greek street assemblies, the riots in the UK, the violence in Libya—an equally interesting and potentially more radical movement has been taking place in Chile. Chilean students and the poor who have been excluded from “the Chilean miracle” of American-trained free marketeers have waged fierce battles with the cops. One teenager has been killed in the streets, shot by police in Macul, a borough of Santiago. Initial reports described the victim as a protester; later ones say he may have been an onlooker. His family places the blame squarely on the police. Whatever the final determination, he was a casualty in a conflict that has pitted Chilean youth against a social order that is old, decrepit, and brutal.

The Chilean movement has emerged in the throes of winter in the Southern hemisphere, with young people going out into the icy streets, braving the elements, of course, and, more importantly, directly challenging the Chilean state and its gendarmes, showing determination and resolve in the face of the military police. These cops are the carabineros of sinister memory under Pinochet. Their vehicles include armored personnel carriers, and they shoot water cannons at demonstrators. They more resemble an occupying army than a riot squad.

We want to remember Manuel Guttíerrez Reinoso, the teenager killed on the night of August 24, but we want to do more than that: we want to actively support the broader rebellion in Chile. We see something in the protest movement there that we identify with: it is a struggle that is ours as well. The Chilean protests began as a student movement demanding the right to public education, and at no cost to students, even at the university level. The protests began on a whimsical note, with mass “kiss ins” and other creative gestures. What made Chile different from California was that Chilean workers and the poor saw the students’ fight as one they should support as well. As the movement spread, it encountered stiff resistance from the state and its armed wing, the police. What started with a kind of poetry turned into social war.
Since then, the mainstream media reports that the jobless rate in the country has eased, and the government has increased education spending by 7.2% in the wake of the social unrest. However, as the spending growth in in line with economic growth and the country's austerity measures remain in place, it is still to be seen what impact this will have on the movement in the country.

In Poland, the anarcho-syndicalist ZSP "call[ed] on workers to call in sick and use the day for protest and self-organization" in response to the call by mainstream unions for symbolic protests against austerity measures. Decrying "the cooperation between Solidarity, OPZZ and the employers' lobby," they reiterated that "we know that some groups of rank and file workers from supermarket chains (who want to strike and are held back by the unions) and the railways will be there - so we will too." Reports from the day of action aren't yet available.

The union is also involved in a struggle with the Torun Plaza shopping mall construction site, where subcontracted workers have not been paid for two to three months. The real estate firm Plaza Centers hasn't paid the general contractor, and workers at the bottom are left without wages. This is a common problem in Poland, and firms often shirk responsibility by claiming the workers aren't their employees.

ZSP is helping workers file court claims for payment, but has also stressed that direct action will be the most effective route to getting paid. A wildcat strike was suggested as the best option, and the union has said it will support any action that the workers take, including blockading the mall's grand opening. This appears to have made the main office at Plaza Centres very nervous, judging by the panicked reaction to the ZSP's recent visit. The struggle continues.

The CNT was one of four militant unions in Spain behind the 29S initiative, "towards a general strike," seeking to build a mass movement against austerity without the mainstream union federations whose collaboration with the bosses has not gone unnoticed. For background, see the initial joint statement here and the announcement of the 29th September as the initial day of action here.

Mainstream coverage of the action is non-existent, and decent English translations of the reports by the CNT and others have yet to emerge as I write this. However, the organisations supporting the initiative included not only the various radical unions but also the popular assemblies associated with the 15M movement. There were mass assemblies, protest marches and pickets in various parts of the country and promising developments in the build up towards a full general strike.

This, from a British perspective, is also probably the best model to work with when aiming towardssuch action. Slogans demanding that the TUC call a general strike have adorned Trotskyist placards throughout the anti-cuts movement here, but this is clearly an unrealistic notion. Even aside from the fact that such acall would be illegal and against the social interests of the TUC leadership, it would fall flat simply because of the sheer volume of workers entirely untouched by unionisation.

Such an approach as seen in Spain, however, could serve to galvanise huge swathes of rank-and-file workers as well as forgoing token actions in favour of long-term movement building. It would also have the effect of simultaneously tearing down the despondency and alienation of much of the working class whilst circumventing the traditional top-down approach of the mainstream trade unions. The problem comes in the fact that Spain are way ahead of us in the number of functioning anarcho-syndicalist unions that they have, though that doesn't mean that this idea cannot give us something to work towards if enough momentum builds.

Finally, Al Masry Al Youm has an interesting report on the wave of strikes that this month gripped Egypt;
The first two weeks of September have witnessed a massive wave of strikes, with many more planned for the rest of the month. These are taking place despite the law - issued in April - criminalizing strikes which harm the national economy, and despite regulations issued by the ruling military junta making negotiations during the course of strikes unacceptable.

Hundreds of thousands of workers and employees have launched strikes, sit-ins and marches to protest their working conditions. Among these are public school teachers - who are planning a general strike on the new academic year's first day of classes, 17 September; workers at private and public-sector textile mills; security and custodial workers at the American University in Cairo; farmers; and nurses and doctors in eight different governorates.

These strike actions come against a political backdrop that once seemed encouraging to Egypt’s 27-million labor force.

Shortly after President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in 11 February, over 500,000 workers, professionals, farmers, employees and pensioners moved to establish their own independent trade unions and federations to provide a bargaining mechanism for workers long deprived of negotiating with both the state and the business community. These independent unions are reportedly playing a significant role in organizing protest actions and strikes nationwide.

Yet the recent resurgence of widespread strikes, analysts say, reflect a deep disillusionment with the democratic transition process, with workers feeling more and more that improving their economic and political conditions were but hollow promises from the revolution.

"The primary demand behind all the strikes - in the public, private and informal sectors - is improved incomes in line with increasing living expenses," said Karam Saber, director of the Land Center for Human Rights. Other common demands include the payment of overdue bonuses, incentive payments, fixed or full-time contracts for full-time work, among other demands.

"The interim authorities have made very little progress in terms of raising wages, incomes and salaries; or in terms of putting a cap on the salaries of managerial officials in the form of a maximum wage," Saber said.

According to Saber Barakat, a member of the caretaker council at the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, there are other reasons motivating the working class to protest and strike. One of the main factors causing dismay is the fact that Mubarak's officials and generals are still calling the shots and pulling Egypt's strings. The old guard is still in power.

"The revolution gave workers the impression that their conditions would improve; but reality has proven otherwise," said Barakat. "The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has sent signals to investors reassuring them that their interests will be protected and upheld."
You can read the full article here. However, the point on investors' interests being upheld is important because it shows that a political revolution can only achieve so much. Egyptians, after the inspiring movement that came to define the Arab Spring and - through Tahrir Square - become a popular meme for radical action now faces conditions not too far removed from those they dealt with before. The dictator may be gone, but workers are still struggling to get by and having to fight tooth-and-nail for wage increases.

The ultimate aim of the class war is not to usher in a slightly nicer form of capitalism or to replace a dictator with a (very) gradual move towards social democracy. It is to fight for the complete revolutionary transformation of society in the interests of the people rather than of capital - libertarian communism. Until that day comes, the class war will never be over.