FRONT PAGE: CWU CALL OFF POSTAL STRIKE
Most postal workers first heard that their industrial action against Royal Mail had been called off on Thursday 5th of November on the news. While the CWU needed a mandate from its members to take industrial action no such mandate was sought when calling it off.
Following threats that the action would be escalated the ‘leadership’ of the CWU caved in on the eve of the third round of strikes after reaching an ‘”interim” peace deal’.
Now there are to be two months of ‘talks’. That gets Royal Mail through the Christmas period without any commitment to do anything to address the concerns of posties on walks and in depots all over the UK.
What it does do though is give the bureaucrats of the CWU a seat at the ‘negotiating’ table. They seem quite satisfied with that. They want Royal Mail management to „consult‟ them about how it will modernise, how many more posties it will sack and how everyone (except the bosses) will
have to tighten their belts in the current economic climate. It says it all that the ‘agreement’ was not even agreed until more than 7 hours after the strikes were called off. As the Financial Times put it, “In the interim deal, the two sides agreed to suspend strikes and further changes to working
practices until a final agreement on modernisation and job security is reached by the end of December.”
On “local issues” there is a promise of local negotiations to reach local agreement. This, in other words, is an agreement to seek agreement at some point in the future, with the help of an as yet unspecified “agreed independent person”.
Most postal workers we spoke to have been appalled that the leadership of the CWU have withdrawn the threat of industrial action without any consultation with posties. The lack of rank and file control of this dispute is
striking. This betrayal demonstrates once again that workers must take control of their own struggles rather than rely on Trade Union bureaucrats. It is time to build real solidarity across this, and all, industries to ensure Trade Union bosses cannot impose their agenda of compromise and accommodation. This, as many workers have already learnt, will mean taking wildcat action in future as and when necessary.
On The Picket Line
Organise! actively supported striking postal workers from the start of their strike, attending picket lines and handing out leaflets to counter media misinformation about the dispute. As the CWU nationwide strike entered its second day members of Organise! were on the picket line at Belfast’s Tomb Street depot and spoke to ‘Paul’, a striking postal worker. There was a good turnout on the picketlines from workers and spirits were high, support was also shown from other Trade Unions. the Belfast and District Trades Union Council, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party. The ‘great and the good’, where there in the persons of John Monks and Jack O’Connor also graced us with their presence and voiced words of support for the dispute.
It was confirmed at that stage that action would be ongoing in a dispute over ‘modernisation’ and working conditions. Workers in Royal Mail‟s sorting offices were out again the following Thursday and no deliveries were made that Saturday. At the start of the strike ‘Paul’ told us:
“This dispute really goes back to the strike in 2007… that strike action was called off when various agreements were reached between the CWU and Royal Mail management to go ahead with ‘modernisation’, including terms, pay and conditions, job cuts, contracted hours and all those various
things in consultation with the union. So over the last couple of years, obviously Royal Mail management say they have been talking to the union, but as far as the union and the workforce are concerned they were just pushing through their modernisation plans without consultation with the CWU or the consent of the workforce.
It got to the point where the resentment built up, and up, and up over excessive workloads, extra working hours without proper overtime payments, people being sacked and a range of other issues that led to the CWU ballot which saw 74% of union members voting to strike.
Today is the first day of strike action for posties, yesterday was collections and sorting offices.”
Royal Mail had put up posters in the run up to the strike assuring scabs that they could report for work at other depots (where they would be less likely to be recognised) and that they did not have to wear uniforms. When asked if there was any indication of the number of scabs working in Tomb Street depot Paul stated:
“This is the difficult thing, because this is an official strike management know what is going on, they are down there letting scabs in the car park gates and they have been letting them in another entrance to the building. Scabs have already entered the building at 6.00 am. And yeah, I reckon there will be a handful, there are people who are selfish when it comes to this sort of dispute unfortunately”
Day to day, in a division without a shop steward, Paul has been frustrated by the lack of communication to strikers from CWU full-timers “its word of mouth from your fellow posties”.
Asked about the prospects for winning the dispute Paul told us that strikers were talking about going on to “the death” with this strike and that they wouldn’t trust management “as far as y’ could throw them”.
In Derry there was no picket line on the Thursday but on Friday a member of Organise! visited the picket line to show solidarity. Around 60-70 posties were on the picket line in Derry. While their shop steward, Charlie Kelly had stated on local radio that he was not in favour of the strike, he later claimed that Mandelson’s intervention has convinced him the strike was necessary after all. In the past Kelly also opposed wildcat strike action in Mallusk and Tomb Street.
Back in Tomb Street local CWU official Gabe McCurry called on strikers to “Stand firm, stand solid” in what he described as a struggle for a fair workload and a fair days pay with no harassment. A struggle that he pointed out had a lot of support locally and nationally.
It is criminal that the leadership of the CWU did not stand with its members and other postal workers, instead choosing to sabotage a dispute with solid support on the ground.
CWU Ups and Downs
Recent announcements of further call centre jobs for Derry with the Indian-owned group, Firstsource makes recent moves to encourage unionization of the sector here by Communication Workers Union (CWU) members all the more important.
CWU full-timers recently held a low-key leafleting picket outside Firstsource’s offices in Derry to draw attention to the anti-union attitude of such call centres and encourage workers to join a union. The Firstsource operation have hired quite a few former employees of the Stream call centre, several hundred of whom were laid off in the last couple of months in spite of the company posting ever-rising profits in the last financial year.
Stream was an American-owned outfit that came to Derry in the usual blaze of publicity as a ‘high-end’ technical and IT consultancy firm (corporate bullshit for a call centre that services the telecommunications industry). They were, of course, welcomed with the same mixture of embarrassing praise and self-congratulatory back-slapping as the Firstsource group in spite of their blatant non-union policy and shit wages and conditions. All parties united in resurrecting old Nationalist Party MP, Eddie McAteer’s maxim that ‘half a loaf is better than no loaf at all’, an economic insight of such brilliance that it remains the staple of the local Orange and Green parties.
Of course, the CWU’s chances of recruiting new members might be better served if workers could actually see that they were willing to fight for them. The mood on the Derry postal workers’ picket line during the recent strike reflected in the local press by shop steward, Charlie Kelly, was that the CWU would inevitably make their own decisions regardless of what local members felt or wanted. Despite an excellent turnout (only 5 of the 140 or so Derry workers balloted refused to support the strike), and some good militancy against management, who at one point during the strike called the PSNI to clear pickets from the depot entrance, it was clear many of the Derry CWU members saw the writing on the wall for the pathetic, whimpering end of this strike.
Regardless of the sector involved, the CWU will have to go some way to persuade anyone that they are the union to join.
Derry Dockers’ Struggle
Derry‟s dockers, like dock workers all over Britain and Ireland, have seen years of attrition that have slashed the numbers of people working in the industry or replaced generations of experience and skill with machinery, casualisation and temporary contracts.
The creation of Londonderry Port further up the Foyle at Lisahally in the late 1980‟s/early 1990‟s moved the entire workforce away from the city and provided the first big cut-back in numbers.
This has carried on relentlessly since then until now when a relatively meagre workforce remains at the port augmented by a handful of agency workers with few rights and less security.
At the beginning of last month a worker made redundant in July decided he‟d had enough and staged a sit-in on one of the ships at Lisahally.
Gavin McDermott boarded the cargo ship the „Lugano Basel‟ and prevented its grain and animal feed from being unloaded for six hours before he was physically removed by the PSNI and Port officials. Gavin‟s family have worked the docks for six generations. He said his action was to draw attention to the increasing use of agency workers and the laying off of experienced dockers like himself, which has been part of ongoing representations to management at the Port so far with no success.
ICTU Rally For A Better And Fairer Northern Ireland
On the 6th of November the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions organised rallies in Armagh, Ballymena, Belfast, Coleraine, Craigavon, Derry, Enniskillen, Magherafelt, Newry and Omagh to demand a “Better and fairer deal for Northern Ireland”.
The demonstrations were organised in order to demonstrate opposition to cuts in public services and for fair treatment of all workers.
Organise! attended the Belfast rally, marching with workers, Trade Unionists, socialists and other anarchists into the city centre from the City Hospital to join hundreds more outside Belfast City Hall.
John Corey, chairperson of the Northern Ireland Committee of the ICTU opened by welcoming workers and Trade Unionists to the rally and commended the stand taken by postal workers against Royal Mail management. Telling those present they were part of a movement of working people rallying in 10 centres in the north and in 8 cities and towns in the south he stated:
“We are all out today to deliver the message to government, north and south… That the trade union movement is going to stand up against attacks on our public services. That‟s a message that we are delivering loud and clear… We are going to stand up for the rights of working people and their families and that we‟re going to stand up for fairness in this society”.
“This government, the British government, had no problem finding 85 billion last year to save banks and the financial world from its own self destruction and reckless action. This week its reported that the government has managed to find another 29 million for so-called financial stability, and who‟s being asked to pay for this? Its certainly not the bank bosses and those who run the so-called free market that we have to live with… it is working people and their families who are being asked to pay, with cuts in their public services, cuts to beds in hospitals, closures of old peoples homes and the kind of news that you heard this morning that working people are to be left with choices between treatment for swine flu and screening for cancer. We are saying its a shame and disgrace that that is happening and we are out to stop that happening!”
He went on to say that the rally was not just about opposing cuts but was also about how our society was going to treat working people, twenty thousand of whom have lost their jobs in the last year in Northern Ireland.
“The Trade Union movement is saying no, working people are not going to pay for the expenditure cuts that you are demanding. We’re not going to pay to bail out the banks”.
“We will fight cuts in public services and fight for a better and fairer society” announced Corey, who closed by restating opposition to the introduction of household water charges in Northern Ireland.
Peter Bunting then spoke:
“Fellow workers, friends, comrades, we are here today to expose bloat, waste and time-serving at the heart of the public sector. I am talking about, of course, the people who rule us, who write the laws, frame the budgets, those who serve in the Assembly and in Westminster. The people we elect who have fiddled while the economy burns. Just as many have been fiddling their expenses. The public has been short-changed and it is time for pay-back”.
Criticising government and questioning whether our politicians lived in the real world Bunting stated that almost 23,000 jobs have gone in the last year, 53,000 are unemployed while almost 30% of our working age population are “cast aside in the ranks of what‟s termed the economically inactive”.
As a solution Bunting demanded the Assembly “get with a new program” that places at the centre of our politics “the daily lives of its citizens”.
“We need to understand that the best solution to poverty and social exclusion is work. Work in well paid, humanely rewarding and unionised careers” going on Bunting demanded a re-think on “who our economy is supposed to serve… We need to challenge the consensus that cuts are inevitable in our public services because we have to keep the bankers in the luxury, and the bonuses, to which they have become accustomed”.
In closing Bunting called for an alternative vision of a Northern Ireland that is “fit for purpose for all its inhabitants”.
Bunting was followed by Patricia McKeown, Regional Secretary of Unison, Kevin McAdam from Unite and Lawrence Huston of the CWU. While Patricia fostered some illusions that our ‘representatives’ in Stormont may act on demands to end attacks on our public services she did threaten strike action if they refused to listen to the unions and public sector workers. We at the Leveller will not be endorsing her invite to politicians to work on ‘our’ side – such a move would be like inviting foxes into a chicken coop.
Kevin McAdam promised that this would be the start of a campaign to fight cuts and attacks on workers and public services while Lawrence Huston, perhaps wrong-footed by the recent suspension of industrial action by the CWU, floundered as he excused the role of the CWU ‘leadership’ while promising that the resolve of postal workers in this struggle remained strong.
In closing Corey promised that if politicians failed to listen that the campaign would go forward and include a campaign of industrial action across the north.
Industrial action should be built to defend public services, but hard lessons need to be acknowledged and workers need to organise themselves. We need to build links among all workers to take control of this struggle ourselves and ensure that it is not sold short by Trade Union bureaucrats as happened to our postal workers. Workers inside and outside the Trades Unions need to be involved in this struggle. It is encouraging that industrial action has been threatened but what is it that the Trade Union leaders will be happy with from ‘our’ politicians?
The NIC ICTU campaign for ‘A better and fairer deal for Northern Ireland’ demands “social solidarity” between the Trade Unions and government. It is a demand for a form of social partnership that has restricted and hampered the labour movement in the south for years. We are opposed to cuts and job losses but we cannot support demands for social partnership with government and the bosses. Giving the union bosses a seat round a table at Stormont will not serve the interests of workers. We need to organise and take control of our own struggles. We need to show the bosses and politicians that we will not sit back and accept attack after attack. We have no problem with pointing out that we are expected to pay with cuts and job losses for the current recession while bankers are bailed out and private consultants are paid a fortune.
However the problem is not their ‘bad’ decisions. The problem was, and remains, fundamental to the functioning of capitalism. A system based on exploitation of working people in pursuit of profits for the few. With the will and organisation to see this struggle through we could see an important short-term victory. Real victory will not be ours until the system that produces booms and busts is scrapped and replaced by a libertarian communist society based on the needs and abilities of all.
Scargill Addresses Belfast Meeting
Arthur Scargill, who will be 72 in January 2010, certainly hasn’t lost any of his fire as a public speaker. In a, regrettably, poorly publicised meeting at the Unite office on the Antrim Road on Friday 30th of October, Scargill recounted the miners strike of 84-85 with humour and emotion.
“We were right to stand and fight!” he declared as he told the story of a dispute that brought down the full weight of a state determined to crush the miners and the NUM.
This was indeed a strike that was confronted with the full force of the state, the police, and soldiers dressed as police, were used to crush the miners. Surveillance, dirty tricks, media misrepresentation and betrayal marked the increasingly bitter struggle of the miners against Thatcher’s government.
“I am a fighter against capitalism. I am a socialist. If that makes me an enemy of the state, I take that as a compliment” proclaimed Scargill.
Throughout the tale Scargill added humour, impersonating (sometimes well, sometimes not so well) many of the people he had dealings with during the strike. He told how, years after the Battle of Orgreave, he had returned to the town as the coking plant was being closed down. He got on the phone to the local police to ask them to get down there. Relating how the constable on the other end of the phone asked what it had to do with
the police Scargill recounted “Well it was a lot to do with you in 1984 when we tried to shut it down temporarily”. Another example of how it is one law for them and another for us Arthur told us.
He urged those present, mostly trade union bureaucrats, to learn the lessons of the miners strike and apply them to their struggles today. Unfortunately Scargill still mistakes nationalisation of industry for socialism.
Scargill also dealt with some more controversial issues and attacked modern day environmentalists for picking the wrong target, criticising what he regards as de facto support for nuclear power. He asserted that coal can be produced in an environmentally friendly manner and pointed out that Britain has a 1,000 year supply of coal beneath its soil.
Asked if he would make any changes to what he did during the strike he said no, but warned that others should learn lessons of solidarity and support. He pointed out the betrayal of some in a struggle that was also a tale of treachery. However the cost of collaboration was the closure, in the wake of the strike, of 31 of the 32 pits ‘represented’ by the scab union the UDM.
If we are to apply the lessons of the miners strike we must acknowledge that workers taking industrial action today are going into their disputes from a weaker position than the miners.
A Year Of Our Lives pgs 4-6
Dave Douglass, anarcho-syndicalist, NUM member and participant in the great miners strike looks back twenty years on. Written in 2005, originally for Black Flag, despite his uncritical and, we believe, misguided, comments in relation to the IRA the article is an illuminating account of the strike, the reasons behind it, the Tories’ and Labour’s attacks on the working class and finally how the strike was lost:
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the 1984/85 miners strike, arguably the most important working class struggle of the twentieth century. Some have seen the miners strike of 1926 and the subsequent general strike as a greater potential revolutionary movement. I wouldn’t argue with that, for a brief period the state and the misleaders of the trade union movement held their breath, while the tanks were mobilised on the streets and the military took up position while workers followed the call for class solidarity. But the moment was short lived, in its revolutionary potential anyway, for the miners it was to last 9 bitter, betrayal and starvation filled months.
The 84/85 movement, however, posed a far greater physical challenge to the guardians of law and order, in terms of confrontation and mass movement of workers taking to the streets to challenge control by the state. In terms of rank and file control (at least initially) and involvement of the whole community, the offensive by the women of the coalfields and sometimes the children, establishment of miners support groups across industry and the labour movement, the world wide mobilisation of solidarity support and sometimes action, 84 was far more an actual movement, politicising vast numbers of people, both within and without the pit communities. (Of course 26 had its moments, derailing the Flying Scotsman, was unmatched by anything we pulled off in 84 for example).
The pit communities were „closed‟ communities in the sense that, mining isn’t a trade you just come to out of the blue. It is a profession passed on father to son, in many cases for generations (women and little girls had worked in some coalfields, but by the 1840s were prevented by legislation from underground labour, pit brow women continued into the 1960s). It carries with it, its own culture, its own view of history and how that has impacted upon the mining communities. When miners spoke on public platforms during the strike, of „the struggle of our fathers and grandfathers‟ most academics assumed they were talking figuratively, but they weren’t, they were talking actually, about the impact and perceptions of struggles which had gone before. The effect of this was to ensure mining communities were already highly politicised, with deep class perspectives and socialist traditions. It had been scarcely ten years earlier the Edward Heath government broke its back on the miners strike, and twelve years since they had wrecked his incomes policy. So the miners and their families entered this struggle well aware of the scale of the challenge being mounted. Although some had taken some convincing at first, by March 1984 few were unaware that Thatcher was moving in to smash the social power of the miners by breaking their union in an all or nothing confrontation.
Almost universally the „left‟ has cited the decentralised nature of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) as a weakness. This is a strange view indeed, without the semi-autonomy of the miners areas, the strike in the form it was launched could never have happened. Behind the view is a notion that some how the miners could simply be ordered out on strike by a national leadership running a national union. They would never have worn that, which is in part why the old Area structure and strong branch autonomies remained.
Ever since Margaret Thatcher was elected it was clear her whole strategy at home would depend on being able to heavily defeat the unions. Most had responded to this perspective by staying out of sight and hoping she wouldn’t notice them, with the miners she and her party strategists had long planned to take them on as a prelude to her whole social and economic programme; the miners had to be fought and defeated (most will perhaps be aware of the Myron Plan and Ridley Commission, strategies drawn up following the defeat of Heath to take on and defeat the miners in the future, using scab drivers, mass policing, an anti-strike movement and support for a nuclear alternative). A steady game of chess had been stalking the board for three years prior to the outbreak of the strike. The union leadership had been trying to forge a strategy which would take the miners as a united national body into conflict with this government, on our terms, but it had failed. Failed because although the miners were a militant bunch, and would fight on wages and conditions when they felt particularly aggrieved, they had never really been too arsed about fighting pit closures. Hundreds had closed over the preceding twenty years, the failure to fight this was only partially due to the collaboration of NUM leaders, the other was down to the ambivalent attitude of the miners to pit work.
We didn’t actually like the pit, we didn’t actually like working on god awful shifts, in crippling dust and heat in cramped and wet conditions. True we were all proud to be miners, but that didn’t mean we liked working down the mine! So fighting for jobs, especially these jobs was never going to be a catchy slogan. NUM leader Arthur Scargill had disastrously tried to link the question of pit closures to pay rises together on a single ballot paper, in the hope that the desire for the latter would deliver up a mandate on the former. The members were furious and felt they were being conned, and the strategy backfired. The National Coal Board (NCB) for its part was also wrong footed, for a start they were not sure what the aim of a showdown was about. Most senior managers would agree the union was too strong and needed its wings clipping in a showdown, many would agree there was surplus capacity in the industry and it required fine tuning, perhaps a little surgery. Few on the NCB side would agree to any perspective of decimating the industry or stomping the union out of existence, the bulk of them had come up through the ranks, and themselves were generational pit folk, albeit ‘on the other side’.
What the bosses of the Coal Board hadn’t realised was that this whole strategy was aimed at destroying the NCB as an organisation, and with it, most of them. For a time it looked as though, the NCB would concentrate on taking out ‘capacity’ (shutting pits) in areas were they figured they could get away with it, Durham, Northumberland, Scotland, Wales. Rank and file efforts to generate a major fight back on closures in these areas failed to move, with great residual bitterness. Polmaise in Scotland, Bear Park in Durham, Lewis Merthyr in South Wales all had tried to demonstrate the need for solidarity action and a national stand. At Lewis Merthyr pickets had started to be deployed around the country. At Hatfield Main in Doncaster the Women’s Support Group was founded to lobby for support for strike action for Lewis Merthyr and the branch voted to strike. The Doncaster panel was calling for strikes in the entire Doncaster coalfield in support, but other parts of Yorkshire were hostile. The South Wales Area came out en masse and the strike was endorsed under rule 41 by the National Executive Committee, the way was open for South Wales to then picket out and call for support from the other areas. However the demand for a national ballot was acceded to and following the usual press propaganda war, warning of hell fire, and murder, the vote was lost by 61%. The NCB could continue its selective surgery without confrontation.
That was not the strategy however, and under Thatcher’s orders, industrialist Ian MacGregor was called in because Thatcher didn’t trust the NCB chiefs to do the scale of closure and conduct the fight to the finish with the NUM. The US imported undertaker [originally brought to the UK by the Labour Party on the board of British Leyland] threw down the gauntlet in Yorkshire – Cortonwood would close in days, what are you going to do about it? The Yorkshire miners as a whole had been very reluctant to fight for miners elsewhere, it must be said, but now the challenge was at home, and it was clear this was a fight, initially yes for 50,000 jobs and 50 pits, but also whether or not the remaining miners would have any backbone, what sort of regime would remain for the survivors and would we have a union at all.
Those things were worth fighting for. Again an area strike was called by pit delegates and at mass meetings throughout the coalfields endorsed at the pit head in a show of tens of thousands of hands, although there had also been a successful ballot in the Yorkshire Area three years earlier. Again the NEC approved the action under rule 41 and the Yorkshire pickets set off to call out their fellow miners in all the other areas. This time we would not respond to calls for a national ballot. Other areas joined the action, some very reluctantly and picketing and mass meetings seen strong arguments, especially in Wales were the miners had felt particularly let down by Yorkshire, but within a week 80% of the miners and 134 pits were on strike nation-wide. At the others despite calls to support the strike, and with the active assistance of Thatcher’s strike breaking teams and undercover agents, an anti-strike movement later an anti-union movement was developed.
What must be remembered is that this uneven response by key areas was not an accident, it had been designed to happen, and designed by the former Labour government. The miners strike of 1974 had brought down the Tories and imposed a Labour government, but the miners had refused to call off their strike during and after the general election. The implication was clear to any government, strike action could shift governments, and it needn’t be once every five years. Power resided elsewhere other than in parliament. The working class as a class had power if it wished to exercise it for political and class ends. Labour didn’t like this any more than the Tories and had set up a think tank to design strategies to ensure this didn’t happen again, just as the Tories had done in fact. Chief target of the strategists had been the centralising, unifying, feature of national pay bargaining. It meant that miners wages and conditions for the first time were debated on a single national table by a single national union body representing all the areas. It had ended area disparities and area inequalities. National pay bargaining had meant for the first time that a miner in Scotland could be paid the same rates for the same class of work as a miner in Kent, or in any one of the far flung coalfield areas.
The eyes of the miners in all areas, and the strength of their resolve would be unified in one union around conference decisions. It had been this feature, brought about by the National Power Loading Agreement of 1963 which had cleared the way for successful strikes in ’69, ’72 and ’74. It was this feature which Labour now moved to break. This it did by introduction of the Area Incentive Schemes, over the top of national conference decisions and against the decisions of national ballots. The Midlands and Nottingham in particular ignored ballot decisions and with the green light from NUM leader Joe Gormley, effectively a fifth columnist, the area incentive scheme was adopted, entirely unconstitutionally. Wages and conditions, as well as perspectives for the future, would now be locally coloured to a large extent. Area strategies would be seen as more important than national ones. Old fault lines, first established in the anti 1926 strike movement, the anti miners union of Spensorism which had been established in Nottingham, now opened up wider with the generous payments of incentives in selective areas. Nottingham and Leicester convinced themselves they had a long term future of their own, the other coalfields areas were not of concern. This “I’m all right Jack” attitude was crucial in dividing miner from miner and area from area, but it had been created as a political and social ploy, it wasn’t some natural development.
Some have made the ballot the central issue of the strike. Of course it wasn’t, but it is important to understand the degree to which the rank and file dictated tactics during this strike. Many in the leadership had seen the picketing operations and the semi-official nature of the strike movement as a temporary measure, a kick-start to get the thing rolling on a more official basis. Once the strike started, and the full design of the other side revealed, once we were able to let the activists hammer home the message of the gravity of this situation, once the bulk of the rank and file were fully convinced of the necessity to take this on, we could then call a national ballot. Wrong, although a special conference was convened in Sheffield, and a rule change had gone through conference to change the rule requirement for national action from 55% to 51%. The members now on strike could see no need for any ballots. They thought we in the leadership of the union were trying to sell them out, were looking for an excuse to call off the strike. So they instructed their delegates at pit after pit to vote against a national ballot and to continue the strike to victory. It was an entirely understandable reaction, but in retrospect a mistaken one. A national ballot at this stage of the struggle, with emotions running high and the bulk of the collieries at a standstill would without any doubt whatever have won a massive strike mandate. Of course this wouldn’t have stopped the hardened scabs going in, nor stopped the reactionary forces operating in Nottingham trying to break the union and the strike, but it would have robbed them of their legitimacy, and taken some of the edge off the excuses put forward by other unions showing only lukewarm support or outright scabbing.
For a time, the pickets spreading out in brilliant manoeuvres from coalfield to coalfield and pit to pit, rolled all in front of them, the sheer buoyancy of confidence of the pickets won over by far and away the bulk of doubters in coalfield after coalfield. Even in Nottingham where only a minority, perhaps a third of miners actually actively supported the strike, men refused to cross picket lines and were, if not happy to go home, at least went home without too much fuss. Solidarity started to come through strongly on the railways, and among the seafarers. Some power stations started to realise that our jobs were literally their jobs too and took blacking actions. Thatcher’s reaction was the drafting of a de-facto national police force, which would be given its head to do anything it had to do to stop the pickets getting through, and to break up picket lines. The police were signed up as the NCB’s own security firm to ensure scabs got to work on time and in one piece regardless of numbers and costs. Roadblocks and curfews were imposed and the striking villages were saturated with an occupying police force. Government strategies were then based around getting at least one scab into every pit in Britain. In Yorkshire, this would be the major diversion, along with the Orgreave steel coking plant. These police second fronts would stop the pickets in Nottingham and allow the scabs to work and coal to be produced. The bitterness of escalating violence and counter-violence is now legendary, but what it did was open up political ideas on class violence, on counter violence, and the justification for armed struggles. The IRA, for example, only lost sympathy during the strike when they failed to kill Thatcher and her cabinet. The scab herding taxi driver’s death in Wales was seen and justified almost everywhere as a legitimate action which had simply gone wrong, a casuality in a war which had already claimed two of our pickets without any such fuss in the press. The hypocrisy over Libyan financial assistance for the strikers, when Thatcher was pouring extra oil in from every despotic country in the world, all were educations in the real class divide in world events.
Across the world, working people mobilised in solidarity with the British miners and their families. The scale of the operation is breathless, Tens of millions of pounds were raised and distributed through rank and file networks of women, and local support groups. Families fed, clothed and cared for 12 bitter months of struggle. Sympathetic councils suspended rents, kept school canteens open during holiday months, and did what they could, whilst on the other side the DSS stopped benefits and found ways to force real poverty on people’s welfare entitlements regardless of age. The nature of this state started to be revealed in very real terms, and that wiped some mist from the eyes of many about places like Ireland, and what was going on there, the struggle of black people down in London and other places. Social roles were starting to be challenged. Women not only ‘manned’ soup kitchens and the welfare infrastructure but argued among themselves about strategy, pickets, slogans, marriage and kids and ideas in general. Would groups be ‘ladies’ or ‘wives’ or ‘women’? Sexual stereotyping, attitudes to gays, religious groups, everything which had been taken for granted was now no longer taken for granted.
Victory was within grasp, we could feel it and taste it. Thatcher and MacGreggor have both admitted as much. If the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers union (NACODS) had implemented either of its mass pro-strike mandates, if the dockers had continued their blacking actions just days longer, if the TUC had implemented its national conference decisions, we would have won hands down.
Just think of what that victory would have meant in political terms, in class terms in social terms, coming at the end of such a polarisation of class forces and determined action on both sides. Twice in ten years an industrial union based on a community would have smashed a government policy and almost certainly would have smashed the Thatcher government too. Think of the consequences of that. The other side, not just the Tories and their establishment, but the whole parliamentary circus, of Labour and Liberal trembled. That we didn’t succeed was a consequence of conscious traitors in the trade union leadership, particularly in power stations, and steel works and among NACODS who saw and chose a side, consciously joining in to ensure the defeat of the miners. But it was also action by those individual workers who could not see the consequences, refused to see anything but their own selfish greed, which derailed us. At the end of the day, the dockers at Immingham, who allowed non union non dockers to load coal onto scab lorries, and in the process smashed their own dock labour scheme, and most of their jobs nation-wide. The power station workers who scabbed every day, and ultimately saw two thirds of their own jobs go with the closure of the coal fired stations. The coking coal plants like Orgreave that worked on through the cavalry charges and pitched battles at their gates. The blackleg miners in Nottingham and Leicester, thrown on the scrap heap and their own pits closed and communities decimated. The armies of female office workers, whose wages and conditions came from being part of the white collar section of the NUM. Whose allegiances and inflated self opinion however kept them working right through the strike, collecting money and donating flowers to the nice policemen only to discover if you don’t need coal mines, you don’t need coal mine HQs and blocks of offices, and finally joined the miners… on the dole queue. The scabbing steel workers in Scotland, Wales and Yorkshire, all closed down and dead and buried. Scab mercenary lorry drivers spreading strike breaking, from the miners, through the dockers, and the print workers, through animal activists, through nuclear campaigners and presiding over destruction of social communities and solidarity and compassion.
Certainly it was a fight we had no choice but to undertake, a battle the working class will never forget, and one we certainly didn’t deserve to lose, for these ordinary folk, not trained soldiers or wild eyed zealots, had laid everything flesh and blood and even life could offer on the line. They had no more to give. Visit the former pit communities today and you will still see the results of that defeat, although come to think of it, visit almost any workplace in Britain and you will see it too. We must never forget who were our friends and who were our enemies in that war, nor the need to start seriously looking for the means of taking our revenge. Yes we will cheer when Thatcher kicks the bucket, but it’s the whole stinking system she fought for and defended which needs to go to the grave with her. That would be a lasting legacy for the pit communities of 84/85.
David Douglass First published in Black Flag. Lightly edited by libcom for typos, grammar and some clarifying information such as full names and acronyms. www.libcom.org
Education Workers News
This Education Workers News supplement of the Leveller is produced by the Organise! Education Workers Branch. Set up in August last year the Education Workers Branch is made up of Organise! members who work in education – from admin and support to research, teaching, lecturing and community education.
While the branch is specifically for education workers who are members of Organise! we want to promote militancy and solidarity across the education industry. We are seeking to build a network of militant education workers that can begin to take effective action in defence of workers and students across the industry and in defence of education itself. If you are interested in getting involved in such a network, one that aims at active involvement in the day to day struggles of education workers while promoting solidarity with others in struggle then get in touch.
We believe that in order to successfully counter the attacks being carried out against workers that we need to organise industrially – such an industrial strategy is not simply for education workers though, such a strategy can and must be applied to every industry.
Queens Anarchist Society enters its fourth year
Queens University Anarchist Society is going into its fourth year of existence with a healthy membership at the start of this year.
While distributing information at this years fresher’s day the group were victim of a strange twist of fate when their stall was disrupted by a television crew filming an interview with Sir Reg Empty (the Ulster Unionist society stall was right beside the anarchist stall!).
Interview finished Sir Reg graciously apologised to the Queens anarchists for any disruption. On being asked to join the revolution Sir Reg did a little
gig and declared in a shrill voice “I AM the revolution!”.
With cut-backs, redundancies and threatened hikes in fees hanging over Queens University, and higher education generally, students and education workers need to unite in opposition to these attacks.
The QUB Anarchist Society believes that students should make common cause with workers in the education industry in the fight against the government onslaught on education. As such they will be working with the Education Branch of Organise! in the coming months to oppose attacks at
the university. The society are committed to campaigning with others for the restoration of full grant maintained education to cover all costs of living
incurred, campaigning for an end to the loan system and for the abolition of fees.
The group are also opposed to privatisation, cuts and redundancies in the education industry and in the long-term work towards the creation of “a free education system in which everyone takes an active role, as equals, in the learning process.” The society also work to promote an understanding of anarchism and they “believe capitalism, wage slavery and the state must be replace with a society based on direct participation and direct democracy. A society in which everyone affected by a decision has a full and equal role in reaching that decision.”
Tower Hamlets Striker Speaks To The Leveller
While the recent media spin is suggesting that we‟re „on our way out of recession‟, the reality on the ground is that workers are still facing attacks in the forms of job cuts and community provisions. Education has been one of the sectors worst hit in this period, with £65m slashed from higher-education (HE) budgets, schools closing left, right and centre, and jobs to go at approximately 100 of the 150 HE institutions in the UK . The situation is as bleak as ever.
In August, around 250 members of teaching staff at Tower Hamlets College (THC), East London went on indefinite strike over threats of compulsory redundancies, and cuts in provision of ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) courses. We spoke to Rachel, a member of the striking staff, about the background of the dispute, the issues at hand, and the feelings after the strike came to an end in late September. We began by discussing the background to the strike, going back to June of this year, – “There was new management, a new principal, new senior managers … was acknowledging that there were positive elements in the outcome. While compulsory redundancies were defeated, and this would also mean some ESOL provision would be saved (though not nearly as much as the 1,000 places under threat), Rachel and many of her fellow strikers are not getting carried away in the euphoria expressed by some on the left and higher up in the UCU.
“It was quite a bittersweet thing. A lot of people don‟t wanna talk about it as a victory – we could have done more heading back to work , but we feel great about what we did… I think at Poplar you’ve got an SWP branch, they were the ones that kind of ended it when it ended. They wanted that result and got it in the mass vote – „This is a great victory lets go down to the Brighton Labour party conference.‟ But cracks have started to appear very quickly in those celebrations.
“People feel it’s a mixed bag. It’s not just me – 24 of us voted against going back. I didn’t think we could stay much longer, but the vote wasn’t done in the spirit that other meetings had been done.”
and in June they issued a document „Securing the Future‟.” The nature of this document turned out to be a plan for “very brutal cuts in provision and jobs, and on June 5 there was a 30 day notice for consultation”, with the projection in June being that “40-60 jobs in THC would be cut, while approximately 50% of ESOL course places would also be lost, and some in A-level teaching.”
Prior to the attack on jobs and provision, Rachel said that she had experienced “good working conditions with a strong union … we were comfortable”. But that all changed, and with a suddenness typical of many disputes, the plans to cut jobs and ESOL provision were an aggressive assault on the workers and students. Management were strategic in their timing – “proposing to do it all at once, and at the end of term so it was hard to do anything about it… coming up to exams, most of teaching finished for the summer” – indeed the choice of timing had put the workers in a more difficult position to fight back, but they had no other choice.
Campaign against cuts
“A campaign started against the cuts, they were talking about 60 people being made redundant but they offered voluntary redundancy and a lot of people took that – which was unfortunate but meant fewer compulsory redundancies”.
The campaign began right away, and on 27th June in Bethnal Green, a demonstration of workers, students, and supporters marched to Altab Ali Park in Whitechapel. In addition, staff and students were writing letters in anger at the proposed job and course cuts, but it was clear that direct action would be the only way of fighting back if the workers were to have any hope of defending themselves.
In early July, the attempts to formalise the redundancies had become more concrete. Rachel told us of a “letter sent by courier at night” which targeted 19 people at that stage for compulsory redundancy, which had made a ballot for indefinite strike action all the more vital. In the meantime, over the summer weeks, some people accepted voluntary redundancies, and some appeals had continued between July and August.
The teaching staff, who were members of the University and Colleges Union (UCU), decided to step-up the fight-back.
“We balloted for strike action in late-June and we had a series of one-day strikes toward the end of term”.
While feeling that in and of themselves they were ineffective in combating the cuts, Rachel says this was a useful process; “it was a way for people from the different sites to meet and discuss things… we then had an unofficial union action – we refused to take part in a staff development event that we had been required to do- this brought people together”. The same day, staff voted for indefinite strike in September.
The strike was due to start on 27th, August, before students began to enrol for the new academic year – “were we going to be able to carry it out from first day of term?…we had a union meeting first day of term” and they affirmed the strike from then on. Rachel described some of the debates and internal dynamics involved – “some people thought we shouldn‟t do it during enrolment because of students, since the college has competition from other 6th forms, but we decided to do it anyway”.
From the beginning of the campaign students were on-board with the staff action – “students did show support…at Poplar [another THC site] students respected the picket line and on the adult sites they mostly didn‟t cross the picket line. We took great pains to make sure they could understand. The students knew us and they knew what it was about.”
The initial demands of the strike at that point were solely around the issue of compulsory redundancies. “We were down to 13 compulsory redundancies because others had won appeals or taken voluntary redundancy under pressure. Other things were dropped… saving some of the jobs did save some course provision.”
During the strike Rachel says feelings of solidarity were high – “morale was fantastic… there were so many on picket-lines and doing other things and people feeling good… busking, collecting, daily meetings, not much problem with scabs”. The busking and collecting helped the strikers to support themselves financially during the month they were out.
“We got strike pay from national union (UCU), but we don‟t quite know how much for full-time staff. There were 250 people on strike; we were able to collect a lot of money, about £20-25k, through colleges and workplaces, especially FE colleges, and places like the local fire station. There was a hardship fund and any striker can say „I need this much money‟ on the basis of trust and solidarity.”
“In the end officially there were no compulsory redundancies, but in a few cases I saw them as compulsory because certain people were selected through a scoring process, put through a meat-grinder, going over summer, in the end offered redeployment/demotion or voluntary redundancy.”
Basically some had been forced into taking „voluntary‟ redundancies.
“Six teachers got their jobs back… seven people I believe took voluntary redundancy. Nothing else was included in negotiations about what happens next.”
Rachel was very honest about the shortcomings of the dispute and settlement, but she does feel that the gains that had been made, which were mostly in confidence terms, are worth building on. Despite the feeling that they could have achieved more, she says, “we are strong going back, heading to more of a shop-steward model. If we keep that going where we can meet and continue the feeling of strength.
“I think people thought we couldn’t stay out too much longer. If we carried on we‟d be divided. I think people want to feel good about it and we did accomplish a lot. It could have been much worse without our action.”
So was it a ‘victory’?
In the immediate aftermath of the vote, Rachel had written on the class struggle website libcom.org that “this deal was sold through with the most outrageous manipulation of the mass meeting where discussion was suppressed before and during the meeting as far as possible, with members being shouted down by union officials.
“In the short time there was for debate, many people spoke against accepting the deal but in the end there were 24 votes against, many abstentions and the clear majority voting to accept and go back to work. Though the meeting was of course smaller than our usual weekly meetings.”
Having had a few days to reflect on the outcome by the time we spoke, Rachel was acknowledging that there were positive elements in the outcome. While compulsory redundancies were defeated, and this would also mean some ESOL provision would be saved (though not nearly as much as the 1,000 places under threat), Rachel and many of her fellow strikers are not getting carried away in the euphoria expressed by some on the left and higher up in the UCU.
“It was quite a bittersweet thing. A lot of people don‟t wanna talk about it as a victory – we could have done more heading back to work , but we feel great about what we did… I think at Poplar you‟ve got an SWP branch, they were the ones that kind of ended it when it ended. They wanted that result and got it in the mass vote – „This is a great victory lets go down to the Brighton Labour party conference.‟ But cracks have started to appear very quickly in those celebrations.
“People feel it’s a mixed bag. It’s not just me – 24 of us voted against going back. I didn’t think we could stay much longer, but the vote wasn’t done in the spirit that other meetings had been done.”
The action by teaching staff has had a ripple-effect in terms of other staff – “the Unison people were promised no compulsory redundancies because we were on strike.” So despite the mixed feeling concerning the outcome, there are definite positives that should not be under-emphasised.
Rachel made clear that while she felt the THC workers could have held out for more, it was only through taking their action against the bosses that they were able to make the gains they did. A feeling among many of the THC staff that were on strike is that they learned the value of fighting back and standing side-by-side in solidarity with each other – had they allowed these attacks to go unchallenged, they‟d certainly have been in a considerably worse position. While there are many lesson to be learned from the strike, Rachel felt that many of her colleagues gained a sense of confidence in what they could achieve when they took collective action, and in times when indefinite strikes are almost unheard of, the THC workers have set an example for workers everywhere.
The fight-back in education is on, and there have been glimmers of hope. From THC to the victorious parent-led occupation at Lewisham Bridge Primary School winning an education for their children, examples are being set for workplaces and communities under attack: the only way we can defend our interests is to fight for them. One of the lessons learned has been that it was not the union that „won‟ this „victory‟ for the Tower Hamlets strikers; it was the collective action and solidarity of the workers themselves.
In a support leaflet for the strike, the London Education Workers‟ Group said, “The Tower Hamlets strikers have set a fantastic example for the rest of us in education to follow. Through their direct action and solidarity they have shown [principal] Michael Farley and all those seeking to make cuts in education that we will not go down without a fight.” Rachel has been very honest about the shortcomings after the strike, but the most important thing coming out was the sense of confidence and solidarity they felt going back to work, and no-one can take that away from the Tower Hamlets College workers.
Choccy (this article also appeared in Catalyst the newspaper of the Solidarity Federation).
Defending Education: London Bookfair Report
As part of the series of discussions during this years London Anarchist Bookfair, one discussion centred around issues facing workers in the education sector, particularly in light of the recession, and cuts being made left, right and centre.
The discussion “Defend Jobs and Services in Education – How should Education Workers respond?” was organised and hosted by the Education Workers’ Network (EWN). The EWN is an industrial network of Solidarity Federation (SF), comprised of SF members who work in the education sector. The session was intended to provide an opportunity for education workers to speak out against the ongoing process of cuts and job losses in education, but also included a student activist talking about how students can support education workers in struggle. This was followed by an open debate on practical action.
Education Workers Network
A speaker from EWN opened the session by giving a brief run-down of the current attacks on the education sector. Against the backdrop of the recession, workers in all sectors, including education, are facing cuts in their standards of living. Often this is taking the form of below-inflation ‘pay rises’, effectively pay cuts in real terms. Recent struggles, such as the occupation of London Metropolitan University (London Met) and the strike of the Tower Hamlets College workers, highlight the need for vigilance from education workers, and underline the need to fight back against the aggressive attacks on workers’ pay and conditions by bosses in the sector.
Earlier this year it was forecast that up to 100 higher education (HE) institutions in the UK would be expecting to make job cuts in the coming year – that’s two-thirds of HE workplaces, a shocking statistic. Meanwhile, £65million has been cut from the HE budget, while at the same time, government wants 10,000 more students to take university places. This means more students, with less staff to teach them, and less money to pay for it – a grim state of affairs.
The EWN speaker made clear that education workers cannot place their confidence in the unions. The unions are often very happy to take the first offer in struggles and claim it as a victory eg. Tower Hamlets, where many workers thought they could hold out to save many of the English-language courses, but in the end settled for ‘no compulsory redundancies’ (see Tower Hamlets interview pg 8).
Of course there are alternatives, even within the current system, to cuts. At a time when bankers receive record bonuses and failing banks are bailed out to the tune of billions of pounds, it is clear that a system that would run its public services into the ground, attacking education, health and transport workers, is rotten to the core.
EWN proposes a multi-faceted approach to fighting back. Workers should agitate for strike action in their workplaces where they can, not waiting for the unions to do it for them. Secondly, education workers should be producing propaganda, discussing the issues affecting workers in the sector, and highlighting ways of fighting back. Thirdly, workers in the sector should be forging links with workers taking action in other sectors, sharing ideas, providing solidarity and learning from the efforts of others.
The EWN speaker concluded by saying that it is essential that anarchists get involved in these fights in their workplace – this is a fight we must win.
Autonomous Students’ Network
Next up was a representative from the Autonomous Students’ Network (ASN). The primary thrust of this portion was on the ways in which student-staff solidarity can be built, in particular, the ways in which students can support staff in struggles. Clear examples of this exist in some of the aforementioned examples – in Tower Hamlets, students took part in the marches and rallies, and refused to cross picket lines; in London Met, it was students that occupied the building for several days in May over job cuts in teaching staff.
The ASN speaker spoke of difficulties he had in getting in touch with union activists, even just to get information about pickets, and ways in which students could lend support to staff in struggle. An essential point was made that students and staff clearly have shared interests in fighting back against cuts. Students want the best quality of teaching that they can get – education doesn’t benefit from sacking staff, or forcing less staff to teach more pupils, diluting the quality of education for students, and increasing the workload for staff. The recession is also being used to bring into being the highest fees any of us have seen in HE. More than a half of
university vice-chancellors surveyed this year want a minimum £5,000 per-year fee for university study, with many wanting as much £20,000. In Belfast, Queens want to push it to £10,000 per year! It’s worth bearing in mind that the people seeking to enact these attacks on education are people that benefited during times when HE was free!
Discussion opened to the floor, picking up on issues that the speakers had raised, and raising some novel topics. A further education (FE) worker emphasised that the attacks were across all aspects of education; primary, secondary, FE, HE and adult-learning. The point was made that in fighting back against these cuts, many workers and students feel isolated or atomised. This reinforces the point made by EWN about getting effective propaganda out there, and actively building links with those of common-interest.
Several EWN members spoke about their personal experiences of organising in their workplaces. A common theme was the ineffective nature of the unions in many cases, with poor visibility in many workplaces and even simple things like union notice-boards for disseminating information being difficult to come by. While much of the conversation was regarding negative aspects of workplaces, there were some common elements that provide a way forward and a glimmer of hope.
People ARE becoming aware of the attacks being made across sectors. Education worker in particular, are conscious of the cuts coming their way, if not already experiencing them. The proposed tactics of increasing visibility and propaganda, combined with agitating for action in workplaces does suggest a way forward. The examples of link-building between workers and communities in struggle are an inspiration to all fighting to improve their lives – for example, the Lewisham School occupiers that visited the Visteon and Vestas occupations. While workers and communities taking action to fight back against cuts emphasise the need to keep fighting – the mothers of children in Glasgow and Greenwich taking action to fight against schools closure, and the Tower Hamlets College workers striking and improving their conditions, are just a few examples of people taking collective action to oppose the attacks on people during the current crisis.
Education News in Brief
London College of Communication Occupied
As The Leveller goes to press, students from London College of Communication (LCC) had occupied their Main Lecture Theatre over changes implemented by senior management. Reports on Indymedia indicate that on the evening on 9 November, the group, ‘Oppose’ had occupied the building. Oppose were formed at the end of the academic year 08/09 in light of the ‘efficiency programme’ proposed by a newly-employed head. The programme presents 16 courses to be cut and approximately 180 staff to be made redundant.
The Student Union and the University and Colleges Union held a meeting on the campus and afterwards over 100 students furiously stormed the head of college’s office on Tuesday 27th October, demanding answers. Oppose began to build momentum following this and after a successful meeting; with guest lectures from the Tower Hamlets College, the UCU and NUS representatives, students decided to take action by occupying the Main Lecture Theatre. Sleeping over night, management threatened to bring in Police to remove individuals from the campus unless they left. The students remained.
Morale is said to be high amongst the occupiers and they are welcoming of support locally and beyond. More information about the occupation can be found at
Messages of support can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
Unions ballot on end to primary SATS
Teaching unions are to ballot on ending SATs testing at primary level. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) are opposed to SATs testing at primary level, as they were to SATs at secondary level. Secondary SATs were abolished in 2008 after a fiasco surrounding the outsourcing of marking to a private company. The NUT’s indicative ballot on SATs opened on 2 November and closes at midday on 30 November 2009.
The NUT is asking its members to vote for members to support a proposed boycott of primary SATs, citing three main reason for opposing them:
- They narrow the curriculum 2. They create the tyranny of league tables 3. They cause unnecessary stress to children, parents and teachers.
Don’t Mourn – Organise!
World-renowned smart-arse Noam Chomsky made a welcome return to Belfast over the Halloween weekend to deliver a short speech entitled “Hopes & Prospects” as part of an Amnesty International platform at the Whitla Hall. Chomsky is reported to be the most-quoted author of modern times and has been a bulwark of the left for nearly 50 years providing articulate and clearly referenced analyses of US foreign policy and its effects on the rest of the world. Chomsky’s impeccable research has provided an intellectual ammunition for both the left as well as liberal critics and many others looking for a slice though it is less acknowledged that anarchism is central to his political philosophy.
He writes: “The ideas have been reinvented continually; in my opinion, because they reflect real human needs and perceptions. The Spanish Civil War is perhaps the most important case, though we should recall that the anarchist revolution that swept over a good part of Spain in 1936, taking various forms, was not a spontaneous upsurge, but had been prepared in many decades of education, organization, struggle, defeat, and sometimes victories. It was very significant. Sufficiently so as to call down the wrath of every major power system: Stalinism, fascism, western liberalism, most intellectual currents and their doctrinal institutions — all combined to condemn and destroy the anarchist revolution, as they did; a sign of its significance, in my opinion.”
In his speech, delivered in his inimitable dead pan monotone, he discussed the recent Nobel peace prize award to Barack Obama and indicated the irony considering Obama has continued the foreign policy of the previous administration under Dick Cheney, particularly in respect of Israel. He dissected the ‘special relationship’ between the US and Britain and offers that Britain has been a ‘lieutenant’ to the US since the end of WW2 . Nothing new perhaps. Critics of Chomsky such as the anarcho-primitivist Zerzan, have argued that his focus on US foreign policy is ‘narrow’ however Chomsky reminds us of the effects that policy has on the rest of the world, particularly in the form of neoliberalism and free-trade capitalism. He mentioned the find of significant gas fields in Gazan waters and the theft of that resource by Israel in an alliance with BP which was facilitated by Tony Blair.
He also examined, however, the growing swing to the left in South America, and the rise of indigenous opposition in Venezuela, Bolivia and the worker occupations of factories in Argentina. Returning to the mass opposition to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan he pointed out, quite strongly, that although these movements did not stop the war they limited their scope considerably and he justified this by setting out a list US goals and interests which were not ultimately fulfilled. Chomsky ended his address with a quote from labour organiser Joe Hill – “don’t mourn – organise!” to which he added “don’t ridicule, organise!” suggesting also that critique in itself is not enough.
The second part of the evening was a Q&A session compered by the dreadful, though aptly named, William Crawley, whose smug attitude was eclipsed only by his embarrassing stunt to get Chomsky to press a button on his phone and create his first “tweet on Twitter”. Chomsky retorted with “That’s the sort of thing my grandchildren would do”.
As to be expected from the generally liberal audience many questions centred around the “it’s all crap, what can we do about it, Noam?” variety.
Tom Lane, in an interview with Chomsky for Znet commented:
“Though Chomsky has written a considerable amount about anarchism in the past three decades, people often ask him for a more tangible, detailed vision of social change. His political analysis never fails to instil outrage and anger with the way the world works, but many readers are left uncertain about what exactly Chomsky would do to change it. Perhaps because they regard his analytical work with such respect, they anticipate he will lay out his goals and strategy with similar precision and clarity, only to be disappointed with his generalized statements of libertarian socialist values. Or perhaps many look to a great intellectual to provide a “master plan” for them to follow step-by-step into a bright shining future.”
Chomsky’s replies centred around organisation and that we can no longer be spectators but must be participants in social change. One question, which I may well have asked myself, was a reference to anarcho-syndicalism and worker movements like the Industrial Workers of the World as a social model in place of capitalism. Compere Crawley, interpreting the question for the hard of hearing Chomsky, said “He was asking about the benefits of industrial capitalism” completely reversing the meaning of the question! Chomsky replied that he, like his father before him, was a fully paid up member of the IWW.
Generally I found Chomsky far more animated than I’m used to and especially given his advancing years it was perhaps all the more poignant for it. He re-emphasized the need that we cannot ignore the grievances that people have the world over but, more markedly and central to his speech, nor is it enough to watch from the sidelines.
Don’t mourn. Organise! Indeed!
Danny (back2front zine)
Chomsky also gave a free talk at St Mary’s College in Belfast on 30th October. Tickets were snapped up in just 15 minutes. Journalists, activists, enthusiasts and even our own publicity-seeking MLAs crammed into the lecture theatre. Many more were lucky enough to be able to witness the event in the upstairs lecture hall, via a video link.
Chomsky made one shocking revelation after another: on the Copenhagen climate change conference; nuclear weapons policies; US military expenditure; US policies in South America; and world poverty.
With regards to the conference on climate change in Copenhagen, Chomsky explained that it is unlikely that the decisions reached by the world’s leaders would meet the severity of the environmental situation. The richest countries, he insisted, are unwilling to assist the developing world and unwilling to put a cap on their catastrophic dependence on fossil fuels.
Chomsky outlined how the establishment of a nuclear-free weapons zone (NFWZ) in the Middle East, which would include Israel, Iran and the current US forces in the vicinity, would reduce the threat of a nuclear war, and also the threat of war with Iran. However, the US and British governments have dismissed this idea.
Chomsky revealed that, even under Obama, US military spending is almost as high as the military spending of the rest of the world combined. He explained how Obama’s administration plans to heighten its military expenditure next year. This would make Obama a higher military spender than any other President since the Second World War.
Chomsky explained that while people in South America are beginning to address the biting issue of poverty, largely a consequence of devastating neo-liberal policies, UN agencies have announced that the number of the world’s hungry has passed one billion – a sixth of the world’s population. In the USA food stamp assistance is measuring approximately 36 million.
Lastly, Chomsky told us that we should not leave the talk with a feeling of hopelessness and he insisted that the world’s evils can be challenged, and that activism is the key to success. He assured us that, despite what the mainstream media claims, the opposition to the Iraq war is far greater than that of the Vietnam War; and that we should draw upon the successes of the social movements which have been achieved since the 1960s.
His sincerity and wit are compliment to the admiration he can boast; yet it is his fearless drive to expose the truth about the evil of US policies which make him one of the world’s most respected intellectuals.
The Third Annual Belfast Anarchist Bookfair and Other Bizarreness: an outsider’s view of events
Seventy-two hours without sleep, and then your eyelids flicker open and Patrick Kielty grins at you: George Best is closed, we’ve been circling for an hour-and-a-half and we’re being diverted. Eh? Patrick’s isn’t the first face I would want to see when I wake up… and surely the book on George closed a few years back. It has to be a nightmare.
Wake up with my spine in my mouth. Patrick’s grin widens, as he tells me that this is a standard “bad” landing at George Best. I point out that the engine covers have been worked loose by the jolt. I try to persuade myself that this is just sleep-deprivation induced paranoia as I’m leaning out the chair looking for Lockerbie-style debris along the runway. Whatever, trust the South London bullshit detector, and lose the stripy-shirted lottery announcer. Just get out of the seat and get into Belfast and as far away from this peroxided preener as fast as I can.
Welcome to Belfast: Kielty’s doing a stand-up show locally and his supercilious visage is on every street corner superimposed on a deconstructed union flag. I grab a map at the bus depot and head for my hostel in the University district, avoiding Kielty’s eyes; I need to check in and grab a few more hours kip. The overly friendly receptionist at the hostel, obviously keen to befriend someone around her own age rather than the interrailers who are filling the foyer with their mid-Atlantic accented eurobabble, insists on recommending various tourist sites to me. As I politely inform her that I’m here for “a conference” and to meet some local friends, she starts to tell me that the locals don’t really know the tourist spots. I become transfixed by the poster behind her: it’s a sightseeing tour in a black cab around all the sectarian murals and other famed sites from “The Troubles”. I find it vaguely troubling this woman doesn’t find this conversation disturbing. The situation is resolved when I offer up the street name for the Organise! office – she doesn’t know of it and it isn’t on her map. The locations of The Pavilion Bar and the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre are also mysteries. Never mind, when I get into my dorm and find that my assigned bed is still occupied – at two in the afternoon – I realise I’ve got plenty of time, if not much energy, to get my bearings. It takes a whole ten minutes to locate the Pavilion Bar, and four of those were spent staring bemusedly at all the Ulster and Union pennants lining Upper Ormeau. I wonder if there’s some sort of Bank Holiday festival about to take place. (The following day I got lost, found myself in the Falls Road, and correcting my direction wandered blithely into the middle of Shankill; the last time I saw that many Union Jacks was the during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. This time around it actually felt quite oppressive – particularly when two guys stopped me for directions to a local Cathedral).
It starts to rain heavily, just as I make contact with the Organise! co-ordinators.
When I get escorted to their rather lovely office space, I get to relax; I’m not alone, there is a palpable sense of mild panic present here. Time constraints – and the fact that a number of the Organise! ‘cadre’ are double-booked due to agreeing to perform at the associated fundraiser for The Warzone Collective, childminding commitments, or due to leave later for football practise – create an instant camaraderie as everybody is pulling together to get the evening’s events set up in time. Installing the exhibition of Abel Paz’s photographs is deferred until the next day, as the priority is to get the equipment for the advertised films set up in time. It takes under ten minutes to set up the projector. It takes nearly forty minutes to put up the material to block out the light as brilliant sunshine pours through the enormous office windows mocking our attempts to get a clear picture on the opposite wall. Of course, once we’ve created a curious set of curtains from a combination of cloth and cardboard the rain returns with a vengeance. Having seen the advertised Spanish Civil War movies I offer to play at doorman when we realise the building’s main door can’t be left open due to the large number of mountain bikes left in the hall. It’s cool. I get to smoke cigarettes, and my disappointment at the poor attendance that the sporadic rain and poor signage causes is lessened by what has to be one of the bizarrest conversations I have ever had; I’m approached by a large crew-cut in a shell suit who thrusts his mobile phone at me and demands to know what the displayed text means. It seems his sometime girlfriend is using a weird combination of text abbreviations and rap-slang to ask him not to dump her. I give a polite translation and am obliged not to giggle when he comes back fifteen minutes later to let me know he’s off to see her – rather charmingly, he also gives me a brief description of what he’s about to do with her too. And then it’s all over and we’re off to the pub for a few pre-gig drinks.
With hindsight it was probably a mistake – for me at least – to go to the trashpunkmetalhardcore mayhem at the Pavilion on the first night. I got instantly trashed, babbled a bunch of gibberish about tattoos and piercings in pre-school “Show and Tell” style session, and then went on to play pool, get utterly confused by the strange appearance of one of the Mighty Boosh guys, go back to someone’s house to drink more and then get utterly lost after I insisted I knew my way back to the hostel. Still, these events are about making an impression right? The impression I made was, it became apparent after the second of the midday texts asking where I was, that I was probably – if not deservedly – dead or injured somewhere. Hindsight kicks in pretty quickly at that point.
Reaching the bookfair I was impressed by the selection of groups and their displayed texts, and reassured by the weary-eyed looks on some of the stallholders’ faces. I wasn’t the only one suffering from late night self-abuse. Again, I was a little disturbed by the poor turnout but after my second cup of coffee I realised had completely overlooked the thirty people engaged in intense debate in the meeting room. I knew the debate was intense because it was already running twenty minutes over time. And it had started early as the first speaker was obliged to reschedule due to travel difficulties. As the hangovers collected at the Warzone event dissipated the attendance increased dramatically – I would guess about three hundred people passed through while I was present.
Themed around “Equality” the presentations were on diverse topics such as the failure of recent Northern Irish legislation to provide adequate protection to those outside of the “traditional” sectarian social divide (illustrated by the responses to a spate of recent racist attacks on Belfast’s Roma population), and how – having been put in place a good twenty-five years after the raft of English anti-race discrimination laws – these gaps were all the more obvious and iniquitous; there was also an excellent debate on the comparisons between the English and Northern Irish education systems. Against a similar background of University staffing cuts and simultaneous, if seeming contradictory demands to increase student fees to “maintain the quality of education provision”, the systems were still astonishingly diverse as the creeping influence of business funding in the English Academy schools was mirrored in Northern Ireland by the roles of the religious schools and the prevalent rise of creationist teachings.
As a previous attendee of the London anarchist bookfairs I was also struck by the sheer quality of the debates. Questions directed to the speakers were well-presented, without the self-interested inflections that occasionally mar the London debates where questions are often prefaced by the questioners’ affiliations, or the speaker’s response is interrupted by further queries. Certainly, I felt that both the floor and the speakers were respectfully treated and debate was allowed to grow organically – a good example I witnessed of this was an invitation from a London based teacher to a local parent to express at length a campaign at her child’s school.
This suggests that there is every chance for the Belfast bookfair to expand in the future – definitely a good thing in my opinion – as there is a core interest opening up there in leftist debate and anti-capitalist tactics. After I had made my excuses and slipped away I definitely recall smiling and thinking it had been a worthwhile trip as I slipped into a coma-like sleep back at the hostel.
Thanks to Conor, Garth, Jason, Jack, Weeler, Wee John, Catherine and Julie and everyone else for showing me such a good time.
London Anarchist Bookfair
Saturday October 24th saw the annual London Anarchist Bookfair. Members of Organise! attended, sharing a stall with Solidarity Federation (the UK section of the International Workers Association), who were kind enough to let us use a corner of their table to distribute copies of The Leveller issues 1 and 2, as well as our ‘bookfair special’, complete with spectacular typos such as ‘cre4ation’, and references to articles which it did not contain.
Although annual bookfairs in other towns and cities have sprung up in the last number of years, the London event is still probably the ‘main event’ in the UK, certainly the biggest in terms of numbers of stalls and quantity and range of meetings and workshops. Important meetings this year included support for the ongoing strike action by postal workers, and meetings for education workers in the aftermath of the Tower Hamlets industrial action and formation of the London Education Workers Group.
The bookfair is, of course, by its nature a bit of a ‘big tent’, so as well as class struggle groups like SolFed/Organise!/AF, you’ll find green/feminist/prisoner support/animal rights/punk stalls and if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time you might even come across the SPK (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialist_Patients’_Collective). Indeed, if you fancy some fresh air you could go out the front and check out the stall by the International Communist Current, who are not allowed inside. At least this year Active Distribution didn’t have their ‘9-11 JUST DO IT’ T-shirts.
The bookfair is of course also a chance to meet up with comrades from other parts of the country/world (again or for the first time) and have the customary curry and a few drinks. Indeed, some of the better political discussions end up continuing or taking place in the pub afterwards.
Thanks again to SolFed for sharing their stall with us, and despite stiff competition from 2 SolFed members in particular, this writer is confident of having won the ‘Most Obnoxious Top At Bookfair’ title.
BNP on BBC
The recent decision by the BBC to invite the BNP leader Nick Griffin on to Question Time only proved once again that the show is a terrible forum for political discussion and in no way represents working class interests or concerns. The hype before the broadcast of the program became a debate on whether the BNP were entitled to have a platform on such a ‘grand scale’. Sadly the BBC only helped to legitimise the views of the BNP by giving them such a platform, while the show itself showed the failings of Question Time to take on board any concerns affecting the general populace.
This show has been running since 1979, and describes itself as a, ‘national institution, offering British voters a unique opportunity to quiz top decision-makers on the events of the day’. Question Time, being part of the BBC, claims impartiality in its politics, and hoped to prove this by inviting a far-right member of the political class to contest their views against the three main parties ‘representing’ Britain today. To anyone who watched the show, the supposed claim to impartiality couldn’t be further from the truth.
The panel was decorated by members from the Liberal, Conservative, and Labour Parties respectively, followed by the host David Dimbleby, then Nick Griffin and beside him the playwright Bonnie Greer. Debating, or berating, the BNP was a ‘challenge’ taken up by the Labour representative Jack Straw. He had taken it upon himself to challenge the ‘disgusting’ politics of the BNP, and indeed he distanced himself, with the rest of the panel, from the BNP by claiming that the BNP was the only political party without a ‘moral compass’. Jack of course has a fine moral compass that is in full working order, having deported more immigrants from Britain than the BNP is ever likely to get the opportunity to.
Now, while I welcome the attack on the BNP it is crucial to point out the subtext that was underlying the panel’s attack on the BNP and its racism. Whilst all members condemned racism there was a shocking amount of agreement that there is a ‘problem’ with immigration, there was absolutely no mention of the postal strike, and there was a disgusting affirmation that Winston Churchill was a figure to be revered. Hark back to Jack Straw’s claim to a moral compass and it became clear over the course of the program that each major political party shared in the demonisation of immigrants. The postal strike was left completely unmentioned. Instead more talk was centred on Nick Griffin’s past, attributed quotes and whether or not the BNP could claim the legacy of Winston Churchill.
As the show progressed there was outrage that the BNP could in any way hold claim to the lineage of Churchill. However if we hold Churchill’s politics to scrutiny, then it is hard to imagine Nick Griffin’s claim being false. Indeed if alive today he would probably fit neatly into line with the BNP’s leadership. The historical claim by any party to the memory of Churchill is simply a matter of propaganda. The person who happened to be in charge when the Allies won the war was also a notorious elitist and racist. It is another striking example of spin politics.
Question Time does nothing to place in political focus the actual problems facing the working class. The spectacle only helped to serve the main political parties by drawing debate away from class issues and refocusing it on the program itself. The only thing that we can be sure about is that the BBC needed to up viewing figures on the failing show, and so they opted for the controversial move. The show itself was incredibly anti-climatic in terms of political debate, and only served to distract focus from issues that genuinely affect us.
BNP And Anti-Fascists On The Streets
The decision to allow the BNP a platform on Question Time did not go unopposed, on the day of filming, 22nd October, and a week earlier, there were protests at the BBC in Belfast that also saw BNP supporters and neo-Nazis out to counter-protest the protestors.
Over 200 anti-fascist protestors faced about twenty fascist BNP supporters, most of whom hid their faces, behind masks, Ulster and Union flags and sieg heiled.
While the protest the previous week was initially outnumbered by fascists, who were outside the BBC first, this time better organisation ensured that people were there in strong numbers before the arrival of around 20 rag-tag fascists. The protest, called by the Anti-Racism Network, was stewarded by members of the Socialist Party and Belfast Antifa. One anti-fascist was arrested and held briefly at the end of the protest by police who, at both protests, seemed to be there to protect the fascists.
The number of fascists present quickly dropped to around 10 and they were heckled throughout the protest at the BBC.
The recently formed Belfast Antifa had numbers at both protests – mobilising significantly for the second. The group was involved in stewarding and gathering intelligence on the local fash.
The following is from a flyer the group were distributing to anti-BNP protestors:
The BNP are a far right ‘populist’ party that spreads racist propaganda, promotes the scape-goating of ethnic minorities and stokes and capitalises upon racial tension. Like other fascist parties the BNP seeks to deflect working class people from the real cause of the problems they face. The recession, lack of jobs, the running down of health and social services, and poor housing conditions are not caused by immigrant workers they are
caused by capitalism and the state.
There can be no platform for the fascist BNP, there can be no debate with fascism. These people are anti-working class, homophobic, racist bigots who are trying to build credibility and organise. Where the BNP have organised there have been increased racist and homophobic attacks. They have gained seats in the European Parliament, not due to any increase in their vote, but due to lower voter turnout for other parties (itself the result of greater awareness that none of our alleged leaders can represent working class interests).
Belfast Antifa was set up in the wake of the attacks on Roma people in our city – to physically and ideologically oppose fascism and racism. Groups such as the BNP cannot be allowed room to organise nor can they be allowed the scope to present themselves as a ‘radical’ alternative.
Membership of antifa is on an individual basis. We are not a front for any political organisation or party but we are libertarian in organisation and based on a class analysis. We need a working class alternative that is opposed to fascism, capitalism and the state. If you would like to help us get in touch at the email address below:
Three Dead In Garment Workers’ Clashes – Unions Promised New Role
The latest clashes in the highly charged arena of the Bangladeshi garment industry…
Tongi, an industrial city located 15 miles (24 km) north of Dhaka; early last Saturday morning (31st Oct) several hundred workers turned up at the gates of the Nippon Garment Factory at Ershad Nagar – expecting to work and to receive wage arrears owed them. Instead they found police blocking the entrance – and posted on the gates a note informing them that the factory was shut from October 31 to November 29 because of “global recession and some unwanted incidents”. The notice also asked workers to collect their overdue wages from the factory office on November 10 – though the arrears were 3 months late and workers had been promised payment would be made that day.
Infuriated, the mainly female workers then tried to force their way into the factory – leading to scuffles and, eventually, baton charges by police. (Expecting trouble, the factory bosses had requested police be stationed inside the premises on Friday night.)
As more workers and locals from the surrounding slum areas joined the protest the crowd grew to several thousand and moved to block the main Dhaka-Mymensingh Highway. The road remained blocked for the next 5 hours as the area became a battleground. A bus was set alight, several other vehicles burned and as the fighting intensified hundreds of police and para-military law enforcement personnel poured into the area. Police began firing gunshots and teargas shells while workers responded with bricks and barricades.
“”The law-enforcers had to fire rubber bullets from shotguns to disperse the workers who hurled stones and bricks at our officers,” Inspector Shafiqul Alam said”. Three people were shot dead by cops, with 100 others injured, several with bullet wounds. Included in the casualties were 16 policemen (one in a critical condition). News footage shows police shooting indiscriminately into buildings. Workers and locals reported that police ransacked homes and small shops in the area. By 11.30am an increased security presence reduced the disturbances – but periodic clashes continued into the afternoon as news of the deaths spread alongside claims by workers of seeing police hiding and removing other corpses.
Nine of the injured were admitted to Dhaka Medical College Hospital, clinic official Abdul Baten told AFP.
“All of the injured have wounds caused by live ammunition and some are in serious condition,” he said.
Police insisted, however, they used only rubber bullets to quell the unrest. (World News Australia – 1 Nov 09) Despite the deaths at police hands it has been reported that “…the police had lodged cases not only against thousands of people, including workers and some residents of the adjacent areas, but also against those who have died in police firing…” (New Age – Nov 3 09) So perhaps the dead will be prosecuted along with the living.
A police chief said on the day; “The situation was totally unexpected. If the owner of the garment factory had a discussion with the workers before closing it, this incident might have been avoided.” But the next day he oddly claimed that many protesters wore lungi (a skirt-like garment more suitable than trousers in warmer climates) so they must be outside agitators, even though the lungi is a commonly worn garment for Bangladeshi men (but news footage anyway contradicts his claim). He added “I’ve never heard of garment workers using [Molotov] cocktails and firearms in clashes. It seems to me that outsiders instigated it.” (ATN News, Bangladesh). If Molotovs and firearms really were used by workers it might indeed be a sign of a sharp escalation/upping the stakes of their struggles. But the police chief is the only source to claim this and no cops were shot, so this dubious claim is probably an attempt to justify the police shootings. The claim that “The situation was totally unexpected” is also false – cops were already deployed in and around the factory on the previous evening.
Similarly, the claims of unrest being organised by “outsiders” are routine statements always wheeled out on such occasions – both to try and downplay the self-organising abilities of workers and to justify greater resources and repressive powers for the cops to hunt down the supposed conspirators. Despite being referenced and blamed for decades, none
of these outside agitators have ever been caught or proved to exist. Such claims are also often thinly veiled nationalistic references playing on fears of big brother neighbour India, or refer to native Islamic fundamentalists desiring to destabilise a state too secular for their liking, or to the main opposition BNP party. Some political rivals of the ruling party may indeed be happy to see the disturbances embarass their opponents, but they certainly don’t control them.
That the police knew well enough that trouble was brewing is further illustrated by a leaked intelligence report; an intelligence agency alerted the government a week previously;
The Special Branch of police in its report submitted to the home ministry put forward a four-point recommendation to avert the unrest. The recommendations were facilitating reopening of the factories and reinstating the sacked workers. Moreover, ensuring payment of salaries and wages of the workers from BGMEA funds and deploying adequate police force as well as increasing intelligence vigilance were also recommended. The report stated that fear of unrest was looming at the entire RMG sector due to “tyranny” and “non-cooperation” by some factory owners. It added owners of three factories did not become sympathetic to their workers even after the latter staged demonstrations and formed human chains to press home their demands. As their salary and wages were not paid, these workers were passing a miserable life without paying their house rents and dues at grocery shops, said the report. It added already different labour unions were keeping close contacts with those workers. The intelligence agency also mentioned that more than 2,000 workers of three factories who were sacked by the authorities have been demanding their salary, wages and arrears for the last few weeks. These three RMG factories have shut their offices without paying wages, salaries and arrears of the workers, said the report. It was suspected that the sacked and unemployed workers along with their colleagues at different factories at the instigation of some labour leaders might launch a massive demonstration any time, the report gave the alert. (Daily Star – 1 Nov 09).
Fazlul Haque, head of the 1,300-member Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said the global slowdown had forced many factories in the country to lay off workers or shut down. “Western retailers who are our top buyers have cut orders and squeezed prices. The big factories have somehow coped, but most of the small- and medium-sized factories are facing very tough times,” he said. In the first two months of the financial year to August 2010, overseas shipments fell by three percent. Unions said factories have cut wages to compete for orders with other apparel-producers, such as Vietnam, China and India. (World News Australia – 1 Nov 09)
This is only the latest in a series of violent clashes in the garment sector. It was a decline in orders that prompted the Nippon Garment bosses in this case to refuse payment to workers; as the recession and intensified market competition has hit employers they have been even more reluctant than usual to pay workers on time. This leaves workers and their dependents in dire straits, unable to pay rent or pay off debts at local grocery shops who advance credit to workers. For garment workers – many of whom are permanently malnourished – a missed wage packet is often a short step away from real hunger.
Garment industries thrive in poorer countries due largely to low labour costs and low start-up costs. But now those larger firms who are weathering the financial crisis better and with sufficient capital reserves have begun switching to more automated production systems, using computer technology to increase efficiency in cutting, knitting, dyeing and finishing;
Viyellatex Group is the country’s first garments factory that has implemented the expensive Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solution from SAP Germany, said Group Chairman KM Rezaul Hasanat. Some multinationals and other local business houses now adopt the ERP solution, but in the garments sector Viyellatex Group is using it, Hasanat pointed out. “Viyellatex Group is one of the leading factories worldwide which is using ERP from SAP. The group implemented the ERP in its Gazipur based factory in December last year at a cost of $2million,” Hasanat added. “I save time and wastage in my factory in almost all the sections. I can know the on-time production by one click alone,” the Viyellatex boss said. Talking to The Daily Star, Shahadat Hossain Kiron, managing director of Dekko Group, one of the leading apparel makers, said he plans to install the SAP software to bring efficiency at all levels. He said currently almost all modern factories are setting aside their traditional methods and adopting automated systems. “Efficiency in cutting, knitting, dyeing and finishing has been attained because of the application of these technologies,” Kiron said. (Daily Star – May 7 2009)
These innovations are necessary to maintain competition with Asian RMG competitors such as Vietnam, Cambodia, China and India. But in the present climate this trend may be another factor increasing unemployment levels. (A recent report optimistically sees the growth of a domestic Asian consumer market as a way out of recession for Asian garment producers, based largely on the increasing consumption of the new middle classes that have emerged as a result of industrial development in Asia. But this market is, for the foreseeable future, not even close to being able to compensate for or replace the global export markets.)
Enter the unions?
“The government will not tolerate anarchism in garment sector as this is the main source of foreign currency.” – Prime Minister Hasina. (Daily Star – Nov 3 09)
The Ready Made Garment (RMG) sector employs around 3 million workers directly – at least 80% female – and 2 million in its subsidiary industries (transport, supplies etc.). Some 7 million people are dependent on the earnings of these workers.
Over 75 per cent of the country’s foreign currency comes from RMG exports. This narrow economic dependency on one industry (the other main foreign currency earner is remittance – money sent home by migrant workers) makes Bangladesh particularly vulnerable to disruption of supply – especially as many contracts are dependent on tight turnaround/delivery times. So labour conflict in the RMG sector has far-reaching socio-economic consequences, particularly at a time when regional competition for a share of shrinking international markets is fierce.
Drawing attention of the apparel industries’ owners to a stark disparity, the prime minister said in many cases, the money spent on a day’s shopping by an owner was more than the monthly salary of a garment worker. ‘We do not expect such a reality. One thing you (owners) have to keep in mind that by oppressing the workers and depriving them, no industry can sustain,’ Hasina said. (New Age – Nov 3 09)
There has long been a conflict of interest within the Bangladeshi ruling class on RMG labour relations. A substantial number of MPs in both main parties, the ruling Awami League and opposition Bangladeshi National Party, have business interests in the RMG sector – as investors or factory owners. Since the emergence of the industry in the early 1980s they have, despite recurring labour unrest, seen the profits roll in as markets expanded and have seen little need to concede any major concessions in the form of wage rises, working conditions or union representation. But the more far-sighted of the ruling class, aware of the potential vulnerability of the industry (and often with less immediate business interests to protect), have long called for wide-spread trade union representation to be introduced as a stabilising institutional influence.
If workers are paid less than the cost of their own self-reproduction something eventually has to give. The explosive anger of RMG workers is clearly expressed in recent news footage as they describe the hardships they endure and how they are cheated out of what are already some of the lowest wages in the world.
The unions have themselves admitted that their influence among RMG workers is marginal and that they have little or no influence over the regular disturbances; they have often functioned more like NGO’s, providing charitable and legal services, international lobbying etc rather than actual negotiation/mediation of workplace conflicts between workers and bosses. (In fact some union-type organisations were set up by western NGO’s – and NGO’s have sometimes themselves taken on certain union-type functions.) But all this may be about to change. In the aftermath of the Tongi clashes and similar recent unrest, the government has announced it will introduce trade unions in the garment sector.
The class struggle and the forms it takes has developed largely autonomously in the industry, with little institutional mediation. This has contributed to the intensity and explosive character of garment workers’ struggles; and as the economic recession forces further attacks on working class living conditions and workers with little left to lose express greater fury, it is this that the ruling class seek to contain with the introduction of trade unions. If the union reform is implemented, will it work? Certainly the institutionalising of certain health and safety measures (deaths in factory fires are common, as are many occupational illnesses) as well as legal powers to enforce a living wage that is actually regularly paid would be popular among workers. But this depends on the garment bosses and the state showing a willingness to both grant reforms and then actually enforce them – which has never been the case so far. Promises have repeatedly been broken on these issues – and if there are no concessions on offer to win through union negotiation on behalf of workers, then unions will remain as largely irrelevant as they are today. (Another factor is that unions have often been as corrupt as most other political institutions in Bangladesh and have often been merely instruments of the political goals of one of the main political parties.) The unions have to try to establish credibility and take representative control of a workforce that has, over the past 25 years, shown itself consistently capable of a high level of self-organisation and solidarity. It is possible that the well-established current forms of mass struggle – regular wildcat strikes that then picket out neighbouring factories, roadblocks, riots and attacks on bosses’ property – will prove hard to overcome.
 Asian textiles surge back ASIAN textiles, once considered a fading industry, are now showing strong growth prospects mainly due to demand from expanding middle classes, according to a recent AFP news agency report from Singapore. Development of ‘latest technology’ in this regard is also attributed for the growing success of the Asian textiles
sector. Known in the past as back-alley shops churning out cheap material, many Asian firms are shedding their sweatshop image as they move to compete in the global market. Stricter environmental standards required by Western countries are also prompting consolidation and innovation in the industry, according to one of the world’s top suppliers of textile dyes and chemicals.
One year after the global financial crisis exploded, Asian economies are rebounding faster than the West, boosting the textile industry’s hopes. The Asian Development Bank recently upgraded its forecast for the region’s 2009 economic growth to 3.9 per cent. China is forecast to grow 8.2 per cent this year and 8.9 per cent in 2010. The market is changing, customer taste and demand are also changing-as spectacularly visible from increased spending power in the Chinese provinces. In business, the future is in Asia and it is going to be driven from Asia, not from Europe and America, the media report said.
Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and China are the world’s top textile producers as well as major consumers. Apart from apparel, a major driver for the industry is the demand for what is called ‘technical textiles’ or fabrics used in cars, mattress covers, bags, tents and parachutes, among others. As Asia’s spending power grows, people want to buy different products and that is going to lead to the development of a whole new market for technical textiles which, in fact, did not exist before. (The New Nation – Nov 3 09)
Free The Belgrade 6
On Saturday 4th September five political activists were arrested in Belgrade on trumped up charges. The five, Tadej Kurepa, Ivan Vulović, Sanja Dojkić, Ratibor Trivunac and Nikola Mitrovic, plus a sixth comrade Ivan Savic, (arrested a couple of days later) are activists in or associates of the Anarcho-Syndicalist Initiative, the Serbian section of the International Workers’ Association (IWA). They are accused of painting graffiti on, and throwing a petrol bomb at, the Greek embassy in Belgrade on 25th August. The petrol bomb in question caused minor scorch damage but the charges levelled are of ‘international terrorism’.
After being held for 2 months, with no contact with the outside world, our comrades have just been told that they will be tried for international terrorism and may face up to 15 years in prison.
The fact that our comrades publicly deny that they had anything to do with these events, which were claimed by a group called Crni Ilja, clearly does not worry the Serbian State in its obsession to find someone guilty. Indeed, from Belfast to Belgrade, the international police are all very much alike…
It is quite clear that the main reason the activists from ASI have been arrested is political. Wanting to brutally deal with it’s hardest critics, the state acts, through its mechanisms of repression, with utterly banal logic. Those who have explicitly expressed their libertarian beliefs are identified is the only suspects. It is clear that this state produced farce is just one way of intimidating anyone who decides to point out the injustice and hopelessness of contemporary society.
Since the arrest of the comrades, protests have taken place in many parts of the world. Thousands of people have sent letters of protest to the Serbian government. After 2 months the costs of the representation for our comrades has so far exceeded 10,000 euros. As a result an account has been opened to help the arrested anarchists to manage to prove their innocence.
To get additional information about the case and to contribute to their legal fund: http://asi.zsp.net.pl/
Amadeu Casellas Libertad
Amadeu Casellas is a Spanish anarchist prisoner who has spent more than 25 years in jail for robbing banks. He first encountered anarchist ideas when he was 14 while working in a factory where he met some members of the CNT, which was a clandestine organization at that time.
Since then he has firmly believed the necessity of social revolution to change our lives. He decided to rob banks as a means to get money for the poorest families, for the revolutionary movement and for working class struggles. The first time he did this was in 1976, and during the next two years he was able to rob more than 50 banks.
The first time he went into jail was in 1979 and he was released in 1981. As soon as he was back on the streets, he returned to robbing banks, because by that time, after 3 years in jail he believed much more in revolution. So by 1982 he was back in jail for the same reasons – robbing banks. No one was ever killed or injured but he remains in prison 25 years later, more than the maximum term of imprisonment according to Spanish law.
All the years he has spent in jail, he has been fighting from the inside, denouncing prison conditions, the abuse of the jail workers and the bad working conditions inside the jail. During the spring of 2008 he asked the Spanish Penal Institution to grant him 3rd grade status which allows prisoners to leave at weekends, and even stay outside, as long as they return to the prison to sleep. His request was denied. As a result Amadeu went on hunger strike for over 80 days, with the support of several anarchist organizations. That September the Spanish Penal Institution finally agreed to give him 3rd grade status to commence in March 2009.
Following a series of bureaucratic excuses to not give him 3rd grade status Amadeu started a new hunger strike in April 2009. He complained that some people in the Catalonian authorities were faking the reports in order to deny him his freedom. They wanted to punish him for denunciations he has made regarding the situation in the jail, Brians 2, where more than 25 prisoners were found dead in suspicious circumstances in less than 2 years. His most recent hunger strike commenced on the 15th July as Amadeu had still not been granted 3rd grade status, and was called off on 23rd October due to his failing health.
Amadeu had nearly fallen into a coma twice. The following day many demonstrations were held all over Spain, and in other parts of the world, showing solidarity with the prisoner. To this date, despite his ill health, Spanish Penal Institutions do not seem to want to end the conflict by granting 3rd grade status or releasing Amadeu.
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