Current Issue May-July 2020 (Issue 25)
May Day in a Time of Lockdown
May Day marches in Belfast and innumerable other towns and cities across the globe have been cancelled. Published for the 1st of May, in the midst of the lockdown, Organise! re-iterate that the only solution to the current crisis, itself a crisis of capitalism, is social revolution.
Fifteen years ago ‘prophet of doom’ Mike Davis in The Monster at Our Door revealed fears about the threat of a ‘plague in the making’. A plague that the World Health Organisation feared ’could kill as many as 100 million people.’ That fear has materialised in the form of Covid-19.
Despite the warnings capitalism continued unabated, even intensifying, its neoliberal assault of the healthcare of the working-class and the poor. The virtual house arrest that we are under, in order to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed, is a direct consequence of years of attack.
This is a global catastrophe. Inequality of access to healthcare has increased from Chile, one of the first countries to be forced to introduce neoliberal devastation in its provision, to Greece, a more recent victim of the assault of neoliberalism on healthcare. Locally the NHS has been systematically underfunded, part privatised, understaffed and cut as part of the same global quest for profit. This has resulted in a service unable to cope with this foreseen and forewarned epidemic without the imposition of most draconian of measures and the jingoistic promotion of a culture that blames the potential victims.
Without a hint of irony the cheerleaders and implementors of cuts to the NHS (Tory and Labour, Sinn Fein and DUP) talk about protecting the NHS. All accepted the neoliberal mantra coined by Thatcher: ‘There Is No Alternative’. A mantra coined to help ensure there would be no alternative. A mantra that launched decades of devastating assaults on the working-class and poor on a global scale.
Neoliberalism was the first epidemic to hit our healthcare systems. Sapping away at vital resources worldwide, imposed by the governments of richer countries and by bodies like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank on poorer countries and their domestic poor. At times the currently infallible World Health Organisation played its part in helping to push through these attacks. This epidemic left these services ill-prepared for the Covid-19 epidemic despite it coming as little surprise to the same organisations and people responsible for the first.
Mike Davis views capitalist globalisation as unsustainable without ‘accepting a permanent triage of humanity and dooming part of the human race to eventual extinction.’ No prize for working out which part. The viral catastrophe that takes the form of Covid-19 has shown that capitalist globalisation is economically, biologically and environmentally unsustainable. It has shown clearly the value of low-wage precarious workers, of health-care and other workers, to the basic functioning of society.
At a time when other workers have been deemed surplus to requirements and cast aside, isolated and without work, facing yet uncertain negative consequences of a huge social experiment, we can see clearly who the real parasites are. We can see, also, who gives actual life and value to society.
We must return to the values of solidarity, mutual aid, equality, communism and freedom that inspired those who we commemorate on May Day. We must return also to the forms and methods of struggle, of direct action that marked more revolutionary times.
We need to take the mantra of There Is No Alternative from the rich and declare that indeed there is not! There is no alternative other than the attainment of a world free from capitalism, government and oppression. Ours is the most socialist demand, it is the demand for workers’ control of the economy, of our lives and of the planet!
Pensions and Pandemics
The Hole in the Wall gang comedy outfit used to do a sketch about loyalist hunger strikes and spoke of the great tradition those prisoners had of ‘hunger striking until dinner time’.
Whilst not of the same order of ridiculousness, the national strike of the University and College Lecturers’ Union (UCU), over pay, pensions, contracts and racial and gender equality has had its elements and moments of absurdity. At present, the learned comrades of the Higher Education Committee of the union are considering a revised offer from the employers made on the not inconsequential date of 1 April and will deliver their verdict to the membership on 24 April having suspended strike action on 13 March because of the Coronavirus pandemic. Whether that offer will make much of an advance on the pitiful one offered (and seized upon in the usual fashion by the union hierarchy as ‘movement’), over a month ago is less important than the entire strategical and tactical campaign formulated by UCU. That has been chiefly characterised by its decision to de-aggregate the original strike ballot requiring each institution to get the Tory government’s fifty percent quota, to run parallel disputes on pensions alongside the ‘four fights’ dispute, and to plan action lasting another fourteen days in spite of the failure of this tactic in 2018.
Seeking to find a way around the 2017 legislation which required trade unions in England and Wales to have fifty per cent or more of their membership sign up to take industrial action, UCU believed that de-aggregating or devolving the ballots to individual higher education institutions (HEIs) to get the vote out would be more successful than a single national ballot. This resulted however, in many institutions being unable to get the required quota, my own included, which got into the forties (and actually dipped down to around thirty per cent in the re-ballot after Christmas). However, on going along to picket lines in solidarity in December and again in February, I learned that the North’s two universities, Queen’s and Ulster, were on strike with lower quotas (the legislation not applying here), than my workplace, which wasn’t on strike. I didn’t know a fuck whether I was supposed to be apologetic or apoplectic, but it certainly was an early indication of the stupidity if not mendacity involved on behalf of the union. Actually, in the re-ballot more branches came out (numbers increased from sixty to seventy-four), but that was undoubtedly a result of increasing solidarity against pay decline and precarity and even Jo Grady, the union’s head honcho, admitted this and noted the de-aggregated ballot had been a shit idea. In the middle of all this, the union also decided to honour its lip-service to representative democracy with an election for its National Executive Committee, trustees and vice-president. This is usually a bun fight among various union factions too tedious to relate, but was unusually joined by SolFed and IWW member, Mike Finn, an historian based at the University of Exeter. Whilst recognising his standing for the National Executive as ‘a bit jarring’ and something he was personally conflicted about, he cited the PCS National Executive member, Phil Dickens, as another anarcho-syndicalist involved in trying to encourage rank and fileism in this way. I mentioned, as I did on the picket line to some protest, that I had never bothered voting in these elections, regarding UCU as essentially a bourgeois union, something Mike himself said he agreed with but was trying to make a ‘limited intervention’ because some other rank and file people had urged him to put himself forward. I wasn’t convinced.
The second major issue with the strike itself was the idea to continue running (and in many cases prioritising), the USS pensions dispute alongside the main campaign on pay and conditions. Headlined the ‘four fights’, the latter relates to pay, workloads, gender/racial equality and casualisation, but these have consistently taken second place to the Universities’ Superannuation Scheme or USS pensions. These formed an important part of the wider public service pension schemes under attack by successive British and European governments of all hues for more than twenty years now. USS was one of the last to come under attack and tends to be the pension scheme in most of Britain’s ‘posh’ universities, whereas the former polytechnics established in 1992 as the newer universities tended to operate the Teachers’ Pension Scheme (TPS). Strike action over pensions has therefore always been separated along pre- and post-1992 lines and the TPS strike in 2011 was largely disastrous. The turn came for the USS in 2018 and the union decided to take strike action which has continued periodically into the current year conjoined to the four fights. The pensions issue is particularly important for older, senior and better salaried academics but it has little resonance with those education workers whose experience of university employment is sessional, zero hours style work or temporary contracts on poorer pay. Such workers sometimes can’t even afford to contribute to a pension fund that many probably won’t get their hands on.
A third, connected issue, relates to the tactic of declaring for fourteen-day strikes, something typically decided by well-paid union full-timers and late career academics who can easily absorb the costs, whilst ensuring penury for the growing army of casualised higher education workers. Early on in the balloting for strike action, it was declared that the strike fund had almost been exhausted by the former (2018) USS dispute and it was unlikely there would be any when action re-started. That earlier dispute was also characterised by the fourteen-day strike and was sold by the UCU leadership as a victory when in fact, it was merely the forerunner of action through 2019 and into this year. More importantly though, the prolonged strike tactic is merely bluster to project the idea that the era of half-day strikes (literally striking ‘til dinner time), adopted by an earlier UCU leadership was truly at an end. Like all the big unions these days, the management of strikes is largely defined by a shadow war of competing media portrayals conducted by a handful of careerists in occasionally militant language for limited aims that are reduced on first contact with the enemy. The real casualties as ever are the rank and file mugs who believe in it only to be let down once again in due course.
UCU’s line through March and April has been that negotiations with the employers have progressed in all areas except pay, which has dropped by twenty per cent in real terms now for over a decade. Their measurement of what constitutes ‘progress’ however, is not one many education workers at third level institutions will recognise and it seems to represent a classic rowing back on the important issues of casualisation, workloads and pay inequality. It is these issues however, including pay obviously, rather than pensions, which has mobilised so many workers in an industry that has seen a massive rise in the numbers employed in temporary and zero hours contracts, most typically among PhD students, post-doctoral staff and early career researchers. Undoubtedly, the Coronavirus pandemic has helped UCU find a way out of the current impasse although their position as noted above had in typical fashion been softening even before the present crisis. How they will deal with the growing issue of the universities trying to monetise the potential for student recruitment via ‘virtual’ degree programmes, given the shift to online teaching, remains to be seen and may just be the tip of a bigger iceberg for the entire education system.
Reclaim the Spirit of May Day: There Is No Alternative!
Every year we celebrate May 1st as a day of workers’ resistance and solidarity. In Belfast every year thousands of working class people have traditionally come together as workers – ignoring divisions of orange and green of religion and race. This year the lockdown imposed in response to Corvid-19 has meant the annual May Day march in Belfast, and across many parts of the globe, has been cancelled. It has, as if it was ever in doubt, been made abundantly apparent that the working-class, not the bosses or politicians, are the people who hold our societies together. Marches may be cancelled, the spirit of May Day cannot. The resistance and solidarity at the heart of the tradition of May Day, its origins and its true history are as relevant as ever.
That history takes as a starting point the struggle for a shorter working week. The story of our May Day begins in the USA in 1884 at a convention of the Federation of Organised Trades and Labour Unions, the predecessor to the American Federation of Labour (congress of reformist US business unions). This convention marked the beginning of the global movement to win the 8-hour day. The plan was to spend two years persuading employers to adopt the 8-hour day as standard. In the USA the campaign was to climax on May 1st 1886, at which time all workers not yet on an 8-hour day would stage a nation-wide strike until the demand was met.
Many employers did not meet the deadline, and accordingly on May 1st great demonstrations took place all across the US. The largest was in Chicago where an estimated 80,000 people marched down Michigan Avenue. The business leaders saw it as a prelude to ‘revolution’ and demanded a crackdown. So when a strike broke out at Chicago’s McCormick Reaper plant it was brutally repressed by police, who fired on strikers and their supporters, killing and injuring several, on May 3rd 1886.
A mass protest was organised for the following day at the city’s Haymarket Square. Some 20,000 people attended the rally. As the last speaker was finishing it began to rain and a force of 200 police arrived to disperse the crowd. Up until then the meeting had been peaceful, a fact later testified to by the mayor of Chicago in court. But as the police moved in someone threw a bomb at them, killing one. They opened fire, killing at least four workers and wounding many more. Several more police were killed, whether by workers or ‘friendly fire’ is unknown.
In the aftermath, unions and the homes of labour organisers and anarchists were raided all across the country. The 8-hour movement was derailed in the US where it was not enacted in legislation until 1935. Eight anarchists were arrested and put on trial. They were not accused of the bomb throwing itself but that by their words and publications they had incited the attack.
Michael Schwab, Oscar Neebe, Adolph Fischer, August Spies, Louis Lingg, George Engel and Samuel Fielden were arrested. Albert Parsons evaded arrest, but in a show of amazing solidarity presented himself at the courthouse to be tried with his comrades. The trial was a fraud, the jury packed with people hostile to the cause of Labour. Parsons, Spies, Fischer, Engel and Lingg were sentenced to hang. Lingg escaped the noose by committing suicide in his cell. Schwab, Neebe and Fielden were jailed until June 26th 1894, when Governor John P. Altgeld ruled the trial a miscarriage of justice and pardoned all eight defendants. Scant comfort to the comrades and friends of the four hanged on November 11th 1887 despite world wide outcry.
THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES
If we look around today, we see many of the gains that workers like the Chicago Martyrs fought for being swept away, whether it is the privatisation of our public services, the decimation of the health service, victimisation and bullying at work, attacks on our conditions and standards of living, the assault on the ‘welfare state’, the huge rise in precarity, casualisation and use of ‘temp’/agency workers, in the ‘austerity’ measures of ruthless cuts and price hikes. Our history is a history of struggle and resistance, a history that demonstrates that as working people we can organise ourselves and fight such attacks.
Now it is clear that the answer to the neoliberal assault on the working-class and its mantra that ‘there is no alternative’ is severely damaged. It is clear that we need the type of alternative fought for over generations.
If we are to reclaim the true history of May Day, it is most fitting that we do so by renewing the struggles begun by the comrades we commemorate and celebrate on the 1st of May. We can, and must, build an alternative. Not just to the worst of the cuts or the worst of the bosses and government’s attacks. We must build an alternative to capitalism itself. An alternative that stands against capitalism, patriarchal oppression, racism, imperialism, sectarianism and environmental destruction. An alternative based on workers control (THE most socialist demand), equality, mutual aid and solidarity. Right across the globe.
We say to the people destroying our lives, our planet, to the people profiting from exploitation, spreading oppression and misery, devastation and disease: There Is No Alternative!
In the words of murdered anarchist August Spies, inscribed on the monument to the Haymarket Martyrs in Chicago:
“The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today”
The Eight Hour Day Struggle in Belfast and Glasgow.
The struggle for the 8 hour day came closer to home in the wake of the First World War. With concerns over rising unemployment and the demobilisation of huge numbers of soldiers the movement for a shorter working week took hold among the workers.
In January 1919 huge general strikes swept Belfast and Glasgow. Both saw huge amounts of workers join the strike movement for a reduced working week, with no loss of earnings. The control of both cities fell, for a time, into the hands of the workers. Journalists talked of the ‘Belfast Soviet’ and the strike in Glasgow became part of the narrative of Red Clydeside. The strikes were largely unofficial and in many cases faced opposition from the centralised executives of the workers’ unions. An epic struggle over the direction of the trade union movement took place alongside the struggle for shorter hours of labour.
As the workers took over the media were full of scare stories of anarchist agitators, Bolsheviks, and revolution -mixed with heavy doses of anti-semitism and sexism.
Only military intervention, the occupation of both cities and the taking over of municipal services by the army defeated the strikes. But the impact of the strikes were crucial in bringing about the 8 hour day for workers across Britain and Ireland.
France: Legitimate Anger of Working-Class Neighbourhoods.
This appeal was published on the Bondy Blog, Mediapart and Regards in solidarity with the working class neighbourhoods suffering increasing police violence. Check them out for the full list of signatories.
During the night of April 19 to 20, several working-class neighbourhoods experienced nights of revolt.
The night before, a man almost lost his leg in Villeneuve-la-Garenne after a violent attempt at police arrest, and that is what set the powder on fire.
The populations living in lower-income neighbourhoods are on the front line in the face of the health crisis: they are among those who work in the “essential sectors “, those who allow our society not to collapse today.
However, social inequalities, already glaring, are reinforced by the management of the coronavirus and will explode with the economic and social crisis to come. This is already demonstrated, among other things, by the particularly high excess mortality in Seine-Saint-Denis since the start of the epidemic.
Racist discrimination, already unbearable, is reinforced by police impunity and violence and humiliation are increasing in working-class neighbourhoods. We can add to it the discriminatory curfew imposed on the inhabitants of these districts by the city of Nice. These glaring injustices are documented, no one can ignore them.
So we say it very clearly: we refuse to put back-to-back the revolts of the populations in the working-class districts and the serious and unacceptable violence exerted by the police.
We do not reverse the responsibilities and we say it just as clearly: these revolts are the expression of a legitimate anger because the police violence does not stop.
Inequalities and discrimination must be vigorously fought and abolished: with the populations of working-class neighbourhoods, we will take part in this just fight for equality, justice and dignity. April 23, 2020