Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Workers' Fightback - the "Spring Of Discontent" and Beyond

The UK general election is just five weeks away, and though all major parties are committed to massive cuts in spending to cover the bankers' debts - the figure of 25% is being bandied about - it's still not clear whether the reds, blues or even the yellows will hold the balance of power.

British Airways cabin crew and civil servants have recently taken strike action, and an Easter rail stoppage has been called. Meanwhile, right wing commentators such as Melanie Phillips - as well as the Conservative Party itself - are claiming that Labour's reliance on the union's political levy will stop them imposing the post-election cuts demanded by the ruling class. This is despite Gordon Brown labelling the BA strike "deplorable".

For all the talk of union leaders being Labour's 'new Militant Tendency' - a reference to the Labour left grouping of the 1980s - they have acted as willing, well-paid accomplices in Brown's drive to lower working class living standards. Should a 'centre-right' party come to power in Britain, they would surely follow the example of their German and French equivalents, offering their services to the government.

One factor ignored amidst all the furore of the BA dispute is the actual reason that strikers give for their action: the company are seeking to impose £80 million in cuts, and shed thousands of jobs, in preparation for a possible merger with Iberian Airlines. According to a Manchester striker:
“On jobs cut on aircraft, you had four cabin crew and now you have three. On an aircraft where you had eleven, you’ve now got ten and on the jumbo where you had sixteen, you’ve now got fourteen. So already on some aircraft, they are saving 25% in crew savings. On the jumbos and triple 7s they are saving twelve to fifteen percent because of the seniority and the pay scale.

“That’s not enough for them. They just want to smash the union. We have concerns over our right and safety practise that just don’t work as well with fewer people. And the customer doesn’t do as well with 25% fewer people to serve them."

Unite are well aware of BA's intentions, and have offered any number of concessions in return a seat at future negotiating tables, and the continuing flow of members' dues. Indeed, many Unite placards bear the slogan "We offered pay cuts to keep BA premium".

Underscoring the similarity of union and corporate bosses' interests is the fact that BA Chief Executive Willie Walsh was once the chief negotiator of the Irish Airline Pilots Association. And for their part, European airline unions made sure that pledges of solidarity with BA crew came to practically nothing.

The reformist, nationalist, and hierarchical nature of current trade unionism acts as a straitjacket, restricting workers' fightback. In the coming period, grassroots, worker-run organisations must be built to combat cuts. These organisations must be independent from party political and trade union control.

The 'I support the BA Cabin Crew strikes!' Facebook group is here.

The 'Support BA Cabin Crew's Democratic right to strike!' Facebook page is here.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Canterbury Tales

Written by Geoffrey Chaucer
Adapted by Mike Poulton
Directed by Conrad Nelson
Northern Broadsides
Liverpool Playhouse (23rd-27th March 2010)

The Canterbury Tales is perhaps the perfect text for Northern Broadsides to take on; its ribald humour and vivacity seems to chime with their approach far better than their recent Medea. However, this adapted version goes for far too many easy laughs, and so it sometimes seems like Carry On Pilgriming.

The Tales are amongst the most influential works in the history of English literature, and despite their fusty reputation - a result of many bad classroom experiences - they are a lively and very human account of late fourteenth century society. The classic feudal hierarchy was becoming slightly more fluid, and this brought disputes within the Catholic Church. The Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt were very recent memories, and the old certainties of a seemingly static society were being chipped away.

Against this background, Chaucer's original depicts a large and varied group of people from all social classes, on a long pilgrimage to the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. They pass the time by holding a storytelling competition, and almost every character has a go. The tales they tell reflect the person's station in life: the 'nobles' tell 'noble' tales (or maybe not, that's for the individual to judge), and the lowborn tell lowbrow ones.

Unfortunately, Mike Poulton's script relentlessly focuses on the more blue side of things, to the point of excluding all other colours. It is certainly shocking - and funny, the first time - to hear Middle English peppered with naked or barely concealed sexual references. But three hours in…well, it's more than a little tiresome.

Because of this, much of what made Chaucer's Tales so groundbreaking is lost. It is less a celebration of "sondry folk", and more a revel in their supposed baseness. It is less an expose of religious hypocrisy, and more a black-and-white portrayal of purity versus licentiousness.

Lis Evans' set design is extremely clever, allowing all props to be put to many different uses. This is perfectly executed, thanks to Conrad Nelson's direction and a lot of hard work from the performers. And as always with Northern Broadsides, the musicianship is excellent. But important though it is, there's more to life than sex, and there's also far more to The Canterbury Tales.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Workers' Fightback - Greek "State of War"/Sussex Solidarity/Junk Mail

"All was quiet until the GSEE union boss Mr Panagopoulos took the microphone to address the protest. Before managing to utter more than five words, the hated union boss was attacked by all kinds of protestors who first heckled him and threw bottles of water and yogurt on his face and then attacked him physically like a giant swarm. With bruises, cuts and his clothes torn, the PASOK lackey struggled his way towards police lines, as the people attacked again and again. Finally he managed to hide behind the Presidential Guard and up the steps of the Parliament where the hated austerity measures were being voted. The crowd below encouraged him to go where he belongs, to the lair of thieves, murderers and liars."

This extract from a LibCom report gives an indication of the social struggle currently going on inside Greece, a situation described as a "state of war" by Prime Minister Giorgos Papandreou. In a moment charged with symbolism, protesters attacked the leader of the main private sector union, as he addressed a rally against Papandreou's European Union-dictated austerity plans. Later in the day, riot police sprayed tear gas directly into the face of eighty-seven year old Manolis Glezos. The celebrated veteran of resistance to the Nazi occupation of Greece needed emergency hospital treatment.

Over the past few weeks, a wave of general strikes, sectional strikes, occupations and riots has demonstrated that European governments will not have an easy time making working class people pay for their respective banking elites' shortcomings. However, trade union leaders continue to work with governments, by seeking to channel dissent in safe directions such as nationalism. Before last week's general strike, the president of the tax collectors union summed up the bureaucracy's mood, as he declared that: "It is just a symbolic protest. We understand that the austerity measures are necessary."

Following the Sussex University occupation against cuts two weeks ago, six "ringleaders" were suspended by Vice Chancellor Michael Farthing. As an official press release made clear, the suspensions were meant to intimidate opposition, being a "precautionary measure" against "disruptive" actions.

However, this measure provoked outrage amongst students, and hundreds of their number showed they were very far from being intimidated by occupying again on Tuesday evening.

A Commune article on the National Convention Against Fees and Cuts claims this is just the beginning, as:
"Many students are taking political action for the first time and have a lot to gain, both practically and in terms of their own perspectives on the situation, from coordinating with others. Meanwhile the threat of higher tuition fees looms just past the general election."
The NCAFC Facebook group is here, and the blog is here.

The corporate news generally presented the latest Royal Mail/Communication Workers Union agreement as beneficial for all parties concerned. As CWU left critic Roy Mayall notes, the Daily Mail-owned thisismoney.co.uk led with the headline: 'Royal Mail strikers get more for less work.' If this were the case, and more posties were being taken on to pick up the difference, then it certainly would have been a happy ending. However, the following 'devils' emerge from a closer reading of the details:
  • The CWU leadership has accepted the inevitability of closures and “significant” job losses.
  • CWU bureaucrats share “the goal of managing headcount reduction without leaving unresolved surplus.” - i.e. sacking people and making the survivors work even harder.
  • Under these terms, the automation of sorting will mean more time trudging the streets, with heavier loads.
  • The 6.9% hourly pay increase over three years is below the current rate of inflation, and so amounts to a pay cut, even if inflation stays at current levels.
  • There will be no more restrictions on 'unaddressed' - i.e. junk - mail coming through UK post boxes.
The 'I care about our Postal Service!' Facebook group is here, and the larger 'I Support the Postal Workers!' group is here.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Alice In Wonderland (PG)

Directed by Tim Burton
Based on a novel by Lewis Carroll
On general release from 5th March 2010


Tim Burton's latest re-imagining of a classic tale actually betrays a distinct lack of imagination.

In this specially-created third story in the surreal 'Alice' series (after the original ...In Wonderland, and ...Through The Looking-Glass), the heroine is now nineteen, and believes that her previous adventures were just strange dreams. The daughter of a Victorian inventor, an arranged marriage to a stuck-up aristocrat looms large, until she follows the White Rabbit one more time, and falls down the hole to 'Underland' (apparently she misheard its name on her previous visits).

Whatever it's called, the place has been ruled by the Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter) for the last thirteen years. And though she is tyrannical on a personal level (and still likes to separate people from their heads), life doesn't seem so bad for people outside her court. Unfortunately, this is because life outside her court is not really examined, and Burton takes it as read that people will buy into the good/evil dichotomy thing that Disney have bashed us over the head with. So anyway, the weird and wonderful animals of the magical land call Alice back to kill the Red Queen's Jabberwocky with the Vorpal Sword on the Frabjous Day. It's prophesied, after all.

Yes, the effects are wonderful, and children will no doubt find the 3D CGI experience an absorbing one, as long as it lasts. But the extremely thin plot and poor characterisation means it is unlikely to be remembered as a classic. Alice (the inexperienced Mia Wasikowska), appears underwhelmed by her whole journey, and her final 'makeover' as a strong, independent female seems forced. While Bonham-Carter is fun as the spoilt brat of a queen, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) is almost a blank, and a similar question can be raised: what's so good about her, other than that she is snow white? Hathaway described her character as a "punk rock vegan pacifist", but almost none of this comes across. And Johnny Depp as the Hatter could just as easily be his Willy Wonka with a ginger wig and an occasional Scottish-ish accent.

When Tim Burton burst onto the Hollywood scene twenty years ago with films like Beetle Juice and Edward Scissorhands, he brought something quite new to film, and his dark but ultimately warm-hearted vision won him legions of fans. Now, he has seemingly lost his "muchness" (to paraphrase the Hatter), at least when it comes to creating a compelling and believable alternate reality. He's still an exceptional visual artist, but to be remembered as a great, he either needs to find someone else to spark some invention, or a new way of looking at the world.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Communist Response to the Venables Furore

In 1993, two year old James Bulger from Kirkby near Liverpool was abducted, tortured and murdered by two ten year olds, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. The horrific case provoked understandable revulsion from the general public. Politicians gleefully seized on it to further their own agendas.

Then Shadow Home Secretary Tony Blair promised that a Labour government would be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", marking the beginning of New Labour's attempts to outflank the Conservatives to the right on 'law and order', which had long been considered the Tory Party's own territory. John Major responded by declaring that Britain should "condemn a little more, and understand a little less". As we know, once in power, Blair focused on the first clause of his soundbite.

Perhaps for Merseysiders in particular, our horror was not at the killing itself, but that we now lived in a society that could produce such 'monsters' (as they were routinely labelled by the media). I was only ten - the same as Thompson and Venables - but I remember that my mum still warned me to be "extra careful" on the streets. Fear stalked the land.

Eighteen years later, and Venables is in the news again, because he is back in prison accused of an undisclosed crime, and the government is refusing to reveal his new identity. The tabloid press is engaged in a kind of race to the bottom of the profitable hypocrisy pit, whipping up hatred of the twenty-seven year old for what he did as a child, whilst cheering on "our boys" as they slaughter their way through Afghanistan. At the time of writing, emails and texts are flying around, claiming to 'out' Venables, while the 'I HOPE JON VENABLES GETS TORTURED IN PRISON THIS TIME ROUND!' Facebook group has more than ten thousand members.

In the face of such a right-wing tidal wave, it can be very difficult for communists to make an intervention, even in conversation with friends and co-workers who are of the 'hanging is too good for him' mentality. Many people are very passionate about this issue, and to disagree with them on a reasonable basis can be confused for siding with child abuse.

Obviously, there is no easy answer to the question: 'Why did Robert Thompson and Jon Venables kill James Bulger?', but then the question has rarely been asked in any seriousness, as something other than a rhetorical device. It is not 'making excuses' to point out that they grew up in a city that was bearing the brunt of Thatcher's offensive against the working class. This put enormous strain on many poor families. Jon Venables' parents were separated. His brother and sister attended special needs schools, and his mother suffered psychiatric problems. After his parents' separation, Jon reportedly became isolated and attention-seeking. At school he would regularly bang his head on walls or slash himself with scissors. Apparently none of this was treated, and the state's first major intervention into Venables' life was to lock him away.

Here, the objection will be raised that similar things could be said about many young children, and yet they don't commit murder. Again, this is an attempt to derail the argument by setting up a 'straw man' - a deliberate misrepresentation of an opponent's position. Of course, by themselves, such circumstances don't automatically produce such dramatically anti-social behaviour, but they greatly increase the risk of it, as well as any number of negative life outcomes. Also, it (in)conveniently ignores the fact that if Jon Venables' - and countless other children's - childhoods were blighted by a serious lack of various resources, then that is in of itself an indictment of capitalist society.

Despite the sadism and confusion vented in online forums (a classic on the Daily Mail website reads "We should have hung them when they were ten. Killing children is wrong and should be punished by death."), it could certainly be argued that this depth of feeling comes from 'a good place'. People generally don't want horrible things to happen to children, and they want 'something' to be done to stop it. With their 'war on terror' and their full-to-bursting prisons, the rich and powerful have created a climate where sadistic brutality is promoted as a cure for sadistic brutality. This is of a piece with their neoliberal reforms of the last thirty-five years, and the postmodern death of 'why?' as a legitimate socio-political question.

The reversal of this has to be a priority for a new workers' movement. We need to put the case for understanding society much more, and condemning individuals a lot less. We need to make clear that this is certainly not the same as believing that atrocities are okay, because that is the counter-argument that representatives of the ruling class will throw at us, even as they metaphorically wade through blood.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Workers' Fightback - Students, Posties and European Workers Confront Cuts

The past ten days have seen big mobilisations against austerity Europe, and the domination of the financial sector over government spending. Last Wednesday, two million public and private sector workers struck in Greece, following protests or general strike calls in Spain, Portugal and the Czech Republic. At its birth, it is apparent that the emerging new movement will be an international one, but it will be obstructed and misled by trade union and 'radical' groups which organise on a national basis.

Since the previous Workers' Fightback update two weeks ago, unions in Germany, France and the UK have taken action to curb their members' resistance, and defence of their own livelihoods. The German pilots' union Vereinigung Cockpit called off a strike at Lufthansa on the first day. Similarly, the French General Confederation of Labour sabotaged a nationwide strike against oil giant Total. Concessions had not been won before the bureaucracy called a halt in either of these cases. In Britain, the Unite union announced that the overwhelming mandate for strike action against British Airways would be put "on hold" while they held talks with management.

As thousands of Greek workers took to the streets, their banners could easily have spoken for the working class across much of the world at the moment: 'Where has all the money gone?'; 'People are more important than markets and banks', and 'Billions of euros for capitalism, but nothing for the workers - rise up!'. Even more simply: 'Enough is enough!'

An article on The Commune website suggests:
"A further day of action in another two weeks’ time seems likely: but a series of national one-day strikes does not look like a strategy to stop the government. After all, while tolerating occasional demonstrations the state will not shrink from invoking anti-union laws and using riot cops to suppress the most ‘threatening’ wing of the movement. Before the general strike, an indefinite stoppage by 3,200 customs workers saw Greece’s petrol pumps run dry for five days, such that the courts intervened to rule the action ‘excessive’. The union put an end to the strike, even though they could have been given even greater strength by the national strike action."
Students in the UK have been dusting off the tactic of university occupation, which spread nationwide in the first half of 2009. According to the Fight Cuts at the University of Westminster blog:
"Over 200 staff and students at the University of Westminster have protested, stormed the board of governors meeting [on Monday} and are currently in occupation, vice-chancellors office, in regard to recently proposed tutoring and administrative job cuts."
This action is in response to management plans to slash 250 jobs by April. Two weeks ago, a motion of no confidence in the vice chancellor was unanimously passed by over 150 staff and students.

The occupiers demand a statement on the avoidance of redundancies, financial documentation being made freely available to unions, and the production of alternative plans for addressing budget problems for the next several years.

This afternoon, Sussex students barricaded themselves inside management offices at their university, against plans to make another 115 redundant. These student occupations must link up with each other, but also turn to the wider working class if they are to have a chance of success.

The Fight Cuts Campaign at Westminster Facebook group is here.

Finally for this busy roundup, it seems that the Communication Workers Union bureaucracy has reached a deal with Royal Mail, regarding the 'modernisation' of the postal service. In a message to the union's membership, deputy general secretary Dave Ward announced that:
"Following 3 months of talks facilitated by Roger Poole, the Independent Chair and ACAS, the negotiating process between Royal Mail and CWU has now reached its final phase. Both parties believe significant progress has been made. A document, will this week, be considered by the Postal Executive Committee."
Last November, the CWU executive brought a well-supported strike to an end, having received no guarantees on jobs and conditions, other than a seat at the negotiating table. Doubtless, a total or near-total sell-out is being prepared, but the executive will have great difficulty controlling rank and file anger.

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