“Distinguish between the slogans and the underlying issues.”

January 31, 2009 at 4:42 am (capitalist crisis, immigration, Jim D, unions, workers)

Leading trade union educator Jack Haslam comments on the present nationalist strike wave. This comment has been taken from our comments box, but we hope to persuade Jack to become a regular contributor. We publish it here as an article because it’s good stuff that addresses the present serious situation:

I think we need to distinguish between the slogans used by the strikers and the underlying issues.

The idea of ‘British jobs for British workers’ is a reactonary dead end. However the issue driving this sudden explosion of militancy is the use by the employers in the engineering construction industry of gangs of contractors sealed off and isolated from the main body of workers. The way one leading socialist militant in UNITE put this was that it shouldn’t be presented as an issue of British versus foreign labour, but of the rights of organised Labour.

Set ups like the contractors in this case have more in common with an organisation like William Collison’s pre ww1 free labour association than they have with a ‘normal ‘capitalist concern that recognises trade unions, or in which workers can organise for recognition. You have a group of workers sealed off from the rest of the workforce and billoted in digs away from contact with workers in the local town.

This kind of thing flows from the Viking and Lavalle decisons (see IER briefing, link below)  and it was inevitable that a protest of this type would emerge sooner or later, given the way that contractor gangs have been used to attack jobs, pay and conditons across a number of industries in recent years.

http://www.ier.org.uk/node/275

The way forward is for the labour movement to launch a serious fight for jobs across the economy as a whole. with occupations and work sharing on full pay etc.

We need to point out that nationalism is a dead end, capitalism is international etc. However, we should not oppose the strikes as such, but see them as a spontaneous outburst that has taken the form it has and with the nationalist ideology it has because of the failings of the trade union leaders to prosecute a serious fight on a clear class basis.

I don’t think this is a straightforwardly reactionary strike that should be opposed by socialists, rather we would want to see a more focussed and class based internationalist strategy. If you want to put forward a specific demand it would be for direct labour.

23 Comments

  1. tcd said,

    What are the specific demands of the strike?

    Froma distance it is impossible to know, the first thing socialists need to do is go and find out the dominant sentiments of the striers.

    I read that a strike was called next week with the slogan “British jobs for British workers”. In that case it would be wrong to “critically support” a strike led by people with such a clear immediate aim to attack migrant workers.

    On the other hand obviously you would not treat it as a fascist demonstration, but try to organise a picket against the current leadership and calling for solidarity against the bosses.

    Anybody “critically supporting” a strike with that slogan is “critically supporting” an attack by one set of workers on another, however you want to evade it.

  2. tcd said,

    add to the baove, an attack orchestrated by the union bureaucracy (who are not part of the class, are not on our side, and never will be).

  3. Sean said,

    An excellent post.

    The implications of the recent Viking, Laval, Ruffert and Luxemburg judgements are extremely serious for unions on a range of issues including the right to organise and collectively bargain.

    EU Directives and Articles are increasingly being used by employers across Europe to undermine hard won rights. What we need is a cross Europe alliance, organised by the trades unions, against the neo-liberal agenda and for solidarity and workers rights.

    This is beginning to happen in the rail sector. 20,000 rail workers, including a sizeable contingent from the RMT, marched in Paris last November against privatisation and neo-liberailism and conferences organised by rail unions and federations are planned later this year to launch such an initiative.

  4. Jim Denham, said,

    From Lennylenin “Seymour’s” Tombstone:

    Lenin: Your summersaults on this are very confusing. When Londondockers struck in support of Enoch Powell in ’68, IS (forerunner to the SWP) argued strongly with the small but influential group of IS dockers to join the strike but argue against support for Powell. Surely trade unionists should be joining this struggle with their own slogans such as “Open the Books – publicise the exact terms of the subcontracts!” – “For a joint meeting of British and Italian/Portuguese workers to defend all jobs” “For a joint programme in defence of jobs and conditions across the European Union.”
    Wholesale abstention on the grounds that the strike movement in at risk of being highjacked by the BNP will bring about exactly that.
    Anonymous | 31 Jan, 10:06 | #

    ——————————————————————————–

    Sorry, “anonymous” is me – John Palmer
    John Palmer | 31 Jan, 10:07 | #

    ——————————————————————————–

  5. jpt said,

    The Unions on this one, are between a rock and a hard place.

  6. Jim Denham, said,

    FYI (comment from “Socialist Unity” blog):

    But seriously.
    I don’t think wishing away some of the difficult issues is good enough. Galloway seems to want to pretend that the demand “British jobs for British workers” is not a problem. But of course it is. I am for socialists being at the picket line but not as some cheerleaders but arguing about the real enemy.. bosses etc. Likewise Jeery Hicks is right to go to the picket lines but seems not to be keen to argue that the demands and clogans they are using are playing into the hands of the right. If anyone thinks there is not a problem then why are some tories coming out in their support. The left must not abstain or shake its head but try and intervene to better the direction of the action.

    Comment by ll — 30 January, 2009 @ 2:18 pm

  7. tim said,

    Last I heard Galloway was busy lobbying for the “Curry Kings” of Brick Lane to bring in unionised labour from Bangladesh.

  8. tim said,

    Sorry – Non unionised Labour, obviously.

  9. Matt said,

    Jim, I know I’ve mentioned this to you before but didn’t the IS dockers in ’68 cross the picket line? If they did, I think they were right to do so as a stand against racism. Chris Harman in his book on ’68 ‘The Fire Last Time’ quotes a report in The Times in which Terry Barrett makes it clear that he would be working.

  10. Jim Denham, said,

    I’m not sure, but I don’t think they crossed the picket lines (see John Palmer’s comments, above at # 4). I’m trying to get hold of John Palmer to give a definitive answer (I wasn’t in IS at the time): but, certainly, it was a purely tactical matter.

  11. charliethechulo said,

    The best statement so far:

    Author: Robin Sivapalan and Martin Thomas
    Wildcat strike action has spread across the UK yesterday in support of a strike by construction workers at the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire over an Italian firm getting a contract for part of the refitting work on the refinery. The Italian firm will use its permanent workforce of Italian workers.

    This sort of rapid, rank-and-file-organised action is what’s needed in the current crisis, where thousands of jobs are being cut each day. But these strikes are for the wrong slogans and target the wrong people.

    Italian workers are not to blame for the capitalist crisis. Keeping out Italian workers will not stop soaring unemployment.

    The strikers are echoing Gordon Brown’s slogan “British jobs for British workers”. But working away from home is hardly something new to the construction industry. Thousands of British workers in the industry are working across the world today. Do we want them chased out of Italy and other countries? Worker fighting worker cannot be the way forward.

    On the day the wildcat strikes spread, our sisters and brothers in France showed the real way forward, in a national general strike against the attacks on the whole working-class in this global economic crisis. It follows on from the general strikes in Greece and Italy late last year under the universal working-class slogan for these times: “We will not pay for your crisis”.

    “We” there means workers all over the world. And workers all over Europe.

    The strikes should be directed against Gordon Brown’s government and the big employers, rather than echoing Gordon Brown’s slogans. The demands should be:

    * Work or full pay for all workers! If the government can advance £1100 billion in cash and credit guarantees to save the banks, it can also take the energy industries into public ownership, under workers’ control, and with working hours cut with no loss of pay. It can do the same in the car and car-components industries, hard-hit by job cuts. Militant action like these wildcats can force the government to budge – if it is directed against the government and the bosses, not against foreign workers.

    * Step up, not cut, investment in “green” energy alternatives, under direct public ownership! This is necessary to save the planet, and will create thousands of socially-useful jobs for construction workers.

    * Workers’ unity across the EU. British unions and shop stewards should be working with Italian unions and shop stewards to deal with the global corporations and the global capitalist markets, for example by “levelling up” workers’ rights and protections across the EU.

    The far-right and Tory papers like the Express and the Sun and Mail – which hate union power and urge on privatisation – are supporting strike action rather than vilifying it. Why? Because they know that the strike’s current slogans are a blind alley. Because they know that if anger is directed against Italian workers, then it will deflect that anger from the bosses who make the job cuts.

    Because it chimes in with their longstanding campaigns against the European Union. Those campaigns are nourished in large part by the fear that the more extensive workers’ rights and protections won by the labour movements in France or Italy, Germany or Sweden, but lost in Britain since the Tory onslaught of the 1980s, may spill over through the EU into Britain.

    The Tories and New Labour has sought opt-outs for the UK from EU legislation, notably on the Working Time and Agency Workers Directives. British workers work the longest hours in Europe and have fewer individual and union rights at work.

    To deal with the global crisis, workers need not the Little Britain mentality but workers’ unity and solidarity across Europe.

    Right-wing union officials who have waged no fight for jobs except to plead with employers to reduce their cutbacks have supported the strikers’ demands.

    Where was the outcry from those same union leaders as the Welfare Reform Bill passed its main reading in Parliament – a wholesale attack on the rights of unemployed workers? As of November last year there were 1.92 million people out of work according to the official figures. Tens of thousands of jobs have been lost since then. In the energy industry, E-on this week announced 450 job losses in the UK and the Newcastle office of the National Grid is being shut, axing 182 jobs.

    Yet in their talk with bosses, union leaders still plead, suggesting that workers will accept lower pay if the bosses reduce job cuts. No talk of direct action. Now they support the wildcat demands – while insisting that they can’t support the strikes as such because they are unlawful.

    Wrong way round! Against the jobs massacre, we need working-class action, including instant action in defiance of the law.

    Strong, determined action can defy the law. The current action shows that: Government and employers have made no move to use the law against it.

    Workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, USA, recently occupied their factory when the bosses shut it down. The occupation was completely illegal under US law. But the owner and the police did not dare use the law. The workers won what they demanded: back pay and pension money. Now it looks as if they may have won what at first they did not even dare to demand: the reopening of the plant.

    The Republic Windows workers – many of them migrants or of Latin-American migrant origin – aimed their struggle against the bosses and the Bank of America (the bosses’ financier), not against other workers.

    Workers should not pay for the bosses’ crisis! Work or full pay for all! Workers’ unity across Europe!

  12. John Palmer said,

    Matt/Jim Denham: In 1969 Terry Barrett who was the most prominent of a small group of dockers around IS at the time were persuaded (with difficulty) NOT to cross the picket lines but to join them and argue against Powell’s racist campaign to split workers. They did not have a huge influence at the time. Nor did Jack Dash and the CP dockers who were desperate enough to bring in anti-racist vicars to preach against intolerance. But in the longer run Barrett was able to build a network of IS dockers – drawn from both the T & G and the old “Blue” NAS&D unions.
    Interestingly at the time dockers were less concerned about “black” workers taking jobs on the docks than about the already acute housing shortage in east London. Indirectly this led to campaigns (some initiated by IS) against the Rent Act and for democratising council housing. None of this should be exaggerated. By the mid 1970s, what was to become the SWP leadership had abandoned much of this strategy. Honesty compels me to admit that after 76/77 the whole labour movement was thrown a/ onto the defensive b/ after Thatcher into massive retreat. Marxists might – at crucial moments – might have affected the speed of this process and even won some battles. It is difficult to see how they could have won “the war.”

  13. not a swp member said,

    “I don’t think this is a straightforwardly reactionary strike that should be opposed by socialists”

    Can i ask: What if it won? What are the demands? “British jobs for British workers”, means exactly that, it means the life of a British worker is put above the life of a foreign worker.

    Apart from countless immigrants out of work it will give confidence to the Nazis and racists to openly argue for racist ideas and openly attack people from ethnic backgrounds. Even if it didn’t win, the strike will still give confidence to racists and Nazis, obviously it has given confidence to the BNP.

    The workers are motivated by very real and harsh conditions, they may struggle to pay bills and keep up rent, but this srike is posed in a reactionary manner and it’s outcome (if it won) could only be reactionary.

  14. jack Haslam said,

    You need to ask yourself what this strike is about, before working out the consequences if it was successful.

    A good way to focus this is to think about what socialists in the industry should do.

    My view is that militants in the industry should participate in the strike movement but fight for a change of direction. By participate I mean build and spread the strikes and make solidarity with them and not just respect picket lines. Making solidarity includes workers in other sectors giving support. In relation to the immediate issue it seems to me that the key demands to raise are:

    * Open the books on the contractors and give the british workers and their unions access to all the information concerning the tendering process i.e. how much are the Irem SPa workers are being paid and deductions for things like accomodation in their floating ‘Hotel’, Transport food etc.

    * British unions to have access to the workers to organise and for collective bargaining to cover all workers

    * Levelling up of contract workers rates

    * Direct recruitment of labour by the owners of the establishment in all technically feasible cases.

    There are two key political demands as well:

    * abolition of the posted workers directive

    * repeal of the anti-union laws and a charter of workers rights

    These demands have purchase not just in construction engineering but across a range of other sectors.

    In terms of the broader demands and strategies I think it is very important to raise the idea of occupations to save jobs and give it evenr more prominence than has been done so far.

    The idea ‘British jobs for British workers’ is a slogan rather than a strike demand. We should point out that it is poisonous. That foreign workers are not our enemies but our friends that we are for a workers’ Europe and a Europe wide working class fightback for jobs. However two additonal points that I think might give some sense of perspective:

    i) any genuine mass working class mobilisation in the current circumstances given the actual existing working class and it’s state of consciousness and organisation will take on a ‘nationalist’ character in terms of slogans, flag waiving etc. This could be seen very clearly in the Longbridge demos that were lead by an idiot dressed as John Bull.

    ii) There is an objective root that gives this nationalism real purchase amongst working class militants and that is the reality that if you work in a EU based multi-national you know that British workers are easier to sack than those elsewhere. Take Corus for example.

    The actual strike demands are considerably less focussed.

    To the extent there is one it seems to be for legislative change see for instance the official UNITE and GMB statements. The implicit demand is the cancelling of the Irem SPa contract.

    My view is that though we would fight for the adoption of the demands listed above, if the strike did succeed in forcing Total to cancel the Irem SPa contract that would be a victory for the trade union movement. It would be a victory with obvious dangers attached – in terms of the political dynamic it could encourage – but in and off itself trade union action to force out non union labour is not to be equated with actionto enforce a colour bar.

    The other limitation with the statement is that it fails to register the significance of the dispute.

    Throughout industry the employers are on the offensive. They are using the world slump to attack pay, terms and conditons and ratchet up the level of exploitation. Trade union organisation and collective bargaining is under threat. If the globally organised employers succeed in this battle it will have extremely serious consequences across industry. Not just in Britain but across the EU. It will represent a defeat for the idea of a ‘social Europe’ and victory for the Neo-liberal anti-union de-regulation agenda.

    ‘People make history, but not in conditions of their own choosing’. Right now one of the best organised sections of the working class has started the fightback against the employers offensive. Because they have done this under reactionary slogans and with politically confused leaders is no reason to not throw our weight behind them.

  15. keith hallack said,

    the original post is spot on, as are *most* of these comments. Thank you for this, i’ll be passing this piece on for reference.

    The detractors ask ‘what if the strike won?’ Well ask yourselves that. It will have demonstrated the power of organised labour against what is obviously a sneaky move by the bosses. Like the piece says “Distinguish between the slogans and the underlying issues.” That means don’t abstain and let nationalist tendencies steal the day, and not just the BNP itself.

  16. Gerry Downing said,

    This is a real August 4 turning point for the British Labour movement. I am exceedingly pleased that the AWL, the AWP and Workers Power have taken such clear positions against this strile wave. Despite differences on other very serious matters we must noe unite to fight this reaction; it is led by Gordon Brown, it is developed by the Unite leadership – Woodley, Simpson Hicks, they are defended by the Morning Star and the Socialist Party and Respect – has the ISG mamaged to find its voice behind Galloway’s arse? And shamefully your ex-comrades of the Commune can only front Gregor Gall to speak for them on this matter.
    It will obviously now have repercussions on the NSSN and everywhere else. If I have criticisms of the AWL and SWP’s positioons is that they are soft on the YU bureaucracy, who are funding Gordon Brown and whose capitulation to capitalism over the years has produced this situation. Now is the time to set ourselves the task of building a real principles internationalist rank-and-file movement in the TU, independent of ALL TU bureaucracies. Let us now fight for that in the NSSN against all the british chauvinists and their apologists – and what really pathetic grovelling apologies we have heard!.

  17. Duncan said,

    Gerry Downing evidently thinks this is evidence Gordon Brown is leading the strikes:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/tayside_and_central/7860001.stm

    Absolute nonsense.

  18. a very public sociologist said,

    Latest from the Socialist Party. Proof why it was right to support these strikes:

    Update on the spreading strikes by construction engineers in the refinery and power industry
    Report by phone from Alistair Tice (Yorkshire Socialist Party) on the mass picket at the Lindsey total refinery North Lincolnshire. Monday 2 February 2009

    “The strike committee accepted the main demands of Keith Gibson and John Mckewan to put to the mass meeting today.

    Keith is a Socialist Party member and on the strike committee and John is a Socialist Party supporter and victimised worker from the refinery.

    The strike committee added an extra demand, calling for John to be reinstated into his job.

    The demands were

    * No victimisation of workers taking solidarity action.
    * All workers in UK to be covered by NAECI Agreement.
    * Union controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members, with nominating rights as work becomes available.
    * Government and employer investment in proper training / apprenticeships for new generation of construction workers – fight for a future for young people.
    * All Immigrant labour to be unionised.
    * Trade Union assistance for immigrant workers – including interpreters – and access to Trade Union advice – to promote active integrated Trade Union Members.
    * Build links with construction trade unions on the continent.

    The mass meeting overwhelmingly voted for the demands put to them by the strike committee.

    Prior to the meeting Keith and John (and their wives who had came to support the strikers) had seen some BNP members in the car park and told them that they were not welcome, with that the BNP cleared off.

    Socialist Party members gave out over 700 leaflets putting our position (which was now the position of the strike committee) and the leaflet was welcomed. One worker (before he read the leaflet) thought that were giving out BNP leaflets and protested that he was not a racist and didn’t support the BNP and was relieved when it was explained to him that they were Socialist Party leaflets and supported workers unity.

    Keith is part of the negotiating committee that is now in discussions with the management at the refinery. The strike is continuing and looks as if it is spreading throughout the country at the time of writing with Sellafield and Heysham nuclear plants out. Workers at other plants, according to the BBC, have also decided to stay out, these include Grangemouth and Longannon in Scotland. Warrington and Staythope in Newark are also out as well.

    The strikes are spreading from fiddlers ferry in Warrington to the Drax power station in Yorkshire.”

  19. Lobby Ludd said,

    Off-topic, perhaps, but Jim D, rightly in my opinion, supports the view “distinguish between the slogans and the underlying issues”.

    Any chance that the AWL, say, might extend that kind of analysis to recent demonstrations against Israeli state actions in Gaza?

  20. Jim Denham, said,

    It was Jack Halsam who said that, not me (though I broadly agree with him). The point about the pro-Hamas and ‘destroy Israel’-type slogans on the Gaza demos is that the AWL’s bitter public opposition to them didn’t stop the organisation supporting, and participating in the demos. Just as I’d advocate socialists participating in these strikes whilst criticising (even condemning) many of the slogans. It’s exacly the same approach, isn’t it? So where’s the contradiction, Lobby?

  21. Lobby Ludd said,

    Jim, I think the contradiction is simple.

    You are willing to find progressive politics underneath crudely expressed slogans in the case of the current construction workers strike. You rightly look beneath the surface.

    In the case of the Gaza demonstrations, rather than look beneath the surface of crudely expressed slogans, you exaggerate their extent and elevate them to dishonestly definine the whole action – Matgamna:

    “The clerical fascists have politically hegemonised the demonstrations to an astonishing degree. These have not been peace demonstration, but pro-war, and war-mongering, demonstrations – for Hamas’s war, and for a general Arab war on Israel.”

    (As an aside, given the drip, drip, drip of accusations of support for ‘clerical fascism’ or anti-Semitism, are not members of the AWL aware that they swim in a remarkably tolerant sea? Some people do not lightly shrug off accusations that they are anti-Semitic or racist.)

  22. Jim Denham said,

    I simply don’t understand what you are trying to say, Lobby: we supported and participated in the Gaza demos, whilst sharply criticising the slogans – exactly the same as what I advocate towards the current strikes? So, I repeat: where’s the inconsistency. I have to say: I don’t like the tone of your last paragraph, which sounds like a threat. We’ve already had to put up with that sort of stuff from supporters of clerical fascism: I for one am in favour of fighting back with the upmost vigour (ie kicking the shit out of the clerical fascist bastards when they threaten us).

  23. Lobby Ludd said,

    Re Jim’s comment #22

    OK Jim, shorter version, the AWL say:

    1) Demonstrations against the Israeli state actions against Gaza were reactionary because of (rare) reactionary slogans. (Incidentally, Matgamna claims they ‘hegemonised’ the demos.)

    2) Strikes by the construction workers are progressive despite reactionary slogans.

    In the case of 1, negative aspects are raised to the surface and define the whole thing, in the case of 2, negative aspects are buried beneath the surface.

    I think that you, Jim, and Janine elsewhere, as identifiable AWL members, have got it right. Tittle tattle elsewhere says the AWL members have got it seriously wrong. No surprise.

    (Jim, you don’t like the tone of my last paragraph, because it sounds like a threat. I am in no position to make a threat, after all this is only a blog with comments. – threats are rather more direct, usually.

    My point is simple, the AWL frequently label those who do not agree with their take on Israel as anti-Semitic, or (perhaps unwitting) supporters of ‘clerical-fascism’. That is fighting talk.

    There is no reason why the AWL should expect special dispensation for such insults. ‘No enemies on the left’ (your excuse) works both ways.)

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