Unite and the BA debacle

December 18, 2009 at 6:38 pm (Champagne Charlie, unions, workers)

Shiraz spoke today to a leading Unite activist. What follows are the salient points from our discussion:

“The first thing to say is that the tactic of an all-out strike over Christmas was absolutely correct: BA’s response is proof of how effective it was. Some people (including Derek Simpson) seem to be saying, ‘it’s OK to go on strike so long as you don’t inconvenience people too much.’ Sorry, Derek, but that’s not how strikes work: public support is nice, but it’s the economic effect that makes the difference.

“Would the strike have bankrupted BA? Frankly, so what? There are worse things than closing a company down – like allowing your members to be worked into ill-health, stressed-out, subjected to pay cuts and  left without pay for months before having to go to the DTI for their redundancy pay – all of which has happened in other air transport companies. In fact, Walsh’s plan for BA would have led the company into exactly the model that has done for Fly-globespan. But we need to remember, as trade unionists, that bankrupting a company is not always the worst option.

“Was the ballot incompetently organised? Firstly, I’d like to say that a lot of elementary activities, including ballots, are incredibly incompetently organised within Unite. We don’t have up to date membership records and information is not shared, supposedly because of the Data Protection Act; that’s a particular problem from the old Amicus section. If this debacle and the complaints of Bassa, brings this incompetence to the top of the agenda, then that’s all to the good. Ironically, though, the BA ballot was – by Unite’s usual standards – very well run. The basic problem is that in an industry where most members pay their dues by check-off you’re at the mercy of the employer in terms of information about who should and shouldn’t be balloted. And in a situation where some members have taken voluntary redundancy and put their notice in, the question arises: when will their notice take effect? If you exclude everyone who’s put their notice in, but they’re still working at the time of the strike, then they could apply for an injunction on the basis that they’d been unfairly excluded from the ballot. The anti-union laws make life almost impossible even for a well-organised union. The sooner we get everyone onto direct debit the better. But of course, the only real answer is to get rid of these laws.

“Derek Simpson describing the strike tactics as ‘over the top’: he may well have been trying to undermine Lenny (McCluskey: the Unite senior official in charge of the dispute, who is also a declared candidate in next year’s general secretary election), but I’m not particularly interested in speculating about his motives. The important point is the effect that his comments had. They were quoted by BA’s lawyer during the court case and would undoubtably have been used by the media if the strike had gone ahead. As far as I’m concerned, if Simpson spoke in all innocence, then he’s not fit to be a  General Secretary; if he said what he said as part of his campaign against McCluskey…then he’s not fit to be a General Secretary.

“Talk of going ahead with unofficial/illegal action is not realistic, and I notice that the people clamouring for it are from outside Unite and usually not even active rank-and-file trade unionists. McCluskey and his associates in the Unite leadership are not above criticism, but the snide attacks from Simpson’s people and also from Hicks and his supporters like that idiot Beaumont are not serious and should be treated with contempt. What we’ve got to concentrate on now is minimising the damage that’s been done within Bassa and ensuring that we win the re-ballot.”

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The BA decision: a disgraceful day for democracy

December 17, 2009 at 8:27 pm (democracy, Jim D, unions, workers)

Unite’s leaders are absolutely correct to say “it is a disgraceful day for democracy when a court can overrule such an overwhelming decision by employees in a secret ballot.”

Under the 1992 Trade Union and Labour Relations Act, the strike has been declared illegal because approximately 800 Unite members who had already accepted voluntary redundancy, received ballot papers. Not even BA suggested that this minor technicality effected the outcome of the ballot!

Consider the facts:

* 12,700 Unite members of cabin crew at BA

* An 80 per cent turnout in the strike ballot

* 92.4 per cent of all those who returned their ballot papers voted “yes” to strike action

* Even if all the disputed ballot papers were removed from the equation, the majority for strike action would still be about 91 per cent.

Nobody – not even Willie Walsh – disputes these facts. That  Mrs Justice Cox’s decision was essentially political is demonstrated by her concluding comments: “A strike of this kind over the 12 days of Christmas is fundamentally more damaging to BA and the wider public than a strike taking place at almost any other time of year.” If her decision was reached soley on the evidence, what was the relevance of a comment about the time of year?

Britain is a bourgeois democracy and trade unions are freer here than in, say, Colombia, China or Cuba. But the fact remains that the Tory anti-union laws, retained by New Labour, have the potential to make almost any industrial action illegal. And no nation can call itself truly democratic when the right to strike is effectively in the gift of the state. If your trade union organisation or Labour Party is not already affiliated to the United Campaign to Repeal  the Anti-Trade Union Laws, today’s decision should spur you into action.

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What price liberty?

December 17, 2009 at 8:22 pm (Civil liberties, Free Speech, Human rights, Rosie B)

A review of Freedom for Sale: How We Made Money and Lost Our Liberty by John Kampfner here.

Many, perhaps most, advanced societies today, Kampfner argues, operate on the basis of a “pact,” an implicit bargain between government and society. In exchange for consumer goods and private freedoms – to travel; to marry whomever, live wherever, and read whatever they wish; to do business without interference from government regulations or labour unions; and to pay few or no taxes – the rich and the middle class have agreed to abdicate politics. The government keeps opposition parties, the mass media, and academic or journalistic muckrakers on a very short leash. Surveillance waxes; civil liberties wane. Transparency, accountability, and citizen initiative are sacrificed to order, security and prosperity.

Kampfner begins in Singapore, the prototype and showcase of this new authoritarian democracy. The tiny city-state has an extraordinarily high per capita income, without the pockets of destitution that disfigure the US and UK and without those countries’ inequitable and underfunded education, pension and health care systems. Government agencies are efficient and honest; violent crime and business fraud are rare. Travel is unhindered; technical and managerial innovations are welcomed; shopping is world-class. Streets and public buildings are clean as a whistle and neat as a pin. Just a month ago, the popular website New Geography placed Singapore at the top of its list of “The World’s Smartest Cities”.

There is, naturally, a large “on the other hand.” Nothing is allowed that the government fears might threaten public order or social stability; and the government’s sensitivities on this score are very delicate indeed. Spitting, chewing gum, yelling, or failing to flush a toilet in a public place; overstaying your visa; depicting (never mind engaging in) certain sexual acts; rashly employing irony or sarcasm; and, most important, criticising the government in ways the government deems not constructive – all these are swiftly and severely punished. Petty offenders are fined or caned; overzealous opposition politicians or trade unionists tend to be imprisoned for long stretches. Indiscreet newspapers or blogs are served with defamation suits. The local media is almost entirely under the control of state-owned companies, and even international publications like the Economist and the Far Eastern Economic Review watch their steps very carefully to avoid being charged in court. As Kampfner observes, Singapore “requires an almost complete abrogation of freedom of expression in return for a very good material life.”

Singapore is evidently where good Daily Mail readers go to when they die.  Just substitute “Daily Mail” for “government” in the bold text, and it would be heaven for the Daily Mail editors and columnists, as long as they could still get pictures of drunk, fat or sexually loose women from less disciplined places to moralise over.

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Taking The Red Pill

December 17, 2009 at 7:29 pm (cults, Max Dunbar, religious right, United States)

Today I finished Matt Taibbi‘s The Great Derangement, his book on American politics during the Bush years. His theory is that mainstream politics is so stupid and corrupt that it’s sent the public into the embrace of bizarre and extreme ideas. As an antiwar journalist Taibbi was initially nervous about writing articles on the 9/11 denial movement – he didn’t want to let the side down – but the Rolling Stone reporter came across so many Truthers in antiwar campaigns that he could no longer ignore them.

Citing polls that show worrying percentages of Americans who believe that 9/11 was an inside job and that God created life six thousand years ago, Taibbi spends time with the 9/11 Truth movement and a Christian fundamentalist group. His thesis would have been even stronger had he written this book in 2009 and chronicled the American rightwingers who won’t accept Obama’s mandate to govern until they get to examine his placenta.

In the following extract, reporting on a Truther meeting in Austin, Taibbi touches on what other writers have covered – the replacement of real politics with consumer politics. In effect, he says, we are all ‘reality consumers’ now:

The 9/11 Truth Movement, no matter what its leaders claim, isn’t a grassroots phenomenon. It didn’t grow out of a local dispute at a factory or in the fields of an avacado plantation. It wasn’t a reaction to an injustice suffered by a specific person in some specific place. Instead it was something that a group of people constructed by assembling bits and pieces plucked surgically from the mass media landscape – TV news reports, newspaper articles, Internet sites. The conspiracy is not something anyone in the movement even claims to have seen with his own eyes. It is something deduced from the very sources the movement is telling its followers to reject.

This has always been one of the key features of the 9/11 Truth Movement. When the left finally found something to revolt over, it turned out to be something entirely fictional, something that not a single person had seen with his own eyes, or felt directly in his bank account, in his workplace, in his home. No one here was revolting over the corrupt medical insurance system, the disappearance of the manufacturing economy, the exploding prison population, the predatory credit industry, the takeover of electoral politics by financial interests. None of the people in this room were bound together by a common problem. What they had in common was a similar response to a national media phenomenon. At some level, this wasn’t even a movement – it was a demographic.  

Also, see Taibbi take on 9/11 denial guru David Ray Griffin.


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Feminist Fightback: the “ex” factor

December 16, 2009 at 10:04 pm (Champagne Charlie, Feminism, liberation, strange situations)


Thursday December 17, Feminist Fightback festive film night, 20:00, VHS Video Basement, (ex) – Puss in Boots Strip Club, 11 White Horse St, London W1J 7LL (nearest tube Green Park).

NB: before attending this event, be sure to read the first comment below…

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Ace and the Hole

December 15, 2009 at 7:58 pm (anti-fascism, labour party, Max Dunbar)

What with all the fuss about the environment these days it’s good news that we have apparently found a new source of energy. According to scientists, the rotation of deceased writer George Orwell, buried in the village of Sutton Courtenay, is now at a rate that could generate heat for the entire country until 2012.

The dead author’s corpse has been spinning for many years as various lunatics try to claim him to validate their bizarre and risible ideas. However, the revolutions reached critical point when Derek Adams, North Manchester organiser for the BNP, put one of Orwell’s quotes on a banner across his pub.

The council have marked the Ace of Diamonds for complusory purchase order and it’ll be demolished in autumn 2010. MCC says it wants to use the space for a PFI initiative in Miles Platting but naturally Adams has an alternative explanation. He told Confidential that ‘It has been CPOed because I am the North Manchester organiser for the BNP… Manchester City Council are not strong enough to admit they are doing it for political reasons.’

Now, the pub trade is in crisis. Good pubs are going under at the rate of several a week. They are hammered by the smoking ban, undercut by supermarket conglomerates and, now, fucked by the crunch. And for what it’s worth I do feel that this government has a thing about pubs, and would like to turn them all into restaurants and coffee bars.

But Adams is clearly just another whingeing BNPer with a chip on his shoulder the size of a small car. You can see this, not just from his remarks to Confidential‘s staffer, but also from his appearance in the following comment thread, where he makes the standard accusations of leftwing bias against the magazine.

The local Labour councillor, John Flanagan, opposes the demolition but for different reasons. Here he puts Adams in his place:

I think it is absolutely ridiculous to say that it is being CPOed because it is a BNP pub. That would be illegal, and no council officer would touch such a decision with a barge pole. And once he gets his compensation, what’s stopping him from setting up down the road?

But I support the fact that it should stay up. Demolition is a waste of public money. What is the benefit to the people of Manchester? I wouldn’t want to live there. So why should anyone else live there? I wouldn’t want to see any further housing being built though.

We all know PFI is a swindle. But would anyone with any principles whatsoever knowingly drink in a BNP pub? Something tells me the area would be better off without it.

For some reason, Adams is not fighting the council’s decision. He’s getting £138,000 for the CPO. Apparently he wants more. Perhaps if MCC don’t put up enough cash, Griffin can lend some from his substantial MEP’s salary.

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Against Britain’s extreme libel laws

December 13, 2009 at 8:14 pm (anonymous, censorship, Max Dunbar)

Simon Singh has spent the last year and a half of his life fighting a libel writ from the British Chiropractic Association. They want to silence him after he published an article about the problems with chiropractic therapy. This is not an isolated case. Britain’s libel laws are so plaintiff-friendly that frauds and conmen from all over the world fall over themselves to get their cases heard in England – and, if possible, at the court of Mr Justice Eady. The result is that our defamation law operates as a kind of outdoor relief system for Islamist sheiks, old-school corporate bad guys, and other wealthy and oversensitive criminals.

There are signs that change may come. Recently Carter-Ruck, London’s nastiest law firm, attempted to prevent the Guardian from reporting a question asked in Parliament about one of its clients – the Trafigura oil multinational, which in 2006 had dumped toxic waste on the Ivory Coast, infecting tens of thousands. (As Private Eye said to a Carter-Ruck spokesman: ‘Is there anyone you won’t represent?’) This backfired with the question and details of the case all over the internet in days.

Please take the time to read and sign the petition at the Libel Reform Campaign website.

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Vox Populi Vox Doh

December 13, 2009 at 8:11 pm (Civil liberties, democracy, Islam, libertarianism, rights, Rosie B)

When the referendum in Switzerland banning the construction of minarets was hot news the blogosphere was full of cheers and boos.  Two cheers that I noticed came from:-

  • libertarians who were crying a victory for democracy and liberty (this here explains the difference between those two political abstractions and how they can come into conflict); and
  • blog commenters who spend much of their time denouncing Iran or Saudi Arabia who were now saying, “This is Switzerland’s business. Who are we to criticise?”

So plenty of people approved a ban that was grossly illiberal and scary too, since the referendum was organised by the far right Swiss People’s Party. 

But this Swiss guy sounds like an honourable liberal acting in a way John Stuart Mill would have approved.

“A Swiss shoe-shop owner has built a mock minaret on the top of his warehouse in defiance of a ban on the Muslim architecture.

Guillaume Morand extended a chimney, gave it the form of a minaret and sprayed it in gold paint to protest against a constitutional amendment approved in a nationwide referendum last month.

“It was scandalous that the Swiss voted for the ban,” said Mr Morand, 46, who owns the Pomp It Up chain of shoe stores.

“Now we [the Swiss] have the support of all the far-right parties across Europe. This is shameful.””

Minaret Good for him.  I’ll buy a pair of shoes from one of his stores if I ever get the chance.

But could any libertarian who gave this ban the thumbs up please imagine yourself as a gladiator and the crowd in unison giving the thumbs down as to whether you should live or die.  Your liberty would be severely compromised, however democratic the decision. 

 Also, note this:-

“Our minaret is pretty,” he said. “You could say I’m proud of it and I’m happy that people are talking about it.” His neighbours are less enthusiastic and have showered him with racist insults since the minaret appeared this week, he said.

Another bunch were defending the ban on aesthetic grounds i.e. the Swiss didn’t want alien structures spoiling the look of their cities, or on feminist grounds, because Islam = female oppression.  Mr Morand, though, hasn’t been abused for building something ugly, out of keeping or representing religious patriarchy and the misogyny in Abrahamic religions.  A chunk at least of those voting saw minarets=Islam=religion of a  foreign minority, and that is what they were taking exception to.  Xenophobia isn’t necessarily a vote winner, but it has had popular support in the past to a murderous degree, and it is the reason for existence for a fair amount of political groups in Europe who are active at the moment.

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Call the Jazz Police!

December 13, 2009 at 3:53 pm (comedy, Guardian, jazz, Jim D, literature)

From Thursday’s Graun:


Giles Tremlett , Madrid

Jazzman Larry Ochs has seen many things during 40 years playing his saxophone around the world but, until this week, nobody had ever called the police on him.

That changed on Monday night however, when’s Spain’s pistol-carrying Civil Guard police force descended on the Sigüenza Jazz festival to investigate allegations that Ochs’s music was not, well, jazz.

Police decided to investigate after an angry jazz buff complained that the Larry Ochs Sax and Drumming Core group was on the wrong side of a line dividing jazz from contemporary music.

The jazz purist claimed his doctor had warned it was “psychologically inadvisable” for him to listen to anything that could be mistaken for mere contemporary music.

According to a report in El País newspaper yesterday, the khaki-clad police officers listened to the saxophone-playing and drumming coming from the festival stage before agreeing that the purist might, indeed, have a case.

His complaint against the organisers, who refused to return his money, was duly registered and will be passed on to a judge.

“The gentleman said this was not jazz and that he wanted his money back,” said the festival director, Ricardo Checa.

“He didn’t get his money. After all, he knew exactly what group he was going to see, as their names were on the festival programme.

He added: “The question of what constitutes jazz and what does not is obviously a subjective one, but not everything is New Orleans funeral music.

“Larry Ochs plays contemporary, creative jazz. He is a fine musician and very well-renowned.”

“I thought I had seen it all,” Ochs, who reportedly suffered a momentary identity crisis, told El País. “I was obviously mistaken.”

“After this I will at least have a story to tell my grandchildren,” the California-based saxophonist added.

Now, I have never heard of Larry Ochs, but I have a horrible feeling that I would probably agree with the unnamed Spanish “purist”complainant. And I don’t altogether buy Mr Checa’s argument that “the question of what constitutes jazz…is a subjective one.” I hate to admit it, but I think I’m with Larkin (writing in 1970, when there were still  jazz magazines) on this:

“Jazz writers (and critics, promoters and broadcasters – JD) as a class are committed to a party line that presents jazz as one golden chain stretching from Buddy Bolden to Sun Ra, and their task is facilitated by the practice jazz magazines have of employing several reviewers (the trad man, the mod man, the blues man) to ensure that nobody ever has to write about anything they really detest. This is good for trade, lessens the amount of ill-will flying about the business, and gives the impression that jazz is a happy and homogeneous whole. But was there no one among them who had realized what was going on, apart from myself?

“I don’t mean to suggest that there are not many knowledgeable critics to whom the party line is a sincere reality, nor to imply that they are given to mendacity. When a jazz writer says, ‘You can hear Bessie in Bird’, or ‘Shepp’s playing pure New Orleans street marches’, I’m quite prepared to believe he means it, as long as I have permission to mark his mental competence below zero. I also take leave to reflect that most of them are, after all, involved with ‘the scene’ on a commercial day-to-day basis, and that their protestations might be compared with the strictures of a bishop on immorality: no doubt he means it, but it’s also what he draws his money for saying. Would any critic seriously try to convince his hearers that jazz was dead? ‘Jazz dead, you say, Mr Stickleback? Then we shan’t be wanting next month’s record stint, shall we? And don’t bother to review “Pharaoh Sanders: Symbol and Synthesis” for the book page. And – let’s see – we’d better cancel that New Wave Festival you were going to compare. Hope you make the pop scene, daddyo.’ And so they soldier on at their impossible task, as if trying to persuade us that a cold bath is in some metaphysical way the same as a hot bath, instead of its exact opposite (‘But don’t you see the evolutionary development?)”

NB: the Youtube clip below is one of Larkin’s  favourite records…


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We Are All Majid Tavakoli

December 12, 2009 at 2:25 pm (Iran, Max Dunbar, religion)

Throughout the 2000s, various silly people have claimed that forced Islamic religious dress – the veil, headscarf, hijab, chador, burka, jilbab, niqab – is a purely sartorial issue, a statement of resistance to imperialism, even a tool of feminist liberation from an oversexualised capitalist West. In fact, as we know, Islamic dress is an instrument of oppression, a signifier of male ownership of women, that represses many Asian women in this country, and countless more in the developing world.

It seems that this week the Iranian regime arrested an opposition activist, Majid Tavakoli, for speaking at an anti-government demo. In 2007 he had been tortured and raped at Evin prison. This time the regime forced him to wear a woman’s headscarf, photographed him and released this photo into the public domain. This slapdash symbolism was intended to emasculate both Tavakoli and the wider resistance against the Khomeinists.

But Tavakoli’s friends responded by posting hundreds of pictures of themselves wearing woman’s headscarf in solidarity with their comrade. The Spittoon and Harry’s Place have posted a video which is well worth watching. I am continually amazed by the creativity and drive of the Iranian opposition movement. You can even send your own headscarf image to the Iranian.com album.

Peter Tatchell notes the pleasing irony that the headscarf, so long a symbol of oppression, has been hijacked in this place and time as a symbol of resistance. It remains to be seen whether the pro-faith left, normally so keen on religious dress when it is imposed on pain of arrest, harm, disfigurement or murder, will support the wearing of the headscarf in an instance when it is being used to express solidarity with the people fighting for freedom and democracy in Iran.


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