France: A Second Wind to Defeat Macron

Léon Crémieux

Feminist protest inside the Gare de l'Est railway station during another day of nationwide strikes and protests in France, January 24, 2020 (REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes)

The movement for the withdrawal of the pension counter-reform entered its 46th day of strike at the RATP and SNCF on 18 January, the 46th day of mobilisation in various forms across the country.

The strike movement is still supported by a large majority of the population, support shown by the flow of donations into the strike funds, the various expressions of sympathy even from employees inconvenienced by transport strikes, support shown by all the opinion poll institutes, reminding us week after week that the movement is approved by two-thirds of the population.

Moreover, the same proportion of the population, two-thirds, is expressing growing concern about the reform and the future of their pensions.

Macron hoped to end the strikes with the letter sent to the unions on 11 January.

In that letter, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe pledged to remove temporarily from the bill the “pivotal age”, the obligation to work until the age of 64 in order to obtain a full pension. He also agreed to the CFDT’s request to organise a conference on the financing of pensions which could possibly propose another measure to achieve the 12 billion in savings in the pension insurance accounts required by the government.

This manoeuvre by the government came at a time when the government was on the defensive, unable to rally public opinion to its reform and having failed to quell the strike over the holidays. Philippe’s inflexible stance, having succeeded in alienating the CFDT, was even criticized within the presidential majority.

This “retreat” was applauded by the press. The leaders of the right-wing party the Republicans, only too happy to get back some space faced with Macron, denounced this “retreat of the reform” after “multiple concessions to the special schemes”.

On the side of the trade union movement, only the CFDT and UNSA applauded this announcement, too happy to find a way out.

This manoeuvre had no effect on the strikers, but it was once again an opportunity for government ministers, widely supported by editorialists in the main media, to denounce the determination of the strikers and the unions.

On the other side, it should be noted that a fairly solid trade union front was maintained, bringing together the CGT, CGC, FO, Solidaires and the FSU in the fight for the withdrawal of this so-called reform, unions that represented 56% in the professional elections for, while the CFDT and UNSA represented only 31.2%. (The CFDT is still presented as the leading union in the country, although it only exceeds the CGT by 0.1% of the votes in total, 24% against 23.9%). (1) Even the main trade union for managers, the CGC, is still in this trade union alliance, whereas it is more often allied with the CFDT in a pro-management policy.

All these elements reflect the broad rejection of this bill, which aims to profoundly dismantle the pay-as-you-go pension system.

The publication of the bill itself has only confirmed what has been put forward for months by those who are fighting it.

Two essential elements are affirmed in the bill’s articles:

  • The financial and budgetary logic which must be the guiding principle of the system to the detriment of maintaining the level of pensions and the retirement age.
  • The logic of Macron’s authoritarian liberalism, with the State taking in hand management levers that were until then in the realm of paritarianism [joint management by employers and unions].

We are faced with a project that sets as a categorical imperative the limitation of public spending on pensions to 14% of GDP. In addition, the system will have to be compulsorily balanced on a provisional basis over 5 years. Thus, in 2025, there would be an obligation to balance the 2025-2029 budgets. As any deficit is prohibited, and as the increase in resources (contributions) is also prohibited, the only variable would remain the amount of pensions or the extension of the retirement age.

Moreover, in sometimes obscure formulations, it is well understood that managers would have to adjust the rates of increase in the acquisition and service values of pension points (the service value being the value of the point for calculating the amount of the pension when it is liquidated) to maintain financial equilibrium. And, if the “partners” disagree, the government would decide on these values.

Contrary to government propaganda, the “age of equilibrium” has not disappeared. Basically, in the decades to come, the Fund’s managers will have to gradually push back the age at which it is possible to retire without a financial penalty. This age would slide by a period equivalent to two-thirds of the increase in life expectancy.

Moreover, concerning resources, since the Social Security Financing Act 2020, the State no longer reimburses the Pension Fund for shortfalls due to decisions to waive employers’ contributions, which represents a significant shortfall.

The impact study that accompanies the bill estimates that, with regard to the departure age, it should be 65 years for the generation born in 1975 [thus retiring in 2040] and 67 years from 2050 onwards.

Finally, articles 15 and 64 of the bill detail the introduction of supplementary funded pensions (Retirement Savings Plans). The government by ordinance would have the power determine the tax regime of these funds, intended initially to collect the payments coming from annual salaries of more than 120,000 euros. In addition, the banks are explicitly invited to quickly set up pension products to collect payments from high salaries.

The AXA group (insurance and asset management group, 102 billion euros of turnover in 2018) has just published a brochure to promote its pension plans explaining quite simply that its clients should protect themselves from the programmed decline in pay-as-you-go pensions….

Finally, hoping to be out of the woods, the government wants to move quickly to adopt this destructive counter-reform. On 24 January, the project will be presented to the Council of Ministers, then on 3 February to an “ad hoc” committee of the Parliament, expressly chosen by the executive, whereas it would have been customary for this to be the Committee on Social Affairs. Finally, the law will be debated and voted on according to an accelerated procedure with only one reading per chamber (Assembly then Senate) in order to complete the process before June. Finally, many points of the law will be left blank, leaving it up to the government to write them down and enact them by ordinance (thus without parliamentary debate and vote). Even with a large majority in the Assembly, the government wants to avoid a crystallization of debates in the Senate, where the presidential party is in a large minority, and long debates on amendments.

Alongside this “conference on financing”, as requested by the CFDT, is to be held. This mock consultation will be framed by the obligation to find an alternative solution to the postponement of retirement age to 64, an alternative which will make it possible to find 12 billion from 2022 to 2027…while not being able to propose an increase in contributions, nor to use the Pension Reserve Fund created in 2001 to amortize the demographic imbalances, of an amount of 32 billion euros; nor the Fund of amortization of the “social debt”, a swindle fund and holding 17.6 billion. There would therefore remain only two solutions to choose: increasing the number of years worked (43 years today) or postponing the retirement age to 64, as desired by the MEDEF and the government. In any case, we can expect a great victory for social dialogue!

The movement is therefore not short of arguments to justify its action.

But the problem is still that of the entry into the strike in other sectors.

The week of 13 to 18 January marked a turning point. There is no weariness among the strikers or the participants in the demonstrations. Nevertheless the effects of more than a month of strike action have to be managed. Around a hard core, strikers are beginning in places to concentrate on the action days, in order to save strength. And the total percentage of strikers is lower than in previous weeks. The same is true of the 16 January demonstrations, just as combative, but less numerous than those of 9 January. Many mention the need to last, while taking into account the absence of relays from an important sector.

Yet extensions exist. Port and dock workers are organizing port blockades, while refinery workers are continuing to block production, as are gas electricians. In many universities and high schools, mobilizations are developing, in connection with the actions of teacher-researchers and teachers mobilized against the baccalaureate continuous assessment tests. Employees of private companies, such as Cargill in Lille, fighting against redundancies, are joining the demonstrations on pensions. Lawyers continue the strikes at hearings and are taking spectacular action.

Many interpros have this week turned to spectacular actions of occupation and blockages. This is a way of occupying political space, of maintaining mobilization, but it also reflects the limits of extension. (2)

The movement is therefore changing its rhythm. The determination and powerful conviction of the need to push Macron back is still strong. The sense of broad popular support is also strong. Likewise, the certainty that the issue of pension counter-reform is one of the pillars to be destroyed in the offensive of social destruction suffered in particular by teachers and hospital workers who for the past year have been denouncing the misery of hospitals. Moreover, women, the unemployed, young people and the precarious, appear to be the big losers of this reform.

So it is indeed an awareness of a global struggle against the system that is bubbling up in the crucible of this mobilization.

But in order to win, it will be necessary to find a second wind, with the entry of new forces, new sectors in the strike.

For, even if a victory for Macron to get his project through would undoubtedly be a Pyrrhic victory, it would be no less a further deterioration of our living conditions, and even more so for the generations to come.

Notes

  1. The “professional elections” in France are mandatory. Companies with more than 10 employees elect “délégués du personnel” (workplace representatives), those with more than 50 elect a “comité d’entreprise” (workplace committee). The candidates are presented by the recognized trade unions. This gives a measure of the strength and representativity of the different union federations and confederations. back to text
  2. One form of action that has rapidly become popular is workers throwing down the tools or emblems of their trade in front of government representatives or employers – doctors their white coats, lawyers their black robes, teachers their briefcases and text books, workers of the national furniture works responsible for the furniture in public buildings their tools… While the musicians, singers and dancers of the Opéra de Paris organise free concerts on the steps of opera houses. back to text

This article appeared on the International Viewpoint website on January 20, 2020 here.

France at a Crossroads

Richard Greeman

The nationwide general strike in France, now entering its record seventh week, seems to be approaching its crisis point. Despite savage police repression, about a million people are in the streets protesting President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed neoliberal “reform” of France’s retirement system, established at the end of World War II and considered one of the best in the world. At bottom, what is at stake is a whole vision of what kind of society people want to live in – one based on cold market calculation or one based on human solidarity – and neither side shows any sign of willingness to compromise.

On one side, the Macron government has staked its legitimacy on pushing through this key “reform” intact as a matter of principle, however unpopular. On the other side stand the striking railroad and transit workers, who are bearing the brunt of this conflict and have already sacrificed thousands of Euros in lost pay since the strike began last December 5. After six weeks, they cannot accept the prospect of returning to work empty-handed, and they have set their sights high: withdrawal of the whole government project.

Now or Never?

This looks like a “now or never” situation. Moreover, it seems clear that the transport workers mean business. When the government (and the union leaders) proposed a “truce” in the transport strike during the sacred Christmas/New Year vacation period, the rank-and-file voted to continue the struggle, and their leaders were obliged to eat their words.

Nor are the transport workers isolated, despite the inconvenience to commuters and other travelers. They have been joined by emergency-room nurses and doctors (who have been on strike for months over lack of beds, personnel and materials), public school teachers (protesting undemocratic and incomprehensible “reforms” to the national curriculum), lawyers and judges (visible in their judicial robes), and the dancers at the Paris Opera (visible in their tutus), among the other professions joining the strike.

Strikers and “Yellow Vests” Together

Alongside the strikers, and quite visible among them, the so-called Yellow Vests (Gilets jaunes) are a crucial element. For over a year, they have been setting a “bad example” of self-organized, largely leaderless, social protest, which captured the public imagination, and through direct action in the streets, won some real concessions from Macron in December 2018. This victory impressed the rank-and-file of the French organized labour movement, which after three months of disciplined, but limited, stop-and-go strikes in the Spring of 2018, failed utterly to wring any concessions and went back to work poor and empty-handed while Macron pushed through a series of neoliberal privatizations and cuts in unemployment compensation. (1)

Although their numbers diminished, the Yellow Vests continued their spontaneous protests throughout 2019 despite savage government repression, distorted media coverage stressing Black Block violence, and snubbing on the part of the union leadership, but their “bad example” was not lost on the union rank-and-file. January 13th’s general strike was originally sparked last September by a spontaneous walkout by Paris subway workers, who, contrary to custom, shut down the system without asking permission from their leaders and management.

Meanwhile, the Yellow Vests, initially suspicious of the unions but isolated in their struggle with Macron, had begun to seek “convergence” with the French labour movement. Finally, at the Yellow Vest national “Assembly of Assemblies” last November, their delegates voted near-unanimously to join the “unlimited general strike” proposed for December 5 by the unions. Reversing his previous standoffishness, Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT labour federation, immediately welcomed their participation. (2)

Government Provocation

The January 13 intractable nationwide confrontation over retirement – a sacred cow, like Social Security in the US – is best understood as a deliberate provocation on the part of Macron, both in its form and its substance. There was no urgent reason for pension reform, nor for abolishing the venerable system outright and hastily replacing it from above with an abstract neoliberal plan based on “universality.” The pension program was not in debt, and the alleged need to replace the twenty-odd “special” retirement funds – negotiated over the years with the representatives of different trades and professions – with a single “point system” in the name of fairness, efficiency, and rationality was only a smokescreen.

In fact, these “special funds” cover only about one percent of retirees – a million or so miners, railroad workers, transit workers, sailors, ballet dancers, and such – who get to retire early because of the physically or mentally taxing nature of their specific labours. (Even if you include the four million public employees as “special,” the figure rises to under 25%). Moreover, Macron has himself recently violated this principle of “universality” by giving special exceptions to the police and army (whom he cannot afford to alienate) and the ballerinas of the Opera (whom no one can imagine toe-dancing at the age of sixty).

Behind this confusing smokescreen of “fairness to all” is an old con: equalize benefits by reducing them to the lowest common denominator. Indeed, according to independent calculations, under Macron’s point system the average pension would be reduced by about 30%. And since these “points” would be calculated over the total lifetime number of years worked before retirement, rather than on the current criterion of 75% of the worker’ best or final years, Macron’s point system would particularly penalize those whose careers were irregular – for example, women who took off years for childcare. Yet the government brazenly claims that women will be “the big winners” in this so-called reform!

A Pig in a Poke

However, the biggest con embodied in this point system is that the actual cash value of each accumulated point would only be calculated at the time of retirement. The sum in Euros would then be determined by the government then in power on the basis of the economic situation at that moment (for example in 2037 when the plan goes into full effect). Thus, under the present system, every school-teacher, railroad worker and clerk can calculate how much s/he will receive when they retire at 62 and plan accordingly (for example, opting for early retirement). Macron’s point system would leave them in total darkness until it is too late. His system resembles a gambling casino where you buy 10 chips for a certain amount (say 10 Euros each), place your bets, and later take your winning chips to the cashier’s window only to discover that your chips are now worth only 5 Euros each. Surprise! The house wins!

Today, thanks to their existing pension system, French people live on the average five years longer than other Europeans. Moreover, according to the New York Times: “In France the poverty rate among those older than 65 is less than 5 percent, largely because of the pension system, while in the United States it approaches 20 percent, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In France, life expectancy is increasing, while in the United States it is diminishing in significant sectors of the population.” And although the pro-government French media have presented Macron’s confused and confusing reform in the best possible light, it is a hard sell. So why change it?

Not an Ordinary President

When Emmanuel Macron took power in 2017, he vowed he would not be “an ordinary president.” From the beginning he has openly proclaimed his iron determination to revolutionize French society in order to bring it into line with the neoliberal Thatcher/Reagan revolution of the 1980s, and his methods have been authoritarian. He has imposed his program of privatizations and counter-reforms from above, mainly by decree, deliberately circumventing negotiations with “intermediate bodies” like the parliament, the political parties, the local authorities, and above all, the labour unions, who have traditionally been the “social partners” (official designation) of government, along with the employers’ associations (who are Macron’s main base of support).

Backed by the mainstream media (controlled by the government and three big corporations), Macron has so far been largely successful in steam-rolling through his neoliberal program, openly designed to improve French “competivity” (i.e., corporate profits) by lowering living standards (thus increasing inequality). If successful, his proposed “reform” of pensions would open the gates to his ultimate goal, the “reform” of France’s socialized healthcare system (Medicare for all), already on the road to privatization.

Naturally, all these moves have been unpopular, but until now, Macron, whose executive style has been characterized as “imperial,” has been successful in dividing and destabilizing his opposition – if necessary, through massive use of police violence. This has been the fate of the spontaneous movement of Yellow Vests, who have been subjected to routine beatings and tear-gas attacks as well as hundreds of serious injuries (including blindings, torn-off hands, and several deaths) – all with police impunity and media cover-ups. Now the government’s savage repressive methods – condemned by the U.N. and the European Union – are being applied to strikers and union demonstrators traditionally tolerated by the forces of order in France.

This repression may turn out to be like throwing oil on the flames of conflict. On January 9, at the end of the peaceful, legal mass marches (estimated half-million demonstrators nationwide), members of the particularly brutal BAC (Anti-Criminal Brigade) in Paris, Rouen and Lille were ordered to break off sections of the marches, surround them, inundate them with teargas, and then charge in among them with truncheons and flash-ball launchers fired at close range, resulting in 124 injuries (25 of them serious), and 980 sickened by gas.

These brutal attacks, which focused particularly on journalists and females (nurses and teachers), were captured on shocking videos, viewed millions of times on YouTube, but pooh-poohed by government spokesmen. Far from discouraging the strikers, this deliberate violence may only enrage them. And, what with the “bad example” of the Yellow Vests, the labour leaders may not be able to reign them in.

The Center Cannot Hold

Why is Macron risking his prestige and his presidency on this precarious face-off with the labour leadership, traditionally viewed as the compliant hand-maidens of the government on such occasions? Historians here recall that in 1936 Maurice Thorez, leader of Communist-affiliated CGT (General Confederation of Workers), brought the general strike and factory occupations to an end with the slogan “We must learn how to end a strike” and that at the Liberation of France in 1945, the same Thorez, fresh from Moscow, told the workers to “roll up your sleeves” and rebuild French capitalism before striking for socialism. Similarly, in 1968, during the spontaneous student-worker uprising, the CGT negotiated a settlement with De Gaulle and literally dragged reluctant strikers back to work.

Not for nothing are today’s government-subsidized French unions officially designated as “social partners” (along with government and business), yet Macron, loyal to neoliberal Thatcherite doctrine, has consistently humiliated the CGT’s Martinez and the other union leaders, and excluded them – along with the other “intermediary bodies” – from the policy-making process.

Something’s Got to Give

France’s “not-an-ordinary-President” has from the beginning remained consistent with his vision of an imperial presidency. Although seen by many abroad as a “progressive,” Macron, like Trump, Putin, and other contemporary heads of state, adheres to the neoliberal doctrine of “authoritarian democracy,” and he is apparently willing to stake his future, and the future of France, on subduing his popular opposition, particularly the unions, once and for all.

Thus, what is at stake today is not just a quarrel over pension rights, which would normally be negotiated and adjudicated through a political process including political parties, elected representatives, parliamentary coalitions, and collective bargaining with labour, but a question of what kind of future society French people are going to live in: social-democratic or neoliberal authoritarian. The seasoned Paris bureau chief of the New York Times, Adam Nossiter, put it simply in his revealing January 9 article: “A fight between the rich and the poor amplified by 200 years of French history.”

A technocrat and former Rothschild banker, Macron rose to power unexpectedly in 2017 when the traditional Left and Right parties fell apart during the first round of the presidential election, leaving him alone as the lesser-of-two-evils candidate in a face-off with the proto-fascist National Front of LePen. Considered “the President of the rich” by most French people, Macron must remain inflexible because he has nothing behind him but the Bourse (Stock Exchange), the MEDEF (Manufacturers’ Association), and the police.

Second Thoughts

On the other hand, as the struggle enters its seventh week, it occurs to me that if this were a true general strike, if all the organized workers had walked out on December 5, if the railroads, the subways, the buses, the schools, and the hospitals – not to mention the refineries and the electrical generators – had been shut down, it would all have been over in a few days.

But this is not the US where in September-October 2019, 48,000 members of the United Auto Workers shut down 50 General Motors plants for more than six weeks, and where not a single worker, not a single delivery of parts, not a single finished car crossed the picket lines until the strike was settled.

In France, there are no “union shops,” much less closed shops, few if any strike funds, and as many as five different union federations competing for representation in a given industry. Here, picket lines, where they exist, are purely informational, and anywhere from 10% to 90% of the workers may show up on the job on any given day during a strike. Today, for example, seven out of ten TGV high-speed bullet-trains were running as many railroad workers returned to the job to pay their bills while planning to go back on strike and join the demonstrations later in the week. How long can this go on?

“When an irresistible force meets an immovable object, something’s got to give,” goes the old saying, and a showdown seems to be in the offing. With his arrogant intransigence over the retirement issue, Macron is apparently risking his presidency on one throw of the dice. Only time will tell. And Macron may be betting that time is on his side, waiting for the movement to slowly peter out so as to push through his reforms later in the Spring.

Update: French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s much ballyhooed January 12 declaration of a “provisionary” withdrawal of his proposal to extend the “pivotal” age of retirement from 62 to 64 is yet another smokescreen designed to divide the opposition and further prolong the struggle, as suggested above.

Although denounced as such by the CGT and other striking unions, the government’s promise was immediately accepted by the openly class-collaborationist (“moderate”) CFDT union, to their mutual advantage. The CFDT will now be included in the negotiations over the financing of the proposed point system, which the CFDT, having collaborated with previous governments in earlier neoliberal reforms, supports.

Philippe’s declaration is obviously an empty promise, as there are only two ways of increasing the retirement fund: either by extending the number of years paid in or by increasing the amount of annual contributions, which are shared by labour and management. And although labour has signaled its willingness to raise its dues, the MEDEF (manufacturers’ association) has adamantly refused to pay its share, ruling out the obvious solution to this manufactured crisis. Even if the official “pivotal” retirement age is retained, if the value of their pensions is reduced, employees will be obliged to continue working past age 62 in order to live. •

Notes

  1. For details on 2018 strikes, please see French Labour’s Historical Defeat; US Teachers’ Surprising Victories by Richard Greeman. back to text
  2. Please see French Unions, Yellow Vests Converge, Launch General Strike Today by Richard Greeman. back to text

This article appeared on the Socialist Project website on January 15, 2020 here

The Brexit election — from revenge to resistance

Ray M, RS21

Redcar lost its steelworks and 3,000 jobs the October 2019, before the EU referendum

Both sides of the establishment want to bury the legacies of struggle in the communities that abandoned Labour in the 2019 General Election. Ray M, Unite Rep, Aerospace and Shipbuilding Sector, argues that the left cannot afford to do the same.

This essay follows on from two recent articles. The first was written before polling day and defined the election as the ‘Revenge Election’. It argued that Labour needed to articulate the desire for revenge felt by working-class people who have suffered years of neoliberalism, austerity and injustice. The second article, written after the election, drew on Mark Fisher’s 2009 book Capitalist Realism to explain the failure of the Corbyn-led Labour Party to present an alternative that convinced enough working-class people to vote for them in 2019; Labour’s manoeuvring over Brexit between 2017 and 2019 made Corbyn seem more like another establishment politician. This piece builds on these, drawing on Enzo Traverso’s reflections on ‘militancy coming from mourning’ to outline a framework for how we understand the defeat with suggestions about how we begin to rebuild. We need a strategy that transcends the current culture war and unites our class against both the radical right-wing Tory government and the metropolitan liberals from the ‘extreme centre’. (1)

What’s the matter with the UK?

A warning from the U.S.

The situation we face in Britain is not new or unique. In the US, a ‘culture war’ dominated politics long before Trump became president. The culture war prioritises values, morality and lifestyle over class. Writing in 2005, Mike Davis challenged liberal commentators who treated the election of G.W. Bush as, ‘the French Revolution in reverse—one in which the sansculottes pour down the streets demanding more power for the aristocracy.’ Following their defeat in 2004, many liberals and so-called progressives were simply in denial over the Democrats’ abdication of the interests of core voters in declining industrial sectors and regions. Davis pointed out that Democrats offered ‘little more than aspirin and a pat on the back for terminal cancer’ to workers who had suffered decades of decline at the hands of both Democrats and Republicans. Many traditional blue-collar Democrats no longer saw a home in the party and as one West Virginia voter pointed out: ‘we didn’t leave the Democrats, they left us.’ (2)

In Britain, the left is at risk of further isolating itself from working class support as we try to come to terms with this latest defeat. Culture war positions from ‘extreme centre’ liberals are already finding an echo in the left. The radical left has a responsibility to develop an analysis and strategy that can unite our class against a triumphant and brutal Tory government.

How Labour lost its ‘heartlands’

Early on Monday morning, when it was still dark, more than 100 Conservative MPs began a new weekly commute. From the north of England, Wales and the Midlands, freshly minted members, many of whom never imagined they’d be elected last week, descended on Westminster. The arrival en masse of these ‘Teesside Tories’ — named after a region in the north-east of England that is emblematic of the new cohort — is proof of how British politics has shifted.

This is how the Financial Times described the breaking down of Labour’s ‘red wall’. (3)

The scale and nature of Tory gains in this election has shocked the left in Britain to its core. Many of us anticipated at worst a small Tory majority or more likely a hung parliament that would present opportunities for Corbyn and the radical left. Instead we now face an unprecedented situation where the Tory victory is being celebrated by the radical right internationally as a model of how to reach into and break down working class strongholds. This radical right government is triumphant with an agenda that in the first few days has organised labour, the low paid and disabled working class people in its sights.

This essay doesn’t claim to offer a full analysis of the general election defeat which will come in time through further debate and discussion. It does however seek to identify the principal reasons behind the defeat and points to lessons we need to learn. Before we can begin to come to terms with the general election result we will need to get to grips with the drivers behind the Leave vote in the Brexit referendum.

Neoliberalism, the ‘traditional working class’ and the EU referendum

In a recent study on Brexit and the working class, Luke Telford and Jonathan Wistow provide a vivid description of how a Labour supporting working class community were driven to vote Leave in the EU referendum. (4) Teesside was home to shipbuilding, mining, steel, petrochemicals, heavy engineering and was central to capital accumulation in Britain throughout the 20th century. Industrial work provided stable jobs, economic security and a framework which allowed working class life to flourish. In these communities there was a high degree of community identification with the industry and workplace as a source of employment and culture. Communities often grew around industrial conurbations that linked together pits, steel, heavy engineering and shipbuilding. These were often located in close proximity to each other. Meaning that communities often had family members and friends working in the same factory, pit or yard where cultures of solidarity and resistance were given sustenance in both the workplace and community.

Teesside experienced a shift from an economy oriented around production to one comprising mainly of leisure and retail. Between 1971 and 2008, the area suffered from a loss of 100,000 manufacturing jobs. These well-organised industrial jobs were eventually replaced by 92,000 jobs in services with poor pay and benefits with little employment rights and no union organisation or collective voice. The introduction of flexible, mobile and more precarious work has eroded solidarity and traditional bonds in the community with a dramatic impact on the economic security of the workforce and their families. In working-class communities, work is central to working class life as it anchors people in a community with a sense of collectivity, respectability and common purpose. As Aditya Chakrabortty argued in The Guardian, with this loss:

…went the culture of Labourism: the bolshy union stewards, the self-organised societies, most of the local newspapers. Practically any institution that might incubate a working-class provincial political identity was bulldozed. (5)

As these changes bedded in, the global financial crash of 2008 became a defining moment. While New Labour politicians had done nothing to reverse the changes in the North East, they threw billions at the banks responsible for the crash to ensure that the status quo prevailed. They failed to offer an alternative social project and instead agreed with the political right that the state should provide public subsidies to the banks and that wider society should shoulder the burden for the bailout. New Labour’s reward for helping prop up this discredited economic model was a swift exit from government. The Tory-Lib Dem coalition accelerated economic and social decline with an austerity plan that targeted an already enfeebled public sector with severe cuts to public services and local authorities. Welfare, which provided a degree of security following the disappearance of traditional jobs, was cut, hitting the poorest areas hardest in what can only be described as further punishment. Not only had the political class thrown everything at saving a system that was clearly damaging these working-class communities but they then set about forcing them to pick up the tab with cuts to services that further undermined their way of life. This made survival a daily struggle for the most vulnerable.

The politics of revenge

Political abandonment and the Leave vote.

After World War Two, workers in the major industries in Britain had built powerful trade union organisation with effective workplace representation, giving workers economic power and political influence. They would also have a degree of influence in the Labour Party through their trade union structures and would often have people from these industries and communities sitting in parliament to afford working class people some degree of political representation. However, New Labour sought to cleanse the party of its historic roots in the labour movement alongside its commitments to full employment, state ownership, wealth redistribution and solidarity. Following the hollowing out of these industries and communities, MPs increasingly came through the political machine with little relationship with the communities and workplaces they claimed to represent. For New Labour, these people — the urban poor — had nowhere to go: they were, as Mike Davis has put it, ‘a surplus humanity’. (6)

Blair internalised neoliberalism in New Labour and naturalised it in the left and civil society — reinforcing what Mark Fisher called ‘capitalist realism’. This is the notion that there is no alternative to capitalism and that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism itself. In the working-class communities,  Tory cuts delegated to Labour councils were implemented sometimes with sorrow where representatives of the community remained in elected positions but increasingly without much thought about the impact by careerists with no connection with these communities. Not only did New Labour in government do nothing to reverse the changes that had done so much damage to these communities — the decline in manufacturing accelerated under Blair and Brown, as did much of the deregulation, privatisation and retreat of the welfare state. Blair’s ‘third way’ of integrating the provision, financing and management of public services to a ‘social market’ model, prioritised internal market disciplines. This made for out-sourcing, competitive tendering and a race to the bottom based on a ‘value for money’ principle. It transformed local authorities into the champions of neoliberalism — often under New Labour management.

After the economic crash, people increasingly came to regard politicians of all shades as liars. The political class and the interests of big business were seen as one and the same. They looked after each other but not working people: they were viewed as ‘being on the take’. The expenses scandal, which implicated Labour MPs alongside Tories, reinforced the view ‘that they’re all the same’. People felt that it didn’t matter who was in power because nothing changed for them. New Labour had defended the system that undermined working class communities and presided over the massive transfers of wealth from the poor to the rich. Blair’s leadership had destroyed the relationship between them and the Labour Party. In particular, his lies about the Iraq war symbolised an era in which politicians could get quite literally get away with murder. Millions of working-class voters withdrew their support from New Labour.

In many working-class communities a deep and widespread estrangement from politics combined with a sense of fatalism. As neoliberalism became the consensus, ‘capitalist realism’ generated a culture of cynicism and disaffection. While other communities across Britain were also subjected to neoliberalism, the impact was extreme in communities that had been hardest hit by de-industrialisation. It wasn’t just the scale of cuts but the way the new consensus affected the social and cultural fabric of these communities. Historically, social clubs associated with work, the workplace and the labour movement in shipbuilding, mining, steel and other major industries played a central role in shaping working class people’s social life. These clubs had also begun to disappear alongside the declining industries. This meant that the spaces for working-class leisure, collective social experiences and cultural affirmation were also in retreat.

With trade unions weakened, the working classes ability to organise and defend itself suffered. Working class consciousness was eroded, alongside other expressions of collectivity in an increasingly fragmented community. Parliamentary elections offered nothing but differing variations of the existing order. The actions of New Labour fed the belief that this entitled political class of all shades had at best forgotten about the interests of ordinary workers or even worse — they simply didn’t care. However, to paraphrase Mike Davis again, the urban poor were not about to ‘go gently into this dark night’. (7) New Labour’s abandonment of these communities became one of the principal reasons driving people to vote leave. It should come as no surprise that many working-class and poor people in these communities began to look for political representation elsewhere.

The EU referendum — enacting vengeance?

Between 2014 and 2016, UKIP presented itself as the anti-establishment voice with an anti-migrant agenda that found sizeable support in Teesside. Throughout the referendum campaign Nigel Farage tried with some success to position himself as the leader of a ‘people’s army’ standing against the establishment who backed Remain. Leaving the EU was popular in Teesside. The common view in left and liberal circles is that Leave was a racist vote. While there is no doubt that racism featured in both Leave and Remain campaigns, it was weaponised in the Leave campaign and had some traction with people desperately looking for an alternative vision. Sometimes in distressed communities, hope can be replaced with despair.

However, to see the racism inherent in the leave campaigns as being the prime motivating factor behind the leave vote fails to understand the principal dynamics behind it. In their study in Teesside, Telford and Wistow found that racism was a factor amongst a minority supporting Leave who wrongly believed that immigration was the source of their problems. Some wanted to stop migrants entering the country. Concerns with migration were often linked to these peoples’ own struggles. Migrant workers were viewed as economic competitors for housing and for scarce and poorly paid jobs, and were regarded as putting pressure on already underfunded public services. A minority also believed that migrants were favoured by politicians who had forgotten about them. However, the majority in the survey expressed deeper concerns rooted in the changes their community had undergone following changes to political economy and these feelings were widely held in other areas that had suffered like them. (8)

Brexit’s margin of victory was 56 to 44 across northern England. As Tom Hazeldine pointed out, writing in the New Left Review:

The strongest Out vote in the North West came in the deprived seaside resort of Blackpool, which has suffered the greatest financial loss from government welfare cuts of any local-authority district. Leave swept through the Pennine mill towns—at either extreme: Burnley 67 percent; Bradford and Bury both 54 percent—and the former heavy-industrial and coal-mining communities of west Lancashire and south Yorkshire (Wigan 64 percent, Doncaster 69 percent). The Tyne, Wear and Tees also registered strong protest votes, particularly the former shipbuilding town of Hartlepool (70 percent) and Redcar—Cleveland (66 percent) Redcar had lost its steelworks—including the second largest blast furnace in Europe—and 3,000 jobs the previous October, when Thai multinational SSI pulled out and the Cameron government refused to renationalize it.

Towns where EU migration had risen quickly were also more inclined to vote Leave—for example, Boston in the East Midlands, which posted the strongest ‘Out’ vote in the country (76:24). But many others that leant heavily towards Brexit have seen few arrivals from the Continent. Only 2 per cent of residents in Hartlepool were born elsewhere in the EU; in Stoke-on-Trent, centre of the decimated Staffordshire ceramics industry, 3 per cent. Yet these depressed localities … voted about 70:30 for Leave. (9)

It is true that often anti-migrant racism can feature in areas that have experienced little migration. However, decline and abandonment were the key drivers.

People felt abandoned both socially and politically. Many had given up any hope that things could change or get better for them, their children or grandchildren. Arguments from representatives of the political class that Brexit would cause further economic damage to these communities fell on deaf ears. People who were already living in a state of crisis felt they had nothing to lose. They had lost hope and stopped believing fundamental change was possible. The referendum provided these working-class communities with a unique opportunity for political recognition. In the referendum every vote would count — not like in parliamentary elections where first past the post meant your vote often made no difference. It was a chance to vote for the possibility of changing how the economy and society were organised. A chance to hit back against the establishment. So, they were prepared to gamble. It was shit or bust anyway.

For many such people it seemed that the future had been cancelled; life continues but time had stopped. Enzo Traverso describes this abandonment of hope in the future as ‘presentism’: where people live in a ‘suspended time between an unmasterable past and a denied future, between a “past that won’t go away” and a future that cannot be invented or predicted (except in terms of catastrophe).’ (10) Up until the referendum these people couldn’t imagine a world beyond the present condition. How could things really get any worse? The narrative of ‘taking back control’ appealed to those who had no voice, who had lost their way of life.

When looked at this way, the vote for Brexit had little association with the EU or its influence on British society and more to do with the changing situation of working-class life and rejecting a system responsible for decades of decline. Hazeldine concludes: ‘The rhetoric of Leave was anti-immigrant; the anger that powered it to victory came from decline.’ (11)  Corbyn’s acceptance of the referendum verdict in 2016 drew widespread hostility from the pro-Remain media. But it also prevented a potential outpouring of aggrieved Leave voters. This meant that in 2017 Brexit fell behind the health service and spending cuts as priorities for Labour voters and the Labour Party was able to hold onto most of its support.

The second referendum and the ‘revenge election’

As the third anniversary of the EU referendum approached, Ann Widdecombe addressed a Brexit Party meeting in a Miners club in Featherstone. Featherstone is a traditional, ex-pit town near Pontefract where 70 % of residents voted to leave the EU. Featherstone is also hugely symbolic. It was at the centre of the 1893 strike in the pits of Lord Acton. Miners were locked out, shot at and two were killed by soldiers of the Royal Staffordshire regiment. The event became known as the ‘Featherstone massacre’. More recently, during the Great Strike of 1984-85, a miner from Acton Hall colliery in Featherstone, David Jones, was killed at a Nottinghamshire pit at the beginning of the strike. He was buried with the inscription ‘David Jones, flying picket NUM’ on his headstone. (12) For several years, commemoration marches marking his death attracted thousands. Featherstone is a town that is rooted in mining and working-class history.

The Brexit Party meeting drew people from all walks of life. There were lorry drivers, labourers, hairdressers, pensioners, small-business owners and retired miners at the meeting. They came from Featherstone, Wakefield, Doncaster, Brigg, Castleford, Hemsworth, South Elmsall, Bradford, East Harwick and beyond. The majority were angry ex-Labour voters. Many were veterans of the Great Strike. They didn’t hide their disgust with Labour. When the names of Labour MPs were mentioned they were booed and Widdecombe received a standing ovation as she spoke of ‘sweeping the traitors from parliament’. This Brexit Party meeting in a miners’ club in Featherstone with Ann Widdecome receiving a standing ovation is testimony to how alienated these working-class people now were from the labour movement and how desperate they were for change. As argued above, the Brexit vote was above all a rejection of the status quo. This fed the growing demand to have the vote implemented and placed those who seemed to be blocking it in the sights of those who wanted revenge on the establishment in this election.

Many principled socialists had campaigned for Remain in the original EU referendum with concerns about a growing racist environment developing with Brexit. They were now agitating for Labour to adopt a second referendum. However, the main drive for the second referendum was coming from sections of British capital and the ‘extreme centre’. Under pressure from sections of its own membership and some of the radical left, Labour pivoted towards a second referendum with many on the front bench coming out and publicly supporting Remain. This decision sealed Labour’s fate with voters in towns and villages across England and Wales who had voted to leave; they felt that their democratic wishes were being ignored and frustrated by the ‘political class’. Former Labour voters from these communities, who had suffered decades of betrayal under Blair, Brown and Miliband, now saw Corbyn and the left as betraying their democratic wishes. This was catastrophic for Labour and became the final straw for many of their supporters. The change in position also couldn’t guarantee the support of all those who had voted Remain as many of them were sick of Brexit and wanted to see the democratic decision implemented.

A cursory glance at the list of seats lost by Labour should settle any doubts as to the devastating consequences of the pivot. Labour lost seats where previously it was thought that ‘you could stick a red rosette on the arse of a donkey’ and people would vote for them.  Labour fared significantly worse in Leave-supporting areas. Of the seats lost during the 2019 general election, 52 voted to leave the EU in 2016. The party lost eight Remain constituencies — of those, six were Scottish seats. The fact that around two-thirds of Labour MPs were Remainers who represented Leave-voting seats helped ensure the rout.

In the buildup to the election, many Remainers emphasised the Liberal Democrats’ success in the European election. These contests have historically been taken far less seriously than national elections. The Lib Dems came second to the Brexit Party, defeating Labour — yet their 3.3 million votes, a small proportion of the electorate, represented nothing but a minority obsessed by European identity. While a majority of Labour members, young and BAME voters backed Remain in the referendum, Corbyn could have used his leadership to argue again that the referendum result should have been respected. This was the position that successfully united working-class voters in 2017. The capitulation meant that Labour entrenched the divisions and portrayed Labour as the establishment party on Brexit allied to the ‘extreme centre’ who had done so much to ruin working class communities.

It wasn’t just the decision to back the second referendum that proved fateful. The four-year campaign of vilification against Corbyn had a significant impact. An audit of media coverage has revealed that hostility in newspapers towards Jeremy Corbyn was twice as bad during this election than in 2017. This audit also included The Guardian and The Mirror. People often couldn’t work out why they couldn’t support Corbyn — a telling sign that the campaign had been successful. However, failing to control an openly divided parliamentary Labour Party was clearly not a sign of ‘strong leadership’. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the frustration with the referendum delay and switch in policy was the driving factor in turning Labour voters away from voting Labour. The Tories under Johnson and his advisors understood this.

Once elected leader, Johnson had a clearout. It didn’t matter who they were or how prestigious their careers, MPs who backed Remain lost the Tory whip. No-one was allowed to deviate from the line. Within a few days, the Tory Party looked decisive while Labour was divided. The Tories said Labour was a muddle and voters agreed. While Labour were trying to popularise the most radical manifesto in generations, Cummings and his team were touring Leave voting constituencies. Their aim was to harden up their support as the real ‘Brexit Party’ and undermine the Labour vote. Not heeding the lessons of the EU referendum and the 2017 election opened up Labour strongholds to the Tories and the Brexit Party. The result was significant falls in Labour turnout with a small minority of former Labour supporters voting for the Tory vision of Brexit. This was a disaster that could have been avoided. It’s not as if the signs weren’t already there. In 2017, Labour lost Mansfield and four similar seats.

Revenge against the left?

People in these communities already believed that the political left failed to look after their interests. The crash of 2008 provided the left with an opportunity reengage with its traditional working-class base by fighting for an alternative social model. It was resisted by New Labour. In many of these working-class communities, where a socialist left doesn’t exist in any meaningful sense, the failures of New Labour are widely associated with the left as a whole. The attachment to the Brexit vote highlights the strength of feeling about political abandonment and social dislocation amongst sections of the working class. So when sections of the radical left agitated for a second referendum and joined the Peoples’ Vote marches this only confirmed the mistaken notion that the left doesn’t care about ‘people like us’. This situation allowed Johnson to appear as though the Tories were the only people who understood the concerns of these abandoned communities.

The 2019 Labour manifesto was the most radical in generations. However, most people in these communities didn’t care how radical the Labour manifesto was. The manifesto fell on the arid terrain of ‘capitalist realism’, where communities have had four decades of scorched earth policies. It wasn’t that the manifesto lacked vision or hope, it’s just these communities had lost all hope and it had no connection with their experiences. This is one reason why they didn’t believe the promises. Ultimately, if Labour couldn’t honour the Brexit referendum result then why would they trust them to deliver free broadband or any of the other pledges?

For the manifesto commitments to connect with working-class voters, Labour had to make the promises feel real. It was a strategic mistake for Corbyn and McDonnell to back away from taking on the cuts in local councils. Had they mobilised in councils where the left had local councillors or an MP, they could have led local campaigns with council workers and communities. This approach would have transformed the perception and experience of working-class voters who believed that the Labour Party had left them behind or was responsible for the decline. As Labour was seen to be consumed by battles in Westminster, it was easy to portray Labour as part of the Remain-supporting establishment. Postponing the fight in the councils missed an opportunity to develop an insurgent strategy in a way that could have touched people’s lives and involved them in action. Without a strategy that generated conflict against the cuts and disruption of the parliamentary narrative, voters and supporters were passive onlookers unless they were part of the minority involved in the election campaign.

In this situation, the Tories were able to connect with the mood of passive voters in these communities over Brexit. No matter how ridiculous and disingenuous ‘Get Brexit Done’ was as a slogan, it was perfect. The combination of Labour’s pivot to support for the second referendum and its inability to break through the sense of ‘capitalist realism’ helps us understand how a politically incontinent, lying, cheating, racist, misogynistic buffoon like Johnson could succeed. If he was going to ‘Get Brexit Done’, then he might not be as bad as the rest of them. For these people that’s all that mattered.

The failure however raises deeper questions. It’s not just that the pivot towards Remain was disastrous. Labour’s defeat has called into question the ability of a social democratic Party to deliver a radical manifesto today in a way it might have done in the heyday of Keynesianism. What does it mean that the biggest political party in Western Europe has failed to persuade communities that have been ravaged by neoliberalism that it can deliver ‘on their behalf’?

From revenge to resistance

This essay has highlighted people’s lack of self-worth, their loss of pride, a sense of political abandonment, lost hope and an inability to imagine a better world. It’s this sense of abandonment by Labour that drove the Brexit vote and the Tory success last week. However, it’s worth contrasting the political situation in Scotland with that of the North, Wales or the Midlands.

Scotland has experienced a similar hollowing out of heavy traditional industry and the influence of neoliberalism over economic policy but voted to Remain in the EU. However, working class people in Scotland have another vehicle to voice their disgust or discontent with Labour. The SNP has, despite its commitment to a neoliberal economic model been able to supplant the Labour Party as the opposition to the Tories in Scotland. It has achieved this with a vision of change, and hope. Whatever its limitations, the SNP agenda of independence with a desire for sovereignty, democracy and empowerment has captured the aspirations of working-class people desperate for change. The SNP didn’t arrive at this position of its own free will. A radical campaign for real change driven in the main by the Radical Independence Campaign was responsible for changing the form and content of the independence referendum in 2014. This meant engaging with the working-class communities who had been ‘left behind’ by a political establishment that included the SNP. With voter registration drives and radical collective initiatives to build support for independence in towns and cities across the country, we came close to breaking up the British state.

Following the election, the Tories have moved swiftly to push their Brexit Withdrawal Bill through parliament. Their version of Brexit will be used to undermine labour, welfare, consumer and environmental standards as the Tories try to pivot closer to the U.S. No-one yet knows in detail what their Brexit agenda is but it’s unlikely to offer any relief or salvation for those in Leave voting working class communities. Only a Brexit led from the left could have provided a deal with free movement, protection for EU migrants and freedom from the anti-working class diktats of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and EU Commission. ECJ judgements such as Viking Line and Laval, undermined the right to strike by making unions liable for damages to employers and were used to undermine strike action by British Airways pilots in 2008. A left-led Brexit could have defended and expanded rights for all workers, migrants and non-migrants. For the moment that vision of Brexit has gone.

Remain is now dead. The cynics from the ‘extreme centre’ who led the drive for the second referendum to primarily undermine Corbyn have achieved their main objective. They admitted as much when Tony Blair announced that the pivot towards a second referendum was a mistake! The people feeling abandoned now are those who marched on ‘Peoples Vote’ demonstrations for a second referendum. They have been cynically manipulated and betrayed by the ‘extreme centre’. However, while working class communities who voted Leave may feel vindicated as the Tories enact the Brexit bill, there will be no respite from the decades of political, economic and spiritual impoverishment. A Tory Brexit will not free these communities from ‘capitalist realism’.

If we are to recover, then the left has to rebuild relationships with communities fractured by four decades of neoliberal restructuring. We shouldn’t see these people as victims with individual sufferings but as potential collective subjects striving for their redemption — beyond Brexit. The establishment — which includes the radical right — wants to brush these people’s decades of suffering under the carpet. The establishment want these legacies to stay in the past as ‘dead matter’ to be kept there never to disturb the present or the future. But, as Enzo Traverso puts it, for our class  the previous lost battles are ‘a burden and a debt’. The past never abandons the present, it haunts it and remains with us to be reactivated in the fight to change the present with the possibility of redemption and hope for future generations. What Walter Benjamin called ‘now-time’ (Jetztzeit) is the dialectical link between the unaccomplished past and the future we fight for. It is the sudden irruption of the past into the present, which can break up the presentism of ‘capitalist realism’. (13) So Brexit became the political medium through which decades of suffering found expression. The problem for the left shouldn’t have been Brexit itself but the way the political right were able to shape it.

Brexit will on the one hand be an event with unexpected and disruptive characteristics, opening up new scenarios, projecting the peoples of these islands onto unpredictable political and economic terrain. On the other hand, Brexit is not just for Christmas. This year or next. It will be a process that drags on for years with unintended consequences. The Johnson Brexit deal opens up the very real possibility of the breakup of the United Kingdom. The claims from the SNP for Scottish self-determination are the first salvo in the main fault-line for the Tories and the British state. In Ireland the Irish question will also be posed in starker terms as support for Irish independence draws in people who now feel abandoned by the British. However, it will be in Scotland where the immediate question of opposition to British rule will be posed. The radical left here has an opportunity to lead the opposition to the Johnson government beyond the constitutional routes that will be posed by the SNP. If we can transform the huge demonstrations for independence into a mass campaign of civil disobedience, we can develop a strategy that aims to make Scotland ungovernable for the Tories.

As recessionary pressures grow in Europe, the economic slowdown will likely spread across Europe. Economic retrenchment in Britain is already a major worry, which could deepen the economic woes and close down options economically for Johnson. While it may be difficult for Johnson to throw carrots at working class people who ‘lent’ him their vote, it would be foolish to underestimate the capacity for this hard right Tory government to accelerate the culture war to try and further divide our class as they seek to build a hegemonic alliance. It’s also important to remember that liberals from the ‘extreme centre’ are active participants in fuelling the culture war. They will look to stoke division by caricaturing working class people who voted Leave as stupid, ignorant, racist people who don’t understand what’s good for them. This is despite overwhelming evidence that the working class in Britain is more socially liberal now than it has ever been.

As we resist the Tories we should consciously aim to unite Leave voting working-class people who will be betrayed again by the Tories with those who supported Remain and have been betrayed by the ‘extreme centre’. The left has an opportunity to resist the culture war and rebuild an alliance of workers across the Brexit divide. There will be pressure on all sides for the Labour Party to tack to the right from Corbyn’s principled stances on racism and imperialism. Racism wasn’t the primary driver for Brexit nor for Labour losing the election. The recent pronouncement from Rebecca Long-Bailey about ‘progressive patriotism’ is a worrying indication of retreats on this from the Labour left. The radical left has to take a firm and principled position of opposition to such concessions to bigotry.

Instead, we should find common ground in struggles against racism by defending those still targeted by the Windrush scandal, by protecting EU migrants, by participating in tenants’ campaigns, helping organise precarious workers and by defending the right to strike. The climate emergency will make it imperative for the left to link action against climate change with action to defend our jobs and communities. While the renewed drive to war will pose starkly questions about how we stop western imperialism and the kind of world we want to live in.

In communities  where the left have influence, we can  bring together left wing MPs and councillors with the local labour movement and community to resist further cuts, privatisations and campaign against any drive towards war . The disruptive tactics from Extinction Rebellion should be brought into these struggles. With a militant and combative strategy we can begin to plan how we avenge the defeats we have suffered from both wings of the establishment who equally support austerity, privatisation and war Only a disruptive strategy can break up the presentism of ‘capitalist realism’ and help the radical left rebuild. A campaign to turn Labour activists into union reps and community campaigners would be an important step towards laying the basis for future victories and restoring hope in our communities.

The Brexit vote was framed as a racist vote. However, it’s clear that decline and political abandonment were key drivers in both the Brexit vote and election result. To date the left has failed to heed the warnings from these votes with some foolishly backing the pro establishment Remain alliance. If we don’t take note of these repeated mistakes, we will be preparing the ground for yet more serious failures. The hard-right Tory government are trying to build bases in former Labour heartlands in England and Wales. The fascists have instructed their members to join the Tories, who have been received so far without any complaint. With mass strikes in France, and mass movements for democracy, against austerity and oppression spreading across the world, people are increasingly looking for radical solutions to their problems. If the left and labour movement don’t provide them, then the Tories and the far right will try and fill the vacuum. Once again, we have been warned!

Notes

  1. Jonny Jones, ‘Winning the Revenge Election’, rs21.org.uk [online] (9 December 2019); Proltariato_Papi, ‘Wading through the mud’, Medium.com [online] (16 Decewmber 2019); Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (London: Zero, 2009); Enzo Traverso, Left-Wing Melancholia. Marxism, History, and Memory (New York: Columbia UP, 2016), p. 20. back to text
  2. Mike Davis, ‘What’s wrong with America? A debate with Thomas Frank’ (2005), reprinted in: In Praise of Barbarians: Essays Against Empire (Chicago, IL.: Haymarket, 2007), pp. 42, 47, 48. back to text
  3. Sebastian Payne, ‘“Teeside Tories” have promises to keep’, Financial Times (17 December 2019). back to text
  4. Luke Telford and Jonthan Wistow, ‘Brexit and the working class on Teeside: Moving beyond reductionism’, Capital & Class [online] (16 September 2019): 1-20. back to text
  5. Aditya Chakrabortty, ‘This Labour meltdown has been building for decades’, The Guardian [online] (14 December 2019). back to text
  6. Mike Davis, ‘The urbanization of empire’, in: In Praise of Barbarians, p. 128. back to text
  7. Davis, ‘Urbanization of empire’, p. 129. back to text
  8. See note 4. back to text
  9. Tom Hazeldine, ‘Revolt of the rustbelt’, New Left Review 105 [online] (May-June 2017) 69. back to text
  10. Traverso, Left-Wing Melancholia, p. 8. back to text
  11. Hazeldine, ‘Revolt’, 69. back to text
  12. Based upon recollections from Brian Parkin back to text
  13. Traverso, Left-Wing Melancholia, pp. xv and 10, quoting Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, No. 14, in: Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1973), p. 263. back to text

This article appeared on the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century website on January 5, 2020 here

Britain: 2019 election analysis — A victory for the Far Right. A crisis for the Left

Neil Faulkner and Phil Hearse

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on display (Photo: UK Parliament)

The British ruling class has much to celebrate. Their party — the party of the rich and the corporations — has won its biggest majority since 1987. Our party — the party of working people — has suffered its worst result since 1935.

They are right to celebrate. Millions of working-class people, many of them in once rock-solid Labour seats based on traditional industry and union power, have voted for the party of the bosses. This is the story in many former mining constituencies, where the victims of Thatcher’s destruction of the coal industry and the NUM have now come full circle and voted for Thatcher’s party. It is a story repeated in a swathe of ‘Red Wall’ old industrial centres in the North and the Midlands.

The profiteers are celebrating with a share-price hike. The Tory tabloids are running triumphalist headlines: ‘Rejoice! Boris set for thumping majority’ (Daily Mail), and ‘The British Lion Roars for Boris and Brexit’ (Daily Express). Michael Gove bragged that the British people had reject Corbyn’s ‘division, extremism, and anti-semitism’.

Johnson himself — a racist bully, serial liar, and self-serving narcissist in the Trump mould — has proclaimed ‘a people’s government’ of ‘one-nation Tories’: the party of the elites masquerading as a party of people against elites. The implication, perhaps, is that the rest of us are ‘enemies of the people’. Indeed, it is clear that ‘one-nation Conservatism’ has acquired a new, darker, more sinister meaning, one with echoes of 1930s-style fascist plebiscites.

The shallow commentators of the mainstream media — Laura Kuenssberg, Andrew Neil, Nick Robinson, and many others — are puffed up with smug, self-satisfied, ‘told-you-so’ sneers at the very idea of a social-democratic alternative to the chaos, misery, and greed of neoliberal capitalism.

And the Labour Right are resurgent, unleashing a torrent of vitriolic attacks on Corbyn, blaming him and the Left for the defeat, preparing the political offensive they will now mount to destroy the Labour Party’s social-democratic character and turn it back into an identikit Blairite neoliberal party.

The demonisation of Corbyn

The struggle continues. It will be harder now, but it continues. First, though, we must analyse what has gone wrong. Socialists have to stare reality in the face. They have to understand the world in order to organise to change it. Here is our view on what we think has gone wrong.

The election result is a massive setback for the working class and the Left. It will mean a deepening of neoliberalism under a hard-right government, threatening the living standards and democratic rights of millions. Every part of the public sector and welfare state will be under attack.

An historic opportunity to implement a radical, anti-neoliberal alternative has been lost. This has happened because of the frantic and unprecedented campaign of vilification against Corbyn, Labour, and the Left — by the increasingly reactionary mass media and the Tories (of course), but also, from almost Day One of Corbyn’s leadership, by the Labour Right. A large majority of the PLP (Parliamentary Labour Party), some right-wing union leaders, much of the old party apparatus, and of course the right wing of the party at regional and local level have all contributed to this.

Crucial planks in the anti-Corbyn slander campaign have been some Guardian and Observer columnists, as well as journalists on BBC2’s Newsnight and Channel 4 News. The relentless media hounding of Corbyn has been one reason why many working-class, middle-class, and student voters abandoned Labour.

Throughout his leadership, Jeremy Corbyn has been hampered by having a big majority against him in the PLP, and no secure majority in the Shadow Cabinet or, for much of the time, on the Labour NEC.

The failure of conciliation

In response, the path chosen by the Labour leadership was to conciliate and compromise with the Right. This did not work. Even though the 2016 Owen Smith leadership challenge was a fiasco, the Labour Right did not give up — not for one moment.

The Corbyn team, however, refused to unleash the potential of Momentum and other left-wingers in a campaign to de-select right-wing MPs. This would have led to civil war inside the party, of course, but an open civil war — as opposed to the permanent, backroom, semi-clandestine campaign against Corbyn waged by the Right.

Let us be explicit. What has been defeated in the general election is an attempt to get a radical left government into power on the back of a parliamentary party strongly opposed to it.

That defeat has also been caused by the chronic inability of the Corbyn leadership to stand up to the Right inside and outside the party on two crucial issues.

The antisemitism smear

First, the decision not to resist the smear campaign on antisemitism has been a disaster. For those who launched this campaign, the primary objective was to prevent a pro-Palestinian government being elected, and to de-legitimise pro-Palestinian activism. The abject refusal to simultaneously combat antisemitism and to fight the smear campaign was a disaster. ‘Roll with the punches and it will all go away’ has been a catastrophic mistake.

In the face of the antisemitism smear — which began with the attack on Ken Livingstone in 2016 — the Corbyn leadership has not so much fudged as capitulated. If you don’t run, they can’t chase you. But the Labour leadership ran, and the onslaught — from the Tories, the Liberal Democrats, the Blairites, the gutter press, the BBC, even The Guardian — has been relentless ever since.

The ludicrous notion that Corbyn is an antisemite, that Labour is institutionally racist, that the party has allowed anti-Jewish hatred to flourish in its ranks has been mainstreamed. And the conflation between antisemitism and anti-Zionism has been such that the party leadership has attempted to silence all criticism of Israel and shut down any solidarity with the Palestinians among the membership: a pitiful betrayal of internationalism and the oppressed in the face of a right-wing lie that has grown and grown because it has never been effectively challenged at the top.

The Brexit fudge

Second, the failure to take a clear and comprehensible stand on Brexit has been disastrous. The whole campaign for a referendum on Europe was the banner behind which the Tory Right united to win control of the Conservative Party. With the financial support of millionaires like Aaron Banks, and media support from The Mail, The Sun, and other right-wing rags, this campaign worked brilliantly.

Labour and the unions split on this issue, as whole sections of the Left failed to grasp the meaning of the EU Referendum. The Labour leadership should have adopted a pro-Remain position, with a clear stand on free movement and for international working-class solidarity. The attempt to ‘unite the class’ by fudging the argument failed totally. The lack of a clear position meant losing voters among both Remainers and Leavers. Jeremy Corbyn has been undone not by uncompromising leftism, but by an attempt to conciliate the incompatible.

The election outcome, and Labour losing significant ground in former working-class bastions, is not just the outcome of recent events, but a continuation of the attrition the party has suffered as a result of all the defeats since the miners’ strike of 1984-5. As industrial towns and mining villages lost their main workplaces, poverty and neglect compounded the loss of union membership and the decline of the influence and culture of the labour movement more generally.

This is the background to the ‘left behind’ syndrome in medium and small-size towns. As it became more and more difficult to claim unemployment benefits, millions were forced into insecure, zero-hours, low-wage, non-union jobs, often with no pension and no sick pay. The working poor are everywhere in the left-behind towns, and their demographic make up is often skewed as young people leave. What remains are depressed (and depressing) towns with dreadful housing, neglected streets, and shut-down shops.

The Blair-Brown governments from 1997-2010 did little to break this vicious circle, despite Labour’s tax credits and minimum wage. The result was the growing influence of the Far Right, with the BNP winning council seats in Stoke and Barking, followed by a surge of UKIP, which won 17% of the vote in the 2009 European elections. This new right-wing electorate then went first to the Brexit Party and now has swung behind the Tories.

The role of nationalism, racism, and xenophobia in the 2016 Leave campaign and in the 2017 and 2019 Tory general election campaigns is obvious. When Johnson attacked immigrants for treating Britain as if it were their own country, he was not only making an open appeal to racism, but repeating the reactionary propaganda of the Far Right. Just as in Italy, Germany, and France — and, of course, the United States — the rightward turn of conservatives like Johnson is mainstreaming the politics of the Far Right.

Voting for the enemy

To grasp the overall meaning of what has happened we need to step back and take a broader historical view. Johnson’s Tories represent a far-right, ultra-neoliberal, nationalist-racist government of millionaires and bigots.

Forty years on, they represent an acceleration of the counter-revolutionary project launched by Thatcher in 1979: a rolling back of the post-war gains of working people, a brick-by-brick demolition of the welfare state by cuts and privatisation, a wholesale redistribution of wealth from the majority to the corporate rich — only now, after a decade of austerity and social decay, the neoliberal programme is laced with much heavier doses of nationalism, racism, and scapegoat politics.

The blunt fact is that millions of working-class people — millions more than before — have voted against their own interests for a viciously anti-working class party of the rich and the corporations.

Labour offered a radical programme in this election — a programme of social reform the implementation of which would have represented a substantial improvement in the lives of millions of ordinary people.

It is true, of course, that the Labour Party historically has not been a consistent representative of working-class interests. Again and again, when forced to choose between ‘national interest’ (i.e. the interest of British capitalism) and class interest, it has chosen to bail out the system by attacking its own supporters with cuts in wages, welfare, and public services.

But that does not alter the fact that Labour under Corbyn has been an expression of the traditional aspirations of the labour movement for greater equality, democracy, and social justice. A vote for the Tories was a vote for reaction. A vote for Labour was a vote for radical social reform. Yet well over half the people who stood to benefit from the social reforms in the Labour programme (however modest) voted against the party.

Labour’s electoral decline

It has not always been like this. We are witness to a historic collapse in the Labour vote. It peaked in October 1951, when the party won half of all votes cast. Working people constitute about 80% of the population. This means that six out of every ten working people voted Labour in 1951. In the December 2019 general election, the party won less than a third of all votes cast — which means that only four in ten of its ‘natural supporters’ voted for it.

This reflects a long-term decline in the core Labour vote since its high-point in the immediate post-war years. Why has this happened?

A wider process is under way. Old parties are in decline. Electoral blocs are fragmenting. Traditional allegiances are more fragile. New parties are emerging. How people vote is much more volatile and unpredictable. Instead of a ‘cold war’ between two solid electoral blocs — a progressive bloc around a social-democratic party rooted in the working class, and a reactionary bloc around a conservative party of the middle class — we have a kaleidoscope of parties, with each election creating new configurations.

This process has gathered pace in the neoliberal era, with the hollowing out of civil society, the atomisation of society, the retreat into privatised worlds of competitive individualism and neurotic consumerism. Deep processes of social disengagement and alienation are at work.

This affects political parties. No longer rooted in strong civil-society organisations, they become relatively free-floating collections of technocrats, careerists, and opportunists. Elections resemble game shows. Politicians are packaged as celebrities. Policies are all about spin. Campaigns are managed by PR spivs. This lack of rootedness of the political system is a large part of the explanation for the collapse in standards in public life and the epidemic of lying, corruption, and manipulation by the political elite.

Contributing to the trivialisation of parliamentary politics is the shrivelling of the state as an economic actor. Globalisation — the domination of the world economy by giant conglomerates straddling the world and stashing profit in tax-havens — has reduced the internal role of the state to the provision of basic infrastructure and the policing of the working class.

The state does not manage capital: it serves capital. Governments do not serve the people: they manage the people. This is the deepest root of ‘the democratic deficit’. Whatever they say, governments do not act in the interests of society: they act in the interests of the system.

The smashing of the unions

These generalisations apply in a very particular way to the working class. From the late 19th century up to the 1980s, trade unions were the primary expression of class identity in modern capitalist societies. Class consciousness, class organisation, and class struggle were reflected most immediately and strongly in trade-union membership, rank-and-file organisation in the workplaces, and strike action.

Trade union membership peaked in Britain in 1979, when there were 13 million members, an estimated 250,000 shop stewards (directly elected workplace representatives), and a total of 29 million strike-days. This immensely powerful workers’ movement was the basis for the major shifts in wealth that occurred between 1945 and 1979. It was also the basis for the solidity of the Labour vote in ‘traditional’ working-class areas — in practice, areas with strong union organisation.

The British ruling class set out to smash this movement. The Thatcher government of 1979-90 was a class-war government determined to break the unions, privatise the public sector, and redistribute wealth from working people to the corporate rich. This they did. The decisive battle in this essentially counter-revolutionary effort was the year-long battle against the miners.

The NUM (National Union of Miners) was the strongest union in Britain. Thatcher prepared for a showdown and provoked an all-out strike by imposing a drastic pit-closure programme. Some 150,000 men, supported by their families, communities, and the wider trade-union movement, remained on strike for a year, despite paramilitary police violence, courtroom frame-ups, and a barrage of anti-union propaganda in the media. The eventual defeat of the strike sent a shock-wave of demoralisation and despair across the British labour movement. We have never recovered.

For almost three decades now, the strike rate — the essential measure of class-based resistance to the bosses and the system — has bumped along close to rock-bottom. Trade union membership has halved, and the vast majority of union members today have no experience of workplace-based activity — for most, a union card is little more than an insurance policy in case of need.

This could change. The unions could rise again. If large numbers of workers came into action, if they kicked over the anti-union laws and their do-nothing leaders to mount all-out strikes, organise mass pickets, and spread the action, a workplace insurgency could take off. But right now, we live with the consequences of the breaking of union power: a collapse in consciousness, confidence, and combativeness which has severely eroded the class base of the Labour vote.

The legacy of Blair

Tony Blair’s attempt to turn the Labour Party into an alternative pro-capitalist party — a party of counter-reforms like NHS privatisation — was one consequence of the defeat of the miners. The effect was to deepen further the sense of alienation from Labour in traditional working-class communities.

Repeated sell-outs in the 1960s and 1970s had already damaged the relationship between party and class, but until the 1990s Labour had remained essentially a party of social-democratic reform. This ended under Blair, and the electoral consequences have been permanent, most obviously in Scotland, where Labour’s betrayals of the class interests of its own supporters have resulted in its effective replacement by an alternative (tartan) social-democratic party in the form of the Scottish National Party.

The election of Corbyn to the leadership in 2015 represented a sudden (and wholly unexpected) reassertion of the party’s social-democratic character, halting and reversing its creeping neoliberalisation under the Blairites. But the hollowing-out of union power — the decline of the working class as an organised industrial force — has meant that the social foundations of Corbynism have been much weaker than, say, those of Bennism in the 1980s, or Bevanism in the 1950s.

In this election, nationalism and racism has performed its historic role yet again: splitting the working class and blocking socialist advance. Ever since the French Revolution, two broad sets of ideas, one reflecting the interests of the ruling class, one the interests of the working class, have confronted each other: nationalism, racism, imperialism, and militarism form one set, equality, democracy, internationalism, and peace the other. Socialists have been involved in this struggle for hearts and minds for 250 years; and whenever we compromise, wheedle, dodge, ‘triangulate’, reactionary ideas gain traction.

It is likely that the Johnson government will face an economic crisis soon, and certain that its fairy tales of funding for the NHS and infrastructure investment will come to little or nothing. We are in for an ugly period in politics, where new space will be created for fascists and racists, and where bitter battles to defend living standards and the welfare state are certain. There will also be a fierce struggle inside the Labour Party, with the Right blaming the Left for electoral defeat and on the offensive to regain control.

David Rousset was a revolutionary socialist who lived through the black night of the mid 20th century. He was a Holocaust survivor. ‘Disappointment is a trifle,’ he later wrote. ‘Disappointment is a luxury we cannot afford. The dilemma is simple but imperative. Whether to submit to mere fortune or to understand and take action.’

Hundreds of thousands have protested in Britain against Brexit, Trump, and climate catastrophe in the last few years. Millions are protesting across the world against austerity, corruption, and dictatorship. On one side are the rich, the corporations, the police, and the fascists; on the other, the mass of ordinary working people, led by the radical youth, black and white, women and men.

We face climate catastrophe, creeping fascism, and corporate power. We face the nationalism and racism of Brexit. We face a regime of speculators, privatisers, and landlords. So we must organise, mobilise, and fight.

This article was published on the Socialist Resistance website on December 22, 2019 here and on the Mutiny website on December 14, 2019 here.

Pakistan: Struggling under the flag of solidarity, facing repression, in a fractured country

Pierre Rousset

Protest demanding reinstatement of student unions, education fee cuts and better education facilities, Karachi, November 29, 2019 (Photo: Asif HASSAN / AFP)

The student mobilization on 29 November 2019 had a deep echo across Pakistan. Affirming solidarity with all the discriminated and exploited sectors of society, it became a rallying point for a wide range of social and progressive movements in a country and a state undermined by numerous regional, national or religious fractures and by abysmal social inequalities.

This is why repression strikes severely. Activists prosecuted for “sedition” have avoided immediate imprisonment by paying bail. (1) But they must appear again in court on 7 January to find out if their bail will be maintained. This is very important as the charge of sedition is particularly serious. [The hearing has since been rescheduled to January 21.]

The demonstrations of 29 November deserved their name – Solidarity Marches – tackling all injustices, even the most politically or socially “sensitive” such as the rights of minority populations, the status of women or transgender people, the laws against blasphemy, the sometimes “feudal” (or even almost slave-like) conditions of exploitation in various economic sectors and so on. In doing so, the Marches became a rallying point for a wide range of leftist political currents and social movements.

Convergence of resistance

As Farah Zia notes in the English-language daily The News, the students “were joined in the march by teachers, journalists, lawyers, old guard revolutionaries, civil society activists, working classes, political workers. All genders were represented in the inclusive crowd that the Mall has not seen in recent years. Not even in the [2009] Lawyers’ Movement. The non-Punjabi youth were conspicuous by their sizeable number. A rare occasion when the ‘burgers’ mingled with their public school counterparts in a public space.” (2)

Amna Chaudhry adds in another English language daily newspaper, Dawn:

SAC [Student Action Committee] was adamant that the march also addresses the wider problems of privatisation, misogyny, racism and the sheer neglect of marginalised groups. As a result, mobilisation for the march did not just take place on campuses, but student organisers also engaged with labour leaders, lawyers, doctors and feminists

Women were encouraged to be at the forefront of the march that day; labourers were given as much importance as any other group. Student Mashal Khan — who had been killed on made-up charges of blasphemy — was honoured alongside revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxembourg. In doing so, the march consolidated the issues of the marginalised as irrevocably tied together and created a space in which all citizens could give voice to their demands (…)

This year, student activists sought the help of labour unions, such as the Bhatta Mazdoor Union, the Labour Education Foundation, and the All Pakistan Wapda Hydroelectric Workers Union. The transgender community, Mohiba Ahmed adds, played a huge part in organising and mobilising for the strike. Since the Student Solidarity March also opposed the increasing privatisation of public institutions, they found common ground with doctors and lawyers who have the same grievances. (3)

A long term preparation

The second Solidarity March has been long in preparation, says Raza Gilani, a member of the Progressive Student Collective:

We learnt a lot from our first march. Perhaps the most valuable lesson was the importance of making connections with activists all over the country. We spent the past year travelling and building these connections, and that is why the march this year was such a success. The organisers claim their inspiration is the 1968 movement against the dictatorial regime of Ayub Khan. “It is the workers, peasants, students and women who will lead the movement, just like last time. All these groups have to come together for us to be able to achieve our goals(…).

The movement is also criticised because there are women at the forefront,” adds Ahmed. “But women are suffering the most at the hands of universities. Campuses are not safe for them, the lack of scholarships and hostel facilities affect them even more and that is why they are at the frontlines today,” she says. “Women have to be a part of this, as does the transgender community. We want these people to come together, for this to be an intersectional movement. (4)

The accusation of sedition

The Marches on November 29 were therefore not a flash in the pan, but the expression of the ripening of a new activist and united generation determined to articulate resistance to all injustices from a progressive perspective. The ruling political circles and the various fractions of the state apparatus are not responding uniformly to this challenge. But it is clear that at least one wing of the law enforcement agency wants to strike very hard. Hence the accusation of sedition.

As in many other countries – starting with Modi’s India, seen as the sworn enemy of Pakistan! – the accusation of sedition, terrorism or endangering national security is frequently used to suppress political opposition and social movements. The army has sometimes planted false evidence in the homes of peasant or worker leaders to have them sentenced to particularly harsh conditions of imprisonment (torture, solitary confinement and so on): namely Indian rupees. One of the most serious charges in this country, along with blasphemy – is being denounced as a “paid agent of India”. The accusation of terrorism allows activists to be tried under emergency legislation.

The right of self-determination is obviously not recognized, and, in the face of central state oppression, irredentist movements exist, as in Baluchistan. However, the military, to cover up its own crimes, can accuse peaceful, unarmed movements, which do not jeopardize the unity of Pakistan, of threatening national security. as was the case with the Pashtun Tahfuz Movement (PTM), in the north-west of the country. Following violent repression, soldiers imprisoned the two members of the National Assembly elected in this region: Ali Wazir and Moshin Dawar. It was only after an intense mobilization in Pakistan and a major international solidarity campaign that they were released on bail.

Sedition, terrorism and blasphemy

The charges of sedition or terrorism and blasphemy operate according to different methods, but both operate both within the framework of (legal) institutions and outside of them. For example, intelligence services can “disappear” people deemed to be overly critical (such as bloggers) – and the justice system can force them to “reappear”. The state apparatus (in the broad sense) is not homogeneous. Courts of law are often subject to established powers (ultimately intractable, as in the case of Baba Jan at Gilgit Baltistan, whatever the improbability of the accusation). They can also take very courageous positions, as when the judges of a Supreme Court declared the Christian villager Asia Bibi innocent of the crime of blasphemy for which she had been condemned to death. The great democratic defence campaigns in Pakistan are carried out by means of mobilization, but also at the legal level. Thus, many lawyers and human rights defenders will support the so-called “leaders” of 29 November, accused of sedition, on 7 January 2020.

In the case of blasphemy, extremist religious movements do not hesitate to exercise expeditious “justice”” themselves. No person in detention and condemned to death for blasphemy has been legally executed to date – on the other hand, they can be murdered in the prison – or outside, if they are released (once exonerated, Asia Bibi had to be secretly taken to Canada to be saved). Many more are killed before they are even arrested.

Radical Islamists do more: they assassinate lawyers and figures who defend “blasphemers” or who criticize the extension of blasphemy laws. Salman Taseer, governor of the main province of Pakistan and a member of the government party at the time, was shot by his own bodyguard because he had defended Asia Bibi.

Most recently, a recognized academic specialist in English literature, Junaid Hafeez, arrested in 2013, was sentenced to death for blasphemy, without any proof whatsoever. The real reason is probably that he invited a feminist colleague to speak at his seminar. He has remained in solitary confinement for six years and his mental health is suffering painfully. The group of fundamentalist lawyers (there are many) pleading for the charge have threatened to kill their colleague who defends Hafeez – while his previous lawyer, Rashid Rehman, had already been attacked in his office and murdered in 2014. Religious extremists have threatened judges with the same fate if they did not sentence the accused to death, which they have done. As a rule, the perpetrators of these religious crimes are not worried. Impunity reigns and the pressure on the judicial authorities continues to increase.

A battle on multiple fronts

This (incomplete) overview allows us to understand both the depth and the driving forces of the current student and popular mobilization (in response to so many injustices) and the challenges facing the new activist generation. It has had to engage battle on multiple fronts from the start to be able to bring together the living forces of the resistance and reconnect the thread of a historic, progressive struggle, which dates back at least to the 1968 years, and lay the foundations for ’a new left-wing force, rejuvenated, socially rooted and inclusive.

7 January represents a very important legal and political deadline. As a first step, the situation in Pakistan should be made more widely known, so as to once again ensure our solidarity with those who are pursuing a difficult struggle in this country.

Notes

  1. The police had to admit that they had not completed their investigations.
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  2. The News on Sunday, 8 Dcember 2019 The march and after.
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  3. Amna Chaudry, Dawn, 8 December 2019 The Student Solidarity March called for justice, not only on campuses but for all marginalised segments of society.
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  4. Amna Chaudhry, op. cit.
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This article appeared on the International Viewpoint website on January 9, 2020 here.

Iran Popular Protests Against Regime Intensify in Response to Iran Downing of Passenger Plane

Frieda Afary, Fatemeh Masjedi, Sina Zekavat

On Saturday, January 11, after three days of denial by the Iranian government about its January 8 downing of a Ukrainian plane over Tehran, a representative of the Islamic Republic’s armed forces admitted that an Iranian missiles had struck the plane by mistake. This had occurred hours after Iran’s missile attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq, which were meant to be acts of retaliation against the January 3 U.S. assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, top Iraqi militia commander/founder of Kata’ib Hezbollah militia.

Iran had warned the Iraqi government in advance of the location of its January 7 retaliatory strikes on U.S. bases and had thus allowed the U.S. to prevent casualties. However, Iran had not shut down commercial air traffic during and after the retaliation strikes and apparently mistook the Ukrainian plane for an incoming U.S. missile. Many of the Ukrainian plane’s 176 passengers were Iranians with dual citizenship, including graduate students, who had been visiting family during the Winter holiday and were returning to Canada and Britain. They also included other Canadian, Ukrainian, British and Swedish citizens. There were also 9 crew members.

At first the Iranian government denied all claims that its missile had struck the plane. It also threatened Iranian reporters who were investigating this case. However, after incontrovertible evidence was provided by Ukrainian, Canadian and U.S. sources, Iran was forced to admit the truth.

The announcement made by an IRGC leader on Saturday January 11, immediately led to large and angry protests by university students in Tehran and in other cities. The demonstrators expressed their solidarity with the mourning families of the innocent passengers and crew killed in the plane, exposed the government’s forty-year history of lies/deception, tore images of Soleimani, and called for an end to the Islamic Republic and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Despite the bullets and tear gas attacks of the security forces, and many arrests, demonstrators issued a call for a Sunday evening protest around the country, to oppose the regime, and to defend women’s rights, labor rights and environmental protection. Many gathered at Tehran’s “freedom square” and in other cities such as Mashhad, Isfahan, Sanandaj, Shiraz, Babol, Hamedan, Orumiyeh, and Rasht, Yazd, Semnan, Gorgan, Arak, Zanjan, Abadan, Ahvaz. In several locations state banners with Soleimani’s image on them were torn, broken and removed by the protesters.

The slogans included the following: “Dictator, IRGC, You are our ISIS”, “The enemy is at home.” “ We didn’t suffer casualties in order to praise the murderous leader”, “Unworthy IRGC is a source of shame for our country”, “IRGC commits murders and the leader supports it”, “death to the dictator”, “We were the victims of your ‘harsh revenge’ “, “Soleimani is a murderer, His leader is corrupt”, “Death to the oppressor, whether king or the Great Leader”, “Neither the rule of the religious guardian, nor the rule of the monarch” “Death to the rule of the religious guardian that is responsible for years of murders”, “The commander in chief needs to resign”, “1500 were killed in November”, “Referendum, Referendum”, “We are our own saviors”, “bread, jobs, freedom, workers’ council management”.

The Association of Iranian Retirees’ statement spoke out against how “human lives are sacrificed for the political goals and deals of ruling systems”.

Many artists cancelled plans to attend the annual Fajr film and music festival which has been organized by the state for the past 40 years on the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. One actor wrote that there is no interest in participating in a state-sponsored festival . Another wrote that the scenes of the protests in the streets of Iran are more powerful than any theater performance.

A statement from the students at Amir Kabir Polytechnic University in Tehran stated the following:

Today, we are surrounded by ‘evil’ from every quarter. While the government’s economic policies and political suppression have brought the people to the end of their tether, the shadow of war has also appeared above our heads. In the midst of constant threats by military powers, today what is lacking in Iran’s political climate is the people’s voice. Above and beyond anything else, the people demand freedom and equality, and they raised their voices in the loudest form in the month of November to bring their message to others.

The events of the past two months have been a clear testimony to the complete incompetence of the regime ruling over Iran, a regime whose only answer to every crisis is to resort to force. It is our duty today to direct all our efforts at the totality of the system of suppression, whether in the form of an oppressive government or an imperialist power.

During the past few years, America’s presence in the Middle East has produced nothing but increasing insecurity and chaos. Our approach towards that aggressive power is quite clear. However, it is also clear to us that America’s adventurism in the region should not be used as an excuse for domestic suppression.

The only way to escape the current crisis is to return to a policy based on people’s democratic rights, a policy that will not rush into the arms of imperialism due to its fear of despotism, and one that in the name of resistance and fighting against imperialism will not legitimize despotism. Yes, the only way to reject and escape the current situation is to equally reject both despotism and imperialism.

The statement issued by the students demonstrating in Amir Kabir University in Iran

This eloquent statement and the slogans voiced by the latest wave of mass protests in Iran seem to indicate that the uprising has entered a new stage. The efforts of the regime to derail the protests after the U.S. assassination of Qassem Soleimani and to give the impression that the Iranian masses were on its side have proved to be wrong. While this regime still does have support from perhaps a quarter of the adult population, the majority are clearly opposed to it and want to see it overthrown.

What the statements and slogans by the latest wave of protests also reveal is that the effort to challenge both the Islamic Republic and the monarchists, and the determination to oppose both U.S. imperialism and the Iranian regime’s authoritarianism and regional imperialism are strong.

If the current wave of the Iranian uprising continues, deepens and receives support from progressive forces internationally, it has the potential to become another social revolution. It also needs to actively reach out to progressive and revolutionary Iraqi, Lebanese and Syrian protesters who oppose authoritarianism, sectarianism and imperialism, including the regional imperialism of the Iranian regime in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

It is extremely important for the new wave of anti-war protests in the West not to limit themselves to opposing the Trump administrations acts of war or seek to legitimize the Iranian government in any way. We need to listen to what the current wave of the popular uprisings in Iran and the region are demanding and not become apologists for the Iranian government in the name of opposing U.S. imperialism.

In the words of an Iranian socialist feminist: “For the dictatorial Iranian regime, which deals in death, human lives are worthless and only valuable for making profit. But this time, the Iranian people will not be silent and will go as far as overthrowing this regime.”

This statement appeared on the website of the Alliance of Middle Eastern and North African Socialists on January 12, 2020 here.

Largest Ever Strike in India Shakes Up Modi Government

Subodh Varma, NewsClick

(Photo: NewsClick.in)

India woke up on January 8, to witness the largest ever strike with an estimated 25 crore (250 million) workers, employees, farmers and rural labourers stopping work and hitting the streets to protest against the Modi government’s economic policies and divisive politics.

Reports coming in from various states indicate that the strike was complete in the country’s massive public sector across sectors, such as steel, coal, other mining, defence production, port & dock, oil & natural gas, telecom, power generation, etc. Ancillary industries also were mostly shut.

Besides this, workers in the private sector across engineering, automobile and components, telecom, metals, textiles and garments, power and many other sectors were on strike.

Transport was affected throughout the country as trucks, buses, autorickshaws, taxis were off the roads in most parts while railway workers held protest demonstrations. In many parts, like West Bengal, Bihar, Punjab etc., rail services were blocked by protestors. Protestors clashed with police in several states.

In rural areas, protests and traffic stoppages were seen in nearly 480 districts of the country as lakhs of farmers and agricultural workers, along with non-farm rural workers came out in protest, at the call of AIKSCC, an umbrella platform of over 175 organisations.

Students in over 60 universities and institutions, and their affiliated colleges, too, observed a strike with thousands joining protest marches after boycotting classes.

The protest strike was called by a joint platform of 10 central trade unions. Only one trade union, the Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh affiliated to Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh refused to participate. However, it’s opting out doesn’t seem to have made any difference to the participation in strike, which was described as “unprecedented”. Support was extended by dozens of independent federations and unions.

A joint platform of 175 farmers and agricultural workers organisations also extended support and called for a simultaneous rural strike. The government had issued a warning to government and public sector employees to not participate in the strike and attend work. But this appears to have been roundly rejected.

Demands of the striking workers/employees include increase in minimum wages, reining in rising prices, policies to curb raging joblessness, rollback of hostile labour law changes, end to public sector sell-off, curbing contract and casual work.

Farmers and agricultural workers are demanding better prices for produce, increase in wages, and complete debt-waiver. Other prominent demands of workers and farmers are withdrawal of the communal citizenship laws (CAA and associated NPR/NRC process), end to attacks on minorities and those protesting against the government, and end to destruction of Constitutional provisions. The trade unions have also condemned recent attacks on students in Jamia Millia Islamia, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Aligarh Muslim University, Jadavpur etc.

The strike and protest actions have acquired a heightened intensity because of the Modi government’s recent moves to ask people to prove their citizenship, with a covert aim of targeting the minority Muslim community. This has led to massive protests throughout the past month and that anger, converging with the economic distress in the country, has found expression in the strike.

Economic Distress Fuelling Anger

Over 7.3 crore people, mostly youth, are currently unemployed according to Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy estimates. This is perhaps the largest army of jobless people India has ever seen. The unemployment rate stood at 7.7% in December 2019, while in urban areas, it was even higher at a staggering 8.9%.

Meanwhile, retail prices of wheat have increased by 56%, atta (wheat flour) by 26% and those of rice by 14% in the past one year even as the Modi government was sitting on record stocks of foodgrain, some 567 lakh tonnes in December 2018, up 25% over last year, and more than double the foodgrain stocking norm of 214 lakh tonnes.

Long-standing demands of industrial and agricultural workers for fixing a dignified minimum wage have not been entertained by the government for over four years. In fact, changes in labour laws indicate that the government will allow increase in working hours but let employers fix their own wages by keeping statutory levels low.

There is widespread discontent and anger at the way Modi government has been kowtowing to corporate bigwigs and global corporations, even as it ignores the voices of working people in the country. Not only has it cut corporate taxes and given huge concessions to big industrialists the government has also opened up several sectors to private and even foreign capital, like coal, defence production and railways.

According to data put out by the finance ministry’s department of investment and asset management (DIPAM), the BJP government has sold off Rs.2.97 lakh crore worth of public sector assets in its rule since 2014. If you add the proposed sale of BPCL, CONCOR and SCI, the combined net worth of which is estimated at about Rs.76,000 crore, the total disinvestment done by government reaches Rs.3.73 lakh crore.

In rural areas, wages of agricultural workers have remained virtually stagnant for the past two years despite bumper harvests. Farmers have repeatedly protested and demanded increase in support prices and strengthening of procurement system in order to save them from pauperisation. With over half the country’s farmers indebted, and debt being the primary reason behind unconscionable suicides, the demand for complete debt waiver has also been repeatedly raised. But the Modi government continues to deceive farmers by claiming that it is already giving the needed price levels.

Struggle to Continue

This is the fourth country-wide strike by workers during Modi’s regime, the earlier three being – September 2, 2015; September 2, 2016 and the two-day strike on January 8-9, 2019. Besides these, several sectoral actions have taken place, including since Modi 2.0 took over: protests by railway workers over corporatisation of several production units; strike by over one lakh workers of 41 ordnance factories; strike by over 6 lakh coal workers against 100% foreign direct investment; strike by bank employees against merger of 10 public sector banks; strike in all refineries, marketing and pipeline workers of BPCL and HPCL against privatisation, etc. Other sectors where actions have taken place include defence, construction and transport.

It is worth noting that since the imposition of neoliberal economic policies on the country began 28 years ago, workers have gone on strike 19 times pushing back several unjust and harsh policies. Similarly, farmers and agricultural workers have carried out massive movements including rallies at Parliament.

In recent years, students in universities have been agitating against fee hikes, throttling of democracy and, of late, against police atrocities. They have also joined or led protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act/National Population Register/National Register of Citizens for the past month.

The momentous strike of January 8, 2020, therefore, represents a convergence of all these streams and holds the promise of even wider struggles in the coming days.

Maharashtra

Workers unity was on display Maharashtra, India’s most industrial state. Almost 26 unions, mainly having the influence in all industrial towns, participating in the strike.

On Wednesday morning, thousands of workers, mainly ASHA workers and bank employees unions, gathered at Azad Maidan in Mumbai.

“We are here to get what is our right. Also there is serious issue of inflation. The ASHA and Anganwadi workers are supporting the cause of labours across country,” said MA Patil, leader of their union.

Private bank employees, too, participated in good numbers during the agitation.

“In last four years, bank employees have seen one of the worst ever time in their career. That’s why there is anger among the bank employees across nation,” said Vishwas Utagi, banker and union leader.

Railway employees mainly of car sheds also participated in the strike. This affected the work in Matunga, Kalwa, Kurla car sheds of Central Railway.

Bihar

Patna: Ignoring bone chilling cold, thousands of activists of all trade unions, except the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-affiliated Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, supporters of several independent federations, the Left parties workers , student organisations and others, took to the streets since early Wednesday, protesting against the central government’s anti-worker policies.

Train and road services were disrupted for hours as strike supporters halted several trains at different railway stations, blocked tracks roads, including national highways to state highways and roads connecting the district headquarters.

According to officials of railways, strike supporters stopped over a dozen trains including long route express and passenger, in Darbhanga, Patna, Gaya, Jehanabad, Muzaffarpur, Ara railway stations.

Thousands of slogan-shouting activists and workers blocked Dak Bungalow square in the heart of Patna for several hours. Police lathi-charged them and arrested half a dozen of them.

Most of the banks, post offices, life insurance, electricity offices remained closed in Patna and across the state. In Patna, most of auto-rickshaws were off the road in support of the strike.

Similar reports came from Gaya, Jehanabad,Sheikhpura, Bhagalpur , Muzaffarpur ,Ara,East Champaran,West Champaran, Samastipur,Madhubani,Darbhanga,Purnia, Kishanganj,Araria,Madhepura ,Katihar,Saharsa,Khagaria and Sitamarhi districts where protestors took out big marches and staged dharna by blocking main thoroughfare for hours that badly hit normal life.

Trade union workers blocked NH 107 in Khagaria district,NH 31 in Khagaria and Begusarai districts and NH 57 , NH 83 in Gaya and Jehanabad districts and NH 104 in Madhubani district. State highways were blocked in Nawada, Siwan, Aurangabad, Arwal, districts with the road transport associations and unions supported the strike.

CPI(ML) leader Kunal said strike was totally successful as it was supported by people who have been affected by joblessness, privatisation, inflation and anti- workers and anti-people policies of Modi led central government.

Delhi NCR

Thousands of workers in Delhi NCR downed tools on Wednesday as part of the nationwide general strike. As a result, production in factories in and around the national capital was brought down to zero.

In Sahibabad industrial area of Ghaziabad district, production in thousands of small and medium establishments was severely affected. Among those that were hit by the strike were Central Electronics Limited (CEL), a public sector undertaking, whose workers observed a complete shutdown, protesting against the strategic sale of the ‘national asset’.

Similar demands were raised in the factories in north Delhi’s Wazirpur, Narela, Bawana, Jahangirpuri and east Delhi’s Patparganj, Shahdara among others. Rallies were organised, led by the trade unions.

In the Gurugram-Manesar-Bawal industrial belt, workers in hundreds came out on the streets to register their anger. Automobile leaders, namely, Honda and Munjal Showa were brought to a grinding halt.

Here, contractual workforce constituted the majority among the protesters. It is because as the auto Indian auto industry facing one of the worst crisis in 19 years, the contract worker is bearing the maximum brunt of it.

The struggle of the contractual staff in Manesar is being led by the casual workforce of Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India (HMSI), who have been braving the cold and staying put for more than 50 days to protest against the ‘illegal’ retrenchments by the management.

At Shivam Auto Tech, another major name in Manesar, the workers demonstrated outside the plant against the forced “lockdown” by the management.

At ITO, workers affiliated to the unions gathered in support of the general strike, despite the rain in the national capital.

Garments factories operating in Okhla Phase – 1 industrial area mostly stayed away from the strike as these do not have unions.

Gujarat

About 40,000 employees of Maha Gujarat Bank Employee Association participated in the strike across the state. All India Railwaymen’s Federation, Western Railway Employee Union, Income Tax Employees Federation, Income Tax Gazetted Officers Association (Gujarat Circle), Gujarat Federation of Trade Union (GFTU), Gujarat Majdoor Sangh (GMS), Mazdoor Adhikar Abhiyan (MASA) staged protests and took out rallies at various places.

“The Union government is rushing up the process of privatisation and eyeing the railways. The government could not manage the economy of the country and now they want to sell railways to private parties” said RC Sharma, President of WREU and General Secretary of AIRF.

“This government has been trying to sell land belonging to Railways at prime locations to industrialists,” added Sharma.

Bankers said they were protesting as their salaries had not been revised.

“Closure of public sector banks across the state is concerning and will affect crucial business,” said Janak Rawal, General Secretary of MGBEA.

GFTU took out rally in Ahmedabad that comprised of workers of Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, Gujarat Transport Service, Gujarat Industrial Security Force, Employees of Madhya Bhojan, daily wage earners under MnREGA, workers of private companies like Hitachi, Intas, Zydus etc.

(Reports by Amey Tirodkar in Mumbai and Imran Khan in Patna, Ronak in Delhi NRC and Damayantee Dhar in Gujarat)

This article appeared on the NewsClick website on January 8, 2020 here.

In Support of the January 8th National Strike of Indian Workers and Students

We, the unions and organizations representing students, workers and the broader communities in the United States, stand in solidarity with the January 8th National Strike by workers and students in India.

The January 8th National Strike has been called by central trade unions in India for higher minimum wages, pensions, employment generation, and against inflation and the new labor laws that will substantially increase the precarity of all workers. We are inspired by the strength of your organizing and the militancy of your resistance to neoliberal pressures. While global capital attempts to play off workers of one country against another, we know that workers everywhere are harmed by the race to the bottom. Not only the Indian ruling class, but the US ruling class too depends on depressed conditions of workers in India to make its profits. We are watching your struggles and learning ways to build our own capacity, as well as real international solidarity.

We salute the student organizations in India (listed below) for joining their struggle against commercialization of education and the destruction of public education with the struggles of workers by boycotting classes to join the workers on the streets. We see this coming together of students and the organized sector of the Indian workforce as an important step toward spreading the struggle to all segments of society. Given the large informal and casualized workforce, as well as joblessness even among the educated in India, the students’ struggle has to be seen as part of a larger working-class struggle. We hope that this moment pushes the workers’ movement to organize the unorganized, especially among the informal workers and the informal sector.

We also stand with you in your fight against repressive and fascist forces. While this is truly a global phenomenon, the rapid pace with which the Modi-led government is eroding the democratic and secular nature of India is frightening for us all. Standing for the rights of migrant workers, adivasis, dalits, and in expressing solidarity with struggles in Kashmir and northeastern India, students of the Indian heartland as well as those in the margins have weathered immense state repression. It is clear that the ruling classes of our countries are exchanging notes. The detention camps becoming ubiquitous everywhere are an example of the similarity of means and follow from the unity of ends of ruling classes across nations. We too must recognize the unity that our conditions impose upon us and realize the unity of our will.

An appeal to the Overseas students’ organisations and international student community supporting 8th January Strike

We have witnessed huge protests led by students across the globe recently. Commercialisation of education, initiated by different regimes, have led to militant students resistance emerging at their countries. The students in India are also a worse victims of the neoliberal agendas being imposed on education. The present central government of Narendra Modi led NDA have intensified the policies of commercialisation of education. This has also led to a situation in which students across India are fighting the fees hike and reduction of government spending on education. Only a mere 33% students enrolled for higher education are part of public education. Rest are in private institutions which are not affordable for the economically weaker sections. The government spending for education is just 0.40% of the total GDP of the country.

Now the attempt of Modi government is to turn the existing public institutions also into the commercial blocks were students are obliged to pay huge fees in different names. The central universities have been a target for the Modi regime to execute this plan through which the institutions will become the centres exclusively for the elite sections. The state universities have been already affected by the huge reduction of fund allocation by the central government. Other institutions of higher learning, Such as IITs and IIMs also witnessed an unprecedented fee hike recently. There have been student unrests in all such campuses in India against making higher education unaccessible for the people of socially and economically deprived sections.

The nation is at cross roads. A large section of the population ranging from students, working

class, political parties, civil society activists, academicians are fighting in the streets, all over India to reclaim and preserve the hard-earned ideals that forms the core of our nation and

nationalism; secularism, democracy and equality. The recent introduction of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that allows citizenship status to migrants from three neighboring countries excluding the Muslim are clear and naked subversion on the idea of secular citizenship enshrined in our constitution. The nature of exclusion and inclusion of communities and the neighboring countries are very clear and telling. Not just the Muslims communities are omitted, no non-Muslim majority countries are included. Along with CAA there is a plan to implement National Register of Citizens (NRC) across the nation which again will be discriminatory for the Muslims and historically oppressed sections in the country. Campuses have been in forefront fighting the anti-constitutional CAA and NRC.

As part of the #FeesMustFall movement and also the movement to save democracy in India the All India Forum to Save Public Education have decided to observe national education strike on January 8th. The working class is also going for a national strike on the same day against the anti-people, anti-workers policies of the government. Farmers and agricultural workers will also join the strike. Students across the nation will boycott classes and come out to the streets raising the slogans for affordable and equitable education, scholarships and proper implementation of reservation, campus democracy and gender sensitization committee against sexual harassment, and also to build larger unity with the fighting masses in the country. The strike is also against the vicious attempt to divide India over communal lines. We appeal the students across the globe to come up in support of the January 8th education strike in India.

Signed,
Vicky Maheswari (AISF)
N Sai Balaji (AISA)
Salam Imtiyaz (AMUSU)
Shubhojeet Dey (AUDSC)
Debraj Debnath (AFSU,JU)
Soumyadwip Sarkar (AISB)
Amit (BAPSA)
Apeksha (BASO)
Aquib Rizwan (CYSS)
Priyanka Bharti (CRJD)
Shreya (Collective)
Sarika Chaudhary (DSF)
Abhishek Nandan (HCUSU)
Nimish (IIT Delhi)
Ummen Sabu (lIT Madras)
Sayan Dasgupta (lIT Kharagpur)
Aishe Ghosh (JNUSU)
Vikas Yadav (NSUI)
Ramdas P.S.(PSF)
Nowfal Md Safiulla (PSU)
Mimosa Ghorai (PUSC)
Parichay Yadav (PUSU)
Digvijay Singh Dev(Samajwadi Chatra Sabha)
Mayukh Biswas (SFI)

Endorsed by:

  1. NYU Student Labor Action Movement
  2. NYU Asian American Political Activism Coalition
  3. United Students Against Sweatshops Local #44
  4. ACT-UAW-Local 7902 (Adjuncts Coming Together represents academic student workers at The New School, Part-time faculty at The New School, Student Health Services Professional Staff at The New School, and adjuncts at New York University)
  5. Graduate Employee Organization-UAW-2322 (Union of graduate employees at the University of Massachusetts Amherst)
  6. Princeton Graduate Students United
  7. South Asia Solidarity Initiative
  8. Autoworker Caravan
  9. Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU-SUNY Stonybrook)-CWA Local 1104
  10. Red Bloom Collective
  11. Academic Workers for a Democratic Union (New York University)
  12. Harvard Graduate Students Union (UAW Local 5118), International Scholars Working Group
  13. TOP-UAW-Local 2110 (Technical, Office and Professional Union is an amalgamated union covering workers in several universities, publishing, museums, law firms and other offices including: American Civil Liberties Union, Asian American Writers Workshop, Barnard College, Barnard Contingent Faculty, Bronx Museum of the Arts, Church World Service, Columbia University, DASNY: Dormitory Authority of the State of New York, GOLES: Good Old Lower East Side, HarperCollins Publishers, ICCR: Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, Mercy College, Monthly Review, Museum of Modern Art New York, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New Press, New York Civil Liberties Union, New-York Historical Society, NYSHCR: New York State H mes and Community Renewal, New York University Graduate Student Employees (GSOC-UAW), Pearson Longman Publishers, Rabinowitz, Boudin, Standard, Krinsky & Lieberman, P.C., Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Inc., Stamford Advocate, State Bank of India, Teachers College, Union Theological Seminary, Village Voice)
  14. Harvard Law School Political Economy Association
  15. Student Employees at the New School (SENS)-UAW-Local 7902
  16. Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago (AFT-IFT-AAUP)
  17. Graduate Employees Organization at the University of lllinois, Urbana-Champaign – AFT/IFT-Local 6300
  18. Massachusetts Society of Professors (MSP/MTA/NEA), University of Massachusetts Amherst
  19. University of Michigan Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) AFT-MI Local 3550, AFL-CIO
  20. University of California Student-Workers Union-UAW-Local 2865
  21. Graduate Employees Organization at the University of lllinois, Chicago – AFT/IFT-Local 6297
  22. Law Students for Economic Justice, New York University chapter
  23. South Asian Law Students Association (SALSA) at NYU Law

This statement appeared on January 6, 2020 here.

Margaret Jordan, presente!

Dianne Feeley & Johanna Parker

Women Against Racism protest, Detroit, late 1970s

Margaret Jordan, a founding member of Solidarity, died early January 3rd. She is survived by her partner, Mike Parker, and her daughter, Johanna Parker.

Margaret grew up in Berkeley, California and attended the university there. Her parents were immigrants who fled Nazi Germany. An early marriage, to Joel Jordan, didn’t last but her second, to Mike Parker, lasted her lifetime.

Over the course of her work life Margaret was a teacher, nurse and psychologist. In her job as a psychologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, she trained doctors to relate to their patients. Working with physicians new to Detroit, she explained how racism was fundamental to understanding the health conditions of a city that had suffered segregation and white flight.

As a student in the 1960s she was drawn to the Independent Socialist Club, which was influenced by the revolutionary socialists from a previous generation, Anne and Hal Draper. The ISC transformed itself into the International Socialists and were one of the first left groups to prioritize implanting its membership in key industries. Adopting a rank-and-file perspective that called for caucuses, they moved much of their membership into Midwestern cities such as Gary, Indiana and Detroit, Michigan. Margaret and Mike moved to Detroit in the mid-1970s.

She and another member of the IS, Elissa Karg, attempted to set up Women Against Racism but the group never developed a base and later disbanded. She worked with the Red Tide youth group on the campaign to free Gary Tyler, a young black man unjustly sentenced to death in Louisiana.

As the IS merged with Workers Power, Socialist Unity and a collective in Madison to form Solidarity, she participated in women’s seminars and on the Detroit branch executive committee by bringing her distinctive approach of organizing spaces where people could enjoy each other. In one workshop her talk discussed how feminist ideas were surfacing in teen-age magazines.

She encouraged members to go out for dinner after branch meetings. She and Mike opened their home to a superbowl/anti-superbowl party where the branch could invite its members and friends over for a relaxing evening. This is now a tradition of the Detroit branch, which also uses the event as a fundraiser for a local organization or campaign.

While Johanna was at Cass Tech High School and beginning to develop an interest in theatrical productions, Margaret developed cancer. Her network of friends were able to help by providing dinners, arranging to take Margaret to appointments when Mike was at work and making sure Johanna got to and from rehearsals. It was a difficult cancer to contain, but she did beat it back. However years later it returned and had metastasized.

Margaret wanted to return to the Bay Area and after her parents’ death, inherited the house they had moved to in Richmond, a few miles north of Berkeley. During World War II Richmond had been an industrial center, with Kaiser’s innovative boat construction, Ford’s auto plant, Standard Oil’s refinery and dozens of other plants. When Margaret and Mike moved there a dozen years ago—with their daughter already living in the Bay Area, where she worked as an interpreter—most industry had left. Its population reduced to 100,000, Standard Oil (now Chevron) became the behemoth that polluted the town and dominated its political life. An independent formation, the Richmond Progressive Alliance, had begun to challenge that, and Margaret plunged into the work of expanding the RPA’s presence.

Once again Margaret’s administrative and social skills were invaluable at extending the RPA’s influence. She worked night and day on the 2014 city council campaign that beat Chevron’s candidates and elected RPAers to the council, taking on many different kinds of tasks, including the important organization of hundreds of volunteers for work on Election Day. She played an important role in mentoring some of the developing RPA leaders. And, on another front, she was always someone to be counted on at Labor Notes conferences.

In addition to her work with the RPA, Margaret worked with a number of organizations in Richmond and the broader Bay Area to better her community. These include her neighborhood council, a Richmond organization working to improve health in low-income communities, and the local humane society.

Although her cancer had returned and she was on medication, Margaret was active until six weeks ago. She had fulfilled a longtime dream by visiting Africa with Mike, Johanna, and Johanna’s partner Matt this fall. A year before, she, Mike, and Johanna visited the German towns where her parents were born. She was looking forward to a trip to England with her daughter and more trips with Mike. But around Thanksgiving she came down with a respiratory illness that got progressively worse until her lungs and kidneys failed. She died peacefully on January 3rd.

As a woman who fought for social justice throughout her adult life and understood that personal relations are an essential part of building a movement, Margaret is remembered by a large circle of comrades and friends.

RPA Protest of Chevron’s tax break at the Contra Costa County Offices, 2011

Beyond the 2019 UAW Negotiations

Dianne Feeley

Photo: Jim West

Except for the oldest strikers I met on the picket line during the UAW-General Motors negotiations, autoworkers did not remember a time when, if you passed a 90-day probationary period, you earned full pay and benefits. Back then, temporary workers were only hired during the summer months in order to cover vacations.

But since the economic crisis of the early ’80s every contract negotiated has required the membership to accept concessions. The union explained this was necessary in order to keep the Big Three afloat. Once the companies got back on their feet, members would be able to win back what had been given up. Despite the billions the corporations have made over four decades, that moment never came.

Although the UAW negotiates a pattern contract for General Motors, Ford and Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), it chooses to negotiate with the one they feel will give them the best offer, and then uses that as a template for the others. With the signing of the 2019-23 contracts, it is reasonable to conclude that concessions are here to stay.

UAW officials needed to take on GM as the initial target in negotiating the 2019 contract because the previous November GM announced it was “unallocating” products at five North American plants, four in the United States. Since the 2015 contract was supposed to guarantee job security, the announcement blindsided the UAW (and Unifor, the Canadian union). Plants have been closing for some time, but doing so just months before the opening of negotiations was a deliberate “in your face” tactic.

By the time negotiations opened, three of the U.S. plants were closed and the fourth, the Detroit-Hamtramck plant, was limping along with a third of its workforce. Workers had transferred to other plants but had not pulled up roots, hoping to return home.

The two issues on top of the strikers’ agenda were “Keep the plants open” and “Make the temps permanent and equal to other UAW members.” Yet despite the 40-day strike at GM neither demand is embedded in the new contract. In fact, the agreement recognized the closure of the three plants and even added a distribution center to the list. Only the Detroit-Hamtramck plant will remain open. The contract also required the UAW to drop its lawsuit against the closure of the Lordstown, Ohio plant. While the Ford contract okayed the closing of the Romulus, MI plant under the FCA contract the Maryville, MI plant will be shuttered.

Instead of going into negotiations with the demand “Everyone tier one,” the UAW talked about “a path” to permanent status. And that’s what they got, as they split the difference between the corporate demand for labor flexibility and thousands of temporaries who lack even minimal job security.

Starting in January 2020, full-time GM and Ford temps who have been continuously working three or more years can be added to the seniority list and advance on the wage ladder. (The following year that will be reduced to a two-year window.) FCA, where temps represent 20% of the total workforce, has a different formula.

Who Wins?

This paltry “win” signals that from now on, hiring at GM and Ford will mean working under disciplined conditions for at least two years as a temporary. Those laid off for more than 30 days must begin all over again.

The UAW, the corporations and the media all call the contracts a “win-win,” citing as proof a large signing bonus, a wage increase and profit sharing along with no added health care costs.

These are small potatoes in comparison to the expansion of a tiered system with a long probationary period, continued outsourcing of work at lower wages with few benefits and the red circling of parts plants and distribution centers with an inferior wage scale. And then there’s the same ineffectual language about moratoriums on plant closings.

When the UAW was founded in the 1930s as an industrial union, it demanded and won roughly the same wages and working conditions for its members whatever their job classification. The UAW’s strength came from wall-to-wall organizing that bound its membership together.

That solidarity also extended into the past and future: members respected retired workers from whom they inherited their decent contracts and sought to build on them. We prided ourselves on leaving better conditions to next generation. For many, the struggles UAW members waged over the years are stories of their own families.

Thirty-five years ago — with more than 1.5 million workers — auto’s labor costs represented about eight percent of the industry’s total cost. Today — with a Big Three workforce of slightly more than 150,000 — labor costs have declined to five percent. The cost has been whittled down through cutting minutes of break time, instituting a strict absence policy, requiring those hired since 2007 to work at reduced wages and few benefits, outsourcing whole departments and hiring temporaries who are saddled with low wages and bare bones health care coverage.

In the 2015 contract, autoworkers’ highest goal was to bring up at least the wages of the second-tier workers (now termed “in progression”) to match the pay of those hired before 2007. When the tentative agreement didn’t do that, the FCA workers voted it down; UAW officials were forced back to the negotiating table.

The revised version promised that second-tier wages would rise over an eight-year period. The contract passed but many voted no, emphasizing that an eight-year progression in a four-year contract wasn’t adequate. Furthermore, the lower tier never reached top pay, and the contract failed to restore either a pension or health care after retirement.

Handicapping a Possible Win

Despite the fact that the Big Three employs only 10% of the workers it had 35 years ago — and at lower real wages — UAW officials believe they have done what’s needed to keep members working. They go into negotiations with low expectations. That was certainly true in 2019. Secondly, the UAW did little to prepare for a strike. This meant the strike lacked strength:

• From their offices at Solidarity House UAW officials did not organize union members to stop the closure of the “unallocated” plants nor work with Unifor to organize a public campaign. They did not mobilize the membership to refuse overtime and use work-to-rule tactics to show GM they meant business. They did not initiate group grievances, have workers show up at management offices with complaints, or coordinate the wearing of union t-shirts, buttons and caps. (To its credit Unifor approached the UAW to mount a joint campaign only to be turned away. Unifor also took out full-page newspaper ads and organized a few demonstrations.)

• Solidarity House did not direct local union meetings beforehand to discuss upcoming contract demands, plan strategy and fan out to churches and community organizations to request their solidarity.

• Although the 2018 Bargaining Conven­tion raised the strike pay from $200 a week to $250 and finally $275, that was hardly enough to sustain members or scare the corporation into believing the strike was capable of making a dent in their profitability. With more than $800 million in the strike fund, the union had the capacity to raise the pay to $1,000 a week, sending a powerful message!

• There was no call for mass rallies at GM headquarters or mass picketing at the various plants. Community members did bring food to the strikers and flock to the picket lines, but if a call had gone out, people would have responded in an organized way.

• Solidarity House never suggested that Ford and FCA workers take a day (or more) and spend it on the picket line. (Of course many did go before or after work.)

• While a few UAW locals not in the auto industry leafleted in support of the strikers at GM dealerships, this was never a plan the union adopted.

While the UAW is noted for having a democratic Constitution and not paying its officials outrageous salaries (although these have edged up in the last years), the UAW has proven corrupt at the top.

So far the federal government has charged a baker’s dozen FCA executives and UAW officials of misappropriating funds from joint training centers. All have plead guilty and several are currently in prison. According to the RICO lawsuit GM filed against FCA, the payoff included allowing FCA a higher percentage of second-tier and temporary workers than at Ford and GM.

At the Bargaining Convention outgoing UAW president Dennis Williams attributed corruption to a few rotten apples. But it is clear that this corruption extended well beyond stealing from joint training programs and taking kickbacks from vendors.

After a four-year investigation, the federal government has begun indictments against top officials for misappropriation of union funds. The smell of corruption disgusts UAW members, particularly as Vance Pearson, director of Region 5, was indicted just before the GM negotiations. The union allowed him to participate in the negotiations and only midway through was he put on paid leave.

Federal charges have not been brought against Officials A and B, but it is likely these are former president Dennis Williams and Gary Jones, elected UAW president in June 2018. Just as the Ford contract was being approved, six union locals passed resolutions bringing both Jones (who had also taken a paid leave) and Pearson up on charges that could lead to their trial, conviction and ouster from the union.

Within days the UAW Executive Board filed charges against Jones and Pearson as well. Both quickly turned in their resignations from their offices and the UAW, perhaps to avoid the humiliation of a trial and preserve their union pensions.

Rory Gamble, recently voted UAW president by the Executive Board, has outlined a few rules to weed out internal corruption. But he is also a member of the Administration Caucus, allowed and minimized the corruption. Will changing a few rules be enough to quell the dissent that has locals calling for a special convention? And given the hold that the Administration Caucus has over officers, is there enough leadership within the ranks to step forward?

The corruption that came along with concessions is embedded in the joint programs that the union and companies administer, yet despite selling off the buildings, the programs continue under the new contract.

How Could the UAW Have Won?

Because UAW officials think that relationships built up over the years with corporate executives and their negotiating skills produce “win-win” contracts, organizing the membership for a contract campaign hasn’t been high on their priority list.

Yet if we look at successful strikes, whether we go back to the auto sitdowns in 1936-37 that resulted in the first UAW contracts or whether we look to the numerous teachers’ strikes today, the key to success is in the ability of union members to unite around core demands and appeal to the community to stand with them. In the 2019 negotiations, while strikers spoke of their priorities and found a sympathetic audience, the negotiating team blunted those clear demands because they had no confidence that they were winnable.

In the months before the negotiations, GM and Ford announced their restructuring plans. In particular GM’s CEO Mary Barra prioritized autonomous and electric car research and development as she announced the plant closings. But the UAW’s Research Department concluded that the production of electric vehicles would lead to a substantial job loss and therefore offered no advice to the UAW negotiators.

This restructuring is on top of a geographical shift in production. While 20 years ago 80% of auto manufacturing came from plants in North America, Western Europe, Japan and South Korea, today that share is below 50%. In 2018 North American production stood at 16.4%. Just 10.2% of the vehicles are made in the United States.

UAW officials ignored these realities, demanding only that GM bring back vehicles now made in Mexico, where workers earn less than two dollars an hour. Instead of helping Mexican autoworkers form a democratic union and bring up their wages, the UAW raised a demand that cut across any solidarity those workers might lend to the strikers.

The failure to build a powerful strike was matched by the failure to provide a strategy that could secure good jobs as the industry transitions. Without a program to reverse a shrinking U.S. manufacturing base, the UAW negotiating team could only tinker with what the corporations proposed.

But before we look at what kind of program the UAW could have outlined, let’s look at how the Chicago teachers expanded their contract negotiations by raising issues that seemed far beyond the classroom: the need for affordable housing.

Their well-thought out three-part demand revealed that there were 17,000 public school students who were either homeless or lived in temporary shelters. Thousands more were living in precarious housing. Since teachers and support staff are required to live in a city where housing is expensive, the strikers raised the broader need for affordable housing.

Of course they didn’t win all their demands, but raising the issue made a deep impression on everyone who heard them.

By opening up a discussion about what it takes to have “Schools Chicago students deserve,” the strikers won important demands for themselves and their students. These included librarians and nurses for their schools, and concrete measures for homeless students. Their strike challenged the mayor’s priorities.

Now back to work, the teachers will monitor the contract to make sure its provisions become a reality. And they will also continue to advocate around community issues.

What if the UAW had opened negotiations by demanding the Big Three immediately move to develop a mass transportation system within the framework of the Green New Deal? It could have challenged the corporations to end their participation in the fossil fuel economy.

Such a visionary plan, backed by the mobilization of workers and their communities, wouldn’t win first time out. But it would have exposed the Big Three — despite a press release or two about their greening their plants — as failing to move to a different transportation model. The earth can no longer sustain an industry built on the individual vehicle.

Under government order, corporations retooled quickly for war production as World War II approached. So we know it is possible to retool today to build the infrastructure necessary to eliminate fossil fuel as an energy source. If corporations can’t carry this out, the government needs to help unions and community partners do so.

Just as the Chicago teachers’ strike was inspiring, a UAW call for a massive restructuring of transportation would stimulate a serious discussion about how swiftly we can move to eliminate a fossil fuel economy. And those who have profited from the irrational production of millions of vehicles each year must be the ones to foot the retooling.

If this seems far from a contract, perhaps that’s because negotiating labor costs are detached from the disaster fast approaching. For those who would say this perspective is utopian, listen to Mary Barra, who challenged the UAW by claiming job security can’t be guaranteed but “earned.”

Now-closed GM plants — Lordstown, Flint, Ypsilanti and so on — earned prizes for excellence, so the workers from those plants must find that comment particularly callous. Yet in the corporate world where the market is all, that’s the reality.

So why are we wasting our time in a game of musical chairs when corporations keep eliminating the chairs? Why not face up to climate change and develop a perspective for reorganizing how we live and work? We need to reject corporate disregard for our future and forge our collective vision.

January-February 2020, ATC 204