How do we revive the global union movement?

This is a guest post from activist Josiah Mortimer

That’s the verdict of Bill Fletcher of the American Federation of Government Employees, speaking to the Global Labour Institute’s International Summer School in Barnsley this week. Workers are being hit by neoliberalism across the world – that much is obvious – but politically, the issue is this: how are unions to respond in the face of supposedly left-wing parties that have capitulated to many of the neoliberal policies unions despise?

It’s a question being asked while the populist right soar in much of the global north – filling the void where previously socialist politics would have existed.

Fletcher sees the current attacks on workers – from privatisation to public sector cuts – as representing the ‘obliteration of the social contract’ that emerged following the Second World War. But it was a social contract that was also ‘historically specific’ – built amid fear of the red threat.
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Labour and strikes: what we can learn from Harold Wilson

harold_wilson_353x470Any major national strike while the Labour Party is in opposition poses a challenge for the party leader. Next Thursday, July 10th, hundreds of thousands of public sector workers will be on strike. The workers withdrawing their labour will include low paid cleaners, teaching assistants, carers, street cleaners, road sweepers and others.

These essential workers have suffered a 12% real terms pay cut since the coalition government took power. The decision to initiate industrial action has been made democratically through a secret postal ballot by the members in pursuit of their pay claim because the trade unions have found, in the face of an intransigent employers and a confrontational government, that no more can be achieved by negotiations alone.

It is appropriate for the Labour Party to acknowledge that the right to take lawful industrial action is an important civil liberty in a democratic society, but equally to regret that trade union members feel it necessary to take industrial action. Trade union members do not wish to lose pay by partaking in a strike, and everyone regrets that essential services are disrupted.

However, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat government is ultimately responsible because their economic policies have unnecessarily delayed economic recovery, and they have unfairly put the burden of austerity on the most vulnerable parts of society, and on those least able to bear it.

The strike on July 10th is therefore an opportunity for Ed Miliband to stress that the root cause of the conflict is the incompetence and economic mismanagement of the coalition government, and the failure of David Cameron and his cabinet to seek a fair resolution of the dispute in the wider national interest. Labour is the party that promotes harmonious industrial relations; the Conservatives are the party of conflict.

It is worth looking at how Harold Wilson handled the miners’ strike of 1974, where Labour won a general election against all expectations.

Wilson was a politician with extraordinary talent, who won four general elections, and twice held the party together through crises when factionalism looked set to tear it apart.

The miners’ strike of 1974 was over the question of pay, but it also showed a growing gulf in attitudes towards trade unions between the Labour and Conservative parties. During the Wilson government, the Party had sought to use the In Place of Strife legislation to contain industrial militancy, but Wilson learned from its failure; and in opposition Labour abandoned the idea of legislative constraints upon the unions and instead adopted an approach based upon the buzz word of “liaison” to negotiate a decline in industrial action in exchange for government policy concessions, particularly the establishment of ACAS and the Health and Safety at Work Act.

In contrast, the Tories were locked into an escalating cycle of confrontation. In October 1973, the Tory government introduced “Phase Three” of income policy, which gave a 7% norm for wage rises.

However, the outbreak of war in the Middle East created an oil crisis that quadrupled oil prices, both pushing inflation up significantly above that 7% expectation, and also strengthening the bargaining position of the miners, who imposed an overtime ban, and pursued a pay claim, despite having been offered 16.5%

This was an extremely dangerous situation for Labour, where the opinion polls were giving cautious grounds for optimism before the miners’ dispute. The Labour Party was also divided. The left wanted the party to back the miners, the right – particularly Reg Prentice – wanted Labour to oppose any strike. Wilson was clear about the dangers of party disunity, and also that taking a strong line against the strikes could be counterproductive to the party’s allies within the NUM.

Wilson met with the unions before Christmas in 1973 and hammered out what his approach would be. To quote Ben Pilmott:

 Wilson laid down what became the accepted line: the Tories were the extremists, Labour the voice of Reason. Throughout the dispute Labour must play the public-interest card. If an election was called, Labour should seek to be the “national government”, and we must go for national unity.

Robin Day for the BBC asked Wilson on 3rd January whether he would give the miners more than 16.5%, and he replied “Yes of course”. However, rather than criticise the government’s failure to make concessions to the NUM, Wilson blamed Heath for failing to negotiate. On 23rd January a party political broadcast used sound bites about the “national interest”, “working together” and pledged that a “Labour government would knit the nation into one”.

On 4th February 1974 the miners announced an 81% vote in favour of a strike. Three days later Heath announced a general election to be held on 28th over the single issue of “who runs Britain”. Labour was already 4% behind in the polls.

Had Labour backed the miners, then Heath’s gamble would almost certainly have paid off, pushing Labour down to its core vote of those who self-identified with the unions and Labour’s industrial heritage. Certainly the press was unrelentingly hostile, and talked down Labour’s chances.

Instead Wilson adroitly sidestepped the issue. Through a four stranded strategy:

Firstly, he constantly repeated that the real issue was Tory economic mismanagement “which has turned Britain from the path of prosperity to the road to ruin”

Secondly, Wilson condemned Heath’s intransigence to the miners, and argued that the government should convene negotiations via the TUC, involving all three party leaders, and the CBI, as well as the NUM. (The mineworkers themselves assisted in making the government look extremist by adopting a restrained code of practice on picketing that would have made a vicarage croquet match look rowdy in comparison). Wilson stressed how Heath’s approach of encouraging confrontation was strengthening the hand of the hard left in the unions.

Finally, aware that this studied neutrality could leave Labour candidates floundering under questioning, Wilson immersed himself in the detail of the substantive disagreement at the heart of the dispute, and he bludgened interviewers with facts and figures, suggesting that it was the Tories lack of understanding that had caused the strike. This was a perfect approach for both demonstrating Labour’s greater competence at governence, while also seeming to be above taking sides. His master stroke was to reveal during the election that miners were actually paid 8% less than the average for manual workers, causing the government to look foolish.

The result was that Labour won the general election, and the NUM won their strike. Had Labour backed the strike, then they would probably have lost the election, and paradoxically that would also have made it more difficult for the miners to win.

Interview with RT on latest developments in Ukraine

I did a short interview with RT on the ending of the ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine. Some of the questionable syntax is due to the difficulties in translation, but the gist of what I said is clear I think.

‘US holds trump card when it comes to Ukrainian crisis’

Unless the West can put a real pressure on President Poroshenko and stop rewarding him with trade deals, subsides, money, association agreements, than the real disaster is inevitable, political writer John Wight told RT.

RT:Russia’s President Putin said the ceasefire was the last avenue to peace for Ukraine. Do you think there’s no chance for a peaceful end now?

John Wight: The first thing that has to be acknowledged in the light of these events is the remarkable restraint shown by the Russian government in the face of the humanitarian crisis over its western border. And this seems even more remarkable when you consider that Russia possesses the wherewithal and the ability to crush Ukrainian military forces being deployed against its own citizens, if it so wished within a matter of days. But the reality is that Poroshenko, the billionaire oligarch, who is the President of the regime in Kiev is a reckless adventurer, he must ask himself what kind of backing the West is giving this man. As he must know that he is facing disaster if he continues on this course, he has just signed the Association Agreement with the EU. And this is what the EU has become – an organization that accepts into its ranks, embraces a government that is bathed in the blood of its own citizens.

RT: France and Germany, when speaking to Presidents Putin and Poroshenko, supported the ceasefire. How will they react now?

JW: At this point it is clear that the responsibility for the escalation of violence lies with Kiev and with Washington which is allowing this to continue. Let us be clear, when we say ‘the West’ we mean Washington – Washington holds a trump card when it comes to Mr. Poroshenko and his actions. So it would be very hard for any Western government to accept what is going on as a matter of Kiev trying to clamp down on terrorist activities in the East. In Eastern Ukraine people have risen up against what they consider to be an illegitimate government which replaced their last democratically elected government in Ukraine which was led by Mr Yanukovich which was pulled in February by an armed mob. Unless the West can put real pressure on Mr. Poroshenko and stop rewarding him with trade deals, subsides, money, association agreements, than really we are looking at a disaster. It is inevitable I am afraid.

RT: Most of Moscow’s proposals on de-escalation have been rejected by Kiev, but the US still says Moscow must do more to help ease the situation. What could they possibly want Russia to do?

JW: What they want Russia to do is what they want every nation in the world to do. They want Russia to bend their knee to the writ from Washington. The problem we have is despite Mr. Putin’s reasoned and statesman-like address, Washington cannot conceive of any relationship in the world with anyone, other than on the terms of their domination. What Mr. Putin is asking for is a change in mindset, which holds true to domination and hegemony rather than cooperation, respect, partnership and sovereignty. Until that mindset changes I am afraid Mr. Putin is whistling in the wind.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

 

Why I support the public sector trade unions striking on 10th July

andy-newman-labour-party-in-corsham-high-street-chippenham-summerOn 10th July, thousands of public sector union members across Wiltshire will be on strike over pay, and as Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Chippenham I will be supporting them, and joining the rally outside County Hall in Trowbridge at 10:30 am.

The government is facing a walkout by more than a million public sector workers, including council staff, school support workers, teachers and civil servants.

The strike is seen as a last resort by people who do vital jobs in our communities: serving school meals, cleaning streets, emptying bins, looking after the elderly, helping children in classrooms.

The unions have tried sensible discussions, they have sought to negotiate reasonably, they have said they are willing to accept Acas arbitration rather than go on strike – but to everything the unions have tried, the employers have said no.

Local authority pay has gone up only 1% since 2010 and in October even the national minimum wage will overtake local authority pay scales. These hard working, caring people are bearing the brunt of an economic crisis that they did not cause.

The trade union case is reasonable, the employers won’t listen. No wonder union members have turned to strike action as the only way of making their voices heard.

 

Song for Ian Duncan Smith

Song for Ian Duncan Smith
for Liam

Oh Minister for Worry and Work!
Your head is a perfect egg
waiting for the teaspoon
to come crashing down on it.

You’re on the side of hard working
arses who haven’t stopped to take
a wipe since Maggie were a lad,
men in white cars who know
there’s nothing up with
the youth of today, that having pointless orders
screamed in their ears before
five in the morning wouldn’t quickly cure.

You are delighted to this afternoon
announce that every home in Britain
whose curtains remain drawn after eleven a.m.
this coming Monday, will receive
in the post a leaflet outlining the cheapest
possible methods of unassisted
suicide for the terminally work shy: the advantages
to both themselves and the taxpayer
of a quiet razor blade
over jumping from footbridges onto motorways
hardworking families are busy driving up and down.

The ecstasy of you,
making others get up early to move,
mostly, empty boxes about a warehouse is all
men strapped to lawnmowers in Chingford
have left when the Viagra again leads to
nothing that registers on the Richter scale.

KEVIN HIGGINS Click to continue reading

Reading Le Tour

Mark Perryman reviews books that can help frame our enjoyment of the Tour de France

There seems to be something about cycling that helps inspire fine sportswriting. Perhaps it is the landscapes and countries traversed, the solitude on a bike, the risk factor of a fall or worse, the extraordinary feats of human endurance, and human-powered speed too. Add a healthy dose of British elite level cycling success plus a dash of greenery and its no surprise that publishers are backing bicycling authors to deliver sales, for the most part with very good books too.

Lanterne RougeOf course it is Le Tour that galvanises this interest, every year, right across Europe, free to watch from the road or mountain side, on terrestrial TV live too. And this year the first two days are in Yorkshire, from Leeds to Harrogate, York to Sheffield, then down south to London before crossing La Manche for the remaining three and a bit weeks of this most magnificent of races. Tim Moore’s French Revolutions is one of the best introductions to the scale and ambition of Le Tour from a cyclist’s point of view as he retells the experience of riding all 3,630km of one year’s route. Even for the keenest, and fittest cyclist such a venture would prove to be too far, and too much. Ned Boulting’s brilliantly idiosyncratic How I Won the Yellow Jumper is his own inside story on how most of us follow the race, via the ITV coverage. This is the professional journalist as self-confessed fan, which in Boulting’s case, but not for many others, works to produce a wonderful style of writing. Part of what makes Le Tour so iconic, as with all the major global sporting events, is its backhistory, now stretching back more than a century. The Tour de France to the Bitter End is a superlative collection of race reports from the Guardian beginning in 1903 to almost right up to the present with the Bradley Wiggins victory in 2012. Before Wiggins in terms of British riders the essential reference point was the story of the brilliant, yet tragic, Tommy Simpson. A career detailed in William Fotheringham’s Put Me Back on My Bike. Road racing at this extreme physical level is sometimes described as a sport for individuals played by teams. Simpson’s final demise can in part be explained by his becoming a victim of this contradiction. Richard Moore’s Slaying the Badger is the classic account of a bitter rivalry between two cyclists riding the race supposedly for the same team, Hinault vs LeMond, in what Moore dubs the greatest-ever Tour de France, the 1986 edition. Whatever the year, on the roads of France and beyond the riders will be stretched out over many kms as they follow the designated route for the best part of four weeks, a compelling sports drama. It is the sheer range of the riders that Max Leonard captures so well in his book Lanterne Rouge choosing to write not about the winners, but those at the back, the very back of the race, and what keeps them going. Ellis Bacon’s Mapping Le Tour provides the definitive insight into the scale of the endeavour of the race, beautifully illustrated, every edition of Le Tour catalogued, each stage recorded. Not only does cycling inspire and attract great writing, but it has a vivid visual culture too. A combination showcased in The Rouleur Centenary Tour de France with the very finest photography of the 2013 race alongside high quality reportage on each of the 21 stages, which ended of course with the second successive British Yellow Jersey winner, Chris Froome.

Cycle of LiesThe Climb is Chris Froome’s newly published autobiography and details his extraordinary road to the Yellow Jersey via growing up in Kenya, school in South Africa, joining the European pro-cycling circuit, debilitating illness and last year’s eventual triumph. Of course this was a victory whether he likes it or not will for ever and a day be measured against Bradley Wiggins’ triumph the year previously. Read the Wiggins biography My Time to get some kind of inkling of the nature and the depth of the rivalry between the pair of them. Before these two was Mark Cavendish, a rider expected to be very much a part of this year’s Tour too. The ferocious speed, not to mention the split second and millimetre perfect decision making required, of a stage finish seems to be almost the ideal environment for Cavendish’s very particular cycling. How he has developed and excelled detailed in his book At Speed. For many though whatever the scale of Wiggo, Cav and Froome’s achievements as British cyclists the long shadow of the sport’s drug problems remans so impenetrable as to cast such successes in doubt. The Armstrong case was eventually uncovered because of the dogged determination of the very best investigative sports journalism. And now with the revelations made spectacularly public and entirely unchallengeable Armstrong’s team-mates are producing confessional-style books to help reveal the mire of performance-enhancing drug culture the sport had become part of. George Hincapie’s The Loyal Lieutenant the latest, and as such a close and long-standing team mate of Armstrong’s, one of the most revealing to date too. Juliet Macur’s Cycle of Lies provides the panoramic view of perhaps the greatest story of decline and fall in the history of sport with a rare ability to get to grips with what Armstrong, the good the bad and the drugs, came to represent in and beyond his sport.

The Tour de France differs markedly from other sports mega-events – most obviously football’s World Cup – in the close relationship between spectating and participating. A huge proportion of those watching Le Tour in Yorkshire will be cyclists themselves, many pedalling their way to reach a prized vantage point on a hill climb. And lots in the weeks before, and after, will cycle a chunk of the official route with all the speed and energy they can muster dreaming of being in the mighty peleton on the day itself. This is in many ways a do-it-yourself sports culture. Kitted out with the Pocket Road Bike Maintenance handbook and the Cyclist’s Training Manual the advice will be more than enough to keep bike and body in the kind of shape to ride a Tour stage, or even two. For some the aim will be to rise a ‘sportive; the binary opposition of recreation vs competition blurred by a race which is mainly against the clock and our own body’s capacity to perform at speed, as documented in Successful Sportives. A tad muscle-bound some of this stuff, certainly gendering the way cycling is consumed and practiced. A welcome relief therefore provided by Caz Nicklin’s pioneering The Girls’ Bicycle Handbook.

A sense of the potential inclusiveness of cycling is provided by Robert Penn’s almost philosophical It’s All About The Bike. Penn is a missionary for cycling, he makes no apology for his two-wheeled evangelism. A bike as mode of transport, a means to a holiday, a family outing, a race to the finish. All this and more Robert Penn promises we can expect from our bike.

cycling anthology volume-4The rich variety of inspiration cycle racing can provide is admirably showcased in the latest volume of The Cycling Anthology.. Ranging over history, philosophy, the mediation and culture of the sport, this is high quality writing for the seriously enthusiastic.

And my book of Le Tour? Richard Moore’s superb Étape. There have been many histories of the Tour de France but instead of a dry chronology Richard Moore takes his reader to the core meaning of this most intriguing of races, the stages where the Yellow Jersey is decided by a lone break, a climb that defies human frailty, a calamity on the road, a rivalry unfolding. It takes three weeks to ride the Tour, ever day filled with drama. This book helps us to understand its ensuring and growing appeal, and to appreciate the tradition and culture this year’s Yorkshire Grand Départ will be contributing to in no doubt its own very special way .

Note No links in this review are to Amazon. If you can avoid purchasing your books from tax-dodgers please do so.

Matk Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’. aka Philosophy Football.