Speaking to the Global Labour Institute’s 2014 International Summer School Rosa Pavanelli, General Secretary of Public Services International, gave an account of the struggles public service workers are facing. This article draws on her speech to delegates in Tuesday’s opening plenary.
Public service jobs used to be considered the gold standard in much of the world. Well paid, good pension, decent holidays and solid trade union rights. In an era of neoliberalism however, these previously ‘most formal of formal workers’ are facing the kinds of attacks previously only associated with the most ruthless companies.
There’s an ideological background to this. Labour market and union ‘reform’ has been factor in almost all post-crash countries. In South Korea, the government has recently initiated the most violent attack on public services – derecognising unions in each sector. Privatisation of the rail industry and the mass firing of union activists have turned the country into what one delegate called ‘a war zone’ for workers.
Public Services International, the Global Union Federation for public service workers, is used to privatisation battles – organising in industries which are often publicly funded and subsidised, but increasingly privately owned.
In the US, the Supreme Court last week ruled that there’s no obligation for care workers to pay union dues to unions collectively bargaining for them. These workers often work alone. They are now even more isolated – especially if their unions become toothless in the face of the court decision.
And internationally, at the last ILO conference, for first time delegates couldn’t reach a conclusion on the centrality of the right to strike – despite convention 87 of the ILO convention deeming it fundamental – because employers were so strongly against. It’s a frightening turn for workers of all sectors, as that is one of the only legal bases unions have on the global scale.
But there is some good news. The UN Women’s organisation recently recognised the role of unions as key to addressing the problems of women.
Moreover, until recently trade unions were previously not allowed to participate in UN discussions on migration. Now, after years of struggling from PSI and others, they can. With migration becoming a vehicle for new kinds of slavery, it’s an important milestone.
For public service workers, the water campaigns in the UN are equally important. In 2010, water was deemed a human right, providing the legal background for the massive 2013 struggles in Europe for water to be publicly owned – many of which won, in Paris and elsewhere.
And in the IMF, Christine Lagarde has recently said austerity is creating more injustice and poses a threat to democracy.
A turning point?
The ruling class, then, is getting scared. We are at critical point of class conflict. In response to a global ruling class, unions must likewise organise internationally, not just in one workplace. The welfare state wasn’t won in one shop floor but by the entire working class.
Multinational capital has a strategy. Unions can’t afford to navel-gaze. Whether in care homes, railway stations or outsourced water plants, public service workers in today’s climate of privatisation, cuts and union-busting know this better than ever.
Josiah Mortimer is reporting on the Global Labour Institute’s third International Summer School for trade unionists at Northern College this week. You can follow all of the conference online on the GLI site, through Union Solidarity International, and on Twitter, using the hashtag #ISS14. This article draws on the plenary ‘The Fall & Rise of Labour?’
In Budget week Mark Perryman welcomes a new book that demolishes the Austerity myth.
When the Con-Dems ushered in the bright shiny new era of coalition politics with a tripling of student tuition fees the wave of anger this provoked seemed to suggest almost anything opposition-wise was possible. Prominent student leader Clare Solomon described the moment, with co-author Tania Palmieri, in her book Springtime as :
“There is a new anger that melts the snow. All hail the new, young student Decembrists who challenged complacent government and simultaneously fired a few shots across the bows of an opposition and its toadies in the media, all still recovering from a paralytic hangover, a consequence of imbibing too much Nouveau Blair.”
Students occupying the roof of the Tory Party’s Millbank HQ was a glorious spectacle of revolt, occurring on the eve of the Arab Spring, militant resistance in Greece and Spain, the beginnings of Occupy in the USA. We really did seem to be on the edge of a movement for change. Click to continue reading →
Britain’s most senior Catholic cleric has described the coalition’s welfare reforms as a “disgrace” and said they have removed even the most basic safety net for those threatened by poverty and left society’s most vulnerable facing “hunger and destitution”.
Cardinal-designate Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, attacked the reforms led by Iain Duncan Smith. The work and pensions secretary is a practising Catholic.
He said that the welfare system had become more “punitive”, leaving people with nothing if they fail to fill in forms correctly.
His move follows attacks by prominent figures in the Church of England against the government’s programme.
“People do understand that we do need to tighten our belts and be much more responsible and careful in public expenditure,” the archbishop said.
“But I think what is happening is two things: one is that the basic safety net that was there to guarantee that people would not be left in hunger or in destitution has actually been torn apart.
“It no longer exists and that is a real, real dramatic crisis. And the second is that, in this context, the administration of social assistance, I am told, has become more and more punitive.”
The archbishop also told the Daily Telegraph: “So if applicants don’t get it right, then they have to wait for 10 days, for two weeks, with nothing – with nothing. For a country of our affluence, that, quite frankly, is a disgrace.”
In March last year, Anglican clergymen, including the archbishops of Canterbury and York, accused Duncan Smith of ignoring the concerns of ordinary people when they signed a letter claiming that capping benefit rises would have a “deeply disproportionate” effect on children.
But the work and pensions secretary – a millionaire who drew derision when he claimed he could live on the £53 per week that one claimant said he was allotted – hit back. He said the system was out of control and simply “giving more and more money” would not help.
“There is nothing moral or fair about a system that I inherited that trapped people in welfare dependency,” he added.
Cardinal-designate Nichols is one of 19 senior clerics chosen by Pope Francis to be elevated to the Roman Catholic clergy’s second highest rank.
It means he will be granted a place at the conclave that will elect the next pope. The archbishop is one of only two Europeans on a list of clergymen to be made cardinals next week, aside from those already holding senior offices at the Holy See, with the rest hailing from the developing world.
Since his election as pope in March last year, Francis has cultivated a radical image, challenging politicians over their treatment of immigrants and adopting a more tolerant stance towards homosexuality.
Golden Dawn leader Nikolaos Michaloliakos under arrest
The struggle against the most pernicious and entrenched neo-Nazi force in Europe is at a critical moment.
At stake in the dramatic arrests of Nikolaos Michaloliakos and other leaders of the Golden Dawn in Greece is not only the immediate future of a Nazi party that has 18 MPs, with 7 percent of the vote at the last general election, and a considerable street-fighting arm, but also the course of the social and political resistance in the European country hit hardest by crisis.
At issue too is the wider struggle in Europe against fascism, racism and xenophobia — as the rise of Golden Dawn has acted as an exemplar and loadstone for radicalising, far Right forces across the continent.
The sudden turn by the state and government of Antonis Samaras against GD is testament to sustained anti-fascist campaigning in Greece and to the eruption of popular fury at the fascist murder of much-loved, anti-racist hip hop artist Pavlos Fyssas. Within hours of Pavlos’s murder, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of dozens of cities across Greece targeting GD, one of whose cadres wielded the knife that felled him.
It was fear of a repeat of the uprising of December 2008 — resulting from the police murder of 15-year-old school student Alexandros Grigoropoulos — intersecting with a rising strike wave and the growth of the radical Left that led the government to act.
It certainly was not some inherent hostility towards the fascists on the part of Samaras and his New Democracy party. At least three leading figures of the centre Right had entertained a possible coalition with the fascists (if they “moderated” slightly) as the ruling coalition dwindled to just the centre Right and the zombie social democratic party, Pasok.
Anti-fascist lawyers Evgenia Kouniaki, Takis Zwtos and Thanasis Kampagiannis outline the tip of a mountain of evidence linking GD to criminal activity and murder over the last few years, including to the murder of Pakistani worker Shehzad Luqman in January this year: one of his killers had piles of GD leaflets and a portrait of Michaloliakos in his flat. There were no raids of GD offices or of police stations implicated with the Nazis eight months ago.
Costas Douzinas, Hara Kouki and Antonis Vradis here sketch some of the extensive links between the fascists, and the centre Right and elements of the state. Last week brought revelations of paramilitary fascist training conducted by reserve elements of Greece’s special forces and the collusion of a leading figure of the secret service, EYP, in obstructing investigations into GD crimes.
Additionally, this is a government that has implemented the savage austerity memorandums while deliberately stoking racism, rounding up refugees and migrants, all as it increased state repression against the social movements. As this statement puts it succinctly, “It is the government that closed schools and hospitals, and opened concentration camps.”
It is also a government which, faced with the rise of the radical Left — with the main Left opposition party Syriza the potential victor of the next general election, has sought to vilify the whole Left, and by implication legitimise the fascist Right, by describing both as “twin extremes”, which are equally a threat to democracy.
Samaras revived that smear only this week on a visit to the US, comparing those in favour of an exit from the Eurozone and EU with GD thugs. That and the fact that the courts decided to release on bail several leading Nazi thugs — including Ilias Kasidiaris, who went on the run after attacking two female left-wing MPs on television last year — should be warning enough that the moves by the government and state against GD will not of their own accord destroy the Nazis. Still less will they tear out the links between GD, the centre Right, elements of the state and figures in the capitalist class.
Indeed, if the anti-fascist struggle is left at the institutional and “constitutional” level, there is a great danger that the Nazis can weather the storm and re-emerge as the anti-establishment pole in a society where there is an endemic crisis for the governmental parties.
The anti-fascist movement in Greece is contending with some key political lessons in order to avoid that and instead to turn this great upsurge into a movement that can liquidate the fascists as a political/physical force and in so doing undermine the government and policies that have incubated GD’s growth. These are lessons that have great salience elsewhere in Europe:
1) Fascism is a distinct threat — necessitating a broad yet militant response
The Greek anti-fascist and anti-racist coalition KEERFA was formed before GD entered the parliament last year and grew sharply. It argued that while, of course, the Nazis grew out of conditions and policies imposed by the governing establishment — austerity, institutional racism, the vilification of the Left using imagery from the civil war of the 1940s and so on — opposing fascism requires a specific political response rather than focusing on challenging its causes instead.
The fascist Right is not merely a resultant of political and social crisis. It is an actor in its own right, with force and direction. If allowed physical and political space to grow, the result is both its rapid establishment of street terror (under conditions of generalised crisis) and with it the radicalisation of the state machine and the politics of the Right as a whole.
The anti-fascist movement in Greece has argued consistently for closing down that space. It has meant popular mobilisations and the militant argument that the fascists are not a legitimate political force, but a violent gang, which should be treated as such in all arenas. On the basis of that argument it has sought to build the widest possible fighting unity across the Left, trade union movement and immigrant communities.
Immigrants have become central to anti-fascist activity
2) Anti-fascism requires anti-racism
After GD broke through many European media outlets honed in on fascist stunts, such as providing food distribution or blood banks for “Greeks only”. But GD’s growth was not the result of it being able to replace in any serious way state functions. Central to it was deepening institutional and popular racism. GD could say that while the politicians talked of being “overrun by immigrants” it was fascist cadres who were prepared to drive immigrants out of neighbourhoods and to take direct action.
So strategies that said that it was possible to deal with GD mainly by competing from the Left to provide social services missed the point. Challenging GD’s racism, concentrated into violent attacks on immigrants and then on the Left, was central. That meant putting the mobilisation and leading role of the immigrant communities who were directly under attack at the centre of resistance.
In so doing, migrant communities were re-presented as a part of the wider social resistance — part of “us” not “them”. At the same time such united mobilisations provided a visible and material basis for a fundamental anti-racist argument directed against the government and state.
While the fascists can attract some layers who are just disillusioned with establishment politics and the impact of austerity, their core support is from those who accept large numbers of racist myths. Opposing austerity without explicitly drawing anti-racist and anti-xenophobic conclusions, which usually do not “spontaneously” arise, will not destroy the fascist base.
3) Fascism grows with the state — not against it…
It was shocking, but not a surprise, to read reports that possibly half the Athens police force voted for GD in the second general election last year.
For all the pseudo-anti-capitalist and radical rhetoric, fascist formations have only ever seized power with the support of a dominant section of the capitalist class and their state. That was true of Mussolini, Hitler and the classical fascist parties.
The growth of fascism represents an extension and radicalisation of the state. The actual formation of a fascist regime comes after large elements of the state machine and ruling apparatus have already gone over to fascism as a final instrument when “normal” methods of police repression and right-wing, parliamentary politics have failed.
4) … But it matters enormously what the state does
That does not mean that we should be indifferent to what the state does or that the struggle against fascism is some kind of diversion from the battle against the governments of austerity and the repressive states they deploy.
Protest following the murder of Pavlos Fyssas
To respond to the collusion between the police or government and the fascists by saying that the state and the fascists are as one is in effect to accept that the fascists are already on the road to power or that the state is so powerful it can militarise its response to the social movements at will. The seeming radicalism of that position reveals a fatalist despair.
It’s not that the establishment and the repressive forces of the state are not capable of terror. They are. It’s that the extent to which they feel able to deploy repression depends upon the balance of forces in the society. A key part of that balance is the extent to which fascist gangs are able to entrench inside neighbourhoods and in the social space.
The Left and working class movement have every interest in exposing collusion between the state and the fascists, rooting out fascist ties to the state and forcing the state to act against the fascists — not because the state is a reliable barrier to fascism, but because if it is forced to act the space to delegitimise the fascists grows and the door to weakening the repressive state itself widens.
5) The fascists are unconstitutional — but they will not be stopped through a “constitutional consensus”
Faced with the enormous backlash at the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, the government temporarily dropped the language of the “twin extremes” of Right and Left and called on all the political parties to form with it a “constitutional arc” rejecting the fascists.
Its aim is to usurp the very anti-fascist movement it has attacked. And what is meant by “the law” and “the constitution” is contested. Successive Greek governments have ruled “unconstitutionally” over the last two years, with the appointment of an unelected prime minister — banker Lucas Papademos — and now the increasing use of executive diktat rather than parliamentary norms.
The article of the criminal code — number 187 — under which GD leaders face prosecution as a criminal enterprise has indeed been used against the Left. This is not a “constitutional” axis that the Left can be part of, especially as the prosecuting authorities wish to limit investigations so as to leave untouched the establishment while, for example, the district attorney of Athens has laid charges against a key leader of the anti-fascist movement, Petros Constantinou, a councillor in Athens.
None of this means that the Left should somehow champion the “constitutional rights” of the fascists, directly or implicitly. Rather it means precisely cutting through establishment manoeuvres in order both to liquidate the fascists and undermine the government from the Left.
The “constitution” that is of value for the Left is the freedom and space that have been won for the workers and social movements, whether reflected in attenuated form in the official laws of the state or accepted as a political fact or convention on account of accumulated struggles. That is what is threatened by fascism, and it is that popular “constitution” that masses of people can be won to defend.
6) A mass movement beyond establishment limits
The mass movement has political effect. It is why the Greek government has been forced to take what action against the fascists it has.
To fail to engage with the political reality the movement itself creates, to disavow its effects, is both to undermine its confidence in its own capacity and to surrender the political initiative to others.
The demands and next steps of the anti-fascist movement in Greece are directed at widening the breach it has already created. Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza, last week said that he was “not for placing GD outside the law [i.e. banned as a party], but brought before the law”. This week he said he “trusted the Greek judicial authorities”.
Today the judge hearing the remand cases of various GD leaders “accidentally” gave the fascists’ lawyers the name and details of the former GD member turned whistleblower, who has provided testimony against them.
So holding the criminals of GD to account cannot be left to the authorities, which have collaborated with them. It requires systematically arguing for the gang to be dismantled at every level and for the trail of investigation into its violence and criminality to be pursued wherever it leads.
It means forcing the government to cut off the state funds that go to GD. If GD is a criminal gang, then its offices in neighbourhoods are centres of organising terror. They should be closed down, by any means necessary.
In other words, the official moves against GD will only have purchase if they continue to respond to an independent, militant movement that goes beyond the official confines and is prepared to act.
That’s why it was absolutely right at the huge anti-fascist rally outside the Greek parliament last week that the anti-fascist movement broke with the constitutional and legalistic consensus and set out to march on the GD headquarters.
The move was not ritualistic or by a small ultra-radical minority. It was the political assertion of the centrality of a mass movement, by that mass movement, in driving the struggle against fascism and racism.
That movement, which is holding an important conference in Athens this weekend, is now in a position to push forward the dismantling of GD and also — in combination with ongoing mass strikes and social struggles — to raise the pressure on the government to go.
These are some of the general lessons, put rather telegraphically, from the last week of struggle in Greece.
The biggest lesson, however, is that politics, strategy and tactics are not deducible from abstract schemes. Radicalism does not come from rhetoric or finding ultra-militant postures or points of distinction. They all come from concrete engagement in building a mass movement and with it fighting for a politics that seeks to cut through, rather than evade, the responses of the state and establishment.
Periodically, I am invited on the Call Kaye radio phone in show on BBC Scotland to give my views on various issues. Presented by Kaye Adams, it’s on every weekday morning and covers stories particularly relevant to Scotland, though invariably UK wide in this regard.
Earlier this week I received a call from one of the producers. They were planning an item in response to a new campaign initiated by the Scottish Government clamping down on the illicit trade in counterfeit goods. Looking for guests to speak to the issue, he asked me for my thoughts – whether I thought it was right or wrong for people to knowingly buy counterfeit goods – clothes, perfume, mens and womens accessories, etc – this on the basis that according to the police and the government people who do so are essentially funding criminal gangs that also deal in drugs, people trafficking, and are involved in more serious criminal activities.
I detected surprise when I told him that the issue came down to well off middle class people pointing the finger at poor working class people and telling them how bad they are. As for the argument about propping up organised crime, which deals in human misery, I told him there was no moral difference between that and buying an item from a high street retailer produced by workers kept in conditions of near slavery throughout the Global South.
Further, if we don’t want people buying counterfeit goods we need to make sure they have enough money to buy the real stuff. Why should poor people be locked out of society and its norms? In the West we have been conditioned to believe that we are what we buy, signifying our value and status.
Poverty doesn’t just have a material impact on those who suffer it, it has a psychological impact, crushing the spirit. Counterfeit designer goods allow those without to enjoy the feeling of belonging, to being part of the mainstream, which is vital to a person’s sense of self esteem, however false.
In the end, the producers decided not to have me on the show to discuss this particular item.
But what struck me about this exchange was the extent to which it revealed a widening disconnect between the haves and have nots, on the level of morals as well as income, exacerbated by the recession and the current government’s policy of making the poor pay for an economic mess effectively created by the greed of the rich.
The values of the rich are dominant everywhere you look. They literally scream at us every minute of every day, holding up individualism, materialism, consumerism, money, and success as the sine qua non of human happiness and worth . Neoliberalism, or untrammeled capitalism, sits at the foundation of these values, an economic system predicated on competition and with it the separation of society between winners and losers.
In the current climate the number of ‘losers’ in this ugly scenario are increasing at an alarming rate. Worse, given the aforementioned role of the Tory-led coalition government currently in power, the consequences of ‘failing’ are more grim than they have been for a generation.
The normalisation and acceptance of foodbanks up and down the country – a concomitant of the assault on wages, benefits, and incomes of the poor, both in work and out – is proof positive of the callous disregard for the well being and dignity of the victims of poverty in Britain in 2013.
The idea that the dominant values and morals of the rich and well off should or even could have any purchase among those whose lives have been reduced to a daily struggle to keep body and soul together merely adds insult to injury.
Is anyone surprised? Moreover, it begs the question of whether people struggling to feed themselves and their children are morally justified in stealing food in order to do so.
I believe the answer to this question is unequivocally yes. Those who take the opposite view – both on the issue of purchasing counterfeit goods and shoplifting – will argue that neither is a victimless crime, as many seem to believe.
Perhaps, but neither is poverty. In fact, more than a crime poverty is an abomination, especially when it has become as widespread as it has in the UK – one of the richest economies in the world – in the 21st century.
The real criminals in society are not those who steal food from supermarkets in order to keep food on the table. The real criminals are those responsible for creating, championing, and maintaining the grotesque inequality, despair, and poverty which compels people to do so.
As the 19th century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach wrote: ‘Where the material necessities of life are absent, then morality necessity is also absent’.
The breadth and depth of cuts in public sector jobs, pay and frontline services might lead some to believe that austerity exists and public spending is being reduced. However, public spending is actually 4% higher today that in 2010. We are not experiencing short term disruption to balance the books, we are experiencing the controlled demolition of the welfare state – transferring the UK from a social democracy to a corporate state.
Successive governments have dissolved the model of state owned schools, staffed by public sector employees. Today, our children largely attend privately owned schools, where the majority of services in the schools are delivered by private sector staff. The results have seen costs soar and quality plummet.
Academy Schools are publicly funded independent state schools (limited companies)– this means they receive their funding from central government and are accountable directly to central government, rather than their Local Authority. Contrary to the ‘Localism Agenda’ lauded by both mainstream parties, the trend is towards centralising control in Westminster. The schools are also able to make changes to staff pay and conditions, that is pay less.
During thirteen years of New Labour government, 203 state schools were turned into Academies. In just three years of the Coalition – this has risen more than twelve fold, to more than 2,600 (with a further 500 in the pipeline). This might suggest the programme was so successful it called for rapid national roll out. But it doesn’t.
A recent report by the Public Accounts Committee, the parliamentary select committee responsible for ensuring value for money for the tax payer, condemned the programme as ‘complex and inefficient’, leading to more than £1bn over spending. This £1bn had to be met by the budgets for other non-academy schools.
The Labour Party leadership’s embrace of welfare reform – set out in Ed Miliband’s keynote speech on welfare to a select audience in Newham, East London – marks a victory for the right and describes another benchmark in the political degeneration of the party that originally created the welfare state.
From the moment the current global economic crisis hit these shores with the collapse of Northern Rock in September 2007, the singular objective of the right has been to turn what was and is a crisis of private greed into a crisis of public spending. It was a campaign given political credence with the election of the Tory-led coalition government in 2010, unleashing a political and economic assault on the poorest and most vulnerable section of society under the rubric of austerity.
In economic terms austerity is doomed to failure. The empirical and historical evidence leaves no doubt that in periods of economic downturn a government must spend more not less in order to re-inject the demand sucked out by the refusal of the private sector to invest as profits tumble
The number of people who depend on emergency food handouts has nearly trebled in a year to 350,000 – more than the populations of cities such as Cardiff or Coventry. Figures from the leading food bank charity, the Trussell Trust, show that 346,992 people have received at least three days of emergency food support since last April – up from 128,697 the previous year and from just 61,468 in 2010-11. Click here to read the story
So this is an opportune moment to consider the political and social strengths and weaknesses of the trade union movement. Personally I am firmly convinced that the cause of organized labour is the fundamental bedrock of progressive politics; it is not only a source of empowerment and self-organisation, but it also instrumental in creating communities of solidarity, which provide the ideological counterpart to the individualism and social irresponsibility of unrestrained capitalism. Click to continue reading →