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Catalyst #26 (March 2011)

In this issue

Winning the argument or winning the fight: where next after March 26?

Austerity Britain: centrefold feature on austerity and the resistance.

Levenshulme Baths saved: 20-day campaign gets results.

North African revolts: calls for 'bread and freedom' spread.

Know your rights: basic rights at work.

Comment: crisis in care.

 

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Winning the argument, or winning the fight?

There’s been a lot of talk in the anti-cuts movement about the importance of ‘winning the argument’. This strategy holds that the best way to go about fighting attacks on wages, living conditions and services is to point out the flaws in the pro-cuts arguments and suggest alternative policies which would avoid the need for cuts.

Some even seem to think that if the argument is won, the government will see the error of its ways, stop the planned cuts and everyone can go home happy.

It isn’t hard to see where this strategy falls down. It certainly isn’t the weakness of the anti-cuts arguments; it’s been convincingly shown that these cuts aren’t ‘necessary’ at all.

No, its mistake is the belief that society is based on rational arguments in the first place. Our society is not a debating chamber, but a power struggle between different groups with competing interests.

The government are making these cuts because they suit the rich, the wealthy and the powerful. They can get away with it not because they are right, but because they hold power. They won’t be swayed by argument, because from such a position of strength all arguments can be safely ignored. If necessary they can enforce their decisions using the media, police and courts.

Yet they are not invincible; the power of a government is based upon our compliance. We are the ones who have to turn the wheels, pull the levers and keep the system moving. We are the bedrock on which they have built their authority, and that in turn gives us power. If the state wants to do something that we don’t like, we can fight back with actual, direct action; work stoppages, occupations, blockades.

Direct challenges such as this will cause more concern to politicians than any number of marches, leaflets or arguments, because they undermine their authority. The more they lose their authority, the more people are able to resist.

We cannot shy away from the facts: the government attempts to force its decisions upon us, so we must force our collective decisions upon them.

This is where the true hope of victory lies. Not in winning some abstract moral argument, but in winning real battles, and rediscovering the ability to take control of our own lives and communities.

'Bread and freedom!' - North African revolts spread

Across the Arab world, unrest continues to mount. Though not revolutions in the full sense of the word, the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have set the example that more and more people are standing up to follow. As we watch history unfold before our eyes, it is hard to know what comes next. But talk of global revolution is certainly premature.

In Tunisia, Mohamed Ghannouchi is still prime minister, as he was under the now-deposed Ben Ali from 1999. Though most of the regime’s senior figures have been removed from office following further unrest, the same repressive state apparatus remains in place. Demonstrators have continued to be killed on the streets since Ben Ali’s departure.

In Egypt, the army has dissolved parliament and set a time frame of six months to hand over to a civilian administration. Meanwhile, they have effectively banned strike action, and reports are emerging of the detention and torture of demonstrators by the same people now handed the reigns of power. Tahrir Square has remained a focal point for demonstrators, while sporadic strike action has continued in defiance of the country’s new military rulers.

It remains to be seen what the final outcome will be in either case. But the talk among elites continues to be of “reform” and “transition,” in the name of “stability” and a return to normality. In other words, throw the people a bone, but leave the existing power structures in place. No doubt, where they cannot be put down entirely, the same argument will be made regarding unrest elsewhere.

In Algeria, the foreign minister promised to end 19-year-old emergency laws “within days,” hoping to quell the discontent there as people call for more protests. In Jordan, restrictions on public assembly are to be eased. Both countries are eager to placate their populations in order to avoid the scenes which overtook their neighbours.

On the other hand, both Bahrain and Yemen are going with the stick over the carrot. After a death during Bahraini protests, riot police further stoked tensions by opening fire upon the funeral of the man killed. This escalated in March with an intervention by Saudi troops at the  Bahraini government’s request. In Yemen, the state is deploying the tactic we saw in Egypt of plainclothes agents masquerading as “pro-government supporters.” Supported by police wielding tasers and batons, they have turned demonstrations into a violent battleground.

Kuwait, not yet caught up in the tidal wave, has announced the distribution of $4bn and free food for 14 months to all citizens. Between the concessions and the confrontations, it is clear that the rulers of the Arab world are finally starting to fear their subjects, as anger at unemployment and austerity merges with demands for political freedom.

The elites in the affected countries, as well as their foreign backers, will certainly wish to preserve the status quo - whether entirely unaltered or with a new face at the top and some appeasement. The people, yearning for freedom, are building their own vision for society as their movements grow - and self-organisation and mutual aid certainly appear integral to what they are forging for themselves through rebellion.

We don’t yet know what will win out, and the result could be radically different in each place. But, as the struggles continue, our solidarity has to go to the working class of those nations now in upheaval. Not just against the dictators, but against the capitalist system that supports them.

Wisconsin occupies for union rights

Workers, students and activists have been pursuing an intensive campaign of direct action in response to attempts by recently elected Republican Governor Scott Walker’s to shatter public sector unions by withdrawing collective bargaining rights. In a clear attempt to break the influence of the unions within the public sector entirely, Walker has forced through a bill which would not just remove collective bargaining, but legally cap pay increases, abolish union dues check-off and require annual union recognition elections – all this after unions accepted all of Walker’s other demands, including a significant paycut.

The bill targets every Wisconsin state worker, with the exception of the police and fire service. However, despite their exemption from the bill, there has been much solidarity evident from firefighters and even in some cases, the police too.

The attempts to stop the bill’s passage had been wide ranging, including strikes and ‘sick-outs’ by public sector workers - with schools across the state closing for several days, the state Capitol building in near perpetual occupation, massive demonstrations and even Democrat state senators and representatives literally fleeing the state as they attempt to block the passage of the bill by leaving the state legislature inquorate.

Despite having a long tradition of workers militancy and a proud union tradition, Wisconsin has recently seen several huge attacks on the working class – for example, having one of the most punitive anti-welfare schemes – with recent programmes cutting the numbers receiving welfare by up to 90% without creating any more jobs. These are the schemes which the current government in the UK seeks to import.

The new bill is seen by many as the American right testing the waters with extreme anti-working class measures in the wake of the financial crisis. It is widely thought that if they are able to get away with it in Wisconsin then similar attacks in other states will quickly follow – already similar legislation is being pushed in Ohio, which many commentators see as going even further than that proposed in Wisconsin, for example not even exempting the police. While the resistance has in many ways been inspiring, many question whether there is the ability to go the full way – at present the movement has largely kept within the bounds of “acceptable action”, and has received support from much of the Democratic Party.

There is also the problem that the unions had already aceded to almost all of Walker’s demands – it was only at the point where their very place at the bargaining table was threatened that they felt the need to take any action. With the passage of the bill, more radical union elements have been calling for a state-wide general strike, something which would represent a significant escalation of the already high stakes struggle. However, this looks unlikely as long as union leaders and Democrat politicians remain in control.

Death and taxes - but not for big business

It’s said that only the little people pay taxes. The government seem to agree. VAT went up to 20% in January. Barclays Bank paid £113m in corporation tax, which was just 2.4% of its annual profit. Boots paid just £14m last year, about 3% of its profits. Vodafone were famously let off £6 billion by George Osborne when he became chancellor. Lots of big companies pay a lower proportion of tax than those of us in work pay national insurance, let alone income tax.

To make sure that this continues, the government are cutting the tax inspectors at HM Revenue and Customs. And they have even more audacious plans for removing corporation tax for big companies on their overseas earnings and allowing them to offset their costs against profits here, meaning they pay even less. Tax expert Richard Murphy has estimated that this will run into billions of pounds lost to the exchequer, leaving ordinary people to suffer in increased personal taxes and cuts to services.

The grassroots campaign UK Uncut has been taking direct action aimed at disrupting those businesses which are most blatant in avoiding tax. The government pretend that “we’re all in this together” and repeat the Thatcherite mantra that there is no alternative. The truth is that the government will always act in the interests of big business, that’s what they are there for. That doesn’t mean they have to go unchallenged. If British people were on the streets as they have been in Egypt, Tunisia or Greece, would the government really be sanctioning another huge tax cut for those who least deserve one?

UK news in briefs

Government 'war games' against the working class

The Cabinet Office has reportedly been carrying out ‘war games’ to prepare for possible strike action against sweeping cut backs. Plans have centred on ensuring there’s enough scab labour available to break strikes in key sectors. 

Ministers have already suggested they will tighten Britain’s already draconian anti-strike laws in the event significant strike action breaks out. A string of recent strike ballots have been ruled unlawful in the courts, using technicalities to annul majority votes for action. Both Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne have threated to further tighten the law “as a last resort” if union bosses don’t co-operate.

Merseyside protest at planned plant closure

Workers and supporters at the Burton’s biscuits factory in Moreton have marched against plans to close the plant.

A march and rally, organised by the Unite union, saw several hundred people assemble at Moreton Shore car park. The march took in much of the surrounding area, with lots of support and banter from local people, an march past the factory before returning to the starting point for a rally.

The company had previously reached an agreement with the Unite union to guarantee work until 2012 and to make Moreton its flagship site. It has since reneged on that deal.

Brighton homeless housing farce

The number of homes standing empty in Brighton and Hove outnumber the number of homeless families ten to one - but a Tory MP is leading calls to criminalise squatting. Brighton and Hove Council accepts responsibility for housing 368 homeless households, while 3,655 homes sit empty. Despite this, Tory MP Mike Weatherly wants to criminalise squatting, putting the interests of landlords and property speculators before those of the homeless. Home repossessions peaked last year following an increase in defaults on mortgages and rent during the recession.

Industrial accident claims two lives

Two workers have been killed at the Sonae industrial plant in Kirkby after they were reportedly dragged by a conveyor belt into the workings of a silo. It is believed that James Bibby (24) and Thomas Elmer (27) had been contracted in to carry out maintenance work at the plant which manufactures wood-based panels for use in the furniture and construction industries.

One Sonae worker told the Liverpool Echo: that “for a long time, staff have been warning about concerns over safety at the plant.” Previously, the plant has been the scene of chemical leaks, fires, as well as other industrial accidents. Residents on the nearby Northwood estate have also raised environmental concerns about Sonae, claiming that emissions coming from the plant were having an adverse effect on their children’s health.

On top of industrial accidents, Hazards magazine says that “up to 20 per cent of the UK’s biggest killers, including heart disease, cancer and chronic respiratory disease, are caused by work”, and “the risk is greatly higher in those lower down the workplace pecking order.”
- Workers’ Memorial Day will take place on April 28th 2011.

Asbestos law not up to EU standard

The UK version of a European Union-wide law on asbestos safety is illegally lax and must be amended, the government has been told. The TUC, which had warned against the dilution of essential safety measures, said the European Commission (EC) ruling nails the myth the UK “gold-plates” Euro laws.

Unpaid overtime worth £29 billion

British workers are contributing £billions in free labour to their bosses  every year simply by working unpaid overtime. The surplus is being squeezed out of workers through the threat of unemployment or reduced prospects. One in five workers regularly worked unpaid overtime last year, the highest proportion since 1997. Last year 5.26 million people across the UK clocked up an average seven hours 12 minutes unpaid overtime a week, worth a record £28.9 billion to the economy.

Over 50,000 NHS jobs face axe

Despite campaigning on a promise to “cut the deficit, not the NHS”, the government’s public sector cuts look set to slash frontline healthcare provision. The total confirmed, planned and potential NHS staff cuts across the country currently stands at just over 53,150 posts, with more set to be announced.

Austerity Britain

Remember the boom?

The anti-cuts movement should avoid the temptation of blaming public spending cuts on greedy bankers or Tory politicians. Given that bankers, and Tories, tend to be a pretty obnoxious lot it is perhaps understandable that they are used as hate figures by the left. However they are a symptom rather than the cause of the crisis.

The starting point in understanding the cuts are the changes in the ownership of wealth that have occurred over the last 30 years. The last three decades, under both Tory and Labour governments have seen the richest 10% of the population grab an increasing share of the wealth. Profits have steadily risen while the share of national output taken by wages has steadily declined, shrinking from around 60% in 1980 to 53% in 2007. Between 2000 and 2007, productivity increased at almost twice the rate of real wages. In other words, Britain worked harder, for less – and this was during the ‘good days’ of the economic boom.

The ability of the rich to grab the lion’s share of the profits has resulted in the real terms pay of many workers either stagnating or declining. This is reflected in the fact the population working on low pay has almost doubled from 12% in 1977 to over 22% today. The massive transference of society’s wealth to the rich has had two effects.  As profits increased, the private wealth of a small minority exploded leaving the rich with ever larger amounts of money that needed investing, a process repeated around the world. As the wealth of the world’s richest grew they began to invest in ever-larger amounts, creating a tidal wave of hot money that circulated the globe in search of quicker and higher returns.

At the same time stagnating and falling wages in Britain meant that people increasingly turned to debt in order to get by. The banks acted as the brokers between the hot money and those seeking loans.  Banks profits soared on the back of debt encouraging them to go on a lending frenzy handing out ever larger loans that could not be repaid. The rest is history; defaults on repayments began to grow and financial panic set in.

But even here we still have not reached the true cause of the financial crisis. For the crucial question is what has changed in Britain in the last 30 years that has allowed the rich to increase their share of the wealth? The answer is that there has been a dramatic shift in power in the battle between capitalism and organised labour.

From the second world war right up to the 1970’s there existed in Britain a powerful workplace-based trade union movement which was able to demand ever higher wages and increased spending on welfare and services. This process came to an abrupt end when Thatcherism defeated workplace militancy. This meant a shift in the balance of class forces in favour of the rich, who used their growing power to drive down wages and cut services.

The root cause of the financial crisis then is the defeat of organised workers. As profits grew at the expense of wages borrowing increased to make up the shortfall. Debt was used to pay the bills in the home and fund services and welfare provision. The rich having increased their share of the wealth then in effect lent the money back to us with the banks exploiting their position as intermediaries to increase profits. Bank lending then got out of hand leading to the current financial crisis. To fight the cuts therefore we need to organise and create a ‘crisis’ that will frighten the life out of capitalism.

Making the country ungovernable

All across the country there are rumblings of discontent. Town halls where cuts votes have been taking place have been stormed or occupied in Lewisham, Lambeth, Southampton, Haringey, Camden and Barnet. Hundreds have taken part in UK Uncut actions, shutting down the high street names engaged in the most blatant tax avoidance. New Cross library in South London, threatened with closure, was also occupied, while people in Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire withdrew every single book in protest at plans to close it. This follows on from the student riots in November and December last year, which saw thousands take to the streets to demonstrate their anger at cuts to education funding and a tripling of university tuition fees.

For the most part these actions have been more than just symbolic, and have disrupted business as usual – whether that’s the normal day’s trading of a high street store or the passing of austerity measures in a council session. Disruption – and in particular economic damage – is something the government can’t ignore. It’s also something well within the power of ordinary people to do, as the aforementioned actions across Britain show. If we don’t like what the government is doing to the country, we must make the country ungovernable! Only by making austerity measures the more expensive option can we prevent their implementation.

Such a strategy will be opposed by the official representatives of the movement. For them, the goal is simply to ‘have our say’. Union leaders mostly hope to channel discontent with the Tories and their Lib Dem accomplices into an electoral swing to Labour in 4 years time – talking the talk but avoiding sustained industrial action in favour of symbolic marches and petitions.They conveniently forget the last 13 years of Labour government, and that many of the austerity measures today are simply an acceleration of Labour policies.

Labour politicians were first in line to milk the expenses system, tax pensions, send young working-class men and women to fight needless wars, enact increasingly authoritarian laws, privatise public services through the back door, as well as introduce university tuition fees despite promising not to, and the list goes on. As chancellor, Alistair Darling promised to implement cuts that would be “deeper and tougher” than during the Thatcher era if Labour won the last general election.

Make no mistake – the interests of union bureaucrats and labour politicians on the one hand, and the working class facing austerity on the other are diametrically opposed. The former want to harness popular anger to propel them back into power. To this end, they insist on “orderly mobilisation”, a movement managed from above by bureaucrats and careerists. Their role will always be to stage-manage popular discontent, release some pressure, and ensure it is never a significant danger to the ruling class.

Against this, thousands of ordinary workers and students have been showing the way, creating merry disorder and disruption. Such discontent could well go nowhere. But it could also build into an unstoppable force. Whilst bureaucrats sneer at those who refuse to be a prop for their posturing, the rest of us should be supporting them. The only reason that direct action has yet to win anything significant is because it’s still not the majority carrying it out. But mass direct action can bring any government to its knees.

Battling the bureaucrats

The TUC’s response to the government’s vicious cuts agenda has been milder than a diluted chicken korma, solely concentrating on an “orderly mobilisation” for the March 26 demonstration. Any other sort of movement by angry workers has been ignored or actively discouraged. Meanwhile, TUC-affiliated unions such as Unite and Unison have abandoned or even worked against militant workers in struggles such as at the Visteon car factory in North London, the Vestas wind turbine factory in the  Isle of Wight and the Latin American cleaners in Central London.  

Clearly, those looking to actually defeat the cuts will have to go it  alone, without the support of Barber and his £150,000/year salary! Barber and the TUC have pitted themselves against all those aiming to  materially improve their lives, organising a call centre at Congress House (TUC HQ) in order to collaborate with police to detain  ‘troublemakers’ on the March 26 demonstration, the very same police who violently suppressed student demonstrations over tuition fees late last year leaving scores injured and 20 year-old Alfie Meadows requiring brain surgery after an unprovoked truncheon attack.

But the bureaucrats and careereists aren’t having it all their own way. National Union of Students leader Aaron Porter had to be rescued by police in Manchester, while his stand-in and a Labour MP were egged off the stage. In Glasgow he wasn’t so lucky and was ‘kettled’ by angry students, while TUC head honcho Brendan Barber was also literally left with egg on his face following an uninspiring, half-empty TUC Rally on campus at  Goldsmiths College,  South East London.

Name and shame blacklist collaborators

A construction worker is calling for Unite union officers who colluded in the blacklisting of trade unionists to be named and shamed. Five union officers have been identified by the Unite, but only one is being investigated. Colin Trousedale, who was a victim of blacklisting in the building industry, said: “It appears to me that these officers will go unpunished if it is left up to the hierarchy of the union both past and present! We must continue with our endeavours to unmask these wretches and make them face the wrath of their victims if nothing else. I have seen three comrades go to the grave without the chance of clearing their name or at least having the knowledge of who in our union betrayed them, I will not go to mine without justice for them and myself.”

world wide wave?

The Solidarity Federation - for revolutionary unions

The Solidarity Federation is an organisation of workers which seeks the downfall of capitalism and the state. Capitalism because it exploits, oppresses and kills working people and wrecks the environment for profit worldwide. The state because it can only maintain hierarchy and privilege for the classes who control it and their servants; it cannot be used to fight the oppression and exploitation that are the consequences of hierarchy and the source of privilege. In their place we want a society based on workers’ self-management, solidarity, mutual aid and libertarian communism.

That society can only be achieved by working class organisations based on the same principles - revolutionary unions. These are not trade unions only concerned with “bread and butter” issues like pay and conditions. Revolutionary unions are means for working people to organise and fight all the issues - both in the workplace and outside - which arise from our oppression. We recognise that not all oppression is economic, but can be based on gender, race, sexuality, or anything our rulers find useful. Therefore, revolutionary unions fully support and encourage organisation in all spheres of life that consciously parallel those of the society we wish to create; that is, organisation based on mutual aid, voluntary cooperation, direct democracy, and opposed to domination, hierarchy and exploitation in all forms. We are committed to building a new society within the shell of the old in both our workplaces and the wider community. Unless we organise in this way, politicians - some claiming to be revolutionary - will be able to exploit us for their own ends.

The Solidarity Federation consists of Locals and Industrial Networks which seek to take on the functions of revolutionary unions – supporting our organising efforts where we live and work. Our activities are based on direct action - action by workers ourselves, not through intermediaries like politicians and union officials; our decisions are made through participation of the membership. We welcome all workers – including the unemployed, retired, stay-home parents and students - who agree with our Aims and Principles and seek to create revolutionary unions to fight the class struggle.

Comment & opinion

Crisis in care - Sam, Sheffield

I work as a support worker for a private company that provides social care for people in Sheffield for people with learning disabilities and mental health issues. The company I work operates across the city. According to government officials, cuts to public spending will not harm front line services, workers, or service users. The reality of the situation is that working conditions are getting worse, day services are closing down, and those paying for the support services are being excluded from any of the decisions relating to care they supposedly direct and influence.

The Sheffield city council budget has been slashed by 8.35% for next year, and this has amounted to a huge cut to front line care. What this has amounted to on the ground is a huge reduction in staffing levels, pushing local unemployment even higher. Those left in the job are left with the unenviable task of filling in the gaps, which means being over worked, and stressed. Many care workers, some with over 20 years experience, are finding it too stressful to carry on, and are walking away from the job, meaning that the most qualified staff in the company are leaving, while new employees, who often aren’t given a decent (and legally required) level of training before they are left to work with clients. This is dangerous to both clients, who often have serious health issues, and to workers, who are not given help to do the job safely (some clients have histories of challenging behaviour, violence etc).

Many of the people I work with have been sent into intense panic, fearing that their disability benefits will be cut and that they will be forced onto a work fare scheme in order to claim. This has led to increased difficulties at work, which again impacts upon the well being of clients and staff. For staff, we have been given an indefinite pay freeze (rates of pay are already extremely low – and the price of food, bills, rent etc has risen fairly sharply in recent months) and a loss of a chance of promotion and advancement within the company. The tactics of management have in recent weeks been an attempt to shift responsibility downwards. In essence, this means an unpaid promotion – increased work hours and responsibilities without extra pay. People are worried, and the constant upheavals in company policy leave staff and clients confused. Many people within the company care deeply about the people they support, and the fact that they are leaving is causing massive emotional stress on all sides.

The company I work for claims to be not-for-profit, this tends to give people the impression that the company operates with some kind of ethical policy. The reality is that instead of money being invested in desperately needed equipment for staff (such as computers that are less than a decade old) instead money has been spent on redecorating the offices of the executive managers and the reception area of the company (in order to make it ‘look more professional’ – the appearance of good care being more easily achieved than the practice of good care).

The company has also engaged in the bizarre tactic of employing agency staff to work as short term “bank workers” in order to plug the gaps created by the redundancies they have introduced. This means that for every worker the company gets from an agency they are paying for two (agencies charge ‘service rates’ which are roughly the same as the employees wages). Essentially this means that the company is firing experienced and dedicated workers to employ untrained and short term agency workers, while paying double the cost for the privilege. The reasons behind this plan seem fairly obvious. Agency workers are in a precarious position, and if they complain about being over worked, and under paid then they can be fired with no notice, whereas an employee cannot. The changes that management want to bring in over the next few months require a work force that does not feel secure, and able to resist the exploitation that is happening.

Letter: the pitfalls of professionalising negotiation - Rob, Hackney

hile surfing around the week’s upcoming events listings I came across one which is fairly typical of trade union umbrella the TUC, to train negotiators ahead of pay rounds which are likely to be marked by austerity cuts.

The idea of training days like The Pay Challenge in 2011 is, ostensibly, to give people a solid overview of the state of play nationwide and an idea of the tactics that could be used when talking to management in negotiations to push up claims.

So far, so average. But what caught my eye was the prices. To get such information is £125 plus VAT if you’re a registered TUC affiliate or an eye-watering £215 plus VAT for anyone else. Exclusive much?

I’m pretty skeptical of the actual value of these things in any case - in the end all negotiation comes down to leverage and either you’ve got it or you ain’t, the best training under these circumstances boils down to giving newbie shop stewards the confidence to tell their manager where to get off when they have the backing of their colleagues. Being able to mouth off convincingly about the economic implications of cuts and their relation to prices, inflation etc etc is really rather extraneous when managers can simply say “good point, but I’m just the monkey and the organ grinders, they’re saying no.”

Nevertheless I’d have thought that given training is supposed to be one of the TUC’s few specific, ongoing responsibilities the price of something like this would be incorporated in the millions upon millions of pounds we already pay through our collective union membership dues.

But I suspect this is not what these little soirees are actually meant for. This is the sort of high-up circus which paves the way for union bureaucrats to waltz into offices up and down the country sounding like they’re the only ones competent to do business with our bosses.
Having been on the end of that myself as a newbie shop steward, It does sound pretty impressive when the boss’s arguments get shot down by a confident professional from the union (less so when it becomes clear that such arguments have made very little impact and in the end amount to a complicated form of begging).

But such professionalising of negotiation - and at those prices it’s got to be if you’re ever going to recoup your outlay unless you can directly pick up £200-odd extra in wages for the year off the back of it - in the end amounts to another means of deadening grassroots initiative. It helps give bureaucrats the assumed authority to tell lay reps to pipe down when they complain about sell-outs on the grounds that “I’ve been at this for years, I’m a trained negotiator who’s dedicated my life to the movement, who the fuck are you?”

Casualisation at BFI - Jan, South London

asualisation has not evaded the British Film Institute and its effects are well known: less staff, a higher workload, divided workers, deskilling, fear and disinterest in our rights - all of which makes corporate moves easier and less accountable, even in public institutions. If we are to fight casualisation, we cannot rely on a change in consciousness without a change in contracts.

A classic case of chicken and egg: the casuals will not fight for their rights because they have no rights. Here the work of the reformist  unions can be a useful supplement to self-organised workplace militancy. Two aspects are worth noting: through small victories the workers are brought together in our grievances and power, and union density is directly correlated to a drop in casualisation. The process of pursuing workplace grievances and a change in contracts should be used to demonstrate the interests of the managers, their incompetence, the weaknesses of workplace hierarchy and the limits of union interests.

The attack on casualisation will then come from different corners and using different methods. Through maintaining self-organised agitation and direct action alongside any union dispute we make sure that our horizon is not social democratic reformism, but class struggle. We also open up a space between the unions and management which makes easier our self-organised direct action.

Where are the St. Thomas disappeared?

Fears are growing for the 72 immigrant workers detained by the UK  Border Agency  (UKBA) at Guy and St Thomas’ Hospital, London in Februrary.  Very  little is known of the whereabouts of the 72 disappeared, who had been contracted to work as ancillary staff in the hospital by Reed temp agency. 

The only definitive update to emerge since the raid is that three of them have pleaded guilty to ‘fraud’, a charge levied against  them for collecting their ‘illegal’ wages from the hospital (as if  cleaning toilets for minimum wage wasn’t bad enough).

A demonstration was called by the Latin American Workers Association  outside the hospital a couple of weeks later, but still no word was  forthcoming on the whereabouts of the 72.  The raid sets a worrying  precedent, being, as it was, a joint operation between UKBA and the  Metropolitan Police with the collaboration of the NHS Counter-Fraud  Service and Guy and St Thomas’ NHS Trust itself. 

The NHS bosses’ silent cooperation with one of the British state’s most ruthless  entities will be especially bitter for the 72 and their families, who are now unable to even locate their loved ones, now that the British  state has deemed them surplus to requirement and therefore ready to be returned to their countries of origin.

This follows on from an earlier raid in Nov 2010 on a McDonalds in  Catford, South East London, in which local UKBA agents trumpeted the deportation of ‘illegal’ workers as ‘successful’. In June 2009, a UKBA raid at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), in collaboration with SOAS management provoked an angry student occupation of management offices.

Campaigners point out that the precarious situation of migrant workers is no coincidence, but is part of wider cutbacks. “Exactly when cuts and privatisation are threatening our public health service the exploitation of migrant labour increases. This is an attack on all workers.”

Labour councillors: no friend of the working class

Joe Anderson, the leader of Liverpool City Council, is trying to paint himself as some kind of anti-cuts rebel. In January he joined an anti-cuts march in Liverpool, not long after he wrote to David Cameron to withdraw Liverpool from the Big Society, and then had the cheek to lead a march against cuts in February. This is nothing more than cheap political opportunism, and it should be rejected.

He tells us that the council is “bracing itself” for the cuts. He “warns” us that compulsory redundancies in the council will come. He is “incensed” by Liberal Democrats accusing him of having a “politically motivated” approach to job cuts.

But, for all the talk, he and his council are the ones who will be wielding the axe in Liverpool, and who have already promised that 1,500 jobs will go, and who has made the decision to rob people of their livelihoods whilst their own pay and pensions are entirely secure.

Anderson claims that cuts aren’t “what I’m about,” but in the same breath states that “we’re not deficit deniers.” He accepts the arguments put forward by the government that cuts are needed, and all claims to oppose what is happening amounts to crocodile tears.

That is why when he has attempted to join or lead anti-cuts marches, he has consistently faced heckles, jeering, and angry confrontation from protesters. People are beginning to see through the lie that Labour are in any way a party of the “left” or of the working-class.
Despite his gestures, Anderson and other Labour politicians on local councils are greasing the wheels so that the government’s attacks filter smoothly down to a local level. But when both Ed Miliband and Ed Balls accept the need for public spending cuts, who would be foolish enough to think otherwise?

Party politics does not serve the interests of the working class, either in this fight or more broadly. This struggle does not hinge upon arguments but upon the balance of class power, and we will only see those in power yield when we can shift that balance through direct action.

Those who claim to represent us are nothing but a dead weight. We must continue to call out and cast off parasites such as Anderson, in favour of militant working class self-organisation.

Graduates - no future?

A postgraduate student at Sussex university assesses the future facing graduates.

Paul Mason, BBC Newsnight’s economics editor has suggested of the unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, France, London and elsewhere that "at the heart if it all is a new sociological type: the graduate with no future".[1] All manner of lefties have been standing in Library Square, entreating us to 'defend education' with petitions, placards and processions. Few of us have taken up the request. What is there to defend? The current education cuts will no doubt make things worse, but it’s not education we need to defend but our conditions of life, both at university and more importantly for the rest of our lives. We need to turn our critical faculties both on our education and on the society it is preparing us for. Do we have a future? Is it worth the sacrifices it demands?

"A university degree today is not a sign of becoming middle-class. It’s a way for the working class to make themselves suitable for the post-industrial workplace. This must be the basis of any class analysis of the current argument."[2]

The skills, habits, discipline and modes of thought imparted via a university education are those appropriate to the modern flexible labour market: self-directed labour with minimal supervision, strong communication skills, the ability to digest and present complex information and the ability to produce work on-demand to more or less arbitrary criteria (marking is essentially a tick-box exercise against a scheme with which we are provided. In the 1970s Sussex students boycotted assessments, rejecting such production-line education [3]). Within the year, we’ll all be scrambling over one another to compete for scarce, or non-existent, jobs. Since the specific content of a masters degree is only relevant to a narrow range of specialist employers, it is the aforementioned qualities implied by ‘having a degree’ which are most pertinent – ‘transferable skills’. In fact, even if you want to work in a related area, the degree itself is not enough.

The careers advice in our course handbook points out that "while a good postgraduate degree in a relevant subject from a good university (like Sussex) is vital, all your competitors will have one too."[4] Instead we’re expected to scour and beg for internships, usually unpaid or at best, low paid. If you are willing to provide months of labour for free, "if you can get a foot in the door this way, work as hard as you can, make yourself indispensible and you might – might– get paid work later on."[5] In other words, if you’re really, really lucky you get to write on your CV 'I'm willing to bend over backwards and work for nothing'. Employers like that skill-set.

The kind of jobs related to our degree subjects are the dangling carrot for many of the more idealistic amongst us, who dream of being able to make a living 'making a difference', perhaps in international development or NGO work. Even for the successful, this is mainly a mirage. Overwhelmingly those institutions with the resources to employ graduates have a stake in the status quo and are part of the problem they notionally oppose. There's no space to flesh that thesis-length claim out much here, but do you think NGOs and not-for-profits somehow operate outside the amoral world of geopolitics that we’ve studied so much? A former development worker offered this cautionary advice to students on a similar programme at Cornell University (his full speech is well-worth a read):

"As you prepare for and look forward to careers in international development, I am compelled to issue a warning. With the hindsight of someone who spent five years in the development business, I'm going to tell you that the development industry hurts people in the developing world. Its greatest success has been to provide good jobs for Westerners with graduate degrees from institutions like this one."[6]

And that's for the tiny minority of us who manage to jump through enough hoops and work enough unpaid internships to get such 'rewarding' work. In terms of actually using the content of our MAs, that leaves academia. That means finding the cash to finance a PhD, which normally means self-financing and/or working. Typically, PhD students work as Associate Tutors (ATs) to help cover the costs of their education. The university is happy with this, it helps casualise and fragment the workforce with highly skilled but low paid casual workers. There is a well-worn path from critical student to comfortable academic, with some honourable exceptions. But every critical academic should well know that "not criticism but revolution is the driving force of history" (that one’s from our core reading!).[7] Academia is no place to make a difference; for a handful it may be a place to make a living. And even the space for critical academics is being further eroded by massive cuts to humanities funding in the cause of making education yet more functional to capital.

But in truth, the vast majority of us will not become NGO staff or academics. We will be thrust back into the stagnant labour market to look for jobs with no direct relation to our degrees. Take a glance at any jobs website for an image of the future: telesales… temp admin… credit control… temp finance assistant… customer service agent. This is what we've paid thousands of pounds for: 'transferable skills' to better market ourselves for interchangeable drudgery (assuming of course we find work, with record numbers out of work and big lay-offs still to come). Student debt will help keep us locked on the treadmill, moving from one low-paid cul-de-sac to another. "Current estimates are that 420,000 Britons are challenged with work-related stress at a level that is making them ill with conditions such as depression and anxiety. Surveys have suggested that approximately 1 in 6 working adults believe their job is highly stressful."[8] Austerity isn’t going to improve the situation. How long will you last? 40 years of this shit?

The current education cuts are not an attack on some ideal education for educations sake which we can 'defend', they are simply an acceleration of the neoliberal reforms already in motion under Labour. If the university is a factory; we are its product.[9] But we are a unique commodity in that we possess the capacity to think: let's do so. The critique of education demands a critique of society and our place in it. To be disillusioned is not a malady. Ridding ourselves of illusions in an uncertain future is a necessary step in disputing the precarious fate the vagaries of market forces and neoliberal reforms have assigned to us. If events in Tunisia and Egypt teach us anything it’s that a different future is always impossible – until it happens.

Notes

1. Mason, Paul (2011), ‘Twenty reasons why it's kicking off everywhere’, available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/newsnight/paulmason/2011/02/twenty_reasons_wh...

2. Deterritorial Support Group (2011), ‘FREE/GRATIS- education as sabotage and the poverty of student rhetoric’, available at: http://deterritorialsupportgroup.wordpress.com/2011/02/11/freegrati/

3. Goddard, Ed (2011), ‘Student Radicals: An incomplete history of protest at the University of Sussex 1971-75’, Available at: http://libcom.org/library/student-radicals-incomplete-history-protest-un...

4. School of Global Studies (2010), ‘International Relations MA Programmes’, University of Sussex, p.31.

5. School of Global Studies (op cit), p.32. Emphasis in original.

6. Maren, Michael (1993), ‘The food-aid racket’, available at: http://libcom.org/library/food-aid-racket

7. Marx, Karl (1998), ‘The German Ideology’, Prometheus Books, NY, p.61.

8. Anon (2011), ‘How Common is Depression?’, available at: http://www.overcomedepression.co.uk/HowCommonDepression.html [not a proper academic source, bah]

9. Wright, Sebastian (2010), ‘The university is a factory, lets treat it as one’, available at: http://thecommune.co.uk/2010/09/27/the-university-is-a-factory-lets-trea...

About Catalyst

Catalyst is the quarterly freesheet of the Solidarity Federation. If you want to get hold of a copy, get in touch with your nearest SolFed local, or email catalyst@solfed.org.uk. If you would like to distribute Catalyst, please get in touch with the Catalyst collective.

Other Catalyst issues

Catalyst #29 (Feb 2012)
Including articles on workfare, a feature on International Women's Day, victory for the Sparks, international news, phantom Ofsted inspections, letters, and more.
Catalyst #28 (October 2011)
Including articles on the limits of a trade union-led response to the cuts, a feature on three London education workers under austerity, victories for cleaners, international news, resisting NHS privatisation in the West Country, letters, and more.
Catalyst #27 (June 2011)
Featuring articles on striking against the cuts, a centrefold feature on the history and purpose of strikes, victory against Office Angels, international round-up, a focus on 'modernisation' in the postal service, letters, and much more.
Catalyst #25 (December 2010)
Featuring articles on the student protests, housing benefit cuts, an interview with a French striker about the movement there, redundancy rights, opinion, a centrefold poster on direct action and much more.
Catalyst #24 (Summer 2010)
Featuring articles on the emergency budget cuts, analysis of the welfare reforms, know your rights: beating the bailiffs, international news, academy schools, killer cops and more.
Catalyst #23 (Spring 2010)
In this issue: Vote for change?; Battleground higher education; Climate change; Net pirates, Know your rights and more!


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