Monthly Archives: October 2010

Industrial Unionism and the BBC

by Edd Mustill

The National Union of Journalists has announced that its members at the BBC will be holding two 48-hour strikes in November, after they voted to reject the latest pensions offer.

According the the Guardian, NUJ members voted by 70% to reject management’s latest offer while members of Bectu, the biggest union at the corporation, voted 65% in favour. Members of three other unions which represent smaller numbers of BBC staff – Unite, Equity, and the Musicians’ Union – also voted to accept the latest offer.

The leaderships of the two biggest unions had decided to not recommend to their members to vote a particular way, but the statements the unions gave during the ballot tell that the leaderships of Bectu and the NUJ are seeing things differently.

Bectu said: “In BECTU’s view this is the best that can be achieved through negotiation and we believe that to try and improve this offer would take substantial and lengthy industrial action from all our members with significant loss in salary.”

At the same time, NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear predicted a “winter of growing discontent” at the BBC.

This may lead to an undesirable situation where enough people are working to make sure all shows go out. Without breaking any union rules, members could find themselves rendering a strike by other union members ineffective.

More than one union is present in workplaces in most industries. On the rails, while the RMT is the best-known and biggest union, TSSA and ASLEF have many members. Public sector workplaces could employ members of Unison, the GMB, the PCS and Unite, as well as more specialist unions like the FBU.

Perhaps it’s time for the Left to once again start talking about industrial unionism – the idea that everyone in a particular industry should be in the same union. This helps advance class consciousness and fosters solidarity among “all grades” – people who may be on different contracts or work very different jobs, but still work for the same employer or set of employers.

The beginnings of our modern unions lie in this idea. Many were formed in the periods of industrial militancy before and after the first world war. Industrial unionism, and the consequent merging of unions, was the idea of a movement on the offensive. While the mergers were not a purely “bottom up” phenomenon in this period, syndicalists in the Amalgamation Committees Movement should take much of the credit.

The National Union of Railwayman, which later became the RMT, was founded in 1913 when several smaller rail unions came together. The Amalgamated Engineering Union, forerunner of Amicus, was formed in 1920. Most famously the Transport and General Workers’ Union was constituted in 1922 from a disparate array of, well, transport and general workers’ unions.

These latter two recently merged to form Unite, the biggest union in British history. But what we have seen in more recent years is union amalgamation as a defensive measure, as a method of survival rather than a sign of confidence. Unite is a product of this.

Today’s big “superunions” are not industrial unions. Their memberships overlap. For example, the GMB recruits some dissatisfied nurses from Unison, or vice versa. During the Lindsey dispute, a GMB nurse expressed his frustration to me that, although he was in the same union as a lot of the Lindsey engineering construction workers, he could do little more to support them than if he hadn’t been a GMB member.

An industrial union has its potential drawbacks too. In the case of broadcasting, for example, it would encompass incredibly well-paid star performers. The results of this have been seen in the BBC dispute, where several big-names signed a letter criticising the NUJ’s earlier decision to call a strike during the Tories’ party conference. Of course, in the latest BBC vote, if all the workforce were in the same union, there would have been a majority accepting the offer and there wouldn’t be any strike action at all.

Another question is how far the inclusion of “all grades” would climb up the sometimes complicated structures of management. Many lower level “managers” are in fact just workers with slightly higher pay and more responsibilities, and having them in the same union can, over time, have positive effects on unity in the workplace. But obviously a line should be drawn, as it is now, before higher-end managers.

However, in a period where we want unions to be more aggressive, and where the TUC is at least nominally committed to joint strike action, we should be thinking about ways to break down the historical reality of sectionalism which is still a defining characteristic of the trade union movement.

Networks of shop stewards can play a role in this. If committees of reps from all unions in a workplace are established and strengthened, this can lead to unity at the “point of production” for dealing with many issues. But as long as separate unions exist in the same industry, the constant threat of division at crucial moments will keep resurfacing, as it is now at the BBC.

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Is this the shittest political slogan ever?

Yellow? I'll say

Liberal Youth members who are using this “Yellow not Browne” slogan all over their twitter and Facebook pages might want to rethink it, especially in light of Vince Cable pulling out of a visit to Oxford in the face of a protest by hundreds of students.


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English Defence League rally in Hyde Park

by Edd Mustill

Yesterday the English Defence League held a pro-Israel demonstration outside the Israeli embassy in London. Afterwards, a few dozen EDL supporters rallied at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. Here they overturned one of the tables containing Islamic literature. Photos can be seen here, here, and here.

Although there was apparently a small counter-demo at the earlier rally, they was no organised opposition in Hyde Park. Eventually the police kettled the EDL and marched them away to Hyde Park corner. It was a small mobilisation, but supporters were present from Brighton and the East Midlands.

In public, the EDL is trying to appropriate slogans that historically belong to progressive movements. Their chants included “Whose streets? Our streets!” They carried a pink union jack with the slogan “No to homophobia.” The idea is to paint themselves as defenders of civilisation and its values in a battle against “militant Islam.” But general Islamophobia is not very far from the surface. Slogans against the building of (any) mosques are common, and at their recent Bradford demonstration they chanted “We love the floods,” referring to the catastrophe in Pakistan.

A speaker at the rally on Sunday said: “We’re dealing with Islamics (sic), we’re dealing with people who want to bomb us, who want to kill us from within.”

American Rabbi Nachum Shifren was present. Rabbi Shifren is currently running for the 26th District of the California State Senate and, according to his website, is endorsed by two US Congressmen, both Republicans. His campaign website is heavily saturated with anti-immigration rhetoric and complaints of African American “racism,” presumably referring to affirmative action.

This may be a move towards forging greater connections between the EDL and elements of the Tea Party movement in America, something which the Guardian has reported on recently.

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The Apprentice and Das Kapital

by nineteensixtyseven

Following on from this blog’s last unlikely titular juxtaposition,  I have been following the latest series of the BBC’s The Apprentice and have reached the conclusion that the show demonstrates, in a nutshell, many of the insights about capitalism to be found in Marx’s Capital. No, it is not down to the fact that both involve a bearded man of Jewish descent.  Neither is it because Marx’s capitalists and Alan Sugar’s contestants are the most selfish, debased and downright disagreeable creatures on earth.  Outrageous as it may seem, The Apprentice really does demonstrate the absurdities of the capitalist mode of production.

First, let us take the very premise of the show.  Competitive individuals are instructed to set up a business selling a seemingly random product (sausages, cakes, book-stands for reading on the beach etc)  to random people on the street for the sole purposes of making maximum profits.  Ironically, they are instructed to do so by a man who made his name selling antiquated computers which made the Sega Megadrive look like a NASA spacerocket and who famously predicted that the iPod wouldn’t survive its first Christmas.  But let us set that aside for now.

Last week the teams commandeered an industrial bakery and viewers were informed that one contestant was basing his strategy on producing ‘best-sellery’ things.  Not for the love of fine cakes and the satisfaction of human taste-buds did these entrepreneurial spirits whirr into action.  Nothing so quaint.  As Marx would say, ‘These budding Apprentices have something to make besides cake.  Cake-baking is merely a pretext for surplus-value making.’  Quite so, for ‘it is not use-values and their enjoyment, but exchange-value and its increase, that spur the capitalist into action.’

In Marxist economics there are several inter-related elements which may contribute to an economic crisis. In the latest episode of the Apprentice we saw a a full-blown realisation crisis. One team produced a vast amount of cherry muffin commodities but when they entered the anarchy of the market system they found no buyers for said muffins.  Tragic.  But let me explain the significant of this.  In simple (non-capitalist) production, the producer sells a product in order to purchase other products which satisfy specific needs or wants.  The potential Apprentice would start with a cherry muffin, sell that particular delicacy for money capital which he or she would then use to purchase, say, a can of Pepsi.  Simple: C-M-C.  If the Apprentices can’t sell the muffin then they can eat it and quench their thirst by alternative means, like from a stream.

Under capitalism, however, the capitalist starts with Money, uses this money to purchase Commodities (labour power and means of production), and then after the process of production sells the Commodities for more Money:  M-C-M.  The Apprentice, therefore, invests Alan Sugar’s money in the industrial bakery, the flour, eggs, cherries and so on.  However, if the Apprentice does not make a profit then he or she shall face Alan in the boardroom, and that would not do at all.  Therefore, under pressure from the objective laws of capitalist accumulation, the value of M must be made larger at the end of the process than it was at the beginning or the capitalist will be driven from business and will never win Sir Alan’s £250,000.

Unfortunately for our muffin producers the consumer was not interested in the cherry muffins.  They were passé and he was not for having any.   Suddenly, the surplus-value contained within each muffin could not be realised. As our intrepid Apprentices were not interested in the use-values of the muffins (their ability to satisfy one’s hunger or sweet tooth) and were only concerned with their exchange-values, the muffins were worse than useless.  They sat, uneaten and unwanted in a heap and much of the capital invested in their production was wasted.  This also happened with the other team whose muffins were popular but whose bread was left over at the market stall, its surplus-value also never realised in the act of exchange.  We even had a crisis of disproportionality when a team’s means of production could not generate enough bread roll commodities to satisfy the requirements of a hotelier.  This in turn threatened to damage his business if clients stayed a way due to this induced bread roll famine.

Thus, The Apprentice demonstrates quite clearly capitalism’s tendencies towards crisis in all their vivid colours.  To be sure, the entrepreneurial drive so exhilaratingly characterised in the prose of the Communist Manifesto is also on display in buckets, as contests scrap with one another to design the best products.  This, however, is overshadowed by the boardroom bollocking dispensed by Sir Alan when the contestants fail miserably.  It is this latter phenomenon, if we are honest, which makes people tune in.

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An initial response to the Spending Review

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Mockney Rebel

With the Spending Review coming up, perhaps it’s time to rediscover some righteous Mockney anger from an era of class struggle.

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On the eve of the Spending Review

by Edd Mustill

Tomorrow we will find out just how much the government intends to cut over the next four years. No doubt the details will be left to each department to work out; public sector workers will have to live in uncertain fear for a while longer.

We have written before on this blog about how these cuts are about much more than saving money in the short term. They are part of a project for the transformation of society. If carried to their conclusion, they will make the welfare state seem to history like an aberration that last for a few decades.

Ideological cuts

The ideological nature of the cuts is clear. Some, like axing the UK Film Council, simply make no economic sense. Other sectors are being boxed into a corner through cuts. This is happening in Higher Education. The combination of the Browne report’s recommendation for unlimited fees, and the threat of unfathomable cuts to government funding for teaching, has strengthened the minority current in academia that believes a move to an “American model” is now the only way to sustain universities at all.

The transformative, ideological nature of the cuts means that the Keynesian arguments against them are severely limited. Keynesians of various hues argue that increased spending is actually the better way to close the deficit, that cuts will cause unemployment and decrease the government’s tax base, making things financially worse. If the experience of Ireland is anything to go by, they are right. Ireland is facing a double dip recession and a brain drain, after introducing austerity measures earlier than the rest of Europe.

But the government can’t be argued away from its cuts policy on the grounds that it makes no economic sense, because it is not primarily about economics. George Monbiot is right to say that, for neo-liberals, this is an opportunity more than a crisis. There is a window of opportunity for the welfare state to be buried and for the private and “voluntary” sectors to vastly expand.

In any case, members of the ruling class are shielded from their own programme; why worry that the state education system is breaking down when you can afford to send your children to private schools? Why worry about underfunding in the NHS when you can go private? Why worry that the social housing budget is cut in half when you live in Millionaire Mansions?

Nevertheless, within the ruling class there are those who are voicing opposition to harsh austerity packages. Some are undergoing a rapid and suspicious conversion to Keynesian economics, while others are perhaps just worried about the potential political firestorm that these cuts will create.

Within the government itself, tensions have become more apparent within the Liberal Democrat party. The government is still solid at the moment, but it is becoming clear that it is a government that can be forced to make concessions. If it suffers even a couple of short-term climb-downs, the idea that There Is No Alternative will start to break apart. A defeat on any issue will, from the government’s point of view, set a dangerous precedent. This is why, for example, the stakes in student politics are suddenly a lot higher, because fees are a potential wedge issue that could damage the government.

Unions’ response

The Trades Union Congress also saw a bit of a division this year between those, led by Brendan Barber and Dave Prentis, supporting an entirely legalistic strategy and others, like Bob Crow, who warned of civil disobedience. The TUC’s time scale for anti-cuts campaigning is almost unbelievably slow, with a demonstration planned for March next year, by which time many public sector workers may already be staring at redundancy notices.

It remains to be seen how far tactical differences within the trade union movement on how to fight cuts indicate different views on the role of trade unionism generally. Do the more left-wing union leaders want the same old stuff – 24 hour strikes, marches and rallies – but more of it?

Current laws regarding industrial action are so restrictive that, in order to be effective at all, strikers have to be prepared to break them. This will apply to any new ones that might be passed by the coalition government. This can and has worked recently. The Lindsey Oil Refinery strike last year saw not only a victory, but the spectacle of trade union general secretaries pledging money to fund what had begun as an illegal action, and being forced to “officialise” it. This dispute was not only a wildcat strike (illegal), but also provoked sympathy action (also illegal). Workers also used a form of secondary picketing to spread the word to other sites (probably illegal).

There will be opportunities for more militant types of trade unionism to develop. Labour MP John McDonnell is trying to popularise the right to strike with his private members’ bill, and is absolutely right to do so even though the bill will obviously fail. The idea that withdrawing your labour is a right needs to be deeply embedded in the face of a ruling class offensive. A willingness to break unjust laws has characterised successful mass movements from womens’ suffrage to the anti-Poll Tax campaigns. It is something which, for example, sections of the current environmentalist movement take up with enthusiasm.

The Left and the unions

This is a period that, more than any for a long time, requires the Left to develop serious and consistent strategies towards trade unions and industrial struggle. This is something that the National Shop Stewards’ Network is probably best placed to do, rather than setting itself up as another “general” anti-cuts coalition.

Cuts will fall differently in different areas. Their harshness and time scale will vary. They will generally effect workplaces where two, three, or more unions will have members. The importance of union reps’ networks in sustaining and expanding action will grow. They can draw on the traditions of past shop stewards’ movements – not being anti-official for the hell of it, but being in a position to provide leadership as and when the officials won’t. The Lindsey strike was run by a committee of stewards from both unions involved. Recent strikes like the postal dispute have shown that the absence of a rank-and-file movement leaves the direction of the strike in the hands of the leadership, which can stall it or end it entirely.

It is possible that the spending review will not be as bad as some of the leaks that have emerged have suggested. Even so, it will still propose absolutely unprecedented cuts. The general anger will soon find its way into every public sector workplace as the details of the cuts are worked out in the coming weeks and months.

The Left needs to work with trade unionists to provide advice that goes beyond “Follow the French/Greek workers!” and “General Strike Now!” The constraints of the law and the weakness of shop stewards’ organisation are the two biggest obstacles the union movement needs to overcome in order to fight effectively. Building rank-and-file union organisations is a matter of urgency.

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