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Proletarian issue 35 (April 2010)
Industry matters: Turkey; Greece; BA strikes; rail strikes; Cadburys; Hicks campaign
General Strike in Turkey ...

The general strike on 4 February brought transport and industry grinding to a halt across Turkey, with around 2 million workers exercising their right to strike across 81 provinces. The action crippled every key section of the economy, including the railways, mines, public services, health, textiles and metals. There were massive demonstrations in both Ankara and Istanbul.

The general strike, endorsed by the country’s six main union confederations, was the culmination of nearly two months of strikes, demonstrations and protests triggered by the government’s decision to privatise the former state tobacco monopoly Tekel, close many workplaces and re-hire a limited number of the employees as cheap labour on dodgy contracts.

This casualisation of former state-owned enterprise workers under a new law had already stripped 19,000 of their legal status as workers and of all rights and benefits that go with it, including trade-union representation. The resistance by the Tekel workers has thus put them in the vanguard of struggle against a vicious capitalist class offensive.

Earlier protests in Ankara outside ruling party offices saw 10,000 demonstrating Tekel workers subject to police assault with water hoses, tear gas and clubs, leaving many hospitalised. The workers responded by rallying daily outside the Turkish union confederation, with a number going on hunger strike.

With help from local residents and businesses, the Tekel workers and their families set up a vast open-air camp, despite the extreme cold. Their tents are made of plastic sheeting and bubble wrap and are furnished with carpets, blankets and cots provided by well-wishers. Medical assistance is available at a clinic in the union confederation HQ, staffed by volunteers; medicines are dispensed by the pharmacists’ union and haircuts by the barbers’ union!

This community-wide spirit of resistance did not develop overnight. Many of the workers have been fighting privatisation since the late nineties, when the first moves were made to denationalise Tekel. As one mother and former tobacco worker put it, “Our children have been raised on resistance”. So potent has become this mood of popular resistance that even a former minister of labour, Yaşar Okuyan, felt obliged to trim his sails to the prevailing wind and support the strikers.

It is in this political climate that support has been secured from the six largest union confederations.

In Turkey, as in Britain, the capitalists squawked long and loud about the supposed irresponsibility of workers daring to go on strike in the current economic climate. The head of the bosses’ confederation, TISK (like our CBI), whined that “The unions do not have the right to harm the country’s economy with an illegal strike,” because they are not party to the dispute between Tekel workers and the government. Instead they should “act responsibly” – ie, the unions should act as gendarmes of the capitalist class, keeping the working class divided and law-abiding as the burdens of the crisis continue to be heaped on their backs.

It augurs well for the progress of the Turkish working class that such class-collaborating nonsense is being met with widespread contempt.

... and in Greece

Three weeks later, on 24 February, a general strike erupted in Greece, too. The culmination of two previous weekly days of strikes and protests, the general strike unrolled as officials from the EU and IMF flew into Athens to help stiffen Prime Minister Papandreou’s resolve to make the working class pay for the country’s debt crisis. He hopes to do this by pushing the retirement age up and pushing wages, pensions and benefits down.

Up to 2 million workers nationwide struck against the planned austerity programme. In Athens itself, thousands of factories, construction sites, schools, ports and airports came to a halt and the stock exchange was blockaded by workers.

Accounts differ as to the relative influence of different political leaderships. The Morning Star simply related that the strike was led by “key union groups GSEE, ADEDY and PAME”. However, the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), whilst not denying that GSEE and ADEDY played a role on 24 February, firmly maintain that the leadership given by the All Workers’ Militant Front (PAME), a broad front which is promoted by the KKE, was the crucial element in mobilising for the action.

KKE had earlier claimed, in relation to an earlier strike on 10 February, that the “exposure of … the forces of employer-led and yellow trade unionism that control the confederations of workers in the private (GSEE) and public sector (ADEDY)” was helping to strengthen the working class politically.

Further, KKE criticised the two big union confederations for pretending that Greece’s economic crisis is just down to ‘speculative games’ against Greece, correctly observing that “speculation is merely a result and an aspect of the decay of the capitalist system and the manifestation of the intra-imperialist contradictions between euro and dollar. The vast majority of the working people who participated in the demonstrations of PAME in 70 cities showed that they support the line of the overall confrontation with the bourgeoisie, the line which is promoted by PAME, that demands the plutocracy to pay for the crisis and struggles against the EU, the anti-people capitalist union and its anti-labour measures, in order to strengthen the struggle for the overthrow of the capital’s power.

Under the social-democratic government of Papandreou, caught between a crisis that the EU is finding hard to fix and a working class that is increasingly hard to fob off, Greek society is entering a stage of great turbulence.

... and in Britain?

For the moment in Britain, the beacon of industrial struggle is being carried forward by BA flight attendants, rail workers and civil servants.

BA strikes

Determined cabin crew have been pressing on with their strikes against job cuts and pay freeze, despite wavering union leadership and the provocative intransigence of the Willie Walsh gang at BA.

Given the failure of Unite to face down the no-strike injunction slapped on by the courts before Christmas, made worse by Unite leader Derek Simpson’s open refusal to support the position of his union’s own negotiating team, it was cheering that 78 percent of those voting in the re-run ballot nevertheless remained in favour of strike action (compared with 92 percent previously), with an online poll revealing that one in three would actually prefer a strike of at least 10 days’ duration.

By all accounts other than the company’s own, the first three days’ strike has been a triumph, giving a taste of what workers in struggle can achieve when the brakes are relaxed even just a little. Even by BA’s own dodgy estimate, the strike cost the company £7m every day. The BBC estimated that just under 20 percent of all scheduled flights had been called off; on the third day, 40 departing services were shown as cancelled on BA’s own website.

Many of the planes that did actually get off the tarmac were carrying no passengers, simply circling around in a futile public relations exercise. One Jumbo was seen lifting off with all its cabin lights blazing, in clear contravention of the rules requiring lights to be dimmed during take-off and landing at night time, indicating the absence of competent cabin staff on board.

Possibly the best testament to the success of the strikers came from an impeccably reactionary plane spotter interviewed by the Financial Times, one Mr Wakefield. This gentleman told the reporter that the strike is “absolutely disgraceful”, urging the cabin crew to “get back to work”.

Less heart-warming for Willie Walsh was the contents of his plane-spotters’ notebook. “This is what I wrote when I was here in September,” he said. “Half the page is BA flights, four and five in a row, just non-stop.” By contrast, his entries for the third day of the strike show he had to wait three quarters of an hour to spot just one BA tail-fin. Around midday, less than one in five aircraft were identified as BA. As Mr Wakefield ruefully concluded, “Obviously the strike has had a big effect.” Dead right.

As we go to press, BA workers have the bit between the teeth and are preparing for the next wave of strikes. In this struggle, they deserve the solidarity of the whole labour movement. The workers from Gate Gourmet who came to deliver onion bhajis and samosas to the strikers have got long memories and the right spirit.

Rail strikes

Meanwhile, maintenance workers on Network Rail have voted by a huge majority to take strike action in defence of up to 1,500 safety-critical jobs under threat. Now 12,000 maintenance workers, plus another 5,000 signalling staff, are preparing to take industrial action over the Easter period unless Network Rail budges. It is 16 years since the last national rail strike.

You can get some idea of the true state of rail safety in the hands of big business from a Prohibition Notice recently issued by the Office of Rail Regulation. The notice identifies a shortage of lookouts to protect track workers in the South Wales area, reporting that “there is an immediate risk of harm to the trackworkers undertaking foot patrols on the railway line between Cardiff Central and Aberdare, Rhymney, Treherbert and Merthyr Tydfil” and ordering Network Rail to stop cutting corners.

This is the tip of the iceberg however, and the union has compiled a dossier of similar situations elsewhere on the rail network. Losing a further 1,500 maintenance posts would obviously aggravate an already dire situation.

In a separate development, the rail monopoly First Group, which owns a number of rail franchises, has taken to airlifting managers from its Great Western operation in the South West to scab on strikes at Scotrail. The strikes are in protest at the imposition, contrary to previous written agreement, of Driver Only Operation (DOO) on certain lines, the effect of which is to make guards redundant and train travel less safe.

Evidence has emerged that the Scottish government is colluding with First Group in this double-dealing, demonstrating that social democracy is no less inimical to workers’ interests for being clad in tartan.

Civil servants

It was to the credit of PCS that, despite the absence of solidarity from the other unions with civil service members, they were able to lead a quarter of a million out on strike on 8 and 9 March. The issue that triggered this response was the government’s plan to make radical changes to the Civil Service Compensation Scheme, lopping up to a third off the entitlements paid out to a worker upon redundancy.

Whilst the stand being taken is defensive rather than offensive in character (with the immediate focus upon the size of redundancy deals rather than the fight against all job cuts across the board), it deserves the support of all public-service workers. However, whilst the PCS was balloting its 270,000 members for strike action, the other unions involved – Unite, GMB, the POA and Prospect – all capitulated to the government’s plan.

The last-minute modifications to the plan, which in opportunist eyes were supposed to justify this retreat, were themselves shamefully divisive. The joint union announcement put this spin on things:

the package has been balanced to offer additional protection to the lowest paid civil servants and to those closest to retirement”.

What that meant in plain English was that the severance arrangements for those aged 50 or over, and for those who count as low-paid, can hope to enjoy some degree of protection – and everybody else, including all new entrants, can go hang. This was clearly aimed at keeping the workforce divided amongst itself whilst the government tramples on with its massacre of jobs.

Having made 96,000 public servants redundant in the last three years, the government has now had the green light from the consenting unions to repeat a similar or worse cull in the next three years – and at bargain basement prices.

The Achilles’ heel that has brought organised labour to these depths is the continued influence of the Labour party in the unions. Before the capitulation, Prospect sent an email out to its members. Whilst supposedly setting out the arguments for and against strike action in an even-handed way, the email did its level best to steer workers away from resistance.

Having admitted that the vast majority of the 18,000 Prospect members who responded to the official consultation on the government’s proposals had been uniformly “hostile to the changes”, the email went on to caution that “there must be a question mark over the likely affect industrial action might have on a government that has only months left before it calls a general election. There must be a greater question that even if industrial action were to take place in the civil service, is this likely to bring the government in the few months it has left to an agreement, or for that matter would such action affect the outcome of the election itself?” 

In the words of Hillaire Belloc, “always keep a-hold of Nurse, for fear of finding something worse”! Indeed, Prospect’s worst nightmare is that the electoral chances of Labour might be adversely affected by a successful strike:

If action were to be successful and did affect the result of a general election, this could make way for a government whose proposals are likely to be worse than those we now have in front of us. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have made public declarations that the CSCS will be revised in line with the private-sector arrangements.

The only possible logic of this position is that Prospect is left praying for defeat of any strike, on the basis that victory would only upset the Labour government! There could be no better illustration of the corrupting and demoralising influence of Labour imperialism.

Cadbury

The takeover of Cadbury by US food giant Kraft puts a big question mark over the future of jobs in the UK.

Cadbury had two years ago told workers in Keynsham (near Bristol) that their 500 jobs were for the chop, with the operation being relocated to cheap-wage Poland. After an initially lively community-wide campaign to save the factory, Unite negotiated deals over redundancy terms, the local Labour MP helped steer the campaign into talking about what should happen after the closure, and a general mood of grumbling resignation took over.

According to Unite activist Jerry Hicks (see below), the union was so eager not to disturb this mood that last year’s national ballot for strike action over pay specifically excluded Keynsham workers, so as not to mess up the redundancy arrangements.

Then along came Kraft, dropping heavy hints that, if they were running the show, they could probably keep the Keynsham plant open. At this point, as Hicks puts it, “the same Unite union officials who happily negotiated the closure of the Keynsham plant to export the jobs to Poland now wanted us to campaign to keep Cadbury ‘British’! They told us it would be dreadful if Kraft took over, and organised a demonstration in London. I am told that it was supported mainly by Cadbury staff from Bourneville in Birmingham, while those at Keynsham saw that their factory, once doomed, might now stay open and so only a few travelled up to join the Unite demonstration. The union’s original decision to negotiate the plant closure had helped to divide the workforce.

The final predictable act in this tragic farce came when Kraft, having won its bid, announced that it was going to close the Keynsham factory anyway.

Hicks campaign

Jerry Hicks is currently on the campaign trail, standing for the post of joint General Secretary of Unite. When previously he stood against Derek Simpson he garnered a substantial minority of votes (40,000). Simpson is due to resign this year, followed by Tony Woodley next year. This means that whoever gets Simpson’s old job this year should wind up as overall General Secretary when the transitional period of joint leadership lapses.

Whilst Hicks’s exposure of opportunism remains constrained within the perspective of ‘bureaucracy bad, grass roots good’ (in line with his Respect politics), the growth in his support seems to confirm that the membership is looking for more combative leadership – affording Marxist Leninists a welcome opportunity to push forward the campaign in the labour movement to break the link with Labour and social democracy.
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