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Proletarian issue 36 (June 2010)
Industry matters: International solidarity in Visteon and Rio Tinto disputes
UK round-up

The High Court decided on 10 May that the Labour government acted unlawfully when it brought in a diluted redundancy scheme for civil servants without securing the agreement of the PCS union. Members of other civil service unions (Unite, GMB, POA, and Prospect), who were encouraged to accept the government diktat as a fait accompli and were therefore not mobilised in solidarity with the PCS challenge to this illegal behaviour, will now want to know what their leaders were playing at, given that even a High Court judge can recognise an abuse of power when he sees one.

Whilst the fate of 1,500 maintenance workers employed by Network Rail remains in the balance – with the democratic strike verdict of the original ballot in defence of their jobs countermanded by the diktat of a bourgeois court and the whole palaver of re-balloting to be gone through all over again – the RMT is raising a fight in defence of jobs at the recently collapsed Jarvis, where a further 1,200 rail maintenance jobs are under threat.

Following the overwhelming rejection at ballot of BA’s latest offer, Unite announced a further 20 strike days for May and June. Clearly the cabin crew, knocked back by the courts before Christmas but since returning to the fray with two effective strikes in March, were in no mood to buckle under to the hard-nosed regime of petty tyranny which Willie Walsh and his gang sought to impose, including the vindictive withdrawal of employee travel facilities – a measure motivated more by spite than economics.

On 20 May, yet another attempt by BA to use the courts to sabotage the ballot result was overturned on appeal, freeing the union’s hands.

CPGB-ML comrades joined in the London demonstration against massive funding cuts in Higher (nearly £1bn) and Further (£340m) Education on 5 May. Strikes on the same day affected 11 FE colleges and two universities.

The crisis is now penetrating to some unlikely places: even AA workers have now declared in favour of strike action to stop their bosses from nobbling their company pensions.

Internationalism

The background to the domestic spat at BA is, of course, the sharpening competition in the airline industry across the whole of Europe, just as the background to rail battles in Britain is the sharpening competition in the European transport industry.

In Germany, pilots working for Lufthansa are in dispute over the company’s policy of concentrating upon subsidiaries, including the recently acquired British Midland, at the expense of its home operations. Whilst legal pressure reduced a proposed four-day strike in February to just one day, and a renewed threat of strike action in April was similarly taxied off into arbitration, the dispute continues to rankle.

It is only international resistance by workers that can fight such battles with success, as neither “German jobs for German workers” nor “British Jobs for British Workers” are slogans that will disturb the repose of the exploiters.

International solidarity was shown by the 70 protestors from the UK, Netherlands and Belgium, who demonstrated alongside locked-out Californian miners at the AGM of British mining giant Rio Tinto in London.

The 570 miners affected by the lock-out are members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), a union with a strong history of internationalism. It is no coincidence that the same union, which distinguished itself by shutting down docks the length of the West Coast on May Day in 2008 in a gesture of solidarity with the occupied Afghan and Iraqi people should now, in conjunction with the International Transport Federation (ITF), prove adept at drawing out the international dimensions to the three-month long lock-out at a borax mine in Boron, California.

For starters, the company is based in Britain, so it made sense to take the fight to London. Secondly, Rio Tinto’s oppressive behaviour does not affect its own workers alone; the company has also abused human and indigenous land rights in the pursuit of profit.

International solidarity was also notably displayed in the support Sinn Fein has been giving to the campaign to defend the Visteon workers’ pension rights.

Ford spun off a slice of its parts-manufacturing operations into a formally separate company, whilst promising the transferred workforce that their pension rights would survive intact. When Visteon went bust and closed in March 2009, the workers were sacked and the promises turned out to be lies. Evidence later emerged that Ford had deliberately stripped assets from Visteon’s pension fund, transferring them to the parent company.

Workers at Enfield, Basildon and Belfast resisted the closure valiantly, with occupations at the latter two plants, and have since continued to put pressure on Ford to meet its pension responsibilities to its former employees.

On the first anniversary of Visteon’s closure, Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams praised the efforts of Visteon workers in Belfast and their colleagues in Britain for their “determination and courage in taking on Visteon and Ford following the closure of the three Visteon plants last year”. Whilst the Visteon scandal had become “a badge of shame” for the management, said Comrade Adams, it had become “a badge of honour for the workers”. Whilst the injustice of the decision was common to all those affected, in Britain as in Ireland, so too was the determination to resist and expose that injustice.

It is instructive that those who struggle most effectively for the end of British occupation of the six counties should also currently be offering the most spirited defence of the interests of not only all Irish workers (catholic and protestant alike), but of British workers too!

Dissent stirs in the Trades Councils

In the run-up to the general election, Labour loyalists within the trade-union movement strained every sinew to whip doubters back into social-democratic line. But so angry are workers becoming at the prospect of seeing their standard of living pushed down through the floor to save the skin of capitalism that the Labour apologists found themselves increasingly under challenge.

No longer could they be sure that the shibboleth “vote Labour to keep out the Tories” (and/or the BNP) would pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. In some trades councils – bodies which at one point in 1926 started looking a bit like soviets in embryo, but which in more recent times have tended to be much duller affairs – resistance to the Labour embrace has sharpened considerably.

Take for example a recent discussion organised by trades councils in Somerset in conjunction with the Shop Stewards’ Network. Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Bridgwater, Kath Pearce, stuck closely to her script: she had grown up in the Labour party, would not leave it while there was work to be done to improve things inside, etc. She expressed surprise that so many trade unionists had given up on Labour when the Tory alternative would be so much worse.

Subsequent contributions made it clear that many activists had indeed “given up on Labour” – but had not given up on the working class! Some spoke of the difficulties and possibilities posed by attempts to rally workers instead around the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, whilst others hailed the example set by the workers’ movement in France which was “strong enough to strike, protest and block motorways to directly negotiate with whatever bunch of scumbags happened to be in power”. One GMB member attacked the idea that there was life left in the Labour party, calling for “socialist ideas to counter failed capitalist and bankers’ economics”.

It was left to John Drake from the Labour Representation Committee to salvage some Labour votes from the wreckage. Despite the fact that his own union, the FBU, had long since had the honest good sense to disaffiliate from the Labour racket, he put on his LRC hat to wheedle that, while we were “waiting for unity” from all the competing left groups, the unions should be backing the Corbyns and the McDonnells.

Shamefully, a speaker representing the Somerset branch of the Communist Party of Britain chimed in with this old refrain, warning that, whilst we needed to attack the Labour government’s failures, we also needed to vote Labour in most constituencies as the “least worst option”. This CPB fence-sitting was roundly challenged by one RMT member, who asked (a) if the CPB was waiting for trade unions to break the link, and (b) if so, how long would they be prepared to wait? No reply was recorded in the minutes!

Meanwhile, down in the Isle of Wight, until recently not seen as a hotbed of socialism, it seems that workers who found themselves on the front line of industrial struggle as the Vestas occupation developed are now understandably reluctant to resume a political existence as voting fodder for Labour. When, at a recent meeting of Ryde Trades Council, the local Labour candidate and Unison secretary Mark Chiverton parachuted in to tout for votes, his reception was less than ecstatic.

On top of the Vestas struggle have now come battles over cuts in public services, attacks on council workers’ jobs and the threat to close many local tax offices at a cost of many further redundancies. Under these circumstances, the Labour man’s assertion that his party’s intended cuts agenda was altogether different from that of the Tories because the cuts were designed to spare the most vulnerable went down like a lead balloon. A correspondent reports that,

The main advocate of the ‘politics of the alternative’ kicked off the debate by pointing out the context of the dispute and how this was part of the wider movement across Europe, and in particular Greece, against public spending cuts and the attempt to shift the burden of the crisis onto the backs of the people. This was in response to governments, and specifically this Labour government, supported by all the main parties, who were passing the burden of the deficit, the banking crisis and the recession onto the localities. The issue of budgets was not just local but national, such as the recent budget in Birmingham where there are cuts and a growing movement against them. There are many council issues and struggles taking place up and down the country ... The Labour ‘alternative’ budget was not a genuine alternative after all but just a variation of the original budget.

It was pointed out that the 2.5 percent council tax increase was to remain and this in itself was a burden on the people who could not easily afford it in this recession.

Sooner than fall for the invitation to choose ‘good’ cuts over ‘bad’ cuts, workers were advised to hold fast to the position: No cuts at all. “This stand shifts the ball back into the court of the powers that be and the government and says, You sort it out, don’t make us pay!

And our correspondent’s conclusion? Whilst supporting Labour “is an easy option ... It does not solve the problem but condemns the people to a continuation of the falsity. Somewhere a call to halt this perpetual return to Labour has to be made.
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