Despite the refusal of the TUC to give leadership and coordination in the struggle against austerity, sporadic industrial battles continue to be fought where pressure from the rank and file is able to make itself felt.
Although Unite once again demonstrated its reluctance to take on the undemocratic interference of bourgeois courts, opting to abide by the no-strike injunctions forbidding action by three of the 21 bus companies serving London, militant action by drivers from other companies on 22 June in pursuit of their demand for an Olympic bonus succeeded in causing major disruption in the capital.
It appears too that the ‘militant’ voice of the Labour left in Unite, Len McCluskey, is under growing pressure to toughen up the union’s stance over the state’s meddling with democratic decisions taken by workers. Announcing the establishment of a strike fund to conference delegates in Brighton, McCluskey promised that the union would “no longer lie down before injustice” and would instead “take whatever action we need to defend our members’ rights”.
Ground between the rock of the working class and the naked power of the bourgeois judiciary, he uttered this heartfelt plea to the capitalist state: “As Bob Dylan once sang: ‘to live outside the law you must be honest’. So, I will be honest and tell anyone in government thinking of putting unions effectively outside the law – beware what you wish for. For you will rue the day.”
Miliband’s denunciation of the bus drivers’ action was not enough for Cameron, who has called on Labour to spurn donations from Unite in protest against McCluskey’s alleged flirtation with civil disobedience. Unite members should spare Miliband the inconvenience, disaffiliate from Labour, withdraw all funding from the party (an estimated £5m since Miliband’s arrival) and channel the funds thereby released straight into the new strike fund. Better to feed strikers than Labour stooges for imperialism.
Meanwhile, on 25 June, 40,000 PCS members in charge of collecting taxes went on strike in defence of their jobs and against privatisation.
And another straw in the wind as congress season got under way was the grass-roots lecturers’ revolt against the UCU leadership decision back in February to suspend industrial action. The congress overturned this decision, deeming it a breach of the democratic mandate of the membership, and ordering the resumption of the strike campaign in defence of pension rights.
Also out over the pensions issue were members of the British Medical Association (BMA), a very ‘moderate’ union which last led a strike 37 years ago. The recent strike, which bent over backwards to minimise patient suffering, nevertheless had a visible impact. Despite BMA chief Hamish Meldrum’s reluctance to countenance further such action, six out of ten doctors in Scotland went on strike and many are keen to extend the action.
At the BMA conference on 28 June members approved a motion that could trigger another day of action during which only emergency patients would be seen in hospital.
Coryton and the overproduction crisis
Workers in Essex are fighting hard to hang on to their jobs at the Coryton oil refinery, 850 of which are in jeopardy after Coryton’s Swiss parent company went bankrupt under the impact of the overproduction crisis. A series of protests have been mounted, with the police breaking up one rally as a Spanish miner was speaking in solidarity.
Unite’s campaign against the plant’s closure, backed up by the Labour party, tends to focus primarily on the ConDem government’s refusal to apply for EU permission to subsidise the plant until a buyer can be found. Predictably, the government says state aid won’t solve the problem of surplus capacity in the refining industry, and excuses its inaction with the excuse that “If government did step in to help Coryton, this would be a short term fix, and it could potentially lead to job losses at other refineries who would be at an unfair disadvantage to Coryton.”
Within the confines of capitalism, this is probably true. If there is more oil being refined than can all be realised at a maximum profit on the market, what alternative can there be under capitalism than to destroy surplus capacity and wipe out jobs? Under capitalism in time of crisis, the only question will be whose jobs are for the chop first, not whether jobs go.
So the government’s response – that surplus capacity in the refining industry makes such a subsidy unviable, even were Brussels to okay it – cannot be faulted in terms of bourgeois logic. But contrary to what Labour pretends, it is not up to workers to solve the capitalists’ problems. It is not up to us to square the circle and prove that a properly managed version of capitalism would be capable of avoiding mass unemployment and ‘growing its way out of recession’.
So long as capitalism claims the right to organise social labour on the basis of private appropriation, then it must be held to account by the working class. And if, or rather since, capitalism declares itself incapable of organising the nation’s productive existence in a rational manner, then let it step aside so that the means of production may be released from the dead hand of private ownership and come under the control of the working class.
That is why in Coryton and everywhere the fight to preserve jobs will best be conducted in the light of a challenge to capitalism’s right to rule. We must demand the nationalisation of the oil industry under the democratic control of workers, not fire-fighting state subsidies for flagging private outfits.
And if the capitalist state complains – as it most certainly will – that such an approach is not viable under the current profit-driven conditions, then we should draw the conclusion that private ownership of the means of production has declared itself to be incapable of meeting the most basic needs of society and is ripe for supersession by social ownership and a planned socialist economy.
Spanish miners fight back
The €100,000m bailout for Spain’s banks, for which the Spanish government stands guarantor, is increasing the country’s debt burden, whilst the austerity measures demanded by the EU continue to shrink the economy. Whilst Spain’s debt as a percentage of GDP is actually lower than Germany’s, it is this decline in economic activity that is driving Spanish bond yields through the roof.
The reduction of subsidies to the coal industry threatens miners with wholesale closures and a massacre of jobs. And this will, of course, serve further to depress effective demand in the economy, adding another bitter twist to the overproduction crisis.
In the light of this, 8,000 miners at 40 pits in the region of Asturias in northern Spain have been striking in protest at a cut in coal subsidies from €300m per annum to €110m. Attempts to suppress the pickets through violence have resulted in the eruption of pitched battles between miners and the guardia civil, with state repression following the same brutal pattern as was adopted against the Occupy movement and against April’s general strike.
In a significant development, however, the miners have responded to the rubber bullets, tear gas and beatings with improvised defences of their own, reportedly including handmade rocket launchers and slingshots, and have seized the initiative, blockading roads and rail lines and leading other workers in the north out on a general strike on 18 June. It seems that the state is starting to reap the whirlwind it sowed earlier.
There has been international support for the Spanish miners, including from miners in Namibia. The Greek Communist Party (KKE) message of support to the Spanish miners hits the nail on the head, drawing a parallel with the long-running steelworkers’ strike in Greece and noting that both strikes demonstrate “the need for mineral wealth to be converted into common property of the people, that the wealth produced by the people should belong to them”.
The recent fate of young workers plucked from dole queues, bussed to London and left to sleep under bridges prior to working gruelling shifts as Jubilee stewards, receiving precisely nothing in return other than their normal benefits, is but the tip of an iceberg. The more notorious cases of the jobless being forced to work for zero wages or face the loss of benefits are no more than the most crass and poorly concealed examples of the class war being waged systematically by the capitalist state against the working class.
Better concealed is the manipulation of tax credits to discipline the working class. Already under existing rules, employers who pay their employees really poor wages can rely upon the state effectively to subsidise their payroll costs by topping wages up by means of tax credits. This benefit, presented by the state as largesse afforded to the humble poor, more often in practice acts as a bung to low-paying employers and a way of camouflaging underemployment and casualisation.
But what if a low-paid worker should ruffle the tranquillity of his exploiter by striking for better conditions? To cover that eventuality, as part of the new Universal Credit, Cameron is now proposing that any such upstart would be punished by being denied the full top-up tax credit, making it plain that this benefit is yet one more arm for the imposition of capitalist labour discipline. As such, its chief purpose is to deliver cheap and docile labour to corner-cutting employers.
Housing benefit too has helped prop up the private rental market, with the state preferring to subsidise private rents rather than invest in affordable social housing. But an even better solution to the housing question has occurred to Cameron now. Instead of paying housing benefit to under 25s, why not just tell the jobless and the low-paid to stay at home with their parents? So long as these are not cash-strapped parents who have taken Cameron’s earlier advice to empty nesters to sell the family home and move into one-bedroom flats ...
These and other attacks on welfare rights are sparking protests around the country. Comrades in the Midlands recently supported a picket outside Selly Oak job centre to publicise the case of one despairing claimant who tied himself to the railings there and set himself on fire, in an act that recalled the self-immolation of the Tunisian street vendor that triggered the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime. The 48-year-old was known to staff as a vulnerable man with outstanding health issues, but his benefits were suspended after he had been deemed to be fit to work – a scenario which will be familiar to thousands who suffer from such arbitrary punishment at the hands of the benefits system.
Taking on capitalism
The Welsh shop stewards held a lively conference in June. Seventy delegates from ten different unions gathered in Cardiff to hear the many home truths that were spoken concerning the Labour party and its apologists in the union movement.
The chair of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in Wales, Cerith Griffiths, took the view that “there is no difference between Tory and Labour”. The secretary of Cardiff’s trades council, Ramon Corria, certainly wanted Cameron brought down, but asked delegates not to stop at that, insisting that “there is no point replacing a government of the rich kids with a government of the 2nd XI. We need a plan B and a plan C.”
A rep on the RMT council of executives, Owen Herbert, denounced the illusion that getting Labour back into government would scupper the austerity programme, declaring “That won’t work – Ed Miliband and Ed Balls say slower cuts, but we have to stop all the cuts.”
Such sentiments reflect a widespread and growing mistrust of Labour and mounting frustration with the disruptive effect its influence has upon the organised working class. Whilst some may kid themselves into believing that all we need to set matters right is either to resurrect ‘Old Labour’ or to build another party along left-social-democratic lines, the truth is that the emancipation of the working class requires the building of a revolutionary vanguard party that is ideologically equipped to prepare the proletariat for the conquest of power.
It is time to break with Labour, ‘New’ and ‘Old’, and get down to the urgent business of building such a party.