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Socialist Dog Catchers (or Presidents) Won’t Save Us

For a Fighting Ecological Trade-Unionism

By Daniel Tanuro - International Viewpoint, February 21, 2019

How can we reconcile social struggle and environmental struggle? This question poses problems for trade unionists. To avoid a climate catastrophe, it would be necessary to reduce economic activity, to suppress useless or harmful production, to give up a substantial part of the means of transport ... But what would happen to employment then? How can we avoid a surge of unemployment, a new rise of poverty and precariousness? In today’s relationship of forces, in the face of financialized and globalized capitalism, these challenges seem impossible to meet ...

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has drawn a radical conclusion: under the guise of fine words in favour of the "fair transition", it has chosen to accompany the evolution towards an impossible green capitalism. The Vancouver resolution (2010) is clear: this document advocates a transition that "does not endanger the competitiveness of companies and does not place undue pressure on state budgets " (Article 5). We feel that we are dreaming: the demand for the respect of competitiveness is not even accompanied by a reservation concerning the fossil fuel sector, the main cause of climate change! However, without breaking the power of this sector of capital, it is strictly impossible to avoid the climate catastrophe ...

The ITUC wants to believe that a "democratic governance" integrating the "fair transition" would open up "new opportunities", that it would create massively "green jobs", good and "decent". This is wishful thinking. Capital invested in the "energy transition" in no way derogates from the ruthless capitalist offensive against wages, working conditions and trade unions. Germany is at the forefront of both renewable energy and expanding an underclass of poor workers. In many countries, governments use ecology to dismantle union strongholds in traditional sectors.

Developing a genuinely trade-union alternative to the class collaboration policy of the ITUC leadership is of strategic importance. The working class occupies a decisive position in industry and services. Without its active participation, an anti-productivist transformation of the economy will remain impossible. But how to win workers to the struggle for the defence of the environment? That is the question. The answer is difficult. All the more difficult because the balance of power is deteriorating and the poison of division is spreading in the working class.

Some Notes On Mass Refusal: Kim Kelly Interview with IGD

By staff - It's Going Down, January 25, 2019

Recently, It’s Going Down was asked by Kim Kelly (who we have interviewed on our podcast) to talk about the history and impact of general strikes within the United States, as well as the possibilities of its current applications for an op-ed in the pages of Teen Vogue. You can read the finished article here. What follows is our complete responses.

KK: Historically speaking, how successful of a tactic is the general strike?

In the American context general strikes have historically been very important, leading to not only the winning of key demands or beating back this or that attack, but also in fundamentally changing society, and at times, creating a potentially revolutionary situation, as workers have used them as a staging point for the taking over of cities and regions, and large sections of industries, and running them themselves.

One of the most successful general strikes, as noted by Black liberation and socialist author W.E.B. Du Bois, was when millions of enslaved Africans during the Civil War in the American south left plantations en masse and headed for the North, crippling the economy and the war machine. This, coupled with mass desertion of poor white Confederate soldiers, led to a crippling of the Confederacy, as many poor whites refused to die for the rich, white planter class, who was excused from fighting if they owned enough slaves. This combined desertion and mass general strike, played a key role in the collapse of the Confederate State, and also highlights the power of mass refusal under a neo-colonial power structure that thrives on a regimented caste system.

In the contemporary period, in 2006, a wave of wildcat strikes and school walkouts began in response to HR-4437, a bill that attempted to criminalize both undocumented people but also anyone that willingly offered them aid; for instance teachers at school could be charged if they did not turn in undocumented students. Starting from schools and growing to include strikes at workplaces, this mass movement that was largely self-organized and not led by political parties and unions, culminated in a massive May 1st demonstrations that saw a general strike of immigrant workers under the banner, “A Day Without An Immigrant.” The legislation was defeated soon after.

The immigrant general strike of 2006 also revived in the US popular lexicon the importance of May Day, which began as a celebration of the anarchist Haymarket Martyrs, who were executed by the State for their role in strikes in support of the 8-hour work day and against violent attacks on strikers. In this struggle, a variety of tactics were used, including mass strikes, which finally secured the right to the 8 hour work day.

But beyond simply attacking unjust legislation or as a means to win a reform, general strikes have also been the kicking off point for workers in the US to go about seizing the means of existence; in some cases, entire cities and regions.

GM Oshawa: Making Hope Possible

By Sam Gindin - The Bullet, December 13, 2018

The once unimaginable – the end of GM Oshawa – seems on the verge of becoming the new reality. If there is any lesson to be learned here it is that overturning this imposed reality can’t be achieved by traditional protest and traditional alternatives. Continuing our dependence on unaccountable corporations, offering subsidies and concessions without means to enforce job guarantees, making competitiveness the only test of worthwhile activity, looking to ‘better’ free trade agreements and so on, are dead ends. All they offer is more of the same: death by a thousand cuts.

Imagining a radically different and more democratic approach based on community and national planning – opening the door to the formerly unthinkable – may, as overwhelmingly ambitious as that may seem, be the only option with any chance of success.

On November 26, 2018, General Motors (GM) announced that the Oshawa Assembly plant, once the largest auto complex in North America, will no longer exist. In the 1970s, the site included three massive assembly plants that turned out 3,000 vehicles daily. Other GM plants in the city made batteries, radios, radiators and axles. A host of independent component plants with their own special capacities, spread across the city and nearby localities. At the end of the 1970s, GM had some 23,000 plant and office workers in Oshawa. At the time of GM’s latest death notice, over 85% of those jobs had already vanished, leaving 3,000 workers desperate to hang on to the one remaining GM operation in the city.

Let Them Drown: The Violence of Othering in a Warming World

By Naomi Klein - London Review of Books, June 2, 2016

Edward Said was no tree-hugger. Descended from traders, artisans and professionals, he once described himself as ‘an extreme case of an urban Palestinian whose relationship to the land is basically metaphorical’. In After the Last Sky, his meditation on the photographs of Jean Mohr, he explored the most intimate aspects of Palestinian lives, from hospitality to sports to home décor. The tiniest detail – the placing of a picture frame, the defiant posture of a child – provoked a torrent of insight from Said. Yet when confronted with images of Palestinian farmers – tending their flocks, working the fields – the specificity suddenly evaporated. Which crops were being cultivated? What was the state of the soil? The availability of water? Nothing was forthcoming. ‘I continue to perceive a population of poor, suffering, occasionally colourful peasants, unchanging and collective,’ Said confessed. This perception was ‘mythic’, he acknowledged – yet it remained.

If farming was another world for Said, those who devoted their lives to matters like air and water pollution appear to have inhabited another planet. Speaking to his colleague Rob Nixon, he once described environmentalism as ‘the indulgence of spoiled tree-huggers who lack a proper cause’. But the environmental challenges of the Middle East are impossible to ignore for anyone immersed, as Said was, in its geopolitics. This is a region intensely vulnerable to heat and water stress, to sea-level rise and to desertification. A recent paper in Nature Climate Change predicts that, unless we radically lower emissions and lower them fast, large parts of the Middle East will likely ‘experience temperature levels that are intolerable to humans’ by the end of this century. And that’s about as blunt as climate scientists get. Yet environmental issues in the region still tend to be treated as afterthoughts, or luxury causes. The reason is not ignorance, or indifference. It’s just bandwidth. Climate change is a grave threat but the most frightening impacts are in the medium term. And in the short term, there are always far more pressing threats to contend with: military occupation, air assault, systemic discrimination, embargo. Nothing can compete with that – nor should it attempt to try.

There are other reasons why environmentalism might have looked like a bourgeois playground to Said. The Israeli state has long coated its nation-building project in a green veneer – it was a key part of the Zionist ‘back to the land’ pioneer ethos. And in this context trees, specifically, have been among the most potent weapons of land grabbing and occupation. It’s not only the countless olive and pistachio trees that have been uprooted to make way for settlements and Israeli-only roads. It’s also the sprawling pine and eucalyptus forests that have been planted over those orchards, as well as over Palestinian villages, most notoriously by the Jewish National Fund, which, under its slogan ‘Turning the Desert Green’, boasts of having planted 250 million trees in Israel since 1901, many of them non-native to the region. In publicity materials, the JNF bills itself as just another green NGO, concerned with forest and water management, parks and recreation. It also happens to be the largest private landowner in the state of Israel, and despite a number of complicated legal challenges, it still refuses to lease or sell land to non-Jews.

I grew up in a Jewish community where every occasion – births and deaths, Mother’s Day, bar mitzvahs – was marked with the proud purchase of a JNF tree in the person’s honour. It wasn’t until adulthood that I began to understand that those feel-good faraway conifers, certificates for which papered the walls of my Montreal elementary school, were not benign – not just something to plant and later hug. In fact these trees are among the most glaring symbols of Israel’s system of official discrimination – the one that must be dismantled if peaceful co-existence is to become possible.

The JNF is an extreme and recent example of what some call ‘green colonialism’. But the phenomenon is hardly new, nor is it unique to Israel. There is a long and painful history in the Americas of beautiful pieces of wilderness being turned into conservation parks – and then that designation being used to prevent Indigenous people from accessing their ancestral territories to hunt and fish, or simply to live. It has happened again and again. A contemporary version of this phenomenon is the carbon offset. Indigenous people from Brazil to Uganda are finding that some of the most aggressive land grabbing is being done by conservation organisations. A forest is suddenly rebranded a carbon offset and is put off-limits to its traditional inhabitants. As a result, the carbon offset market has created a whole new class of ‘green’ human rights abuses, with farmers and Indigenous people being physically attacked by park rangers or private security when they try to access these lands. Said’s comment about tree-huggers should be seen in this context.

And there is more. In the last year of Said’s life, Israel’s so-called ‘separation barrier’ was going up, seizing huge swathes of the West Bank, cutting Palestinian workers off from their jobs, farmers from their fields, patients from hospitals – and brutally dividing families. There was no shortage of reasons to oppose the wall on human rights grounds. Yet at the time, some of the loudest dissenting voices among Israeli Jews were not focused on any of that. Yehudit Naot, Israel’s then environment minister, was more worried about a report informing her that ‘The separation fence … is harmful to the landscape, the flora and fauna, the ecological corridors and the drainage of the creeks.’ ‘I certainly don’t want to stop or delay the building of the fence,’ she said, but ‘I am disturbed by the environmental damage involved.’ As the Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti later observed, Naot’s ‘ministry and the National Parks Protection Authority mounted diligent rescue efforts to save an affected reserve of irises by moving it to an alternative reserve. They’ve also created tiny passages [through the wall] for animals.’

Perhaps this puts the cynicism about the green movement in context. People do tend to get cynical when their lives are treated as less important than flowers and reptiles. And yet there is so much of Said’s intellectual legacy that both illuminates and clarifies the underlying causes of the global ecological crisis, so much that points to ways we might respond that are far more inclusive than current campaign models: ways that don’t ask suffering people to shelve their concerns about war, poverty and systemic racism and first ‘save the world’ – but instead demonstrate how all these crises are interconnected, and how the solutions could be too. In short, Said may have had no time for tree-huggers, but tree-huggers must urgently make time for Said – and for a great many other anti-imperialist, postcolonial thinkers – because without that knowledge, there is no way to understand how we ended up in this dangerous place, or to grasp the transformations required to get us out. So what follows are some thoughts – by no means complete – about what we can learn from reading Said in a warming world.

Resist-Occupy-Produce

By Leroy Maisiri and Lucien van der Walt - Pambazuka News, May 24, 2018

The authors use the example of the working class in Argentina to demonstrate how social movements and working people can create alternative models of production that serve the interests of people and not of those of capitalism. 

Introduction

The remarkable “recovered factories” (fábricas recuperadas) movement saw hundreds of closed factories reopened by the workers, run democratically, creating jobs and helping working class and poor communities. It showed that there is only so much protesting can accomplish – at some point you have to create something new. But it also shows it is essential that such alternative sites of production form alliances with, and become embedded, in other movements of the working class, poor and peasantry, including unions and unemployed movements. This assists them in building larger struggles, and provides them with some protection from the capitalist market and the state.

It is, meanwhile, important for unions and social movements to start to systematically develop alternatives to capitalist—and state—run social services and media. However, it is simply impossible to escape capitalism by creating cooperatives, social centres or alternative spaces – almost all means of production remain in ruling class hands, secured by force and backed by huge bureaucracies. It is essential to build a mass revolutionary front of unions and other movements, embracing popularly-run social services, media and production, and aiming at complete socialisation of the economy and of decision-making through a revolutionary rupture.

Documentaries like The Take—a movie that has been widely seen in South African labour and left circles—have drawn global attention to a remarkable challenge to neo-liberalism. In Argentina, in South America, economic crisis saw a collapse in working class conditions. High unemployment, low wages, attacks on social services: we are familiar with such things in South Africa. But something happened, which is very different. In Argentina, from the 1990s, something new started.

Unions, Trade and Nationalism

By Tom Crofton - CounterPunch, October 31, 2017

A recent statement from the AFL-CIO regarding a rejection of NAFTA and other corporate/globalist trade agreements unfortunately only skims the surface of the issues working people face.

As the dominate union leadership in America, the AFL-CIO and its member unions need to take a deeper look at their historical behavior, and their role in enabling the evolution of the corporate state with its current right wing/anti labor swing.

American unions never were interested in taking responsibility for production. American unions developed to confront management but not to replace it. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was the only organization that tried to organize horizontally across all sectors to create a “new world in the shell of the old”. The vision of workers building a society where prosperity was available to all and artificial class barriers would dissolve was never a popular theme in American labor. We have always felt that we needed the owners, agreeing at least subliminally that capital has more power than basic human needs; that human weakness, pettiness, and laziness would wreck any sort of money-free effort to exchange services; that hierarchies of wages and benefits were natural and that those at the bottom were there due to their own fault.

The evolution of trade unions cemented in place these hierarchies, leaving the least skilled workers unorganized until the CIO attempted to fill the need while organizing mine workers and African Americans during the Great depression. The following era of war-induced prosperity, and the ongoing economic expansion during the Cold War, created a phony, unsustainable sense of American prosperity for a growing middle class, where 5% of the world’s population consumed 80% of its resources. The AFL-CIO was active in this period wrecking third world union organizing attempts as a front for a CIA run, right-wing sponsored, American style Imperialism. On the home front, a rising middle class of workers were happy to build low quality products, for good wages, as the disposable society offered an endless supply of the “latest” consumer goods. Conspicuous consumption and keeping up with the Jones’s did not include the working poor or the third world.

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on

By Marienna Pope-Weidemann - Red Pepper, October 13, 2017

The fatal police shooting of 37 striking workers at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine in August 2012 was the worst recorded instance of police violence in post-apartheid South Africa. Five years on, there have been no prosecutions and no real improvements – no compensation for the families living in grief and dire poverty.

There has also been no apology, although staggeringly Lonmin has created a commercial out of the incident. But as always with the Marikana story, the most important characters were left out.

A few weeks after the massacre there was another death in the community. Amidst a brutal crackdown Paulina Masuhlo, a powerful community leader, died after being shot by police. Paulina’s death helped galvanise the birth of Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana.

As well as demanding criminal prosecution for the killings and compensation for the families, Sikhala Sonke also carries forward the demands those workers died for: a living wage and dignified conditions.

‘I closed my eyes and waited for the bullet’

By Thumeka Magwangqana and Primrose Sonti - Open Democracy, August 16, 2017

Five years ago today, 34 mine workers were shot dead in South Africa during a bitter dispute with British firm Lonmin. Today their community is taking their demands for accountability to the firm’s HQ.

In August 2012, mine workers at British company Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine in South Africa went on strike to demand the living wage. In the week leading up to 16 August, the workers tried to access the managers’ offices but they were pushed back by security. This was where the battle began.

Pushed back from the managers’ offices, the mine workers decided to go to the koppie, a small mountain near Lonmin’s mine, outside the company’s premises. They were there for a few days waiting for management to reply to their demands, and the rest of us in the community were not allowed to go near them. Every day when the men came down from that mountain, we asked them to tell us what was going on. Ten people were killed between 12 – 14 August, including two police officers.

We watched what was happening on TV constantly and in the afternoon of 15 August, we saw a crowd of people. Horses and police officers were growing in number on the koppie and, as women and leaders of the community, we were very upset. We were waiting for good news, for the management to make good decisions.

Early in the morning of 16 August, we saw the barbed wire encircling the koppie and we knew that people there were going to die. We collected the women of the community and, as leaders, we said that we should go straight to Lonmin management and tell them that if they didn’t want to give the mine workers the extra money, then it was better that we take them home because the situation had become so bad.

We collected the women and when we met near the mountain, we were too late. We heard the bullets, and then the ambulances.

Thirty-four mine workers were shot dead.

We couldn’t get there afterwards, there was a large crowd and we were told not go there, that it was very hectic. We turned back and didn’t sleep that night. Early in the morning, we went to see the police at the koppie and were fighting with them, trying everything. Then we cried.

We went to the police stations and hospitals to look for the missing. We were looking for a guy that was staying in the yard of one of our houses. He didn’t come back and we weren’t sure if he died or was in hospital or jail.

From Solidarity Networks to Class Organisation in Times of Labour Hallucinations

By Angry Workers World - LibCom.Org, June 24, 2017

Dear sisters and brothers,

Some comrades from Frankfurt got in touch recently, wanting to set up a solidarity network. They approached us with some concrete questions. [1] We want to use the opportunity to reflect more generally on our limited experiences with our solidarity network initiative so far and about the political direction we want to take steps towards. We do this against the current background of post-election ‘Corbyn-mania’ and a surge in political activities focused on the Labour Party. The first part of this text briefly explains our opposition to the focus on electoral activities, whether that be through the Labour machinery or in the more post-modern form of ‘municipalism’ [2] – despite the fact that locally in our area, the election circus had less of an impact, given that most workers here are not allowed to vote anyway. And as an alternative to this electoral turn, the second part focuses on our political proposals towards a locally rooted class organisation. We then go on to talk in more detail about our concrete experiences with the solidarity network in west London.

The Labour of wishful thinking

  • * We understand that ‘hope’ is needed amongst a divided and beaten working class and that Labour’s rhetoric of social unity and equality is welcomed.
  • * We would criticise our comrades of the radical left if they merely proliferate this ‘message of hope’ and material promises (end of austerity), without questioning the structural constraints which will make it difficult for a Labour government to deliver on their promises. Syriza in Greece has shown how a hopeful high can quickly turn into an even deeper depression once ‘our government’ has to turn against us.
  • * For us it is less about warning the working class not to vote on principle or focusing on Corbyn’s problematic power struggle within the Labour apparatus, but about pointing out the general dynamic between a) a national social democratic government, b) the global system of trade, monetary exchange and political power and c) the struggle of workers to improve their lives. In other words, all of the historical lessons have shown us that the outcomes of channelling working class energies into parliamentarism within a nation state that fits into an overall system of capital flows, has always ended up curtailing a longer-term working class power.
  • * The Labour party proposals in general are not radical as such, e.g. their promise to increase the minimum wage to £10 per hour by 2020 (!) under current inflation rates would more likely lead to a dampening of wage struggles amongst the lower paid working class, rather than instigating them. The minimum wage regulation introduced by Labour under Blair in 1998 had this effect in the long run.
  • * An increase in taxation to mobilise the financial means to deliver on their promises will increase capital flight and devaluation of the pound – most capital assets which bolster the UK economy are less material than in the 1970s, therefore it would be difficult to counter the flight with requisition (‘nationalisation’), a step which Labour does not really consider on a larger scale anyway.
  • * While any social democratic program on a national level is more unlikely than ever, the Labour program focuses workers’ attention increasingly on the national terrain: struggle for the NHS, nationalisation of the railways etc.; (in this sense the leadership’s leaning towards Brexit is consequential and at odds with most liberal Corbynistas); while officially Labour maintains a liberal approach towards migrants, those Labour strategists who are less under public scrutiny as politicians, such as Paul Mason, are more honest: if to carry out a social democratic program on a national scale means to have tightened control over the movement of capital, by the nature of capital-labour relation, this also means to tighten the control over the movement of labour; it would also mean re-arming the national military apparatus in order to bolster the national currency that otherwise wouldn’t have the international standing the pound still has. [3]
  • * A social democratic government needs a workers/social movement on the ground in order to impose more control over corporate management, e.g. through taxation. At the same time it hampers the self-activity of workers necessary to do this – e.g. through relying on the main union apparatus as transmission belts between workers and government.
  • * In more concrete terms we can see that groups like Momentum or local Labour Party organisations have done and do very little to materially strengthen the organisation of day-to-day proletarian struggles on the ground, but rather channel people’s activities towards the electoral sphere, siphoning off energy and turning attention away from concrete proletarian problems. Many ‘independent’ left-wing initiatives – from Novara media to most of the Trot organisations – became election advertisement agencies.
  • * While for the new Labour activists – many of them from a more educated if not middle-class background – there will be advisory posts and political careers, we have to see their future role with critical suspicion.
  • * If a Labour government would actually try to increase taxation and redistribute assets, the most likely outcome is a devaluation of the pound and an increase in inflation due to a trade deficit, which cannot be counteracted easily (see composition of agriculture, energy sector, general manufactured goods etc.)
  • * The new Labour left – trained in political activism and speech and aided by their influence within union leadership – will be the best vehicle to tell workers to ‘give our Labour government some time’, to explain that ‘international corporations have allied against us’ and that despite inflation workers should keep calm and carry on; wage struggles will be declared to be ‘excessive’ or ‘divisive’ or ‘of narrow-minded economic consciousness’. More principled comrades who told workers to support Labour, but who would support workers fighting against a Labour government risk losing their credibility and influence.
  • * Instead of creating illusions that under conditions of a global crisis ‘money can be found’ for the welfare state we should point out the absurdity of the capitalist crisis: there is poverty despite excess capacities and goods (for which ‘no money can be found’ if they don’t promise profits for companies or the state). We have to be Marxists again, analysing structures rather than engaging in wishful thinking.
  • * We should focus our activities to a) build material counter-power against bosses and capitalist institutions that makes a difference in the daily lives of working class people and b) prepare themselves and ourselves for the task of actually taking over the means of (re-)production. [4] For this we need to be rooted and coordinated internationally. We can clearly see that in the face of these big questions our actual practice seems ridiculously modest, but we want to share our experiences honestly and invite others to organise themselves with us. [5]

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