Lindsey German on the Black Lives Matter impact on US politics and the floundering Tories
The United States is being rocked not just by the massive Black Lives Matter protests – which swept onto the streets again last week to mark the anniversary of the ending of slavery - but by a new strike wave which marks a significant escalation of action. The issues were linked on Friday when longshoremen at 29 ports on the West Coast struck, as did Union of Auto Workers members for 8 minutes 46 seconds to honour George Floyd in workplaces across the country. Even before this significant action, 500 strikes took place across the US in the preceding three weeks, according to a monitoring group based in Pittsburgh.
The group predicts that disputes will increase still further as workers lose pandemic unemployment insurance pay at the end of July. The coming together of the corona crisis, the huge movement for Black Lives Matter and a growing industrial militancy across the country presage a very hot summer, and one which can have a major influence on politics across the world. The movements, the left and especially the working-class movement are once again going on the offensive, and in the context of mass unemployment and one of the worst pandemic outbreaks anywhere in the world.
The failure of Donald Trump’s Tulsa rally epitomises the problem this presents him. What should be a heartland area for him turned out a fairly meagre crowd with lots of empty seats. The planned overflow rally had to be dismantled for lack of interest. Trump’s dog-whistle racism was cheered by his core supporters, but the social and political discontent surging through the US is very bad news for him. His handling of coronavirus has been one of the most cavalier of governments anywhere. His military leaders have turned against him following his attempt to use the army on the streets against the BLM movement. His erstwhile close adviser, John Bolton, has written a book where he shreds Trump’s reputation. Most importantly, those whom he constantly denigrates – black and ethnic minorities, trade unions, campaigners – are showing that they are serious about fighting back.
With the November election looming, Trump’s ratings are falling and he is behind his Democrat opponent Joe Biden in the polls. We do not know what the outcome of the election will be. We do know that Trump will continue his racist scapegoating and attack workers who want more share of what they produce and are fed up with living in one of the most unequal societies on earth. We know that Biden will do nothing to channel the energy of the movements and rank and file and will fear anything that rocks the boat. However, if Trump is losing support and his base are themselves becoming less confident then this is important.
The demands to defund the police by the BLM movement strike at the heart of the US state, which relies on a massive system of violence, repression and incarceration towards its poor and especially its black population. It also strikes, as does the movement overall, at the institutional racism which underpins the police and prison system, and the whole of US capitalism. The new wave of wildcats also strike at the heart of neoliberal capitalism in the US and the brutal system of exploitation which is becoming increasingly apparent to many.
These movements have unique US characteristics but are not unique to the US. We have seen the impact of BLM worldwide. The coronavirus crisis is leading to worsened economic conditions, big rises in unemployment, class differentials over the impact of the disease and its treatment, increases in poverty. The working-class movement will need to organise to achieve the most basic of demands. And there is much they can learn from the US movement in doing so.
World-beating failures at every turn
This week will see Boris Johnson announcing the reduction of social distancing from 2 metres to 1 and heralding the opening of pubs and restaurants. This effectively means the end of lockdown despite a still very high number of deaths from Covid-19 every day. This is being done for one reason only – the attempt to restore business profits. As ever this comes before public health. The mind-bogglingly awful response of the Tories to the whole crisis is a disgrace. Everything – from the app which turns out not to work, to the failure of any testing and tracing, to the criminal treatment of people in care homes, and the lack of provision of PPE – has been simply unacceptable from a country which is one of the richest in the world.
The only respect in which British practice over dealing with the coronavirus crisis has been ‘world-beating’ has been in its failure. This failure and the continued pressure to end the lockdown without any of the safeguards needed will almost certainly result in a second spike of the virus in the coming months. The reckoning with this government needs to begin now. Its incompetence is matched by its ignorance and insensitivity, as when it refused to give children free school meals over the summer until forced into a u-turn by Marcus Rashford, and when its tone deafness continued as Dominic Raab insisted taking the knee was a sign of submission.
As it allows a free for all to replace the lockdown it is also stepping up pressure on teachers, who have led the resistance to government incompetence over schools, and on other workers who are being made to return to work despite dangerous public transport and conditions in many workplaces. Labour pathetically seems to be going along with the 1m distancing, and allows repeated occasions where superannuated former Blairite ministers join in attacking the teachers.
The obsession with profit has also led to a call to reduce VAT in the hospitality sector, leading to more people going to pubs and restaurants. Help for business is not being extended to many working people however who are likely to become unemployed when the government’s furlough scheme runs out over the summer. There will be a significant rise in joblessness then.
We cannot allow a repeat of the 2008 crisis, when the rich were bailed out while workers suffered losses of homes and income. This time there are signs of more resistance. As we have seen in the US, the deep crisis of public health has also become a social and economic crisis. It is similar here, and we are seeing signs of people fighting back. Perhaps the most obvious feature after more than three months of lockdown is that we are not all in it together. Those in some of the poorest paid jobs are working the hardest and in the most dangerous conditions. But there are also threats to many manufacturing workers, airline workers and retail workers.
The scale of the crisis will require more than a piecemeal response. It will need a response across the working class, across different races, nationalities and ages. There are already signs that this is beginning, and we need to deepen and strengthen it. What we are seeing in the US will also become more apparent here. We need to prepare for that.
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As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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