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It's all kicking off - but why now?

Tunis, 18 January 2011
Damian Carrington shares some revealing new research findings:

'Seeking simple explanations for the Arab spring uprisings that have swept through Tunisia, Egypt and now Libya, is clearly foolish amidst entangled issues of social injustice, poverty, unemployment and water stress. But asking "why precisely now?" is less daft, and a provocative new study proposes an answer: soaring food prices.

Furthermore, it suggests there is a specific food price level above which riots and unrest become far more likely. That figure is 210 on the UN FAO's price index: the index is currently at 234, due to the most recent spike in prices which started in the middle of 2010.

Lastly, the researchers argue that current underlying food price trends - excluding the spikes - mean the index will be permanently over the 210 threshold within a year or two. The paper concludes: "The current [food price] problem transcends the specific national political crises to represent a global concern about vulnerable populations and social order." Big trouble, in other words.'

I recommend reading the article in full. While the research is focused on current developments, there is an interesting historical perspective on this too. I was reminded of this insightful post from Paul Mason in April: Revolutions and the price of bread: 1848 and now

  • Written by Alex Snowdon
  • Category: Comment

Five reasons why we need Europe Against Austerity

1. We need unity and co-ordination, nationally and internationally. The European Conference Against Austerity in London will strengthen the links between different groups and activists, countering problems of division and fragmentation. Our government is a weak, fragile coalition which can only survive if the opposition to austerity is localised and fragmented. Much the same is true in many other countries. We need maximum unity in action.

2. The 1 October conference takes the step up to international co-ordination. The UK government's attacks on public services and welfare are part of a wider assault across Europe, an attempt to make the vast majority of people pay the price for bailing out the banks. We need to organise across borders in response.

3. This is the first major international initiative for the anti-cuts movement - it is on a significantly bigger scale, involving broader forces, than any previous initiatives. It is desperately overdue and may become the start of something even bigger in the longer term.

4. The conference is a superb chance to discuss the big political issues and talk about alternatives to the eurozone crisis and ruling class 'solutions' to it. Europe's economic and political crisis is one of the dominant themes of global politics in 2011. This is a unique opportunity to wrestle with the issues in the company of the anti-capitalist left and campaigners from across the continent.

5. The conference isn't just about activists across a wide range of countries communicating with each other. It holds out the hope of co-ordinated action. A first step will be the forums and demonstrations in France in early November, providing an antidote to the G20, but there is potential for much more. The conference can be the launchpad for co-ordinated action across Europe.

Find out more - and register for the conference - at Europe Against Austerity.

  • Written by Alex Snowdon
  • Category: Comment

Tyneside premiere of Debtocracy

'Tyne and Wear Coalition of Resistance are hosting a screening of Debtocracy – “a compelling film about Greece’s financial crisis which makes the case that the entire euro system was rotten from the start” (The Guardian).

Downloaded by millions of citizens in Greece and across Europe, ‘Debtocracy’ is spreading like wildfire. The film seeks the causes of the debt crisis and proposes solutions – solutions hidden by the governments of Europe and the dominant media.

This is a unique opportunity to see this superb documentary (75 mins long with English subtitles) on the big screen and to help raise funds for Coalition of Resistance in its ongoing campaign against the coalition government's brutal programme of cutbacks which are wrecking the lives of millions.'

Wednesday 21 September - 7pm
Salsa Cafe (upstairs), 89 Westgate Road, Newcastle

Pay on the door: £3 waged/£1.50 unwaged

Hosted by Coalition of Resistance and sponsored by Gateshead health branch of Unison.

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•Telephone: 07958 635 850

  • Written by Alex Snowdon
  • Category: Comment

New term, new strikes: teaching unions set to escalate pensions campaign

Message from Christine Blower, general secretary, to NUT members:

'Thank you for your continued support for our campaign to defend teachers' pensions. This term will see an escalation of the campaign.

We are continuing to work closely with colleagues in ATL and UCU following our extremely well-supported action on 30 June. Given the Government's position we expect that further industrial action will be required later this term. Our sister union in Scotland - the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) - is preparing to ballot their members, as is the National Association of Head Teachers.

The Government has had numerous opportunities to negotiate fairly on public sector pensions. However, Ministers have persistently refused to listen to the facts. Teachers' pensions are affordable and sustainable. We cannot and will not stand by and see them eroded for purely political reasons.

As the General Secretary of the only union to campaign consistently for one union for all teachers, I am delighted that the teaching profession is coming together against the unnecessary attacks that the Government has launched on our pensions.

Our campaign will be even stronger now. We will be in touch next week about the next steps in the campaign.'

  • Written by Alex Snowdon
  • Category: Comment

Same-sex marriage and the fight for equality

Bert and Ernie: just good friends
There's an interesting article on the International Socialist Group's website, asking what attitude socialists should adopt towards same-sex marriage. It is timely because the SNP administration has just launched a 14-week consultation on the possible introduction of legal same-sex marriage. A consultation in England and Wales was announced in February.

The issue also hit the headlines last month when a US campaigner called for children's TV show Sesame Street to teach tolerance by marrying Bert and Ernie (pictured) - traditionally regarded as friends rather than romantic partners - prompting a petition in support and an insistence by Sesame Street producers that characters don't have any sexual orientation.

More seriously the issue has increasingly become a campaigning focus in the US, with victories for campaigns in a number of states including New York. But the demand finds considerable resonance in Europe too. Seven European countries now have legal same-sex marriage, while fifteen (including the UK) allow some sort of civil partnership.

It is important, in my view, to think through why gay marriage has become such a central issue for the LGBT movement. One extremely good reason lies in the nature of homophobic prejudice and discrimination.

Homophobia largely isn't about economic inequality. Women workers earn less than male workers; black workers earn less than white workers. Economic inequality is integral to these forms of division and oppression. The same inequality isn't there when comparing LGBT workers with heterosexual workers.

Homophobia has a great deal to do with what is socially acceptable, normal or legitimate. What LGBT people want is to be viewed and treated as equal by the society they're part of, and by the people in it. They don't want to be seen as abnormal, viewed with suspicion or subject to completely different social conventions.

This means being able to marry and adopt kids, but it's also about being able to hold hands in public without getting funny looks (or worse) and feeling confident about booking a room in a B+B without pretending you're 'just friends'. It's all sorts of things in everyday life, like being comfortable with talking about your relationship with work colleagues or a teenager being openly gay at school.

It's also about the whole emotional field that goes with this - not having feelings of shame and guilt, not keeping secrets from family, and so on. It's about LGBT people seeing themselves reflected and represented in media and culture, rather than being invisible or subject to ridicule. Political and social equality in the broadest sense is the aim.

In this context we can easily see why gay marriage has become a central issue and a rallying call capable of mobilising large numbers of supporters. It goes to the very heart of how homophobia works, as being married is socially mainstream. Not being able to marry reinforces a sense of marginalisation and 'otherness' relating to LGBT people. The issue thus becomes representative of much more than itself.

It's also a specific legislative change - one which crystallises a number of the issues I've referred to - so it is ideal for a protest movement. Every campaign needs something concrete to fight for.

Is it enough? No. But no kind of equality is enough within the constraints of a capitalist society. Socialists fight for liberation not just equality. This is a broader vision that connects specific issues for particular social groups to a larger struggle, in which the collective power of the working class (as the 'universal class') is decisive.

Whatever the constraints, it is essential to actively support struggles for equality. In the context of shared campaigning, a more radical and thoroughgoing vision of human liberation can be articulated.

Also see: The SNP's Gay Marriage Crisis
  • Written by Alex Snowdon
  • Category: Comment

'The People Demand: a short history of the Arab revolutions' - Newcastle book launch

Cairo's Tahrir Square during the revolution
On Wednesday 12 October John Rees will be introducing his new book The People Demand: a short history of the Arab revolutions (co-written with Joseph Daher).

The book launch, hosted by Counterfire, is upstairs at Newcastle's Salsa Cafe and starts at 7pm.

See the Facebook Event.

The Arab revolutions have started to re-shape global politics. The People
Demand traces the major developments and includes reportage from Cairo during the 18 days of revolutionary upheaval in early 2011. It analyses the mass popular movements which have overthrown regimes, shaken US imperialism, and inspired millions around the world.

This is one of the first assessments of the Arab revolutions to encompass a range of movements. These essays analyse the complex links between Tunisia, Egypt, Palestine, Libya, Bahrain and Syria, examining how the popular revolts have dramatically affected relations with the US, Israel and the West.

Through a richly detailed and perceptive account of events across the Arab world, The People Demand addresses vital questions about democracy, revolution and imperialism.

The book is published on 16 September by Counterfire, priced £6.99. Entry to the Newcastle book launch is free.  

John Rees participated in the Egyptian revolution and his eye-witness accounts are included in The People Demand. He was Vice President (Europe) of the Cairo international solidarity conferences which started in 2002.

He is a co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition and the author of The Algebra of Revolution, Imperialism and Resistance, and Strategy and Tactics. He is a member of the editorial board of Counterfire and writes and presents the Timeline political history series for the Islam Channel.

  • Written by Alex Snowdon
  • Category: Comment

Unelected Oligarchy: is this what democracy looks like?

I recommend reading the Unelected Oligarchy report from Democratic Audit. It is researched and written by David Beetham,  a professor emeritus at Leeds University. Here is the opening summary:

'The financial crisis of 2007-8 and its aftermath have intensified the perception that the UK government works largely for the benefit of the corporate and financial sectors rather than of ordinary citizens and taxpayers. As part of a wide-ranging audit of Britain’s democracy, this paper explores the extent to which this perception is valid.

The first part traces the historical changes since the 1980s – ideological, economic, fiscal and operational – which have led to the increasing dependency of government on the private sector.

The second part identifies the different channels through which corporate and financial elites have inserted themselves into the heart of government over successive administrations, and how they continue to exercise a predominant influence over it – through the financing of political parties, think tanks and lobbying organisations, membership of advisory bodies, ‘revolving doors’ and joint partnerships with government. This situation is then assessed against internationally accepted criteria for democracy which Democratic Audit has employed over the past two decades.

The paper combines a rigorous evidential base with a principled analysis of what makes a system of government democratic. It will interest all those concerned with the current condition of Britain’s democracy.'

This brief extract is from the conclusion:

'What conclusions should we draw from this exhaustive, and no doubt exhausting, survey of developments that have taken place since the 1980s? First, that they have taken place under governments from all the main parties. Second, that they are the result of a combination of structural changes in the international and domestic economy, and active agency on the part of those best placed to benefit from them.

Third, that possible countervailing forces have proved largely ineffective against them. Trade unions have been disempowered and legally hobbled, inner-party democracy has been stifled and strong civil society organisations have at best been able to generate embarrassment and achieve cosmetic changes, such as the transfer of DESO to the business department rather than the outright abolition that had been promised. As to the new media, Reich writes that the blogosphere has proven ‘a boisterous outlet for airing views and venting frustrations, but there’s no direct or systematic link between these forums and decision makers.’

Fourth, that the large cuts in public expenditure currently under way are likely to further intensify the dependence of government on the private sector, as central departments and local councils are forced to further contract out their operations and services, and reduce their own skills base.

Most important, in terms of our ongoing democratic audit of the UK and its principles, these developments reveal a gaping democratic deficit. Instead of the public sphere constituting a separate life domain, with its distinctive values, relationships and ways of operating, it has become an extension of the private market, permeated by the market’s logic and interests.
Instead of popular control we have subordination to an oligarchy of the wealthy and economically powerful. Instead of everyone counting for one, we have the easy purchase of political influence and the well-oiled revolving door between government and the corporate sector.
In Lindblom’s terms, where democracy at best is a compromise between the power of the vote and the power of business, with government negotiating the interface between the two, the balance has been decisively, and perhaps terminally, titled in favour of the latter, as government has increasingly become its promotional agent. '
  • Written by Alex Snowdon
  • Category: Comment

PJ Harvey: The Words That Maketh Murder

PJ Harvey tonight became the first artist to win the Mercury Prize twice, with her eighth album 'Let England Shake'. The first time she won the prize was on 11 September 2001, in an awards ceremony overshadowed by news of the terrorist attacks in the US. 'Let England Shake' includes this track, 'The Words That Maketh Murder', which was featured in the Stop the War website's 'anti-war song of the week' slot in February. 

  • Written by Alex Snowdon
  • Category: Comment

From Mahalla to Tahrir, it's all kicking off (again)

As militant textile workers in Mahalla plan to strike indefinitely from Saturday, Egypt's Revolutionary Youth Coalition has called for a mass rally in Tahrir Square this Friday. This is re-posted from Counterfire:

'Strikes are growing here in Egypt. A post workers' strike is ongoing, with a number of other groups of workers joining the strike movement. It is estimated a quarter of a million workers will join a national strike this Saturday, 10th September. In Cairo the aim is to build on the momentum from Friday's street protests in Tahrir Square.

Textile workers from a number of towns and cities have announced they are joining Mahalla's strike on Saturday. Mahalla has been a major site of workers' unrest in recent years, especially the major textiles strikes in 2006 and 2008, widely believed to have helped lay the ground for this year's revolution.

Mahalla's public sector textile factory is the biggest factory in Egypt, employing 22,000 workers. They will all begin an open-ended strike on Saturday. Workers are demanding that Prime Minister Essam Sharif increase investment in the company, introduce a minimum wage in line with inflation and release outstanding pay cheques.

Mahalla workers issued a statement, declaring that their struggle is for not only themselves but also to win a decent standard of living for all Egyptian workers. A delegation of workers has gone to Cairo to present their demands directly to the prime minister's office.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which currently rules the country prior to elections, has asked for a meeting with the labour leaders in Mahala. This has been refused by the workers. The prime minister is, however, going to Mahalla for the negotiations.

I've been going to the picket lines for the postal strikes and it seems they will continue until at least this Friday, 9th September. More generally, there are calls for increased co-ordination of strikes by different groups. There is potential for a general strike to be orchestrated, but it all depends on what happens in Mahalla on Saturday - and how effectively the action spreads to other areas - plus what happens in Tahrir Square on Friday.

Activists are preparing for big protests in Tahrir this Friday with various groups echoing the Revolutionary Youth Coalition's call for a mass rally. Some are demanding an immediate halt to military trials of civilians. There are also serious concerns that current planning for elections unfairly advantages the more conservative elements, including former Mubarak supporters.

It is anticipated there will be clashes with security forces on Friday. Youth activist groups have called for security personnel to be withdrawn from Tahrir on Friday, due to fears of 'bloodshed'. On Monday there were assaults by security forces on the families of the revolution's martyrs, while Mubarak's trial was in session.

Moderate Muslim Brotherhood leaders have, unsurprisingly, declared they won't participate in the Tahrir Square rally. Ahram Online reports: 'The General Secretary of the Freedom and Justice Party Saad El-Kataneny announced that the party, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, was not going to participate in the million-man protest to be held on 9 September 2011 in Tahrir Square'.

This isn't the first time Egypt has seen a strike movement emerge this year. In the final three days up to Mubarak's downfall on 11th February there was a rapidly growing wave of strikes, with Mahalla at the epicentre, which proved to be one of the decisive factors in forcing the president to flee. After Mubarak's downfall there were further strikes, with workers raising independent economic demands such as calls for better pay.

Mahalla workers previously played a key role for in efforts to organise beyond the limits of the state-controlled Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions. Last month growing independent labour groups forced the prime minister to agree to dismantle the executive board of the old federation. Mahalla union activist Wael Habib currently sits on a special committee designed to oversee this transition.

The majority of the labour militancy is outside Cairo, but the capital could still become a major focus. Organisation is very patchy, but there has been some development of independent workers' groups since February. There is an organised left, though it remains relatively weak. A key issue is what links can be made between the youth-led protests in Tahrir (and elsewhere) and the strikes.

Friday and Saturday are likely to be decisive in shaping the coming months. The hope is that the workers' rebellion will generalise, involving more groups of workers and greater co-ordination, representing a new phase in Egypt's revolution.'

Mahmoud Mahdy is an activist in Scotland's International Socialist Group. Additional material provided by Alex Snowdon and Feyzi Ismail.

  • Written by Alex Snowdon
  • Category: Comment

Sparks fan the flames

This is re-posted from Counterfire, written by Jo Gough in London and yours truly in Newcastle.

The construction workers campaign spread today with pickets taking place in London, Manchester and Newcastle, calling on workers to take action against eight companies tearing up the national working agreement.

They talked about several different problems: the lowering of general pay rates, cuts in overtime pay, the insecurity of agency work, increasing spells of unemployment, fear of victimisation. One worker talked about the 'agency culture' that involves companies continually under-cutting each other by employing workers, short-term, on lower pay rates. Growing unemployment underpins this, he said. Too many people are scared of losing work.

In Newcastle construction workers came from various sites around the region, determined to stop the all-out attack on pay and conditions they face. Everyone talked about how serious the issues are, how they have no choice now but to organise and fight back.

They fear drastic cuts in pay, an increase in bosses' power to disregard workers' rights (already flimsy), and a de-valuing of skilled work they have devoted years to. Several workers spoke of the self-worth and pride they have taken in their work, and the sense of no longer being valued.

While there were expressions of bitterness towards unions - for their inaction and slowness - there was also a strong will to pressure Unite to get behind them. As one worker said: 'Whatever you say about them, we need a union or otherwise we don't stand a chance. We need them to bring in broader support.' Several protesters said they work with people who are only now joining the union, having never seen the need before.

In London, Steve Kelly, branch secretary of the London Electrician Branch, also spoke of the need for Unite to act, explaining ‘it is good that Unite officials are here today but it is clear they are only here because of pressure from below. We must keep up the pressure to ensure they prepare to ballot all JIB sites as soon as possible.’

Yesterday saw a victory: 40 underpaid agency workers made a collective stand and forced the company to back down. A speaker from the Senate House cleaners’ campaign spoke of a similar victory when cleaners walked out and were then paid the three months wages owed to them by Balfour Beatty. They will now campaign for the London Living Wage.

With confidence increasing, there was a strong response to a call by Mick Dooley, the UCATT General Secretary candidate, to ‘stop the job’ in London next week, when construction workers will picket the Olympics site at 6.30am at Pudding Mill Lane.

In Manchester, Steve Acheson, branch secretary of the Manchester Electrician Branch, is clear there has been a magnificent rank and file self-organised response and the momentum is building for site walkouts and industrial action. He believes the fight will escalate into every city which could not only stop these attacks but could also result in construction workers having strong organisation again.

The workers who joined today's protest are committed to spreading the campaign, involving wider layers of workers, and mounting pressure on the union to throw its weight behind them. They deserve the support and solidarity of every trade unionist, socialist and anti-cuts activist.

  • Written by Alex Snowdon
  • Category: Comment

#N30 - trade unions plan united strike for pensions

Marching together on 30 June
The fight is on. TUC conference today unanimously backed co-ordinated industrial action to defend public sector pensions. The country's three largest unions - Unite, Unison and GMB - formally announced they will ballot members for strikes.

On 30 June civil service union PCS, teacher unions NUT and ATL and lecturers' union UCU held a co-ordinated national strike involving over half a million people. They plan futher national strike action in November.

But today's announcement by the big battalions of Unison, Unite and GMB holds out the hope of a huge escalation in the campaign to protect pensions. Other unions balloting for action are the Fire Brigades Union, teachers' NASUWT, Scottish teachers' EIS, senior civil service union FDA and Northern Ireland's NIPSA.

There have been strikes by local government workers in Birmigham, Southampton and Doncaster. But their unions, most importantly Unison which has over a million members across local government and the NHS, have previously held back from national strike action.

TUC leader Brendan Barber announced the date as 30 November following a special meeting of public sector unions immediately after TUC conference. National co-ordination is vital to confront a concerted government effort to make workers pay more, work longer and get less.

The announcement of a ballot by Unison general secretary Dave Prentis was greeted by a standing ovation at the TUC. Prentis has recently shown he can retreat rapidly from good rhetoric. There must now be huge grassroots pressure to turn words into action. The stakes could hardly be higher.

Ed Miliband's pathetic stance on the strikes has already been thrown back at him by the Tories in prime minister's question time. This sort of behaviour by Labour leaders is bad enough at any time, but when strikes are clearly on the horizon it leaves him irrelevant - and himself part of a 'squeezed middle' who will become increasingly weak and marginal.

Unity is key - across the public sector unions and reaching out to the private sector. As PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said today: "We have always said that the more united we are, the harder it will be for the government to push through their ideologically-driven and damaging cuts. This is not just a fight for public servants, we want fair pensions for all."

Len McCluskey, Unite general secretary, has emphasised the need to link up with private sector workers over pensions, especially since the government is trying to divide and rule over supposedly 'gold plated' public sector pensions. Given the weakness of union organisation in the private sector, this is an essential part of building a movement across the whole working class. McCluskey has also stressed the need for a coalition of resistance, which can give a boost to the international conference against austerity on Saturday 1 October.

There will now need to be jointly-organised mass campaign rallies and protests throughout the country. These can be on a much bigger scale than before. Trade union activists will be campaigning for the highest possible Yes vote.

The pensions dispute is for the whole anti-cuts movement, not just public sector trade unionists. It is our movement's best chance to strike a blow against this government's austerity drive.

Also published at Counterfire

  • Written by Alex Snowdon
  • Category: Comment

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