Sunday, 27 March 2011

Today we march together, tomorrow we must strike together!

Trade unionists, activists, campaigners and concerned individuals from all over the country converged on Central London for the TUC 'March for the Alternative' yesterday. Estimates ranged from 250,000 to 750,000, so half a million seems like a good bet. There were around five or six coaches from Cornwall organised by the trade unions: NUT, GMB, Unison and Unite and members of the PCS also went up on a train from Exeter. The first coach left Cornwall at 3:30am. The NUT, Unite and Unison opened their coaches to members of the public and the NUT sent two coaches. At one point it looked like they might send three.

The first NUT coach left Penzance at 5am. Many people tried to sleep on the coach and there was a sombre but determined atmosphere to begin with. As the sun began to rise, however, the mood began to change to one of defiant optimism. After a brief stop in Devon, activists began to come to life. Members of Save our NHS (Cornwall) collected signatures on their petition. Members of the Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance gave out leaflets about their public meeting in April. A recently sacked Penzance play worker discussed an unemployed play workers network with the secretary of the Penzance Parents Group which is campaigning against cuts in the Sure Start Children's Centres. The coach also contained retired trade unionists and Gill George, midwife and the wife of local MP Andrew George.
The coach arrived at Vauxhall in London at around 12:30 and met up with the other NUT coach from Cornwall just after 1pm. The 'Cornwall bloc' then marched towards Embankment.

At 1:45 the Cornwall bloc decided to try to enter the march at Parliament Square rather than try to make it to Embankment. There were lines of police officers but they made no attempt to stop protesters taking a short cut.
The Cornwall bloc made its way down Whitehall to Trafalgar Square and then through Picadilly to Hyde Park. The demonstration was moving incredibly slowly in some places, a sure sign that it is a big march. Not since the anti-war march on February 15 2003 had it taken so long to travel a relatively short way. The mood was lively but not as radical as many demontrations. Again, it is a sure sign of a big protest when most people there are unaware of popular chants. There were old people, young people, workers and more middle class types, again reminiscent of 2003.

The Cornwall bloc arrived in Hyde Park just before 4pm and had to leave at 5pm for another incredibly long coach journey home. Most of the speakers took a general Labour Party line that some cuts were necessary and that the deficit did need to be tackled. The only exception was Dot Gibson from the National Pensioners Convention. She rightly reminded the crowd that much of the groundwork for the current government's privatisation plans had been laid by New Labour and the implication of what she was saying wad that we should not rely on the Labour Party to solve our problems.

On the coach journey home the general mood was one of satisfaction that we had sent a clear message to the government that there should be no cuts to the public sector. Of course this is just the beginning of a long campaign and there is every chance that the next demonstration will be even bigger. But we must not rely on marching alone. As in Egypt, the way to win is to combine demonstrations of public anger at the regime with economic strikes at the capitalist class the state exists to defend. We need co-ordinated strike action, as even Dave Prentis and Len McCluskey, general-secretaries of Unison and Unite respectively recognise, leading to a General Strike, as they have done recently in Greece, Spain and France.

Friday, 25 March 2011

UCU national strike shows the way

There were around 15 people on the UCU picket line outside the Fal building at Truro College in Truro, Cornwall yesterday. There was a good mood on the picket line as lecturers leafletted passers by about the attack on pensions and students leafletted in support. Members of the local group Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance were also there leafletting about their public meeting in April. UCU members agreed to submit a motion to get their branch to affiliate to the anti-cuts group and provide a speaker for the meeting.

At 11am around thirty people joined a rally in Lemon Quay, Truro to spread the message amongst shoppers and locals about pay, pensions, job losses and the effect on education of the public sector cuts. There was then a march to Barclays Bank to highlight the fact that bankers, who caused the crisis, are still getting their bonsuses whilst the public sector workers, who did not, are being attacked.

Academies, Free Schools and Gove's dastardly masterplan

Around 80 people attended a meeting in Falmouth on Acadamies hosted by the NUT on Monday this week. Speakers included the Liberal Democrat education spokesman (the politician), the head of the local education authority (the bureaucrat), the Headteacher of Helston College (the teacher) and the General-Secretary of the NUT (the union leader).

The meeting was billed as a 'debate' but all the speakers on the platform were against academies. Everyone the NUT invited to speak in favour of academies (the local Tory Party and the Headteachers of all the schools that are either have are interested in becoming academies) declined to come. Presumably they feared a lynch mob.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman was fairly weak. He said he started off in favour of academies and one couldn't help wondering what changed his mind and what his position would be if the Lib Dems still ran the council. The LEA head was slightly better but then, of course, if enough schools leave LEA control his organisation might become untenable. Christine Blower of the NUT was, predictably, quite good. She spoke quite well about how the Tories 'reforms' were ideological and unnecessary. The surprise of the evening was, perhaps, the Headteacher. He spoke eloquently about how much schools depend on the LEA and how becoming an academy is not so much about parents, children and teachers being 'free' of state control, but being under the control of private companies.

However, the weakness of all four speakers was shown up when someone in the audience asked what Michael Gove's 'ulterior motive' was. The responses ranged from cost-cutting to pointless tinkering. The real reason, however, is much more dark.

This government is a government of millionaires that exists to help their millionaire friends. They want us, ordinary working class people (and to some extent the middle class too) to pay for their (the bankers, capitalists and bureaucrats) crisis. David Cameron, George Gideon Osborne and Michael Gove are the heirs of Thatcher, as to some extent also was Blair.

From the late 1960s, the long post-war economic boom was starting to come to an end. The '74-'79 Labour Government responded to the decline in the profitability of British Capitalism with Monetarism and a bail-out from the International Monetary Fund. Thatcher sped up the process with the privatisation of gas, electricity, telecoms, the rail network and so on. In the past, the British Empire would have just invaded a country and either stolen its raw materials (such as in Africa) or forced it into unequal trade deals (such as forcing China to buy opium). But these days Britain isn't a world power and so it either has to hang on to America's coat tails (such as hoping a few oil deals might come our way in Iraq) or it has to open up markets within its own borders.

Thatcher privatised everything she thought she could get away with and New Labour tried to privatise Royal Mail, introduced deregulation in the postal market, the NHS and the education system with their Academy status for 'failing' schools. So Gove et al are using the 'defcit' as an excuse to take this process to its logical conclusion. They are using the concept of the 'Big Society' to mask what Academies and 'Free Schools' really are, the breaking up and privatisation of the comprehensive school system.

Thatcher talked about 'rolling back the state' meaning taxing people less and providing less public services. The rich will obviously do very well out of this because they will pay less tax and just buy whatever services they need. The poor, by contrast, will suffer because they will not be able to afford healthcare and so on. So it was effectively a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. It is no longer acceptable to talk in these terms, however, so instead of focusing on the small state, they are now focusing on the big society.

If the Tories are allowed to get away with this we will have to work hard, pay our taxes and then volunteer in our 'spare' time to provide our own services. Alternatively we will be out of work and living on slightly-above-starvation-level benefits. Dickens would have recognised this situation well.

However, the movement against the cuts and privatisation is growing. This meeting, a good turnout considering, is just the beginning. Tomorrow's demonstration looks as though it will be the biggest for eight years and promises to be more radical too. This should provide the springboard for co-ordinated strike action, possibly leading to a general strike. Bring it on!

Friday, 18 March 2011

Trade Unions start to get behind the movement against cuts in Cornwall

The Cornwall Amalgamated Branch of the Communication Workers' Union (CWU) held its Annual General Meeting last night in Redruth. As well as the branch officials, the meeting of about 40 unit reps and lay members heard from Carl Maden from the Postal Executive.

Carl spoke about the privatisation threat that Royal Mail is currently facing and of the problems we face in getting either Lib Dems or Conservative MPs to rebel. He also spoke of the need to get our MPs to sign the Early Day Motion EDM 1408 on the universal service obligation. This is the fact that Royal Mail currently has an obligaion to deliver a letter to any address in the country for one standard price. According to the Postal Services Bill (2010) this must be retained in any new private version of the company, but only for two years! Even the EDM only calls on it to stay for five years.

He also spoke about a recent vote of 93% in favour of strike action from our colleagues in Post Office Limited and the attacks on our pension scheme, including changing the measurement of calculation of increase from the Retail Price Index to the Consumer Price Index measure of inflation, meaning our members will lose thousands of pounds of what are, in effect, deferred wages.

Three motions were also heard. The first two concerned merging the branch with nearby Plymouth branch. The meeting decided to leave the branch structure as it is. Motion three concerned the Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance (CACA). The meeting heard from the proposer that CACA is an alliance of trade unions, campaign groups and individuals who campaign against privatisation, job losses and cuts to the public sector. It contains members from NUT, Unison, GMB, PCS and CWU.

The meeting was also told that the last TUC Conference passed two motions: one calling the demonstration in London on March 26, which everyone present was urged to attend, and one on united action, including strike action, which we are beginning to see with the UCU lecturers' union going on strike over the next seven days and the NUT teachers' union ballotting for action too.

It was also explained that CACA are organising a public meeting in April, which would be a golden opportunity to speak to the public about the 'Keep the Post Public' Campaign. There would also be a Cornwall-wide demonstration in May. Again this would be an opportunity to protest against government attacks but with the support of other unions, campaigns and the general public.

There then followed a short discussion in which no-one spoke against the motion. The branch secretary spoke in favour and the motion passed unanimously. The motion resolves that the branch will affiliate to CACA, give a donation from the political fund, publicise CACA events to all members and send delegates to meetings and actions. Later in the meeting the branch secretary committed to coming to the next CACA meeting and gained permission for the branch to have a banner made. Lots of people took away leaflets about the coaches going to the TUC demo in London on March 26.

If a motion of this sort can be passed unanimously by the CWU in Cornwall then there is every reason to hope that other unions can be persuaded to affiliate and donate to CACA too. There is every reason to be hopeful that the unions will get fully behind the ant-cuts movement here as elsewhere.

The 'Big Society' coming to a town near you!

I went to a meeting on Wednesday night at Mullion Comprehensive School about the threat of closure to their Youth and Community Centre, which also houses a nursery. I heard that the Centre (which has been run as a charity) is in financial difficulty and may be closed in the future if funding is not found.

The Centre sounds like it provides a great service to the Community, getting kids involved in activities that they would not otherwise have access to and providing childcare for parents who need to work. Councillor Caroline Rule, who chaired the meeting, told us that ‘Council funding is drying up’ for such services and in no way should parents expect the Council to help financially.

In fact, the Councillor (who I was told afterwards is a member of the Cabinet who recently voted through the cuts to Cornwall’s public services) seemed to be relishing the notion that parents should pull together and fundraise for their own facilities. She suggested running a disco, which is not the kind of sustainable income needed to fund such a Centre.

I was shocked to think that people who already pay tax on their income, and Council Tax, are now being told that they have to fundraise to provide their local nursery and Youth Club services. In most families both parents have to work to survive these days and have little time to put into volunteering for such projects, however much they would like to.

I am extremely angry that this may be a sign of things to come if people just accept the lie that our Public Services can no longer be funded by the Council or Government. I am going to be marching in London on 26th March with the TUC and thousands of others for an alternative to the cuts we are facing to our services. Our children are worth investing in because they are the ones who will build our future world and I hope they make it fairer than this one.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Penzance angry about NHS changes

This evening about 50 people attended a 'consultation' meeting about the changes happening in the NHS in Cornwall. We were told that health care provision in Cornwall is being taken out of NHS control, via the Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) and run by consortia led by GPs. The GPs present were uninspired by the proposals but said that it was either this option or private companies taking over provision. An audience member made the point that transfering staff from the NHS to the new consortia will mean that deals on pay and working conditions won by NHS staff will be lost.

Questions and comments from the audience were mainly about the introduction of the market into the NHS and people were very concerned about what would happen if the GP consortia failed because GPs are not trained for such work and may not have the time to perform it. We were told that this was not "privatisation" because it would not be like going to a private health firm and paying for treatment, it is only that private companies can bid to run services and buy health care provision! Yes, that is privatisation. Someone in the audience made the point that if this initiative fails private companies will come in to bail Cornwall's health care system out. This was not denied by the panel.

People were really angry about this admission that private companies will be involved and were obviously upset about Cornwall leaving the NHS. In fact, everybody was angry and by the end they were berating the GPs and the PCT for going along with the Government's plans in such an unnecessarily exaggerated way. The panel (PCT, local authority and GPs) were putting it as if they had no choice in the matter, but there is no reason why Cornwall has to leave the NHS in this way. GPs highlighted the fact that the white paper is still being debated and the BMA is still in discussion with the Government.

The audience contained health workers who were upset about the plans.

The local authority also said they had ringfenced money for the "Healthy Lives, Healthy People" initiative which will be part of how health care is run, providing preventative schemes to boost public health. I brought up the point that early years intervention is essential, and Sure Start provides a place for children to learn healthy eating, social skills, mum's get breastfeeding support and so on, so why isn't the budget for Sure Start being protected under this scheme?

To contribute to the consultation on "healthy lives, healthy people" go to this website and maybe we can at least get them to spend this money on something worthwhile!

Penzance is definitely angry about this situation and there is a mood for local action against privatisation and cuts.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Resistance to the cuts in Cornwall

Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance members were out in force on Saturday 5 March in Truro and Penzance to petition against the cuts in Cornwall and to leaflet about the demonstration in London on 26 March . There was a good response from the general public and where a local demonstration was mentioned people were very interested.

On Monday 7 March concerned parents held a meeting in Penzance to discuss possible cuts to the Sure Start Children's Centres budget. Parents spoke about their fear of losing universal services and committed to ensuring that Cornwall Council continues to view Sure Start as one of their priorities.

On Wednesday 9 March Cornwall Anti-Cuts Alliance (CACA) is meeting to elect a committee and to draw up plans to oppose the cuts in the county. The meeting is at 6:30pm at the Railway Club next to Truro train station.

On Monday 14 March the Cornwall branch of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) will be having a meeting. This is open to non-members and there will be a discussion of the revolutionary uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. There will also be a discussion of how best SWP members can aid the fightback against cuts and austerity in Cornwall. This is at 7:30pm at the Ralway Club next to Truro train station.

On Thursday 17 March the Cornwall branch of the Communication Workers Union (CWU) will be having its Annual General Meeting. A motion to affiliate to CACA is going to be proposed and seems likely to be passed. Read the motion here.

On Saturday 26 March the TUC 'March for the Alternative' takes place in London. 1200 coaches have been booked so far in what is set to be the biggest demonstration since 2003. To book a place on a coach leaving from Cornwall visit the CACA website.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Revolution in the 21st Century

The spark that began the wave of revolutionary activity that has spread across North Africa and the Middle East ocurred on 17 December last year when Mohamed Bouazizi, a man in his mid-twenties set himself on fire in the town of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia. He did it because the vegetable cart from which he eked out a meagre existence was confiscated by the town council and when he tried to get it back they refused. Immediately the protests began, spreading across the country, finally forcing the hated President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee on 14 January after 23 years in power. Demonstrations then began on 25 January in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, leading another dictator President Hosni Mubarak to resign just 18 days later after almost 30 years as president.

Revolutionary waves have also engulfed Libya and Bahrain and there have been unprecedented demonstrations in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, Morocco, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and Djibouti. But what lies behind this extraordinary series of events? Have they come from 'nowhere' as some news reports would have us believe?

As always there are economic reasons for political events. The neoliberal reforms that have been carried out through much of the region over the last thirty years or so have combined with the global economic crisis and rising global food prices to produce popular revolts which the regimes in question have found it impossible to either co-opt or smash. But these have not happened entirely spontaneously.

In Tunisia, there were demonstrations of the unemployed in the mining region of Gafsa in 2008 that were brutally repressed. There were other social protests in 2009 and 2010. The role of the trade unions has also been crucial. The Tunisian trade union federation, the Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT), called local general strikes on 12 January and then a national general strike on 14 January, the day Ben Ali fled. These strikes were around 90% solid. Students also played a crucial role, shutting schools and colleges. There has been a dialectical relationship between spontaneity and organisation.

In Egypt too, there had been increasing signs that people were prepared to stand up to the regime over the last few years. In 2007 workers struck and occupied Mehalla Kubra, a state-run textile factory, and the biggest factory in Egypt, over the failure to honour a promsed pay rise. Previously this kind of action would have been repressed by the state but on this occasion no-one was arrested or shot. After five days in occupation the government caved in and conceeded all the strikers' demands. Strikes then spread throughout the textile industry and then to other, smaller industries. In the last year or so, strikes that began with economic demands often ended with political demands against the regime in general and Mubarak in particular.

In the end it was the entrance of the organised working class that decided the fate of Mubarak. In many workplaces workers 'sacked' their bosses and ran the company themselves. Bank workers kicked out their bosses and made sure their wages were paid. Many groups of workers went on strike. There were other examples of popular organisation. Doctors organised makeshift hospitals wherever they could, neighbourhood committees protected their homes from the police posing as theives and looters, teams of volunteers checked IDs to keep undercover police out of Tahrir square, kept the square clean and repainted railings.

A couple of weeks after the resignation of Mubarak demonstrators again gathered in Tahrir Square to demand the pace of change be quickened. Soldiers beat protestors but were later forced to apologise on TV and on their Facebook page. The army want the strikes and demonstrations to stop but the strike wave is actually intensifying. The general-secretary of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which was a puppet of the Mubarak regime said "Most of the protests are asking for wage rise... This is a kind of extremism".

These events demonstrate that a revolution is not an event, it is a process. The longer it continues the more the process becomes deeper and broader. As in Russia in 1917, workers are moving from their initial demands of throwing off the autocracy, to demands for more democracy, through to demands for workers' control. Trotsky called this process 'permanent revolution'. Trotsky argued after the February Revolution in Russia that as the revolutionary process developed, workers that had brought down the Tsar would realise their power, become radicalised and could take the revolution forward from being a 'bourgeois revolution' to a 'socialist revolution' from below with workers' power and control of society.

This process is even more in evidence in Libya. In Egypt the army still has control of the apparatus of the state, wheras in Libya it has collapsed in much of the East of the country, especially around Benghazi. Although the fate of the revolution in Libya is more unclear than in Egypt because of the extreme violence of the counter-revolutionary forces around Colonel Gaddafi, in Benghazi the functions of the state are under popular control in the form of the revolutionary council that has emerged during the uprising. Workers' committees are running key installations such as electricity stations, ports and airports. A National Council has been set up to unite all the popular councils emerging throuout the country offering the prospect of a deepening of the revolution.

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron has been sabre-rattling, threatening to impose a 'no-fly zone' using 'military assets', refusing to rule out the possiblity of military intervention, although he has subsequently retreated from this position after US President Barack Obama made it clear he was not keen on such a move. It is clear that any intervention would be disastrous for the revolution. There was a 'no-fly zone' imposed on Iraq before the diastrous war in that country in 2003 in which more than a million people died. Those leaders that want to intervene now are the same ones that have sold Gaddafi the weapons he is using on his own people. Western intervention of any kind would give Gaddafi the opportunity to pose as an anti-imperialist. The Libyan people must make their own revolution.

For those of us in the west that want to show solidarity with workers in the Middle East and North Africa an organisation was founded on 1 March to do just that. The founding statement of 'Solidarity with Middle Eastern and North African Workers Network' stated,
"We celebrate the heroic struggles of workers in MENA who have played a vital role in bringing down tyrants across the region. We support their continuing battles for genuine democracy and social justice. We agree to help their campaigns for the right to strike and other basic social and democratic rights, for unions free from state control, and for well-paid and secure jobs. We support the creation of a broadly-based Solidarity with Middle Eastern and North African Workers Network from this meeting."
The website contains 'six things you can do to build workers’ solidarity' including signing the statement and supporting the launch of the Egyptian independent union federation.

We won't pay for their crisis

We are living in exciting times. The last few months have seen an explosion in resistance to governments in Europe, the US, North Africa, the Middle East and around the world. Much of this is driven by the economic crisis that erupted in 2008 and whose effects continue to ripple out around the world like a large stone thrown into a millpond. It began as a 'credit crunch', opening out into a global financial crisis, leading on to mind-numbingly large trillion dollar/pound/euro bank bailouts and is now entering the phase of 'austerity', cuts, job losses and privatisations, not least in Britain. The truth, of course, is far worse.

This is a crisis of capitalism itself. As Marx noted, there is a tendency for the rate of profit to fall and while it may fluctuate the tendency has always been down. The late Chris Harman did a lot of practical work on this in recent years and wrote a brilliant article in the ISJ a few years back in which he said that capitalism has,

"not been able to return to the “golden age” and it will not be able to do so in
future. It may not be in permanent crisis, but it is in a phase of repeated
crises from which it cannot escape, and these will necessarily be political and
social as well as economic."

But we need to be clear about this, the cuts coming from the ConDem Coalition are ideological; it is nothing less than a class attack on the people of this country. The cuts are unwaranted and unnecessary.

The PCS, the union for civil servants and other public sector workers, estimate that the amount of tax uncollected due to evasion (fraud) and avoidance (exploiting loopholes) amounts to £120 billion, more than three-quarters of the annual deficit. This is backed up by leaked Treasury documents. Yet the last government sacked staff in HM Revenue & Customs, the department that deals with uncollected tax and there is no sign of this government restoring those jobs. So it wouldn't take much of a hike in tax on the richest people in society or a rise in Corportion Tax to solve the whole deficit without a single cut or a single job lost. Labour are not against all the cuts either, just the level and the speed of cuts but I think our position is clear. No to ALL the cuts and ALL job losses; we won't pay for their crisis.

People aren't stupid, they don't really believe we are 'all in it together'. With recent bank bonuses totalling £6 billion and the government unwilling or unable to do anything about it, the resistance is beginning. The students showed the way with their inspiring demonstrations at the end of last year. This is now feeding into anti-cuts demonstrations, protests outside the outlets of shops that avoid paying tax, the possibility of co-ordinated strike action and the national TUC demo in London on March 26th. Who knows where it could all end. The people of North Africa and the Middle East have shown us what can be achieved if the people's anger towards their government is harnessed. We need to learn from their example and turn Trafalgar Square into Tahrir Square.