Friday, 22 May 2009

how do we stop the jobs massacre?

I have already blogged about both the demonstrations last Saturday: London's Gaza demo, which I attended, and the disappointing March for Jobs in Birmingham. It's worth considering the significance of the latter event, especially as some billed it (in advance) as a likely major breakthrough for mobilising in defence of jobs. Sadly, it wasn't.

Considering the scale of the crisis, you might have expected a much bigger turnout. Perhaps you would have expected a series of such marches by now, involving a range of unions. Or possibly a more co-ordinated approach by the unions, instead of last weekend's Unite-dominated affair.

Yet none of this has happened. We've also had the TUC Put People First march, which attracted 35,000, followed by anti-capitalist protests in the City of London to co-incide with the G20. But, considering the potential of the union movement combined with the backlash against bankers and neoliberalism, it's hardly momentous.

That is not to say these are not still noteworthy. The PPF demo was impressive up to a point, and the G20 City protest gave a glimpse of a possible resurgence in anti-capitalism. The occupations at Visteon, more than anything, constituted a decisive step forward, though they haven't yet sparked a wider fightback so it is perhaps too early to evaluate.

Socialists need to reflect carefully on developments. Rather than simply being cheerleaders for struggle, we need an accurate and informed assessment to guide our strategy and tactics.

The central difficulty is the inertia of the union bureaucracies. The historic weakening of the unions over the last 30 years makes it difficult for the rank and file to overcome this. The problem is made worse by the closeness of the unions to Labour, with the likelihood of a Tory return to office and some vaguely leftish rhetoric from Brown helping shore up union leaders' compliance with the Labour Party machine. The lack of a credible left-of-Labour electoral alternative makes it still harder to undermine the union-Labour link.

The union marches so far have had strengths, but also weaknesses. Before the PPF demo Brendan Barber of the TUC stressed that they didn't want anti-capitalist protestors turning up. It was hardly the alliance of 'Teamsters and Turtles' which Seattle, nearly a decade ago, became known for. Indeed the more radical and militant protest was an entirely separate affair, taking place the following Wednesday.

Unite's demo was undermined by the union's apparent desire to keep everyone else at arm's length. Here in Tyneside the only transport to Birmingham was organised by Unite, who insisted that non-Unite members were not welcome. This was hardly a gesture of solidarity! Then there's the problem of weak politics, from Unite's succumbing to nationalism earlier this year ('British Jobs for British Workers') to the apolitical, and slightly dubious, slogans like 'Men of Steel' on the Corus workers' official placards, from the illusions in Gordon Brown to the welcoming of Digby Jones - former head of the bosses' CBI - on Saturday's march.

Pointing out our limitations is not to succumb to despair. We just need to be realistic. There were 10,000 on the City protest, following a 'mainstream' march and rally of 35,000 a few days earlier - and there was little direct connection between the two. This is a far cry from Genoa in 2001 - 300,000 in the big march, a day after tens of thousands were involved in direct action - or Florence in October 2002, when the European Social Forum was followed by a massive anti-war march.

One lesson from all this is the need for greater rank and file initiative, to overcome the limitations of official leaders. Another key point is the necessity of a left wing political alternative; though for the time being this is sadly not on the cards, it has to be part of the long-term view. We also need to find mechanisms for linking up the dynamism and radicalism of anti-capitalism with the power of the unions.

Crucially, though, we must acknowledge where we are strongest and utilise our strengths in other areas. The left's great advantage in recent years has been in building mass movements, whose primary locus is the streets - most obviously the anti-war movement. We need to find ways of tapping into this - methods for connecting with radicalised students, young workers, young unemployed, activists - to strengthen the resistance.

A key date in this project will be the 'Fight for the right to work' conference in London on 13 June, when networks can hopefully be created that start to take the initative away from the tired union machines and put it back with the rank and file.

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