Day 7: Putin’s Party

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A few years after the second world war, a strange book was published in New York City.  It was called The Russian Menace to Europe and judging by the title, one would imagine it was one of many books which focussed public attention on the threat posed by the emerging Soviet superpower.

The book’s authors, however, were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

It was a collection of essays, mostly newspaper articles, written by Marx and Engels in the 19th century.  The Russia they were concerned about was not the Soviet Union, but the tsarist empire.

And yet there were very strong parallels between the two periods, a point Marx himself made (without knowing the future) when he described the unchanging character of Russian foreign policy.

Marx was especially concerned with the way Russia manipulated Western leaders, especially certain British politicians such as Lord Palmerston.  Palmerston’s actions during the Crimean War seemed to benefit Russia so often that Marx was convinced he was the tsar’s agent.

The idea back in the 1950s that Communist Russia and tsarist Russia had so much in common was quite daring.  Today, the idea that Putin’s Russia continues historic patterns stretching back centuries seems less controversial.

Putin’s foreign policy is simply a 21st century version of traditional Russian imperialism, constantly poking and probing its neighbors for weakness.  

In 2008, he brazenly launched a war on Georgia, an independent country to Russia’s south.  He continues to occupy two Georgian provinces with Russian troops.  A few years later, his soldiers seized control of Crimea from Ukraine. And then they triggered a civil war in eastern Ukraine, causing thousands of deaths.

Putin’s 21st century Russian imperialism has its foreign policy too and just like the tsars and the Communists, it seeks to influence Western politicians and public opinion.

In the American elections, the Russians are playing both sides with a considerable measure of success.  The relationship between Putin and Trump is an increasingly transparent one.  Trump has long expressed his admiration for Putin.  And yesterday, he stunned the political world in America by publicly calling on the Russians to release some 30,000 deleted emails from Hillary Clinton’s server which they may have hacked.

But it is not only the far-right Republicans that Putin seeks to influence and control.  For several years now, Putin’s satellite TV news channel Russia Today has tried to influence public opinion in the West by pretending to offer an alternative view of the world.  It is has had a certain limited success.

I spent yesterday not at the Democratic National Convention but at alternative events hosted by both democratic socialist groups and the far Left here in Philadelphia.  Green Party presidential candidate Dr Jill Stein spoke at one of them.  In a packed, airless and extremely hot hall, I saw a number of participants wearing “Hillary for Prison” t-shirts.  It seemed to strike no one as odd that Donald Trump’s slogan had a place at a left-wing meeting.

I imagine that most of the people in the room would broadly accept the world-view espoused by Russia Today — that the United States is the cause of global instability, that Russia threatens no one, and so on.  These views are certainly reflected in the platform of the Green Party.

So we find in America a century and a half after Marx and Engels wrote their essays that on both political fringes, right and left, the influence of the Russian state is clearly felt.  Obviously it is Donald Trump, and not Jill Stein, who needs to worry us.  But both are part of the same broad current who distrust American foreign policy, demonize Hillary Clinton, and have no problem with the autocrat in the Kremlin.

Those groups and individuals, whether they support the Tea Party or are self-styled Communists, are the members of Putin’s Party.

Written by Comments Off on Day 7: Putin’s Party Posted in DNC 2016

Day 6: Don’t vote for Dr Jill Stein

Jill Stein.
Dr. Jill Stein, presidential candidate of the Green Party in 2016.

I am addressing this to my friends who have supported Senator Bernie Sanders but are now considering voting for, and working for, Dr Jill Stein, the candidate of the Green Party.

First of all, let me say that I understand you.  And I have a confession to make:  I liked Ralph Nader in 2000.  I donated money to his campaign and I encouraged others to vote for him.  And I agree — he was not the reason that Al Gore lost the election.  I understand the temptation of voting for the Greens when we’re pissed off at the Democrats.

But to do so this year would be a colossal mistake.

There are two reasons for this.  The first one you can already guess, and many of you will agree with.  The second one will be a little bit more surprising, and many of you will disagree with me.

The first reason to not vote for Jill is because doing so increases the chances that Donald J. Trump will be your president.

You may say that you’re in a blue state, and that Clinton will win your state regardless of what you do.  But that’s political irresponsibility.  If I thought Jill Stein was the candidate I wanted to win, I would vote for her in any state.  And if you’re 100% certain that your vote will not make a difference, that you know with absolute certainty how your state will vote in November, then you have the gift of prophecy.  Because the pollsters don’t know, and no one predicted either Trump’s nomination nor Bernie’s success in the primaries.  This is an unpredictable election which Trump may very well win.  Unless we stop him.

The second reason is — well, have you read Jill’s platform?  I don’t mean right now, by clicking on that link (as I hope you will do).  I mean — a minute ago, when you were thinking what a good idea it would be to vote for her.

There are lots of great things in Jill’s platform.  It’s a long list of things progressives want.  It is calculated to appeal to Bernie supporters.  But it is not Bernie’s platform.

Let me give two examples.

Jill’s platform calls for an end to “U.S. financial and military support to human rights abusers” which sounds like a good idea.  And then, in case you didn’t understand which countries she is referring to, it adds:

“Barring substantial changes in their policies, this would include Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt.”

Some of you may have no problem with this.  If you support ending U.S. financial and military support for Israel, please go ahead and vote for Jill Stein.

If however, like Bernie Sanders, you support U.S. financial and military aid to Israel (such as helping to finance the “Iron Dome” anti-missile defense) — and support the U.S. helping to press Israel and its Palestinian neighbors into reaching an agreement on a two-state solution — then do not vote for Jill Stein.

It’s not just giving up Israel to Syria’s Assad, Hizbollah and Hamas.  Jill Stein opposes the U.S. being involved anywhere in the defense of democratic countries.  Her platform calls for this:  “Cut military spending by at least 50% and close the 700+ foreign military bases.”

That includes U.S. bases in Nato countries which are threatened by an aggressive Russian leadership headed by Vladimir Putin.  The last thing people in countries that border on Russia would like to see is a U.S. which has cut its military power in half and withdrawn all its troops from foreign countries.

In Jill Stein’s world, Russia is not a threat, a view she shares with Donald Trump.  Hizbollah is not a threat.  North Korea is not a threat.  There is no need for a powerful United States, or even Nato for that matter.

Supporters of Stein may at this point defend her platform by saying that I’ve cherry-picked the parts I don’t like.   There are plenty of good things in the platform.  That’s true.

But what’s important when you’re running for president of the United States?  Jill Stein is not running for mayor somewhere.  She’s made a great mayor.  I’d vote for her.

But she is running to be the Commander in Chief of the world’s greatest superpower, a country whose arsenal and whose military defeated fascism 70 years ago and is the only thing standing between Russian aggression and countries like Ukraine, Poland, Georgia and the Baltics.  Without U.S. support, Israel would have a far more difficult time defending itself against Hizbollah and Hamas rocket attacks, and the threat of Iranian nuclear arms.

If you support Jill Stein’s views on defense and foreign policy, by all means – vote for her.  If you don’t, if you worry about aggressive powers like Russia, Iran, and North Korea, think twice.

You may not like Hillary Clinton, you may not trust her, you may have preferred Bernie Sanders.  I get that.

But in 2016, in the real world, where it’s dangerous and America does need to play a role on the international stage, voting for Jill Stein is more than a waste of a vote.  It’s dangerous and irresponsible..

Don’t do it.

Written by Comments Off on Day 6: Don’t vote for Dr Jill Stein Posted in DNC 2016

Day 5: Bernie Sanders gives the speech of a lifetime

The first night of the Democratic National Convention began badly.  The first speaker was a woman minister and all went very well until she mentioned the name of Hillary Rodham Clinton.  And then the chanting began.  “Bernie! Bernie!”

Now, I understand some of that anger.  Hillary was not last night, and is still not this morning, the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party.  She will become the party’s candidate only after a roll call vote of delegates is taken.  Yes, she will win that vote.  But declaring the race over now is insulting to the nearly 2,000 delegates who are pledged to Bernie Sanders.  Speakers should have shown more respect to both candidates, and not ignored those delegates or the 13 million voters they represent.

But over the course of the evening, things began to change.  Every time Clinton’s name was mentioned, there was chanting.  Tim Kaine’s name also triggered this.  And when the platform came up — a platform which disgracefully does not call for blocking the anti-worker trade agreement known as TPP — there was booing and chanting, with hundreds of delegates waving anti-TPP and Bernie placards.  As they should have done.

By about 22:00, tiredness was starting to set in.  And the point had been made.  And then the Democratic party leadership finally showed it had some brains.  It scheduled a series of speakers to wrap up the evening — Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Senator Elizabeth Warren who wowed the crowd, including the Sanders delegates.

Obama was especially powerful.  Her message about what it feels like to raise two beautiful Black daughters in a house built by slaves — the White House — silenced everyone, and moved everyone.  I was not alone to wipe tears from my eyes as I heard her speak.

Elizabeth Warren is an iconic figure for the American left.  She was not booed, not interrupted, and was treated like Obama with great respect.  Her support for Clinton was forceful and convincing.  The cold, intellectual case for backing Clinton had been made.

So it was a much calmer hall, and people much more focussed on stopping Donald Trump, by the time Bernie Sanders was introduced at nearly 23:00.

And even though people were exhausted — for most, the day began with breakfast meetings at 07:00 — the crowd went absolutely wild, everyone on their feet, all chanting.  If there were Clinton supporters in the hall, you wouldn’t have known it.  Maybe they were chanting “Bernie! Bernie!” too.  It took Sanders several minutes to calm everyone down.

And then he proceeded to talk about what has happened in the last year, where we stand now and what we must do next.

It was the speech of a lifetime.

It showed the greatness of this American politician because he is a man who is not only able to rally millions of people to social change, to feed off their anger and to be their voice.  He also knows when to say: we have come this far, but no further tonight.  This is where we stop, we pause, we think about what needs to be done next.

And what needs to be done right now, over the next hundred or so days, is to work day and night to ensure that Donald J. Trump is not elected the next President of the United States.

A lesser politician would not have been able to do this.  To speak to a crowd which only an hour earlier roared with anger at the mention of Clinton’s name, and to tell them: we must vote for this person and we must campaign for her.

This is what leadership is all about.  This was the most extraordinary example of leadership we saw last night, and maybe all year.  This was a man telling a painful truth to his followers, talking straight, pulling no punches.

Not everyone will be convinced, of course.  There are “Bernie or Bust” supporters who will no doubt be out in the streets today.  But they are a small and dwindling minority.  Most of us listened carefully to what Bernie had to say, and are convinced.

As the Clinton campaign slogan goes, “He’s with her”.

And I’m with him.

Written by Comments Off on Day 5: Bernie Sanders gives the speech of a lifetime Posted in DNC 2016

Day 4: This is what a revolution looks like

The calm before the storm. Hurricane Bernie is coming.
The calm before the storm. Hurricane Bernie is coming.

The Democratic National Convention opens in just a few minutes; I am sitting in the hall, looking down on the delegates and the stage.  People are slowly coming into the hall.  This place has the feeling of the calm before the storm.  And this storm has a name: Hurricane Bernie.

Anyway who thought that there would be an orderly transition from insurgent campaign to team players was sorely mistaken.  Senator Sanders may be convinced of the need to unify the party around presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton.  But many of his supporters do not share that view.

According to news reports, the appearance of disgraced former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz at the Florida delegation breakfast triggered boos and shouting.

Some traditional Democratic activists who were there told news media that they were shocked — shocked — at the behavior of the Sanders delegates.

The meeting of the enormous California delegation apparently also disintegrated into shouting matches.  Not even the respected Democrat Nancy Pelosi was spared.

In the streets of Philadelphia, there are thousands of Berners carrying around “Bernie or Bust” signs.  In the Pennsylvania Convention Center, Bernie’s meeting with delegates attracted thousands of people some of whom, like me, were turned away.

But even there, as one eyewitness told me, there was little patience for Bernie’s attempt to show some support for Hillary Clinton and unify the party.

The DNC and Clinton have been incredibly inept at their handling of the Sanders supporters.  They appear to be taking them for granted, assuming that they have nowhere else to go.  After all, it’s either vote Clinton or get Trump.

And yet — people are angry.

This evening Bernie will address the convention and the world.  I am looking out over a sea of journalists; there are several thousand here.  Sanders speech will be transmitted live and millions will hear him speak in real time, many for the first time.

It now seems clear that his message will be one of continuing the revolution, but will also call for support for Clinton.

Sanders’ supporters will almost certainly welcome him with a standing ovation.  But they may interrupt him if he says anything positive at all about Clinton.

They are an unruly crowd, undisciplined, under no one’s control. They cannot be managed or dictated to.  They must be treated with respect.

And above all, they must be listened to.

They want to be heard.  And tonight, they will be heard.

This is what a revolution looks like.

Written by Comments Off on Day 4: This is what a revolution looks like Posted in DNC 2016

Day 2: Have America’s two major political parties entered into a suicide pact?

For some time now, commentators have been talking about the Republican Party’s tendency to self-destruct.  Every time Donald J. Trump said something stupid or outrageous, he won more support.  Every time polls showed him as the weakest possible Republican candidate, his support within the party grew.  Some pundits have spoken about the Republican Party committing suicide.

But in the last few days, we’ve seen the Democrats begin to do something similar.  In a sense, it looks a bit like a suicide pact.

Sitting here in Philadelphia, waiting for the Democratic National Convention to open on Monday,  I have witnessed two extraordinary events that seem to show the Democrats with a clear death wish.

The first of these is the WikiLeaks revelations.  Sanders supporters always suspected that behind the scenes, the leadership of the Democratic National Committee was plotting and scheming, and detested the left wing of the party.  Now we know that our suspicions were well-founded.

But it’s not only that US Representative and chair of the DNC Debbie Wasserman-Schultz considered Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver an asshole.  We suspected things like that.  It’s that she and her colleagues wrote this stuff down, in emails, which have now been published.  So they’re not only manipulative, anti-democratic bureaucrats.  They’re also incompetent at their jobs.  Did they really believe that none of this would ever come out?

Second was Hillary Clinton’s decision to choose Senator Tim Kaine as her vice presidential candidate.  She could have chosen Senator Elizabeth Warren, which would have electrified voters, especially young ones, and unified a deeply divided Democratic Party. She did not do so.  She could have chosen Bernie Sanders as well, which would have been an extraordinarily bold move.  Either choice would have ensured a sweeping Democratic victory in November.

Instead, she chose the nebbish.

Compare this to what Donald J. Trump did.  Trump was faced with the danger of losing conservative support.  Tea Party activists don’t trust him.  His relationship with Fox News is not an easy one.  So he picked a completely reliable, if boring, vice president.  The right wing of his party is now happy.  The party is slightly more united as a result (though the Bushes and others still hate him.)

This is not what Clinton has done.  Instead of trying to balance the ticket with someone to her left, to represent the millions of voters who backed Sanders, she’s chosen someone to her right.  Someone who supports free trade agreements.  Who’s opposed to abortion.  Who’s seen as a “moderate” (which is American for “right wing”).

Who exactly does she think this will please?  Who will be won over to the Democrats because Kaine is on the ticket?  In an election year when “free trade” has become toxic and even Clinton has distanced herself from Obama on the issue, she has chosen a “free trader” as her running mate.

Moderate Republicans who detest Trump are going to vote for Clinton anyway.  They do not need to be pandered to.

Clinton’s problem is that she suffers from an “enthusiasm gap” compared to people like Sanders and Warren.

To defeat Trump, and defeating Trump is the most important thing in American politics, and possibly global politics, in 2016, you cannot do stuff like what Debbie Wasserman-Schultz has been doing at the DNC.  And you cannot appoint a dull “centrist” as your running mate.

And most of all, you cannot continue to treat the left wing of your party, and an entire generation of new voters, with contempt.

I’m watching the Democratic Party, which is the only thing standing in the way of Donald Trump becoming President, slowly commit suicide.

Day 1: A whiff of fascism in Cleveland

I arrived in Philadelphia last night, just in time to catch Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.

Though I have to confess that after the first four hours of his speech (or at least it felt that long, maybe it was only an hour), I nodded off.

But not before I caught these sentences:

A number of these reforms that I will outline tonight will be opposed by some of our nation’s most powerful special interests. That is because these interests have rigged our political and economic system for their exclusive benefit.

Big business, elite media and major donors are lining up behind the campaign of my opponent because they know she will keep our rigged system in place. They are throwing money at her because they have total control over everything she does. She is their puppet, and they pull the strings.

On the one hand, you might think there’s not much wrong with this.  Some Sanders supporters might even say similar things.

We’re all against the privileged elite, against big money in politics, etc.  But Trump is using a very specific language to describe those elites and how they operate.

It is the language of fascism.  And specifically of its national socialist variety.  And this is because it imagines  a world with secret rulers who manipulate others with their money.  That ruling cabal goes un-named by Donald Trump, but just as the dog can hear a particular kind of whistle, so the fascist understands who those “special interests” are.

Not convinced that this is a classic Nazi image?  Have a look at these examples from Nazi propaganda:

jewishpuppeteers

 

Is Donald Trump an anti-Semite?  Probably not.

But he is reviving a classic anti-Jewish trope, the notion of a powerful, secretive ruling cabal that owns and controls non-Jewish politicians just as a puppeteer controls his puppets.

If Trump had made those remarks in the context of a liberal, inclusive and anti-racist speech, one would hesitate to say anything.  After all, it may simply have been a poor choice of words.

But it wasn’t a liberal and anti-racist speech — it was the most racist and reactionary speech given at a national political convention in the United States in living memory.

There was more than a whiff of fascism in it.

I worry for America.

Bernie Sanders: The primary is over, and now the real work begins

Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign was the largest mobilisation of the American Left in history. He won more than twenty states and over ten million votes. His vote total was more than triple that achieved by Ralph Nader in 2000, and five thousand times larger than the votes won by the last Socialist Party candidate for president back in 1956. And he came incredibly close to defeating Hillary Clinton and capturing the Democratic nomination.

No one expected this kind of success, least of all Sanders himself. And yet certain factors such as the post-2008 economic crisis and the growing up of new, post-Cold-War generation for whom the term “socialist” is not toxic, made the Sanders campaign possible. For American socialists, the Sanders campaign has settled the question of whether one needs to work within the framework of the Democratic Party or outside of it, and completely vindicates the strategy first proposed a half century ago by some of the country’s leading socialists.

By early June, and especially in the wake of Sanders’ weak performance in the California primary, it has become obvious that Clinton will be the Party’s nominee for president. In a video address to his supporters, Sanders made clear that while the “political revolution” he has been preaching continues, and he encouraged everyone to get more active, to run for office and so on, his own race for the presidency is essentially over.

In his view, the main task facing his supporters and everyone else in the next few months is to ensure that Donald Trump is not elected president. While he did not endorse Clinton, he seems to have let up on most attacks against her, and will almost certainly endorse her at the July Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia if not sooner.

This will certainly divide Sanders’ own supporters, many of whom have adopted a “Bernie Or Bust” attitude. Some supporters say they’ll abstain on election day, others will write in Sanders’ name, still others will support the Green Party’s candidate, Dr Jill Stein. Media speculation that significant numbers of Sanders’ supporters might back the Libertarian Party or even vote for Donald Trump seem unfounded.

So, what happens now?

In the weeks running up to the Convention, while the Sanders campaign won’t be trying to woo super-delegates, they will be quite busy. Sanders has something like 1,900 delegates, and they will be a powerful voting block in support of progressive changes to the Democratic Party platform. Sanders has made it clear that he intends to fight for a platform that reflects his views rather than Clinton’s, and he has a good chance of winning on some key issues, such as the call for a $15 hourly minimum wage (Clinton supports $12).

In addition to fighting for a better platform – and holding the candidates accountable – the Sanders campaign will focus on changing the rules that made it so hard for him to win this year. This includes allowing independent voters in each state to vote in the Democratic primaries, and for a weakening or abolition of the system of unelected super-delegates.

And Sanders intends to fight to remove party functionaries including Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schulz. Schulz, a member of Congress from Florida, who has been working behind the scenes all year to ensure a Clinton victory. Her brazen partisanship has triggered a challenge as one of Sanders’ supporters, Tim Canova, is now running against her. A few days ago, the Florida AFL-CIO declined to endorse Schulz, showing how angry she has made progressives by her behaviour.

The Democratic National Convention, which begins on 25 July, promises to be one of the most exciting in decades. People have already compared it to 1980, when liberal challenger Ted Kennedy was the favourite in the hall, despite Jimmy Carter winning the nomination. Kennedy’s address was a highlight of the convention as he upstaged a weak and disliked sitting president. It is possible that Sanders, who is expected to address the Convention, may receive a similar welcome.

There will also be a lot of activity outside the hall, with several groups planning activities, including street demonstrations. Some people have already compared the atmosphere to that in 1968, when the Democrats chose to nominate Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a deeply unpopular figure closely associated with the Vietnam War. Both Carter in 1980 and Humphrey in 1968 went down to defeat in the November general elections.

Most observers believe that the vast majority of Sanders supporters will rally behind him when he endorses Clinton. They will support Clinton with little enthusiasm. One is reminded of the 1964 election, when student leftists heard the slogan “All the way with LBJ” (LBJ being President Lyndon B. Johnson) and replaced it with “Part of the way with LBJ”. In 1976, socialist author Michael Harrington wrote an article entitled “Voting for Carter – without illusions”. One expects something similar from most of the organised left in the US this year.

There will also be a certain amount of tactical voting. People in states that expect to go Democratic will feel more able to abstain or vote Green. But in states where Trump has a chance of winning, it is likely that pretty much the entire left and labour movement will support Clinton.

The most important question is not whether or not to support Clinton, but what to do in the long run. What happens on the morning after the November general election? Regardless of whether Clinton or Trump win, America needs a strong and independent Left.

A number of organisations already see themselves as being at the heart of such a Left, including Democracy for America, the Working Families Party, MoveOn, and Democratic Socialists of America. All of them are organising and recruiting new members.

Whatever happens next, this much is clear: Bernie Sanders’ campaign has changed American politics beyond recognition. Opportunities for the Left have been created which never existed before.

I for one cannot remember a more exciting time for the American Left.

 

 

 

This article appears in Solidarity.

Written by Comments Off on Bernie Sanders: The primary is over, and now the real work begins Posted in Solidarity

Trade unions in the Middle East: Opening remarks at the Svensson Prize panel

Last week the International Trade Union Confederation released its annual Global Rights Index. The Index reviews the state of workers rights in 141 countries. “The Middle East and North Africa,” it reported, “were again the worst region for working people.”

In the section on Libya, the ITUC reports that “an attempt was made on the life of Nermin Al-Sharif, head of the Libyan Dockers’ and Seafarers’ Union.” Nermin “was at the wheel of a car on the outskirts of Benghazi when the occupants of two vehicles began pursuing her and shooting at her. Hit by a bullet, the trade unionist was unable to avoid crashing. She had to be hospitalised. This is the second attempt to murder Nermin Al-Sharif. Like many other human rights activists, she was targeted by fanatics.”

Referring to Bahrain, the ITUC reports on “the guilty verdict issued against the” leaders of the teachers union Mahdi Abu Dheeb and Jalila al-Salman “for allegedly attempting to overthrow the ruling system by force and inciting hatred of the regime.” Jalila was released in 2012, while Mahdi remained in prison to serve out his sentence and has only recently been freed. According to the ITUC report, both Mahdi and Jalila were tortured in detention.

And in the section on Egypt, the ITUC discusses the Centre for Trade Unions and Workers’ Services, which denounced a renewed attempt to muzzle independent trade unions. The CTUWS and its leader Kamal Abbas have long been targetted by the regime – and its predecessors – for their unshakeable commitment to independent trade unionism.

LabourStart has been involved in all three countries, launching global online campaigns in support of these brave individuals and their unions.

In 2012, working together with the ITUC, we campaigned demanding that the Egyptian government drop the charges against Kamal Abbas, who was accused of “insulting a public officer”. Over 7,000 trade unionists around the world supported that campaign.

That same year, our campaign calling on the Bahrain government to free Mahdi and Jalila got the support of more than 11,000 union members, and we hope that this contributed to the decision by the government to free Jalila.

And in November 2015, working together with the International Transport Workers Federation, we launched a campaign demanding justice for Nermin and calling on the Libyan government to take steps to protect the lives of trade unionists and human rights defenders.

All three campaigns are bound up with the story of the “Arab Spring” which began in 2011.

The revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere have had mixed results. We are all thrilled that our brothers and sisters in the Tunisian trade union movement UGTT shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year. The success of the democratic revolution in Tunisia is due in no small part to the trade union movement there.

I have no doubt that in the coming months and years we will see the ideals of the Arab Spring come to life again in Egypt, Bahrain and Libya — and that the independent trade unions in those countries will play central roles in the battle for democracy. People like Nermin, Mahdi and Kamal, who have been jailed, shot at, harassed and denounced by authoritarian regimes and fanatics, will be free to do their jobs as trade union leaders — and recognized for their heroic efforts in the fight for democracy and social justice.

I am glad that LabourStart, working together with our partners in the international trade union movement, has been able to play a small role in all this.

And I can promise to our brothers and sisters here today, to Nermin, Mahdi and Kamal, that we will stand by your side in the struggles to come.

Thank you.

Written by Comments Off on Trade unions in the Middle East: Opening remarks at the Svensson Prize panel Posted in Uncategorized

The Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights – my speech in Oslo

leif-arthur-eric 020

It is a great honour to be here today and to receive the Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights on behalf of LabourStart. I want to thank the union Industri Energi for awarding the Prize to us this year.

It is truly humbling to read the names of winners in previous years. The people and organisations you have selected represent the very best of the trade union movement, people who are often on the front lines of the fight for democracy and social justice.

In previous years the focus of the prize has been on individuals and unions which have taken great risks and sometimes suffered enormously for the “crime” of defending workers’ rights.

Mahdi Abu Dheeb, who together with Jalila al-Salman, was jailed and tortured by a government which was willing to go to enormous lengths to prevent the spread of the “Arab Spring” to Bahrain.

Napoléon Gómez, the leader of Los Mineros in Mexico, a victim of repression and death threats who is forced to live in exile from his country.

Russian trade union leader Valentin Urusov, jailed on fabricated charges when his real crime was to stand up for workers.

We who campaign in support of people like Mahdi, Napoleon and Valentin here in places like Oslo and London take few personal risks in doing so.

We are unlikely to be jailed and tortured, or shot at or forced into exile.

We live in countries with strong trade union movements, with a democratic tradition where human rights are largely respected.

We are not on the front lines in the way that our brothers and sisters in Bahrain, Mexico or Russia are.

And yet, the role we play in building global solidarity and in particular with our online campaigns, is critical.

LabourStart was founded 18 years ago, a time when few trade unions fully grasped the importance of the internet.

Today, I think that pretty much everyone understands that the Internet has changed completely how we organize, how we campaign, how we fight.

But LabourStart, from the very beginning, this was not just about the technology.

It was about internationalism. About global solidarity. About a world where the differences between social classes are more important than the differences between nations.

In a globalized economy, we made the case a globalized labour movement.

At first, we struggled to be heard.

But over the years, what we offer to the international trade union movement is increasingly understood and valued.

When it comes to campaigning in defense of workers rights we bring two things to the table: a platform and a network.

The platform is the web-based ActNOW system, which is a bespoke system we use to make it easy for trade unionists working in any language to support our campaigns.

The network is at its core a mailing list of just under 137,000 names and addresses of trade unionists who are prepared to support our campaigns. 88,000 of them are on our English list and the other 49,000 on dozens of other lists in all the major and several minor languages.

So how does it work?

Unions come to us with problems and we offer solutions.

For a number of reasons we work mostly with the global union federations and the International Trade Union Confederation. But we also work with national trade union centres, national unions, and in some cases, even local unions and pro-union NGOs.

Those organisations come to us with issues like an employer who has sacked union officials for doing their jobs, or a government which has jailed union leaders, or — in the worst case scenario — cases where trade unionists have lost their lives and the demand is simple justice.

Working together with our union partners, we figure out what the message of the campaign needs to be, who the target of our messages will be, and how we can achieve our goal.

Once this is all agreed upon, we put the campaign online and begin translating it. Typically, a campaign will appear in 15 – 20 languages, all the translations done by volunteers.

Anyone visiting LabourStart’s website will learn about the campaign, and it will appear on many other union websites automatically. We make sure it gets known on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networks.

And if that’s all we do, the campaign will be a failure and very few people will know about it.

We have learned over the years that the only effective way to get the word out about these campaigns is email.

Email, that old, low-tech, boring communications tool turns out to be the killer app of online campaigning.

When we launch a campaign targetting a company or government, within minutes of our email message going out, the first few hundred messages of protest will have been delivered.

Within a day, we could be looking at 5,000 or more messages.

Never before in the long history of the international trade union movement have we had a tool like this.

That’s great, you may be thinking, but does it work? Do sacked trade unionists get their jobs back? Do jailed union leaders get released? Is anyone listening to our protests?

The answer is yes, sometimes. Not all the time. There is no guarantee that a campaign will work. But our campaigns succeed often enough that we actually published a short book a couple of years ago called Campaigning Online and Winning where we talked about dozens of successful LabourStart campaigns.

It’s probably time to do an updated version of that book — and to translate it into Norwegian.

And I should say a word about what we mean by winning.

We don’t mean “sending a lot of protest messages”. I don’t care if we send 1,000 messages or 20,000 messages — what matters is only this: did we get the result we were looking for?

There are campaigns we have won with very few messages sent. And campaigns we’ve lost despite having mobilized very large numbers of people.

That doesn’t mean numbers don’t matter. They do. It certainly helps to have more people involved in a campaign.

But other factors play a role as well.

The central one is the role played by people on the ground. We win campaigns when the workers on the ground, the ones we are fighting for and with, show determination and grit.

The courage of so many of the workers we campaign with is truly inspiring. Our role is clearly secondary — it is their heroic struggle that wins the day.

Which brings me here today, speaking to you in Oslo at this wonderful event.

I want to speak about your role, the role of Norwegian trade unionists in the work we do at LabourStart.

More than a decade ago, Espen Loken launched the Norwegian version of LabourStart. It was one of our very first versions in a language other than English and it flourished. We tapped into a couple of things that made it a success.

First of all, Norwegian trade unionists have been using computers and the Internet for a long time. So it was relatively easy, even some years ago, to reach large numbers of workers in this country using the Internet.

And second, we tapped into a long and proud history of international solidarity in the Norwegian labour movement. On one of my visits to Oslo — I think it was my last one — I was invited by one of your unions to speak at a full-day event on international solidarity. It was part of the union’s regular congress. I can’t imagine unions in most countries doing that sort of thing, and giving international work such prominence.

As a result of our work here in Norway, we now have 2,700 trade unionists from your country on our mailing list. Every campaign we do is quickly translated into Norwegian and every mass mailing goes out to those 2,700 people.

I’m tempted to say, thanks very much. If only we had such a large group of committed trade unionists in every country.

And yet — we could do better.

The unions affiliated to the LO claim 900,000 members. YS claims 220,000 members. These are extraordinarily high numbers considering that Norway only has about five million people.

But it also tells me that the potential for LabourStart here is much greater than the 2,700 people we currently talk to and who are involved in our campaigns.

It’s important to remember that only a fraction of the people on our mailing list actually sign up to support each campaign.

Our most successful campaign at the moment in Norway is one demanding justice for the murdered Italian researcher Giulio Regeni, who was killed in Egypt while doing research into independent trade unionism.

That campaign got the support of 185 people in Norway. Which means that over 2,500 Norwegian trade unionists who are on our mailing list have not yet supported the campaign. And another million or so organized workers in Norway, members of trade unions here, have probably never heard of the campaign.

Imagine if our mailing list consisted of, say, 10% of the members of Norwegian unions. The 10% who care the most about international solidarity.

Instead of having 2,700 people as part of our global network, we’d have 110,000. Instead of sending 185 messages of protest to the Egyptian government from here, we’d have sent over 7,500.

Is that overly ambitious?

I don’t think so.

When we started LabourStart back in March, 1998, there was no staff, no network, no resources. It was just an idea.

It grew slowly, year on year, and today we have the capacity to rapidly deliver thousands of messages of protest by email to targetted governments and employers.

But we can do so much more.

Our global solidarity conferences — the most recent ones were in Toronto, Berlin, Sydney and Istanbul — show that we can also work outside of cyberspace.

I think we’ve made great progress, and we’ve won some inspiring victories, but I’m not content and not resting on our laurels.

Looking back at the last 18 years, seeing what’s been achieved and how far we’ve come, my conclusion is a simple one.

This is only the beginning. Now, let’s start the real work.

Written by Comments Off on The Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights – my speech in Oslo Posted in Uncategorized

For this activist, the battle of Berlin is over

Larry Sanders and Eric Lee at a campaign event in London.
Larry Sanders and Eric Lee at a campaign event in London.

I have just left the Global Convention of Democrats Abroad here in Berlin where I represented Senator Bernie Sanders.

I was not a delegate, or elector, and hold no office in Democrats Abroad. But I was there to ensure that the best possible delegation was elected to represent our political revolution and I’m pleased with the results.

Not only did we manage to get Bernie’s brother Larry Sanders elected to the first position with nearly unanimous support, but we elected a whole team of excellent campaigners and activists. I’m particularly proud of the election of two women, one an old friend (Penny Schantz) and the other who was one of the key volunteers in London for Bernie (Kari Mosleh). I am sorry that of the 211 people who proposed themselves to be Sanders delegates from Democrats Abroad, only 9 will be going to Philadelphia in July to represent our campaign.

Among those 202 disappointed people I now have to count myself. This morning I was defeated in voting to be an alternate.

I won’t go into all the gory detail of what happened, except to say this.

Inside the Sanders Presidential Preference Group which I attended, I saw candidates rise to make their case, talking about themselves, or what they did for the campaign, or their political vision. I did not see people rising to attack other candidates, to question their integrity or make accusations against them.

Except in one case.

Over the course of the last several days, I was repeatedly accused, publicly and in private conversations, from the floor and in the corridors, of the worst possible crime.

That crime was denying the existing leadership of Democrats Abroad, meaning the people who gathered together in Berlin this week, the right to choose the 9 people who would go to represent the 24,000 people who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Global Presidential Primary.

In the Delegate Selection Plan drafted by Democrats Abroad, campaigns are given the right to review the lists of self-nominated candidates, and to submit a shortlist. The campaign is obligated to submit at least two names for every open position so that in the end, the leaders of Democrats Abroad still get a say in the matter.

Instead of submitting the minimum requirement of 18 names, we submitted 34. It goes without saying that many people were disappointed not to be included on that list.

Anticipating that, I wrote to everyone who had submitted their names, explaining what we had done and why.

I’m pleased to say that I received many emails thanking me for my transparency and fairness. I did not hear a single complaint from the self-nominated candidates who were excluded from the shortlist.

That shortlist met the requirement for gender balance, and 60% of the names on it met the affirmative action criteria as well. It included young and old people, Democrats Abroad veterans and people who have never been active in the organization.

Our idea was to ensure that some of the latter group, newcomers who the existing leaders of Democrats Abroad would not know, would go as delegates to Philadelphia. Their chances were increased because of the shortlist.

And as Larry Sanders just told the participants in the convention this morning, that is what is normally done in political organizations, and is particularly needed by insurgent campaigns like ours.

Unfortunately, not everyone in Democrats Abroad shared that view, and some began spreading rumors which had no basis in fact, and which served to cast the campaign in general and me in particular in the worst possible light.

Those attacks began well before we gathered in Berlin and picked up steam over the last few days despite our best efforts to clear the air.

They reached a peak this morning when the time came for the small number of electors who showed up for an early morning session to vote in the final round for an alternate.

I was given an opportunity for speak for one minute, and used it to say what I’d done for the campaign.

The winning candidate also had a minute and used all of it to denounce me for being involved in the creation of a shortlist of candidates.

And in the midst of all this nastiness, several people worked very hard openly and behind the scenes to clear up the rumors and encourage people to vote for me. In particular I want to thank Larry Sanders, Penny Schantz, Travis Mooney, Rob and Sanja Carolina. Your support and friendship have gotten me through a difficult few days.

In the end, the delegation we are sending of Sanders supporters to Philadelphia is a good one and I’m proud to have played a role in ensuring that happened. I’m even more proud of having played a role in mobilizing thousands of people in London and around the world since June 2015, winning a spectacular victory in the Global Presidential Primary in March this year.

I expect to be in Philadelphia for the convention in one capacity or another, and look forward to meeting many of you there.

The old politics may have won a small victory in Berlin this morning. As Bernie Sanders constantly reminds us, it is a rigged system.

But I am confident that we are strong and we are growing, and the political revolution Bernie speaks about is a reality.

The struggle continues.

Written by Comments Off on For this activist, the battle of Berlin is over Posted in Uncategorized