Category: Solidarity

Solidarity with the Kurds – or NATO-bashing?

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.


At the November 1st demonstration in Trafalgar Square in support of besieged Kobane, it struck me that the speakers — and more broadly, the Left — were not singing from the same page.

On the one side there were those who were demanding that Britain and NATO do more to help the Kurds fighting against the Islamic fascists of IS. For example, Peter Tatchell led the crowd in chants demanding that David Cameron authorise the dropping of more aid to the Kurds, including weapons. There were calls for Turkey to be suspended from NATO because it, unlike other NATO countries, was not prepared to help the Kurds. And more generally most of the speakers especially the Kurdish ones, had not a critical word to say about the USA, the West, NATO or imperialism. Everyone was focussed on the evil that is “Islamic State”.

On the other side, some of the far-Left speakers went overboard in denouncing NATO, the USA and the West, going so far as claiming that IS was a creation of NATO and Washington.

This was particularly the case with a spokesman for the “Stop the War Coalition” — an organization whose presence at the event surprised many of the participants.

The Coalition’s website has almost nothing at all about the war taking place today in Syria and Iraq and indeed the only reference to it is video of George Galloway denouncing the support NATO is giving to the Kurds. Galloway also voted against this support in the Commons.

It seems to me that elements of the British far Left find themselves in a bit of a bind.

On the one hand, there’s this extraordinary, inspiring resistance movement in Kobane, which has captured the imagination of many who would normally be the natural constituency for the Left. The people on the ground, fighting IS, belong to a movement which was seen, until recently, as part of the broad international Left.

Obviously they deserve our support — and yet that seems to mean supporting the US and British air strikes, supporting NATO.

To get around this, the far Leftists have decided on the “ISIS is NATO” line, which is an extraordinary position — one is almost at a loss for words to describe it.

For those not understanding how IS could be both under NATO attack and simultaneously a creation of NATO, some of the speakers went so far as to say that IS was using American weapons.

The implication was that America gave them weapons.

This is, of course, utter nonsense. The American weapons that have fallen into the hands of IS were taken from the retreating Iraqi army. Taken — not handed over as a gift by the Americans.

One of the anti-NATO, anti-American tirades came from an organisation I’d not previously heard of called the “Revolutionary Communist Group”. (I’m sure that specialists will know the entire history of this micro-sect, but for me it was new.) And groups like this, which get invited to speak at mass rallies, give only a very small piece of their line because they’d be booed off the stage if people knew what they really believed.

The RCG’s speaker shouted the usual stuff about solidarity with the Kurds, but a quick glance at their website shows that they are in fact enthusiastic supporters of the bloody Assad dictatorship and its army. The same Syrian army that abandoned Kobane — an army that no Kurd wants to have back. But there was no mention of that to the largely Kurdish crowd in Trafalgar Square.

So what are people like this, who support Assad and Saddam, who demonize NATO and the USA, doing at these rallies?

They’re there because they can’t afford not to be there. To have nothing to say when the battle of Kobane rages would be unacceptable; they must somehow show solidarity with the embattled Kurds.

But they oppose the very thing — NATO air support — that has made that battle possible. The tide may be turning in Kobane because of US bombing and air drops.

On the ground, some Kurds have been heard chanting “Long live Obama!” How embarrassing for the anti-Americans on the far Left.

These people with their crazy views, denouncing the essential support given by the West to the Kurds, praising Assad and Saddam, have no place at Kurdish solidarity rallies. They are there purely to cover their tracks, to provide themselves with some kind of moral cover as IS continues with its murderous rampage across Syria and Iraq.

We should give them no platform.

The anti-anti-semitism of fools

This article also appears on Harry’s Place, Howie’s Corner, Solidarity (Workers’ Liberty) and Shiraz Socialist.


 I have just come back from attending a large demonstration in central London protesting the rise of anti-Semitism in the UK.

The demonstration was organised by a new group called the Campaign Against Antisemitism. It was backed by all the major Jewish organisations in Britain, including the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, and many others. Nearly a thousand people signed up to attend the demo on Facebook; it looked to me like there at least that number there. The crowd seemed overwhelmingly Jewish.

Now if this had been a demonstration against racism, organized by the leadership of the Black communities in Britain, I can guarantee you that a wide range of Left groups would have been there to show their solidarity. You would have found assorted Trotskyists and others selling their newspapers, handing out leaflets and showing that they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with an ethnic minority group struggling against racist assaults, while busily trying to recruit new members.

But at this demonstration, I didn’t see a single left group of any kind with an obvious presence. There may have been individual socialists – like myself – there; but there were no banners, newspapers, or flyers. Continue reading

Labour needs a new leader – and not one of the usual suspects

This article appeared in Solidarity.


After Labour’s abysmal showing in the Newark by-election, which closely followed on its poor showing in the European elections, it is becoming increasingly clear that the party faces defeat yet again in the 2015 general election. That would mean another five years of Tory rule, something which would be a disaster for working people in this country.

There’s considerable discontent and unease in Labour’s ranks, and disappointment at Ed Miliband’s role as party leader, making the question of who should lead Labour into the election a crucial one. Yet there are very few good suggestions.

Tony Blair seems to want to return to political life, but that’s not going to happen. Gordon Brown already proved himself a completely ineffective campaigner when he lost to Cameron in 2010. Ed’s brother David has wandered off to do good work for the International Rescue Committee. There seems to be no one around to step in and provide leadership at a time when it is sorely needed.

But let’s try to imagine for just a moment what the ideal Labour leader might look like.

First of all, if Labour is to be in touch with the party’s working-class roots, to re-capture those communities from UKIP, Labour should choose someone who shares those roots, who comes out of the working class.

Second, Labour needs to rebuild its links — already quite tenuous — with the trade union movement. The 54 TUC-affiliated unions have nearly six million members, all of them potential voters, and a leader who could appeal to them specifically would do well in attracting many of them back to the party that bears their name. That leader would also need to appeal to the many millions of working people who are not currently in trade unions, and who often do not vote — the people who feel excluded, disengaged and ignored.

Third, Labour needs to understand how deeply disillusioned voters are with the political class. Its next leader shouldn’t come out of the ranks of Labour’s contingent in Westminster. Labour needs a fresh face, someone who’s not been an MP or Minister.

And finally, the time has come — indeed, it is long overdue — for Labour to have a female leader. Nearly 40 years have passed since the Conservatives accepted that a woman could lead a party (albeit with disastrous results for the country). Why has Labour in opposition and in power always been led by those who are “stale, pale and male”, as I once heard them described?

The person who I heard that from more than a decade ago was running the TUC’s innovative experiment in trade union revitalisation — the Organising Academy. Her name was Frances O’Grady and today she’s the first female general secretary of the TUC in its history.

I think she should also be first female leader of the Labour Party, and the sooner the better.

I doubt very much if Frances would want to do this.

And yet she meets all the criteria I mentioned above. She’s a committed trade unionist, on the Left, articulate, experienced and a proven leader.

If anyone could re-energize the Labour Party, she’s the one.

People who can’t bear the thought of David Cameron being re-elected Prime Minister in 2015 should be prepared to take risks, to do what’s not been done before.

That’s why Labour supporters should launch a ‘Draft Frances’ movement today.

 

Unions and smartphones: Time to get it right

The wrong way, an improvement, and the right way to do responsive design for union websites.
The wrong way, an improvement, and the right way to do responsive design for union websites.

In recent weeks, I’ve gotten a few requests for information about a survey LabourStart did a couple of years ago. It’s odd because we’ve not done anything to publicize this. So I asked one of those who wrote to me where they’d heard about it.

It turned out it was on a website for business people, in an article about how advanced unions were in their use of the net. Author Jessica Miller-Merrell warned companies that “While HR is slow to adopt and understand social media, unions on the other hand are very open to using this online technology.”

I think anyone who has spent time working with unions and new media will smile reading that sentence.

Because even if we’ve managed to get a website for nearly every union, we still lag far behind, and run the risk of disappearing completely from the online world if we don’t catch up.

I’m thinking specifically of the problem known in the IT world as “responsive design”.

What this basically means is that every website should render correctly on every device, regardless of screen size.

There should be no need to scroll horizontally, or squint at tiny letters, or any of the other problems that might come up when trying to view a website on a phone or tablet.

If a union does this right, if its website appears correctly on a smartphone, it may not even need a dedicated app. There are huge advantages to this, as apps need to be written to work on specific operating systems (ones that work on Apple devices won’t work on Android phones) and apps can be expensive to create.

If a union were to embrace responsive design, it would already have what is sometimes called a “web app” — which is essentially a website that works correctly on small screens.

This is important because increasing numbers of people access our movement’s websites on smartphones and tablets.

16% of the visitors to LabourStart last month came on small screen devices, and 19% of the visitors to our online campaigns were on such devices as well.

This is probably because people often visit a website by clicking on a link in an email message.

As anyone who’s been on a bus in the UK in the last few years knows, millions of people now routinely access their email on their phones.

The notion of responsive design for the web was first raised in a groundbreaking article by Ethan Marcotte in May 2010.

I doubt if any trade union communication officers read it then and I doubt if many of them are familiar with Marcotte’s arguments even now.

Here is a nutshell is what he said:

“Rather than tailoring disconnected designs to each of an ever-increasing number of web devices, we can treat them as facets of the same experience. We can design for an optimal viewing experience, but embed standards-based technologies into our designs to make them not only more flexible, but more adaptive to the media that renders them. In short, we need to practice responsive web design.”

So four years after his article, and with many thousands of websites now taking on board his arguments, how do union websites in the UK rate?

Can our members correctly use their union’s website on a smartphone or tablet?

Let’s have a look.

The TUC website gets it right, sort-of. Viewed on a small screen, it correctly displays just one column. Unfortunately, that column is essentially a menu of everything on the site. To see the latest news, which is prominent on the full-screen version, you need to scroll down quite a bit.

The GMB works pretty much like the TUC website, with the same problems.

The RMT to its credit does a better job, showing not a menu, but the main news story on top of the page.

But UNISON gets it all wrong. Imagine if someone printed out the UNISON home page as you’d see it on your desktop PC — and then cuts off the upper left corner, taking about a fifth of the page width. That’s what you’ll see on your phone. Click on the link to News, and you’ll see just the first few words — you need to keep scrolling left and right to see the whole thing.

Look at the websites of Unite, the CWU, PCS, NASUWT and NUT and you see the same thing: a site that just doesn’t work correctly on a small screen device. Do members of these unions not use smartphones and tablets?

Some unions, like UNISON, have invested heavily in apps for smartphones. UNISON’s app, for example, works on Apple’s iOS devices, Android phone and tables, and even on Blackberry phones (which have an absolutely tiny market share these days).

Why invest in expensive apps when a web app can do pretty much the same thing at a fraction of the price?

Why reinvent the wheel when a union’s existing website can be fairly easily adapted using the principles of responsive design?

As our union websites because an increasingly important part of how we communicate with members and with the outside world, it’s essential that we get this right.

Four years after Ethan Marcotte’s call to arms, most unions are still lagging far behind.


This article appears in Solidarity.

Welcoming China’s unions back into the family?

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.

At the end of March, the International Labour Organisation’s Bureau for Workers Activities (known as ILO-ACTRAV) and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) signed a Memorandum of Understanding “to promote Trade unions South-South Cooperation in the Asia- Pacific region”.

The Director-General of the ILO, Guy Ryder, said “we need to find a way which so that the ACFTU can work more closely with other parts of the international trade union movement, sharing common objectives.”

Ryder is a former General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, which has decided to invite the ACFTU to attend its upcoming World Congress in Berlin in May.

These two events illustrate the fact that the trade union leadership in much of the developed world now seems keen on putting the past behind us and welcoming China’s trade unions back into our “global family”.

This is the culmination of efforts going back several years, and the British TUC has played a prominent — indeed, enthusiastic — part in this process.

I think that this is a problem for the trade union movement because the officially sanctioned, legal trade unions in China are not trade unions in the sense that we understand them in a country like the UK.

Historically, the ACFTU differed not one iota from, say, the “All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions” in the USSR. In fact, it was set up based on the Soviet model.

And that model had nothing to do with worker representation, collective bargaining, or class struggle.

In the Soviet model, unions were organs of the Communist Party and the state, designed to enforce workplace discipline and provide some welfare benefits to workers.

I think few would deny that the Chinese unions fit that description perfectly, at least up until a few years ago.

For that reason, for many decades the ACFTU was quite isolated in the international trade union movement. Like trade unions in Cuba, North Korea or Vietnam, it was seen as a “state labour front” — and not a union.

What has changed in the last few decades is that China has embraced the free market. And as a result, there is the sudden re-emergence of class struggle.

Strikes occur every day, all over the country, and they are often allowed to run their course — winning workers improved wages and working conditions.

The Communist Party seems to have decided that it is best to let workers let off steam this way, rather than attempting to suppress every strike and protest.

So strikes are tolerated — but it stops there. The regime does not tolerate, and cannot tolerate, the emergence of truly free and independent trade unions controlled by their members.

The formation of a nationwide Chinese version of “Solidarity” is a nightmare scenario for the ruling Party elite.

In most cases, the strikes taking place are local with very little nationwide coordination. The organisations set up by workers spontaneously tend to fade away fairly quickly.

In some cases, local officials of the ACFTU unions support the workers or even lead them.

But the ACFTU as a whole remains firmly in the grasp of the Communist Party.

Its leader, Li Jianguo, is a member of the Politburo of the Party. His entire political career spanning some 40 years has been as a Party official. He was given the task of the leading the ACFTU in early 2013.

Just to emphasize — Li rose up through the ranks of the Communist Party, not the unions. As a very senior Party leader, he was brought in to take charge of the ACFTU. This is typical of the authoritarian, top-down style of Chinese politics — and trade unionism.

Just before his elevation to the leadership of the Chinese unions, Li faced public accusations of favouritism. He was accused with promoting his nephew to a plum position.

The website of the ACFTU speaks a great deal about how the organisation protects workers:

“The fundamental task of the Chinese trade unions is to carry out the various social functions of the trade unions in line with the guiding principle of reflecting and safeguarding concrete interests of the workers and staff members in a better way while safeguarding the overall interests of the people throughout the whole country, and, united with the broad masses of workers and staff members, strive for the realization of China’s socialist modernization. The major social functions of the Chinese trade unions are as follows: (1) to protect the legitimate interests and democratic rights of the workers and staff members, (2) to mobilize and organize the workers and staff members to take part in the construction and reform and accomplish the tasks in the economic and social development, (3) to represent and organize the workers and staff members to take part in the administration of the State and social affairs and to participate in the democratic management of enterprises, (4) to educate the workers and staff members to constantly improve their ideological and moral qualities and raise their scientific and cultural levels.”

That was quite a mouthful, but the operative phrases emphasize the ACFTU’s role regarding the “overall interests of the people” rather than its own members, and its striving for the country’s “socialist modernization”. It includes in its job description the accomplishing of tasks and taking part in construction and reform — all of this being code for supporting the Communist Party.

The Orwellian language about improving the “ideological and moral qualities” of its members reflect the ACFTU’s origins as a Soviet-style state labour front.

But it may be a bit more complicated than that today.

The authoritative — and fiercely independent — China Labour Bulletin offers a nuanced view of the ACFTU:

“The ACFTU is China’s sole official union. It has traditionally been an adjunct of the Chinese Communist Party and government, serving as a ‘bridge’ between workers and management in state-owned enterprises. With the economic reforms and development of the private economy over the last two decades the ACTFU’s role has been blurred. It has sought to unionize the private sector but thus far has failed to encourage the development of genuinely representative grassroots unions. It has adopted a top-down approach, imposing unions and collective contracts on enterprises without consulting the workers themselves. However CLB believes the ACFTU, especially at the local level, can play a positive role in the future development of grassroots unions.”

An example of that kind of local initiative could be seen earlier this week, as the FT and others reported that China’s “normally reticient official union” has been “involved in at least one of three protests that have erupted at [Walmart] stores slated for closure this month.”

While there may well be local examples of ACFTU bureaucrats taking the workers’ side, no one seriously views people like ACFTU leader Li Jianguo as anything but a Communist Party hack. And a corrupt one at that.

The vast majority of trade unionists in Britain or elsewhere in the developed world know very little about the Chinese trade union movement, and presumably trust their leaders’ decisions to engage with, or not engage with, the ACFTU.

The issue is unlikely to be addressed at a congress of the TUC, or even at the ITUC’s World Congress in Berlin.

And yet it should be — for two reasons.

First of all, because in order to genuinely help Chinese workers, the international trade union movement should fully support real unions, democratically controlled by their members — and this includes first and foremost the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.

The principle of trade union independence (from both employers and the state) should be defended.

Chinese workers are not helped by pandering to the likes of Li Jianguo and his Communist Party bosses.

And second, by blurring the distinction between state labour fronts and actual trade unions, we lose something of importance.

We lose a sense of who we are, and of what it means to be a trade union.

We don’t need more handshakes and photo-ops in Geneva and Berlin, nor trade unionists flying off on junkets to Beijing to be wined and dined by Communist Party officials.

We need an open and honest discussion of these issues — for the sake of our Chinese brothers and sisters, and for ourselves.

Should male circumcision be banned? A socialist view

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity and is a response to this article by Camilla Bassi.

Camilla Bassi’s “basic socialist demands” regarding male circumcision have no foundation in Marxist tradition, give legitimacy to racist and anti-Semitic arguments, and are wrong.

Bassi admits to learning only recently about the calls for a ban on male circumcision from an article by Frank Furedi. Furedi refers to a debate in the Nordic countries and Solidarity chose to headline the article with a reference to the “Scandinavian debate”.

This softens the blow, because Scandinavians, after all, are modern, progressive people. Though there’s been a rise in the far Right in some Nordic countries, it’s not like the “ban circumcision” stuff started in Germany. I mean, that would have more than a whiff of anti-Semitism.

But the debate did start in Germany. Not in Scandinavia.

In June 2012 a German court banned male circumcision, and though the court decision was eventually overturned, it made headlines at the time.

Not only did Jewish and Muslim leaders across Europe condemn that ban, but they were joined (according to a piece in the Guardian) by women’s leaders. They opposed the linking of male circumcision to female genital mutilation, which is already banned in some European countries.

The campaigns across Europe for a ban on circumcision are closely linked to calls for a ban on Jewish and Muslim ritual slaughter, which are seen by some as being cruel to animals.

These campaigns, like the calls for a ban on the building of minarets, are rightly seen by Jews and Muslims as racist attacks on their communities.

The one positive thing about these attacks is that in some places, including the UK, they have led to rare displays of unity between Jews and Muslims. (Just Google the phrase “Jews and Muslims unite”.)

Bassi writes that the correct socialist position would place the Left in opposition to those communities.

She calls for “the right of children to bodily integrity; the right of children to the sexual autonomy of their adult life; non-therapeutic, ritual circumcision only be carried out when the person to be circumcised is mature, informed, and able to consent to the procedure.”

Almost as an afterthought, she adds opposition to racism, support for socialism, whatever.

Using the same reasoning, why not also support the ban on kosher and halal slaughter? After all, socialists like all right-thinking people oppose cruelty to animals, right?

And while we’re busy banning these things, why not close down all faith schools, because after all, they’re not teaching children what we’d like them to be taught, and they’re forcing children to accept their parents’ religion? Shouldn’t that decision be reserved for adults who are “mature, informed and able to consent”?

These views – banning male circumcision, banning ritual slaughter of animals, closing down faith schools and so on – have nothing to do with socialist views.

Socialists have always defined religion as a private matter. Socialists defend the freedom of religion, and of course the right of people to have no religion.

But that’s all on the level of theory.

In practice, the European far Right is on the upswing, and Jewish and Muslim communities feel threatened with a new wave of anti-Semitism and racism. Is this really a good time to take a stand against the Jewish and Muslim communities of Europe?

The task of socialists in a debate like this one is clear: defend religious and ethnic minorities from racist attack, and fight anti-Semitism and Islamophobia across Europe.

Turkish trade unionists on trial

DSC_0017
KESK leaders standing outside the main courthouse in Istanbul last week.

I was in Istanbul for three days last week to attend the opening of the trial of Turkish trade union leaders.

My articles on what I saw have begun appearing in a number of places:

Germany:

Global:

UK:

USA:

French language:

  • Andy Funnell has translated one of the articles for LabourStart’s French language blog, here.

North Korea’s Great Terror

Andrey Vyshinsky - prosecutor of the Stalinist show trials.
Andrey Vyshinsky – prosecutor of the Stalinist show trials.

The downfall of Chang Song-thaek, once considered the second most powerful person in North Korea, is a lesson in history for a new generation – and not only in Korea.

The parallels to Soviet history are so striking that one almost wonders if Kim Jong-un read Robert Conquest’s “The Great Terror” – the classic history of the Stalinist purges of the late 1930s.

That’s not an entirely rhetorical question either, as Kim was educated abroad and may well have had access to history books denied to ordinary North Koreans.

In any event, the regime he now heads openly reveres Stalin and is perhaps the only one in the world that does so.

Fidel Castro has criticized Stalin, but also says “He established unity in the Soviet Union. He consolidated what Lenin had begun: party unity.”

People with only a passing acquaintance with Soviet history may be surprised to discover that nearly all the victims of Stalin’s massive purge which peaked in 1937 were not, in fact, oppositionists. Continue reading