Archive for February, 2013

Should we boycott Amazon?

Wednesday, February 20th, 2013

This article appears today in Solidarity.


Recently, I co-authored a book on online campaigning for trade unions and self-published it using a print-on-demand service called CreateSpace.

CreateSpace is a subsidiary of Amazon, the giant online retailer, and any book you publish there is automatically available for sale on the Amazon websites. It was a great option as it cost nothing and allowed us to reach a very large global audience.

When I announced this to LabourStart’s mailing lists, we got hundreds of people to buy copies of the book. But a small number, mainly from the UK, wrote in to say that they wouldn’t buy from Amazon.

Most of them had heard that Amazon doesn’t pay its fair share of taxes in the UK. Some will have heard of the online petition at Change.org that got over 90,000 supporters.

That petition — which has proven to be far more popular than any of the campaigns we’ve done in defence of workers’ rights — was posted by Frances and Keith Smith, independent booksellers from Coventry. The first line reads like an advertisement for their shops.

Their shops, they say, “have been a proud part of our local high streets for many years. We are proud of the personal service we provide to all those who visit our store.”

That sounds like self-promotion to me, but for tens of thousands of people, it sounds like a just cause — supporting small, family-run businesses against the encroaching faceless and all-powerful American-owned corporation.

This is, as Marxists will be aware, a thoroughly reactionary attitude toward capitalism, a longing for an earlier era of friendly Mom-and-Pop shops where smiling shop owners greeted every customer by name, and freely extended credit to those who were a bit skint.

It goes without saying that Amazon should pay its taxes. We also demand that government ramp up corporate taxes and enforce payment. And that’s our minimum demand — in the longer run, we support expropriating the expropriators.

Unions have also started to take on Amazon here in the UK.

In mid-February, the GMB held protests at nine Amazon facilities. They presented the company with “corporate ASBOs” in an attempt to focus public attention on the company’s record of tax avoidance — but also on their record of low pay and union-busting. These are issues which concern socialists and deserve our support.

As the union put it, “Amazon pay its staff as little as £6.20 per hour — just above the national minimum wage of £6.19 per hour. Staff complain to GMB about a culture of bullying and harassment endemic in the dataveillance that comes from staff being required to wear digital arm mounted terminals (AMTs) with no agreed protocols re breaks, speeds etc. Union activity has to be kept underground for fear of reprisals.”

But GMB have so far refrained from calling for a boycott of the company.

And they’re absolutely right — because this is not how you will compel Amazon to pay a living wage and recognize trade unions.

The boycott, like the strike, is one of the most powerful weapons in a trade union’s arsenal. It needs to be used with care — which is why unions very rarely use it.

For a boycott to be called, one should expect it to produce some kind of result. Calling a boycott that has no effect on a company’s profit may make boycotters feel worthy, but it distracts from the real issues.

Coca-Cola is a company that is often targetted by campaigners for boycotts — but the unions representing Coke workers have never called for such a boycott, and in some cases have outspokenly opposed one.

For a boycott of Amazon to be effective, it would need to make a dent in the company’s sales — something that seems rather unlikely considering just how vast the company has become in recent years.

A decade ago, when the Communication Workers of America were attempting to organize Amazon workers in the Pacific Northwest, a boycott might have had a chance. Not today.

Amazon made the news yet again this week, as reports came out of its maltreatment of temporary workers in Germany, where neo-Nazi thugs were hired by the company to “keep order” among the workers.

This, just like union-busting, low wages, contract labour and tax avoidance, are all good reasons to shop elsewhere if you can — but they are not grounds for a general boycott of the company.

So if we’re not boycotting Amazon, what can we do?

We can support the GMB and any other union that tries to organise workers there. We can publicise their appalling record on the living wage and union busting through the media. We can demand that Parliament fix a system which allows companies to legally avoid paying taxes despite earning billions of pounds in this country.

We can even help build alternatives by supporting left-wing bookshops, of which there are still several in the UK.

But signing up on Change.org to show your solidarity with some small bookshop owners in Coventry, or taking the personal decision to not shop at Amazon and then telling all your mates about how worthy that makes you, is little more than posturing.

Clicktivism and the Unions

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

This article appears in Equal Times, the global news, opinion and campaign website about work, politics, the economy, development and the environment. Equal Times is supported by the 175 million-member International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).


In the last half-decade a number of new online campaigning platforms have emerged, inspired in large part by MoveOn – the progressive American online campaigning group launched back in the Clinton era.

MoveOn, which now claims seven million supporters, has spun-off a number of similar platforms including Avaaz (a global version of MoveOn), SumOfUs (like Avaaz, but completely focussed on corporate misbehavior), 38 Degrees (a UK version of MoveOn), and GetUp (the Australian version).

In addition, there are commercial organizations like Change.org, which charge fees to campaigners who wish to keep the email addresses of their supporters.

These organizations have become the subject of a vigorous debate in campaigning circles around the notion of “clicktivism”. Some seasoned campaigners have argued that people taking a few seconds to click on a link in an email message hardly constitutes “activism” and is no substitute for more traditional forms of engagement.

Malcolm Gladwell, the acclaimed author of “The Tipping Point” took on the clicktivists in a long article for “The New Yorker” in October 2010.

Online campaigning, he wrote, is “a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.”

Gladwell’s words – especially regarding “organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity” – should resonate inside trade unions. Unions are in it for the long haul and aspire to big changes – unlike the short-term, superficial approach of some of the clicktivists.

Recently, Change.org has been the subject of some unwelcome publicity as an internal memo from the company was leaked online which seemed to indicate that the group was moving away from its roots in progressive politics. It appeared as if Change.org might well host campaigns, or advertisements, by groups which campaign against abortion rights, for gun ownership and against unions.

As Canadian trade unionist Derek Blackadder wrote, “Unions don’t know shit. Sometimes you just have to say it. We never learn. Last year Change.org, a petition site many unions have used, announced it was going to start accepting money from corporate sponsors and running pretty much any campaigns that came its way. … What this means is that all the effort unions put into campaigns using Change.org served to increase the size of mailing lists that will now be used against us. Own your own or go home. Or at least go to LabourStart or some other solid political friend. Don`t use an online tool you can’t rely on. Like Change.org, it’ll just come back to bite you in the arse.”

Change.org is not the only group whose actions have proven to be controversial.

38 Degrees is a very successful British clone of MoveOn (its name comes from the angle at which an avalanche happens) and it claims over a million members. But it has come under fire for sometimes seeming to claim victories when in fact its online campaign was only a small part of a wider effort.

More troubling, I think, is the notion of “membership” itself. Union members are people who, in most places, pay dues and get to participate in a democratic decision making process. In many cases their identification with their unions in quite strong, and not something “virtual”.

38 Degrees and other campaigning networks sometimes claim to have a democratic decision-making process too, but it doesn’t resemble the kind of democracy we’d expect in a union.

Some time ago 38 Degrees sponsored a campaign to stop a Conservative government’s attack on Britain’s National Health Service [NHS]. When the legislation passed anyway, they sent out a mailing to all supporters asking what to do next. Should we continue fighting to preserve the NHS, they asked, or move on to other things? One cannot imagine a union asking a question like that of its members.

This is the worst kind of short-termism.

One of the newest clicktivist networks which also claims a “membership” of hundreds of thousands is SumOfUs, and unlike Avaaz or 38 Degrees, it limits its campaigns to challenging corporate misbehavior.

This is good, and on many occasions SumOfUs have found common ground with unions.

But not always, and campaigns have been launched, apparently in defense of workers’ rights, without any consultation with the unions involved.

And SumOfUs has also been criticized – by myself among others – for having, like 38 Degrees, claimed credit for victories which did not belong to it.

These various campaigning and protest platforms can be powerful allies for trade unions – but unions should also be wary of becoming over-reliant on them and should, where possible, use their own tools to do the same thing.

I’m not trying to bash these networks and say they are all worthless – the opposite is the case. Online campaigning is an important part of what we do in the trade union movement and we need allies where we can find them.

The Trades Union Congress in Britain has gone out of its way to build bridges with the new campaigners, including hosting large “NetRoots” conferences modelled on those held in the USA.

But I also think Malcolm Gladwell, Derek Blackadder and other critics of the clicktivists have a point, and unions should be cautious before rushing out to embrace this model of campaigning.

Where we can, we should develop our own tools to mobilize our members and supporters. Unions have the ability like anyone else to create an online petition, but we can also shut down a factory or even an entire country if need be, which is why our ideas about membership and activism will be quite different from those of the clicktivists.

Korea: Hunger strikes, head-shavings and global solidarity

Friday, February 8th, 2013

This article appears on Stronger Unions, a news and comment blog about the UK trade union movement, managed by the TUC.

South Korea’s progress from dictatorship to democracy has not been an easy or straightforward one, as the recent Presidential election has shown. The good news was that for the first time in history, the Koreans had elected a woman, Park Guenhye, to lead their country. The bad news is that she’s the daughter of the former dictator, Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country from 1963 to 1979.

Another indication of the uneven character of the transition to democracy as been the ongoing fight by trade unions for recognition and rights. One of the Korean unions still fighting for the most basic kind of recognition is the Korean Government Employees Union (KGEU).

The government has refused to recognize the KGEU, and has sacked 137 of its members, including its president and general secretary, charging them with being members of an “illegal organisation” (the union). The union is demanding that all those workers be re-hired and the union recognised. They’re demanding that President-elect Park make real her campaign commitment to genuine social dialogue.

On 15 January this year, KGEU president Kim Jungnam announced his intention to go on indefinite hunger strike. He began the strike on the street opposite the offices of the transition team for the new president-elect.

A little bit more than two weeks into the strike, Kim collapsed and an ambulance was called. He was taken to hospital and is still recovering.

Other union leaders immediately stepped in, and all the KGEU vice presidents themselves went on unlimited hunger strike.

This was followed by a uniquely Korean form of protest – union leaders publicly shaved their heads in protest.

The struggle by the KGEU has attracted considerable interest internationally, and has won the support of Public Services International (PSI), the global union federation representing 20 million government workers in 150 countries. PSI general secretary Rosa Pavanelli has released a video statement of support for the workers.

In Britain, UNISON has spoken out strongly in support of Kim and the KGEU.

Meanwhile, over 10,000 rank-and-file trade unionists have signed up to support the campaign on LabourStart which appears in more than twenty languages.

The KGEU has been strengthened by all the international support and has just released a video by Kim thanking all those outside the country who expressed their solidarity.

The struggle continues.

Django, Lincoln and the Most Revolutionary Idea

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

This article appears today in Solidarity.

“The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the workers themselves” – that’s a phrase which will be familiar to most Marxists and originates in the Rules of the International Workingmen’s Association which Marx drafted.

A century later, Max Shachtman wrote that “When speaking of socialism and socialist revolution we seek ‘no condescending saviours’ as our great battle hymn, the International, so ably says. We do not believe that well-wishing reforms – and there are well-wishing reformers – will solve the problems of society, let alone bring socialism. … We believe that task belongs to the proletariat, only the proletariat itself. That is a world-shattering idea. It overshadows all social thought. The most profound, important and lasting thought in Marxism, the most pregnant thought in Marxism is contained in Marx’s phrase that the emancipation of the proletariat is the task of the proletariat itself. It is clearly the most revolutionary idea ever conceived, if you understand it in all of its great implications.”

I thought of this “most revolutionary idea” the other day as I watched two recent acclaimed films on the same subject – Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”.

Tarantino and Spielberg have now made their films about American slavery, just as previously they both made films about the Nazi Holocaust – “Shindler’s List” and “Inglourious Basterds”.

And those four films reflect two very different approaches to the issue of emancipation.

Spielberg’s films – which are largely historically accurate, extremely well crafted, and well-intentioned – are accounts of how a gentile (Shindler) risked everything to save the Jews and how a white man (Lincoln) did the same for Black slaves.

Spielberg chose when taking on the giant subjects of slavery and the Holocaust to focus on those two men. He could have made different films, could have focussed his Holocaust film on, say, the Jewish fighters who battled the Wehrmacht in the final days of the Warsaw Ghetto. He could have chosen one of the many Black slave rebellions that preceded the American Civil War – for example, the story of Nat Turner who led an uprising 1831 that resulted in some 160 deaths.

Instead he chose to focus on brave white men (the abolitionists) and a brave gentile (Shindler).

Tarantino made a radically different choice when he decided to make films about Nazi Germany and the American South.

Tarantino’s films are fantasies – and unlike Spielberg’s are often hilariously funny, even if brutally violent.

Tarantino’s “basterds” are American Jewish soldiers sent into Nazi-occupied Europe to kill – and scalp – as many German soldiers as they can. In the end, their efforts combine with those of a French Jewish woman also seeking revenge on the Nazis.

Django too is a story not about good white men who come to free the slaves, but about a slave who frees himself. Even though Django is assisted by a white German (the magnificent Christoph Waltz, who played a terrifying Nazi in “Basterds”), it is he – and not Waltz – who deals the death blow to the slave-owners in the film.

One could make the argument that while Tarantino’s take on slavery and the Third Reich may prove more satisfying, the reality is that it wasn’t Black slaves who brought down slavery and it wasn’t armed Jews who defeated Hitler. It was a mostly (though not entirely) white army led by a white man that brought an end to the Confederacy. And it was the allied armies – particularly the Red Army – that destroyed the German Reich.

So yes, Spielberg’s view may be the more accurate one, but Tarantino’s reflects an aspiration – the hope that the oppressed, slaves and others, can liberate themselves and indeed that only they can do so.

This is, as Shachtman wrote, “the most pregnant idea” in Marxism, and while one can be fairly certain that Quentin Tarantino has never heard of the great third camp socialist, it is his films – not Spielberg’s – that most closely realize that idea.