Archive for May, 2013

De-Googling

Friday, May 31st, 2013

GooglelogoI wonder if that’s a word.  It should be.

I’ve been de-Googling my life today.

It’s hard to remember, but there was a time when Google was cool.

Back in the 1990s, I remember reading about it, and checking it out and discovering a blisteringly-fast search engine without all the garbage you found on sites like Yahoo.

At the time, Google was so hungry to promote itself that if you partnered with them, they’d pay you for each time someone searched using it.

I made a few bucks that way — not much — but it’s hard to believe today that Google used to pay people to use it.

Google even sent me a t-shirt by post to thank me for mentioning them in an article.  (I wish I’d kept it.)

This was ages ago.

Today, Google is a monster.  Nearly everyone uses at least one of its products — maybe it’s your Android phone (Google owns the operating system), or Gmail, or the Chrome browser, or Google Analytics for your website.

We share so much information with Google these days that even if the company did pay its taxes, I’d still be worried about its monopoly of information, especially personal information.

Back in December, I decided to quit Gmail for these reasons and others.

Today, I’ve taken it a step further by dropping other Google products:

  • I no longer use Chrome, and have gone back to the excellent, free, open source and non-profit Firefox.
  • I don’t use Google for search anymore — I’m now using DuckDuckGo, an incredibly stupid name for what seems to be a perfectly good alternative to Google search.
  • I’m replacing Google analytics with Clicky.

And for those who’ve forgotten, my web-based email client these days is Fastmail.

The next big step might be to drop Android altogether — I’ll have to see about that …

I’m not encouraging anyone else to do what I’ve done. I just wanted to see if one could live without Google, and I think one can.

LabourStart – agi por homaj kaj laboraj rajtoj

Friday, May 31st, 2013

That’s the title of a two-page article — an interview with me — that appears in the current issue of the magazine for members of the German Esperanto-Federation and the Austrian Esperanto-Federation.  The title means “to act for human and labour rights”.  You can read the full text here – see pages 10-11.

Confronting Stalinism

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013

This article appears in Solidarity. It is a reply to a letter by Martin Thomas (“How to marginalise Stalin“), who was replying to my original article three weeks ago.


Martin Thomas is opposed to kicking the Stalinists out of the May Day march in London. “Much better,” he says, “to deal with the Stalinists politically, by mobilisation and argument …”

He didn’t read my article, at least not until the end. I wrote: “We begin by debating and confronting the Stalinist Left, demolishing their arguments and educating their members and periphery. We fight them on their turf and we fight them seriously. This is a fight over historical memory, over truth, and it is a fight we must win in order to cleanse and revitalise the Left.”

So we agree on that.

Here’s where we disagree: Martin says that the handful of people who carried the massive banners of Stalin at this year’s London May Day event “reckon themselves left-wingers” which is, I think, about as irrelevant a point as one can make in this context.

Who cares what they think about themselves? I have no doubt that all kinds of people with nasty politics “reckon themselves” as having good politics, or even being “socialists”.

What matters is, of course, their actual politics.

Which brings me to the part of Martin’s argument I find most unappealing: the notion that this infinitesimal group – and I’m speaking in particular of the micro-sect in Britain that carried the very largest banners – “are in fact left-wingers, of a sort” as Martin puts it.

“Of a sort?” He adds: “on the direct struggle of workers against capitalists in Britain or in Turkey”.

In other words, on some historical, theoretical or otherwise meaningless level, they are of course rotten totalitarians. But in “direct struggles” they are – what? Our allies? Surely the AWL doesn’t consider “The Stalin Society” a legitimate part of the British Left, or does it?

The counterposing of direct real-world struggles in which groups like the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) presumably play a positive role with irrelevant, theoretical issues (like democracy) is false and unworthy of the AWL.

The CPGB(M-L), with its dozen or so members, seems to be mostly engaged in trying to win free trips to North Korea, not leading some fight against hospital cuts. The only time in recent memory when they made the news was when Kim’s ambassador to London used their platform to defend his regime’s threats to turn South Korea, Japan and Guam into nuclear wastelands.

The last time I saw the Stalin Society in action was when they handed out an extraordinarily offensive leaflet at a showing of the Polish film “Katyn”. I should re-phrase that: not ‘they’ but ‘he’; I’m not sure this Society has more than a single member.

A generation or two ago, I’d have understood Martin’s hesitation – I would not have agreed even then, but I’d have understood. Stalin was a revered figure to many decent people right up until his death, and even beyond. The Left was unfortunately full of Stalinists.

But today, people who carry his banner on May Day demonstrations in the streets of London represent no one, and serve as a reminder of a disgraceful history for a part of the Left which has already acknowledged that Stalin was a monster and his regime monstrous.

So we agree that Stalinism must be dealt with politically and I welcome any activity that raises awareness of this. But I also think it shows a real lack of political guts to refuse to confront the tiny remants of Stalin worshippers on the streets, and to tell them – go away, this is not your holiday, you are not part of our Left.

Bangladesh: Learning the right lessons

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

This article appears in Our Times, Canada’s independent labour magazine.


The deaths of more than 1,000 workers in the Rana Plaza building collapse in April provoked a flurry of activity among campaigning organizations around the world. In particular, the online campaigners – groups like Avaaz, Change.org, and the relatively new SumOfUs.org – rushed to get out campaigns in response. These were all roughly along the same lines: we Western consumers must pressure the companies that make our clothing to behave better in the future.

This is all very well meaning, but the problem is that by focussing completely on our roles as consumers, they neglected other, potentially more important, roles we may play.

SUPPORT WORKERS’ EFFORTS TO ORGANIZE

When the Bangladeshi garment workers decided to campaign, they did so through their global union federation, the Geneva-based IndustriALL. And their focus was not at all on the Western clothing manufacturers but on the Bangladeshi government, demanding that it reform the country’s labour laws to make it easier for workers organize.

Using LabourStart as its platform, IndustriALL campaigned on this issue and, in just three weeks, over 14,000 people sent off messages. In addition, IndustriALL brokered a deal with leading clothing companies for a massively improved program of health and safety in Bangladesh.

The LabourStart/IndustriALL campaign was significant in that it appealed for support on the basis of solidarity, with a focus on the importance of trade unions in the workplace as the only real guarantee of health and safety.

I was reminded of a decade-old campaign that one of IndustriALL’s predecessors ran for many years. Its slogan was “The stronger the union, the safer the mine.” The same is true for garment factories.

NATIONALISM NOT THE ANSWER

Part of the problem with the consumer focus of many of the campaigning groups was that it encouraged a form of nationalism. One email I received in response to the LabourStart campaign said that the lessons of the Dhaka tragedy was: “Make clothing in Canada.” That only made sense if you were a Canadian, and even then it is wrong.

A lot of this was posturing by people who are convinced that we are all to blame because we want affordable clothing. It’s not the fault of the local employers in Bangladesh, or of the country’s anti-union government, but the fault of us all.

The British Trades Union Congress effectively demolished that argument with an advertisement that recently went viral. They were able to prove that doubling the wages of garment workers in Bangladesh would add only one penny to the cost of a t-shirt.

It’s not just that the campaigning organizations got it wrong by focussing entirely on “our” responsibility for the Rana Plaza disaster. They also showed, in some cases, a remarkable lack of judgement.

One group announced it was raising $20,000 to support a local workers’ rights centre in Bangladesh. But, in very small print, it said that any money raised above that amount would go into the organization’s own budget, to pay its staff salaries in the U.S. Another group did a mass mailing telling people that if they felt angry at the tragedy in Bangladesh, they should show that anger by donating money not to help the victims, but to support the Washington-based organization making the appeal.

The union fundraising effort run through IndustriALL was different. It was coordinated with the garment workers unions in Bangladesh and the money went straight to them.

It’s not entirely fair of me to say that there is no role for consumers in all this. While it is most important to build solidarity with workers on the ground and to strengthen their unions, that’s not all we can do.

REVIVE THE UNION LABEL

Attempts to create independently verifiable certifications that goods are ethically produced have failed so far. Groups like the Rainforest Alliance have come in for severe criticism from unions for certifying some products and not taking workers’ rights into account. Several years ago, the International Union of Foodworkers exposed Tetley, a British tea company and proud member of the “Ethical Tea Partnership,” for its unethical practices.

The only guarantee that workers will have a voice on the job, and that health and safety issues will be properly addressed, is an independent union in the workplace. The only guarantee consumers have that the products they buy meet the ethical standards promised by groups like the Rainforest Alliance is a union label.

The union label was first adopted in 1874 by carpenters in San Francisco and later became widespread as unions grew and became more powerful in North America. Not long ago, you could find union labels on clothing, printed goods and much more. As unions have grown weaker, the union label has begun to disappear. But the deaths of so many garment workers in Bangladesh should prompt a rethinking. Maybe it’s time to revive it.

Сталин в районе Кларкенуэлл-грин

Monday, May 27th, 2013

My Stalin in Clerkenwell Green article has been published in Russian by the Praxis Centre in Moscow.  Here’s the full text (PDF).


Э. Ли (гл. редактор профсоюзного портала LaborStart)

Было чудесное майское утро одного из самых теплых и солнечных дней в этом году. В лондонском районе Кларкенуэлл-грин сотни человек собирались на ежегодный лондонский первомайский марш. Многих из вас там, вероятно, не было. В этом году на первомайском марше действительно было очень мало профсоюзных активистов.

И раз уж я был там, то позвольте мне рассказать вам, кто же там присутствовал – величайший серийный убийца XX-го века – Иосиф Сталин. Портрет Сталина присутствовал на нескольких флагах, причем не только вместе с Лениным и Мао по бокам – на марше был еще и огромный баннер, на котором он был изображен один – с цитатами из его сочинений…

Israel’s ports haunted by Ronald Reagan’s ghost

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

This article appears on Stronger Unions, the blog of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in the UK.


In the labour movement we’re often fond of our history. We preserve certain traditions, we celebrate some holidays, we even have museums displaying our union banners and old pamphlets. Our past inspires us.

We don’t tend to think of union-busters sharing in some kind of nostalgia, but they do – and it sometimes shows up in odd ways.

Back in 1981, long before Ronald Reagan was elevated to sainthood, before he “won” the Cold War (helped by Mrs. Thatcher) and was loved and revered by everyone, he was a very conservative and divisive politician.

Just six months after his inauguration, Reagan crushed the powerful air traffic controllers union, who had dared to go on strike for better pay and working conditions. He did so by bringing in strike-breakers, including military air traffic controllers, and sacking over 11,000 professionals, barring them from federal employment for life.

To trade unionists in the United States and elsewhere, it’s a bitter memory.

To newly-elected ministers in Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government in Israel, it’s a source of inspiration.

It was revealed last week that the Israeli government was looking into plan codenamed “1981” which according to the daily business newspaper Globes, derives from “the year in which US President Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers at America’s airports and brought in military controllers in their stead.”

The target in Israel is not air traffic controllers but port workers in Haifa and Ashdod.

The two ports are unionized – bastions of trade unionism despite the relative long-term decline of unions in the manufacturing sector. As a result, port workers enjoy good pay and conditions which are routinely “exposed” in the right-wing media.

The government plans to build new ports and Netanyahu, his new finance minister Yair Lapid, ultra-right Minister for the Economy Naftali Bennett and the Minister for Transport Yisrael Katz are quite openly relishing a fight with the port workers – and possibly with the broader labour movement, including the Histadrut (national trade union centre).

Lapid, who made a career as a television personality, was widely seen as a bright new face in Israeli politics, but since joining the Netanyahu government has often seemed to try to out-flank his coalition partners from the right. His comment on the possibility of a port strike was “Let there be war.”

Globes reported that “the government has prepared several responses: bringing the army and foreign companies in to operate the ports; outlawing of strikes in vital services; warning manufacturers to stock up with materials; and opening up the Port of Eilat and Israel Shipyards for loading and unloading of goods.”

Two days later, there were signs of a government retreat. While not ruling out using troops as strike-breakers, Transport Minister Katz instead raised the prospects of Israel using the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba, as well as ports in Cyprus, Greece and Turkey, to break any potential port workers strike.

For decades port workers have been on the front lines of some of the sharpest industrial struggles. Australia’s “war on the waterfront” in the late 1990s left bitter memories – and helped weaken the right-wing Bob Hawke government. Britain of course had the long-running struggle of the Liverpool dockers.

Now it’s to be the turn of port workers in Haifa and Ashdod who face a determined right-wing government that seems to be inspired by the ghost of Ronald Reagan.

Stalin in Clerkenwell Green

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

This article appears in Solidarity.  Feel free to add your comments below.


It was a beautiful May morning, one of the first warm and sunny days we’ve had all year. In Clerkenwell Green, hundreds of people were assembling for the annual official London May Day march. Many of you will not have been there — in fact there were very few trade unionists at all on this year’s march.

So let me tell you who was there — the twentieth century’s greatest serial killer, Joseph Stalin. Stalin was on several banners, and not only his image side by side with Lenin and Mao, but huge banners just with his picture alone — and quotations from his writings.

As I marched along with some trade union leaders and a traditional brass band, I could not help feeling ashamed at what the march would have looked like to onlookers, of whom there were many along the route. Ashamed and disgusted.

It’s disgusting because holding aloft iconic images of Stalin at a trade union march shows a complete lack of moral judgement. Seventy years ago, it may have been understandable — the second world war was raging, the Soviet leadership had not yet acknowledged Stalin’s crimes. But after 1956, anyone who still believed that Stalin was a great revolutionary leader was delusional.

Many of the marchers holding hammer-and-sickle flags or Stalin images would have been from various far-Left Turkish organizations and maybe in Turkey, there is no strong anti-Stalinist left. (Not that that’s an excuse for their igorance.)

But there were also British far-Leftists, supporters of tiny fringe groups proud of their adulation for a man who is responsible for millions of deaths of innocent people, a man who contributed so much to destroying everything the Russian revolution had achieved, killing off the entire Bolshevik party in the process.

The British anti-Stalinist Left was represented by “Trotskyist” groups like the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party, who were there in strength, manning their book stalls, selling their newspapers. But there was no evidence that they challenged the Stalinists or even politely asked them to put their repulsive banners away. It seemed as if the Trotskyists and Stalinists were happy to march side by side, letting bygones be bygones. No enemies on the left and all that.

This in intolerable. If there are some, few individuals with personal “issues” who need to express themselves through things like the “Stalin Society”, that may be their right. But that doesn’t mean that they are welcome at our May Day celebrations. They are not welcome.

We must make an effort to ensure that this disgrace never repeats itself and that in 2014, there will be no banners with Stalin’s picture at the London May Day march and rally.

How do we do this? We begin by debating and confronting the Stalinist Left, demolishing their arguments and educating their members and periphery. We fight them on their turf and we fight them seriously. This is a fight over historical memory, over truth, and it is a fight we must win in order to cleanse and revitalise the Left.

At our own events such as a May Day march, we must take a firm stand of no platform for totalitarianism — no portraits of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot or Kim Jon Il to be displayed. Enough is enough.

And finally, we must compell the leadership of the TUC and the unions to take May Day seriously. They must wrest it from the hands of the lunatics and the fringe. They must bring the hundreds of thousands of trade unionists who have marched under the TUC banner in recent years to come out on May Day too. The trade union leadership must help us to reclaim the holiday.

Stalin’s portrait must never again be paraded through the streets of London.

Strong unions key to preventing another Rana Plaza

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

The collapse of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh has horrified people all over the world. Everyone wants to see something done about us, to ensure that it never happens again.

But not everyone agrees on what needs to be done.

Last week, at the request of the IndustriALL global union federation which represents textile and garment workers around the world, LabourStart launched an online campaign. IndustriALL’s text, which came in part from their affiliate unions in Bangladesh, demanded that the Bangladeshi government “take urgent action to guarantee freedom of association and improve building and fire safety and the minimum wage for the more than 3 million garment workers in Bangladesh.”

The campaign pointed out that “Working for a minimum wage of US$38 per month, less than one percent of garment workers in Bangladesh are represented by a union. The Labour Law leaves workers unable to join a union and fight for safe workplaces, improved working conditions and better wages.”

It put the right to join a union at the centre of the campaign.

Tens of thousands of people learned about our campaign due to a promotion on Facebook and thousands of them signed up. But many of them posted comments which typically asked what we, as consumers, could do.

Many people wanted an online campaign to put pressures on those huge Western clothing chains like Primark and Walmart. Others talked about boycotting those shops. Many argued that the problem was cheap clothing – only if we paid more for clothing could people in Bangladesh have a decent life. Some proposed that we only buy fair-traded clothing.

The focus of many of these comments seemed to be entirely on how through our shopping we could make the world a better place.

This strikes me as well-intentioned but also patronizing – and ultimately ineffective.

A decade ago I worked for an NGO in London that had been asked to do a campaign to promote mine safety around the world. They did a beautiful poster with a slogan that I’ve never forgotten:

“The stronger the union, the safer the mine.”

It’s a simple idea, but an enormously powerful one.

The workers in Bangladesh need better laws to protect their health and safety at work, they need labour inspectors to enforce those laws, and we in the West can of course help pressure their government and employers.

But above all, they need the only tool that workers have ever discovered that really does protect them at work: trade unions.

Strong trade unions will ensure that health and safety laws are passed and are enforced. Strong unions can compel an employer to reduce risks in the workplace.

I’m very skeptical about the idea that we can shop our way to a better world by “buying ethically”. It certainly feels better to buy a fair-traded product, but in the end, is that all we can do? Just make ourselves into nicer, more caring consumers?

The terrible tragedy at the Rana Plaza should remind us that we are far more than consumers – we are workers, members of a huge and powerful global movement that when united and focussed on a goal can change the world.

Solidarity – not ethical shopping – is what the garment workers of Bangladesh are demanding.


This article appeared in Solidarity.