Archive for December, 2013

South Korea: rail workers, repression and resistance

Monday, December 30th, 2013

My first article for – click here to read and feel free to post comments there.

The mainstream media struggle to understand Korea. Throughout December, global news coverage focussed on the latest purge in North Korea, a former basketball star’s visit to the Communist state, and rising tensions between both Koreas and Japan, following the visit of the Japanese prime minister to a controversial war memorial. But CNN, the BBC, Sky News, Al Jazeera and others had absolutely nothing to say about a strike in South Korea that has shaken the society profoundly—culminating in mass actions involving hundreds of thousands of people on the last weekend of 2013. (more…)

North Korea’s Great Terror

Monday, December 16th, 2013
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. (more…)

ახალბედა პროფკავშირული მოძრაობა საქართველოში

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

My first article to appear in Georgian — on the website of the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC).

ავტორი: ერიკ ლი

ნოემბერში, ორი დღის მანძილზე, საქართველოს რკინიგზაში დრამა გათამაშდა, რამაც მშრომელთა მოძრაობა საუკეთესო მხრიდან წარმოგვიდგინა.ეს მოხდა იმ პატარა ქვეყანაში, რომელიც შავ ზღვისა და კავკასიის მთებში მდებარეობს.


Проблема сталинизма и движение трудящихся сегодня

Monday, December 9th, 2013

The Russian language version of my presentation on Stalinism and the Labour Movement to a conference in Kiev in November.

Эрик Ли (главный редактор веб-сайта международного профсоюзного движения LabourStart, Лондон)

В своем выступлении я не буду рассматривать происходящее на постсоветском пространстве – например, в России или Грузии, – а сосредоточу внимание на проблеме сталинизма и сталинистского наследия в движении трудящихся за пределами данного региона. Я буду опираться на опыт Великобритании, где живу.

Ключевое слово здесь – наследие.

Сталинизм, в определенном смысле доминировавший в международном движении трудящихся на протяжении десятилетий, оставил после себя ряд идей, которые сохраняют свое влияние на это движение и левых даже сегодня, через шестьдесят лет после смерти Сталина.


Per SMS zum Arbeitskampf

Monday, December 9th, 2013

Der israelische Gewerkschaftsbund Histadrut feiert große Erfolge, während Gewerkschaften anderswo gegen sinkende Mitgliederzahlen kämpfen.

Anfang November kündigte Ofer Eini nach acht Jahren seinen Abschied von der Spitze des israelischen Gewerkschaftsdachverbands Histadrut an. Das Ende der »Ära Eini« ist ein guter Anlass, um an einige der außergewöhnlichen Erfolge zu erinnern, die die Histadrut in den vergangenen Jahren erzielt hat, vor allem darin, einst für »unorganisierbar« gehaltene Beschäftigte zu organisieren. Dass diese Erfolge außerhalb Israels so gut wie unbekannt sind, ist auf die Feindschaft einiger Gewerkschaften gegenüber dem jüdischen Staat zurückzuführen, die auch die israelische Gewerkschaftsbewegung trifft. (more…)

Israel’s Histadrut wins big victories as unions elsewhere struggle to grow

Monday, December 9th, 2013

This article appears in German in Jungle World with the headline “Per SMS zum Arbeitskampf” and also on Talking Union, the blog of the Democratic Socialists of America Labor Network.

In early November, Ofer Eini announced the end of his 8-year stint as the head of Israel’s national trade union center, the Histadrut.

The end of the “Eini era” is a good moment to reflect upon some of the extraordinary successes the Histadrut has had in the last couple of years, particularly in organizing workers previously thought of as “unorganizable”.

That these successes are largely unknown outside of Israel is due to the blind hostility shown by some trade unionists to the Jewish state – a hostility that extends to the Israeli trade union movement. (more…)

In Georgia, a newly-emboldened labour movement emerges

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

This article appeared today in Equal Times, which is the online magazine supported by the 175 million-member International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).  It also appeared on the website of the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC).

Over the course of two days in mid-November, a drama played on the Georgian railways that showed the world a newly-emboldened labour movement in this small country wedged between the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains.

Over 6,000 railway workers went on strike when management at the Georgian railways refused to negotiate on overtime pay, bonuses and other entitlements.

Vitali Giorgadze, Chairman of the Georgian Railway Workers New Trade Union (GRWNTU), told Equal Times: “We had been trying to start collective bargaining negotiations with the administration for about a year. It was due to these struggles that we decided to use every legal action we were granted by the labour code to speed up the process.”

Desperate to reach a compromise, union leaders not only gave the railway management the legally-required 21-day-notice for the strike, but they also gave the administration an additional 10 days.

But to no avail. At 10am on 14 November, 2013, the GRWNTU called a strike. Just six hours later, however, following a flurry of national and international solidarity, Georgian Railyways management called the unions to the table to start negotiations. By 3am that morning, an agreement had been reached.

It was a moment to savour for the Georgian trade unions which has been battling a repressive labour code and some of the most difficult working conditions in Europe.

But Georgia has a long tradition of working-class struggle.

Georgian labour and social democratic leaders punched far above their weight in the Russian Social Democratic Party and the Second International in the years up to 1917.

Until the Russian Revolution of that year, Georgia was a province of the tsar’s empire.

But for three short years starting in 1918, Georgia’s democratic socialists had the chance to show the world the possibility of a new, fairer and more democratic society in stark contrast to the dictatorial regime then being established by Lenin in Russia.

Among the features of their independent state were a multi-party democracy, a free press, a powerful cooperative movement, and strong and independent trade unions.

But Georgia’s experiment with democratic socialism ended abruptly in early 1921 when the Red Army invaded and for 70 long years, the Georgian people knew nothing of independent and democratic trade unions.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and Georgia’s independence in 1991 was meant to bring about a new era of freedom – but for the Georgians, it brought on an era of instability and dictatorship that lasted for more than a decade.

During this period, unions were first crushed by President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who they had dared to oppose.

But his overthrow by former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze a year later did not make things much better.

It was only following the ‘Rose Revolution’ in November 2003 and the assumption of power by Mikhail Saakashvili, that things began to change.

However, change did not come immediately.

In fact, the Saakashvili years were marked by some major struggles as unions faced increasingly intransigent employers and one of the most restrictive labour codes around.

As Gocha Aleksandria of the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) put it, Georgian workers have had to endure: “Policies that focused on exploitation of the labour force, lack of governmental labour market institutions and a legal code that fought against the practice of social dialogue.”

The most famous example was the Hercules Steel struggle in 2011, when the local governor and police in Kutaisi, one of the country’s largest cities, broke a strike with a campaign of repression.

The railways were also the scene of attempts at union-busting.

An attempt by the railway workers’ union to convene a congress in early 2011 were disrupted in several places by employers and their agents trying to prevent delegates from attending.

“The employing companies were motivated into thinking that they were exempt from punishment if they practiced bad employment policies,” said Aleksandria.

“However, the union has been fighting against these circumstances and the sense of solidarity is high with the members.”

Though Saakashvili was anything but a friend of the unions, and was widely seen as a promoter of neo-liberal reforms that made it harder than ever to build trade unions in the country, it was under his rule that unions and government negotiated changes in the country’s labour laws that finally produced positive results.

The new labour law, announced in the summer of 2013, was far from what the unions wanted.

It was a watered-down version of the one the unions had earlier agreed to, and it was weakened in part due to pressure put on by the American Chamber of Commerce in the country.

But as the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) conceded, the new legislation “provides some protection against anti-union discrimination, increases paid leave for people in hazardous occupations, prohibits dismissal of pregnant women and increases the duration of temporary disability provisions.”

There are now signs – such as the recent railway strike – of a new vigour among the Georgian trade unionists.

The GRWNTU’S concerns – overtime pay, increased wages and bonus system based on experience, as well as a return of the 13th month pay system – will be familiar to workers in many countries.

The union called for a nationwide strike to begin on Thursday, 14 November, 2013 but the railway company did all it could to disrupt the strike and prevent its spread.

While in the capital Tbilisi the strike was solid, in western Georgia, it ran into strong resistance from the employer.

Some key union leaders were uncontactable, and in reports that are reminiscent of the attempts to block the railway workers’ congress in 2011, they said that threats were made against them.

The GTUC put out an appeal for help, and got a quick response from the ITUC.

In a strongly worded statement to the Georgian authorities, ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow expressed her grave concern “regarding the on-going pressure and defamation exerted by the management before and during the strike.

“Instead of negotiating, the management interfered in the union internal affairs and in particular its right of assembly. When the notice of the strike went public, the management started to threaten workers of reprisals in case they joined the strike. To mislead public attention, GR management also tried to slander the railway union and GTUC by speaking of blackmail and sabotage as well as by accusing the GTUC leadership of masterminding the process.”

But the employer’s efforts to break the strike only made it stronger.

Within a few short hours, the GTUC issued a statement saying that: “Following six-hour talks, a consensus has been reached regarding all three issues raised by the Georgian Railway Workers New Trade Union.

“The just fight of the railway workers has been successful and the outcome meets the interests of the railway workers. The Georgian Railway has now resumed its operation in a usual mode.”

For the workers’ movement in Georgia, this victory – sweet though it is – is only the beginning.

Unions will need to make the most of the new labour law to organize many thousands more workers and reverse years of declining membership.

And they’ll need an improved labour law, one that really does fully comply with International Labour Organization (ILO) core conventions.

To get that, the occasional organisation of a successful strike will not be enough.

The Georgian unions of the 21st century, like their predecessors a century ago, will need to become much more engaged politically to challenge the neo-liberal agenda in their country.

Why the left should have nothing to do with Russia Today

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.

Thom Hartmann is a prominent left-wing radio broadcaster from the USA. I first came across him when he interviewed me at a conference in Washington and was promptly told by everyone just how prominent he is. He describes himself as a “democratic socialist” and his nationally-syndicated radio show has an estimated 2.75 million listeners.

George Galloway needs no introduction to a a left-wing audience in the UK.

What Hartmann and Galloway have in common is that they host shows on Russia Today (RT), a global satellite television channel that performs the same function for Vladimir Putin as Press TV did (and still does) for the Iranian dictatorship.

Hartmann’s show, “The Big Picture”, typically covers the standard fare of the US left – most recently with reports on how badly Walmart treats its workers, or why Vermont’s socialist senator Bernie Sanders should run for president.

Galloway’s new show on RT is called “Sputnik: Orbiting the world with George Galloway”.

RT uses the language of the mainstream left to cover politics that are fundamentally reactionary and that serve Russian imperial interests.

Of course that’s not how the TV channel describes itself. “RT news covers the major issues of our time for viewers wishing to question more,” says their website, “and delivers stories often missed by the mainstream media to create news with an edge.”

By “news with an edge”, they may sometimes mean that quite literally – and the edge belongs to a Russian bayonet.

For example, according to a timeline published on RT’s website, in 2008, “RT leads the coverage of the conflict in South Ossetia. RT is the only international news network to report from Tskhinvali during the Russia-Georgia War of 2008 and the first to confirm atrocities committed by the Georgian military against the civilian population.”

They were probably the only news network in South Ossetia because they were embedded in the Russian army.

One of RT’s regular shows “exposes the BIG STORIES Mainstream Media dare not touch,” according to their website.

But those stories are invariably ones in which the West, and in particular the USA, comes out looking bad.

When RT turns its attention closer to home, the progressive mask drops rather quickly and the strident tone of late-Stalinist Soviet propaganda comes to the fore.

This week, while “Mainstream Media” reported on the mass street protests in Kiev, RT brought on experts to discuss what was behind the new, giant wave of demonstrations.

One Moscow-based expert came on to explain that while it appeared that the European Union was behind the unrest – for which the United Nations should be called upon to intervene, as the EU was violating Ukraine’s sovereignty – this was not actually the case. The EU, we’re told, is only acting as a proxy for Washington. The real behind-the-scenes players are the National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House – the same shadowy organizations that brought on the original “Orange Revolution”.

RT can’t enforce a party line, and the speaker that followed – a Russian academic – forcefully disagreed, insisting that it was in fact the EU that was sabotaging Ukrainian sovereignty, and not merely the EU acting as an American proxy.

Both speakers of course agreed that it was Western “interference” that was the source of the trouble.

While the two speakers were “debating” who was more at fault, the news ticker scrolling across the bottom of the screen talked about how protestors in Kiev were throwing rocks at police, how an estimated 100 police officers had been injured so far (no mention of civilian casualties), and how some protestors were using “an unknown gas” to attack the defenders of public order.

The film footage shown again and again was of masked, violent protestors hurling objects at the police, who stood still for the cameras.

It was made abundantly clear to RT’s viewers that the Russian state is not happy with pro-EU demonstrators in Ukraine, and that Mr Putin would be delighted if the Ukrainian leadership would deal with them the way he has dealt with such threats to state security as “Pussy Riot” and the Greenpeace “pirates”.

Let’s be absolutely clear about what RT actually is. This is a state organ of the Putin regime and though it occasionally uses the language of the left (when attacking Russia’s rivals) the one thing consistent about its coverage is its uncritical support of Russian imperialism.

Honest leftists should refuse to have anything to do with RT, shouldn’t watch it, should refuse to be interviewed by it, and certainly should not host shows on it.