Archive for June, 2016

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

Thursday, June 23rd, 2016

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.

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

Saturday, June 18th, 2016

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.

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

Friday, June 17th, 2016

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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.