Saturday, September 16, 2017

How employers are attacking workers

Lisbeth Latham An increasing number of employers are asking themselves why they should have to abide by the terms of an Enterprise Agreement with their workers and unions, when it would cost less money if they didn't. Many have come to the conclusion that they should simply escape the obligations of their agreements.

The problem for workers is that companies who attempt this find that the Fair Work Commission (FWC) and the federal government increasingly support the idea that companies should be able to escape agreements so they can pay their workers to lower wages and have fewer limitations on their management prerogative.

The most recent example of this is the decision by FWC to terminate the Murdoch University Academic and General Staff Enterprise Agreement as of September 26. The effect of this decision, albeit with an undertaking from the employer to maintain wages, leave and other conditions for six months, is:

  • Salaries could fall by between 20% and 39%;
  • Superannuation contributions could fall from 17% to 12.5%;
  • Redundancy payments could fall by at least 33% for academic staff and up to 80% for professional staff;
  • Parental leave could become unpaid leave;
  • Personal leave could fall from 12 days a year to 10;
  • Academic workload regulation could disappear; and
  • Staff will become dependent on promises and policies that the university could change at any time for any reason.
FWC Commissioner BD Williams accepted Murdoch University management’s argument that it is facing serious financial difficulty and that 25 of the agreement’s clauses “were not supportive to Murdoch operating as a flexible and efficient enterprise” and that the termination of the agreement would strengthen the position of Murdoch management to negotiate a new agreement with the clauses it is seeking.
On August 30, federal education minister Simon Birmingham called on all universities to take advantage of this opportunity.
The criteria for seeking the termination of an agreement is extremely limited. The agreement must have passed the nominal expiry date; a genuine attempt must have been made to reach agreement; it needs to be in the public interest; and the commission must consider it appropriate to terminate the agreement.
The “public good” test is increasingly low. The test used in the Murdoch case was the potential impact on the WA state economy if Murdoch wages were to revert to the award. Universities are relatively large employers, but they are still only small components of the total wages paid in any state.
It would seem unlikely that many private employers would have a wage bill large enough to have a major impact on the economy, making the test largely meaningless.

Change the rules

The National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) and the ACTU have both rightly pointed to the Murdoch decision as further evidence of the need to change the rules of Australia's industrial relations system.
NTEU WA Division Secretary Gage Gooding said: “The way in which this agreement has been terminated is another example that our laws are badly broken and must change to ensure the just treatment of workers”.
ACTU Secretary Sally McManus said: “This is the latest in a very long list of companies that have exploited this incredibly destructive precedent set by the Aurizon case at Fair Work. We need immediate action to stop companies completely bypassing the normal bargaining process and reaching for this nuclear option … we need to change the rules so they are not used by employers to blackmail workers into accepting lower pay and job security.”
Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie has announced his intention to introduce a private members bill to ban such “nuclear” terminations of enterprise agreements.
But it is important to note that making it tougher to terminate agreements — or even putting the decision in the hands of workers and their unions — would only close the door on one avenue for employers to seek to massively undermine agreements through reversion to the award. Options such as using labour hire or outsourcing work to contractors would remain and enterprising companies could find further options to escape an agreement.
The fundamental problem is the massive gap between the wages and conditions in the majority of EBAs and the underlying awards and the ways employers can seek to employ new workers paid at the award rate or just above it.
While awards were the primary mechanism of providing employment conditions prior to the introduction of enterprise bargaining in 1993, unions had always been able to secure above award conditions. These conditions could then be incorporated into the underlying award and from there flow onto other awards. This process was central to the Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union (and its precursors’) “hot shop approach” to collective bargaining.

Gap between enterprise agreements and awards

With the passing of the 1993 Industrial Relations Reform Act and the subsequent Workplace Relations Act the relationship between local conditions and awards became one directional: only awards could affect conditions in an individual workplace not the other way around. This meant that over time there was a gap grew between the wages and conditions in enterprise agreements and the underlying awards.
The gap between enterprise agreements and awards was exacerbated by the Howard government's award stripping, which limited the number and types of matters that could be included in an award. This not only massively increased the gap between awards and agreements, but at a stroke of a pen it stripped hundreds of thousands of workers of rights they had previously won.
Re-establishing a two-way relationship between local working conditions enshrined in an agreement and industry-wide award conditions will not only help protect agreements from being undercut by employers seeking to revert to the award, but also enable the hard work of workers seeking to improve their conditions to flow onto other workers in their industry, helping to build social solidarity and limit the competitive advantage of employers who resist enterprise agreements.
Such a shift would be deeply opposed by employers and would be a fundamental break with the direction and thinking of the FWC and its precursor over the past 25 years. But it would be a significant change that could dramatically improve the working lives of millions of workers.
However, simply changing the rules would not be enough, as history has shown that bodies like the FWC are not neutral umpires who can be relied upon to deliver fairness to working people. Wage justice will require an ongoing movement of working people in support of improved wages and conditions.

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Friday, September 1, 2017

Why a Yes response in the survey is not enough

Lisbeth Latham

Ever since it was announced, the federal government’s postal survey on marriage equality has been met with responses questioning both the legitimacy of the survey and demonstrating support for marriage equality — responses that have been vital for the confidence and morale of members of the LGBTIQ community.

Despite this, the right, particularly the Christian right, has demonstrated its determination to defeat the push for marriage equality through the mobilisation of homophobic and transphobic hatred and disinformation.

This opposition and the desire by significant sections of the Liberal and National parties to avoid legislating for marriage equality suggests that a clear and decisive response to the survey in support of marriage equality may be insufficient in itself to achieve that goal. We will need to build the strongest movement in the streets not just for marriage equality but in support of the broader rights of the LGBTIQ community.

The survey has been widely denounced by supporters of marriage equality. There are currently two High Court challenges to the constitutionality of the survey. These cases are scheduled for September 6, just six days before the surveys are due to be mailed out. Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie, who is one of the High Court litigants, has described the survey as a “sham” and argued that the government is “exceeding its powers and acting illegally”.

Despite this opposition to the idea of the survey, there is a widespread understanding that if it goes ahead, it is important that people engage in the survey in support of marriage equality.

Alex Greenwich from Australian Marriage Equality told ABC News on August 11: “Should we have to deal with a postal vote plebiscite being inflicted upon us, we have a duty of care and responsibility to make sure we campaign for marriage equality, to make sure we campaign Yes for marriage equality.”

This determination to engage with the survey is also reflected in changes in electoral enrolments since the survey was announced. Guardian Australia reported on August 24 that 90,000 young people had enrolled to vote for the first time, along with 675,000 people updating their details. At that time, a further 165,000 forms were still to be processed.

While some of these interactions with the Australian Electoral Commission would include opponents of marriage equality, the latest Newspoll on support for marriage equality indicates that 67% of those polled support marriage equality.

This support has also been reflected in and reinforced by the 20,000 people who rallied for marriage equality in Melbourne on August 26. Protests in support also occurred on August 26 in Perth and August 27 in Wollongong and further mobilisations are planned across Australia over the coming weeks.

The focus of the campaign has been on maximising both participation in the survey and the number of people who respond in support of marriage equality. Achieving a strong response in support of equality will put pressure on the government to introduce a bill to parliament and encourage its members to vote for that bill, but it may not be sufficient to secure marriage equality.

Despite this broad support, and to some extent because of it, the level of homophobic and transphobic rhetoric from opponents of marriage equality has increased.

Homophobia rising
The clearest example of this has been the appearance of homophobic posters distributed by neo-Nazi organisations in Melbourne and Sydney which have linked equal marriage with child abuse and paedophilia.

The posters drew widespread condemnation from across the community, including forcing sections of the religious right to seek to distance themselves from the posters. Lyle Sheldon, the head of the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL), did so by arguing the posters were part of a conspiracy by supporters of marriage equality to call into question the legitimacy of the survey. The ACL is seeking to paint the survey as a threat to marriage generally and an assault on religious freedom, with some of its more feverish supporters online suggesting that marriage equality would lead to the need to establish “underground churches”.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has sought to normalise this hatred by saying that it is part of democratic discussion around the survey and that people were likely to say things that are “hurtful, unfair and sometimes cruel” but, rather than stifle free speech, Australians should stand up for any friends and loved ones feeling distressed “at this challenging time”.

Turnbull also said: “You cannot ask for respect from the No case if you’re not prepared to give respect to the No case. The vast majority of people who do not agree with same-sex marriage are not homophobic and do not denigrate gay people.” This makes how the community has responded to homophobic attacks the problem, rather than the attacks themselves.

The reliance of the right on hatred and fear to mobilise its base is not just upsetting. It is potentially dangerous both in the lead up to the survey and in the wake of any legislation being passed.

In both the US and France, the final pushes towards marriage equality were responded to by the right escalating violence against the LGBTIQ community. This violence did not drop to the earlier lower, but still unacceptable, levels in the immediate wake of achieving formal marriage equality.

In both countries the right have continued to use marriage equality as a basis to mobilise their base to attempt to not only wind back marriage equality but also other rights that have been won by the LGBTIQ community and to block further gains. The clearest example of this push has been the growth, after the US Supreme Court’s decision in favour of marriage equality, of legislative efforts to block trans people from accessing the toilets of their affirmed gender.

The Christian Right and far-right are not as large or energetic here as those in the US and France. But we can see evidence of the right attempting to energise their base through hypocritical and hyperbolic attempts to convince themselves and their supporters that the survey and Safe Schools programs are existential threats to families and particularly children. These attempts have the potential to create a desperate desire not only to maintain the right’s rage against marriage equality but also to increase the physical threat towards visible members of the LGBTIQ community.

Need for mobilisations
This situation makes ongoing mobilisation during and after the announcement of the survey result central to maximising any result. It will also help maintain morale within the LGBTIQ community. Mobilisations will raise the pressure on the government — particularly those concerned that opposition to marriage equality is a vote loser — to push for marriage equality legislation to be passed.

Equally importantly, ongoing large mobilisations will help to create an atmosphere where homophobia and transphobia are not tolerated in our society. As part of our efforts to build mobilisations in support of marriage equality and against homophobia, it is important we build empathy and support for issues facing the broader LGBTIQ community.

We must support efforts to enable trans people to achieve gender recognition, combat broader discrimination against the community, particularly the religious exemptions from the anti-discrimination acts, and actively combat the Australian government’s ongoing racist policies targeting refugees, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

[Lisbeth Latham is a trans woman and a member of the Socialist Alliance. This article was originally published in Green Left Weekly #1151

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Don’t boycott the postal survey, build a mass Yes campaign

Lisbeth Latham

Despite widespread community opposition and the Senate's repeated rejection of a plebiscite the Malcolm Turnbull government is persisting with a non-binding postal survey on the question of removing the current definition of marriage from the Marriage Act and replacing it with an unspecified definition that will provide for marriage equality in some unspecified form.

At least one court challenge has already been announced and among members of the LGBTQI community a debate has opened as to whether supporters of marriage equality should boycott the survey.

The call for a boycott reflects justified anger and frustration at the government’s continued refusal to follow public opinion and pass legislation to provide for marriage equality, as well as a rejection of the legitimacy of the proposed process.

The most prominent advocate for a boycott was former High Court Justice Michael Kirby who called the postal ballot “irregular, unscientific — I’ll take no part in it” and told Radio National on August 10 “I feel as a citizen I’m being treated as a second-class citizen”. He has since reversed his position and now says he will participate.

Is a boycott the best approach in the present situation?

It is important to note that the question of boycotting a vote, or in this case a survey, is a tactical question, not a strategic question. A decision around the tactic may flow from your strategy, but it should also flow from questions such as the balance of forces, the likely support for a boycott and where your campaign will flow following a boycott or participation in the process.

While it is important to note that the plebiscite and survey are unnecessary and cynical moves aimed at delaying any vote on a marriage equality bill, this is irrelevant to whether the survey should be boycotted.

Also irrelevant is the fact that the survey is illegitimate and the abusive intentions behind the survey. These factors are relevant to whether the survey is necessary prior to any vote on legislation occurring or whether it should go ahead, but they aren't relevant to how we respond to an actual process.

We should also not be under any illusion that if the government were to announce tomorrow that it would introduce legislation to parliament and allow a free vote from its members, that this would somehow avoid a toxic homophobic campaign by the right.

n France, before the 2013 vote on equal marriage, the right mobilised millions of people against marriage equality, and they continued to mobilise large numbers against marriage equality even after it became law. These mobilisations have helped contribute to an increasingly homophobic atmosphere in France over the past four years.

Happily, on this occasion Australia is not France and the right wing in this country is not as vigorous or capable of mobilising. But as anyone involved in reproductive rights campaigning knows, the Australian right can still mobilise in toxic and obnoxious ways.

A decision by supporters of marriage equality to not participate in the survey process will not stop homophobic and transphobic attacks by the right; if anything a boycott campaign would encourage the right’s antics and rhetoric.

The key question as to how to engage with and respond to the survey is what will strengthen the campaign for marriage equality and for the broader rights of the LGBTQI community.

There is no doubt that boycotts can be effective mechanisms through which to undermine attempts by governments to legitimise their actions and to buttress their position. But, equally, boycott campaigns can backfire. This is because:

Successful boycotts are difficult to achieve
Abstentions can be difficult to interpret as to whether they reflect disinterest and apathy, or are a consequence of the boycott
Boycotts can also result in inflating the apparent support of the other side as they are unlikely to boycott.
An additional problem is that the ability of governments to carry out their agenda is not necessarily connected to the popularity of their actions or the electoral votes they receive. Even governments with razor thin majorities and limited electoral support can still carry out attacks.

So, a successful boycott could delegitimise the outcome of the survey, but the government is not binding itself to the outcome so this is unlikely to pressure the government to bring forward legislation for marriage equality.

The government's resistance to legislating for marriage equality and its unwillingness to commit to the process being binding, means that they don't care if the survey falls over. Any opposition to marriage equality will be embraced and support will be dismissed — a boycott will potentially make this easier.

To contemplate a boycott, we would need to have enough support for the boycott across the spectrum of supporters of marriage equality — which seems unlikely — to have little or no participation in the survey from the movement and the broader supporters of marriage equality.

In addition we would need a viable strategy of turning the boycott into a concerted push to force the government's hand to bring a bill to parliament and allow its members to vote freely. This is something we do not currently have, which is why things are at the current impasse.

It is important to support any efforts to legally block the survey. But if it does go ahead building a united public campaign for a Yes vote will create the best opportunity to combat any hate campaign against the LGBTQI community by reactionary forces and limit the space the Turnbull government will have to manoeuvre on marriage equality.

It will be important that the campaign takes clear positions on other LGBTQI rights issues. The right will seek to mobilise fears around these issues. Failing to defend those communities will reinforce fears in the community of support for the broader rights of LGBTQI community being dropped once marriage equality has been achieved.
Happily, on this occasion Australia is not France and the right wing in this country is not as vigorous or capable of mobilising. But as anyone involved in reproductive rights campaigning knows, the Australian right can still mobilise in toxic and obnoxious ways.

A decision by supporters of marriage equality to not participate in the survey process will not stop homophobic and transphobic attacks by the right; if anything a boycott campaign would encourage the right’s antics and rhetoric.

The key question as to how to engage with and respond to the survey is what will strengthen the campaign for marriage equality and for the broader rights of the LGBTQI community.

There is no doubt that boycotts can be effective mechanisms through which to undermine attempts by governments to legitimise their actions and to buttress their position. But, equally, boycott campaigns can backfire. This is because:

Successful boycotts are difficult to achieve
Abstentions can be difficult to interpret as to whether they reflect disinterest and apathy, or are a consequence of the boycott
Boycotts can also result in inflating the apparent support of the other side as they are unlikely to boycott.
An additional problem is that the ability of governments to carry out their agenda is not necessarily connected to the popularity of their actions or the electoral votes they receive. Even governments with razor thin majorities and limited electoral support can still carry out attacks.

So, a successful boycott could delegitimise the outcome of the survey, but the government is not binding itself to the outcome so this is unlikely to pressure the government to bring forward legislation for marriage equality.

The government's resistance to legislating for marriage equality and its unwillingness to commit to the process being binding, means that they don't care if the survey falls over. Any opposition to marriage equality will be embraced and support will be dismissed — a boycott will potentially make this easier.

To contemplate a boycott, we would need to have enough support for the boycott across the spectrum of supporters of marriage equality — which seems unlikely — to have little or no participation in the survey from the movement and the broader supporters of marriage equality.

In addition we would need a viable strategy of turning the boycott into a concerted push to force the government's hand to bring a bill to parliament and allow its members to vote freely. This is something we do not currently have, which is why things are at the current impasse.

It is important to support any efforts to legally block the survey. But if it does go ahead building a united public campaign for a Yes vote will create the best opportunity to combat any hate campaign against the LGBTQI community by reactionary forces and limit the space the Turnbull government will have to manoeuvre on marriage equality.

It will be important that the campaign takes clear positions on other LGBTQI rights issues. The right will seek to mobilise fears around these issues. Failing to defend those communities will reinforce fears in the community of support for the broader rights of LGBTQI community being dropped once marriage equality has been achieved.

The benefits of taking this approach can be seen in the experience in Chile during the 1988 national plebiscite on whether dictator General Augusto Pinochet would receive a further eight-year term as president. The anti-dictatorship forces ran a No campaign despite concerns the vote was unfair, that participation in the plebiscite would give the dictatorship legitimacy and that the Junta would simply ignore a No vote.

This fear was backed up by archives that showed Pinochet had intended to ignore the No vote but the rest of the Junta refused to support this in the face of both the strength of the vote and the danger of increased international isolation. Despite these fears, the opposition saw the plebiscite as an opportunity to publicly campaign, albeit with extreme restrictions, against the dictatorship with the possibility that the vote would result in ending the dictatorship — something they ultimately achieved.

While the stakes in Australia are very different to Chile in 1988, and we would prefer the quicker and easier path of a direct vote now, this is not the reality we face. Instead, the survey, if it goes ahead, is the reality we live with. As such, participation in building the strongest possible Yes vote is a clear path to forcing a vote and giving Turnbull and the reactionaries in the Coalition and the Australian Christian Lobby a bloody nose.

As part of maximising the vote and to build pressure to force the government to recognise any Yes majority, we need to support public mobilisations for marriage equality and aim to make them as large as possible, both in the lead up and after the survey.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly #1149

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Trump’s transgender military ban: how should the left respond?

Lisbeth Latham

Donald Trump announced a ban on transgender people serving in the US armed forces via Twitter on July 26. The ban reverses a series of orders made by the Barack Obama administration to explore the integration of transgender service personnel into the military — and for any costs associated with gender affirmation medical technology to be covered.

The ban has re-raised questions about what attitude left-wing forces should take to questions of discrimination in the armed forces of imperialist countries. Should such discrimination be opposed and on what basis should you do so?

Trump’s ban appears to have had two primary motivations — appeasing the president’s transphobic base and addressing concerns from conservative Republicans over the cost of providing gender affirming medical technology to trans military personnel.

Missouri Republican Vicky Hartzler has been pushing since June to pass an amendment to the defence budget that would bar the US military from funding gender affirmation surgery and hormone therapy. Despite having wide support in the Republican caucus, this effort has been frustrated by an alliance of Democrats and 24 “moderate” Republicans.

Trump’s ban is also seen as a mechanism via which resistance from conservative Republicans to appropriations for Trump's southern wall can be overcome. However, the total ban goes beyond what many of the conservative Republicans were seeking. It is apparently not supported by any significant layers among senior levels of the US military apparatus.

This lack of broader support is not generally driven by opposition to transphobia. Rather, there are pragmatic concerns that a total ban will raise the risk of attempts at civilian legal intervention.

If successful, this would mean the courts would potentially limit the control that senior military and civilian administration would have over the integration of trans military personnel.

Opposing discrimination So what attitude should the left take to the ban? It is easy to say that the US military is a reactionary institution and the participation of oppressed minorities in it is not a liberating experience — and thus take an indifferent or hostile attitude to the question.

But such approaches are fundamentally wrong. The character of the US military is irrelevant as to whether US military personnel should have protections from discrimination.

This ban will do very little to stop trans people from serving in the military. It is estimated there are already between 2500 and 15,000 trans personnel in all branches of the US armed forces. The ban will simply impact negatively on the lives of these people — and undermine their ability to affirm their gender without serious consequences.

Some of these individuals may be out and out reactionaries — a fact which is irrelevant to the question of whether they deserve to be discriminated against on the basis of their gender identity. However, a large numbers of trans people, like tens of thousands of members of other marginalised communities who are members of the US military, are in the military as a consequence of the “poverty draft” operating in the US.

Opposition to minorities serving in the US military is not just meaningless (because participation is primarily driven by economic needs), it is paternalistic. It positions the left as supporting reactionary forces that seek to exclude oppressed groups from social life.

If we say it is okay to discriminate against people in certain parts of social life, it strengthens discriminatory attitudes throughout social life.

If our concern is dismantling reactionary institutions such as the US military, then the best approach is to demand maximum democratic rights both within and outside such institutions. Within the context of the military, this should include the right of soldiers to elect officers and to collectively refuse orders.

It is important to note that a significant factor in the breakdown of the US military as a functioning force during the Vietnam War was — on top of the heroic resistance of the Vietnamese people and global anti-war movement — the resistance within the US armed forces by soldiers. The great mass of soldiers decided, by and large, that staying alive was more important than the imperialist objectives of the US government and its officer corp.

Opposition to Trump’s ban should not just be limited to opposition to discrimination and violence against trans individuals within the US armed forces. It should include supporting the right to have access, with costs covered, to gender affirming medical technology.

Our arguments should not focus on how much these technologies cost — even though at an estimated US$8 million a year it is a drop in the ocean of the US government’s $611 billion defence budget — but because access to medical treatment is a right that should not be limited by costs or attitudes of those in power.

Broader impacts Accepting the right of the US government to exclude transgender affirmation surgery costs for military personnel would recreate space where other services can be cut off because of discrimination. It also puts at risk funding for trans prisoners to access publicly funded gender affirmation technology.

It strengthens the arguments in favour of the supposed “right” of private businesses and insurance companies to refuse coverage for procedures and medical technology that they are opposed to, such as access to contraceptive pills, gender affirmation surgery and hormones.

A fight against attacks on medical funding for trans military personal can, if argued effectively, lend itself to arguing for publicly funded universal health care — which is desperately needed in the US.

The ending of discrimination within the armed forces is not liberatory, but is an essential part of combating discrimination in broader society.

On the other hand, supporting the continued existence of discriminatory practices in the hope it might discourage people from joining up does nothing to disrupt the military.

However, it does help make the lives of minorities within the military hellish — an impact that will last throughout their lives — and helps enable and justify discriminatory behaviour outside the military.

Opposing pinkwashing At the same time, opponents of imperialism should not fall into the trap of glorifying either trans service personnel or lend ourselves to the pinkwashing of reactionary institutions.

There has been prominent sharing of images of Kristin Beck, a trans woman and former US Navy Seal, on social media. These memes promote the idea that trans service personnel are “defending the rights of US citizens”. The reality is that the deployment of the US military is not aimed at defending the rights of US citizens or progressive values of any form. The US military aims to extend US corporate interests and maintain US imperial hegemony.

There should be no ban on the involvement of trans personnel within the US military and US military personnel should be able to express their gender in whichever way they choose. This should be the case, despite the fact that the ability to do so will not change the US imperialist war machine — or lessen our opposition to its crimes.

[Lisbeth Latham is a trans woman. They are a long-term opponent of US imperialist adventures and a member of the Socialist Alliance in Australia.]

Originally published in Green Left Weekly #1148

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Saturday, July 1, 2017

France: Struggle over workplace rights looms as Macron secures power

Lisbeth Latham

The parliamentary majority President Emmanuel Macron’s coalition won in the second round of legislative elections held on June 18 was reported as a triumph against the weakened forces of both the left and the traditional right.

But questions have emerged over the real strength of the government as it prepares an assault on the rights of workers and their unions.

The parliamentary majority secured by Macron’s La Republique en Marche (LREM) and the allied Democratic Movement (MoDem) was smaller than expected. They won 360 seats in the 577-seat body (313 LREM and 47 MoDem respectively) — down from predictions after the first round of as many as 440 seats.

Despite still winning a clear majority, the stability of the government is questionable. In the week after the second round, the government had four ministers resign over a 48-hour period. The resignations relate to two separate sets of corruption scandals.

All of MoDem’s ministers have resigned, including party leader Francois Bayrou, over allegations that MoDem misused European Union parliamentary funds. Another minister who resigned was Richard Ferrand, also LREM’s secretary-general, who faces allegations of profiting from real estate sales while the head of a health insurance fund.

None of the four ex-ministers have been charged, and two now lead LREM and MoDem in parliament.

The traditional right-wing parties were weakened in the elections, losing 93 seats to hold just 136. The far-right National Front failed to reproduce Marine Le Pen’s success in the presidential elections, winning eight seats (up from the two in 2012).

However, the big losers were left parties.

The combined left vote, including Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France Unbowed(FI), was the lowest combined vote in the first round for socialists/communists since World War II. The Socialist Part and its allies won just 45 seats, down from 331 in 2012.

FI won 17 seats, allowing it to form its own parliamentary group. The French Communist Party (PCF) received its lowest vote ever, but still increased its seat tally from seven to 11.

There were efforts to form a united parliamentary group between the FI and PCF. However, attempts were blocked by ongoing tensions between the groups.

Although the PCF does not have sufficient seats to form its own parliamentary group on its own, it was able to do so by securing the participation of five left MPs elected from France’s overseas territories.

The PCF and FI pledged to work together to fight against Macron’s neoliberal agenda for France. While the pledge may be undermined by their forces being divided in parliament, a far bigger problem is that the forces do not exist in parliament to build a left opposition capable of blocking Macron’s agenda.

Therefore, if Macron is to be stopped, it will be in the streets.

The first major attack looming against the popular classes is new proposed workplace laws. These follow on from the laws passed last year.

On June 28, the government presented an enabling bill that would introduce temporary ordinances to undermine the Labour Code. Once an enabling law has been passed, such ordinances are short term orders that change the laws for a period of time while the legalisation is still being debated. The enabling bill (but not the ordinances) will be debated on July 24. The text for the ordinances isnot expected to be published until September.

The exact character of the attacks is unclear. The government has only been willing to meet with unions for six hours to verbally outline their plans. However, the changes are expected to further weaken the historic principle in French industrial relations that the three levels of agreements — national, industry, and enterprise — should only improve workers’ rights as the agreements flow down to the local level.

Since 2004, changes to France’s labour laws began to allow enterprise agreements to begin to undermine industry agreements to a limited extent. The General Confederation of Labour (CGT) expects the new changes to dramatically expand the areas in which an enterprise agreement can undercut industry level agreements.

Adding to this danger are the changes introduced in last year’s El Khomri labour laws, which make it dramatically easier for enterprise agreements to be imposed. The laws remove the ability of unions representing more than 50% of workers in workplace to veto an agreement negotiated by unions representing more than 30% of workers. Such an agreement can now be approved based on a ballot of workers.

If a new agreement undercuts existing conditions, it won’t automatically apply to existing workers. However, the El Khomri labour laws allow a company to sack any worker who refuses to accept the new lower conditions.

The CGT labelled the laws the death of industry level agreements and of the employment contract.

Resistance to the new laws has been muted. Protests have primarily been led by the Social Front (FS), which was established in April to bring together dozens of unions and social movement groups. FS called mobilisations on May Day, May 8 and June 19, with thousands taking to the streets in cities and towns across France.

A section of the more militant unions have begun to organise. On June 27, the CGT, Workers’ Force (FO), the trade union Solidaires and the United Trade Union Federation (FSU), along with the university student union UNEF, held a series of small demonstrations across France to coincide with MPs taking up their seats.

These unions have also called for joint mobilisations on September 12. The CGT has called for a day of strikes and protests.

This is an important step in building a movement in opposition to Macron’s attacks, but unions face a big hurdle in building a united movement to defend workers’ rights that they were unable to overcome last year. This is the refusal of the more conservative union confederations to mobilise their members to oppose the attacks.

Laurent Berger, the secretary- general of the French Democratic Confederation of Labour, expressed concerns at the pace at which the government is seeking to push through its changes. However, it has resisted being drawn on the proposals themselves.

This suggests the militant unions and the FS have considerable work ahead if they are to draw the members and supporters of the conservative unions into the streets.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly #1143.

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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Record abstention in French elections as Macron secures majority

Lisbeth Latham

  The first round France’s National Assembly elections have been marked by record abstention of 51.29% of the electorate.

The abstentionism primarily impacted on the far-right and left parties. Meanwhile, recently elected President Emmanuel Macron’s The Republic on the March (LREM) and its allies look to secure a strong parliamentary majority in the second round of elections on June 18.

This would strengthen LREM and allies capacity to carry out Macron’s agenda of regressive assaults on students, workers, the unemployed and retirees. LREM’s victory in the first round creates a significant challenge for the French left to build resistance to Macron.


LREM’s allies include the centrist Democratic Movement (MoDem), along with dissident members of the right-wing The Republicans (LR) and the Socialist Party (PS). Combined, these forces received 32.32% of the vote. They are expected to ultimately win between 390-440 out of the 577 seats in the National Assembly.
The second highest result was achieved by the LR and allied right-wing parties, which received 21.57% of the vote. These traditional right-wing parties are expected to win between 70 and 90 seats in the second round.
The far-right Front National placed third with 13.20%, with the FN are expected to increase the number of seats it holds beyond its current two. There is an outside chance it could win enough seats to form a formal parliamentary group (15 seats).
Left results
On the left, Jean-Luc Melenchon’s France Unbowed (FI) received 11.02% of the vote, and 65 of its candidates have qualified for the second round.
The vote for the traditional social democratic party, the PS, and its allies fell dramatically from 2012, although it was up from its record low in the presidential elections. They won 9.51% of the vote and are expected to win 20-30 seats. This is down dramatically from the 331 seats they hold in the outgoing parliament, with a large number of former government ministers already eliminated in the second round.
The French Communist Party (PCF), for its part, had been heavily dependent on the Left Front electoral alliance with Melenchon’s Left Party to win its seven seats in 2012. With no alliance between the PCF and FI, it suffered a sharp decline in its electoral fortunes — receiving just 2.72% of the vote. Just 12 PCF candidates qualified for the second round.
LREM’s likely strong majority, along with Macron’s victory in the presidential election, is being presented as a rejection as the mainstream parties of the centre-left and the right, as well as an endorsement of Macron’s “modernising” agenda.
Macron is already flagging a new round of attacks on workers and their unions. These include expanding the areas that a company level agreement can undercut a sectoral agreement — along with his campaign pledge to cut France’s public sector by 140,000 jobs.
No mandate
However, while appearing a strong result, the reality is LREM domination of the vote is primarily a consequence of the decline in the mobilisation of voters of the left and far right.
Candidates backed by Macron received 1.3 million fewer votes than Macron did in the first round of the presidential election. Moreover, LREM vote constitutes a small section of the French electorate.
The New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) pointed out in a statement: “With over 51% abstention, the results of the first round of parliamentary election is that of a sick and increasingly undemocratic Republic. 
“That the Republic on the March should have an absolute majority in the Assembly with the support of 16% of registered voters ... this result shows that this government has no legitimacy to rule by decree, much less to destroy our social gains, the Labour Code, or social Security”.
It is unclear what drove the sharp decline electoral support for the FI and the PCF from the first round of the presidential election. Some of the decline potentially reflects a letdown from Macron’s victory, along with difficulty in transforming Melenchon’s individual electoral appeal to the FI.
Another factor may well have been the failure of the FI and PCF to build a united left electoral campaign for the legislative elections. This division was a consequence of long running tensions between Melenchon and the Left Party on the one hand and the PCF on the other.
These tensions led the majority the PCF’s national conference in November to reject a proposal that the PCF support Melenchon’s presidential campaign. The PCF subsequently endorsed Melenchon only after a narrow membership vote in favour.
Struggle for united left 
There was widespread support for a united legislative campaign, but there was no agreement over the basis for such an alliance.
The PCF sought an alliance based on non-aggression and the ability the parties to present their own programs under their own banner. The FI, on the other hand, made the basis of unity having all candidates accepting its program, under its banner and with all public funding based on votes going to the FI.
The impact of this division was felt in a range of ways. It led to a number of the PCF candidates standing solely as FI candidates. It also led to a level of alienation of the bases of the different groups over the blame game for divisions.
The only PCF candidates who did not compete against an FI candidate in their constituency were those PCF members of parliament who endorsed Melenchon’s campaign. These were among some of the better performing PCF candidates (some receiving more than 30% of the vote in their constituencies).
However, this may also have been a consequence of them standing in seats where the PCF has continued to maintain strong links with the working class.
It is unclear exactly how much of an impact the standing of multiple left candidates in individual constituencies had on the left vote. But it is clear that the divided situation resulted in less left candidates qualifying for the second round of the elections. This weakens the ability of the left to blunt the size of the LREM’s parliamentary majority.
The FI and PCF leaderships have both made clear the pressing need for the left to unite to support the remaining left candidates. There are 80 left candidates who made it through to the second round (including PS candidates who have consistently opposed anti-worker changes to the Labour Code). There are 42 seen as being in a strong position to win a seat.
However, this number could rise if the left is able to mobilise a greater section of its base in the second round. PCF national secretary Pierre Laurent was reported in l'Humanite on June 13 as saying: “The mobilisation of leftist voters is necessary because it is thanks to the huge abstention that the Republic on the Move could get an absolute majority.”
The street
As important as the June 18 second round vote will be in establishing a parliamentary opposition to Macron, the reality will be that the main struggle against attacks on social gains in France will occur in the street.
The Front Social, established in April and including more than 100 unions and other activist groups, has called national mobilisations against Macron for June 19. Unions in Paris have also called protests for June 27, the day that newly elected MPs will take their seats, as part of their campaign against the attacks on France’s labour laws.
These mobilisations will be important steps in the building of a movement against Macron.
[This article originally appeared in Green Left Weekly #1141]

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Sunday, June 11, 2017

France: France Insoumise, the PCF and the challenge of building a left fight-back against Macron

Lisbeth Latham
The strong performance of Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round of the French presidential election (19.58%), the highest vote by candidate to the left of social democracy since 1969, gave rise to hope for the potential for the French left to rebuild its presence in the French parliament and establish itself as a barrier to Macron establishing a parliamentary majority. A factor that could contribute to fully realising this opportunity would be the extent to which a united-left electoral campaign could be built– particularly between the parties which made up the Front de Gauche (Left Front - FG).

Jean-Luc Mélenchon addresses a France Insoumise rally
However, rather than unity the dynamics of division that have been in play for more than two years have largely deepened and could potentially result in the left returning fewer members to parliament than in 2012.

Mélenchon’s presidential campaign was primarily driven by France Insoumise (Indomitable France – FI), the mass organisation which Mélenchon launched on February 10, 2016 with the support of Parti de Gauche (Left Party – PG), the party he launched following his resignation from the PS in 2009. When FI was launched, Mélenchon also announced the dissolution of the Front de Gauche – the electoral front which had been launched between the PG, the Parti Communiste Français (French Communist Party – PCF) and a number of smaller left parties. FI has primarily organised via the web, with supporters being organised into committees of between 5-12 people, By May 1, FI had more than 450, 000 supporters, in March, when the organisation had over 260, 000 supporters, there were 2, 800 committees across.

Pierre Laurent
In addition to the support from FI, Mélenchon’s presidential campaign was supported by the PCF and Ensemble (a regroupment of smaller left groups within the FG). However, while the launch of FI and Mélenchon’s presidential campaign was supported by some of PCF’s leadership, particularly Pierre Laurent, PCF National Secretary, and Marie-George Buffet, current MP and former PCF National Secretary, many PCF members were hostile to both the creation of FI and to Melenchon’s presidential campaign. Fifty-five percent of the PCF’s National Conference on November 5, rejected a proposal to support Melenchon’s presidential bid. Three weeks later, 54% of the party’s 50, 000 paid membership voted to support Mélenchon’s candidacy. This support was vital, as in order to be formally nominated for president, he required the endorsement from 500 elected officials – which the PCF’s formal support gave him. There was also significant resistance within Ensemble where 30% of members voting against supporting Mélenchon’s candidature.

Mélenchon’s success in the presidential elections while being a culmination of a growth of in hope around his campaign – also raised the hope that if the vote could be translated through to the legislative elections there would be a possibility that the left of the PS could not only significantly boost its presence in parliament, but have a big enough contingent to be able to block Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique En Marche! (the Republic on the Move – LREM) holding a majority in the parliament. This need was reinforced after Macron announced his government with former right-wing Les Repulicains MP Édouard Philippe as his prime minister. Macron announced plans for a new round of attacks on workers to follow on from last year’s El Khomri labour laws which significantly undermined worker and union rights.

Despite this hope and need for a united left electoral response, it has not materialised. While in the wake of the Macron’s victory in the second round both the PCF and Ensemble! issued statements calling for a united left electoral ticket. FI insisted the basis for unity was for candidates run under FI’s banner, be based on acceptance of FI’s program, and that all public funding generated based on votes for FI candidates would go to FI. Positions which the PCF was unwilling to accept, based on their desire run under a common banner but also allow individual parties to be profiled and the PCF’s unwillingness to campaign for the withdrawal from nuclear power generation. On May 9, Manuel Bompard an FI spokesperson announced that negotiations had broken down, he blamed the PCF’s Laurent for this. As a consequence, the FI would be running its own candidates in every constituency including constituencies where the PCF, Ensemble!, or Europe Ecology les Vertes (Europe Ecology - The Greens) have sitting MPs (unless the sitting MP had endorsed Mélenchon’s presidential campaign).



The failure to form a united ticket reflects long-running tensions within the FG which culminated in the 2015 regional elections where the FG was heavily divided and received tiny votes. From the outset there were tensions within the Front about both the character of the front, was it an alliance between organisations or should individual activists be able to join and have a say, and around democracy, with the PCF, particularly in areas where it was the largest organisation, imposing its candidates, there had also been tensions as to who could say they were front candidate – which was a problem in municipal and regional elections where tickets are run and at times member organisations were represented on different tickets – with the sharpest question being could a ticket involving official PS candidates be labelled a FG ticket? With the PCF (which was more likely to be in such an alliance pushing for the ability for it to wave the FG flag in these circumstances).

These tensions culminated in a meeting of the European United Left/ Nordic Green Left (EUG/NGL) in 2014 where PG sort to block Pierre Laurent’s election to the presidency of the EUL/NGL over the question of the PCF’s running joint tickets with the PS, although Laurent was subsequently elected. In the 2015 regional elections (which were marked by a sharp increase in support for the Front National) the FG ran only a seven of tickets involving all of the FG– with the rest being a variety of separate tickets with the PCF and thePG running on different tickets. The joint tickets performed badly, with the only ticket in Languedoc-Roussillon-Midi-Pyrénées receiving sufficient votes to contest the second round – all the remaining tickets averaging 2.49%. In the wake of this failure, the Front essentially stopped operating as a joint organisation and Mélenchon announcing the PG would be leaving the Front.

The rupture between the PCF and FI has created considerable concern that it will dramatically undermine the ability to of the left to maximise its parliamentary representation and build an effective block to work with social movements to oppose Macron’s regressive agenda for France. On May 10, Ensemble! issued a statement saying that it was not the time to settle scores or for mutual accusations, but instead to build a framework for bringing together the forces which had supported Mélenchon’s candidacy, based on a proposal of a common charter for candidates for the legislative elections that Ensemble! had made to the PCF and FI – Ensemble! had also called for regional and departmental meetings of the organisations to try and overcome the “national bottleneck”. While these proposals if adopted might create clarity for the basis of joint candidates, it doesn’t overcome the sticking point of who would be the candidate in each constituency – particularly when the PCF is faced with a fight for its electoral survival, and there is a view that Mélenchon’s approach to the PCF is partly motivated by desire to further marginalise the PCF.

It is unclear what the impact of the electoral division will have on the elections. The shared polling for the FI/PCF has been in decline since early May from a high of 18% to a low of 14.5% with projected returned candidates down from a projected high of 25-30 to a low of 12-22 (the FG components currently hold 10 seats). The splitting of the vote is likely to result in less candidates making it through to the second round (unlike the presidential elections where only the top two candidates go through to the second round, in the legislative elections if no candidate gets more than 50% of the vote then all candidates receiving more than 12% of the vote qualify for the second round) other than lowering confidence of the left electorate, having two or more left candidates (both the Nouveau Parti Anticapitlisate and Lutte Ouvrier will also be standing candidates) in a constituency may not undermine the capacity for the left to win seats. The bigger threats are the potential rebound in the PS vote from the historic low of 6.38% which Hamon received in April – while the left division could contribute to this – the PS performs is likely to be better at the local level particularly from the PS’s left who opposed the regressive record of the Hollande and the governments of Aryault and Valls. An additional factor is that Hamon’s vote also collapsed as Mélenchon’s campaign built momentum and it looked more likely he could overtake Francois Fillon and possibly Le Pen – this dynamic is much less likely to occur in the legislative elections, at least at the national level. By far the biggest threat to the return of left candidates, however, will be the threat of abstentionism as people see a victory for Macron’s LREM and the forces to its right as inevitable.

The reality is that no matter the result for the parties of the left – they will not be able to block Macron’s agenda by their actions in parliament alone – even if LREM does not achieve an electoral majority outright, it will be in a position to try and stick together sufficient support from the PS and Les Repulicains to pass legislation. The only force which will be able to stop that process will be the resistance in the streets. To this end, there has been a positive boost to the resistance with the formation of the Social Front. Initiated by union activists who had been involved in the campaign against the El Khomri laws and who had been frustrated by the decision by union leaderships to end mobilisations against those laws on September 15, 2016. The FS called for mobilisations against both Le Pen and Macron on April 22, May 1, and May 8 – it has now expanded its support to from 70 militant organisations. The FS has also called for a national meeting on June 10, along with local organising meetings after that date, and a mass mobilisation for June 19. The significance of the emergence of the FS is that in the last decade resistance to government attacks, particularly on workers, has primarily occurred via the intersydicale which brings together the leaderships of France’s union confederations – however if some of these confederations refuse to participate such as the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (French Democratic Confederation of Labour) and the Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens (French Confederation of Christian Workers) in the campaign against the El Khomri laws in 2016, then there is a very limited framework for engaging rank-and-file members of these confederations who want to fight government attacks. The formation of the FS may provide a framework to reach out to broader layers of workers and build resistance despite the direction of the more conservative confederation leaderships.


While there are serious challenges for progressive forces in France – made more difficult by the organisational divisions within the left, both the legislative elections and the formation of the FS pose a positive opportunity to build resistance to the attacks which Macron is preparing on French society. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 

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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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