The strike on Wednesday 30th November in Britain in defence of pensions for public sector workers was the largest seen for a generation. Over 29 unions were involved including the three biggest,UNISON, UNITE, and the GMB. All together, over 2.5 million workers were on strike across the National Health Service, local councils and throughout national government departments.
Demonstrations were held in many places, including in small towns which had never seen a protest since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003. Over 50,000 took to the streets in London and 15,000 in Belfast, but there were also 100 in Lerwick in Shetland! For the overwhelming majority of those who took action on 30th November, it was the first time that they were on strike. Two out of three schools were closed, museums and tribunals were closed, and non-emergency operations in many hospitals were cancelled.
The strike was a tremendous success not just because of its size, but because everybody knew that it was not just about pensions, but also about the defence of public services and ultimately, who pays for the crisis. It put the issue of fair pensions for all on the agenda.
The Tory-led government has been arguing that it is not fair that public sector workers get a better pension than those working in the private sector. However, they say nothing about the multi-million yearly earnings that bankers get such as the £7million pocketed by the heads of Barclays and Royal Bank of Scotland. There are over 2.5 million pensioners living below the poverty level of £178 a week. Pensioner poverty in Britain is among the worst in Europe – there are only three countries in Europe that have worse pension provision that those in Britain, that is Cyprus, Latvia and Estonia ! France spends twice as much on pensions than does the UK.
The strike was a long time in coming. The Tory led coalition government announced as soon as it was elected that it would unleash war on public services, and the pay and conditions of workers in general. Although the TUC agreed in September 2010 to organise co-ordinated national industrial action against these attacks, it took six months to organise a national demonstration on 26th March of 500,000. Despite this tremendous success, the leadership of the three big unions and the TUC were reluctant to organise action. It was only because of a hugely successful strike on 30th June by the teaching unions UCU, NASWUT and NUT and the PCS civil servants union, that all the other unions and the TUC decided to call on their members to strike.
The leadership of most unions were pushed into organising for the strike because of pressure from their members wanting action and because they had no longer any choice but to do something. The government had been dragging out negotiations since the beginning of the year without any concessions, and had even imposed some unilateral changes to the pension schemes including pushing back the retirement age to 67 for younger workers.
The Tory government is now increasing the attacks on the working class as the recession is now on the verge of turning into a depression: public sector workers already suffering from a two-year pay freeze will see any increase “capped” at 1 per cent. With inflation running at 5.4 per cent, this is effectively a 20 per cent pay cut over four years. The government announced that 710,000 will go, up from the 400,000 announced last year! Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said he would do “whatever it takes” to cut the deficit. This means tax breaks for the rich and corporations funded by taking money from the rest of us.
The strike on 30th November can only be a beginning in the resistance against the Tory-led coalition government. The action needs to be escalated with dates for action set for early next year involving private sector workers. Youth and students need to involved as stopping pushing back the retirement age would immediately deal with youth unemployment now at a record level of over 1 million or 20% of those under 25.
This is not just a crisis of the British economy. It is a crisis of the capitalist system which is attempting to make the working class pay for it. The action in Britain on Wednesday 30th November was followed on Thursday by a one-day general strike in Greece and on Friday by joint-union action in Belgium. The need for a European-wide solidarity and joint action is now more necessary than ever to roll back the neo-liberal assault on all of the post-war gains.
Fred Leplat is a leading member of Socialist Resistance, British section of the Fourth International.
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
The perceived gains won by the Egyptian workers and independent trade unionists in the wake of the 18-day uprising have given way to stark realities under the military junta’s ’counter-revolutionary’ rule.
After a wave of strikes and workers’ action fuelled and empowered Egypt’s 18-day uprising, the burgeoning labour movement, subsequently empowered, began asserting itself: unilaterally declaring an independent trade union federation to rival its state-run counterpart and undertaking steps to dismantle the power dynamics and structure of the state’s union. Recently, however, Egypt’s workers and unionists have found themselves fighting to maintain their gains.
In March, Egypt’s manpower minister, Ahmed Hassan El-Borai announced the right of Egyptian workers to establish their own labour unions and federations, an action hailed by the International Labour Organisation. But a new trade union law is yet to be passed by Egypt’s military rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
Following the August enforcement of a 2006 judgement, the state-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) board was dissolved. However, these steps have been stymied by the government’s continued reliance on members of the old-guard whenever it comes to implementation. This adds up, in the words of Hisham Fouad, a founding member of the Democratic Workers Party, to a government outlook that is “counter-revolutionary and opposed to workers’ progress.” Added to this, their refusal to consult directly with independent unionists is, for him, proof of a deeper intransigence and indicative of the ruling military council’s desire to quell the movement.
The decision by former prime minister Essam Sharaf to dissolve the ETUF board and freeze the general union’s assets was a high point for independent unionists. But a sobering reality set in in its immediate aftermath. A steering committee consisting of independent, state-affiliated and Muslim Brotherhood unionists was tasked with examining the general union’s financial affairs. This de-facto board began reviewing reports by the Central Auditing Organisation: reports that contain hundreds of infractions and financial remarks linked to the ETUF as well as other organisations under its umbrella.
Unionists found to have illicit financial dealings were supposed to be turned over to the prosecutor-general’s office, but interests got in the way. The committee was paralysed by its multi-factional composition.
A coalition of four general unions – the Union of Petrol Workers, the Union of Flour Mill Workers, the Maritime Transport Workers Union and the Transport Workers Union – went on strike in mid-November, calling for the dissolution of the Cabinet-appointed steering committee. Members of the de-facto board also tried, unsuccessfully, to remove its head, Ahmed Abdel Zahir, a carry-over from the dissolved board and an associate of its former head, Hussein Megawer. The notorious businessman was charged earlier this year for playing a role in the 2 February “Battle of the Camel.”
When El-Borai was unable to put an end to the strike, he dissolved the steering committee and replaced it with another one consisting of figures from the old board – associates of Megawer. “We’ve regressed. The situation now is just like when Hussein Megawer was around,” states Wael Habib, member of the steering committee.
Fouad believes that this move is a response by the ruling SCAF to the wave of strikes that swept Egypt in September. “The SCAF felt more in control and needed to clampdown on the empowered labour movement,” Fouad states.
Following the imposition of a new ETUF committee, El-Borai announced on 28 November that the newly-formed Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) had agreed to join the state-run ETUF, creating much alarm and sending signals that the government no longer valued union pluralism or freedoms. Though confusion and speculation is still rife, it would seem that such a consensus between independent unionists and their state-affiliated counterparts never truly existed.
“We will not get involved with them in any respect. We reject the notion of a state-run trade union,” Fatma Ramadan, a board member of the EFITU and labour activist, stresses.
Ramadan had to withdraw her candidacy in the People’s Assembly (Parliament’s lower house) elections, after administrative courts in the governorates of Giza and Menoufiya (both in the upcoming second round of elections) refused to accept candidates who received their workers’ status from the independent general union. According to Ramadan, the EITUF authorised the candidacy of between 300 and 400 workers for Egypt’s three stage People’s Assembly elections. Of those, around ten unionists, including Ramadan, were denied the right to stand for elections as workers.
In a 20 July decree, the ruling SCAF maintained a 47-year-old quota for representatives of workers and peasants in both the upper and lower houses of Egypt’s Parliament. Unionists are divided on whether this quota should be consigned to the fate of the old-regime or refashioned. “The 50 per cent quota for workers and fellahin is meant to protect these sectors: give them a voice, but when the quota is used to fill parliament with businessmen and technicians who do you think they will defend: themselves or the workers?” asks Ramadan.
Saud Omar, a member of the Suez Canal Authority’s workers union and workers candidate in Suez, believes that the 50 per cent quota should remain but that a new law must be put in place to ensure that elected representatives come from the workers and truly stand for them, preventing misuse of the system. “Parliament does not truly speak for the people. The millions of people heading to the streets proves this and negates the supposed role of parliament, but we still must work through these political avenues.”
While the country’s first post-Mubarak elections promise to bring to power what some observers predict will be the most legitimate parliament since the 1930s, the make-up of the forthcoming parliament will to a varying degree determine the course of the workers’ movement.
First round results reveal strong electoral gains by the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and the Salafist Nour Party. Even with two rounds left in the People’s Assembly elections, many observers believe an Islamist takeover is now inevitable. Should Islamists come to power, the labour movement can expect to come up against certain obstacles. The FJP has previously condoned the ruling SCAF’s opposition to strikes, going a step further by attempting to force an end to teacher’s strikes in some governorates last September. The Nour Party has also taken an anti-strike line, calling such labour actions, at this point in time, “undesirable.” The only liberal list to make any substantial gains in the first round was the Egyptian Bloc. The Free Egyptians, the Bloc’s leading partner, also has an unfavourable labour stance which it made clear when it quickly declared its support of the ruling military council’s anti-strike law in July.
Nevertheless, some labour activists are resolute: “We are undeterred by parliamentary elections; the battle for parliament is only part of the struggle. The street is where our main fight lies. We demand the right to freely unionise, an end to the law criminalising strikes, a minimum and maximum wage, the restart of stalled factories and the rehiring of their workers, an increase in pensions and adequate health care,” Ramadan states.
According to labour lawyer and Revolutionary Socialists member Haitham Mohamedein, “The true issue lies in the law.” Specifically Law No 35 (1976), which outlined the structural and electoral regulations of the state-run ETUF among other central organisations. The ruling military junta’s decision to shelve the draft legislation, approved by the Manpower Ministry and then by Sharaf’s Cabinet, is the crux of the matter, Mohamedein believes. The legislation would allow, for the first time since the 1950s, trade union pluralism and freedoms for workers and businessmen to form their own unions and syndicates respectively, but strong unions and syndicates would challenge a system that breeds corruption, oligarchy and social inequality.
The Brotherhood has always fought for control of syndicates and unions, states the labour lawyer, and they will approach the ETUF in a similar fashion. “The FJP wants the general union to be under their thumb and they will control the federation through elections: elections framed by Law No 53. It is not in their interest to radically change this law. The workers movement is a source of anxiety for businessmen and the Brotherhood. They could possibly seek to amend the law but would not allow the same freedoms as the shelved legislation.”
Monday, December 19, 2011
Bay Area activists Ragina Johnson, Alex Schmaus and Dana Blanchard consider some of the political discussions to arise after the West Coast Port Shutdown.
December 16, 2011
IN THE aftermath of the West Coast Port Shutdown on December 12, a debate over tactics has emerged in the Occupy movement. The discussion centers on the role of port workers and Occupy activists' relationship to them.
The December 12 actions were an important step for the Occupy movement, especially in connecting to the struggle of workers against some of the richest and most powerful corporations around. But the future of the movement depends on Occupy activists adopting strategies and tactics that treat workers on the docks--and everywhere else in the economy--as allies and potential supporters, not as opponents.
The call for a port shutdown on December 12 produced community pickets at ports up and down the West Coast, from Anchorage to San Diego--and succeeded in stopping operations, partially or entirely, in Oakland, Portland, Longview, Seattle and Vancouver. At the giant Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, activists collaborated with nonunion port truckers to disrupt operations for several hours at SSA Marine, which is half-owned by Goldman Sachs.
In Oakland, our preparations began weeks before December 12, with rank-and-file longshore workers and other unionists working with Occupy Oakland activists to build support for the shutdown, especially among workers at the port. We knew from this organizing work that the criticisms made by some union leaders and even left-wing writers and academics--that the Occupy movement was calling for industrial action without the support of workers--was false.
On December 12, we had a strong turnout despite the rain and cold--more than 500 Occupy supporters met at a nearby public transit hub for a 5 a.m. march to the port to set up community picket lines at three terminals. By the late morning, we got word that ILWU members had been sent home after the port arbitrator ruled on safety concerns. An even larger march on the port that evening caused the evening shift to be closed down as well.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) publicly disavowed the port shutdown call. But ILWU Local 10 in Oakland has a proud history of recognizing community picket lines and calling in a port arbitrator over safety concerns.
With rank-and-file ILWU members taking the lead, the December 12 action was planned in Oakland with this foremost in our minds--and with the goal of building solidarity with workers on the ports as a crucial means of strengthening the Occupy movement.
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THIS APPROACH helped ensure the success of December 12 in Oakland.
Unfortunately, though, that success was jeopardized by the dangerous actions of a minority of demonstrators on the picket line.
The overwhelming majority of Occupy activists and workers worked together--as planned and democratically decided upon--to organize community pickets that were intended to make an appeal to port workers for support, but not blockade them. This was highly effective.
Nevertheless, a small minority took it upon themselves to try to impose their tactics on the rest of us. Within an hour of establishing our early-morning community pickets, a small group of activists at the Hanjin Terminal picket attempted to use their bodies to stop a semi truck from leaving the port. At least two of them sat down in front of the truck, an extremely dangerous act since the driver could not see them. Others screamed at the driver and spat on his windshield.
Naturally, photographers from the mainstream media swooped in to get their photos of the angry truck driver who "didn't support the action that day"--and not pictures of the several hundred people who were holding down an amazing picket 20 feet away. This only gave credence to the false argument spread by the media that we were trying to "impose" a shutdown on workers, rather than seek their solidarity.
The authors of this article attempted to reason with the group of activists sitting in front of the truck. We asked them to move out of the way and allow the truck to leave, explaining that organizers had agreed to allow drivers who had shown up for work to leave--as the point of our action was to build solidarity with workers at the port, not antagonize them. The port action committee had explicitly agreed on the point that the pickets were not to keep workers from leaving, but only to stop them from going in.
At one point, one of us, Ragina, positioned herself between the truck and the group in question to demand that they get out of the way. One person from this group of activists pushed Ragina against the front grill of the truck in an attempt to use her body to get the truck to stop.
Everyone eventually moved out of the way, but the fact is that the lives of several activists were put at risk during this scuffle.
Another dangerous situation occurred at the Hanjin Terminal picket line when a squad car and sheriff's bus, escorted by a line of riot police, attempted to drive through our line.
Throughout the morning, police were being moved around the port in groups in an attempt to intimate protesters. There was a diversity of people on the picket line--old and young, people holding toddlers, union and nonunion workers. Keeping the pickets organized and safe by preventing panic was important to succeeding in our goal.
Only walking picket lines are considered legally protected free speech, but some activists from the same group that blockaded the truck earlier attempted to form an immobile human barricade to stop police from driving through the line. This was another unnecessary risk, since it gave police a possible excuse to use force to break up our pickets.
The same group of picketers then attempted to provoke police who were pointing "non-lethal" assault rifles at the picket. We believe this act played into the hands of at least one provocateur, who said "the cops are going to smash us anyway, so why should we wait for that to happen."
Once again, the authors of this article found ourselves forced into a dangerous situation. We argued that the best way to stop the police was to maintain the walking picket--and that trying to provoke the police endangered not only picketers, but also the truck drivers and ILWU members who were standing by to observe the situation.
We eventually succeeded in breaking up the human barricade and held our ground with a traditional walking picket. The police backed off after about 20 or 30 minutes.
A few minutes after 10 a.m., a port arbitrator ruled that ILWU members would not be expected to cross our community picket lines. This was an important victory because it meant we had shut down the port without forcing unionized workers to lose a day's wages. Port management then has since sent a press release saying workers will not be paid unless the union takes up the issue with an independent arbitrator. This will be a fight for our allies within the ILWU to take up in the coming days.
Thousands marched to the port of Oakland that evening, but the port authority had by that time conceded defeat and didn't even call in the evening shift. Instead of pickets, a General Assembly of more than 2,500 people formed to discuss next steps.
Occupy Oakland had voted weeks ago that in the event of police repression at any of the actions along the coast, the pickets would be extended in defense of the Occupy movement. The original plan of the port action committee of Occupy Oakland was to vote on whether or not to follow through with this, based on the numbers of people who could participate. But there was never a vote.
Dozens of people from the crowd began to signal their frustration with the lack of democracy, but this was ignored. The facilitators told the crowd that anyone who could not stay for the 3 am pickets should stand up and go and those who could should sit down. Thousands of people picked up their things and left the port. Only about 100 to 150 people remained behind for a disorganized picket at 3 a.m. Fortunately, they did not face a police crackdown, which would have undermined the successes of the day.
What happened at the GA was a missed opportunity to get new people who had come out for the port action involved in a conversation about next steps for our work.
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WHY DID a minority of activists act in such an undemocratic and dangerous manner at the morning picket?
To answer this question, we have to look at the different forces involved in the Occupy movement and the December 12 port shutdown.
The December 12 action was a step forward for the movement because it was about taking action at a crucial chokepoint in the economy that affects the flow of commodities and the realization of profits for the 1 percent. The debate that emerged in Oakland was about how to take action at the point of production.
There are two levels to the debate. The first is a strategic argument about the role of workers at the port. Are they central to shutting down it down or not? Do Occupy activists need to build solidarity with port workers or can they take action independently--and against workers if necessary?
The second level is about the tactics that flow from the strategic question. Should we organize for community picket lines that allow for the greatest possible participation and solidarity with port workers? Or should we build barricades to impose a work stoppage?
An article posted on Bay of Rage, an anti-capitalist website in the Bay Area, titled "Blockading the port is only the first of many last resorts", explains the position of activists who advocated taking action "autonomously" of workers. In a section titled "Power to the vagabonds and therefore to no class," the article states:
We need to jettison our ideas about the "proper" subjects of the strike or class struggle. Though it is always preferable and sometimes necessary to gain workers' support in order to shut down a particular workplace, it is not absolutely necessary, and we must admit that ideas about who has the right to strike or blockade a particular workplace are simply extensions of the law of property.
The first point to make about this statement is that its authors are dismissing the actual demands of the port action committee for December 12. These demands were very much about workers on the docks: first, solidarity with ILWU Local 21 members in Longview, Wash., and their battle against EGT; second, solidarity with port truck drivers in their struggle to gain union rights; and third, a coordinated response by Occupy to the police raids of the camps.
These were the three points we used in talking to port workers and other union forces leading up December 12. Linking up these three struggles helped bring together allies in the labor movement with the Occupy community. We were able to connect with radical rank-and-file union members who want to see more action from their unions. By contrast, the Bay of Rage article accepts that the "real" radicals will have to operate in isolation from workers and union members--and sometimes in direct opposition to them.
As for tactics, the Bay of Rage article goes on to argue that the community pickets were unnecessary:
[W]e have been told time and again that in order to blockade the port, we need to go to each and every berth, spreading out thousands of people into several groups over a distance of a few miles. This is because, under the system that ILWU has worked out with the employers' association, only a picket line at the gates to the port itself will allow the local arbitrator to rule conditions at the port unsafe, and therefore provide the workers with legal protection against unpermitted work action.
In such a situation we are not really blockading the port. We are participating in a two-act play, a piece of legal theater, performed for the benefit of the arbitrator.
If this arbitration game is the only way we can avoid violent conflict with the port workers, then perhaps this is the way things have to be for the time being. But we find it more than depressing how little reflection there has been about this strategy, how little criticism of it, and how many people seem to reflexively accept the necessity of going through these motions.
Once again, this statement shows how little respect the writers have for working people and their capacity for action. Anyone familiar with the history of the working-class movement in the U.S. or anywhere in the world knows that picket lines are more than a "piece of legal theater." The labor movement's victories historically have involved mass support from workers, community members, the unemployed and more.
In the specific case of the ports, the role of community pickets is important in building solidarity and involving wider numbers in the struggle. Rather than imagining that we can substitute for such mobilizations through sabotage or physical barricades, we should be looking to more solidarity actions of this kind to support the labor battles that are sure to come.
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ULTIMATELY, THE wrong-headed ideas expressed in the Bay of Rage article share much in common with the claims made in the mainstream media, among conservative labor leaders and even within sections of the left that the action on December 12 was organized from the outside.
This discounts the role that rank-and-file workers, who are part of Occupy Oakland, played in helping to organize the action. There were extensive discussions between Occupy activists and members of the ILWU and Teamsters, as well as with unorganized port truck drivers, both in the lead-up and immediately after the call to shut down the ports.
By reaching out to and including the voices of rank-and-filers and labor activists, we collaborated with them to build the community picket line, rather than scheming in secret about how to blockade them from going to work. As a result, we were able to weather the attacks in the weeks leading up to the action--a barrage that came not only from the 1 percent and the media, but from union leaders who repeatedly tried to stifle participation in December 12.
The port action committee had a well-organized plan in place for December 12. People in the committee organized picket teams, communications and food distribution. There were teams to plan for speakers and rallies, and to make sure signs and banners were printed and brought to the gates. Organizers were also in close communication with port workers about which terminals had ships and which did not, so we knew which gates to picket.
There was also explicit outreach to talk to self-identified anti-capitalist forces who had declared a march at the same time as the port action--to ask them to agree to the tactics decided for the day.
Ultimately, the proof of these preparations lies in the success of the event itself. Hundreds of people showed up before dawn to put up community pickets before the first shift, and even larger numbers came in the evening. No ILWU members crossed picket lines. Teamsters didn't show up that day, and hundreds of non-unionized truckers stayed away. As for truckers who were at the docks, many showed their support in various ways.
None of that could have been accomplished without the support of workers at the Port of Oakland. But unfortunately, a minority believes its adventurist tactics are more radical and politically superior.
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WHAT'S NEXT? We believe the truly radical step following December 12 will be to build on the alliance between Occupy activists and port workers. We shouldn't be satisfied with shutting down the port for a day, but must instead focus on building a working-class movement with power at the point of production--a project that must include union members, Occupy activists and other working people who are sympathetic to the new activism, but who have not yet joined it.
That's why the disorganizing effects of the General Assembly on the evening of the 12th were a disappointment. The GA could have been a space for thousands of people to collectively decide the next steps for building such an alliance.
Such organizing needs to continue--right now. In a matter of a couple weeks, EGT may try to load its first ship at the scab grain terminal in Longview. Labor and community members in solidarity with the ILWU are already planning caravans to support longshore workers in Longview with their struggle. We need to get as many people as we can to join this caravan from all the local Occupy struggles, from the Bay Area to Washington state.
The Longview struggle is just one example of how we can look ahead to the future of the Occupy movement.
The trigger budget cuts in California are devastating public-sector workers and students, especially at the community college level, and this spring will likely be a time of mass actions on campuses and in teachers unions in response to these cuts. There is already a planned occupation of the state capital on March 5, as well as regional actions on March 1 and possible student strikes throughout February.
In addition, immigrant rights activists and workers, both union and nonunion, are making big plans for a militant action on May Day that would shut down production and target the 1 percent, while linking up with struggles for amnesty and human rights.
These are just a few of the ideas that have been put forward for next steps. There will most certainly continue to be struggle on both a local and national level, and some of what it will do has not even been anticipated yet.
With working people under relentless attack, the Occupy movement has an opportunity to broaden its social base. But to reach that potential, we need to learn the lessons--both positive and negative--of what we just accomplished on December 12.
The most important lesson is that Occupy activists and union members share common interests in the struggle against the 1 percent, and the closer that alliance, the more powerful the struggle will be.
The port shutdown on December 12 also showed us that the November 2 general strike call in Oakland was no fluke--and that the Occupy movement can coordinate for picket-line action between different cities and states. This action has truly raised the bar for what is possible in the movement, if we do our work right.
13 December 2011
When leaders of the Occupy movement’s most reliable labor ally, the Longshore Union (ILWU), declared the union would not participate in Monday’s shutdown of West Coast ports, they illustrated a great weakness plaguing our unions.
Labor is confined by contract unionism, whose core is the no-strike clause.
Recall that during the 1999 mass protests against the World Trade Organization, the ILWU used its power to shut down all West Coast ports for a day, a stroke of exemplary solidarity.
The decision not to support the current call was influenced by the fact that, like almost all unions that sign collective bargaining agreements, the ILWU is bound by a clause barring strikes during the life of the contract. The last time ILWU supported a shutdown of the Oakland port, it suffered a fine of $65,000.
For more than 75 years, the labor movement has been enclosed by law and custom by collective bargaining, whose goal is to achieve a contract that seals in wages, benefits, a grievance procedure, and work rules. In return, workers and their union agree, crucially, to surrender their right to withhold their labor.
The penalties for violation are often severe: stiff fines and imprisonment of union officials. After the three-day walkout by New York City transit workers in 2005, a court order barred check-off of union dues, levied $2.5 million in penalties, and handed the union president a 10-day jail sentence.
Even when unionists and their allies flooded Madison, Wisconsin, last winter with huge protests, there was little debate about the limits of contract unionism.
HOLD US BACK
Why do contracts hold back unions?
1. The contract has the force of law. It is a compromise between labor and the employer, private or public. The workers agree to suspend most of their demands for as long as the contract lasts. In the past decade that period has grown, sometimes to as much as six years. Even if conditions change, the union cannot reopen the contract unless the employer consents.
2. The union is responsible for enforcing the contract, including disciplining the workers. Of course, management regularly bypasses or brazenly violates the contract. To remedy these infractions, the union can grieve and finally arbitrate. Although arbitration is heavily weighted on the employers’ side, workers have no other recourse, under the law of the contract.
If they (rarely, these days) resort to a wildcat walkout or other job action, their union is obliged to renounce the strike and “order” workers back to the job.
3. Under these conditions, the union tends to become conservative, at best, or, at worst, an agent of shop floor workers’ subordination. The weight of the law mostly prevails.
With the employers’ offensive of the last generation, collective bargaining is now mostly a form of collective begging. Yet collective bargaining remains a sacred cow. Few are willing to advocate that, at the minimum, contracts leave the strike weapon unrestricted.
The labor movement has forgotten its own traditions: Until the 1930s, labor contracts were fairly rare. Workers—and not only IWW members—used to fight for their demands continuously and agree to return to work only when they were met.
Skeptics ask why employers should sign contracts if they cannot buy labor peace. But European unions do not, typically, agree to limitations on strikes.
The main factor underlying labor relations is the power of workers and their unions. Until they re-examine the trap of collective bargaining, the downward slide will accelerate.
Stanley Aronowitz teaches sociology at the City University of New York.
October 5, 2011
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
On behalf of 40,000 members in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), I want to thank you for organizing your “Occupy Wall Street” protest in New York City which is inspiring millions of Americans.
Most of us are tired of seeing a handful of the richest corporations and executives behave as though they’re entitled to live like kings at everyone’s expense:
They aren’t paying their fair share of taxes, so schools are cutting back and colleges are
raising fees – leaving students with obscene debts. It’s time for the millionaires – the richest 1% – to start paying their fair share so we can support education and other vital services.
They’re destroying our democracy and right to a voice in the workplace. By making it almost impossible for workers to form unions and negotiate fair agreements, corporate America is dragging down the living standards for all working families.
They’re threatening to destroy Social Security and Medicare for future generations. We can’t allow corporations to privatize and profit from these programs. Instead, we should close the loopholes so corporations and the rich start paying the same contributions as everyone else.
Your decision to bring these and other issues to corporate America’s doorstep is courageous – and involves some risks. We weren’t surprised that some of you have faced beatings and pepper spray from overzealous police. Your crusade to shine a light on the corruption and injustice that’s infecting Wall Street is bound to ruffle some feathers. We’ve experienced some similar rough treatment in Longview, Washington, where ILWU families are also taking a stand against corporate greed. Our fight there is against EGT, a multi-national corporation that took taxpayer subsidies to build a grain export terminal – then betrayed workers and the community.
Like you, ILWU members in Longview have been arrested, beaten and pepper sprayed. We know that justice won’t be won by asking greedy employers for permission or waiting for politicians to pass laws. That’s why we hope that you’ll stand your ground on Wall Street while we do the same in Longview – because An Injury To One Is An Injury To All!
ILWU International President
Alex Schmaus, Francois Hughes and Lee Sustar look at the port actions shaping up from San Diego to Anchorage and beyond, as Occupy activists target union-busting.
December 12, 2011
THE OCCUPY movement will hold coordinated community pickets in every major West Coast port city--San Diego, Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, Tacoma, Seattle, Vancouver and Anchorage--on Monday, December 12, despite mounting pressure from employers and some union leaders.
The model for the West Coast effort is the mobilization of some 15,000 people to picket the Port of Oakland during a November 2 day of action. That protest came after police violence against Occupy Oakland nearly killed Iraq war vet Scott Olsen, prompting a call for a general strike in the city.
Now, Occupy activists again want to take action--not just in Oakland, but up and down the West Coast.
While the initial focus of Occupy activists was union-busting by the grain terminal operator EGT in Longview, Wash., the planned pickets will confront other actors on the docks--such as SSA Marine, an anti-labor terminal operator owned by Wall Street powerhouse Goldman Sachs, and the anti-union policies of terminal operators who employ truck drivers to move goods from the docks to warehouses and rail links.
In fact, the date for the action was chosen by Los Angeles port drivers. December 12 is the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, an important cultural figure in Mexico, and traditionally a day of protest for the largely immigrant port drivers. The drivers been fighting for years against company policies that treat them as independent contractors rather than employees, a practice that forces drivers to be paid per load rather than per hour, and pay for their own trucks.
As Tara Lohan pointed out on Alternet, 82 percent of the 110,000 port drivers in the U.S. are classified as independent contractors. An additional spur for the drivers' protest in LA was the firing in October of some 26 drivers who work for the Toll Group. The reason: they wore Teamsters t-shirts to work.
Thus, on the eve of the December 12 action, port driver activists and supporters said drivers in LA and Long Beach were prepared to stay away from work, and they were appealing to their counterparts in other cities to act in solidarity.
Teamsters in the port of Oakland were also prepared to stay away from their jobs, said Dana Blanchard, a member of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers who is active in the December 12 effort:
This is a huge contradiction to all the press we are getting. After three organized leafleting shifts at the port, the feeling is also that many of the unorganized port drivers will also not come to work tomorrow. The ILWU has also officially e-mailed its members that they are not going to be escorted in by police, and that many terminals have decided to shut down or have skeleton crews in anticipation of the protests. Overwhelmingly, all of the conversations we have had with port drivers when we flier has been positive.
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PREDICTABLY, SHIPPING bosses denounced the effort in a coordinated advertising campaign in Bay Area newspapers and media outlets.
More surprising has been the response of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Union president Robert McEllrath issued a statement declaring that the Occupy protest was a third-party action not authorized by the ILWU, which cannot call for a work stoppage without violating its contracts.
However, McEllrath's statement outlined steps that union members could take if they felt that the community picket made it unsafe to work--for example, as the result of a large police presence. In that case, members are entitled to notify employers, who would then call upon an arbitrator to make the decision.
But as December 12 approached, ILWU officials ratcheted up their criticism of the community pickets. In an article in Britain's Guardian newspaper, ILWU spokesperson Craig Merrilees was quoted as describing Occupy protesters as "disrespectful, arrogant and misguided." He added: "This is being promoted by a group of people who apparently think they can call general strikes and workplace shutdowns without talking to workers and without involving the unions."
But according to retired ILWU Local 10 member Jack Heyman, ILWU international officials are reacting to pressure from employers, rather than the sentiment in the union rank-and-file to put the heat on EGT in Longview, where the first ship will call on the company's scab grain operation in the next few weeks. He said:
This call by Occupy Oakland for a West Coast solidarity port shutdown is a build-up to when the first ship comes in next month. If Occupy is successful now, then momentum for a coastwide shutdown by longshore workers is highly likely when the scab ship arrives. However, with hostile statements like those emanating from ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees and President McEllrath it drives a wedge between the union and its activist supporters.
ILWU has usually honored community picket lines like the one in San Francisco in 1977 against apartheid. And when the ILWU shut down all West Coast ports on May Day 2008 to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it didn't check with other port workers' unions, like the machinists or the Teamsters.
ILWU union tops have thwarted union democracy at every turn in the Longview struggle--preventing a special caucus or an emergency meeting of all rank-and-file longshoremen in the Northwest. Occupy represents a popular outrage against the excesses of capitalism as exemplified by Wall Street. They should be greeted with open arms by the ILWU, not shunned and castigated, if unions are to prevail against attacks from the employing class.
In fact, rank-and-file ILWU members are also involved in organizing support for the pickets. "I am a longshoreman, and I support the December 12 blockade against EGT," said Anthony Leviege, another member of ILWU Local 10. "EGT is a threat to the survival of the ILWU."
"These ports are public," said Clarence Thomas, a former official and veteran activist in Local 10. "People have a right to come to the port and protest. The ILWU has historically honored picket lines at the port."
Dan Coffman, president of ILWU Local 21 in Longview, has publicly thanked the Occupy movement and Occupy Oakland for supporting Local 21's struggle.
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WHILE THE success of each port action is bound to be uneven, the seriousness with which activists are responding to such an audacious call to action is a sign of the Occupy movement's continuing vibrancy.
Occupy movement supporters along the Gulf of Mexico recently announced that they, too, would join the call by blockading the Port of Houston. This is an ambitious task, however, for several reasons. Houston longshore labor is organized by the International Longshoreman's Association, a more conservative union that doesn't share the ILWU's tradition of honoring community pickets. Moreover, the port of Houston stretches for many miles, making it virtually impossible for a community picket to have much of an impact.
Also away from the West Coast, Occupy Denver plans to show solidarity through a blockade of Wal-Mart's Colorado distribution center, and it has called on all landlocked Occupy supporters to take similar action. And in New York City and Chicago, Occupy activists will target Goldman Sachs with protests as well.
While the impact of the protests will vary widely by city, the December 12 action will have an important impact on the Occupy movement as it debates its next steps following the coordinated police shutdowns of encampments.
For example, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), in the wake of its early endorsement of President Barack Obama's reelection, recently concluded its weeklong "Occupy Congress" actions in Washington, D.C. as part of the union's focus on the 2012 elections. A the same time, Adbusters magazine recently proposed that activists "#OccupyXmas" to disrupt consumer culture.
Occupy Oakland is spearheading a different kind of strategy, which is focused on the struggles of workers at the point of production. As one Occupy Oakland activist put it, "If the mayors of the 1 percent are sharing tactics for class war, then why shouldn't we?"
Occupy Oakland was able to shut down the port on November 2 by setting up community pickets with rank-and-file support. It was crucial to maintain mass community pickets long enough to ensure that a port labor arbitrator rules the picket lines have made it impossible to ensure a safe work environment.
Rank-and-file longshore and trucker support was critical for all of the past Oakland port shutdowns and will be critical for the shutdown on December 12. To build these bonds of solidarity, Occupy Oakland and others on the West Coast have not only been distributing leaflets, but talking with port workers about how to fight union-busting on the waterfront and how to build solidarity between the Occupy movement and organized labor.
By building on this kind of community-labor solidarity seen on December 12 and beyond, we can link the Occupy movement with the effort to organize where workers have power--at the point of production.
December 12, 2011
For the second time in a month, the Occupy movement called for mass action to shut down port operations. This time, the occupiers targeted the entire West Coast.
The Occupy Oakland General Assembly unanimously adopted a proposal November 18 calling for the “blockade and disruption of the economic apparatus of the 1% with a coordinated shutdown of ports on the entire West Coast on December 12.” (General assemblies are meetings, open to all, that make decisions for Occupy groups, using consensus.)
The motion declares solidarity with Longshore Union (ILWU) members in Longview, Washington, in their struggle against grain terminal operator EGT. The company has refused to hire ILWU members and is now in a drawn-out battle that could shape the future of the 4,000 union members who work the Pacific Northwest’s grain elevators.
Occupiers planned the shutdown without consulting with the union, and the ILWU put out a statement December 6 to its members and supporters disclaiming support for the action and claiming its prerogative in the fight against EGT. “The ILWU has a long history of democracy,” wrote ILWU President Bob McEllrath. “Part of that historic democracy is the hard-won right to chart our own course to victory.”
Members of the Occupy movement interpreted the union’s distancing itself as, at best, a legal safeguard against the fines that could result from a work stoppage that violates the contract’s strike bar. At worst, they saw it as a product of the union movement’s timidity, born of decades of retreat and identification with employer interests.
ILWU members and officials expressed alarm at how the port shutdown was called and questioned why the Occupy movements called for action without consulting the people that action would affect most.
Occupy spokespeople responded that they reached out to union members after the shutdown call was made. Kari Koch of Occupy Portland said they have been flyering at shift changes at the port for a week. “We would not be doing this action if we didn’t have any support from the rank and file,” Koch said.
But occupiers didn’t call ILWU Local 8 there, she said. (They sent an email.) Occupiers were worried the local could be legally liable if it coordinated with protesters.
Huge numbers showed up at the gates this morning in Oakland and shut three port gates. Occupiers, who plan to disrupt the afternoon shift as well, reported no animosity from ILWU members and port truckers.
While it’s certainly the case that the union movement needs a kick in the pants, and the occupiers have done a lot to aim the shoe, ILWU members and officers say democracy in movements—union and Occupy alike—means giving say to the people affected, not assuming their participation or support because an action is just.
But Mike Parker, a retired UAW activist in the Bay Area and co-author of Democracy Is Power, said most strikes are inconvenient for someone, including other workers. Their success relies on all workers affected by an action honoring the line, whether or not they felt appropriately warned.
Other unionists involved in the occupy movement say the ILWU should recognize the need for tactical flexibility.
“The Occupy movement is simply taking from labor history,” said Robbie Donohoe, an Electrical Workers member who has been active in organizing for the shutdown. “We’re making it safer for workers to challenge the boundaries of laws that were created to secure the reins of power firmly in the hands of the 1%.”
HERE WE GO
Regardless of whether ILWU leaders support the shutdown, union and community members have done person-to-person outreach to make it succeed.
The Oakland Education Association’s executive board backed the call; President Betty Olsen Jones has been leaftleting port truckers at 6 a.m. along with occupiers and union activists.
A largely immigrant workforce of “independent contractors” that move cargo in and out of the ports, the truckers are legally prevented from unionizing. Some criticized the November 2 port shutdown in Oakland because the truckers were unprepared for the huge march that succeeded in shutting down the port, which trapped many of them for hours. Lacking a union, they have few structures to appeal to for support.
Anthony Levierge of the Bay Area’s ILWU Local 10 and a half-dozen active rank and filers have been passing out flyers and explaining the rationale for the shutdown to fellow members. “It’s been a mixed bag of attitudes,” he said, adding that he believed members would "honor the history and legacy of social justice unionism that ILWU members have fought hard for.”
The West Coast longshore union has a history of honoring community picket lines for good causes, but the question of how those actions are decided—and actually brought to bear against multinational employers who move billions of dollars of goods through the ports—is a complicated matter.
Samantha Levens, a Bay Area member of the Inland Boatmen’s Union, an ILWU affiliate, said education and preparation among the members should have been a first priority. She noted that some previous shutdowns took months to prepare—like a May Day work stoppage in 2008.
When confronted with a picket line at port gates, ILWU members have the right under their coastwide contract to stop work and call an arbitrator to rule on possible safety threats or the validity of the picket line.
Success in shutting down ports along the coast depends upon presenting a credible safety threat to longshore workers. If emergency vehicles cannot make it into the port, or if the workers feel threatened by mass pickets and police presence, they will call an arbitrator to decide whether the action presents a bona fide risk. The decision to call an arbitrator can delay the beginning of work, and if the workers are sent home they may not be paid, depending on the circumstance.
Port bosses warned the ILWU that the 2008 May Day stoppage against the military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan was “unauthorized” but members went through with it regardless.
“Because the members had discussed and debated it before they voted on it and had been building support amongst the ranks heading towards the vote, the buy-in and ownership of the action was firmly in the hands of the members,” Levens said.
THUMBS UP AND DOWN
The Alameda Central Labor Council had a lively debate December 5 when Port Commissioner Victor Uno, who is also an Electrical Workers (IBEW) business manager, moved that the council “does not endorse a Port Shutdown.”
The council’s executive committee approved the motion, but some delegates argued that the Occupy movement deserved labor’s support, others that it deserved at least neutrality. The ILWU Local 10 president’s motion to table passed overwhelmingly.
Eric Larsen, member relations secretary for AFSCME Local 444 and labor liaison with Occupy Oakland, said council leaders wouldn't let him address the council about the port action.
“I pleaded with them to let me speak,” he said. “They would not.”
He said council leaders claimed the reason for rejecting him, and for their lack of support for the shutdown, came from Occupy’s failure to communicate.
On December 9 the building trades council took a position against the shutdown.
ORIGIN: LOS ANGELES
Originally, the idea of a December 12 protest was initiated by Occupy Los Angeles, to coincide with immigrants’ rights activities around Our Lady of Guadalupe Day.
Sarah Knopp, a 12-year member of the Teachers union (UTLA) in Los Angeles, said occupiers decided to target SSA Marine, a terminal operator owned by Goldman Sachs with container terminals in North and South America and in Vietnam.
SSA Marine is notorious for its environmental, labor, and human rights abuses and its exploitation of port truck drivers paid piece rates to move cargo containers on and off the docks. Occupiers were also motivated by the firing of 27 port truckers who work for a separate firm, Toll Group. Those fired had worn Teamster shirts, part of a long-running campaign to beat the legal prohibitions on organizing.
After Oakland Occupy expanded the call to all ports on the West Coast, Occupy L.A. decided to stay with its original plan—a march from Harry Bridges Park to an SSA terminal, and a community picket to block a gate. The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles take up 25 miles of coastland and handle 85 percent of all traffic on the West Coast, an operation too vast to blockade with the numbers the protesters expected.
Knopp and fellow occupiers stood outside a recent ILWU Local 13 meeting and flyered the workers to build support for the SSA action. They received a “totally friendly reception,” Knopp said. “Everyone thinks it’s a great idea.”
“We’re initiating a process where the Occupy movement can build a base in the labor movement,” said Michael Novick, a UTLA retiree.
Saying that L.A. occupiers recognize the ILWU is not a position to act today (and its leadership was not solicited to participate), Novick added that the port truckers may be better placed to carry out the action in this crucial port. With no union contract, they face no sanction except loss of a day’s pay.
A loose association of port truck organizers who helped to shut the port on May 1, 2006, when immigrants rights protests shook the country, met December 9 to decide whether to attempt a similar action December 12.
Ernesto Nevarez, a port truck organizer, said truckers at the Los Angeles-Long Beach port stayed away for hours Monday morning as nearly 1,000 marchers rallied at port gates.
Every ILWU officer and international staffer reiterates the union’s solidarity with the Occupy movement and its goals. But the December 12 action has annoyed many.
Cameron Williams, president of Local 19 in Seattle, said, “It’s kind of like if I planned a party at your house and didn’t ask about it.” Local officers say occupiers circumvented the union’s democratic process.
“The occupiers have been understandably confused by mixed signals from individuals in the ILWU,” said Craig Merrilees, communications director for the international. He believes some members are speaking to occupiers without the backing of the organization’s internal democratic process.
President Scott Mason of Local 23 in Tacoma, Washington, said he hasn’t “felt much movement either way” from the members.
“Local 8 officers aren’t in support of it,” said Jeff Smith, president of the Portland longshore local. “If it went to a rank-and-file vote I don’t know what would happen.”
Rank and filers won’t get a chance to have their say. Local 8’s next membership meeting is December 14.
Occupiers leafleted the dispatch hall but members say they might have succeeded in convincing more of the Portland rank and file if outreach had started before the action was set.
Levens expressed support for the Occupy movement’s goal—to confront corporate power—but not its approach in this action.
“The lack of communication with the members leaves the Occupy activists and union members without the benefit of sharing our [earlier] Oakland experience with shutting down the port and community pickets,” said Levens, who has been active in Oakland general assemblies.
Parker said the constraints on unions are too great to expect a better process.
“Even if Occupy Oakland were the best, most democratic it could be, there is no way that they could consult with elected leaders of the ILWU,” he said. “Unions are faced with a choice of gambling everything [by openly supporting a strike] or of protecting themselves by disclaiming responsibility and honoring lines by using loopholes.”
It doesn’t help that the institutions assessing liability—right-wing courts—are not on labor’s side.
Parker says the occupiers may have to look for new ways to hit the 1%.
“The continued focus on the docks, because it is easy and takes advantage of the solidarity traditions of the dock workers, makes the dock workers themselves the targets and the targets start resenting it,” Parker said.
SOLIDARITY WITH LONGVIEW
Occupy Oakland said a big part of the reason for today’s action was solidarity with ILWU Local 21 in its struggle against grain shipper EGT. Some in the movement say the ILWU officialdom, which badly needs to beat EGT, is merely covering its legal bases by distancing itself from the action.
But leaders of locals up and down the coast say a coastwide work stoppage for Local 21 could actually harm its struggle, by uniting employers to support EGT.
A more immediate fear could be legal reprisals resulting from an injunction and contempt charges leveled by a federal judge against Local 21 and the international. Fines for the local’s disruptions, blockades, and grain-dumping this summer have already totaled $315,000.
If a federal judge determines that occupiers are acting on the union’s behalf, Mason said, “we can be charged $5,000 for every incident.”
Still, Local 21 President Dan Coffman, who gave a speech about EGT to Occupy Oakland the day after its general assembly adopted the shutdown call, does not conceal his enthusiasm for the movement.
Coffman cited the November 2 port shutdown as an inspiration to his members, who have been on the picket line for six months.
Supporters of Occupy and ILWU Local 21 are preparing for January, when a ship headed for Asia is scheduled to retrieve grain from the disputed elevator in Longview. An independently organized action could allow the ILWU to circumvent the legal minefield set in front of its own membership.
“We’re going to do whatever we can to stop that ship from being loaded,” Coffman vowed.
Correction: The story originally mischaracterized events at the Alameda Central Labor Council.
Eduardo Soriano-Castillo contributed to this story from Oakland.
Lee Sustar challenges the assertion that the Occupy movement is trying to impose a shutdown of West Coast docks without support from port workers.
THE OCCUPY movement is trying to strong-arm longshore workers and truck drivers into shutting down West Coast ports December 12--or so say critics of the action.
Those organizing for action on the docks are neither the outside agitators described by employers nor the ultra-left adventurists snubbed by union leaders and their apologists. Rather, they are a grassroots network that includes rank-and-file longshore union members; nonunion port drivers; longstanding labor militants from a variety of unions; and new activists, union and nonunion, who have joined the Occupy movement to try to challenge the country's economic priorities.
Among those new activists is Scott Olsen, who was critically injured in a police attack on Occupy Oakland. In a statement to ILWU members, Olsen wrote: "You do the work--THEY, the global maritime bosses, profit at your expense. Your safety and your jobs are always at stake."
And there's no sharp divide between Occupy activists and ILWU members and other workers who are also organizing to build awareness of the community picket.
"I think people [on the docks] do have sympathy and feel connected with Occupy as a whole," said Anthony Leviege, an ILWU member for 11 years who is active with Occupy Oakland. Working alongside other Occupy activists to leaflet the docks in recent weeks, he estimated that about 50 percent of the workers he's talked to expressed some sympathy for the December 12 action.
Leviege is active in the Occupy movement for the same reason he is active in the ILWU--to improve the lives of working people, he said. "It's because of my background--coming from the ghettos, coming from poverty, seeing young men die early or go to jail," he said.
David Villegas, a member of ILWU Local 13 in Los Angeles and a former truck driver in the port, also reported a sympathetic reception to the flyers for December 12. "Everyone is wondering if they will stand for something, or fall for nothing," he said.
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THE DECEMBER 12 call to action is a grassroots effort to deepen the links between Occupy and longshore labor. Activists are focusing on multiple targets: EGT, the transnational corporation that's trying to eliminate ILWU jobs at a new grain export facility in Longview, Wash.; SSA Marine, the port terminal operator owned by Wall Street powerhouse Goldman Sachs; Toll Group, a trucking employer that fired 26 Los Angeles-Long Beach drivers in October for wearing Teamster t-shirts to work; and port employers generally for their hard-line opposition to truck drivers' union organizing.
Essentially, the call for the December 12 action reflects an effort by the Occupy movement to tap labor's social power at a key node in the capitalist system.
"For the first time in decades in this country, the labor movement is being confronted with a genuine movement from below, a populist movement that is challenging the very fundamentals of our capitalist system," said Jack Heyman, a retired member of ILWU Local 10 who is building support for the December 12 action. "Occupy is resonating very deeply within the ranks of labor."
The potential of this new coalition--which was key to shutting down the Port of Oakland with a community picket of thousands on November 2--has clearly alarmed employers, who have launched an aggressive advertising campaign to denounce the December 12 effort. The Washington Post carried the same line, declaring that workers don't support the plan.
Those views weren't surprising coming from port bosses and the corporate media. But even Cal Winslow, a labor historian and researcher at the University of California-Berkeley, wrote an article claiming that the action is being organized over the heads of ILWU members and other port workers:
I confess to knowing little about the officers of the ILWU, the same for the rank and file. But now, for better or worse, the case is that neither the officers of the ILWU nor any significant section of its members support the December actions planned by Occupy Oakland.
In fact, veteran activists in Local 10, such as Clarence Thomas, have been publicly building support for the community picket line along with Occupy activists.
And if Winslow is correct that labor was united in rejecting the December 12 action, then it should have been easy for the executive committee of the Alameda Labor Council, which includes the Oakland area, to pass a proposed resolution explicitly opposing the protest. At the council delegate's meeting December 5, a motion to disavow the action was presented by Victor Uno, business manager and financial secretary of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 595, who is also a commissioner of the Port of Oakland.
Uno's resolution to oppose the December 12 action reflects the view of trade union leaders who may be sympathetic to Occupy's criticisms, but who are opposed to militant actions that might destabilize labor's relationship with employers and Democratic Party politicians. Given the support of the executive council, Uno may have expected his resolution to pass fairly easily.
Instead, an hour-long debate ensued, in which most delegates thought that a statement of opposition to the December 12 action would send the wrong message, said Jenna Woloshyn, a member of Teamsters Local 70 in Oakland and a driver at UPS, who attended the meeting.
"The executive committee's argument was that all the unions with workers at the port were not endorsing the action," Woloshyn said. "They failed to mention that just because they were not endorsing didn't mean they were coming out with positions against the action, as this resolution would put the council on record for being. The Teamsters are not actively against the shutdown. Local 70 officials spoke against the proposal."
The debate ended when ILWU Local 10 President Richard Mead, rather than support the motion to repudiate the December 12 action, moved to postpone action on the resolution, effectively defeating it.
If labor council delegates were able to defeat Uno's motion, it was because they were responding to activism on the ground in the ports. Those working to build the December 12 action are relating to longstanding organizing efforts by port drivers. They are also building upon a tradition of ILWU Local 10 of respecting community picket lines that have shut down the docks to protest apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s and Israel today, as well as shipments of cargo to support the U.S. war in Iraq.
Local 10 has a history of taking action over political issues, such as initiating a coastwide port shutdown on May Day 2008 in protest of the Iraq war. Earlier this year, Local 10 shut down the docks in the Bay Area April 4 in response to the AFL-CIO's call for a day of action in support of Wisconsin public-sector workers, who lost bargaining rights through anti-union legislation. The employers promptly sued Local 10 for that action.
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WHAT, THEN, is to be made of ILWU President Robert McEllrath's statement disassociating the union from the December 12 call to action? "Only ILWU members or their elected representatives can authorize job actions on behalf of the union, and any decisions made by groups outside of the union's democratic process do not hold water, regardless of the intent," McEllrath wrote.
McEllrath is certainly correct to point out that ILWU members must democratically decide on the actions of their union. And an official ILWU call for a job action on December 12 would invite legal retribution from employers.
But McEllrath, in fact, mischaracterizes the December 12 action. The Occupy movement isn't attempting to "authorize a job action" by the ILWU, but to establish a community picket line and ask ILWU members and other port workers to honor it on the basis of solidarity.
This isn't a far-out idea, given the ILWU tradition of respect for community picket lines and the union's early support for the Occupy movement. In fact, across the bay, the San Francisco Labor Council passed a resolution in October that declared Occupy San Francisco to be a "sanctioned union strike line." In other words, the labor council recognized that Occupy was a workers' movement deserving of union solidarity.
What's more, even ILWU members who sympathize with Occupy's call for a December 12 action must operate under the constraint of a union contract that bans strikes.
As McEllrath's statement explains, if ILWU members stay away from their jobs December 12, it will be the result of a port labor arbitrator's ruling that the picket lines have made it impossible to ensure a safe work environment.
As Villegas of Local 13 explained, "Our contract says we have to work 365 days a year, no matter what"--and an official call to action would violate that. That's why rank-and-file ILWU members who support the community picket are leafleting the ports alongside Occupy activists.
This dynamic--union members expressing sympathy for militant action that labor officials reject--shouldn't be a surprise to Cal Winslow, an editor of the recent book Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s. In his introduction to the book, Winslow describes the spread of wildcat strikes, actions called without the authorization of union leaders, which accounted for one-third of strikes in the late 1960s and early 1970s:
Wildcat strikers were the shock troops of the "rebellions from below," and their strikes became all but routine elements in contractual disputes and grievance negotiations. The strikers were often repudiations of the union leadership and, implicitly, of the entire postwar system of industrial relations.
Somehow, Winslow, who can write at length about rank-and-file activism 40 years ago, doesn't recognize the initial stirrings of similar militancy today.
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IN FACT, the idea for a protest on December 12 originated not with Occupy Oakland, but with immigrant rights and labor activists in Los Angeles who support the organizing efforts of port truck drivers in the LA-Long Beach ports.
When Occupy Los Angeles labor activists held a meeting November 6 to discuss how to broaden the movement, the idea of an action in the ports was natural. Some 26 drivers at the Toll Group had been fired a few days earlier for their efforts to organize with the Teamsters, and December 12 was a traditional day of protests in Southern California among Mexican immigrants, who commemorate Our Lady of Guadalupe on that date.
After discussions with labor activists in the harbor area, the Occupy LA group decided to focus their protest on SSA Marine, a terminal operator owned by Goldman Sachs and known for anti-labor practices towards port truckers and labor worldwide, said Michael Novick, a retired LA teacher who has been active in the harbor community for years.
The protest isn't intended to have the movement substitute itself for the ILWU, Novick said. "We understand they have limits on what actions they can take, and we can take action as community people." He continued: "We can't put ourselves forward as representing them. But we can represent the issues and the interests of the 99 percent."
As in Oakland, Occupy activists in LA and Long Beach have leafleted the docks and ILWU union meetings and gotten a friendly reception, said Sarah Knopp, a member of United Teachers Los Angeles.
A key moment of building solidarity came December 2 during a four-hour strike by clerical workers, Knopp said. "Leah Marinkovich, a striking clerk, told me, 'What you guys are doing in the Occupy Movement is helping us to put pressure on our bosses to settle.'"
Meanwhile, port trucker activists are debating whether to carry out a port shutdown in LA and Long Beach on December 12, said Ernesto Nevarrez, a harbor community activist who helped the drivers organize the total shutdown of the ports in 2004 and 2006.
While the 2006 action was in conjunction with the nationwide protests against anti-immigrant legislation, the drivers have been fighting since the 1980s for the right to organize a union. Employers regard the drivers as independent contractors who can't form a union without violating antitrust laws--laws that originally targeted corporations.
Over the last week, Nevarrez and other activists distributed flyers to 60 to 70 percent of port drivers, he said. As in previous years, the drivers will meet to decide what action to take. "The decision on whether to shut the port down will come this Friday [December 9] when all the drivers will show up at payday at the companies," he said. "Someone at each company will say, 'Let's talk about it,' and some of the discussions will be formal. They will form a collective, and the collective at each company will reach a consensus."
Of course, there's no guarantee that the port actions will be successful up and down the coasts. That depends on the actions of port drivers and whether the community pickets are large enough to convince an port labor arbitrator that it's "unsafe" for ILWU members to cross the picket lines. That's what happened in Oakland November 2, when some 15,000 activists marched to the port during the evening shift change as part of a general strike call in response to police repression that nearly killed Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen several days earlier.
Now, Olsen himself is appealing to ILWU members to respect the community picket line on December 12. His statement reflects the spirit of the alliance between the labor and Occupy movements:
The bosses have been getting away with it for far too long. We can beat them, but we have to work together--unions, rank-and-file workers and Occupy.
I was on my second pump to Iraq when ILWU--when you--led by your Vietnam vets, shut down the West Coast ports on May Day 2008 to stop the war. The best support I could have asked for in Iraq was from you brothers and sisters who wanted us home, alive and well--sooner, not later. I spent two pumps in Iraq looking for our enemies. Only after coming back home did I discover our greatest enemy--that is the enemy we are fighting now.
Where the Oakland action can draw upon ILWU Local 10's traditions of solidarity and respect for community picket lines, and the LA-Long Beach protesters are linking up with the ongoing port drivers' struggle, Occupy activists in other port cities are still making connections with ILWU members and other port workers.
But by focusing on labor's potential power at the point of production, the December 12 actions point the way forward for the Occupy movement. Everyone who wants to see the revival of a fighting labor movement should support these actions.
Links has a round up of coverage of the Shutdown of West Coast Ports on December 12, by the Occupy Groups up the US and Canadian West Coast. I will be posting some important articles regarding the relationship between Occupy and the labour movement.
While any action by Occupy is likely to draw the ire and opposition of more conservative wings of the labour movement, it is also clear that sections of the leadership the historically militant International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which has given support to the Occupy movement, took a publicly hostile attitude to the shutdown of ports worked by the union's members.
The character of this opposition remains unclear with a number of possible explanations having been raised, hostility by the union to incursions into the ILWU's internal democracy, an effort by the ILWU leadership to separate the union from the action in order to avoid any possible legal action for breaching no strike clauses in the union's contracts, and the development of a more conservative strata within the unions leadership.
In my opinion the lack of clarity of regarding the nature of the engagement or lack of engagement by the ILWU leaderships with the shutdown suggests that a central challenge for progressive movement's such as Occupy, is to build the level of engagement with the labour movement, in order to build real and lasting alliances to empower working people and their communities.
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
by Sean Vernell, UCU national executive
10 December 2011
N30 was a historic day for the trade union movement. It could be a turning point in the fight to defend our pensions and stop the government’s austerity measures.
We are constantly told trade unions are in decline and don’t hold the power they once had. But the 30 November strike gave the lie to this.
It saw the rebirth of trade unions as a united mass movement. Working people saw a glimpse of their power and their ability to change things.
Every mass strike lights up the way forward and shows how change can be won.
Workers often have to put up with bullying managers and stress over workloads. But on the day of the strike these concerns seemed a million miles away.
At work the next day, employers faced workers who are more confident, less compliant and more determined to take control of their lives.
This is what every government and boss fears. And their only response is to whip up fear and division.
The government paraded around the media reminding public– sector workers how lucky they were to have pensions at all because many private workers don’t.
It offered a deal to buy off older workers with a promise that the “reforms” would not affect them.
But this attempt to divide workers failed miserably. That’s because ordinary workers recognise that this is not simply a fight for themselves. It is also, crucially, about younger workers’ futures.
The strike was a great success. And it had a deeper impact than protesting or letting off steam.
Public sector workers are in this fight to win. There was a clear consensus among strikers that a one-day strike would not be enough to win.
It is important to push a strategy for all-out action. But the key issue facing us now is how to escalate as soon as possible.
The speed at which we move is important for two reasons.
First, another five month gap before the next strike will allow the government time to get better organised.
Second, any delay in action will send a message that the unions aren’t serious about this fight.
The strategy put forward must match the seriousness of the task. Otherwise workers will simply ask why they are losing pay for a strategy that will not win.
Some unions have already passed motions calling for further nationally coordinated action as soon as possible, including the NUT and the PCS.
Local joint union mobilising committees that were set up for N30 should meet and be part of coordinating the next step.
This should include winning unions that weren’t part of N30 to join future action.
The UCU national executive met on Friday last week. We unanimously passed a motion outlining a possible strategy as a way forward to be proposed to the other unions.
The motion called for another day of nationally coordinated action as early as possible in the spring term.
This would mean from January onwards. This would be followed immediately with coordinated regional action.
The motion calls for “this action to be rolled out across the country creating a Mexican wave effect acting as a bridge to the next day of nationally coordinated strike action” and “this action to end with a 48 hour nationally coordinated strike.”
We need to ensure that this debate is had in every workplace. Don’t delay—hold branch meetings right away to discuss the next steps and pass motions calling for escalation.
Some union leaders are looking for a way out. They need to feel the pressure from below to stop them making a shoddy deal.
A victory on pensions will pave the way for a wider challenge to the brutal austerity programme of this government.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
This contribution outlining the history of the Red-Green Alliance is taken from the book New Parties of the Left - Experiences from Europe published by Socialist Resistance (Britain) and the International Institute for Research and Education (Amsterdam) in July 2011.
Introduction: the present challenge of the Red-Green Alliance
The RGA was probably the first broad and pluralist anticapitalist party in Europe to develop out of the changed political landscape after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It arose organically out of the left wing of the Danish labour movement, merging several established left parties. It has had representation in parliament since 1994.
To understand the nature of the RGA, its development, its positions and the challenges it faces today, it is necessary to make a brief sketch of the Danish labour movement and the Danish left. Social democracy
The Danish Social Democratic Party traces its history back to the 19th century European labour movement, having been part of both the First and the Second International. Its close links to the trade union movement, its reformism and its bureaucratization more or less follows the path of the rest of European social democracy.
Danish social democracy first came into government in the late 1920s and 1930s as part of an alliance with a centre bourgeois party, based on small farmers and city intellectuals, implementing social reform, but always seeking acceptance and alliance with big agriculture and industry.
After World War II, the party was the backbone of building the so called Welfare State, still based on class collaboration and a compromise with the main bourgeois parties and organisations of industry.
During the economic crisis of the 70s the space for class compromise narrowed, and faced with problems of state finances, balance of payment, unemployment and a rising left wing in the trade unions and on the political scene, a Social Democrat-led government gave up power voluntarily in 1982.
Since then, like many other European Social Democratic Parties, the Danish party has developed in a social-liberal direction – outside government (1982–1993; 2001-2011) and as the leading governmental party (1993–2001). Its share of the votes, its standing in opinion polls, and its membership, has all decreased and fierce power struggles have taken place. Trade Union Movement
The development of the Danish trade union movement has been parallel to that of social democracy, the two regarding themselves as being parts of the same movement. In Denmark the trade union movement has always been unitary. Since the 1950s the percentage of organisation has been very high: close to 100% in industry, less in public jobs and service. The official or unofficial closed shop is normal. During the last two or three decades, union membership has declined, though not as dramatically as in many other European countries.
From time to time, left forces have gained influence at shop steward and branch level. But apart from the CP leadership of the sailors union for a couple of decades and the nursery school teachers union for a brief period, the Social Democratic Party has been hegemonic at the national federation level and in the two confederations LO and FTF. At the moment only the national union of public employees is not headed by a Social Democrat. The political left
The Danish Communist Party came out of the historical split in the international workers movement and became Danish section of the Third International. Politically it followed the Moscow party line all the way to the end. It had some influence in the trade union movement in the 1930s, especially among unemployed workers. At that time it gained a small representation in Parliament through proportional representation.
It grew during and after World War II because of its involvement in the underground armed liberation movement against German occupation. For ten years, after the World War, it held on to its positions both in parliament and in trade unions. But after supporting the Soviet occupation of Hungary in 1956, it experienced a serious setback and a split.
Its influence grew again from the beginning of the 70s as part of the overall political radicalization of the period. It gained important influence in the movement against Danish membership of EU, the peace movement, the trade union youth movement and the student movement. At that time it regained parliamentary representation.
The CP almost collapsed with the breakdown of the Soviet Union, both for political and financial reasons, and has split into several small factions. As a result of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the secret Khrushchev speech in 1956, a split in the CP headed by the then chairman occurred leading to the establishment of the Socialist Peoples’ Party. The party distanced itself from Moscow, and it positioned itself close to, but still to the left of the Social Democratic Party. A part of the trade union activist base of the CP followed the chairman into the Socialist People’s Party, but the party focused almost all its activities on parliamentary work.
In the first election after its establishment (1960), the Socialist People’s Party won 11 Members of Parliament (MPs) (6% of national vote). Its number of MPs has since fluctuated, peaking in 1987 with 27 MPs (15%). In two periods in the 60s and the 70s, the party was part of the parliamentary majority supporting Social Democratic-led governments, but never in government itself. From the late 1987 until 2007, the representation in parliament of Socialist People’s Party gradually declined.
The radicalisation of the 1960s also led to the establishment of the Left Socialist Party, born as a split of the Socialist People’s Party’s in 1967. The split was triggered by the Socialist People’s Party participation in anti-worker legislation. From the beginning the Left Socialist Party was a mixture of all elements of the New Left: hippies, anarchists, Maoists, Trotskyists, other self-declared Leninists, anti-imperialists and many other shades of anti-establishment opposition.
Through most of its existence the Left Socialist Party has had a small parliamentary representation (between two and four percent) until 1987. This representation gave the party a special position on the far left in relation to other groups that either stayed outside or left the Party at different times. Among these were several Maoist groups, several non-Trotskyist, Leninist groups and the Danish section of the Fourth International.
There have always existed one or more Trotskyist groups in Denmark since the 1930s. They have done important political work, especially international solidarity, but never had any real influence in the Danish labour movement. After World War II the Danish section of the Fourth International experienced a period of splits. Some opted for entryism in social democracy, others in the CP. But most of them took part in the establishment of the Socialist People’s Party in 1958.
As in many other European countries the Fourth Internationalists grew as a result of the radicalization of the 1960s.
They took part in the Socialist People’s Party split which established the Left Socialist Party. At the beginning of the 1970s the majority of the Fourth International section left the Left Socialist Party and established its own organisation, which experienced some growth until the mid-1980s. In 1980 it changed its name to the Socialist Workers Party (SAP) and started publishing a weekly paper. It turned its political and organisational focus to industry and the trade unions and collected enough signatures (around 20,000 – out of a population of about 5.1 million) to be able to run national lists for the parliamentary election three times in 80s – all on the basis of a membership of no more than 200. The election results were very modest, around 2,000 votes.
The Red-Green Alliance was established in 1989 on the basis of a written agreement between the CP, Left Socialist Party and SAP – and was soon joined by the remaining fragments of the Maoist Communist Workers Party (KAP).
The social struggles and movements of the late 1970s and 1980s
Established in 1989 the RGA was also a product of the social struggles and movements of the late 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s – or more precisely a product of the decline of these movements. Grassroots and left activity in the trade union movement grew in these years, sometimes threatening Social Democratic hegemony. Members of left parties and groups built support committees for wildcat strikes and organised left-wing oppositions in trade unions. It never became a unitary left wing, since the strongest left wing force, the CP was keen not to clash fundamentally with the Social Democratic union leadership.
The highpoint of working class struggle was the strike movement of 1985 against the new union contract and against the government which came close to a general strike and almost forced a government, composed of two bourgeois parties, out of office. The strike movement was led by left wing forces together with oppositional Social Democratic Party trade unionists and it actually bypassed the national trade union leadership.
The strike movement neither succeeded in reducing working week, as was its official aim, nor in ousting the government, but it did put a brake on the neoliberal and anti-union offensive of the Danish ruling class. It prevented the ruling class from inflicting defeats on the working class the way they did in the UK and USA.
In the period from 1967 to 1989, several important grassroots and extra-parliamentary movements developed in Denmark. Some of them, consisting of several hundreds of local committees, were supported by important parts of the trade union movement and mobilised up to 100,000 in demonstrations. These movements were a result of, and gave impetus to, political radicalisation. The most important of them were:
• The anti-Vietnam War movement and other anti imperialist movements, primarily among the youth,
• The movement against the introduction of nuclear power plants in Denmark which was a 100 percent successful,
• The movement against the EU, mostly focusing on the succeeding new treaties put up for referendums and on elections to European Parliament. This Danish anti-EU sentiment was – until the mid 90s – represented almost exclusively by left parties and individuals, though with some nationalist tendencies,
• The peace movement which for several years focused on preventing a NATO-plan for new nuclear warheads in Europe and on forcing the government to implement official Danish policy of no nuclear weapons on Danish soil in peace time.
The movement forced the government to insist on Danish minority statements in all NATO decisions on nuclear armament for several years, • The various movements of students against cuts and for democratisation of universities and colleges.
The decline of the late 1980s
At the end of the 1980s these movements declined. The left wing was not able to recover its position in the trade union movement after the apparent defeat of the strike movement of 1985. The neo-liberal offensive was weaker and later than that in the UK and the USA, but nevertheless it took its toll and had its effect. This created a mood on the left that “forces of resistance” had to stick together. And, of course, the collapse of the Soviet Union bloc hit not only the CP, but also the non-Stalinist left wing constituency. In this way Denmark did not differ from many other countries of Europe.
In the general election in 1987 the Left Socialist Party failed to pass the 2% threshold and lost its parliamentary representation. It stood in one more election in 1988 with even worse result. The CP had lost representation earlier, and neither SAP nor KAP came near to the threshold. For one brief election period a populist split from the CP was represented in parliament.
For the first time in decades, no party to the left of the Socialist People’s Party was represented in Parliament. In a few municipalities common left slates were established. Already before the 1988 national elections informal contacts had been made between individual leaders of the CP, the Left Socialist Party and SAP. The latter two made an electoral agreement allowing SAP candidates on the Left Socialist slate. On election night both representatives of SAP and of the Left Socialist Party introduced the idea of some kind of national electoral collaboration between the three parties.
The basic motivation, of course, was the need of a nonreformist representation to the left of the Socialist People’s Party in parliament. At the same time, a maturity had developed in sections of the three parties which wanted to end decades of political infighting on the left.
The CP was also undergoing a decline and fragmentation under the influence of Perestroika in Soviet Union, with people and groupings developing in all kinds of directions.
In the SAP, individual leaders were influenced by the discussions on party building and left alliances taking place within the Fourth International, especially at the IIRE-school in Amsterdam. The Red-Green Alliance established
Negotiations took place over a long period. There was a deep mistrust in the membership of all three parties towards the other parties.
Important political differences existed, especially between SAP/the Left Socialist Party on the one side, and the CP on the other.
Organisationally, the SAP and the CP tended to side together against the deep rooted anti-Leninism in the Left Socialist Party.
Complicating the process was the fragmentation of the CP. One group was rapidly moving to the right, either to social democracy or into business careers. A major group opted for a much broader unity; some kind of peoples’ front on an ill-defined platform and with very vague ideas of its components. Another major current wanted to stick with classical Stalinism.
Another issue was the difference of size. The CP had about 4,000 members, Left Socialist Party between 500 and 600 and the SAP not much more than 100, but with a much higher level of activity.
Should this be reflected in influence on the political program and in the leadership? In the pre-foundation negotiations an understanding was developed that all three parties were needed for a balanced alliance.
In reality the issue was settled at a time when the negotiations were in a stalemate because of the factional struggles in the CP. To speed up the process and to put pressure on the CP, the Left Socialist Party and SAP started to prepare to stand in the next elections. This initiative was legitimised by an endorsement from the CP-chairman, though no formal decision in the party had been taken.
According to Danish election law, a party not already represented in parliament must collect around 20,000 verified signatures in support of their participation, to be allowed to stand in national elections. Practically you need 25,000, because many are not valid.
Left Socialist Party and SAP set a target of 10,000 signatures each, while expecting 5,000 from members of the CP and non-aligned activists. For a party of 100 activists it was a huge target, but with the past experience of successful campaigns of to collect 25,000 signatures three times during the 80s, SAP reached its target before the Left Socialist Party – and established itself in that way as an equal partner in the collaboration.
Finally in 1989 an agreement was established between the parties. At that time supporters of the project had won a majority in the CP, though some of them still had the goal of changing it to a much broader alliance on a less developed and not so leftist political platform. A minority left to establish a new but much smaller traditional Stalinist Communist Party.
In December 1989 a founding National Conference was held to declare the establishment of a new organisation which was to be an alliance and not a party.
The conference adopted a preliminary political platform and a set of organisational rules. A national leadership was appointed by 54 New Parties of the Left each of the three parties and some individuals – but each of the parties could veto any decision.
The name Enhedslisten was chosen. Directly translated it means Unity Slate, stressing the common understanding of the alliance as a corporation for election purposes, while the founding parties continued their separate existence as fractions of the alliance, each with a public face and public activities. Some members preferred the name Red-Green Alliance (RGA). It was incorporated as a “second” name, and soon it was decided to use that outside Denmark, because of the very Danish character of the real name.
The incorporation of “Green” in the party name illustrated that no green party was ever able to establish itself in Denmark. This was partly because the socialist left wing at an early stage manifested itself with a green agenda, beginning with the campaign against nuclear power.
In the next two national conferences the political platform and the organisational rules were developed. The now very small Maoist KAP joined, and the proportion of non-party affiliated members grew, leading to a cancellation of all formal special rights of the founding parties.
Important parts of the political platform which was developed during pre-foundation negotiations and during the first couple of years were: .
• To the left of the Socialist People’s Party
• Anticapitalist and socialist .
• In favour of democratic rights and with an explicit distancing from “experiences of the Soviet bloc” (reflecting real political developments in parts of the CP) .
• Focusing on parliamentary activities, but promoting extraparliamentary mobilisations
• Anti-European Union .
• Ecological .
• Pro-trade union .
The RGA adopted a principle for parliamentary work that originated from the Left Socialist Party which consists of guiding rules for MPs and local councillors. They are expected to: .
• Vote for any law or law amendment if it is even a slight improvement (against sectarianism and ultimatism) .
• Vote against any law or change of law if it contains any cutback or set-back in relation to our political platform (against pragmatism and usual parliamentary behaviour of reformist parties) .
• Vote therefore against parliamentary deals or horse-trading of packages of law amendments, where all participating parties get a little in their favour in exchange for supporting elements, they don’t like (this is a integral part of Danish parliamentary life because of proportional representation, with many parties and none having a majority by itself).
Again in 1990 national elections were called, and for the first time the RGA stood on its own slate. The campaign was not very well prepared: the election manifesto was marked by many compromises, and the majority of the top candidates were “famous” leftist individuals outside the three parties, not all of them very familiar with the RGA-platform and the election manifesto.
The RGA received 1.7% of the votes, below the 2% threshold, and thus won no representation in parliament. Shortly afterwards the ex-CP chairman and a group around him left the RGA and joined the Socialist People’s Party, where today he is the Number Two Man! There was then a period of almost four years until the next election which helped the RGA to mature politically and organisationally. The disappearance of the most right wing CP-group helped in this process. Mutual mistrust diminished, collective experience of political campaigning was gained and a limited political platform on different issues was developed.
Gradually more and more individual members joined the RGA.
It changed from collaboration between three parties to a membership organisation. But the notion of an electoral bloc still existed, mostly in the CP, but also in SAP and less so in the Left Socialist Party. All three parties kept their own organisational structure with offices, meetings and publications though KAP quickly dissolved as did the Left Socialist Party some years later.
The question of the European Community/European Union has been a major issue in Denmark since 1972 when a majority in a referendum voted to join. Most other new treaties have been put up for a referendum. Resistance to the EU has been an issue which is popular, working class and of the left. Even social democracy was strongly divided at one point, and they campaigned for a rejection of the Single Market in 1984.
In 1992 a majority voted against the Maastricht Treaty, creating political chaos in Denmark and to some extent in the EU. But soon afterwards a broad group of political parties, including the Socialist People’s Party, made a so called “national compromise” leading to the Edinburgh agreement and a new referendum in 1993 incorporating four opt-outs for Denmark in the treaty.
To many members and voters of the Socialist People’s Party this was seen as treason, while the RGA was the only left party 56 New Parties of the Left campaigning for a “No” in the second referendum on the Maastricht Treaty which included the Edinburgh agreement.
This was probably the most important single factor behind the 1994 election result of the RGA. Not only did the RGA pass the threshold, but it obtained 3.1% of the votes securing the election of 6 MPs. The group was composed of two members of the Left Socialist Party, two members of the CP, one member of the SAP and one exmember of the KAP.
In many ways this was the second birth of the RGA.
Since 1994 the RGA has been represented in parliament, shifting from 6 to 5 to 4 to 6 and then again 4 MPs. Until around 2006-7 this was a period with a modest level of class struggle and social and political movements. Of course this has put its mark on the RGA.
In its written programs and manifestos and whenever asked, the RGA states that it is an extra-parliamentary party supporting the social movements. But in reality the focus has been on parliamentary work, locally and nationally. Though many RGA-members have been active in trade unions, students organisations, tenants organisations, environmental campaigns and social movements, until recently organising the activity of the members in this field has not been regarded as an issue for the RGA-organisation.
RGA has been a radical parliamentary opposition – with some influence from 1994 to 2001 when the Social Democratic party was leading governments. Its brand image has been that of the critical watchdog, getting media coverage for its well-researched single issue campaigns, exposures of big capital, ministers and high-ranking civil servants and the only major party in Denmark with a loosely defined ideal of socialism. Most outstanding have been the campaigns against tax evasion by big multinational corporations.
Politically, the focus has been on the poorest and most marginalised groups in society like immigrants, refugees and people on social benefit and minority groups including youth subcultures and LBGT’s. Less importance has been given to the traditional working class. Also ecological issues have had a high priority. In the 1990s the RGA called for laws favouring and supporting organic production in agriculture. Support for organic production has since been adopted by most of the mainstream parties, but only the RGA is in favour of 100 % organic agriculture.
Membership has steadily increased from a little more than a thousand members, when the RGA had its first parliamentary representation, to more than 5,500 members in January 2011.
Typically membership increased during and immediately after election campaigns illustrating that it is the work of the MPs that attract more members rather than militant activity. A large part of the membership joined to show their support for the parliamentary group in a more visible and material form than just voting, but does not participate in local meetings or other forms of activity.
After several years of preparation in successive working groups, the RGA in 2003 adopted a formal political programme which is both anticapitalist and socialist. It stresses the need to mobilise the working class and allies to overthrow capitalist society. It even mentions the role of independent working class organisation and dual power organs in the revolutionary process and in the socialist society; plus clear cut internationalism.
The programme may have served as a point of reference for leading layers of the party, but it never played any big role in the political life of the RGA. Only a small minority of the membership has read it, and no organised education in the programme takes place in the party.
A large part of the activists and of the leadership will not agree with the most explicit revolutionary elements of the programme of the RGA. One example is a newspaper interview in May 2010 with an MP who is a young woman and the prime political spokesperson of the RGA. When confronted with quotes from the programme, she honestly defended most of it, but when it came to dual power organs she called it “outdated language”.
A democratic and egalitarian culture – with some problems
The internal life of the RGA has for better or worse been marked by the heritage of the left of the 1970s and 1980s with two important elements:
• The RGA is extremely democratic and egalitarian,
• There is no tradition for open confrontation of different strategic perspectives.
An internal democratic life was important for both Left Socialist Party and SAP, but also for the CP-group that entered the RGA as a reaction to their experience with bureaucratic centralism in the CP.
All issues are decided by the elected delegates at the annual National Conference. Written discussion is open to all members. All individual members can present a proposal for the National Conference and all members can speak at the conference, even if they are not elected delegates.
58 New Parties of the Left According to party statutes minorities can withdraw from the general election of the 25 members of the National Leadership and obtain the right to elect their own members proportionally, it they obtain at least four percent of delegates.
Before each National Conference a membership referendum is organised to establish which candidate the members want to head up the election lists. On the basis of the referendum one or more slates, distributing candidates in different constituencies, are presented to the National Conference, which then vote on these slates. In the Danish election system a small party can predict with a high level of certainty who will be elected if it is up to 10 MPs.
It has never been challenged that the elected National Leadership is “above” the RGA’s parliamentary group. The MPs must follow the general political line of the National Conference and of the National Leadership, and the parliamentary group must present important and difficult questions for a decision by the National Leadership or the Executive Committee.
In early 2010 the parliamentary group voted to send a Danish war vessel to combat pirates off the coast of Somalia. RGA members protested against this decision. This matter was brought before the National Leadership which decided against the MPs who in turn accepted that they had been incorrect.
The egalitarian culture is reflected by the rules about staff, National Leadership and MPs.
Members of Parliament and staff members can only be in office in for a limited number of years. The details have changed over time, but the limit is between 7 and 11 years. Both former MPs and staff members can return to office only after two year break in another job.
They receive a salary fixed to the level of a qualified worker. For MPs, that means that they pay to the party the amount that their parliamentary salary exceeds this level.
Traditionally any tendency towards “the cult of the individual” has been opposed. Until recently election posters would not show pictures of the top candidates on the election list. Grassroots democracy sometimes develops into extremes when for example national committees in charge of a certain area of work are not elected or appointed by the leadership but are free-for-all-members.
On the other hand the organisational culture of the RGA is in some ways not that democratic. Even though the membership has the right to vote on all major issues and elect delegates to National Conferences, they are often not presented with real strategic alternatives.
This is to a large degree a reaction to the sectarianism and factionalism of the Left of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The RGA was established with a mood of “no more infighting”. It certainly was necessary to downplay differences in the first years of the existence of RGA to avoid it all blowing up again.
The first group of six MPs took on themselves the responsibility of keeping the RGA together at almost any price. They decided that they would form a united bloc in public whatever their differences.
This was necessary since the media tried to portray the RGA as an unprincipled device to get into Parliament. Journalists looked for any sign of disagreement and predicted a quick dissolution of the RGA.
The consequence of this decision was that the parliamentary group, having a high degree of legitimacy in the party, presented itself as a bloc to the membership. However, this way of acting did reflect a real and deeply felt sentiment in the membership of wanting to avoid splits.
However necessary this was at the beginning, it has created problems. The party never succeeded in overcoming this “together-atany- price” sentiment, even when it was so well established that it could afford discussions and confrontation between different perspectives.
A tradition of open tendencies around issues that divide the membership and the leadership has never been developed. Instead informal cliques and groupings are formed on the basis of individual leaders and/or of former common activity in youth and student movements. At the same time important leaders usually strive to make a compromise between opposing perspectives inside the leadership, rather than bringing differences into an open democratic discussion among the membership.
Nevertheless, on a couple of occasions important debates on issues of principle have taken place in the RGA. In the second half of the 1990s, the parliamentary tactic was put to a test. The Social Democratic Party minority government had two options when they wanted their proposals adopted in Parliament: either make a deal to the right with one or both of the major bourgeois parties or make a deal to the left with the Socialist People’s Party and RGA. The Socialist People’s Party and RGA were invited to negotiate major economic packages. In a couple of instances the MPs from the RGA opted for participation in order to help pass important social measures, despite sections of the working class or the youth losing out. The issue of responsibility for bringing down a left government was raised.
It created some heated debate in and around the RGA, and this put a lot of media focus on the party. It is quite unusual in Denmark for MPs to ask their party leadership for advice. The National Leadership of the RGA vetoed a parliamentary deal which the party’s 60 New Parties of the Left MPs accepted. The MPs returned to the negotiations with the government and had the critical parts of the proposals more or less removed, and a deal was made. The result was that the principle was maintained of voting in parliament for even the slightest progress and against even the least setback.
Over the years, the choice between being a working class party or a party whose purpose is to help the “weak” layers of society has come up several times. This has interrelated with conflicts between sub-cultural layers wanting to realise utopian visions in the here and now, and traditional workers party and trade union layers wanting to promote the struggle on the basis of the material reality and the consciousness of the working class.
For some years this discussion revolved around the proposal of a Citizen’s Wage. The proposal was that all citizens should receive a living wage from the state, regardless of being in a job, being available for a job or not, studying or not, young or old. Besides being criticised for being utopian, opponents argued that it would be impossible to mobilise the working class behind such a demand. It was also argued that with a Citizen’s Wage, workers would have no objective interest in being part of the union run unemployment benefit scheme, and in that way it would undermine the high percentage of union membership in Denmark. In the end the Citizen’s Wage proposal was rejected by the RGA at National Conference in the late 90s.
The fight against the EU has played a major role in the RGA since its beginning. Official policy has been to reject and fight the EU, but the founding parties had very different approaches to the issue.
SAP always tried to fight the EU on a class and internationalist basis, focusing on its pro-capital, pro-neoliberal and anti-democratic character. The CP was central in building and sustaining the crossparty, almost class-collaborationist Peoples Movement against the EU in 1972. In party publications, the CP resorted to very nationalist arguments about Danish self-determination and protecting Denmark against Germany. In the Left Socialist Party internationalist tendencies were in a majority but they co-existed with more nationalist currents on this issue.
In 2002 a formal discussion on these issues was organised because a layer of young activists and party leaders reacted to the self determination line of argument. They argued on the basis of internationalism and wanted to change the party program which includes the demand for a Danish withdrawal from the EU. A part of this layer moved towards a position of reform of the EU, wanting to change the EU into a tool for pan-European decision making.
The result of the debate was basically to maintain opposition to the EU and the demand for Danish withdrawal but with more stress on the character of the EU policies, such as that they are antiecological, anti-social, and anti-worker. This decision has been not seriously been challenged since then, one reason being probably that the Peoples Movement against the EU has moved in that direction, with a member of the RGA and of the Fourth International as an MEP and leading spokesperson.
In 2007 the biggest crisis yet of the RGA erupted when a young Muslim woman, Asmaa Abdol-Hamid, was presented in the internal RGA referendum to be a parliamentary candidate. She wore a religious headscarf (hijab) and she refused to shake hands with men.
Her share of the votes in the internal referendum were so high that she was entitled to a place on the slate, and in case of a successful election result, she could be elected.
This created a huge media interest and protests inside the party. The reasons for this were numerous. A small minority claimed that the RGA is an anti-religious party and that the party should not have candidates that promote their religion visibly. A much larger group reacted because in her statements to the media she was ambiguous on democratic rights, equality of the sexes, the death penalty and Sharia law in general. Furthermore, the opposition against her was due to the fact that she was a fairly new member of the party and her political statements did not go beyond the traditional social attitudes of reformist politicians.
On the other hand a large minority of the party saw the opposition against Asmaa as Islamophobic, which was true for much of the campaign outside the party but not so much inside the RGA.
This minority fiercely defended her, and her position on the slate.
In the end, she obtained a position on the list that made her a substitute for one of the MPs. The candidacy of Asmaa no doubt was one of several reasons for a bad election result, reducing the number of RGA MPs from six down to four. It also left the party in a crisis which was overcome a year later. But it was only in 2010, that support in opinion polls for the RGA recovered and went up from around 2% (4 MPs) to 2.5 and still increasing at the time of writing.
Asmaa has not been a candidate in the internal referendum since, but she is still a member and participated actively in the May 2010 National Conference.
The political change of the late 2000s
Since 2001 Denmark has had a government composed of the two major bourgeois parties with support from a rightwing xenophobic party, the Danish Peoples Party. They have implemented neo-liberal policies without head-on confrontations with the working class and 62 New Parties of the Left the trade unions. They have mostly attacked the marginalised groups.
Their liberalisation has been sneaking, undermining public welfare and obviously favouring the ruling class and the richest layers of society.
In 2006-8 this process provoked local protests and strikes and national demonstrations against the government, but without the characteristics of an organised movement. National demonstrations were called by trade unions, students’ organisations and opposition parties. Related to this movement was a national strike of public sector workers for a better national contract, and some students’ mobilisations against cuts.
With no democratic structure and a very weak left presence in the unions, the Social Democratic Party and the union leadership were able to stop actions when the demands and the demonstrations went beyond their collaborationist policies. At the same time a militant youth movement was very visible in the streets of Copenhagen. This movement sometimes isolated itself from broader layers because of its anarchist methods, violent fights with police, the burning of cars and smashing of shops. On other occasions, they gained very broad sympathy.
In comparison with other countries the anti-war movement was weak in Denmark, though a couple of big demonstrations took place at the beginning of the war in Iraq. Smaller mobilisations against racism and in support of asylum seekers have taken place.
Finally there was the very big December 2009 demonstration at the time of the Copenhagen intergovernmental summit on climate change.
Compared to the previous period there has been a real and manifest growth of mobilisation, though still modest in size in comparison to some other European countries. It has not resulted in more permanent working class or popular organisation, neither is there any organised opposition within the trade unions. A contract negotiation for the private sector in 2010 resulted in setbacks for the workers, but it was not met with any active opposition from the left.
Nevertheless there is an upward trend in mobilisations which is closely interrelated with an important left wing shift in opinion polls.
The Socialist People’s Party grew enormously while the Social Democratic Party and the RGA stagnated or grew a little. Although the growth of the Socialist People’s Party came at a time when the party was moving politically to the right, the overall tendency is markedly to the left in Danish politics. This leftward process had not peaked when elections were called in 2007, so the right wing government survived. Recently (second half of 2010) the Socialist People’s Party have lost momentum and the Social Democratic Party and the RGA have increased their support proportionally.
The economic crisis which has made it impossible for the bourgeois government to implement rightwing liberal policies without attacking the core parts of the working class has also pushed things to the left. The Social Democratic Party and the Socialist People’s Party are openly aiming at taking government after next election, and the majority of the working class is looking forward to a change of government with some expectations of improvement although they are not clearly articulated and vary from one sector to another.
The reaction of the Red-Green Alliance to the new period
The party leadership and parliamentary group have fully supported the movements which have developed during this last period. Lots of RGA members have participated at leadership and grassroots levels.
But the level of party involvement has been marked by a general low level of activism in the party, the low level of political education, the lack of well-founded understanding of, and even conscious hostility to, the party’s role in organised and developing social movements.
Faced with a new period and new challenges to the RGA, the many years without strategic debates and the fear of political conflict have created problems. It has made it difficult for the RGA to adapt to the new situation fully.
On the one hand the crisis and the mobilisations have helped to shift more members in the direction of an organising, interventionist and activist party.
The first visible internal reaction happened in 2008 when a group of activists and leaders from students’, young workers’ and other youth movements tried to initiate a discussion about what kind of party the RGA should be. They contrasted the class party with the party of the minorities and the parliamentary watchdog. To a great extent this was a reaction to the party profile in the 2007 elections – and the poor results achieved.
The criticisms of this group provoked much debate and had a positive effect on party priorities.
The positive effects were partly negated because the group ignored the demands of immigrants, asylum-seekers, LBGT’s and so on and tended to define the working class as all-white-and-male instead of a working class of both sexes and all ethnic backgrounds.
Also they were marked by a very top-down leadership culture in the 64 New Parties of the Left students’ and trade union youth organisations where they gained their political experience.
This informal group helped introduce the idea of organising party members according to workplace, trade unions and branches and have been involved in the slow implementation of this policy.
This is an issue that SAP members promoted for many years. Though the adoption of that line of party building is an important step forward, problems still remain. Among the party members actively building these interventionist structures, approaches differ:
• Is it primarily for RGA members who are shop stewards, elected trade unionists or trade union employees, or is it basically an organisation of all party members in a particular workplace or trade union?
• is the task for these structures only to support traditional trade union activities or are they also structures to organise the dissemination of party policy in work places and trade unions?
• Here, like in other areas, there is an evident gap between adoption of a decision and the implementation of that same decision.
The reason that some narrow conceptions of party work exist in broad layers of the party is because of very limited working class mobilisation over the last 15-20 years. This in turn resulted in no organised left wing activities at a grassroots level in the trade unions.
RGA and other left wing workers were divided into two main groups: the majority who ignored the trade unions as a field of activity and the minority who ended up in elected positions or as employees of the unions. While remaining socialists of conviction they were not free of influence from bureaucratic ways of working. At the same time the layer of young activists wanting to organise trade union activity got most of their experience from organisations of students and young workers where they held leadership responsibility. Another informal group around some party staff members has developed quite another party-building strategy, focusing on a professional communication strategy for the parliamentary work and tending to ignore party members as the most important lever for party decision making, for promoting party policy and for mobilisations. This, too, is a result of decades of left wing activities that are not rooted in mass movements, but focussed on parliamentary activity and media debates.
The first reactions of the RGA to the economic crisis were weak and ambiguous. On the issue of bank saving support packages there was no doubt. The RGA clearly opposed these, and the thrust of the demands was that the rich must bear the burden of the crisis.
On the other hand the RGA explanation of the crisis focussed on greed and a financial sector out of control. Likewise, most of the proposals from MPs for political responses to the crisis were kept inside the framework of a Keynesian understanding.
Left wing forces, among them SAP members, criticized this and succeeded in changing party analysis of the crisis, but are still struggling with the task of developing anticapitalist political answers that can mobilise the working class and its allies.
The most unfortunate result of many years of focusing on parliamentary activity is the development of a right wing tendency in the group of RGA councillors in Copenhagen. The local council system in Copenhagen, capital of Denmark, differs from most other municipal councils in Denmark. In most cities, between 15 and 31 councillors are elected every four years, and they in turn elect one mayor.
In Copenhagen the council elects a kind of “prime mayor” plus 5 or 6 other mayors. Each Copenhagen mayor has special administrative responsibilities: schools, social welfare, environmental issues, etc. They are elected by the council proportionally to the number of councillors from each party. The RGA is the third largest party in Copenhagen and is entitled to one mayor.
Without openly confronting the RGA parliamentary principle of supporting all progressive measures and opposing any drawbacks, the RGA mayor and the group of councillors have defined their task as to have influence and get results, even results in the sense of the lesser evil. They argue that the RGA must show that “we” can manage the Copenhagen economy to the benefit of the people, disregarding the constraints not only of capitalism but also the narrow government limits to local decision making. This parliamentary strategy pushes them towards the lesser-evil policy.
This has led to the RGA supporting cutbacks of municipal administration workers and day care centres with the result that parents and workers demonstrated against a council budget deal that the RGA supported. Fortunately, faced with the demonstrations, the RGA backtracked and pulled out of the political deal a week before local elections. The consequence was that the RGA grew in standing in the opinions polls after losing support for weeks.
The economic crisis and the perspective of a new government
If the Social Democratic Party and the Socialist People’s Party form a coalition government after the next election, as expected, it will be the first time in Danish history (apart from the exceptional post World 66 New Parties of the Left War II circumstances) that a party to the left of social democracy is part of a government.
For a large section of the working class this will raise hopes for changes and improvements in living standards and public services.
But with two reformist parties governing in the middle of a severe economic crisis they are bound to be disappointed by the policies of these two parties if nothing else happens outside parliament.
The tasks of an anticapitalist party in that situation are at least threefold:
• to campaign in trade unions, student organisations, environmental movements, local communities and other movements to place demands on the two parties, to mobilise popular pressure on a new government, behind demands for a policy of social and ecological improvements and of solidarity
• to use the parliamentary platform to transmit this pressure from the working class and its allies and make it difficult for the two reformist parties to collaborate to the right
• to present and make propaganda for those anticapitalist solutions to the economic and ecological crisis that the new government refuse to implement in the name of class collaboration.
These tasks have not been totally clear to the majority of the RGA membership or to the majority of its leadership, and they still are not, though texts that point in this direction were adopted at the latest National Conference.
Tendencies to accommodate to the reformist parties have evolved. Leaders argue that it is paramount that the voters see us as part of the new majority – or else they will not vote for us. Sometimes they argue that we must not be seen as responsible for bringing down a Social Democratic Party/Socialist People’s Party government. In itself this is not wrong, but some leaders have argued against attempts to promote the anticapitalist policies of the RGA, and some leaders have been ambiguous in their defence of the traditional RGA parliamentary principles, focusing instead on the necessity to avoid the fall of reformist party government.
These tendencies in a part of the leadership are also supported by sections of the party youth. This is a generation that has only been politically active under the reign of an openly bourgeois government.
They have never experienced a Social Democratic Party led government. This makes them naiÅNve towards what improvements the reformists will implement by themselves without any extraparliamentary pressure. They tend to focus on the pressure that RGA MPs can bring to bear on a new government by way of clever negotiation techniques and refusal to vote for government proposals.
They don’t realise that a Social Democratic Party/Socialist People’s Party government will have no problems in making parliamentary deals with the right, if the two parties think they can do this without being punished by their members, the trade unions and the voters.
If a Social Democratic Party/Socialist People’s Party government takes power, enormous possibilities will exist for the RGA. We may get the chance of being part of social and political mobilisations in support of demands for a new government. At the same time we will get the opportunity to make the difference between reformism and anti-capitalism visible to new layers of the working class and of the youth. The RGA can help this education process both by being at the forefront of all movements when Social Democratic and Socialist People’s Party-leaders retreat and by presenting an anticapitalist program of action that combines day-to-day demands of the working class with radical reforms that break with the framework of capitalism.
But such a situation also presents dangers. The pressure of adaptation will be great, for example if the RGA wishes to avoid political responsibility for the fall of a Social-Democratic government, no matter what the reasons.
Taking into the consideration the non-militant character of the membership and the lack of political education it would be irresponsible to disregard the risk of adaptation to reformism, like the majority of the Copenhagen local councillors. This would seriously compromise the hitherto parliamentary principle of the RGA making it part of the failure of a reformist government and part of the disappointment and disillusion instead of a pole of attraction for workers and youth who are disappointed by the Social Democratic Party and the Socialist People’s Party.
Debates are going on about these issues. After the May 2010 National Conference the balance is tipping towards the perspective of social mobilisation, against adaptation and for anti-capitalism. The final outcome will depend both of the level of struggles and the political debates inside the RGA.
Evolving SAP perspective for the RGA
The SAP was one of the founding parties of the RGA. SAP members have been actively building the RGA ever since its foundation. In that way SAP has been a part of the life and development of the RGA.
Consequently SAP has developed its analysis of the RGA and its strategy and tactics over the years. This has been done openly in resolutions from National Conferences and the National Leadership 68 New Parties of the Left of the SAP, even in the weekly political statements from the Executive Committee of SAP.
At the time of the creation of the RGA, the SAP supported the model of an electoral collaboration that could also develop common campaign activities and action. We insisted on special rights for the founding parties, and we were reluctant to give these up. We were afraid of losing control and being caught in a right-wing drift of the new organisation. In addition, veto rights for the founding parties could help avoid a split with the CP which felt especially insecure among its new partners.
When the numbers of non-aligned members grew, they naturally insisted in establishing the RGA as an ordinary member-led organisation. They were supported by the Left Socialist Party, and finally the SAP and the CP accepted this.
This development, combined with parliamentary representation, forced the RGA to take positions on more and more issues. The demand for a strategic political program began to appear.
Members of SAP engaged in the debates on what political positions to take – and in the work of developing a strategic program.
But all the time we stressed that the RGA should not adapt strategic positions that might jeopardise the unity of the existing forces. For a long period we worked from the perspective of preserving such a broad unity and at the same time working for a revolutionary regroupment inside the RGA– with parts of the Left Socialist Party in our mind. At the same time we gradually tried to introduce the notion of the RGA as a mobilising force in social struggles and movements.
In 1999 a National Conference of the SAP took stock of the reality that the RGA now was a political party in the ordinary Danish sense of that word. A resolution stated that “Red-Green Alliance is not a revolutionary party in the classical Leninist sense (based on democratic centralism, with a developed program for a socialist revolution, etc.), and we do not consider it desirable to try to enforce a development in this direction. Neither the subjective, nor the objective conditions for such a development are present at the moment.” But signifying a new SAP-perspective we wrote: “At this stage of development of the Red-Green Alliance we can merely note that there is no pre-set limit as to how far the Red-Green Alliance might develop towards an actual revolutionary party. But, on the other hand, the work of SAP inside the Red-Green Alliance has such a policy as its guiding line.” As a consequence of this 1999 analysis we decided to channel future public political activities through the RGA and through the youth organisation collaborating with the RGA. This meant that the SAP from then on has not engaged as a party in organising demonstrations, that we have not organised interventions of the SAP in unions and social movements and that only in exceptional circumstances have we distributed leaflets independently of the RGA.
This kind of work we have done, if at all possible, as members of the RGA.
The SAP, nevertheless, has continued to publish a monthly magazine, to organise our annual public educational seminar and the occasional public meetings.
In 2006 we confirmed and consolidated this perspective for our work in the RGA and even took it a bit further. In a National Conference resolution we wrote: “The RGA can therefore be the necessary organised socialist force in today’s struggles, in tomorrow’s struggles and in the socialist revolution; the organisation that can meet the tasks we have described in this text. This is what we wish to build Enhedslisten as, this is what we want Enhedslisten to become, and this is what we need!” We analysed the weak points of the RGA and the qualities that the SAP can contribute, and we set ourselves the task of introducing “more class, more struggle, more party” into the RGA, that is developing it into a class struggle party.
The fundamental task of the SAP was defined as helping build the RGA (and the youth organisation SUF) in all aspects. The RGA is “our party”, and the SAP is a necessary tool for organising our effort in building the RGA – especially necessary and useful because of our historic tradition, our political and practical experiences and our membership of the Fourth International.
12 January 2011
Michael Voss is a member of the Red-Green Alliance and of the SAP (Socialist Workers’ Party, Danish section of the Fourth International). As a representative of the SAP, he participated in the negotiations that led to the establishment of the RGA. From 1995 to 2006, he worked as a journalist and press officer for the parliamentary group of the RGA. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the SAP.