In January, Fabien Engelmann, secretary of the Confédération générale du travail's (General Confederation of Labour - CGT) union representing workers in the Nilvange town hall, announced that he would be standing as a candidate of the far-right Front National (National Front-FN). The announcement has rocked not only the CGT but also the far-left parties Lutte Oevriere (Workers Struggle – LO) and the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (New Anticapitalist Party – NPA), as Engelmann was a former candidate for both parties in the 2007 and 2010 elections.
The CGT responded on January 16, by initiating a vote for a new secretary in the local union, which Engelmann won overwhelming, 20 votes to 3. The CGT then gave the members an ultimatum, remove Engelmann and elect a new Secretary, or they would suspend the local union. In a joint statement, the CGT’s Public Service Federation and the Moselle Department explaining the suspension of Engelmann, these were:
Firstly, that Engelmann as a CGT militant was being a propagandist for ideas that run against the fundamental values and directions of the CGT
Secondly that Engelmann sort to use the CGT political purposes.
In its statement explaining the suspension of the local unions the Departmental Union and Public Sector Federation explained that it would remain suspended until it could be re-established on a basis consistent with the values of the CGT.
Engelmann in his public statements has explained his transition from a militant of the far-left, to a militant of the far right in terms of immigration and defence of secularism. In an interview with the website Reposte Laique (Secular Response) that he left the NPA along with other members in his branch, after the regional elections, as a consequence of the NPA standing a veiled candidate (Former NPA candidate Ilham Moussaid, wore the Hijab). Engelmann has explained his decision to join the FN on the basis that Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen is the only one “defending secularism” in France, and that he could not support the lefts support for immigration to France and support for legalisation of workers without papers in a time of high unemployment.
In response to Engelmann’s announcement both LO and the NPA have issued statements. The NPA organisation in Mosselle statement condemned the racism not only of FN, but of President Sarkozy, which legitimises FN’s policies, that “wrongly blames immigration for the majority of society’s ills. The statement also rejected the notion that FN is a defender of secularism, instead stating that the FN only targets the supposed “Islamisation of France”, which “serious studies prove is only a phantasm”, while ignoring the real privileges of other religions, while the FN allows in its organisation self acknowledged Catholic activists who have threatened doctors who provide abortions. Finally the NPA statement explains that the FN economic policies such lower corporate taxes, limiting the right to strike, increasing the defence budget while lowering the education budget, are in contradiction to the demands of the labour movement”. The LO statement described both Le Pens (Marine, and Jean-Marie, Marine’s Father and the founder of the FN) as middle class and their orientation to the working class is to shift workers anger towards immigrants, the poor and the most oppressed and away from the middle class and capitalists who are for the disaster of the crisis and the drama of unemployment”.
FN have indicated that they will launch a case in the European Court of Human Rights to seek his readmission. In 2007, Bredin Prat who was expelled from the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen for being a member of the British National Party , launched a similar case in the ECHR. In that case the ECHR found under clause 11 of the European Convention to Protect Human Rights, which protects the right of freedom of assembly, that unions have the right to determine who can be a member. Engelmann’s lawyer has indicated that their argument will be focused on clause 9 and 10 which protect freedom of expression.
Irrespective of any court ruling on the legality of Engelmann’s suspension, the FN will attempt to paint Engelmann as a victim, who has had his democratic rights impinged. Their efforts are helped by CGT regional official Denis Pesce’s acknowledgement to Free Actualité, that members of the union had wanted to keep Engelmann as secretary as they felt that he was “doing a good job”. Engelmann has said that in the coming week’s more CGT members will come out as FN members. Given the social crisis in France it is likely that there are a number of members who will at least be FN sympathisers, particularly as Pesce has acknowledged that union has not done in enough to combat racist ideas. While more members coming out will add to the FN publicity, it will create environment in which the ideas can be combated head on through an ideological struggle. Further attempts to win the battle against racism in the CGT via suppression can only drive the ideas underground and risk giving them the ring of truth by making martyrs of its advocates, making it all the more difficult to combat the ideas.
Sunday, February 27, 2011
Saturday, February 26, 2011
23 February 2011
The first general strike of this year is happening today with Greek protesters announcing to stay at Syntagma Square “until the government of Papandreou has gone”. However, the Prime Minister is seeing the strike with a certain distance, after meeting in Germany with Merkel’s and other EU leaders.
Transports and public services are apparently almost totally interrupted, whilst the a joint rally organized by the civil servants’ union ADEDY and GSEE, representing the general confederation of trade unions, with more than 250 000 people is taking place in the center of the city. A march has started at 11 a.m. from Pedion tou Areos Park until the Parliament.
The general strike against the imposed austerity measures comes a day after the parliament had pushed through legislation an extensive liberalisation of a number of professions, including lawyers, architects, engineers and notaries, part of legislation demanded by the EU-IMF-ECB troika in exchange for the rescue plan.
With the world’s attention turned to North Africa, the Eurozone keeps analyzing the current economic recovery and the evolution of stock markets, and the lead to threats of looming inflation. Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, visiting Angela Merkel in Berlin this week as part of a pre-summit tour of EU leaders, urged Merkel to consider more flexibility in dealing with the debt crisis and thanked Angela personally “thank you very much for what you have done, your support and your friendship”, he declared yesterday.
Seeming to be very calm, but watchful, before March’s summit, Merkel’s added, in a press conference, that “Ireland's bail-out terms covered a seven-year period, while Greece's was just three. It's one point that's on the table". While admitting that “Greece has started to put its house in order”, she warned that “We have been watching this with satisfaction because we know that this requires political audacity. I believe that there are still some more things for Greece to do and the more decisive that it is in following the necessary policies, the more Germany will believe that it can succeed.", she said.
Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Lee Sustar reports from Madison on the growing union struggle against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his attempt to crush public-sector unions.
February 18, 2011
WISCONSIN LABOR was gearing up for its fourth consecutive daily rally--and biggest yet--February 18 after sit-ins by workers and students and stalling tactics by state senate Democrats stopped a vote on devastating anti-union legislation pushed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
It was difficult to estimate the size of the protest on Thursday, February 17, but it was clearly larger than previous protests, which began with a 20,000-person demonstration on Tuesday, and a 30,000-strong protest the following day.
The numbers on Thursday were swelled by thousands of teachers--members of the Wisconsin Education Association Council who followed their union leaders' call to skip work and join the protest. Numerous school districts around the state decided to shut down altogether on February 17 and 18 as a result.
The Wisconsin's teachers' sick-ins are one of the largest union job actions in years--and a long overdue show of labor's muscle. But the unprecedented mobilization is understood everywhere as an appropriate response to Walker's plan to slash state workers' pay and benefits--and bust public-sector unions.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
MUCH OF the media coverage of events on Thursday focused on the boycott of the psenate session by Democrats, which denied Walker and the Republicans the quorum they needed to conduct business. According to news reports, the Democrats traveled out of state so that Wisconsin state troopers couldn't be sent after them to bring them back to the senate chambers and force a vote.
But Democratic state Sen. Chris Larson's exit from the Capitol was assisted by dozens of protesters who blocked his office with a sit-in midday February 17. Earlier, that same group--teachers, students, some building trades workers--scuffled repeatedly with Republican state senators and their staffers for two hours as they tried to reach the senate chambers through a nearby back staircase.
"It was the most militant action I've been involved in for a long time," said Shaun Harkin, a Chicago-based socialist and activist. "The woman leading began chanting, 'This is class war.' The guy next to me said, 'She's a kindergarten teacher.' We locked arms and sang, 'Solidarity Forever.'"
The sit-in outside Larson's office was a preview of a much bigger action a couple hours later outside the senate chambers. Although word had circulated that the Senate Democrats were safely out of state, protesters weren't taking any chances.
Anticipating the possibility that state troopers could seize control of an elevator located near a side entrance to the chamber, hundreds of students from the University of Wisconsin and area high schools and middle schools jammed the area. A large man in a United Steelworkers jacket made a point of putting himself between the elevator and the door--and got a large cheer of appreciation from those nearby.
At the same time, those blocking the main senate chamber entrance led the thousands of people in the Capitol in chants--"This is what democracy looks like!" "People power" and "Union power." With protesters covering the Capitol floor and all three circular balconies, the chants at times made normal conversation impossible.
Unlike the outdoor noon rally organized by union officials, the multi-level indoor occupation and protest had no organized speakers. Nevertheless, the crowd communicated through signs, banners and cheers.
The loudest roar came, like the previous day, when members of the Wisconsin Professional Fire Fighters Association marched through the rotunda. Another big hit was a sign carried by a bearded man in his 20s that read: "I Went to Iraq but I Came Home to Egypt." There were many other signs with the same theme, such as "Walker, Pharaoh of the Midwest," and depictions of Walker alongside ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak.
To sustain the sit-in outside the Senate chambers, building trades workers brought in water, hot dogs, fruit and Oreo cookies, which were a big hit with a group of 14-year-old middle school students who joined the sit-in near an entry hall. "My mom is a teacher, so she really encourages this," said Julian Halsy-Milhaupt, an 8th grader at O'Keeffe Elementary School in Madison.
Those participating in the sit-in were prepared to physically prevent the senate from conducting business. Instead, Democrats members, by denying the senate a quorum and crossing state lines to avoid being forcibly brought to the legislative chambers, prevented Walker from muscling through a "budget repair bill" that would strip public-sector workers of the right to bargain collectively over anything other than wages.
Walker's bill would also end the automatic payment of union dues and compel unions to hold votes each year to recertify their status as bargaining units. The legislation would also force public employees to pay 12.6 percent of their health insurance costs, and contribute 5.8 percent of their paychecks toward their pensions.
That would slash take-home pay, say workers. "It sounds like it will be a minimum of 20 percent of our wages," said Dick Dahnert, a member of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 655 and a worker in the Jefferson County Highway Department.
Dahnert scoffed at Walker's claim--which has become the justification for attacking public-sector workers not only in Wisconsin, but around the country--that they have an easy, and early, retirement at taxpayers' expense. "The reality is that none of us can afford to retire early," Danhert said. "We'd be paying 100 percent of our insurance. Retiring early is not an option."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
THE STAKES in Walker's war on labor are clear to both sides. If he wins, he'll set an example for Republican governors and legislatures out to break public-sector unions in Ohio and Iowa. He'll also make it easier for Democratic governors, like Jerry Brown of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York, to appear more reasonable as they press their own demands that public-sector workers suffer cuts in wages, pensions and jobs.
The difference is that Democrats will leave public-sector unions mostly intact--not because they're pro-worker, but because they want labor's fundraising and get-out-the-vote operations at election time.
Because Walker's plan poses a grave threat to the very existence of public-sector unions, top labor officials are being drawn into the fight.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten met with University of Wisconsin graduate employees who are members of her union the night of February 18. (Ironically, Weingarten came to Wisconsin fresh from a government-sponsored labor-management collaboration conference in Denver, at which she praised recent concessionary contracts as the way forward.) AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was reportedly set to speak at the February 18 rally at the Capitol.
But Trumka and Weingarten aren't coming to Madison to lead the movement so much as to catch up to it. Given the danger to labor posed by Walker's program, international union leaders should have joined their Wisconsin affiliates from the beginning in calling on union members far and wide to converge on the state in a show of solidarity. However, labor's long decline has left union officials with a defeatist mindset, and they were slow to act.
But the dramatic mobilization of rank-and-file union members, students and nonunion working people across Wisconsin has transformed the situation in a matter of days.
Anyone who participates in the rallies is struck by how the unions see themselves as fighting on behalf of the entire working class. And there is a palpable sense from nonunion workers and students that the organized working class has the power to hold the line against employers and politicians who are determined to carry out a permanent and deep cut in the standard of living of working people.
In other words, the one-sided class war is over. Unions in Wisconsin are fighting back--and they're doing so across union lines that have traditionally divided and weakened them. Around the Capitol, it's common to hear conversations from veteran unionists that they'd never seen anything like this from the labor movement--and they couldn't be happier.
But the struggle is far from over--and despite the powerful mobilizations, victory is by no means assured in Wisconsin. Walker has a Republican majority in both houses of the legislature to rely on if he can get a vote. "If this passes, it's going to be nationwide" said Dahnert, the highway worker. "You're going to see the quality of life go way down."
Asked if that means workers have to be prepared to escalate their action, he said: "I believe that's the only choice we have."
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Edge of Sports
Less than two weeks ago, the Green Bay Packers -- the only fan-owned, non-profit franchise in major American sports -- won the Super Bowl, bringing the Lombardi trophy back to Wisconsin. But now, past and present members of the “People’s Team” are girding up for one more fight and this time, it’s against their own Governor, Scott Walker.
Walker, after the Super Bowl victory, bathed himself sensuously in the team’s triumph, declaring at a public ceremony that February was now Packers Month. He oozed praise for the franchise named in honor of the state's packing workers. But just days later, the Governor offered cutbacks, contempt, and even the threat of violence for actual state workers.
Walker has unveiled plans to strip all public workers of collective bargaining rights and dramatically slash the wages and health benefits of every nurse, teacher and state employee. Then, Walker proclaimed that resistance to these moves would be met with a response from the Wisconsin National Guard. Seriously.
Yes, in advance of any debate over his proposal, Governor Walker put the National Guard on alert by saying that the guard is "prepared" for "whatever the governor, their commander-in-chief, might call for.” Considering that the state of Wisconsin hasn’t called in the National Guard since 1886, these bizarre threats did more than raise eyebrows. They provoked rage.
Robin Eckstein, a former Wisconsin National Guard member, told the Huffington Post, "Maybe the new governor doesn't understand yet - but the National Guard is not his own personal intimidation force to be mobilized to quash political dissent. The Guard is to be used in case of true emergencies and disasters, to help the people of Wisconsin, not to bully political opponents."
Already this week, as many as 100,000 people have marched at various protests around the state with signs that reflect the current moment like "If Egypt Can Have Democracy, Why Can't Wisconsin?,” “We Want Governors Not Dictators," and the pithy “Hosni Walker,"
But also intriguing is the intervention from past and present members of the Super Bowl Champs. Current players Brady Poppinga and Jason Spitz and former Packers Curtis Fuller, Chris Jacke, Charles Jordan, Bob Long and Steve Okoniewski issued the following statement:
"We know that it is teamwork on and off the field that makes the Packers and Wisconsin great. As a publicly owned team we wouldn't have been able to win the Super Bowl without the support of our fans. It is the same dedication of our public workers every day that makes Wisconsin run. They are the teachers, nurses and child care workers who take care of us and our families. But now in an unprecedented political attack Governor Walker is trying to take away their right to have a voice and bargain at work. The right to negotiate wages and benefits is a fundamental underpinning of our middle class. When workers join together it serves as a check on corporate power and helps ALL workers by raising community standards. Wisconsin's long standing tradition of allowing public sector workers to have a voice on the job has worked for the state since the 1930s. It has created greater consistency in the relationship between labor and management and a shared approach to public work. These public workers are Wisconsin's champions every single day and we urge the Governor and the State Legislature to not take away their rights."
The players who signed on don’t have quite as high a profile as Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers, but give it time. Rodgers is the Packers union representative in negotiations with the NFL, and on Tuesday the players union issued their own statement in support of state workers, writing, "The NFL Players Association will always support efforts protecting a worker's right to join a union and collectively bargain. Today, the NFLPA stands in solidarity with its organized labor brothers and sisters in Wisconsin."
The support of the Packers players hasn’t been lost on those marching in the streets. Aisha Robertson, a public school teacher from Madison, told me, “It’s great to see Packers join the fight against Walker. Their statement of support shows they stand with us. It gives us inspiration and courage to go and fight peacefully for our most basic rights.”
Walker no doubt envisioned conflict when he rolled out his plan to roll over the workers of Wisconsin. But I don’t think he foresaw having to go toe-to-toe with the Green Bay Packers. As we learned in Egypt, envisioning unforeseen consequences is never an autocrat's strong suit. As we’re learning in Wisconsin, fighting austerity is not an Egyptian issue or a Middle Eastern issue -- it’s a political reality of the 21st century world. And as Scott Walker is learning, messing with cheeseheads can be hazardous to your political health.
[Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is posted by permission]
Sunday, February 20, 2011
Lee Sustar reports from Madison on the inspiring mobilization to stop the most draconian anti-union legislation in decades from being imposed in Wisconsin.
February 17, 2011
WISCONSIN UNIONS are planning a mass rally in the state capital of Madison for the third consecutive day February 17, as part of an escalating struggle to stop Republican Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to ram through sweeping anti-union legislation.
Union leaders urged their members--and all Wisconsin citizens--to join the planned action. At a press conference, Wisconsin Education Association Council President Mary Bell called on all 98,000 members of the teachers' union to converge on Madison, both on Thursday and Friday.
The latest rally would come a day after an estimated 30,000 workers and their supporters surrounded the Capitol. At least 20,000 people protested the day before that.
Madison public schools closed down Wednesday because teachers failed to show up for work and high school students had walked out the previous day. At least 15 school districts across the state announced that they would close on Thursday.
The February 16 rally was a raucous and defiant demonstration of working-class anger. The most visible contingent was organized by members of Madison Teachers Inc., whose sick-in forced the shutdown of the city school district.
The evening rally at 5 p.m. was bigger still, as many who stayed in the area for the midday protest returned, joined by thousands more who took part in the demonstration for the first time. Several unions were organizing members to join University of Wisconsin students and activists to stay in the Capitol overnight.
References to the revolution in Egypt were commonplace in Madison yesterday, with homemade placards comparing Walker to the deposed strongman Hosni Mubarak.
The mood of the protesters was summed up by Dane County highway worker Arlyn Halborson, a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). He got one of the biggest cheers of the afternoon rally when he said of Walker's proposal: "This isn't a financial decision. It's a political decision to suppress the working class and their rights away while rewarding Corporate America."
Walker called a special session of the state legislature to push through a so-called "budget repair bill" that would force public employees to pay 12.6 percent of their health insurance costs, and contribute 5.8 percent of their paychecks toward their pension.
But the real heart of the legislation is an all-out assault on public-sector unions. Walker wants to strip unions of the right to bargain over anything but wages. The bill would also end the automatic deduction of union dues from workers' paychecks, potentially crippling unions financially. Unions would also have to re-certify their status as a bargaining unit each year, opening the way for the state to withdraw recognition from unions over time.
On top of this, Walker has told state unions that the expired contracts they have been working under won't be extended past March 13--a threat that the governor will impose his own terms or even withdraw union recognition as of that date.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
THE SPIRITED rally on the Capitol steps turned into an unchallenged occupation of the state Capitol as thousands of workers streamed into the building, chanting "Kill the bill." Only a handful of state troopers were on hand to monitor the demonstration.
The protesters' march into the Capitol building was led by the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin (PFFW), an affiliate of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Although firefighters are exempted from Walker's proposed anti-union legislation, they have nevertheless mobilized members across the state to stop this union-busting attack, said PFFW President Mahlon Mitchell, who last month became the first African American to hold that office.
"We could have stayed idly back--taken a couple of steps back, and say, 'Let them fight it,'" said in a speech. "'That's their business. Let's stay out of their backyard.' But we didn't do that. Because when firefighters and police see an emergency, what do we do? We respond. And when firefighters see a burning building and everybody's running out, where do we go?" The crowd chanted in response, "In! In! In!"
"Our house is burning down, ladies and gentlemen," Mitchell continued. "And we're here to lead the charge. We're going to go in first. And if that house burns down, we will be right here beside you to help you rebuild that house," he concluded as cheers nearly drowned out his words.
Such messages of solidarity struck a chord with workers like Abe McCoy, a member of Ironworkers Local 2 in Milwaukee. He said:
Walker is just another bought-and-paid-for pawn. The money owns him, the money directs him, and the money set this bill up. You don't think they just put this together last month, do you? It's been on the shelf for a long time. They created this economic climate in which they can get it through. Now they're going to try to bust the unions and make serfs out of all of us.
As a private-sector worker, McCoy's union isn't targeted by Walker's proposals. But if the law goes through, he said, unions everywhere will be in the crosshairs next. "As soon as they get through with them, they're going to come after us, the 8 percent of us in the population"--workers in the private sector who belong to unions.
McCoy's fellow member of Local 2, Shane Bakken, made a similar point:
This bill isn't at all about a budget fix. This is simply about trying to stamp out unions and advance the corporations. If this was just about budgets, why didn't it stop at demanding concessions on benefits? Why is it going into destroying collective bargaining? Why are they talking about right-to-work? This is just about stamping out unions for profit. It's that simple.
Michelle Rue-Miller, president of AFSCME Local 3798, which represents workers in the Jefferson County courthouse, said the economic hit from Walker's health care and pension proposals would be devastating, too:
It would cause some people to lose their homes. There's no cushy retirement in Wisconsin. Yes, we have a pension plan, and it gets paid, and that's great. However, we take lower wages. We're sacrificing now so we have a future when we retire. We don't have Social Security. This is all we'll have.
But if Walker thought unions would fold under pressure, the opposite has happened, Rue-Miller said. "This won't stop today," she said of the rally. "All they've done is brought us together--they've proved what solidarity is."
It may not be surprising that veteran trade unionists like McCoy, Bakken and Rue-Miller are fighting mad at an attack on decades of organized labor's achievements in Wisconsin. But adding to the energy of the protests were thousands of high school students from in and around Madison, who came out to support their teachers and their parents.
"We are supporting our teachers and parents who are city workers and teachers," said Ali Vandelune, a student at Monona Grove High School who participated in a walkout of 200 students that joined the protest. She rejected the idea that young people aren't interested in unions. What happens to organized labor, she said, "affects us, because this is affecting our parents."
When the midday rally swarmed into the Capitol building, it was a multiracial group of high school students who took the lead in jamming the hallway to Walker's office door, chanting, "Come out Walker!" and "Walker, escucha, estamos en la lucha" (Listen, Walker, we're in the fight)--adapting a chant widely used in the immigrant rights movement in recent years.
The diversity on display was proudly noted by many protesters. "One point I think deserves to be emphasized is how demographically broad everything is," said Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin and member of the graduate employees union, the Teaching Assistants Association (TAA).
TAA members stayed in a Capitol hearing room all night February 15 in an effort to keep legislative hearings going and block progress on Walker's bill. "It was amazing being in the Capitol after midnight last night with not only dozens of students, but also dozens of union workers from around the state who were going to stay as late as it took to get their two minutes of speaking time," Wrigley-Field said. "The testimony was absolutely riveting. Then, of course, today, we had the incredible high school students from Milwaukee, Racine and everywhere."
And when news came of an attempt to ram through the law in a midnight session, the TAA again mobilized to camp out in the state Capitol building overnight.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
PUBLIC-SECTOR union leaders have little choice but to take a stand--Walker's proposals could literally bust their unions. And if Walker's utter hostility to labor wasn't clear enough, the governor also announced on February 11 that he would ask the National Guard to make contingency plans in case of strikes by public-sector workers.
Several labor officials who addressed the rally focused on a simple demand--that Walker sit down and talk to unions, rather than try to steamroller them. Brad Lutes, a member of a local affiliate of the Wisconsin Education Association and an elementary physical education and health teacher in Sun Prairie, near Madison, led the crowd in chants of "negotiate, not legislate."
Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt also said in an interview that labor's objective with the protest was to pressure Walker to negotiate. Earlier, speaking to the thousands of union members and supporters, Neuenfeldt sounded the basic theme of solidarity that motivated workers to turn out from across the state.
Those appeals to working-class unity got the loudest cheers of the day. "In Wisconsin, we've come together," Neuenfeldt said. "Members of the public sector, members of the industrial sector, members of the building trades, health care. All aspects of the economy are coming together. And why? Because this is Wisconsin, and our history runs deeps. We understand in Wisconsin that when you do an injury to one," he said, pausing as the crowd joined him in completing the old labor motto, "you do an injury to all."
Those sentiments were shared by Yolanda Pillsbury, a production worker at the John Deere plant in Horicon, Wis., and member of International Association of Machinists Local Lodge 873.
"If this goes to the private sector, we will lose our bargaining rights, benefits and won't be able to bargain collectively," she said. "I have only worked at John Deere for 13 years, but I have been a union member for 30. It hurts us greatly if we don't have a voice--our collective bargaining."
It's still possible that labor's lobbyists could peel off enough Republican votes in the state senate to stop Walker's plan. But if the union-busting law does go through, a number of workers on the demonstration said they're prepared to up the ante with further action.
As one high school student protester's sign put it, "Class, meet your new teacher--the National Guard."
Whoever wins this round, it's clear that labor's battle with Walker--the "Mubarak of the Midwest," as one protester's button put it--will continue.
And this struggle has also shed light on the growing frustration and anger of working people as U.S. politics veers to the right in a bipartisan austerity campaign. If anyone thinks the Tea Party doctrine of budget-slashing and union-busting holds sway in Middle America, they should take a closer look at the diverse, multi-generational crowd that mobilized on a few days' notice to take a stand for workers rights.
It's an example that union members--and all working people--should follow.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Saturday, February 19, 2011
Edge of Sports
There is no form of entertainment in this country more popular than football, and there is no one, save Barack Obama, being scrutinized more closely these days than DeMaurice Smith. Smith heads the National Football League's Players Association—a union that’s being threatened with being locked out unless players give back substantial amounts in wages and agree to lengthen the season to eighteen games. NFL players make large sums of money but risk a lifetime of physical debilitation and the average career lasts only three and a half years. Owners are banking on the fact that players, with their short window to make their money, will cave to every demand. Smith is banking on something bigger: a sense of history, sacrifice and community that's greater than sports.
I spoke with Smith last Friday, the day after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell walked away from the table during negotiations. I asked Smith, on a scale of one to ten, whether he felt there would be a lockout. “On a scale of one to ten, it's still fourteen," he said. "We’re preparing our guys for the worst, we’re hoping for the best. I’m going to keep negotiating. We’ve got our guys on standby right now to be virtually anywhere in the country whenever they want to talk. That’s the way we’re going to roll. I’ve told them that we’re going to negotiate day and night until we get it done, but it takes two.”
Smith is negotiating with—or trying to negotiate with—some of the most powerful, politically connected corporate actors in the United States. Their reach truly inspires awe. When the NFLPA produced a television ad in an effort to garner fan support, the networks first agreed and then refused to air it, presumably after pressure exerted by the league. DeMaurice Smith deemed the censorship “stunning.”
You might think, faced with such power, this would make him pessimistic about the prospects for players, but Smith finds himself inspired by events far removed from the world of football.
“You know,” he said, “we watched things unfold in a far-off country where a lot of the discussion preceding the protests was purely social media, people connecting. We have an ability to get our ‘let us play’ ad out. We know that anybody listening can type in ‘let us play’ and that ad will pop up and, frankly, if networks want to make a decision to boycott us, keep us off, those are the kind of things that get me fired up and let me know that I’m on the right side of right.”
The events in Egypt clearly put wind in Smith’s sails. And why not? After all, Roger Goodell seems much less intimidating when compared to Hosni Mubarak. As Smith said, “There are some socially and politically significant things occurring in the world that don’t have anything to do with the final score. So the other day I was with [Baltimore Ravens player] Dominique Foxworth, and he says, ‘I’ve just been glued to what’s been going on in Egypt and the way in which ordinary people are taking a stand against what they feel is oppression.’ And let’s get it clear, those folks are risking everything to take ownership of what their lives are going to look like. This is also Black History Month. That’s the time to remember and reflect that people across the generations have historically taken stands and been willing to risk everything for causes that they deem are important. The Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence knew that if they lost, they had signed their own death warrants with their names on that document. Well, that’s the spirit of our country and I dig it. And no, I don’t want to equate what [the NFLPA] is doing on that scale, but what I’ve asked our players to do is to recognize their place in history in this fight for a new collective bargaining agreement…. You have to realize that there is a solid line between players like Jack Youngblood, Deacon Jones, Boomer Esiason, Reggie White, Freeman McNeil on to players today like Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Brian Dawkins and those who are leaders in this fight.”
There is a social movement unionism aspect to how Smith is running this negotiation that stands apart from any sports labor conflict we’ve seen since the days of Curt Flood. The NFLPA had taken part in a press conference the previous day with the organization American Rights at Work and low-wage stadium workers in Detroit who would find themselves locked out if there are no games this fall. I asked Smith if this was aimed at placing pressure on Goodell and the owners by pointing out the thousands of workers who would be hurt by a lockout.
“I don’t know if it places pressure on him or not, whether it places pressure on the owners or not, and frankly, I don’t care. This is what we do. The business of football means that there’s over 150 thousand people who work in [businesses connected to game day during the season.] Whether it is car services, food services, trash removal, the moving of people to and from the game, the money in the bars and the restaurants, the hotels… this is the business of our business. So if you draw a circle around football it’s a $9 billion entity inside the circle. When you draw the concentric circle outside of football it’s got to be in the $20 to $30 billion range. So to say that we can live, work and operate in a world where we can intellectually or morally divorce ourselves from everything that’s going on outside of our circle, you can’t, you simply can’t.”
Smith’s pleasure reading of choice these days is also interesting: Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, by Taylor Branch. Branch’s book focuses on the small, unsung struggles that made up the fabric of the civil rights movement. I heard Branch’s brilliant text in Smith's closing comments to me, a plea to owners who might be less rapacious than Goodell and the hardliners who are itching for a fight. “I just continue to believe, whether it’s the arc of history or the arc of moral justice, that more people than not want to do what’s right. And I know for a fact that there are owner families out there who are inextricably tied to their communities. You don’t have to look much further than Green Bay and Pittsburgh to know that those teams are defined by their communities, and vice versa.”
Smith has a fight on his hands but he is willing to make it as public as he has to in order to make sure that next season happens without imperiling the financial and medical futures of the players. I asked him if there could be any NFLPA action around the upcoming NFL draft, and for the first time he smiled ear to ear and said, “Well, you’re just going to have to wait and see.”
[Dave Zirin is the author of “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing email@example.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is posted by permission]
Thursday, February 17, 2011
After a week, the riotous fires burnt out, leaving a feeling of bitterness, a taste of ashes. But the national scope of the revolts and the virtually total paralysis that resulted shook the existing authoritarian order and opened the possibility of qualitative changes in the political situation.
Beginning on January 5 in Algiers (Fouka, Staoueli, Bab el Oued), Oran and Djelfa, the youth revolts extended to hundreds of neighbourhoods in every region of the country. There were neither slogans, nor demands nor structures. We are not talking about massive popular demonstrations which degenerated into looting. More often it was small groups of youths who emerged from peripheral neighbourhoods to take over central arteries that they closed down with burning tyres, looting vehicles and violently confronting the police. Once the square was taken the surrounding shops were looted. Haunted by several decades of riots, the authorities immediately withdrew the numerous police officers spread across the town under the pretext of the anti-terrorist struggle and entrusted the defence of the essential centres to the anti-riot brigades. While awaiting reconquest operations, the street was abandoned to the rioters. Public or private establishments were attacked, town hall, hotels, telephone agencies, schools, professional training centres. Public edifices were besieged, like the commissariat in Bab el Oued, while in the same neighbourhood the showrooms of Renault and Dacia and their inaccessible cars were looted. Public or private banking agencies the post offices were the privileged targets with the manifest intention of taking the money they held. The looters also targeted jewellery shops, sports stores, expensive cars, without sparing ordinary traders and modest passers by who were robbed without consideration. This disordered violence, which did not spare the poor, led to an end for the initially unanimous popular sympathy. High school students and the less precarious youth sectors lost their sense of solidarity and instead organised the self-defence of their areas against looters.
In explaining the events some analysts evoked struggles within the ruling clans and the military, while others attributed the movement to speculators, importers or wholesalers, accused of having activated their informal networks of distributors to oppose the pressure of the administration that demanded they pay tax. In fact these manipulations, if they exist, are anecdotal. The situation lends itself to explosion, it has exploded. The initial revolts are similar to the sporadic riots that have taken place for years. Their privileged actors are the same precarious youth. Concretely, the events of January 4 and 5 were very localised. The resonance of the private press gave them a national impact. Spokespersons of the resentment of the business world and the international capitalist community against protectionist impulses, the private press generously covered every protest. And it is all the better for our struggles. From the first incidents, at Bab el Oued and Oran, the dailies devoted their front pages to images of urban desolation with headlines like “The riots of the end”, “Troubled night in Bab el Oued”, “Riots: the conflagration".
The movement has retrospectively been given a simultaneous nature that did not exist. When the movement ended in the neighbourhoods of January 5, it had hardly begun in the towns of the East and the Kabyle Soummam. What existed on the contrary was a general anger of modest people against high prices at the beginning of the year. And these increases were no more than unexpected collateral damage stemming from the government’s attempt to reduce the informal sector of the economy. In Algeria, you can buy a car or even a villa of a million Euros in cash. From the end of March 2011, a ban on cash payments for sums above 500,000 dinars or 5,000 euros (three years of minimum wage) was planned. With a view to this ban, the producers asked their wholesale distributors to produce tax documents so as to draw up invoices. That meant leaving the informal sector, paying taxes, indeed social security contributions! Faced with this intolerable state aggression against freedom of trade and the exploitation of employees, the wholesalers ceased their deliveries of goods. The result was shortages, speculation, and immediate increases in the prices of basic food products.
The adolescents and young people in revolt are not concerned by the daily purchases of their parents who reject this intolerable pressure on their wallets. They are, rather, involved in small informal business. They share the generalised popular anger in relation to prices, but what concerns them more directly is the progressive dismantling of the informal markets that occupy the big shopping streets. Like the young Bouazizi who set fire to himself in Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, they are deprived of decent employment, forced to occupy a street corner to sell cigarettes or various smuggled Chinese products avoiding tax. Like the young Harraguas who flee their country on improvised boats to participate in the wage slavery of Spanish agriculture or minor precarious jobs in France, they express their unhappiness in a blocked society. The lack of housing leads to the cramming of families and perpetuates an anachronistic patriarchy and a strict moral rigor. Without housing or stable income, marriage is late. This sharpens despair in a country that Europe is recolonising, a country whose productive enterprises are being destroyed along with jobs in the name of the logic of the market, a country that is invaded by the triumphant values of the West.
This general revolt is the expected outcome of a popular anger which for some months has been directed against Andelaziz Bouteflika and his regime, associated with the emergence of insolent wealth which offends an egalitarian populist culture, a regime complicit in affairs of corruption, at astronomical amounts, which have been on the front pages of the big dailies. In the midst of an Algerian-French diplomatic crisis, the construction of a 1,200 km highway, the glory of Bouteflika’s programme, was attributed to the Chinese by Mr Pierre Falcon, airplane manufacture and dealer in French weapons, himself responsible for redistributing the commission of 20% on the amount of 11 billion dollars. And so one discovers on this occasion a Franco-African network at the heart of a regime originating from the war of liberation. In a gilded neighbourhood in upper Algiers, where a square metre of land to build on can fetch 5.000 euros, Bouteflika offered 760 ha at a symbolic dinar per square metre to an Emirates group. The privileges accorded to the Gulf magnates are regularly denounced by the press and the elites, who lean rather in the direction of France. These gifts are explained by the President’s affinities with his Emirate hosts during his period of exile. The national oil company Sonatrach has been robbed by its managers through overvalued privately negotiated contracts. This had already happened before, to the profit of BRC, a subsidiary linked to former US vice president Dick Cheney. There lies one of the reasons for the firmness of US-Algerian relations.
These press revelations and the subsequent legal cases sometimes lead to derisory sanctions against members of the higher echelons, rather of the second level, whereas the hand of class justice strikes hard against the desperate youth who revolt to obtain a tarmac road, a link to the distribution network for potable water or gas, to protest against a distribution of social housing deemed to be unjust or to demand a job. There are also prison sentences against illegal emigrants, these harraguas who risk their lives on improvised boats. The crackdown on informal traders and the prosecution of small traders avoiding tax led to popular resentment. The multinationals are exempted from tax by way of encouragement and all the private industrial and commercial enterprises more or less escape tax obligations, which finally only concern declared wage earners and the enterprises of the public sector.
Paradoxically, the rehousing of the inhabitants of the shanty towns is also a source of discontent. Countries that distribute thousands of housing units to poor people are pretty rare. But Algerians are not completely resigned to class society. The emergence of the bourgeoisie is very recent. The right to housing was conquered at independence in the confused occupation of the towns deserted by French settlers. The Bouteflika regime, which is responsible for the most aggressive neoliberal advances, continues in some respects to follow a populist approach based in its history. Thousands of housing units have been distributed, though it is a drop of water in the ocean of needs. The housing offered is not enough to hold a whole family, the new arrivals in the shanty town are not affected and the overpopulated urban neighbourhoods resent an operation which ignores them, because the priority is to absorb the shacks which surround the towns. Corruption is also present. In a situation of penury, what is more predictable than favouritism and corruption?
Retreats of the regime
It was the symbolic struggle around housing at Diar Echems in the heart of Algiers whose violence convinced the regime to renounce its policy of tough action on the streets and the crushing of strikes. The confrontations at Diar Echems, in October 2009, coincided with the revolt of the El Ançar neighbourhood in the western city of Oran against the pollution of a quarry. At the same time, rail workers launched a lightning strike that disorganised the economy and threatened a total paralysis. The regime then decided on a policy of conciliation. The rail workers received a pay increase. The inhabitants of Diar Echems were promised early rehousing. From battle to battle the government has made concessions. The big dailies denounce the “riot bonus” of the government which promises hundreds of thousands of social housing units instead of letting the market regulate things. Despite severe legislation and legal persecution of the actors of the social movement, the government has always ended up giving way to each strike movement. Thus the big movements of teachers and doctors and their autonomous unions in struggle since 2003 have won various provisional victories with a fairly big increase effective of January 2008 in the context of a general revalorisation of the public service. But the small wage earners, who are the majority, have not much progress. There is a will to re-establish the hierarchy of wages skewed by several decades of uniform increases, to valorise the “middle layers” according to the IMF recommendations to better stabilise society. But these increases, obtained under the blows of strikes and so on are not enough to give to the higher wage earners an income comparable to that of their equivalents in neighbouring countries. The counterpart to these wage concessions is a new status of the civil service which introduces casualisation, the precarity of civil servants in short-term contracts bringing about a massive regression.
The strikes in the economic sector have had a considerable subjective impact. They have allowed an initial small wage catch up, after 15 years of a freeze on wages. Rail workers, after several wildcat strikes, have achieved an increase of more than 50%. Actions in the steel complex at Annaba, on the rail, in the truck factory in Rouiba and the surrounding industrial zone, and in the port of Algiers have mobilised less workers than the big national strikes in the civil service, but their struggles have caught the imagination of all employees and they function as a vanguard. They took place after a decade of demoralisation and rampant dismantling of public enterprises. The new politics of struggle against imports rehabilitates national production and fills order books. We have gone from a situation punctuated by voluntary redundancies and the compression of the workforce to massive hirings.
The struggles extend beyond the local trade union leaderships and above all the national leadership of the UGTA which since the general strike of 2003 against privatisation has sunk into an ever more indecent servility. But these strikes take place always in the context of a UGTA that is curiously back in the saddle despite an avowed discredit. Of around sixty existing unions, the UGTA federation is the only generalist one. The more representative autonomous unions concern specific corporations in the public service: high school teachers, university lecturers, doctors and so on. Another reason for this survival and hegemony of the UGTA is a relationship of forces that is still unfavourable to the workers. In a public sector officially condemned to disappear, the room for negotiation is non-existent, the capacity for strike blackmail is reduced to nothing. Halt production? That is precisely what the IMF wants. In these disastrous conditions the UGTA, the complacent partner of the authorities, functions as an umbrella union. The prestige of the autonomous unions is immense despite the rapid bureaucratisation of most of them, but the reality of the trade union struggle remains for many the attempt to regain control of the UGTA. It is a question of the relationship of forces.
The private sector super-exploits in disastrous conditions the majority of the country’s wage earners. In 2007, the official figures indicated 78% of workers in private enterprises were undeclared. These are legal enterprises that appear to pay their taxes. But the informal enterprises escape any control and statistics whereas they employ a considerable part of the workforce. Labour law no longer exists. One can increase the minimum wage, discuss pensions, review trade union legislation, but that does not concern the overwhelming majority of workers. Thus there is no question of trade union law and the right to strike. The struggles in the private sector are rare and brutal. In a situation of scarcity of jobs, recalcitrant workers can be immediately replaced. Some big strikes have nonetheless taken place in the private sector, at the Tonic group (packaging), on the sites of the Chinese enterprises building the highway, where the Algerian workers denounce slavery and the Chinese workers demand simply to be paid. And there was of course the symbolic strike at the formerly state owned steel complex sold to Arcelor Mittal in Annaba. The workers succeeded in dislodging the union mafia in the service of the multinational. The new team uncovered various rackets and revealed the derisory performances of the world steel giant which did not equal the production of the complex under public management. But above all they defeated the plans to reduce the workforce and forced a wage increase. What allowed this victory was the massive workers’ mobilisation but also the perspective of the renationalisation of the complex in the new economic course of the region.
Limits of authoritarianism and liberties
Teachers on a national general strike have demanded retirement after 25 years at work and a wage increase of 100%, which they are not far from having obtained. The announcement two years ago of the suppression of the optional pension at age 50 led to an immediate revolt of the industrial zone of Rouiba, near Algiers, and a mobilisation of oil workers. It was all the same decided a year ago and still has not been applied. A moratorium is spoken of, for fear of social explosion. Those who riot for rehousing reject the new and free units offered to them. The suppression of free medicine in 2002 was immediately postponed after the riots of Ain Fakroun. It should be applied in the next few months, though the January riots will have deepened the thinking of the authorities about that. University lecturers have demanded and obtain better wages but also their priority right to social housing. Our comrade Daniel Bensaïd, visiting Algeria a few months before his death, compared this situation to that of Mexico which also has social gains inherited from a past revolutionary situation, gains which the neoliberal steamroller is trying to erase.
For others concerns are linked to neoliberal globalisation. The massive unemployment of youth is a consequence of the dismantling of the public sector and the unfettered opening up that delivers the market to the disloyal competition of the products of wage slavery in China or the subsidised exports of the European Union. The Draconian fall in purchasing power stems from the division by twenty of the value of the dinar successively since the structural adjustment plan of 1994. But although wages have been the lowest in the Mediterranean basin, the workforce is not disciplined enough, not submissive. Investors only come for the oil rent or the telephone company profits. Capitalist exploitation is profitable in Algeria, but apparently much less so than in China.
Another aspect to stress is that of the relative liberties that remain under this authoritarian regime whose repression and arbitrariness we regularly denounce. The revolts of October 1988 imposed a democratic opening, political and media pluralism, the freedom to demonstrate, legality of strike actions. From the beginning, successive governments have sought to hinder popular freedoms and tolerate only salon activities and electoral meetings. But popular lassitude, after the bloody decade that appeared as the fruit of the opening, has allowed the regime to take firm control. Bouteflika professes publicly his allergy to pluralism and dreams of a US-style two party system. Associations, unions, parties are refused approval. Activities are rarely authorised expect in electoral periods when the parties, prevented from building themselves, appear derisory. Electoral law hardens the conditions. And Bouteflika is comforted by the discredit of the parties, all of them, and by their corruption. But October 1988 is not totally forgotten, far from it. It is not restrictions that limit popular expression so much as popular disenchantment with respect to democracy and the discrediting of politics.
Bouteflika’s patriotic turn
Bouteflika’s first term, from 1999 to 2003, was one of professions of ultra neoliberal faith but his promises to his imperialist tutors have not materialised. His projects were hindered by the resistance of the civil and military state bureaucracy, and the irritation of the private employers faced with the preference given to multinationals. Above all the hostility of the trade union apparatus to neoliberalism allowed a significant mobilisation. Popular resistance obliged Bouteflika to reconsider his projects. Oil strikes blocked the hydrocarbons law. The popular movement in Kabylie imposed a return to big state projects to the disgust of the orthodox neoliberals. The revolt of Ain Fekroun in the Aurès postponed the suppression of free medicine, the national strike by UGTA forced back total privatisation, the autonomous unions of teacher, doctors, challenged the wage freeze.
The re-election of Bouteflika in 2004, against Ali Benflis, the candidate of the FLN and the head of the army, gave him the necessary legitimacy to go further. The law on hydrocarbons was voted through. He privileged outrageously foreign companies allowed to benefit from concessions. An indecent programme of total privatisation was adopted. Then Bouteflika fell ill. The regime positioned itself for succession struggles but a physically weakened Bouteflika continued to dominate all areas. In June 2006, a new tone appeared, more concerned to preserve the national interests, the law on hydrocarbons was frozen before being amended to favour the national company. In 2008, the price per barrel collapsed, while imports which had tripled over a few years consumed all the oil income. Privatisation appears at a stalemate. Supplementary finance laws have involved Draconian measures to re-establish balances. Taxes and administrative measures reduce imports, while foreign enterprises are obliged to find a majority Algerian partner. This is the background which explains the change of tone of the Western governments despite the attraction of 150 billion dollars of public investment and juicy contracts. It is this which is at stake in the battle to give a political direction to the popular discontent, the workers’ strikes and the youth revolts.
-Chawki Salhi is spokesman of the Algerian Socialist Workers Party (PST), an organisation of the revolutionary left whose activists are particularly active within the popular committees.
Monday, February 14, 2011
February 11-13, 2011
A joyous night in Cairo. What bliss to be alive, to be an Egyptian and an Arab. In Tahrir Square they're chanting, "Egypt is free" and "We won!"
The removal of Mubarak alone (and getting the bulk of his $40bn loot back for the national treasury), without any other reforms, would itself be experienced in the region and in Egypt as a huge political triumph. It will set new forces into motion. A nation that has witnessed miracles of mass mobilisations and a huge rise in popular political consciousness will not be easy to crush, as Tunisia demonstrates.
Arab history, despite appearances, is not static. Soon after the Israeli victory of 1967 that marked the defeat of secular Arab nationalism, one of the great Arab poets, Nizar Qabbani wrote:
Corn ears of the future,
You will break our chains.
Kill the opium in our heads,
Kill the illusions.
Don't read about our suffocated generation,
We are a hopeless case,
As worthless as a water-melon rind.
Don't read about us,
Don't ape us,
Don't accept us,
Don't accept our ideas,
We are a nation of crooks and jugglers.
Corn ears of the future,
You are the generation that will overcome defeat.
How happy he would have been to seen his prophecy being fulfilled.
The new wave of mass opposition has happened at a time where there are no radical nationalist parties in the Arab world, and this has dictated the tactics: huge assemblies in symbolic spaces posing an immediate challenge to authority – as if to say, we are showing our strength, we don't want to test it because we neither organised for that nor are we prepared, but if you mow us down remember the world is watching.
This dependence on global public opinion is moving, but is also a sign of weakness. Had Obama and the Pentagon ordered the Egyptian army to clear the square – however high the cost – the generals would probably have obeyed orders, but it would have been an extremely risky operation for them, if not for Obama. It could have split the high command from ordinary soldiers and junior officers, many of whose relatives and families are demonstrating and many of whom know and feel that the masses are on the right side. That would have meant a revolutionary upheaval of a sort that neither Washington nor the Muslim Brotherhood – the party of cold calculation – desired.
The show of popular strength was enough to get rid of the current dictator. He'd only go if the US decided to take him away. After much wobbling, they did. They had no other serious option left. The victory, however, belongs to the Egyptian people whose unending courage and sacrifices made all this possible.
And so it ended badly for Mubarak and his old henchman. Having unleashed security thugs only a fortnight ago, Vice-President Suleiman's failure to dislodge the demonstrators from the square was one more nail in the coffin. The rising tide of the Egyptian masses with workers coming out on strike , judges demonstrating on the streets, and the threat of even larger crowds next week, made it impossible for Washington to hang on to Mubarak and his cronies. The man Hillary Clinton had referred to as a loyal friend, indeed "family", was dumped. The US decided to cut its losses and authorised the military intervention.
Omar Suleiman, an old western favourite, was selected as vice-president by Washington, endorsed by the EU, to supervise an "orderly transition". Suleiman was always viewed by the people as a brutal and corrupt torturer, a man who not only gives orders, but participates in the process. A WikiLeaks document had a former US ambassador praising him for not being "squeamish". The new vice president had warned the protesting crowds last Tuesday that if they did not demobilise themselves voluntarily, the army was standing by: a coup might be the only option left. It was, but against the dictator they had backed for 30 years. It was the only way to stabilise the country. There could be no return to "normality".
The age of political reason is returning to the Arab world. The people are fed up of being colonised and bullied. Meanwhile, the political temperature is rising in Jordan, Algeria and Yemen.
Tariq Ali’s latest book “The Obama Syndrome: Surrender at Home, War Abroad’ is published by Verso.
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
To help explain the thrilling developments in Egypt, Farooq Sulehnia interviewed leading Arab scholar-activist Gilbert Achcar on February 4.
Do you think that Mubarak’s pledge on February 1st not to contest the next election represented a victory for the movement, or was it just a trick to calm down the masses as on the very next day demonstrators in Al-Tahrir Square were brutally attacked by pro-Mubarak forces?
The Egyptian popular anti-regime uprising reached a first peak on February 1st, prodding Mubarak to announce concessions in the evening. It was an acknowledgement of the force of the popular protest and a clear retreat on the autocrat’s part, coming on top of the announcement of the government’s willingness to negotiate with the opposition. These were significant concessions indeed coming from such an authoritarian regime, and a testimony to the importance of the popular mobilisation. Mubarak even pledged to speed up ongoing judicial actions against fraud perpetrated during the previous parliamentary elections.
He made it clear, however, that he was not willing to go beyond that. With the army firmly on his side, he was trying to appease the mass movement, as well as the Western powers that were urging him to reform the political system. Short of resignation, he granted some of the key demands that the Egyptian protest movement had formulated initially, when it launched its campaign on January 25. However, the movement has radicalized since that day to a point where anything short of Mubarak’s resignation won’t be enough to satisfy it, with many in the movement even demanding that he gets tried in court.
Moreover, all the regime’s key institutions are now denounced by the movement as illegitimate––the executive as well as the legislative, i.e. the parliament. As a result, part of the opposition is demanding that the head of the constitutional court be appointed as interim president, to preside over the election of a constituent assembly. Others even want a national committee of opposition forces to supervise the transition. Of course, these demands constitute a radical democratic perspective. In order to impose such a thorough change, the mass movement would need to break or destabilise the regime’s backbone, that is the Egyptian army.
Do you mean that the Egyptian army is backing Mubarak?
Egypt––even more than comparable countries such as Pakistan or Turkey––is in essence a military dictatorship with a civilian façade that is itself stuffed with men originating in the military. The problem is that most of the Egyptian opposition, starting with the Muslim Brotherhood, have been sowing illusions about the army and its purported "neutrality," if not "benevolence." They have been depicting the army as an honest broker, while the truth is that the army as an institution is not "neutral" at all. If it has not been used yet to repress the movement, it is only because Mubarak and the general staff did not see it appropriate to resort to such a move, probably because they fear that the soldiers would be reluctant to carry out a repression. That is why the regime resorted instead to orchestrating counter-demonstrations and attacks by thugs on the protest movement. The regime tried to set up a semblance of civil strife, showing Egypt as torn apart between two camps, thus creating a justification for the army’s intervention as the "arbiter" of the situation.
If the regime managed to mobilise a significant counter-movement and provoke clashes on a larger scale, the army could step in, saying: "Game over, everybody must go home now," while promising that the pledges made by Mubarak would be implemented. Like many observers, I feared these last two days that this stratagem might succeed in weakening the protest movement, but the huge mobilization of today’s "day of departure" is reassuring. The army will need to make further and more significant concessions to the popular uprising.
When you talk of the opposition, what forces does it include? Of course, we hear about the Muslim Brotherhood and El Baradei. Are there are other players too like left wing forces, trade unions, etc?
The Egyptian opposition includes a vast array of forces. There are parties like the Wafd, which are legal parties and constitute what may be called the liberal opposition. Then there is a grey zone occupied by the Muslim Brotherhood. It does not have a legal status but is tolerated by the regime. Its whole structure is visible; it is not an underground force. The Muslim Brotherhood is certainly, and by far, the largest force in the opposition. When Mubarak’s regime, under US pressure, granted some space to the opposition in the 2005 parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood––running as "independents"––managed to get 88 MPs, i.e. 20 percent of the parliamentary seats, despite all obstacles. In the last elections held last November and December, after the Mubarak regime had decided to close down the limited space that it had opened in 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood almost vanished from parliament, losing all its seats but one.
Among the forces on the left, the largest is the Tagammu party, which enjoys a legal status and has 5 MPs. It refers to the Nasserite legacy. Communists have been prominent within its ranks. It is basically a reformist left party, which is not considered a threat to the regime. On the contrary, it has been quite compliant with it on several occasions. There are also leftwing Nasserite and radical left groups in Egypt––small but vibrant, and very much involved in the mass movement.
Then there are "civil society" movements, like Kefaya, a coalition of activists from various opposition forces initiated in solidarity with the Second Palestinian Intifada in 2000. It opposed the invasion of Iraq later on, and became famous afterwards as a democratic campaign movement against Mubarak’s regime. From 2006 to 2009, Egypt saw the unfolding of a wave of industrial actions, including a few impressively massive workers strikes. There are no independent workers unions in Egypt, with one or two very recent exceptions born as a result of the social radicalisation. The bulk of the working class does not have the benefit of autonomous representation and organization. An attempt at convening a general strike on April 6, 2008 in solidarity with the workers led to the creation of the April 6 Youth Movement. Associations like this one and Kefaya are campaign-focused groups, not political parties, and they include people of different political affiliations along with unaffiliated activists.
When Mohamed El Baradei returned to Egypt in 2009 after his third term at the head of the IAEA, his personal prestige enhanced by the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, a liberal and left coalition gathered around him, with the Muslim Brotherhood adopting a lukewarm reserved position. Many in the opposition saw El Baradei as a powerful candidate enjoying international reputation and connections, and constituting therefore a credible presidential candidate against Mubarak or his son. El Baradei thus became a rallying figure for a large section of the opposition, regrouping political forces as well as personalities. They formed the National Association for Change.
This whole array of forces is very much involved in the present uprising. However, the overwhelming majority of the people on the streets are without any sort of political affiliation. It is a huge mass outpouring of resentment at living under a despotic regime, fed by worsening economic conditions, as prices of basic necessities, like food, fuel, and electricity, have been sharply on the rise amid staggering joblessness. This is the case not only in Egypt but in most of the region as well, and that is why the fire of revolt that started in Tunisia spread so quickly to many Arab countries.
Is El Baradei genuinely popular, or is he in some way the Mir-Hossein Mousavi of the Egyptian movement, trying to change some faces while preserving the regime?
I would disagree with this characterisation of Mousavi in the first place. To be sure, Mir-Hossein Mousavi did not want to "change the regime" if one mean by that a social revolution. But there was definitely a clash between authoritarian social forces, spearheaded by the Pasdaran and represented by Ahmedinejad, and others coalesced around a liberal reformist perspective represented by Mousavi. It was indeed a clash about the kind of "regime" in the sense of the pattern of political rule.
Mohamed El Baradei is a genuine liberal who wishes his country to move from the present dictatorship to a liberal democratic regime, with free elections and political freedoms. If such a vast array of political forces is willing to cooperate with him, it is because they see in him the most credible liberal alternative to the existing regime, a man who does not command an organised constituency of his own, and is therefore an appropriate figurehead for a democratic change.
Going back to your analogy, you can’t compare him with Mousavi who was a member of the Iranian regime, one of the men who led the 1979 Islamic revolution. Mousavi had his own followers in Iran, before he emerged as the leader of the 2009 mass protest movement. In Egypt, El Baradei cannot play, and does not pretend to play a similar role. He is supported by a vast array of forces, but none of them see him as its leader.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s initial reserved attitude towards El Baradei is partly related to the fact that he does not have a religious bent and is too secular for their taste. Moreover, the Muslim Brotherhood had cultivated an ambiguous relationship with the regime over the years. Had they fully backed El Baradei, they would have narrowed their margin of negotiation with the Mubarak regime, with which they have been bargaining for quite a long time. The regime conceded a lot to them in the socio-cultural sphere, increasing Islamic censorship in the cultural field being but one example. That was the easiest thing the regime could do to appease the Brotherhood. As a result, Egypt made huge steps backward from the secularisation that was consolidated under Gamal Abdul-Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s goal is to secure a democratic change that would grant them the possibility to take part in free elections, both parliamentary and presidential. The model they aspire to reproduce in Egypt is that of Turkey, where the democratisation process was controlled by the military with the army remaining a key pillar of the political system. This process nonetheless created a space which allowed the AKP, an Islamic conservative party, to win elections. They are not bent on overthrowing the state, hence their courting of the military and their care to avoid any gesture that could antagonize the army. They adhere to a strategy of gradual conquest of power: they are gradualists, not radicals.
The Western media are hinting at the fact that democracy in the Middle East would lead to an Islamic fundamentalist takeover. We have seen the triumphal return of Rached Ghannouchi to Tunisia after long years in exile. The Muslim Brotherhood is likely to win fair elections in Egypt. What is your comment on that?
I would turn the whole question around. I would say that it is the lack of democracy that led religious fundamentalist forces to occupy such a space. Repression and the lack of political freedoms reduced considerably the possibility for left-wing, working-class and feminist movements to develop in an environment of worsening social injustice and economic degradation. In such conditions, the easiest venue for the expression of mass protest turns out to be the one that uses the most readily and openly available channels. That’s how the opposition got dominated by forces adhering to religious ideologies and programmes.
We aspire to a society where such forces are free to defend their views, but in an open and democratic ideological competition between all political currents. In order for Middle Eastern societies to get back on the track of political secularisation, back to the popular critical distrust of the political exploitation of religion that prevailed in the 1950s and 1960s, they need to acquire the kind of political education that can be achieved only through a long-term practise of democracy.
Having said this, the role of religious parties is different in different countries. True, Rached Ghannouchi has been welcomed by a few thousand people on his arrival at Tunis airport. But his Nahda movement has much less influence in Tunisia than the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Of course, this is in part because Al-Nahda suffered from harsh repression since the 1990s. But it is also because the Tunisian society is less prone than the Egyptian to religious fundamentalist ideas, due to its higher degree of Westernisation and education, and the country’s history.
But there is no doubt that Islamic parties have become the major forces in the opposition to existing regimes over the whole region. It will take a protracted democratic experience to change the direction of winds from that which has been prevailing for more than three decades. The alternative is the Algerian scenario where an electoral process was blocked by the army by way of a military coup in 1992, leading to a devastating civil war for which Algeria is still paying the price.
The amazing surge of democratic aspirations among Arab peoples of these last few weeks is very encouraging indeed. Neither in Tunisia, nor in Egypt or anywhere else, were popular protests waged for religious programs, or even led principally by religious forces. These are democratic movements, displaying a strong longing for democracy. Polls have been showing for many years that democracy as a value is rated very highly in Middle Eastern countries, contrary to common "Orientalist" prejudices about the cultural "incompatibility" of Muslim countries with democracy. The ongoing events prove one more time that any population deprived of freedom will eventually stand up for democracy, whatever "cultural sphere" it belongs to.
Whoever runs and wins future free elections in the Middle East will have to face a society where the demand for democracy has become very strong indeed. It will be quite difficult for any party––whatever its programme––to hijack these aspirations. I am not saying that it will be impossible. But one major outcome of the ongoing events is that popular aspirations to democracy have been hugely boosted. They create ideal conditions for the left to rebuild itself as an alternative.
-Farooq Sulehria is a prominent radical journalist and a leading member of Labour Party Pakistan. He is the author of the LPP’s booklet, ’Rise of Political Islam’, and translator into Urdu of ’Clash of Fundamentalisms’ by Tariq Ali.
-Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon and teaches political science at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. His best-selling book ’The Clash of Barbarisms’ came out in a second expanded edition in 2006, alongside a book of his dialogues with Noam Chomsky on the Middle East, ’Perilous Power’. He is co-author of ’The 33-Day War: Israel’s War on Hezbollah in Lebanon and It’s Consequences’. His most recent book is The Arabs and the Holocaust: the Arab-Israeli War of Narratives, Metropolitan Books, New York, 2010.
Saturday, February 5, 2011
Michel Husson offers a contribution to the debate on how the European left should respond to the economic crisis and argues that leaving the euro is not currently an option for countries which use it.
The global effects of the crisis have been made even worse by what is happening in Europe. For thirty years the contradictions of capitalism have been overcome with the help of an enormous accumulation of phantom rights to surplus value. The crisis has threatened to destroy them. The bourgeois governments have decided to preserve them claiming that we have to save the banks. They have taken on the banks’ debts and asked for virtually nothing in return. Yet it would have been possible to make this rescue conditional on some assurances. They could have banned speculative financial instruments and closed the tax loopholes. They could even have insisted that they take responsibility for some of the public debt that this rescue increased so dramatically.
We are now in the second phase. Having shifted the debt from the private sector to the public the working class has to be made to pay. This shock therapy is delivered through austerity plans which are all broadly similar – a cut in socially useful spending and hiking up the most unfair taxes. There is no alternative to this form of social violence other than making the shareholders and creditors pay. That is clear and everyone understands it.
The collapse of a ruling class plan
But the European working class is also being asked to pay for the collapse of the ruling class project for Europe. The ruling class thought that it had found a good system with the single currency, the budgetary stability pact (“Stability and Growth Pact”), and the total deregulation of finance and the movement of capital . By creating a competition between social models and wage earners squeezing wages became the only means of regulating inter-capitalist competition and intensifying the inequalities that benefitted only a very narrow stratum of people in society.
However this model put the cart before the horse and wasn’t viable. It presupposed that the European economies were more homogeneous than they actually are. Differences between countries increased due to their place in the global market and their sensitivity to the euro exchange rate. Inflation rates didn’t converge and interest rates favoured property bubbles and so on. All the contradictions of a curtailed programme of European integration which the Euro liberals are discovering today existed before the crisis. But these are blowing apart under speculative attacks against the sovereign debts of the most exposed countries.
Underneath the abstract concept of “financial markets” there are mainly European financial institutions which speculate using capital which states lend to them at very low interest rates. This speculation is only possible due to the states’ policy of non-intervention and we should understand it as a pressure applied to consenting governments to stabilise budgets on the back of the people of Europe and to defend the banks’ interests.
Two immediate tasks
From the point of view of the working class it’s obvious what has to be done: we have to resist the austerity offensive and refuse to pay the debt which is nothing but the debt from the banking crisis. The alternative plan on which this resistance must be based demands another way of sharing society’s wealth. This is a coherent demand. It is in fact against the squeezing of wages, in other words the appropriation of an increasing portion of surplus value by capital.
The alternative requires a real fiscal reform which takes back the gifts which for years have been given to businesses and the rich. It also implies the cancellation of the debt. The debt and the interests of the majority of the population are completely incompatible. There can be no progressive outcome to the crisis which does not put the debt in question, either by defaulting on it or restructuring it. In any case some countries will probably default and it’s therefore important to anticipate this situation and say how it should be managed.
Leaving the euro?
The offensive, which the peoples of Europe are facing, is undeniably made worse by the European straightjacket. For example the European Central Bank, unlike the Federal Reserve in the United States, cannot monetise public debt by buying treasury bonds. Would leaving the euro allow the straightjacket to be loosened? That is what some on the left like Costas Lapavitsas and his colleagues are suggesting for Greece as an immediate step. He proposes that it is done immediately without waiting for the left to unite to change the euro zone, something he thinks is impossible.
This idea is put forward elsewhere in Europe and is met with an immediate objection that even though Britain is not part of the euro zone it has not been protected from the climate of austerity. It is also easy to understand why the far right, such as the Front National in France wants to leave the euro. By contrast it is hard to see what could be the merits of such a slogan for the radical left. If a liberal government were forced to take such a measure by the pressure of events it is clear that it would be the pretext for an even more severe austerity than the one we have experienced up to now. Moreover it would not allow us to establish a new balance of forces, which is more favourable to the working class. That is the lesson that one can draw for all the past experiences.
For a left government leaving the euro would be a major strategic error. The new currency would be devalued as that is, after all, the desired objective. But that would immediately open up a space, which the financial markets would immediately use to begin a speculative offensive. It would trigger a cycle of devaluation, inflation and austerity. On top of that, the debt, which until that point had been denominated in euros or in dollars would suddenly increase as a result of this devaluation. Every left government which decided to take measures in favour of the working class would certainly be put under enormous pressure by international capitalism. But from a tactical point of view it would be better in this test of strength to use membership in the euro zone as a source of conflict.
It is basically true that the European project based on the single currency is not coherent and is incomplete. It removes a variable of adjustment, the exchange rate, from the set of different prices and salaries inside the euro zone. The countries in the periphery thus have the choice between the German path of freezing wages or suffering a reduction in competitivity and loss of markets. This situation leads to a sort of impasse and there are no solutions that can be applied straight away: going backwards would throw Europe in a crisis which would hit the most fragile countries hardest.; and beginning a new European project seems out of reach at the moment.
If the euro zone explodes the most fragile economies would be destabilised by speculative attacks. Not even Germany would have anything to gain because its currency would appreciate in value uncontrollably and the country would undergo what the Unites States is today trying to impose on several countries with its monetary policy.[ii]
Other solutions exist which need a complete recasting of the European Union: a budget which is financed by a common tax on capital and which finances harmonisation funds and investments which are both socially and ecologically useful and richer countries help poorer ones with their public debt. But again this outcome is not possible in the short term, not through lack of alternative plans but because implementing them requires a radical change in the balance of forces at the European level.
What should we do at a very difficult moment like this? The struggle against the austerity plans and refusing to pay the debt are the launch pad for a counter offensive. We then have to make sure that the resistance is strengthened by arguing for an alternative project and work out a programme which offers both “practical” answers as well as a general explanation of the class content of the crisis.[iii]
The specific task of the radical, internationalist left is to link the social struggles happening in each country with arguing for a different kind of Europe. What are the ruling classes doing? They are facing up to the policies they have to follow because they are defending interests which are still largely nationally based and contradictory. Yet as soon as they have to impose austerity measures on their own working classes they present a solid united front.
There are better things to do than emphasise the very real differences that exist between the countries. What’s at stake is having an internationalist point of view on the crisis in Europe. The only way of really opposing the rise of the far right is by suggesting other targets than the usual scapegoats. We can affirm a real international solidarity with the peoples who are suffering most due to the crisis by demanding that the debts are shared equally across Europe. Thus we have to oppose an alternative project for Europe to that of the European bourgeoisie which is dragging every country backwards socially. How is it possible not to understand that our mobilisations, which are faced with coordination of the ruling class at a European level, need to be based on a coordinated project of our own? While it is true that struggles happen in a national framework they would be strengthened by a perspective like this instead of being weakened or led down nationalist dead ends. The students who demonstrated in London chanting “all in this together, all in this together” are a symbol of this living hope.
For a European Strategy
The task is as difficult as the period which the crisis has opened. However the radical left must not get locked into the impossible choice and start the risky adventure of leaving the euro and a utopian idea of currency harmonisation. We could easily work on some intermediate targets which challenge the European institutions. For example:
We have to understand that these objectives are neither further or closer away than an “exit from the euro” which would be beneficial to working people. It would definitely be absurd to wait for a simultaneous and co-ordinated exit by every European country. The only strategic hypothesis that one can then conceive of must take as its starting point the experience of a social transformation which starts in one country. The government of the country in questions takes measures, for example imposing a tax on capital. If it is thinking clearly it will anticipate the retaliation for which it will be the target and will impose controls on capital. By taking this fiscal reform measure it is openly in conflict with the rules of the European game. It has no interest in unilaterally leaving the euro. This would be an enormous strategic mistake since the new currency would immediately come under attack with the aim of pulling down the economy of the “rebel” country.
We have to give up on the idea that there are “technical” shortcuts, assume that conflict is inevitable and build a favourable balance of forces of which the European dimension is a part. One point of support for that is the ability to damage capitalist interests. The country, which starts, could restructure the debt, nationalise foreign capital etc, or threaten to do it. The “left” governments of Papandreou in Greece or Zapatero in Spain have not even dreamed of doing this.
The main point of support comes from taking the measures cooperatively. This is completely different from classic protectionism, which basically always tries to gain ground by nibbling at parts of the global market. Every progressive measure on the other hand is effective to the extent that it is shared across a number of countries. We should therefore be talking about a strategy, which is based on the following idea: we are willing to tax capital and we will take the necessary steps to protect ourselves. But we are also hoping for these measures, which we propose, to be implemented across Europe.
We can sum up by saying that rather than seeing them in opposition to each other we have to think hard about the link between breaking the neoliberal European project and our project of creating a new Europe.
[ii] Michael Hudson, “US Quantitative Easing Is Fracturing the Global Economy”, http://gesd.free.fr/hudsonqi.pdf [iii] Bloco de Esquerda (Left Bloc) Portugal: “On the crisis and how to overcome it”, May 23rd 2010, http://gesd.free.fr/bloco510.pdf
-Michel Husson is an economist, in charge of employment at the Institut de recherches economiques et sociales (IRES) in Paris. He is member of the Fondation Copernic, a left-wing think tank, and of the Scientific Council of ATTAC. He has just published Un pur capitalisme, Lausanne 2008, Éditions Page Deux. You can consult his writings on http://hussonet.free.fr.