Since the electoral success of the left social-democratic Syriza coalition in Greece, and the immediate challenge to austerity and the rule of finance capital in Europe that it represents, many people are understandably keen to consider how this could be repeated in the UK. While it is clear to everyone that Syriza is not presently a revolutionary outfit and not seeking to become one in the short term, it is equally clear that for a sustained left challenge to the politics of the last few decades to emerge from this countermovement requires a deepening of political organization of the left across Europe. The northern European left has an important role to play here because of the very real possibility of isolating a left confined to Greece alone, or even just Greece, Portugal, and Spain. If we are to break the back of the intellectual coalition between the neoliberal social imagination and the economic policies of austerity and debt enforcement, it is of the greatest importance that the left in the creditor countries makes a priority of making the enforcement of such regimes by their own governments impossible – not just domestically, but internationally. In the current European context, internationalism is not just a desirable principle but an absolute precondition for success.
Following a headlong confrontation over the Governor of Wisconsin, the reactionary Scott Walker, and his direct assaults on the public sector unions and their legislative achievements, much of the US left is now abuzz with the resounding failure of the campaign to recall him. In what had been seen as one of the last great revivals of the labor movement in the United States, workers officially and unofficially organized against Walker, even going so far as to occupy the Capitol building and to make the functioning of the Wisconsin legislature impossible. There were massive campaigns for opposition against the anti-union onslaught, and it was seen by many in organized labor as a decisive battle on whether the fight for union rights could be won in America. Laws undermining the public sector unions had already passed without much difficulty in Indiana and Missouri, but were defeated in Ohio. In this way, Wisconsin became something of a battleground, befitting a state which has a reputation for supplying leading politicians of both the left wing and the right wing, relative to American standards. But the Democratic Party took the leadership of the campaign together with the unions, and supplied a weak centrist called Tom Barrett against Walker – a candidate who, as mayor of Milwaukee, failed to even endorse unequivocally the union position, and who had lost the election against Walker in the first place. In the end, Barrett added about 150.000 extra votes, but Walker added 200.000 extra votes, and therefore won by a larger margin than before. For all the union efforts, the Democratic Party nationally put in no real support for the campaign, and President Obama could not be bothered to do more than post a Tweet about it. This despite his pledge, during his own campaigning, that in case of an attack on union organizing he’d “put on a pair of comfortable shoes and join them on the picket line”. Continue reading “Unions and the West: The Scott Walker Affair”
Recent times have seen a strong increase again in the number of industrial actions in the public or semi-public sectors, probably under the influence of the current crisis. Recently the court in Amsterdam enjoined the unions from striking in the public transport of the three largest cities in the Netherlands. This strike had been intended as a means of exerting public pressure against the plans of the Dutch government to increase the retirement age to 67.(1) In the meantime the United Kingdom is now witness to a large-scale action by the union CWU against the plans by Royal Mail to implement severe cuts in the services and pensions.(2) The latter of these however threatens to have a counterproductive effect, since Royal Mail is already under significant pressure under the name of privatization. If the mail services were to fully compete, the result would be that the private competitors would be able to obtain all the lucrative mail services by offering worse labor conditions, whereas the Royal Mail, because of its obligation to service, would be stuck with the ‘unprofitable’ mail (as is being seen to some extent already).
A different problem however with industrial action in the public services is the severe pressure they put on public opinion. Continue reading “The Problem of Public Strikes”