Friday, February 11, 2011

Layer 443 . . . People Power, Peaceful Protest, Civil Disobedience, Democratic Aspirations, Serving the Public, Learning Lessons, Big Banks, and The Big Society Bail-In


The worldwide interest and indeed the fascination with the events in Egypt reminds me of the situation we had in 1968 when students and workers took to the streets in many countries to protest about human rights, the war in VietNam, inequality, low wages, apartheit, colonialism ,  neo-colonialism, etc.

After all these ensuing years we have learnt, if we didn't know it already, that the world's problems cannot be solved through religious movements, through Marxism, through the fall of communism, through globalisation, through the shock doctrine, through Chicago-school trickle-down economics, through American hegemony, etc.

Nobody in Egypt is talking about Marxist or Islamist solutions. Nobody expects the USA to sort out the impasse.

What we see in Egypt and Tunisia is peaceful, non-violent but assertive people power demanding 'common sense' solutions - human rights, democracy, fairness, social justice, an end to poverty, and so on.

This time around we also have the phenomenon of the Internet, which enables a world-wide dialogue to take place between peoples of all countries, all cultures, all shades of political opinion. It's a phenomenon that was originally developed by academia and the military but which has inadvertently enabled us to scrutinise leaked confidential documents that reveal some of the political, military and financial conspiracies through which the power elites maintain their power.


Trade unions: the revolutionary social network at play in Egypt and Tunisia

The media have focused on Facebook and Twitter, but the pro-democracy movements have flourished thanks to unions 

Perhaps the most overlooked factor in the demise of the authoritarian Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, and the weakening of Hosni Mubarak's grip on state power in Egypt, has been the trade unions in both countries.

While the media has reported on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook as revolutionary methods of mobilisation, it was the old-fashioned working class that enabled the pro-democracy movements to flourish.

As working men and women in Egypt became increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and a deteriorating quality of life, the only legal trade unions – the ones affiliated to the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) – proved worthless. The result of all of this was an unprecedented wave of strikes across the public and private sectors that began in 2004 and has continued to the present day. During the first four years of the current strike wave, more than 1,900 strikes took place and an estimated 1.7 million workers were involved.

As one worker in a fertiliser company put it, the effect of going on strike was to convince the employer "that they had a company with human beings working in it. In the past, they dealt with us as if we were not human."

The strikes began in the clothing and textile sector, and moved on to building workers, transport workers, food processing workers, even the workers on the Cairo metro. The biggest and most important took place back in 2006 at Misr Spinning and Weaving, a company that employs some 25,000 workers.

The state-controlled ETUF opposed these strikes and supported the government's privatisation plans. A turning point was reached when municipal tax collectors not only went on strike, but staged a three-day, 10,000-strong sit-in in the streets of Cairo, opposite the prime minister's office.

This could not be ignored, and the government was forced to allow the formation last year of the first independent trade union in more than half a century.

Pro-labour NGOs played a critical role in providing support and guidance to these strikes and protests. As a result, they were targeted by the regime, their offices closed and leaders arrested. The best known of these groups is the Centre for Trade Union and Worker Services (CTUWS), which has been around since 1990.

Groups such as the CTUWS in turn enlisted the support of trade unions in other countries, and that support was invaluable – particularly in persuading the government to ease up on repression.

Those links with the international trade union movement have proven critical in recent days as well. When the Mubarak regime tried to cut off Egypt from the internet, CTUWS activists were able to phone in their daily communiques to the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Centre in Washington. The messages were transcribed, translated from the Arabic, and passed on to the wider trade union world using websites such as LabourStart.

In sharp contrast to the last seven years of Egyptian labour unrest, the Tunisian trade unions played a kingmaker role during the end phase of the uprising.

After decades of lethargy, docility and state domination of the General Tunisian Workers' Union (UGTT), Tunisia's largest employee organisation –with roughly half a million members – helped not only eradicate Ben Ali's regime, but determined the shape of the post-Ben Ali government.

Working-class Tunisians were animated by the same goals as their Egyptian counterparts; namely, the desire to secure dignity and respect, bring about real political democracy, and improve their standard of living.

Cultivating democracy in Tunisia, and Egypt requires two pre-conditions. First, workers' organisations must remain independent of state control. Second, to blunt the Iranian model, Islamists must be barred from hijacking free trade unions.

This helps to explain the worries of Habib Jerjir, a labour leader from the Regional Workers' Union of Tunis: "That's the danger," he said. "I'm against political Islam. We must block their path."

Economic democracy played a decisive role in Tunisian society before the Jasmine revolution. Ben Ali swiftly suffocated free and democratic trade union activity during his 23-year domination over organised labour (1987-2011). But he could not extinguish democratic aspirations among workers.

There are no exact parallels, but much of this reminds us of what happened in Poland in 1979-80. There, as in Egypt and Tunisia, we saw a mixture of a repressive, single-party state with trade unions that functioned as an arm of the ruling party. But there was also a network of NGOs that quietly worked behind the scenes, in workplaces and communities.

The result was the 1980 strike at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, the formation of Solidarnosc, and the end not only of the Communist regime in Poland but of the entire Soviet empire.

Today's pro-democracy revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia are the culmination of that process, and where it will lead we cannot predict – though Poland does provide an appealing model.

The pressing point is that experts misjudged the tumult in Egypt and Tunisia largely because they ignored and overlooked the democratic aspirations of working-class Tunisians and Egyptians. To understand why so many authoritarian Arab regimes remain fragile, one need to only to look through the window on to the court of labour relations.


The Big Society Bail-In brings protest to your local bank

Civil disobedience is back in Britain, and UK Uncut want to show that it's our society that is too big to fail – not our banking system

by Ruth Griffiths

Look through the newspapers this month and two points will become immediately clear. First, the government is cutting, privatising and changing the very nature of social security and public goods that were won through the 20th century. Every aspect of what was fought for by generations seems under threat – from selling off the forests, privatising health provision, closing the libraries and swimming pools, and scrapping rural bus routes.

Second, the banks are doing just fine. February is bankers' bonus month; Barclays announces their gifts to themselves on the 15th, with its chief executive, Bob Diamond, expecting £9m just for him. While RBS is due to transfer its £900m bonus pool into the pockets of high-earning bankers on the 25th. These bonuses should make the disgrace of the MPs' expenses scandal look like chicken feed and are another demonstration of just how much we really are not all in this together.

The two, of course, are linked. Because it was our broken banking system, with its greed and reckless gambling, that caused the crash. The National Audit Office has reported that at its peak, the amount of support provided to the banks reached nearly £1tn. In 2009 alone, £131bn of public money was spent keeping the banking industry afloat – and taxpayers continue to spend money supporting the banking system. But instead of asking the banks to pay for their crisis, it is the public who were asked to support the banks that are now being made to pay a further price.

The £2.5bn so-called "raid" on the banks is a levy of around 0.075% of their balance sheets. That's pathetic. Since 2007 and the Northern Rock crash, it's been abundantly obvious that the banking system is unjust to the core: from exorbitant bankers' bonuses to gambling on debt, from massive tax loopholes to holding the country to ransom with their threats of moving to Zurich. Before the crisis, after the crisis, it's as if we've learned nothing:

 the banks still serve themselves, not the public.

Over the past four months UK Uncut has grown from a meeting in a pub to hundreds of high-street acts of protest against tax avoiders, highlighting the £25bn dodged in taxes every single year by some of the most wealthy individuals and profitable corporations. Combine this clamping down on tax avoidance with truly tough action on the banks and you've got

a genuine alternative to the cuts agenda.

It is simply a lie to say that the only way to reduce the deficit is to sacrifice essential public services, which support some of the poorest in our society. There is an alternative, but the government doesn't want to talk about it because they have got the same agenda as the banks:

making the poor pay the way for the rich.

This is an outrage and it has to be stopped.

UK Uncut has launched the Big Society Bail-In.

On 19 February we will be targeting Barclays, and on 26 February we will turn to RBS.

Civil disobedience is back in Britain, and it is on your local high streets.

Just like with Vodafone and Topshop, anyone can get involved, because tax-avoiding corporations and banks have put their outlets and branches everywhere. Every time a library is closed, every time a hospital is privatised,

there's somewhere nearby where people can protest – your friendly local high street.

Together, we're going to change those high-street branches into schools, libraries, gyms and forests.

We're going to show that it's our society that is too big to fail, not our broken banking system.

It's going to be fun, but it's also going to be hard work, because this isn't just about Twitter – it never was. It's about on the street, grassroots, getting-in-the-way politics, the same politics that won women suffrage, defeated the poll tax and could stop the cuts.

It's about telling your friends, your co-workers, your children, your mum.

It's about knowing why our welfare state is being attacked and targeting the right people in response.

Everyone should do what they can do to make this happen.

Come on the UK Uncut protests this month, and also make sure you're taking to the streets on 26 March.

Let's make the banks pay for their crisis.


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