Left Luggage

The socialist strategy site

Leftovers #6

Posted by Left Luggage on May 10, 2009

In this week’s digest, we feature debate on the Left over the outcome of the Visteon dispute, critical thoughts on union bureaucracies, differing reports on a demonstration calling for an amnesty for illegal immigrants, and an article blaming the media for knife crime.

In the aftermath of the Visteon dispute there has been some debate around the Left blogosphere as to what extent the outcome was a victory for the workers. We mentioned previously The Commune‘s analysis which, through speaking to some of the workers, questions the role of the Unite union bureaucracy, argues ending the Enfield occuaption was a tactical error, and raising the issue of pensions, which has not been resolved. Blogger Liam McUaid argues the outcome was a “partial victory” and posts an abrasive article by Socialist Democracy’s John McAnulty that focuses on the loss of pensions and jobs. In response, Andy Newman at Socialist Unity argues that the outcome was a clear-cut victory, and with a close analysis of the factors at play argues that the workers won the best deal possible:

It was an heroic and inspirational fight, that blew away the cobwebs of inertia that had greeted the closure of Woolworths, and other job losses.

But before we get too carried away with our assesment of the workforces’ bargaining position, let us consider that Visteon were seeking to close the factories, so the occupations were an interruption to cash flow stopping the selling the assets, but were not hitting their production; and secondly that through the use of threats of courts, police and bailiffs, only Belfast was still in occupation at the time a deal was reached.

That is, the leverage that the workforce had over Visteon and Ford was potentially peaking when the deal was agreed, and there was a substantial risk that if the deal was turned down, the bailiffs would have gone into the Belfast plant, and the pickets at Enfliend and Basildon would boil down to a hard core of last-standers, like the tragic defeat at Gate Gourmet, while the rest of the workforce melted away.

Now it is possible to construct other scenarios, but experience of the British labour movement over the last few years suggests that this would be a likely enough scenario to base calculations upon it.

In that context, getting a deal out of Ford and Visteon while the workforce has maximum political leverage was an outstanding victory. The risk of rejecting the deal was that management could have withdrawn it, and the workforce could have got nothing.

Now it is true that the workforce didn’t get their jobs back, and the pensions issue was unresolved. But what were the realistic chances of getting the factories reopened?

To have done so would have needed a political context where there existed pressure on the government to step in. That is not the current political reality, and occupations by relatively small factories in the recession stricken car industry were not going to be able to change that.

Therefore, to talk down the deal, and say that the workforce should have stuck out for a rescue package, as some are doing, would both be a strategic and tactical mistake, and is perhaps objectively anti-trade union; because it is demobilising and demotivating to criticise a clear victory , because it feeds into a climate of cynicism.

Socialist Worker also contains a jubilant report of the Visteon victory, but is critical of the role of the Unite union hierarchy. Some more general reflections on the role of union bureaucracies come from The Commune, with Joe Thorne arguing that militancy has a direct relation to participation, suggesting that even individual shop stewards can become “bureaucratized”, and arguing:

These organisations’ used to be for fighting and now they’re not. They still have strands and sections and ideas which are about fighting (which is why they’re not entirely pointless), but by and large, they’ve been ‘bureaucratised’.

There was also some debate on the Left about the Strangers into Citizens demonstration held in London last weekend, which was organised around demands for a one-off amnesty for illegal immigrants in the UK. Jim Jepps at The Daily (Maybe) comments on his sense of alienation by the waving of Union flags and the singing of God Save The Queen, but says overall:

I thought it was a fantastic event and one of the few demonstrations I actually enjoy going on. Mainly organised through religious groups and London Citizens (who are often spoken of in glowing terms) with refugee groups and anti-deportations thrown in for good measure you get a real feeling of what a progressive movement feels like.

Liam MacUaid has a similar report, saying:

Lots and lots of the marchers were carrying small and large butchers’ aprons to affirm that they have as much right to be treated with dignity as anyone else. You’d need to be a seriously ultra-left idiot to tell them that they were wrong to do so. […]

For my money this demo is the highlight of the political calendar. Once a year the voiceless and invisible hyper-exploited workers of London take to the streets and make themselves heard. They are a multitude drawn from every corner of the planet and maybe, just maybe, they are starting to get a sense of their power and numbers.

A more critical perspective comes from The Commune’s David Broder who gives a report from a small alternative rally held in Trafalgar Square with participation from Iraqi trade unionists and Mitie/Willis cleaners. He argues that the organisers London Citizens are “tepid” in their politics and should not argue that some immigration controls are necessary:

One activist tore into the idea of an amnesty for “good” immigrants as “the classic imperialist policy of divide and rule” and we shouted slogans in English and Spanish such as “Latino or foreign, the same working class”, “No borders, no nations, stop deportations” and “No human being is illegal”. […]

So while it was impressive to see so many people on the streets of London standing up for migrants’ rights, it was a pity that the leadership of the protest is so tame in its slogans and objectives.

A parallel discussion is taking place in the US, with two of the two biggest American union federations recently calling for an amnesty for illegal workers and making the case for such a move increasing the power of all workers.

Finally, Labour Party activist Gabe Trodd writes on crime at the Socialist Unity blog, blaming the media for causing youngsters to carry knives:

The negative and imbalanced portrayal of British youngsters in the media does nothing but whip up insecurity, resentment and division around individual acts of youth crime. The result is a culture of fear and alienation, which inevitably results in vulnerable youngsters seeking status and protection through arming themselves.

While expending plenty of energy attacking the Tories, Trodd has a basically liberal approach to crime, stressing that “inequality and alienation” are the underlying causes and thus avoiding the issue of personal responsibility. Likewise, the solutions are for better enforcement by the authorities and “thoughtful, progressive, human answers” by policymakers, rather than communities. We have our own thoughts on how the Left should approach the issue of crime here.

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