Workers Vanguard No. 937
22 May 2009
Down With Protectionist Poison!
Britain: Labourites Whitewash Chauvinist Strikes
The following article is reprinted from Workers Hammer No. 206 (Spring 2009), newspaper of the Spartacist League/Britain, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist). It centrally deals with the support given by pro-Labour Party reformist “socialists” to a series of reactionary strikes earlier this year directed against foreign-born workers. In virtually all major capitalist countries, the union tops have responded to mass layoffs and unemployment with chauvinism and calls for increasing protectionism. Just as in Britain, the struggle against such poison is vital to working people in the U.S. and throughout the world. As our comrades of the SL/B wrote in “Down With Reactionary Strikes Against Foreign Workers!” (WV No. 930, 13 February):
“For the bourgeoisie, ‘free trade’ and protectionism are options they can debate, but for the proletariat, protectionism is poison. It is a classic means of channelling discontent over job losses into hostility towards foreign workers and immigrants while building illusions in the benevolence of our ‘own’ capitalists
“There is no answer to the boom-and-bust cycles of capitalism short of proletarian socialist revolution that takes power out of the hands of the irrational capitalist ruling class and replaces it with a planned, socialised economy. Only the achievement of a world socialist order can eliminate the age-old problem of poverty, scarcity and want.”
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With the workers of the world confronting the most severe world economic crisis since the Great Depression, a wave of virulently chauvinist strikes against foreign workers has swept building sites at Britain’s oil refineries and power stations. Demanding “British jobs for British workers,” a slogan long associated with the fascists, these protests are playing the bosses’ game—lining workers up with [Prime Minister] Gordon Brown and the British capitalist rulers against immigrant workers.
The reactionary character of the protests is blindingly obvious from the settlement reached at Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire in February. Brokered by the arbitration service ACAS, the deal included a pledge by management that 102 jobs that were previously expected to go to Italian workers will now be offered to British workers. This shameful deal is hailed by Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party [affiliated with Socialist Alternative in the U.S.] as a victory and held up as a model for the Staythorpe power station in Nottinghamshire, where protests against Spanish and Polish workers are ongoing. Meanwhile protests against Polish workers have taken place at the Isle of Grain in Kent. The outcome of the Lindsey strikes confirms our statement that: “The strikes were not intended to secure more jobs or indeed any gains for the working class as a whole, nor to defend existing jobs. They were about redividing the existing pool of jobs according to the nationality of the workers” (see WV No. 930, 13 February).
This “British jobs” crusade is so alien to the interests of the multiethnic working class that it has been supported by the xenophobic, anti-working-class gutter press. Thus the 16 February London Evening Standard whipped up a storm against foreign-born workers who are registered as “local” and working on building sites for the 2012 Olympics, fulminating that: “The Evening Standard found people from various eastern European backgrounds employed [at] the Stratford site, as well as workers of Indian, Pakistani and Nepalese origin.” During the Lindsey strike, Italian workers living in fear of their lives were told to go back to their own country by racist strikers. Meanwhile the government plans to augment their racist immigration laws, imposing even more restrictions on the rights of immigrants.
This month marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the miners strike of 1984-85, and the contrast between today’s construction strikes and the miners heroic battle couldn’t be clearer. The striking miners came up against the full force of the capitalist state and are still being vilified by the capitalist press to this day. At the same time the embattled miners became a tribune of the oppressed layers in society: women of the coalfields, Britain’s oppressed black and Asian minorities as well as gay and lesbian organisations backed the strike against the hated Thatcher government. In contrast to the vile nationalism prevalent at Lindsey and Staythorpe, the miners strike inspired magnificent displays of proletarian internationalism from workers across national lines: French trade unions as well as workers in Ireland, elsewhere in Europe, South Africa and the Soviet Union sent material aid to the miners and their families.
In the face of today’s worldwide assault on jobs, the urgent need is to mobilise the strength of the trade unions in a class-struggle fight against the capitalist bosses, Brown’s Labour government and in opposition to the trade-union bureaucracy. A genuine struggle to defend the interests of the multiethnic working class would demand a shorter working week with no loss in pay and a sliding scale of wages and hours. This would be counterposed to the current campaign pitting British workers against foreign workers and fuelling anti-immigrant racism. Scandalously Derek Simpson, co-leader of the Unite union, has backed this campaign, spewing poisonous rhetoric while posing beside the Union Jack, the racist emblem of the Empire in colonial times, symbol of the subjugation of Catholics in Northern Ireland today and of the bloody occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. As we said in our last issue:
“It is vitally necessary for the unions to fight against racism. Labour’s vaunted ‘flexible economy’ is heavily dependent on immigrant workers, who work for pitiful wages and face a climate of racist hostility. The government’s ‘war on terror’ has led to increased racism against Muslims, who are concentrated among the poorest section of the working class. Particularly in the context of recession, attacks on immigrant workers are increasing. The union Unite recently protested at the decision of subcontractors working at Staythorpe power station near Newark to employ only overseas workers on the job while refusing to hire any local workers. A demonstration outside the power station evoked Gordon Brown’s call at the GMB union conference in 2007 for ‘British workers for British jobs’—a slogan associated with the fascists. We vehemently oppose such divide-and-rule ploys, pitting workers of different countries against each other. We say the trade unions must fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants!”
—Workers Hammer No. 205, Winter 2008-2009
Far from organising a defence of jobs, about the only thing the trade-union bureaucracy is offering the working class is an endless stream of chauvinist rhetoric about British jobs, but no class-struggle fight against the capitalist order that plunged the world into this dire economic state. With the world’s largest car makers announcing tens of thousands of redundancies [layoffs] around the world, the Unite bureaucracy in Britain called on the government “to support UK manufacturing and the UK car sector” (tgwu.org.uk). When German car manufacturer BMW summarily fired 850 workers in Cowley in February, Unite co-leader Tony Woodley declared his loyalty to British capitalism saying: “I not only speak for my members but I think for Britain, when I ask for a meeting with your company” (unitetheunion.com).
Until such time as workers revolution rips it from their hands, British industry belongs to the bloodsucking capitalists. The working class has no country! Nationalist protectionism doesn’t save a single job, as former Rover workers sold down the river by Woodley can tell you. When BMW announced in 2000 it was pulling out of Rover in Birmingham, Woodley led a chauvinist anti-German demonstration with signs such as: “We won two world wars—let’s win the third.”
Socialist Party Wallows in Social Chauvinism
It is not surprising that Taaffe’s Socialist Party—which is notorious for adapting to backward consciousness—has assumed the pre-eminent role as spokesman for the reactionary protests, peddling the lying claim that these strikes are not anti-immigrant. Socialist Party member Keith Gibson, who was part of the strike committee of the Lindsey strikes, claimed at a 13 February London public meeting that: “We turned this dispute from where the media wanted to go—looking at a racist agenda—to what we put forward, through discussions with other Socialist Party members, a clear class agenda” (Socialist, 19-25 February). Taaffe claims that the slogan “British jobs for British workers” was “a minor feature of the strike” (Socialism Today, March 2009) while a report on the Lindsey strike in the Socialist (5-11 February) says the BNP “have been bounced off from this strike.” This is hardly the point. Why did the BNP support the strike? The Socialist Party bears its share of responsibility for leading a chauvinist campaign that has the enthusiastic support of the fascist BNP!
The Socialist Party’s unique contribution to the Lindsey strike was to replace the demand “British jobs for British workers” with the demand for: “Union controlled registering of unemployed and locally skilled union members, with nominating rights as work becomes available.” “Local union members” in this instance means “British workers.” As our article on the strike noted, other Labourite left groups such as Workers Power and the [British] Socialist Workers Party (SWP) managed to take a correct position of opposition to the reactionary strikes. But for the SWP this was short-lived. Having correctly stated at the beginning that “these strikes are based around the wrong slogans and target the wrong people” (Socialist Worker, 31 January) the SWP has been circulating a petition which is as disingenuous as it is opportunist. On the one hand it declares:
“The slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’ that has come to prominence around the dispute can only lead to deep divisions inside working class communities. The slogan, coined by Gordon Brown in his 2007 speech to Labour’s conference, is being taken up by the right wing press and the Nazi BNP. These are forces that have always been bitterly hostile to the trade union movement.”
However it goes on to say: “We support the demands of the Lindsey Oil Refinery strike committee” (“Unite to Fight for Jobs Petition” at petitiononline.com).
This petition is a grovelling capitulation to the Socialist Party and to the trade-union bureaucracy. The real, anti-foreigner meaning of the demands of the Lindsey strikers for preferential hiring of “local” union members is unmistakeable in the Unite newsletter’s coverage of the strikes. The Spring 2009 issue approvingly quotes Steven Bright, an unemployed erector from Newark, who “believes foreign workers will send money home rather than spending it in the local community” and demands that the government must “stop foreign labour coming in to do work that we are qualified and available to do.” The same article quotes Simpson saying “it will be a disgrace if UK workers are shut out from building their own power stations.”
We insist that the concern of the trade-union movement must not be whom the building contractors hire, but at what rate of pay and under what conditions they work. A genuine strike would undercut attempts by the bosses to “level down” the wages and working conditions of all workers by playing off one nationality against the other by demanding: Full union pay for all work at the prevailing rate, no matter who does the job! Equal pay for equal work!
A strike for jobs for all in construction—i.e., including immigrant labour—would of necessity be counterposed to the current campaign, whose true face was shown at a Staythorpe protest in Newark, Nottinghamshire, on 24 February in which at least one demonstrator was wearing a Union Jack and a section of the demonstrators chanted “foreigners out.” When a video of the demonstration appeared on YouTube the wretched Socialist Party was forced to admit the presence of racist elements, saying: “Disturbingly, a small minority of workers at the front of the march had chanted ‘Foreigners out!’” (socialistparty.org.uk, 4 March). The Socialist Party does not claim that their members who were present uttered a peep of protest, much less tried to kick these thugs off the demonstration. It is notable that the petition being promoted by the SWP has been signed by prominent Labour “lefts” and trade-union bureaucrats such as John McDonnell, Tony Woodley and Mark Serwotka, but not by Keith Gibson or any other prominent figure in the Socialist Party. This is presumably because of the petition’s (mealy-mouthed) opposition to “British jobs for British workers.”
Consistent opposition to these reactionary strikes requires a revolutionary internationalist programme and a perspective of mobilising the multiethnic working class in Britain in a struggle for the revolutionary overthrow of the racist capitalist system. This is counterposed to the programme of the Socialist Party (and the SWP) whose “socialism” is merely old Labour’s social-democratic programme based on a commitment to nationalised industry under capitalism while leaving the capitalist state intact. Labourite reformism is inherently protectionist, as can be seen starkly in today’s cries for nationalisations to bail out “British” jobs and to minimise British capitalism’s losses.
The working people in this country need a party that fights for their class interests, a workers party committed to sweeping away the bankrupt capitalist system through socialist revolution to overthrow the capitalist order worldwide. We fight for a multiethnic revolutionary workers party, part of a Leninist-Trotskyist international. Socialist revolution will establish a workers state, ruled not through parliament but by soviets (or workers councils) and will lay the basis for rationally planned economies based on production for need, not for profit. This in turn will allow for development of the productive forces so that poverty, scarcity and want will be eliminated, thus laying the basis for the creation of an egalitarian socialist society.
For a Socialist United States of Europe!
The worldwide economic crisis has opened up deep divisions within the European Union (EU). This was evident at the 1 March emergency summit at which Czech prime minister Mirek Topolanek, who currently holds the rotating EU presidency, was said to be fuming over French president Nicholas Sarkozy’s proposal that in return for a government bailout, French car makers should shut down plants in Eastern Europe and produce in France. An article in the [London] Times the day after the EU summit headlined, “New ‘Iron Curtain’ Will Split EU’s Rich and Poor,” claimed that “Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Western leaders were told yesterday that five million jobs could be lost in the ‘new’ European Union countries of the East unless radical action were taken to bail them out” (Times, 2 March).
As proletarian internationalists we oppose the EU, an imperialist consortium designed to improve the competitiveness of the European imperialists against their American and Japanese rivals, while grinding the working classes in Europe, including by intensifying racism against its minority component. We also opposed the eastward expansion of the EU into the former deformed workers states of Eastern Europe, which provided the European bourgeoisies with a vast supply of very cheap labour. At the same time we oppose work restrictions by Western European governments on workers from “new” EU member states.
The eastward expansion of the EU resulted from the capitalist counterrevolutions that swept Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1992 creating massive unemployment and social immiseration within these countries and across the world as a whole. We Trotskyists of the International Communist League fought to mobilise the working class in defence of the gains that those states embodied. This historic defeat for the workers and oppressed was supported by the SWP and the Socialist Party. The Taaffeites were on Yeltsin’s barricades: the front-page headlines of their newspaper Rabochaya Demokratiya (October 1991) trumpeted: “Where We Were,” “On the Barricades in Moscow” “And in Leningrad” (see WV No. 828, 11 June 2004).
The Taaffeites’ sordid role in the “British jobs” campaign has prompted Workers Power to quit the Taaffeite “Campaign for a New Workers Party” (CNWP). This is truly a “day late and a dollar short.” Workers Power walked out on 1 March when the majority voted for a Socialist Party motion hailing the Lindsey strike as a “victory for the working class.” Only then did it dawn on the hapless Workers Power that the CNWP “has become little more than a front for the SP and a conduit for its politics” (Workers Power online bulletin, 10 March).
The current “British jobs” campaign gives an accurate picture of what kind of “new workers party” the Taaffeites seek to build. But this is hardly news. The Taaffeites’ politics—including support for counterrevolution in the former Soviet Union and loyalty to “democratic” British imperialism and its police and prison guards, as well as social-chauvinism—are integral to Labour reformism. This is a programme which Workers Power shares. Like the Taaffeites, Workers Power was present on Yeltsin’s barricades of counterrevolution in Moscow in 1991. Prior to the 2006 split with most of its founding cadre who formed Permanent Revolution (which today shamelessly supports the “British jobs” strikes) Workers Power perennially supported Labour in elections, a tradition upheld by both wings after the split. Old Labour in government sent British troops into Northern Ireland in 1969 to reinforce the viciously anti-Catholic RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] and in the 1970s Labour introduced vile anti-immigrant measures in Britain. Upholding this tradition, the Socialist Party has for decades refused to call for British troops out of Northern Ireland.
In Britain, a revolutionary party can only be built through opposition to Labourite reformism, which has served to tie the working class to the capitalist exploiters for over a century. [Former Prime Minister] Tony Blair began the process of remoulding the Labour Party from what Lenin termed a “bourgeois workers party.” Labour today has gone some way towards becoming an openly bourgeois party and is moribund as a reformist party. Describing Blair’s transformation of Labour, Peter Taaffe claims that “leaders like Tony Blair in Britain and their social-democratic cousins in Europe and elsewhere” went over “lock, stock and barrel to the side of the bourgeoisie in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism” (Socialism Today, March 2009).
Contrary to Taaffe, the leaders of the social-democratic parties went over “lock, stock and barrel” to the bourgeoisie at the outbreak of WWI in August 1914. The leaders of the social-democratic parties became what Lenin termed social-chauvinist for lining up the working class behind their “own” bourgeoisie. This is a fitting description of the Taaffeites today. Lenin fought intransigently to win the working-class base of these parties through a political split from the social-chauvinist camp in the workers movement, the camp of Labourism. He wrote: “Opportunism and social-chauvinism have the same political content, namely, class collaboration, repudiation of the dictatorship of the proletariat, repudiation of revolutionary action, unconditional acceptance of bourgeois legality, confidence in the bourgeoisie and lack of confidence in the proletariat. Social-chauvinism is the direct continuation and consummation of British liberal-labour politics” (“Opportunism, and the Collapse of the Second International,” 1915).
The ICL is dedicated to the task of reforging Trotsky’s Fourth International, the necessary instrument to fight for new October Revolutions, through intransigent struggle against social democracy. As the world today is again riven by an economic crisis, rivalries among competing imperialist powers are heating up. We insist that the proletariat must be imbued with the programme of international solidarity and struggle that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels inscribed on the banner of the communist movement more than 160 years ago: “Workers of the World, Unite!”