Workers Hammer No. 229
Unchain the unions!
Down with austerity, anti-immigrant racism!
The Scottish independence referendum in September shook up the “United Kingdom” and stirred up a hornet’s nest of English chauvinism. On the eve of the vote, Tory prime minister David Cameron promised more powers to the Scottish parliament, a pledge which enraged the Tory party right wing. Just hours after the referendum result came in, Cameron vowed that measures will be taken to curtail the votes of Scottish MPs on English questions in Westminster, provoking a chauvinist clamour for “English votes for English laws”.
But Cameron has a bigger problem within the Tory party: the political tune in bourgeois politics is being called by the far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP), which combines opposition to the European Union (EU) with virulent anti-immigrant racism. Two Tory MPs have defected to UKIP and won by-elections, in Clacton and in Rochester and Strood, to become UKIP’s first MPs in Westminster. Other Tory defections to UKIP may well follow. In the May 2014 European Parliament elections, UKIP won 24 seats — more than any other party in Britain. Their success is part of a rise in support for far-right and fascist parties in France, Hungary and elsewhere in Europe, on the basis of chauvinist opposition to the EU.
With UKIP whipping up a racist frenzy against immigrants, Cameron proposed further measures to curtail the rights of immigrants from other EU member states, targeting those from Eastern Europe. The proposed curbs on immigration added to the friction between Britain and German chancellor Angela Merkel, whose spokesman told Cameron that the EU’s commitment to “the principle of free movement of workers” within the bloc is not negotiable. The EU is a capitalist club that is indeed committed to the free movement of capital within its member states, whereas the movement of labour is manipulated to suit the needs of the labour market. Immigrant workers from poorer EU states are used as a pool of low-wage labour. As elsewhere, the capitalist rulers in the EU seek to inflame racial, national and other tensions in order to divide the working class and weaken its struggles against exploitation. Today attacks on immigrants go hand in hand with brutal austerity measures being enforced on all of the working people.
Each year, thousands of immigrants from the world’s poorest countries drown in the attempt to gain entry into racist “Fortress Europe”. In late October Cameron announced that his government will cease contributions towards the rescue of immigrants at sea. Tory defence minister Michael Fallon harked back to racist demagogue Enoch Powell by making inflammatory comments about immigrants “swamping” the country.
While UKIP is a relative newcomer on the British parliamentary scene, anti-immigrant racism is decidedly not; Tories and Labour alike have long resorted to whipping up chauvinism against immigrants when such is deemed a vote-winner. Today former Labour Party voters in England are turning towards UKIP in significant numbers. In October, Labour came very close to losing a “safe” seat in the by-election in Heywood and Middleton in Greater Manchester to UKIP. Immediately Labour leader Ed Miliband vowed to come up with tougher measures against immigrants, including restricting access to benefits.
Miliband’s predecessor as Labour leader, Gordon Brown, embraced the slogan “British jobs for British workers” — historically a rallying cry of the fascists — that became prevalent during reactionary strikes against the employment of foreign workers on construction sites in 2009. The reformist Socialist Party, section of Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers’ International, wholeheartedly supported these strikes. We categorically denounced these actions and underlined the need for defence of immigrant workers. We pointed out that a class-struggle leadership in the unions would start from an internationalist framework, organising immigrant workers into the unions and collaborating with workers unions across national boundaries.
Down with the EU capitalist cabal
Cameron has promised that if the Tories win the 2015 general election they will hold a referendum in 2017 on whether or not Britain should stay in the EU. While Cameron is seeking to appease his right wing and to undercut UKIP, uncertainty over Britain’s future membership has unsettled nerves in the City of London. Britain is the largest net exporter of financial services, insurance and pensions in the world, generating a trade surplus of £42 billion in 2011-12, one-third of which came from trade within the EU. The City of London is a junior partner to Wall Street, and the US administration of Barack Obama, a “Wall Street Democrat”, has urged Britain to fix its relationship with the EU.
Throughout Europe, the rise of xenophobic and fascist parties is in part a result of the failure of the mass reformist parties — and the pseudo-Trotskyist left — to oppose the EU. Particularly since the end of the Soviet Union and the subsequent adoption of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, reformist organisations have broadly supported the EU, peddling the myth of a “social” Europe, ie a benign capitalist Europe with welfare state provisions. As proletarian internationalists, we have opposed the imperialist EU since its inception. Originally founded as an economic adjunct to the anti-Soviet NATO military alliance, the EU today is an unstable consortium of capitalist states, dominated by Germany. Through the single currency in particular, the EU enables the combined capitalist powers to impose austerity on their own working classes, while the dominant powers subordinate the weaker ones such as Greece, Ireland, Portugal and the East European member states. The oppressive relationship between unequal powers fuels great-power chauvinism in the oppressor states and a corresponding nationalist reaction in the oppressed countries.
We opposed the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 which authorised the introduction of the single currency. We stressed that a common European currency is not viable in the long term:
“Control over the quantity of money within its boundaries is a basic economic prerogative of a bourgeois state, one necessarily closely linked to other instruments of economic policy. A stable monetary system based on the ‘euro’ would require tight and permanent restrictions over taxation and government expenditure in all the EU member states . But since capitalism is organised on the basis of particular national states, itself the cause of repeated imperialist wars to redivide the world, it is impossible to cohere a stable pan-European bourgeois state. A European imperialist ‘superstate’ can be achieved only by the methods of Adolf Hitler. Should the Maastricht project for a common European currency come into being, it would amount to only a brief, conflict-ridden episode.”
— “For a workers Europe — For socialist revolution!”, Workers Hammer no 157, July/August 1997
Our proletarian opposition to the EU is integral to our perspective of a Socialist United States of Europe.
Unchain the unions
The present government is so unpopular that there was widespread sympathy for Scottish independence among working people across the north of England who would have liked to see Cameron’s Tories get a bloody nose. According to the TUC, working people are experiencing the longest and deepest squeeze on pay since the 1860s; average wages are down by £50 a week in real terms since 2007 and five million people earn less than a living wage. Moreover, a significant portion of the National Health Service (NHS) as well as education and other public services, have been privatised, leading to outsourcing of jobs and worsening of conditions.
The multiethnic working class which moves the trains, builds the office towers, and staffs the hospitals in this country requires a leadership willing to defend it from the ravages of the capitalist crisis, not through parliamentary squabbling but with some serious class struggle. Mobilising the power of the trade unions for such a fight is anathema to the existing leadership. The TUC responded to massive anger within the working class, calling demonstrations on 18 October under the slogan “Britain needs a pay rise”. Unions representing 1.5 million public sector workers called one-day walkouts in October, but the bureaucrats in Unison, Unite and the GMB called off even these token strikes. The “fightback” was reduced to NHS workers staging a four-hour strike — the first national strike in the health service for over 30 years — and a one-day strike by 200,000 public sector workers called by the PCS.
A serious struggle by the unions to defend and improve wages and working conditions in the NHS would strike a chord among many millions of working people, minorities and the poor, who see their healthcare provisions being starved and privatised to death. Likewise, struggle by transport workers would resonate with many working-class Londoners, who pay a hefty chunk of their incomes simply to travel to their low-paying jobs. The RMT, the largest London Underground union, has the potential power to bring the centre of finance capital to a grinding halt. Yet all the RMT bureaucrats have done in the face of management’s job-cutting schemes for station staff is to stage a 48-hour walkout in February, followed by another one months later. With the leadership of the train drivers union ASLEF refusing to call a strike, these pressure tactics caused disturbance but failed to shut down the Tube.
The “flexible labour market” — in large part the legacy of the Labour governments of 1997-2010 — means that the economy depends on employment outsourcing and agency working, which undercut the strength of the unions. The economy as a whole is heavily dependent on immigrant labour. Low-wage jobs are often done by immigrants — from nurses in the health service to cleaning and catering in schools, colleges and hospitals to construction-related trades. A trade union leadership based on a class-struggle perspective would undertake a union organising drive to draw in all workers, including those at the bottom in low-paying jobs. It would reject the poison of chauvinism and appeal on an internationalist basis to workers from other countries to join British workers in a struggle for jobs for all.
For all the strident bashing of immigrants by Labour and Tories alike, sections of the bourgeoisie quietly recognise that the British economy could not run without them. In some sectors they do work in unspeakable conditions for paltry wages. Frequent exposés in the bourgeois press describe workers from Eastern Europe who pick crops and work in food processing plants, living under the thumb of ruthless labour gangmasters, housed in squalor, earning pennies and lacking the means even to go home. Employment law to “protect” vulnerable workers is a bad joke: according to James Meek, writing of migrant agricultural workers, “there are so few inspectors monitoring whether bosses are actually paying the minimum wage that at the present rate it would take two and a half centuries to get round every employer” (London Review of Books, 9 October 2014).
The union bureaucrats, especially the leaders of Unite, the largest union, chose Ed Miliband as Labour Party leader in 2010 and embarked on a policy designed to “reclaim” Labour from the Blairites. Today Ed Miliband is widely seen in his own party as an election loser and there are growing calls for a replacement to lead the party into the general election next May. Whoever leads it, the Labour Party offers working people nothing but more of the same grinding exploitation they have endured not only under this government but the preceding Labour governments.
Effective resistance to the immiseration of the working people requires unity in struggle between the workers movement, immigrants and minorities. The aim of Marxists is to advance the solidarity and consciousness of the entire working class in these Isles — English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, black, Asian, native-born and foreign-born — in the struggle to build a revolutionary workers party in opposition to all the parties of capitalist class rule. Only the conquest of state power by the proletariat on a global scale can lay the basis for a rationally planned economy, a society in which racism and imperialist wars are relics of history.