Dexter Whitfield, In Place of Austerity (Nottingham: Spokesman Books)
Understanding the real reasons for the assault on public sector workers is a first crucial step in calibrating our best response, especially if we hope to win some battles in this prolonged war.
Dexter Whitfield systematically aids our task in this essential handbook for all those engaged in resistance from within unions as well as community and national coalitions. Whitfield argues that even with equitable taxation providing increased revenue for public health, education, welfare, housing and other services, the prevailing neoliberal consensus forces all recent UK governments to provide the political petri dish for four capitalist objectives.
Firstly, the marketisation and privatisation of services provide "new opportunities for capital accumulation". Governments create self-abolishing markets that lead to the transfer of functions to private enterprise. Business takes an ever larger role in public policy making.
So we have, for example, Michael Gove announcing on 1 December the entrance of US education privateer Edison into the UK "free" school game, despite it's abysmal track record in school provision and management. Secondly, "power thereby shifts from state to capital", from employees to employers, from service users to private contractors.
Deregulation weakens unions, and employees' basic entitlements. Council-based trade union facility agreements, for example, could end up in the dustbin of history in 2012 if the Taxpayers Alliance and the Daily Telegraph get their way.
Thirdly, "risk, cost and responsibility are transferred from the state to individuals". Most services are thus provided by private contractors working to contract as agents of the state. Veolia, the world's biggest water utility, for example, probably empties your bins, paying employees less than before on worse hours and conditions.
Fourthly, as a contradiction "capital can reduce the role of the state, yet safeguard corporate welfare". Tax breaks, subsidies and regulatory concessions increase both secrecy and business involvement in public policy making. Together these approaches amount to a deconstruction of democracy at all levels from your town hall via Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff to Brussels. Whitfield then notes, crucially, the massive contradiction for such neoliberalism in the post-2008 recession. It failed.
Deregulation, marketisation, competition and debt-driven consumerism brought about the erosion of transparent, democratic accountability and withthem came shameless greed, profiteering and illegal and corrupt practices.
There is a vast amount of data and analysis here to arm most of us in our daily fights with bosses of all kinds. There is a blind spot, however. Both socialism in general and the Labour Party in particular, despite much talk of social need, are beyond Whitfield's scope, despite his concluding note that, "The deconstruction of democracy will not be defeated by trade unions, community organisations, civil society organisations or political groups acting alone." This crucial question of the agency of change is one we cannot duck.
Socialist Review, January 2012
Dave Temple, The Big Meeting: A History Of The Durham Miners' Gala (Durham: Durham Miners' Association)
Last July Ed Miliband became the first Labour leader in 23 years to address the Durham Miners' Gala.
This event, a mild disavowal of new Labour's disdain for its roots, was critically received by many on the right as a "return to the past." If only. As David Temple's history records, the "Big Meeting" is a reminder of values and perspectives that have come to seem irrevocably alien to our political representatives.
The book takes the reader from the first Gala in 1871, tentatively organised by pit folk regarded as "a race apart," through its consolidation and growth against a backdrop of industrial strife, inter-war depression, post-war nationalisation, iconic struggle in the '70s and '80s, and its present-day survival despite the near-annihilation of the mining industry itself.
Besides chronicling the origin and development of the gala over almost 150 years, Temple provides a social and political history in which the event becomes a barometer for the rollercoaster fortunes of organised British mineworkers throughout the 20th century.
A former miner himself, Temple manages to avoid the tendency of many industrial retrospectives towards workerist nostalgia.
He depicts mining communities thriving despite their oppressive conditions of life and work, not because of them.
Temple records how the gala's speakers, democratically chosen by ballot, moved from radical Liberalism to take in syndicalists, anarchists, communists and left and moderate Labourites.
But the gala's equivalent stars are its participants - colliery bands, banner-bearers, marchers and spectators - who are represented in the book's many photographs, along with the fascinating and beautiful banners of participant union lodges.
Morning Star website, 4 September 2012
Donny Gluckstein, A People's History of the Second world war (London: Pluto Press).
This is a valuable contribution to an insufficiently discussed subject.
The second world war was indeed two wars. On the one hand, there was the interimperialist rivalry between the two enemy camps and, on the other, the popular conception of a war against fascism and the struggle for a better future.
The Western powers were, throughout the war, more concerned with preventing the success of popular and left-wing forces than defeating fascism.
Gluckstein perceptively begins his history with the Spanish civil war, the prequel to the war proper. He also covers popular resistance in such countries as India, Indonesia and Vietnam - not normally included in any histories of that war.
He reveals a whole series of significant and little-known facts about Western collaboration with fascist forces, as well as detailing the different forms which resistance to fascism took.
He shows, for instance, how the struggle for black liberation in the US was given a boost by the war, as were the various anti-colonial struggles in India and elsewhere.
The post-war attempts by the dominant Western powers to retrench their colonial empires and, internally, to return to the antebellum status of cosy capitalism were staunchly resisted by the popular movements.
While Gluckstein's book deserves praise one or two interpretations jar. He seems to blame Stalin and the Soviet Union for not providing Spain with sufficient military support to defeat Franco, and accuses the Communists of not waging a struggle for socialism immediately, but merely defending a bourgeois democracy. He also appears to equate the "two imperialisms" - Soviet and US.
Ignoring the fact that Soviet domination of eastern Europe was not so much connected with imperial intention as creating a "cordon sanitaire" around the Soviet Union, which had experienced continued invasions from the west, the Soviet Union did not need extra raw materials, cheap labour or land.
Here he rather ignores the realities that largely determined such processes. That said, though, the author is otherwise scrupulous in the accuracy of his research and provides a useful Marxist analysis of this period. A book which attempts to cover this exciting and complex period looking at 13 different countries can only really skim the surface, but Gluckstein does an excellent job in summarising key historical movements and processes and one hopes this research will be taken up and deepened by others.
Morning Star website, 7 August 2012
The Happy Lands is a film about the 1926 General Strike in Fife. Interesting, but so what? Well what makes this film unique is that the actors are all local people (including UNISON members), the script was written by local people, and even the film sets were built by local people - all under the direction of Theatre Workshop Scotland. A taste of what's been achieved can be seen in the trailer https://vimeo.com/42118987
And what those involved felt about seeing the film for the first time can be seen in this footage from the recent gala opening night https://vimeo.com/46477536
And here's what Tony Garnett of Kes and Cathy Come Home has to say about it: "A film set in a mining community during the 1926 General Strike is unexpected in the present climate. One created by a community - that is, by the creative involvement of the whole community - may be unique. Make that a community that was still digging coal up in the 1980s, whose parents and grandparents were actually part of the 1926 strike, who listened as children to first hand accounts, and have brought that experience to the film: well, then you have something remarkable. This is original and daring. It promises emotional authority. It could be an example for others to follow".
For more background and interviews with actors see http://www.unison-scotland.org.uk/happylands/index.html
David Renton, Struck Out. Why Employment Tribunals fail Workers and What Can be Done
(London: Pluto Press, 2012).
David is the socialist barrister who helped the blacklisted Dave Smith win his case. This extremely well-informed but readable book describes why Employment Tribunals were set up, how they developed, why the current government wants to stack the odds against workers even more and why strong workplace organisation is the key to defending workers’ rights.
David's main points about the legislation are:
a) The two-year ‘probation’ period for new starters was worse than currently applied by employers.
b) Workers currently win 60% of cases once they get to tribunals.
c) The raising of costs to up to £20,000 is designed to take good cases out of tribunals.
d) Fees of between £400 and £1,500 for tribunals were designed to prevent smaller claims.
e) TUPE ‘harmonisation’ allowed for conditions to be worsened.
f) ‘No fault dismissal’ and ‘protected conversations’ were a bully’s charter.
g) There were eight reinstatements out of 40,000 unfair dismissal cases in 2010-2011.
h) The BA/Unite case had discouraged employers from seeking spurious injunctions.
The trade union response should be ‘a howl of protest’ (without accepting that previous legislation was adequate), followed by rolling with the defeat while industrialising disputes, organising walk-outs and initiating collective disputes (perhaps using a test group).
Workplace trade union organisation needs to be tightened so that an effective collective response can prevent individuals from having to go through the long, expensive and very uncertain experience of an Employment Tribunal.
Trades Councils are ‘a repository of knowledge’ and every union branch should affiliate.