Issue 278 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review
|Education workers on the anti-war/anti free trade demonstration|
The resort of Cancun seemed the perfect place for the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to hold its talks. The Zona Hotelera, where the convention centre lies, is a strip of land with beautiful beaches on one side and separated from the town by a crocodile-infested lagoon on the other. The Ritz, Sheraton, Meridian and dozens of other multimillion dollar hotels line the strip, and the street signs and shop fronts are written in English: 'liquor store', 'drugstore', 'T-bone steak'. The Zona is a playground for the rich of the US, while half the population of Cancun (a town created solely to service the resorts) are without access to basic services such as clean water. The cesspit sitting under the town is full to overflowing.
The alternative events took place over a week from 7 to 14 September, with forums, workshops and actions organised every day on all kinds of issues--water privatisation, education, healthcare, debt, fair trade, biodiversity, indigenous peoples. Many of the same debates and questions came up in the workshops as we face here: how do we get more people involved in the movement? Can we create the 'better world' bit by bit, or is more radical change necessary? How do we link up all the issues people are campaigning over?
Organisers talked about three aims of the counter-action: first, to derail the talks; second, to create an alternative zone of resistance; and third, to build the international movement through communication and cooperation between different groups. The first major event was the farmers' march on Wednesday. Campesinos (farmers and agricultural workers) from all over the world united with trade unionists, students and anti-capitalists from Mexico, Latin America, the US, Africa and Europe to march on the Zona. There are only two ways into the Zona, and fences and lines of riot police barricaded both. It was at the fence that South Korean farmer Lee Kyung-Hae took his own life in protest at the agricultural policies of the WTO. The words on his banner resounded all week: 'The WTO kills farmers'.
The next day--11 September--was a day of commemoration for victims of war, and for victims of the 1973 coup in Chile. A vigil was held at the fence for Lee and graffiti appeared around town: 'Lee vive!' alongside 'Carlo vive!' On Friday dozens of protesters sneaked into the Zona disguised as tourists--even the security of the WTO wasn't allowed to interfere with making money. Several small actions took place--street theatre, guerrilla gardening, sitdowns. About 50 activists took the road outside the conference centre and blocked traffic for four hours. Simultaneously, activists in the town took over an empty restaurant and occupied it, giving out free food to locals, playing music and creating a festive atmosphere of resistance.
For me, the most important event was the demonstration against war and free trade on the Saturday. The local press had been full of articles about outside agitators descending on Cancun and threatening violence all week. The regional president attacked 'globalifobicos' for bringing the town into disrepute. But on Saturday we created a fantastic atmosphere of celebration. Although many of the farmers had gone, the Korean delegation was going strong and led the demo alongside Mexican and European farmers. They were followed by thousands of students, anti-privatisation campaigners, trade unionists and anarchists. The Koreans sang and chanted throughout the march in Spanish, English and Korean. The most popular chant was 'Zapata vive! La lucha sigue!' (Zapata lives! Continue the struggle!). There was an anti-capitalist band called the Noise Brigade, indigenous Mexican groups and giant puppets--including the Mayan rain god, emblazoned with a sign saying, 'MAD with the WTO about water privatisation'. By the time we got to the fence there were up to 10,000 demonstrators and we proceeded to pull a section of the fence down. The Korean farmers directed and dozens of protesters heaved on ropes to topple the welded cage-like steel structure. This symbolic act was followed by speeches from the farmers and flowers were held up in tribute to Lee.
As we were pulling down the fence, the talks were collapsing. By Sunday it was clear that the protests outside and the divisions inside the WTO had once again temporarily derailed the neoliberal project. Everyone felt that the three objectives had been met. As Barry Coates of the World Development Movement has put it, the story of Cancun 2003 is one of linked up campaigning around the world. The challenge now is to build on those links and, like we dismantled the fence, break down the system that is holding us all back.
BETWEEN THE LINES
Why was the Docklands Light Railway so keen to prevent protesters disrupting transport to the recent DSEi arms fair? Perhaps because the Serco group, which runs the DLR, was also a prominent exhibitor. Serco brags of providing 'life cycle value for money' training for the MoD, Nato and the US Department of Defence.
While it's generally good to hear of ex-prisoners being rehabilitated, news of Nick Leeson's new job should raise a few eyebrows. The infamous 'rogue trader' who broke Barings bank by gambling away £850 million has found a career in TV--as a financial tipster.
The new chief executive of Boots, Richard Baker, has been attempting to bond with his underpaid and overworked staff. Boasting of how he visited four stores in one morning, he revealed that 'I came back from the first day with 21 good ideas from colleagues'. Between the Lines cannot confirm if any of them were printable.
Blink and you'll miss it
The narrow vote against national strike action by postal workers came as a shock to many of us in the Communication Workers Union. Royal Mail bosses, on the other hand, were jubilant. This strengthens their ability to ram through 30,000 redundancies with a staged productivity pay deal. The Financial Times summed it up like this: 'Royal Mail and the CWU were eyeball to eyeball, and 48,000 members of the CWU blinked.'
The CWU decision to ballot was correct. So what went wrong? How did the union miscalculate so badly? There are a number of factors. Royal Mail workers are seriously disillusioned with their working lives, and fear for the future of their terms and conditions. Many view redundancy as a way out of their predicament. Others have been taken in by management promises of higher pay and negligible effects on their workplaces. In some areas intimidation by managers proved to be effective. Threats of lockouts and non-renewal of temporary contracts must have had an impact. In the past the workforce comprised of long-serving people on permanent contracts, grounded in industrial struggle and trade unionism. Currently there are large numbers of temporary contract workers employed who, generally speaking, do not have the same collective outlook. It is significant that the widespread industrial action within the Post Office has been absent for the last couple of years, due in part to the Sawyer report and the policy of partnership the union pursued to end a wave of unofficial action.
The CWU at branch level was probably the most important factor were a yes vote to be secured. Unfortunately in some areas the union message did not reach the members due to the inactivity of branch officials. It may be trite to say 'get out and talk to the members', but it is true. The regional divisions in the union caused by the defeat of deputy general secretary John Keggie also played a part. Officials from some branches lobbied their members to vote no--not on the issues, but out of some warped sense of retribution against Dave Ward and his supporters.
In London there was a three to one majority in favour of industrial action on London weighting payments. This raises the interesting possibility of unofficial actions around the country should management divert mail from London to the regions. The same could be true if management try to impose changes without concluding an agreement with the union.
Appealing to racists
New Labour's descent into the gutter continues apace, with plans to further tighten already draconian anti asylum seeker legislation. David Blunkett wants to reduce the right of appeal against the Home Office's notoriously arbitrary asylum decisions. Even with barriers such as the government's 'white list' of countries, which it automatically assumes never commit human rights violations, 21 percent of appeal cases are upheld. As Imram Hussein of the Refugee Council has commented, 'If any other government department had a failure rate of one in five that would be a significant cause for concern, and here you are often dealing with matters of life and death.'
Such concerns matter little to New Labour. It wants to 'kill the issue' of asylum by pandering to the racist filth of tabloids that blame asylum seekers for everything from an underfunded health service to missing donkeys. It appears oblivious to the harm it does in legitimising an agenda that the Nazi BNP then feeds off.
Britain is the only EU country to imprison the children of asylum seekers. The Scottish TUC backed big protests recently when the Independent revealed that the four children of the Kurdish Ay family, who had made friends and learnt English at their local school, had been detained at Dungavel detention centre for more than a year. Somalian asylum seeker Fatima Muse has also been fined her £3.50 weekly allowance at Dungavel for taking a Weetabix into her room to feed her young daughters.
Campaigners have set up a bail fund for detainees, and Scottish Socialist MSP Rosie Kane has invited Mercy Ikolo, an asylum seeker from Cameroon with a 15 month old baby, to stay at her flat while the fight to shut these barbaric internment camps continues.
|An Israeli soldier aims at a group of Palestinians|
The much-vaunted Middle East 'road map to peace' has reached a dead end. The US has even taken the outrageous, if not uncharacteristic, step of vetoing a UN resolution opposing the threatened assassination of Yasser Arafat. Most of the media blame the Palestinians for breaking the truce. However, a different picture emerges if one examines the sequence of events since the Palestinian militant groups Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs declared a three-month truce on 29 June, despite Israeli soldiers killing four Palestinians that very day.
According to phase one of the road map, Israel was required to withdraw from areas within the West Bank and Gaza Strip reoccupied since 28 September 2000, to freeze all settlement activity (including 'natural growth') and to dismantle all settlement outposts erected since March 2001. Israel was also directed to cease demolition of Palestinian houses and confiscation of property. The plan further required Israel to lift the curfews and to remove the roadblocks which inflict constant harassment and humiliation on Palestinians. Israel also agreed to release a number of the 7,700 Palestinian prisoners mostly held without charge or trial and promised to suspend targeted assassinations of leading activists--attacks which usually kill many innocent civilians. The condition of this was that the Palestinian Authority disarm the resistance groups.
On 29 June Israel began withdrawing its troops from most of the Gaza Strip, pulling out of Bethlehem on 2 July, then on 15 August out of four additional towns. However, the Israeli army has choked off these towns with external checkpoints, retaining 160 roadblocks throughout the West Bank. And it continues to inflame Palestinian feeling by almost daily incursions into Palestinian areas, leading to arrests, house demolitions and land confiscations.
Despite the freeze on settlements, the Israeli government announced plans for the erection of 22 new homes at a settlement in the Gaza Strip on 31 July. Some outposts were removed by the army only for the settlers to reassemble them at different spots. In addition, the Sharon government continues to build the 370-mile 'security wall' separating Israel from the West Bank, at times encroaching deep into Palestinian territory. As regards prisoners, Israel released 486 political detainees but then made scores of fresh arrests, detaining possibly three Palestinians for every one released.
All these factors have resulted in an intensified Palestinian anger and despair. However, the greatest provocation is Israel's policy of assassination. On 8 August, despite the truce, Israeli forces killed two Hamas militants and, later, two Palestinian protesters. Four days later, two suicide bombers killed two Israelis in retaliation.Until 12 August, and since the truce began, the Israelis killed some nine Palestinians without Palestinian reaction.
But the decisive event was Israel's killing of Mohammed Seder, the Hebron leader of Islamic Jihad, on 14 August. The Israelis must have known this would trigger a Palestinian response. Five days later, a suicide bomber killed 22 Israelis on a Jerusalem bus. Two days after that, Israeli forces killed Ismail Abu Shanab, a Hamas leader, as a result of which Islamic Jihad declared the truce over. Shanab's murder was the opening shot of an offensive during which Israel carried out eight targeted attacks, killing 17 Palestinians and wounding Hamas' founder the crippled Sheikh Ahmad Yassin. Predictably, on 10 September two suicide attacks killed 15 Israelis.
Israel seems to be pushing a dual strategy. First, phase one of the road map is largely about disarming Palestinian resistance to the occupation. It is for this purpose that two prime ministers, Mahmoud Abbas, and now Ahmad Querei, have been imposed on the Palestinians by the US, sidelining democratically elected president Arafat. Abbas was forced to resign because he was seen as a US stooge unable to wrest significant concessions from Israel. It is laughable that Arafat is accused of sponsoring 'terrorism' and is under threat of execution or deportation, despite having frequently attempted to arrest Islamic militants, most recently on 2 August. The fact remains that Israel's brutal occupation has created a growing mass base for the militant groups. The attempt by Israel and the US to transform Palestinian leaders into colonial policemen is aimed at provoking civil war among the Palestinians.
Second, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Israel is not really interested in peace, that its strategy is to provoke Palestinian responses to its attacks, then to cow the Palestinians into submission by massive retaliation. In other words, when Israel talks about peace, what it means is Palestinian surrender. The history of Palestinian resistance suggests that neither strategy will work.
TRADES UNION CONGRESS
Big battalions firing blanks
On the opening morning of this year's TUC conference at Brighton, a small group of demonstrators shouted slogans at delegates as they entered. These ranged from demands for the TUC to block foundation hospitals to calls for an end to privatisation, racist asylum laws and tuition fees. Scattered among the slogans were, of course, demands for the end of the occupation in Iraq, and Bush and Blair's imperial adventures.
These worthy protesters could have saved their breath. The vast majority of delegates entering the hall agreed wholeheartedly. It also became increasingly obvious that the leaders of Britain's trade union movement needed no further convincing that these were positions that they too were happy to espouse--up to a point. Speech after speech, both from the leadership and the rank and file, denounced every aspect of the 'modernisation' agenda in all its manifestations--from airline pilots to nurses, from steel workers to caretakers.
That the general council of the TUC should so eagerly and publicly promote the fight against the BNP and the asylum laws is a genuinely welcome development. That the president, Nigel de Gruchy of the reactionary NASUWT, should have the confidence to denounce Bush and his motives in his opening address is truly remarkable. But for all of that, when it came to outlining any sort of concerted and purposeful strategy for taking Blair on, the cracks between the rhetoric and political reality began to show.
Of all of the 'debates' at TUC (with practically no dissent, the discussion of motions was almost never controversial), that over the rise of the BNP demonstrated this divide most clearly. There was no disputing the obvious repugnance felt by all who spoke but, despite the damning oratory, it was left to a rank and file delegate from the AUT lecturers' union to point out that we need to address the swamp from which Nazis emerge if we are to really tackle the problem.
The disillusionment of the vast majority of their members with Blair and his agenda leaves the leaders of the 'big battalions'--Woodley, Simpson, Prentis--with a problem. At the core of the way in which they operate lies the stubborn belief that they can change the Labour Party for the better. Hence they will dine at the Grand with Blair, and--despite the fact that he feeds a different story to the press than the one he gives to them--hope that they will shift him just a little closer to them. Hence they will listen to Brown--whose limp and lukewarm reception was one of the highlights of the week--despite his message that there will be no favours from the Treasury. And hence they have the confidence to invite along CBI boss Digby Jones, days after he had openly and deliberately insulted millions of their members, in the vain hope that workers and bosses can enter some dreamy partnership for their mutual benefit.
Nowhere was this problem for the trade union leaders illustrated more starkly than at two fringe meetings on the penultimate day. At the first, a platform of union leaders attempted to convince a largely sceptical audience that the Labour Party was worth reclaiming--and that the current wave of apathy and resignations meant that the time was ripe for jumping in and capturing the party machine. Later in the day, PCS leader Mark Serwotka gave a brilliantly analytical and realistic assessment of the possibilities of establishing a real alternative to Blair at a meeting organised by the Socialist Alliance. It is precisely this sort of hard-edged and sober debate that we currently need if we are to turn the anger of the delegates at TUC--and the millions they represent--into purposeful action.
Unfortunately, this debate won't take place in Millbank or Congress House. That the leaders of our trade unions are embracing a more radical set of positions than they have for decades is to be heartily welcomed. Now we've got to find ways of making them act--and 'reclaiming' New Labour isn't going to make that happen.
Right to copy?
One of the most common activities on the web is illegal. But by its very nature, it is almost impossible to identify the individuals involved. This is the sharing, distribution and downloading of copyrighted material, particularly music files.
A few years back, the file sharing software company Napster was closed after a series of legal challenges, but the software that replaced it utilises computers connected to the internet, with no centralised machines. As with the distributed computing mentioned last month, this means that music files on your machine can be uploaded by millions of users across the globe, while you can access their hard disks.
One of the leading services, Kazaa, had over 230 million files downloaded, and 13 million new users joining a month, according to an article at media.guardian.co.uk
Of course, this is met with predictable outrage from the music industry, which claims its massive profits are being ruined. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which recently forced a 12 year old girl's parents to pay a $2,000 fine for file-sharing, estimates that more than 2.6 billion songs are illegally downloaded every month, but this might not be their main problem.
In an interesting article at news.bbc.co.uk the RIAA claims that 'file sharing' is responsible for a 10 percent drop in sales of CDs in 2001 and 7 percent last year. However, other evidence points to a number of different factors. The biggest culprit for the drop in music sales appears to be the mass copying of music by organised crime, rather than people downloading a few of their favourite tracks from the internet. The pirate CD market is worth £2.86 billion, and is 'of greater value than the legitimate music market of every country in the world, except the US and Japan'.
A recent Register article www.theregister.co.uk also questions who is really to blame for problems in the music industry when two of the biggest music companies have once again been fined for price fixing CDs.
Obviously, there are legal constraints on me providing links to the sites devoted to such file sharing programs, but if you wanted to find out more, www.google.com is one of the most comprehensive search engines on the internet.