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Calling for heads to roll

It began a few weeks ago as a show of support for Peru’s Amazonian peoples: Peruvians across the country held marches, protests and strikes against their Government. But since then, the anti-government sentiment has evolved into a full-fledged civil uproar. People in my part of the country – southern Peru – talk of good, old fashioned rebellion and are are calling for Government heads to roll. 

Amazonian states have been holding strikes and roadblocks since last year to protest a series of Government decrees that would make it easier for foreign oil, mining and gas companies to purchase indigenous land. This 5 June the conflict escalated into brutal violence when the Government sent a special force of police commandos to break up a peaceful roadblock in Bagua, Peru’s northern Amazon. 

The official Government count maintains that 24 police officers and 10 civilians were killed, but indigenous leaders and human rights groups say that up to 100 civilians are missing. Rumours abound of a Government cover-up of the massacre, and local journalists reported bodies being dumped in rivers and mass graves.

Last week Amazonian leaders agreed to negotiations with Peru’s Government, and called on their followers to lift the blockades and other ‘measures of force’ while the talks take place. 

Although Peru’s northern jungle regions are currently experiencing a moment of tense calm, the blockades, strikes and marches continue in southern Peru, where I happen to live. There are so many different protests being held by diverse groups throughout the countryside, it’s difficult to figure out where one ends and another begins. Travel requires either a thorough knowledge of obscure roads and pathways, to avoid the main highways, or the courage and patience to abandon one’s bus, walk around the blockade, and seek out transport on the other side.

Farmers and unions in the Andean mountain province of Andahuaylas have blocked roads to protest environmental and social problems associated with foreign mining companies in the zone. One recent march brought an estimated 30,000 people to the streets of this provincial capital. Peru’s premier, Yehude Simon, is scheduled to meet with leaders on 23 June.

Another southern Andean province, Sicuani, has blocked the main highway leading to the tourism capital of Cuzco for the past 12 days. Protesters have a mixed bag of demands: they’re against privatization of a hydro-electric project, the teachers are up in arms about mandatory exams and everyone is worried that the new ‘Water Law’ will lead to privatization of water and higher costs. There have been acts of vandalism against government buildings, but farming leaders blame ‘infiltrators’ for the violence. Premier Simon is scheduled to meet with Sicuani’s leaders on Thursday, though it seems he will need super-human powers to travel from negotiations in Peru’s northern Amazon, to the turmoil in the southern Andean mountains. 

The Government is playing up the damage the southern protests have caused to Peru’s tourism trade, and announced that Cuzco has lost US$500,000 in cancelled trips and tour groups. This Wednesday (24 June), is Cuzco’s most important festival – Inti Rymi – in honour of the sun god, and always a major tourist draw. 

But farming communities have long complained that Cuzco’s booming tourist trade only benefits tour companies and middle-class urbanites. Nearly 40 per cent of Peru’s population lives in poverty, on less than US$2.00 a day, and despite the tourist trade, Cuzco remains one of the country’s most impoverished regions.

A study published this June by Peru’s Catholic University found that 86 per cent of the population living in southern Peru feels the distribution of wealth in Peru is unjust, and 58 per cent of all Peruvians disapprove the Government’s economic policy.

With the scent of revolution in the wind, Peru's Government has authorized the army to ‘aid police to maintain order’ in the states of Cuzco, Apurimac and Junin. It seems the Government hasn't learned from the recent massacre in Bagua that the use of force against peaceful civil protest only leads to bloodshed. Hopefully the army's presence won't add fire to an already explosive situation.

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‘We need leaders who want a better world’

Left, right or centre? It's time to stop and rethink politics
Left, right or centre? It's time to stop and rethink politics Dru Broomfield under a CC Licence
I was never a Thatcher fan. But the thought of celebrating someone’s death – dancing in the streets, champagne – felt somehow not quite the thing to do. Rather bad taste really, in my book. However,  I never lived in Thatcher’s Britain. Or suffered, like the coalminers, steelworkers and millions who became unemployed because of her policies. So I’m not sure that I’m allowed an opinion on this.

But since Thatcher’s death has dominated the news all week, it made me think about politics, both in general and particular, in India and Britain, the Left and the Right, new Labour, communism and so on. Having grown up in Marxist West Bengal, I listened to Marxist intellectuals from an early age. I’m forever grateful to them for forcing us, as students, to think, to argue and to be critical about everything. Because of that training, though, I disagreed with Left dogma. I was also disillusioned with the practice of Marxism in my home state. While I agreed with much leftist ideology, I’ve seen that all governance can cease, and the state can be paralysed when workers shut down the entire economy with endless, often senseless strikes, as has happened in West Bengal and Kerala. I spent time in the Soviet Union before glasnost and perestroika, and no-one would opt to live without freedom, even if they wanted the revolution. Even though the decimation of feudalism and tyranny was necessary, replacing that with the dictatorship of the supposed proletariat was not the answer.

Likewise, I remember the palpable anger of ordinary folks in Britain, in the seventies, when the coalminers threatened to strike mid-winter, in freezing temperatures, just before Christmas, holding everyone to ransom. I support unions and workers’ rights. But I’ve seen union bosses politicking for their own ends rather than for the good of the workers, and I’ve seen the work culture in Bengal and Kerala totally eroded by unjustifiable, irrational strikes which left the economy of both states in a shambles.

What is the answer, then? I’m not an economist, but like the emperor’s new clothes, sometimes even a child can provide better answers than all the king’s courtiers. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, communism and even socialism have become the butt of countless jokes. In India, the Left parties still have some clout. But everyone is heartily sick of the same old nonsensical, predictable jargon the politicians spew. And final neither the Left nor the Right deliver.

Several years ago, I reviewed James Bruges’ The Little Earth Book for New Internationalist. The section on banks intrigued me. The criticism and early warning against banks as evil capitalist institutions which would destroy democracy, economies and governance came not from some predictable commie philosopher, but from two US presidents, no less: from the highly revered Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Coming full circle, just over two centuries later, I received an article, ‘The Question of Socialism (and Beyond!) Is About to Open Up in These United States’, from US magazine Truthout, questioning why, after two decades of the collapse of the Soviet Union,  socialism was still such a feared word in the States. It suggested that Americans are looking for alternatives to their current structures. In India, there are attempts to start new parties, different from our standard more-of-the same discredited old political caucuses. And I heard today that the Italian media is excited about a promising new, clean politician, Fabrizio Barca, who says, ‘Italy needs not only a new government, but a new form of government.’ And in all these countries, people are desperate for change. Everyone wants clean, people-oriented, decent governance.

So, simplistic or not, I think we need to throw out the jargon, the tired clichés of Left and Right and produce new politics, new faces, different from the corrupt and venal breed that appears to be in power almost everywhere we look. We need leaders who want a better world.

We’ve hit rock bottom, so presumably there’s hope. We surely can’t sink any lower. So things can only get better. And phoenix-like, something, I hope, will rise from the ashes.

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The secret war on Asia’s workers

Asia workers die poster

© Sanjiv Pandita

There’s a war going on in Asia – and it’s one that, unlike ISIS in Iraq or the chaos in Syria, is failing to make the headlines. It’s the war on workers that is taking place across much of the continent, according to the Director of the Asia Monitor Resources Center in Hong Kong, Sanjiv Pandita.

The geographer David Harvey has termed this process ‘accumulation by dispossession’. Across the continent, workers are being forced off their land to make way for plantations, mining, or even real estate. They’re resisting – but employers and police are using the age-old methods of repression.

The past year has seen some of the largest strikes in Asia’s history. Again, the numbers are eye-watering: 100 million workers in India went on strike last year – in one day

The recent surge in attacks on citizens has been propelled by the expansion of neoliberal policies in Asia, including controversial ‘export processing zones’ which lack any labour or environmental standards. In such areas, ‘everything is a commodity,’ according to Pandita, particularly when inequality has soared in Asia – especially in China – over the last 20 years.

And the figures are astonishing: 300 million people – almost as many as the entire population of the US – are currently on the move in Asia, forced from rural land into the cities. This scale is ‘unprecedented at any time in the history of the industrial world,’ according to Pandita.

Of course, some end up in factories whose names have become infamous, such as the Yue Yuen factory in China, where 80,000 shoe workers recently went out on strike, or Foxconn, where your iPhone was probably made. Most workers, however, don’t end up there.

Vulnerable workers, dangerous work

Most will find themselves in an even more unregulated informal economy – picking shells, working on construction sites, gathering rubbish, and sex work. Informal work like this ‘employs’ up to a quarter of Asia’s total population – one billion people. That’s 70 per cent of total vulnerable employment in the world. It’s dangerous work, too. Over one million people die every year from work-related deaths in the region, according to conservative estimates.

Sanjiv Pandita

These workers are not only dispossessed from their land and resources – forced out by transnationals with the help of the local state – but from their rights. And with very often no identifiable employer – whether because the supply chains are so long or because they are ‘self-employed’ – organizing for better conditions is hard. But it can be done.

Following the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, the past year has seen some of the largest strikes in Asia’s history. Again, the numbers are eye-watering: 100 million workers in India went on strike last year – in one day. Millions stopped work in Hong Kong, Indonesia and Bangladesh, the latter winning a 50-per-cent wage hike in the textiles sector. Cambodia similarly saw a major general strike last December, which was met with a violent crackdown. And in Korea, mostly informal workers took radical action, particularly bricklayers.

Within these struggles, the question of unity between ‘formal’ and informal work has to be addressed. ‘We have to believe all working people are one – no matter what they are doing,’ Pandita says. The question is how to bring all of them together. New ways of organizing are occurring – the challenge, with no or secretive employers, is how and where to bargain. Instead, the bargaining must be political.

Even where informal workers are organizing, however, it is often separately. Home-based workers, sex workers and street vendors are getting organized – but not as one.

In such situations, the question of leadership also emerges, somewhat problematically. Movements often draw external middle-class organizers who take over. Yet, says Pandita, ‘the agents of change have to be workers themselves. We have to just be catalysts.’ Perhaps the current situation is just a temporary phase while grassroots leadership develops.

From Western workers, solidarity has to be genuine – ‘it can’t be based on pity’. Movements against accumulation by dispossession are rising up, and the challenge for those in the Global North is to offer solidarity without co-opting them. One thing is certain, however – with living standards in the West being crushed by austerity, all of us are workers now. It’s time to start organizing like we believe it.

Josiah Mortimer is reporting on the Global Labour Institute’s third International Summer School for trade unionists at Northern College from 7-11 July. You can follow all of the conference online Union Solidarity International, and on Twitter: #ISS14. This article draws on the plenary ‘The Fall & Rise of Labour?’

 

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Union activity escalates in demand for fair pay

Unison striker

See Li under a Creative Commons Licence

Unions have co-ordinated strike action across Britain this week in a call for fair pay and protection of services.

Monday morning saw workers from the National Health Service (NHS) out on the picket lines. On Tuesday, despite the London Underground workers’ strike being cancelled and an injunction being taken out against a planned Further Education (FE) walk-out, some action took place in London. On Wednesday, tens of thousands of people took part in PCS (Public and Commercial Services Union) strikes. Action this week will culminate with ‘Britain Needs a Pay Rise’, a demonstration in London and Glasgow on Saturday.  

Since 2010, the failure of the government to increase pay in accordance with inflation means that public-sector workers have experienced a pay cut in real terms. For NHS workers and members of the University and College Union (UCU) this cut works out at around 15 per cent; for local government workers, 20 per cent.

Strikes back in July highlighted the fact that a 1-per-cent pay rise is still a cut in pay in real terms. And yet NHS workers are being refused even this. Strike action was carried out by nurses, paramedics, midwives, ambulance drivers and other staff. The midwifery union, the RCM, walked out for the first time in their 133-year history. Across the country support was shown for those on the picket lines. A compilation of comments from midwives on the Guardian website reveals a common theme: for those in professions with the burden of care – the majority of whom are women – overtime and unsociable hours are the norm. These are some of the greatest givers in our society and the government are refusing to give back.

Following NHS strike action, some unions are continuing action this week by ensuring that staff work only their contracted hours and do no overtime.

On Tuesday, the RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers) union cancelled a two-day London Underground workers’ strike. Unison, Unite and Further Education UCU members were also scheduled to strike. However, this was called off after a high-court injunction was taken out against FE strikers. Campaigning group NCAFC (National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts) reported that the Principal of Westminster Kingsway College was behind the injunction and an emergency demonstration against the injunction was called at 1.15pm at Westminster Kingsway on Tuesday.

Hannah Sketchley, Democracy and Communications Officer at the University College London Union, attended the emergency demonstration. She said that one benefit of the injunction was that it could radicalize people into action. Such measures highlight the injustice of attempting to crush unions’ right to strike and expose the fears of those in power. Sketchley also noted that around 40 people attended the demo, which turned quickly into a union assembly – a much more constructive use of time.

On Wednesday, PCS strikes across the country yielded a similarly positive response as the NHS strikes. With civil and public servants and public-sector workers on government contracts walking out, the strike caused disruption to tax helplines and court proceedings. Many strikers took the opportunity to lobby their MPs for fair pay, taking letters directly to constituency offices. PCS says that it is now time to build for the demonstration on Saturday.

Many unions, including the National Union of Students (NUS), will attend this weekend’s Britain Needs a Pay Rise’ protest. As publicity for the demonstration reveals, ‘The UK has one of the highest proportions of low-paid workers in the developed world.’

Covering the strikes back in July, I commented that strike action, such as that undertaken in July and this week, would make it ‘harder to question the legitimacy of trade unions in the democratic process’. Although there have been few improvements to fair pay since the July strikes, the escalation in union activity this week backs up my claim. It is also a reflection on the critical need for a pay rise in the public sector. Britain has a history of union activity that the neoliberal state is finding increasingly harder to stamp out. Soon the government will have to start listening. 

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Occupy: Students stand in solidarity with teachers

Among the many students occupying the entrance to the Provost’s office at the University College London (UCL) is Justine Canady, a History undergraduate and the UCL Women’s Officer. The occupier’s demands are simple, for President and Provost Michael Arthur to stand in opposition to teachers’ pension cuts and support striking staff.

The proposed reductions will result in lecturer’s pensions being decreased by up to £10,000 (USD$13,875) a year. As a result, lecturers at more than 60 UK universities are taking part in intermittent industrial action which began 22 February and will escalate up to 16 March. The UCL student occupation began on the evening of 26 February and is in direct support of the University and Collage Union (UCU) strikes. I spoke to Justine about the reasons for the occupation and why she thinks it is important, as a student, to stand in solidarity with the workers at UCL.

Why are you taking part in the occupation?

We decided to occupy this space, at this time, to draw attention to and put pressure on the Universities UK negotiations happening on the 27th of February and publicly show that there was student support. We also wanted to put pressure on the university and encourage more student activists to get involved.

We decided to take direct action because this is the way you are going to win stuff like this. We know that lobbying isn’t working, university staff are taking part in 14 days of industrial action; that’s their form of direct action and students can do other stuff.

I think it’s nice that lots of students are signing petitions. I think that comes from a really meaningful place, but if we really want to oppose these pension changes we need to be doing more than that. That’s occupations, that’s sit-ins, that’s what we need students across the country to be doing because asking nicely isn’t going to help.

Also, student worker solidarity is something that we need to be building. Particularly as Women’s Officer I regularly get asked ‘why are you getting involved in workers’ issues, is that really about women?’ But it is a feminist issue. With the UCU stuff specifically, because of the gender pay gap, when the changes go through, women will have less access to money, even more so. A lot of the women taking part in the UCU strikes don’t even qualify for the pension scheme because they don’t earn enough, but they are still taking part which is a pretty amazing sign of solidarity.

If we want to change our education system this is how we are going to do it. I am a free education campaigner and I do a lot of stuff around marketization, we are always talking about building these links with our cleaners, with our lecturers. The things that screw them over, screw us over. Particularly with higher education reforms that were passed by the Tories last year, we are seeing a wave of marketization and cuts happening, and these pension changes are just one form of it.

For example, we do a lot of campaigning for funding of mental health services at UCL, they don’t fund these essential services properly, but they pay the provosts and managers really well and continue to build multimillion pound buildings. They want to attract more students and make the university look really cool on the outside without actually supporting their students and staff.

What is the impact of the pension cuts on the quality your education?

Having a casualized workforce is obviously going to result in crappy teaching. You have the Teaching Excellence Framework that the Tories passed in which they talk about excellence in teaching and getting value for money. However, if you don’t pay staff properly and you don’t let them retire on time obviously you are not going to have excellence in teaching. There is no logic to what is happening here.

What message do you think that the UCU strike sends?

Education is not a consumer good, it is a right for everyone, and if you want to change things they are not just going to give it to you, you have to stick out your neck a bit and fight for it. I’m really happy to see the strikes, it’s great that the university staff are standing up for themselves.

What else should people know about the occupation and what it stands for?

This isn’t about students and students need to stop making it about themselves. This is about the workers, it’s a bummer to miss lectures because you want to learn, but the people that are missing out the most are the people that are on strike and we can’t forget this.

We want our education system to be democratic, run by the people that study and work here, let’s scrap the Vice-Chancellor position and have proper democratic bodies that make decisions. It’s not up to Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn to come in to office and fix this, we need to hold on to the vision of education that we want; we need to start having these conversations. People need to stop waiting for others to do things on their behalf.

 

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Why striking lecturers can’t give up now

I am what’s called an ‘early career scholar’, which means more is expected of me as I grow older.

I work at the University of Edinburgh, and I am lucky enough to be on a proper contract. I have been a union member since the day I could be, and I will be until the day I can’t. Like so many of my colleagues across the UK, I have recently been on strike over proposed cuts to our pensions.

Striking was a strangely therapeutic experience; long hours standing in the cold, talking to colleagues, tending a fire in an old metal bin. It was a surreal routine, and not one without its tensions, its strain to my emotions, my muscles, and my bank balance. But now we’re in an awkward interim.

By some estimates more work-hours have been lost in this single action than in all UK strikes in 2015 and 2016 combined

The first wave of strike action has ended; the next round looms. The first offer put to us by Universities UK (UUK) was resoundingly and angrily rejected. The second – more ambiguous, more slippery, more promising – will be put to members early next week, and I for one will be rejecting it. We went into this to stop the attack on our pensions, and until we get a trustworthy offer that will achieve this, we must not give up.

It’s worth pausing to take stock of how much this strike action has already achieved. It is, by far, the largest and most severe strike in the history of British higher education. By some estimates more work-hours have been lost in this single action than in all UK strikes in 2015 and 2016 combined. And this has been achieved in a sector characterized by working conditions that enforce individual competition, reward self-exploitation, and incubate a hierarchical division between colleagues (divisions that all-too often reinforce distinctions of race, class, age, and gender). Despite this, picket lines held firm for the duration.

In Edinburgh, some 500 staff members have joined the union since this dispute began, a trend replicated across the country. And perhaps most importantly of all, the students have rallied to us in ways I could not have imagined. One student would slog up the hill to our department gate every morning, her own supply of tea and coffee in tow. Others would bring us pasties, porridge, and hot water bottles. The first offer from UUK came through on a cold Tuesday morning. It belittled us, offering nothing but a delay. And it insulted us, demanding we rearrange all our teaching for free. Just as spirits were beginning to dip, news hit that a group of students, inspired by others across the nation, had occupied the main lecture theatre on our central campus. They have since conducted themselves with astonishing maturity and focus, hosting an ever-evolving curriculum of talks and workshops.

We can’t be complacent about this. The feeling of standing together is fragile; it begins to dissipate as soon as we lock back into the grooves of everyday work, and it takes effort to keep it alive. It also begins to dissipate as soon as victory becomes less-than-certain.

UUK have offered their latest solution on condition that all further industrial action is suspended. This might have worked a month ago, but they have since misled us repeatedly. We have lost trust in them and gained trust in each other, and this is illustrated neatly by their insistence that we retreat from a position of strength to a position of compliance while they commit absolutely nothing.

The first offer put to us by Universities UK (UUK) was resoundingly and angrily rejected. The second—more ambiguous, more slippery, more promising—will be put to members early next week

As Jo Grady, a lecturer in Employment Relations at the University of Sheffield, has pointed out, the members of UUK stand to lose nothing if we win; they will continue to earn six-figure salaries while harvesting the prestige created by the history of those institutes they claim to ‘lead’. We, on the other hand, will be hit hard if we lose.

It is imperative we do not bow out of this until we have a victory we can depend on, not one that disintegrates under scrutiny. As UCU members, we’re struggling on both sides: keeping the pressure on UUK requires us to keep the pressure on our union leadership, who have been known to wilt before. But ‘before’ was an era of fewer members, less anger, and less determination.

We need to win this for our pensions, that much is obvious. But for an increasing number of precariously employed academics, retirement remains a fantasy. Across the UK, around 54 per cent of all academic staff are on insecure contracts, and this adversely effects those lower down the career ladder.

There is often a galling disconnect between the money invested in us and in the things that aren’t people; to give one example, the University of Edinburgh is currently investing £120 million in something called the ‘Edinburgh Futures Initiative’, a high-tech research hub that defies disciplinary categorization. Designed ‘to ask what the future could look like’, it is being built at the same time as 67.4 per cent of all academic staff here are subject to insecure work contracts.

The university’s laudable commitment to ‘tackling society’s most pressing needs’ should start by looking in the mirror.

In such a formulation, the status quo takes on the sheen of a radical demand. But when bellowed through a megaphone, it falls rather flat

Precarious employment is by no means confined to Edinburgh, or higher education more broadly (in excess of seven million British workers are now on precarious contracts of various forms), but it rots the heart of universities. Those who teach and research are increasingly doing so while stressed and tense, overworked and underpaid. There’s no point fighting for our retirement if we’ll never get there, and it’s important to acknowledge that these two processes – insecurity of work now; insecurity of retirement later – are fundamentally linked. Victory now will inspire victory later (the inverse is also true, as UUK well know).

At a recent rally in Glasgow, one speaker urged us to demand the status quo and settle for no less. Each offer of a solution is to be measured against the benchmark of what we already have: is the new proposal worse, and if so, by how much? Collectively, how much worse do we feel is tolerable?

In such a formulation, the status quo takes on the sheen of a radical demand. But when bellowed through a megaphone, it falls rather flat. This strike has made clear that a return to the status quo on the issue of pensions requires an almighty upheaval of the status quo more broadly. The entire gamut of high student debt, low teacher pay, and undemocratic oversight needs to be done away with (or, in management-speak, ‘reformed’).

Each of these struggles is strategically separate, but intimately connected nonetheless. Capitulation on one issue will make the cause of fighting the others so much harder.

 

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Watch out McDonald’s, the ‘McStrike’ is coming

Annalise Peters is a McDonlad's worker in Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Tomorrow I and my fellow workers at McDonald’s in in Cambridge will go on strike for the second time. Last time we went on strike there were only two locations participating. This time around that number has nearly tripled with workers at five locations walking out. We’ll be striking for £10 an hour, for an end to zero hour contracts and for union recognition. It doesn’t sound like a lot – it’s not – but it has the power to change lives.

Too many McDonald’s workers struggle to get by every week. They don’t know if they’ll earn enough to pay their rent or bills. Everyone’s living with constant stress and it’s time for that to change. Ten pounds an hour is not much, especially considering– McDonald’s makes billions in profit. A modest increase in wages would recognize the contribution that our work makes toward those the profits.

When we stand together as McDonald’s workers we are powerful. We can support each other, and work together to solve our problems

Today’s low pay is made worse by how McDonald’s uses zero hour contracts. They are a cause of such instability in workers’ lives. When you rely on your shifts to survive, you are forced to beg for the shifts you need. You never know if you’ll be able to eat week to week.

McDonald’s claim that they’ve offered fixed hour contracts to everyone, but that was entirely for show. It wasn’t a serious offer. They made it too difficult for workers to access the new contracts.

That’s why we need a union, so we can solve problems like these. So we can come together to support each other, and make McDonald’s a better place to work. It’s really about respect. We’re standing up for ourselves. Bullying is present in too many McDonald’s locations. It comes from a lack of respect for each worker’s individual needs and wants but it’s by coming together as a union that we can fight back against it. Together we can ensure that no worker has to go onto shift worried about being bullied or disrespected.

When we stand together we’re no longer alone. When we stand together as McDonald’s workers we are powerful. We can support each other, and work together to solve our problems.

The support for our strike in Cambridge has been overwhelming. Teachers, lecturers, firefighters, other trade unionists, community and campaign groups like War on Want have all sent messages of encouragement. It’s been an incredible boost. It’s been great to have the support of my family as well, having them understand the importance of what we’re doing.

We’re not asking people to boycott McDonald’s – it’s about holding McDonald’s accountable for how it treats its workers. It’s about saying to Steve Easterbrook, the global CEO of McDonald’s, that he needs to listen to workers and respect our right to a union.

Eventually we will win. When we do it will change lives for the better. I’ll be able to spend a little less time focusing on McDonald’s and more on pursuing my studies. With £10 an hour in my pocket, I’ll have a bit more time to enjoy my social life. Our movement is growing and it’s growing really quickly. McDonald’s, watch out. We’re standing up for ourselves and others.

Annalise Peters is a 20-year-old McDonald’s worker in Cambridge, United Kingdom.

 

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Uber drivers of the world, unite!

In the final weeks of 2018, a minor crisis was unfolding in a warehouse in West London. A shipment of conveyor-belt parts intended for the British Virgin Islands had not shown up. The van carrying the parts from a factory in Spain to London, via France, had been held up by the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) and the shipment missed its Caribbean-bound cargo flight.

The powerful and contradictory ‘yellow vests’ mass movement against Emmanuel Macron’s government has two core tactics: rioting and blockades. The obstruction of roundabouts across France proliferated to the point that it caused a chain reaction, preventing shipments from moving reliably from A to B. The interrupted passage of the conveyor-belt parts bound for West London was of no particular significance for the global circulation of commodities – but their fate shows up the intense vulnerability of our global economy’s extended supply chains. Increasingly, workers are starting to use that vulnerability to their advantage.

The logic of logistics

Since the financial crisis of 2008, the Italian grassroots unions Si Cobas and ADL Cobas have made extensive use of strikes and blockades to build worker power in the chain of distribution centres that form the backbone of the Italian economy.

Their organizing has proved so effective that state and company bosses have turned to repression. In 2017 Aldo Milani, the national co-ordinator of the Si Cobas union, was arrested and imprisoned on what were widely seen as bogus corruption charges. In response, logistics workers went on strike and a large demonstration was held outside the prison where Milani was being held. Three days later, with parts of the national supply chain paralysed, he was released. Italian logistics workers have taken advantage of the logistical vulnerability of modern capitalism to develop the kind of class power that can break a comrade out of jail.

This is not the first time workers have targeted the logistical weak points of capitalism. In the early 20th century, the internationalist union Industrial Workers of the World organized itinerant agricultural workers in the US by taking over the country’s freight-train system. They turned box cars into recruiting centres, and ultimately won huge wage increases for a workforce that had previously seemed firmly out of reach. In the UK, the London dock strike of 1899 catalysed the development of the ‘new unionism’, which led to decades of working-class organization and action.

While it may not be a new tactic, this new trend towards action in the warehousing sector is taking place when capitalism’s logistical vulnerability is more pronounced than ever. Some 20 million shipping containers make 200 million journeys per year, with workers co-operating across borders to move commodities across vast distances. When these containers are unloaded, the contents are often put straight into huge warehouse complexes on the periphery of urban areas by tens of thousands of low-paid, exploited and precarious workers. What’s more, the development of a doctrine of ‘just in time production’ means that many companies maintain incredibly low stock levels, and rely on the precise delivery of goods in order to continue work. The margins for error are tiny. The ‘new terrain’ of capitalist circulation is a tinder box.

Bad gigs

Even in the most advanced technological contexts, such as the warehouses of mega-retailer Amazon, these tinder boxes are starting to catch fire. In Italy, Germany and Spain, the last few years have seen workers in Amazon distribution centres co-ordinating strike action. But the struggle goes much wider than warehouses.

The growth of internet retailing and the so-called ‘gig economy’ both rely upon an increased ability for capitalism to deliver goods and provide services in very specific places at very specific times. The last mile of the supply chain is becoming increasingly important for companies such as the food delivery app Deliveroo or taxi service app Uber. This last mile is also now the subject of an increasingly global battle over wages and conditions.

Uber drivers in San Francisco, London, Bangalore and Johannesburg share a common employer. Or rather a common enemy

When the gig economy rose to prominence, many commentators noted how isolating its work could be. In most countries, workers for apps like Deliveroo and Uber are not legally considered employees, but rather self-employed ‘independent contractors’. As a result, they have highly limited (if any) access to rights such as the minimum wage, sick pay, holiday pay, union representation and security of employment. In many ways, they are hyper-precarious. Some commentators argued that the growth of platform capitalism pointed towards a future of work without unions. But workers are proving the analysts wrong. They may not be forming unions in the traditional sense, but they are finding ways to get together and fight back. In the case of food delivery platforms, text-chats via mobile phones have been the impetus behind a transnational wave of strike action. This has seen everything from repeated violent confrontations between workers and the police in China – where strikes by food-delivery workers made up 11 per cent of all industrial action in the service sector in the first half of 2017 – to an ongoing Europe-wide clash between workers and their employer-platforms in at least seven countries.

The transnational spread of struggles against platforms is becoming the rule rather than the exception. Before Uber, it would have been hard to imagine how taxi drivers in San Francisco, London, Bangalore and Johannesburg could have shared interests. However, the centralization of platform capitalism, along with the way these companies monopolize and grow, means that these drivers now have a common employer. Or rather a common enemy, given that Uber refuses to admit that they employ any of the drivers.

Migrant vanguard

Across all these struggles, migrant workers are at the fore: Somali workers at Amazon in Minnesota; North African workers in logistics in Italy; Zimbabwean Uber drivers in South Africa; Bengali, Eastern European and Brazilian workers at Deliveroo in London, or the many other migrant worker groups that have found new ways to wage class struggle, on and off platforms. European politicians often advance a form of xeno-racism by claiming that migrant workers bring down the wages of ‘native’ workers. In the logistics sector and the ‘last mile’ of platform capitalism, the truth is exactly the opposite – migrant workers are leading the fight for the entire working class.  

As capitalism becomes ever more reliant on the co-operation of workers across borders, the workers’ movement is becoming ever more international. Whether through the physical link of shipments or the digital link of the platform, workers are co-ordinating their action across borders. But despite the differences from what has gone before, the winning methods are the same: direct and militant collective action based on maximizing leverage at the point of production. The workers’ movement needs to recognize that far from posing a threat to other workers’ conditions, migrant organizers are leading the way, providing much-needed examples of successful struggle that need to be celebrated and followed.

Notes from Below is an online socialist publication which uses workers’ inquiry to understand capitalism and the struggle against it from the shop floor up.

 

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Can’t pay, won’t pay

An elderly man wearing a protective face mask passes a sign publicizing a rent strike during the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Toronto, Ontario, Canada April 6, 2020. REUTERS/Chris Helgren/File Photo
An elderly man wearing a protective face mask passes a sign publicizing a rent strike during the global outbreak of the coronavirus in Toronto, Ontario, Canada April 6, 2020. REUTERS/Chris Helgren/File Photo

Julian has worked in exhibition centres in Australia for several years. The Latin American whose employment has always been on a casual basis, with no contract, lost all of his work as coronavirus hit and doesn’t expect any more for eight months. With no income, he can’t pay his rent for the shared Melbourne house he lives in, so has joined nearly 18,000 other people in Australia on rent strike.

Across the world significant amounts of people have stopped paying rent, and in some places mortgage payments, in the wake of Covid-19. Many simply don’t have the money and now face homelessness. Rent strikes are taking place in the US, Spain, Canada, France, Britain, South Africa and elsewhere as activists call for a stop to rent payments and evictions and for everyone to have shelter and space to get through the pandemic.

Informal workers have been badly hit and usually get no protection from the state. The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that almost 1.6 billion informal economy workers globally, have been ‘significantly impacted’ by Covid-19 restrictions and that their rate of relative poverty is set to increase by almost 34 per cent.

‘Most people have been forced into positions of even more precariousness – international students, migrant workers, refugees – these are the people that obviously capitalism would not take account of at all. It’s people like me who are left on our own,’ explains Julian. ‘They bring us here as cheap labour. That’s how they create wealth.’

UK housing charity Shelter has warned of a ‘tsunami of evictions’ there once the lockdown ends

Gentrification, escalating house prices, austerity, poor tenant’s rights and precarious employment means that many renters were already teetering on the edge of being able to make their monthly rent payments, even before coronavirus.

‘Over the course of the recent years, surging house price across the country have been accompanied by surging rents,’ explains Charlie, an organizer with Rent Strike Aotearoa. ‘That’s a chronic problem, along with the ensuing issues around mental well-being; we are seeing anxiety stress and depression as people struggle to pay rents and have to incur debts in order to meet rent payments.’

Organizers with Rent Strike South Africa also stress that there was a huge housing crisis there before Covid-19. ‘Our perspective is that the virus is not the problem so much as our political system that failed and continues to fail us,’ the group said in a statement. ‘State-capitalism, and the effects of ongoing colonial and apartheid geographies play out everywhere in issues surrounding housing and land.’

Informal workers in South Africa had already begun to lose their income in early March and so rent strike organizers started planning the campaign a couple of weeks before the nationwide lockdown began on 26 March: ‘We acted as quickly as possible to inform people that if it comes down to feeding yourself or paying your landlord’s bond, you could choose to feed yourself... our response has been based on understanding Covid to be a long-term problem that will not be alleviated simply by the lifting of the lockdown.’

In the UK, where more than one-third of private renters already live in relative poverty, London is the epicentre of the absurd housing market, and the country’s Covid-19 outbreak. Many renters in the capital were already spending over half of their income on rent – more for those on lower incomes, or working in the gig economy.

‘What we really want to press home is that this crisis wasn’t really caused by coronavirus,’ says J, an organizer with the London Rent Strike. ‘The virus pushed it that little but extra over the line to make everyone in crisis at the same time. It’s not really Covid that’s the issue here; it’s capitalism being used to dictate whether someone has a roof over their head or not.’

When he spoke with New Internationalist in early May, the 25 year-old was on furlough (a government scheme which means he gets 80 per cent of his salary paid) from his job working with charities. This was tiding him over, but he didn’t know for how long. ‘I don’t know where our finances will be in three months. Yes, I could pay the rent in May and probably in June, but after that I could be penniless because redundancy is coming after that for sure.’

According to a poll carried out in the UK in mid-May, one in five renters had been forced to choose between food and bills or paying rent, and one in four said they had already had to leave their home because of coronavirus. 

‘I’m trying to do the right thing’

This most recent rent strike wave has included thousands of university students. Alfie Brepotra is an organizer with the campaign at Warwick University. When New Internationalist spoke to him he was cramming in media interviews between exam revision fir his management degree. ‘It’s quite a tough time at the moment’, he said.

At the end of March he lost his job and the paid work he had lined up for the Easter break. He followed the government advice and spoke to his landlord, who owns multiple properties, about his situation: ‘She said, “you are either going to pay me or I am going to take you to court”.’

He has few options for financial support and is stuck paying rent for a house he is not even living in. ‘I’m trying to do the right thing by social distancing, so I can’t go back to my place.’

Full-time university students in Britain are not usually eligible for social security payments and so those who need to supplement their incomes do so through part-time work – often in sectors such as hospitality, hit hard by Covid-19.

Most of us would want to see housing entirely taken out of the market and be treated as a human right like it should be. That’s the dream anyway. And it’s the first time that something like that has ever felt possible with the level of upheaval that we’re seeing

Students can get loans to cover their living costs but in more expensive cities these are not enough to cover rent. For those without financial support from family, their ability to carry on with their studies could now be in question. ‘Landlords have suggested that students get personal credit cards’ said Brepotra.

International co-operation seems to have been in short supply lately but housing activists have been getting organized across borders. For many, this energy has given them optimism for the international tenants’ rights movement.

For Neville Peterson, a member of the Communicare Tenants Union, joining the Rent Strike South Africa campaign was also about being part of an international movement. Communicare is a housing provider which owns over 1,300 in Cape Town. Tenants have been in a long battle over exorbitant rents and utility charges. It is thought that just over 1,000 Communicare tenants are now withholding their rent.

‘People are scared, people are vulnerable. People don’t have money for lawyers and to appear in court [to defend against eviction],’ says Peterson. ‘We are upset with government because they are not coming to the fore with assistance and even the rental holidays that they are mentioning – yes you can stop it for a period of time, but if you have to pay it back in three months time or two months time it will have to be double the rent. Rental holiday periods, we are not happy with that. We won’t accept that. We want an unconditional freeze to rentals that you don't have to pay rent.’

As governments seek to ease off Covid-19 restrictions, open courts and pull back financial support, mass evictions and repossessions could be just around the corner. UK housing charity Shelter has warned of a ‘tsunami of evictions’ there once the lockdown ends.

This is why rent strike organizers are looking beyond Covid-19 lockdowns. ‘We don’t want any sense of back to normal because normal was shit for 99 per cent of people,’ says J. ‘We want complete change in how the rental sector works. We could be looking at entirely new ways to deal with housing. Most of us would want to see housing entirely taken out of the market and be treated as a human right like it should be. That’s the dream anyway. And it’s the first time that something like that has ever felt possible with the level of upheaval that we’re seeing.’

‘I’d like us to win a rent and mortgage amnesty,’ says Farida, another organizer with Rent Strike Australia. ‘Whether or not we win that I think what we’re building is something very important. We’re building a community of people. We’re building a grassroots fighting community of people for the rights of tenants and mortgage holders. This hasn’t happened on this scale in this country in ages. We’re going to need this community in the years to come.’

‘We are reaching a tipping point,’ says Julian. He is hopeful that out of this crisis can grow something more positive. ‘When it gets rough people actually see the need for solidarity. Solidarity is something that we should extend and it should be a value that we all have.

‘I’m hoping for hope. Not hope on the gods, not hope in the government – hope in humankind, hope in the solidarity that we can extend to each other. That’s what I’m hoping for and that’s what I would like to see that we come through these tough times and that we move to another period where we can actually be more aware of what’s going on, what is being done to most of humanity.’

 

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