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(en) supplementary anti-war issue of NEA: Striking Against the Work/War Machine

From Northeastern Anarchist <northeastern_anarchist@yahoo.com>
Date Tue, 1 Apr 2003 00:02:02 +0200 (CEST)


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> by PJ Lilley & Jeff Shantz (NEFAC-Toronto)
All that Bush and Rumsfeld talk of "freedom-loving
forces of democracy" is exposed as lying doublespeak
by the hostile and alienating nature of work in this
society. People can see that it doesn't add up, and
know when they're being sold a line. What to do about
it is the next question.

The tools that are available to workers in times of
war are the same as they are in capitalist "peace
time" -- strikes, mutiny and sabotage being a few of
the most effective. Worker's power still comes from
our participation in production and the threat of
withdrawing our participation by going on strike.

Strikes give workers confidence in their collective
strength. It can be a readily available option, and it
draws on the daily dissatisfaction with work, and our
desire to do something other than work. A strike can
mobilize entire neighborhoods or communities as people
offer food and assistance.

It doesn't even need to be a consciously "anti-war"
strike. Just the disruption itself can be enough to
threaten the state's ability to go to war. A strike
can bring out all sorts of claims and concerns that
affect the population more broadly. In August of 1990,
4000 Turkish maintenance workers on US bases went on
strike over pay, which seriously hampered US plans for
air strikes against Iraq, and ended with the Turkish
government ordering the strikers back to work "in the
interests of national security." The recent
firefighters strike in Britain was massive enough to
require the state to reserve troops at the ready to
fight fires in London instead of sending them to Iraq.
Even where such strikes are legislated back to work,
the public support for the defense of such a critical
public sector service is reinforced, and in this case
has provided an underpinning to the more recent
demonstrations of dissatisfaction with Blair's
"Labour" Party.

Since the bosses of capital and the state clearly need
us for their war machine to operate smoothly, some of
the most successful work refusals recently have been
on train tracks, at airports, and on the shipping
docks. Last week, a 24-hour strike in Santos, Brazil
called on all longshore workers to suspend loading
and unloading of ships bearing the British or US flag,
this in the largest port of Latin America. Last
Tuesday, Italian port workers of the three major
unions went on strike for the last hour of their
shifts to protest against the US using their work
places to ship war equipment out to the Gulf, and
Greek dockers also refused to participate. Another
'hot cargo edict' was declared by the longshore union
in New Brunswick, Canada. Even a couple of people can
be critical as the British Ministry of Defense found
out a few weeks ago, when two train drivers in
Scotland refused to move a freight train carrying
ammunition. The two were the only pair of drivers
trained to take trains on the
route from Glasgow to the Glen Douglas base, and were
backed by their union, so both the army and the
private railway were screwed by that one.

But it's not just the war machine, it is all of
industry which needs our blood and sweat and toil. For
instance, just to keep the oil flowing, they need
miners, machinists, refinery workers, dockers at port,
sailors, truck drivers, storage and distribution point
workers, gas station attendants.

Here is where the general strike becomes a most
powerful weapon in the class war. Mass protests that
walk around in circles or sit in the civic square are
part of a "citizenship politics", which assumes that
leaders will respond to public grievances.
Unfortunately, they're based upon a withdrawal of
consent or 'public opinion' rather than a material
withdrawal of productive capacity, so these mass
exercises often suffer the double lack of not
interfering in a material way with work/war
mobilizations and simultaneously giving an appearance
of "openness" and "democratic participation." In
Cairo, despite the imposition of martial law, the
Egyptian government has allowed demonstrations, saying
they are necessary to "blow off some steam". Most
states around the world feel pressured by massive
street demonstrations, but still do not react as
repressively to workers taking the streets as they do
to workers taking up the more decisive general strike.
When working people all unite against austerity
measures, and begin to make specific demands, then
capital really begins to get worried.

Wartime strikes, even sit-downs, slow-downs, or
sick-ins, threaten capital and the state when/where
they are most vulnerable, which bares the teeth which
are usually hidden behind slick smiles. All niceties
of equity and fairness, freedom and democracy fall
away in the openness of struggle. At these crucial
times, perceptions of "our nation's prosperity" or
protecting "our way of life" are challenged by the
realities of the class society in which we work and
live.

History is rich with hidden stories of resistance to
past wars and the strike has been one of working
peoples' most elemental strategies. As one WWII
resistance organizer stated: "We shall not, all of a
sudden, persuade the 150,000 miners of the Nord
department to take armed action, but they will strike
heroically to obtain soap and a Sunday's rest." [1]

During WWII, strikes took place throughout
Nazi-occupied Europe, for diverse reasons, including:
"supply difficulties, the arduous nature of the work
expected, inadequacy of air raid shelters, solidarity
with other strikers, protests against arrests, low
wages, demonstrations against shooting of hostages,
demands for higher rations, distribution of clothing
coupons, hostility to managers accused of
collaboration, obsolescence of installations, increase
in the cost of living, insistence on the observance of
collective agreements, allocation of milk to children,
observance of holidays." [2]

In the United States, right after Pearl Harbor,
patriotic fervor was running high. The big US unions
in the AFL and CIO signed a "no strike pledge" with
the corporate bosses of the day. The government called
it the "Equality of Sacrifice" legislation, but the
workers, even the patriotic ones, knew it was
bullshit, that the sacrifices made by the bosses would
not equal those made by the workers on the line.

It was not just a raise that was at stake, but a whole
host of other grievances, around health and safety,
the production process, and discipline within the
plants. In the northeastern US, workers responded with
an increase in wildcat strikes and sit-downs. The
government, with the aid of the bosses, the media, and
even the union bureaucrats, tried to paint any
strikers as not only un-patriotic, but allies of
Hirohito, and worse. Military officers, in uniform,
were present in all the major war production plants,
and regularly intervened in strikes and potential
strikes. (The bureaucrats in the union had their role
as broker threatened by the wildcats and autonomous
action of the workers, so they got together with the
bosses and hammered out some of the first anti-wildcat
clauses to be instituted into contract language.
Today, this clause allowing for the firing of any
rebels in the plant is now a staple of UAW and CAW
contracts in Canada.)

Rent Control was another thing that came out of
wartime class struggle. In Britain during WWI, the
government's wartime financial policies discouraged
construction projects for working class homes. This
led to a housing crisis and an upward pressure on
rents as the competition for available housing stocks
became increasingly intense. Attempts to evict
tenants for nonpayment of increased rents, in October
1915, led to a situation that "threatened to disrupt
the productive relations of the war economy". [3]

A convergence of rent strikes, which were receiving
tremendous support, and the resistance to the
government labor policies posed a real possibility.
"In fact, the government faced mounting pressure to
resolve the rents question before it combined with
industrial unrest, thus precipitating a major crisis
that might threaten the prosecution of the war
itself." [3] In December 1915, the government quickly
passed into law the Rent and Mortgage Interest (War
Restriction) Act which froze all rents at prewar
levels. Basically, the government was able to make a
concession that defused a spark that might have spread
and broadened into a much larger, potentially decisive
social crisis.

We can't rely on unions or parties to organize this
resistance for us. While the role of the unions in
restraining conflict has been discussed above, the
socialist parties have played similar parts.
Historically the mass Social Democratic parties of the
Second International/Europe, despite paper policies
supporting strike actions to stop war, completely gave
themselves over to patriotic mobilization at the
outbreak of WWI. The German Social Democratic Party
and the Unified French Socialist Party both voted for
war credits and sent workers off to kill their former
comrades. While the unions played perhaps less
dastardly roles in sending workers to their deaths,
they played a part in restraining conflict on the home
front as discussed above.

In many of today's union leaderships, we have seen the
same simpering support for war and "discipline in the
ranks". As Joann Wypijewski put it in CounterPunch,
"immediately after 9/11, the Machinists famously
bellowed for "vengeance not justice," and John Sweeney
said the unions stood "shoulder to shoulder" with
George Bush in the war on terror. Since that time,
working people in America have paid dearly for this in
concessions and job losses.

Of great importance, in looking at war-time resistance
among workers, is the impetus this resistance gave to
working-class self-organization. War-time strikes and
sabotage, partly because of their illegal and
unsanctioned nature, bring rank-and-file workers
together outside of union structures. Workers have to
make crucial decisions about running the strike
directly in face-to-face meetings or on the picket
lines. Bureaucrats, who are left to their fundamental
role of brokering with the bosses can be relegated to
the sidelines in such situations. In Germany in 1917,
illegal strikes helped to sweep the union structures
right out of workplaces. Strikes increasingly took on
an anti-union, as well as anti-boss character with
wildcats occurring in growing numbers through the
armistice and beyond. Workers replaced the unions by
forming works committees which were precursors to the
workers' councils that played such important parts in
the near-revolutions of 1919. Similar developments
occurred in Italy in 1943 when internal strike
committees emerged and eventually moved their meetings
from the factories to public markets. They were
crucial in the general strikes that followed and drove
the Nazis out of several cities. In fact, some of
these uprisings were only put down by the advancing
Allied armies which feared full-scale social
revolutions.

This short survey cannot do justice to the inspiring
histories of class struggle against war that exist
around the world. When it comes right down to it,
workers have no country. In this age of multi-front
wars and mobile capital, the most effective way to
fight back is to build a genuinely international
movement of working people united against the ruling
corporate class and its war strategy. We will need to
draw together lessons learned from the similarities of
our solidarity in order to face this new, open-ended
"war on terrorism", which remains a class war.

------------------

Notes:

[1] Quoted in The Shadow War, by Henri Michel, 1972:
221
[2] Michel, 1972: 222
[3] "The Political Economy of British Engineering
Workers During the First World War" by Keith Burgess,
in Strikes, Wars and Revolutions in an International
Perspective, 1989: 305

=============

This is essay is from our supplementary anti-war issue
of 'The Northeastern Anarchist'. This issue is NOT
available from our usual distributors, and we will not
accept bulk orders (sorry). To get a copy, send $2ppd
to:

The Northeastern Anarchist
PO Box 230685 Boston, MA 02123, USA
northeastern_anarchist@yahoo.com

http://www.nefac.net

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