In November 1999 the anti-capitalist movement became known to millions through the protests at the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in the US.
The protests were not numerically huge — they involved no more than 70,000 people — but they were evidence of a rising wave of opposition to corporate power.
Even more importantly the protests brought together organised workers in trade unions and activists involved in a vast range of campaigns — from opposition to child labour, to support for the rights of indigenous people, from environmental protection to women’s rights.
Crucial elements of this movement, which very quickly grew across every continent, merged with and nourished the anti-war movement after September 2001. These movements are the central element in radical politics today.
But the task remains to bring together the power of organised workers and the flair, energy, imagination and verve of the movements — around a radical political core.
That is one reason why the present dispute by Gate Gourmet workers at Heathrow Airport is so important. A group of workers are confronting one of the nastiest examples of corporate power, and the battle has instantly become more than a simple industrial dispute.
On the bosses’ side is a company which is one of the most ruthless representatives of the aviation industry. This industry employs 180,000 people in Britain, rising to 550,000 once you include related jobs.
The huge airline companies — British Airways (BA) being one of the largest — hope to profit from current booming demand. But they also face problems as smaller rivals undercut ticket prices and the price of airline fuel goes through the roof.
Consequently, there is relentless pressure on them to cut costs by attacking the wages and terms and conditions of workers, either directly, or indirectly through outsourcing operations.
Outsourcing has a simple logic. To cut costs companies strip out functions that are not crucial to their main operation. They hawk these out to other firms that compete to offer the lowest cost on the basis of squeezing workers even harder than the core employer.
BA doesn’t have to defend running a catering operation with workers on £12,000 a year. Gate Gourmet is left to sort this out, and to discipline low paid workers when they try and defend their conditions.
The dispute unveiled this process, and resisted it. A workforce — many of them Asian, many of them women — would not accept endless worsening of their already poor conditions in order to further fatten Gate Gourmet and BA.
And the solidarity they won from BA workers within the airport overcame the division between groups of workers imposed through outsourcing.
Suddenly seemingly powerless catering workers were reinforced by other workers who could stop one of the world’s biggest airports and humiliate a global brand. And they did it in a single afternoon. Nothing could better demonstrate how shared experience in the workplace could allow workers to cut across barriers of race and gender. Even the mainstream media’s frantic attempts to talk up “family connections” between the different groups workers could not disguise this truth.
Contrast this with the grim atmosphere inside Gate Gourmet’s scab operation. An undercover Times journalist last week reported on conditions inside the factory: “Racial differences split the workers into three distinct groups: Asians, East Africans and Eastern Europeans.
“In the canteen, over a choice of either dal and naan bread or chicken and chips, workers tend to congregate in their ethnic groups. In the men’s locker room, the walls are littered with evidence of interracial strife.
“On a lavatory wall, someone has written ‘This is where Indians and Pakis should go’ with an arrow pointing into the bowl.”
The Gate Gourmet dispute also demonstrated how modern capitalist multinationals are as dependent as ever on their workers — and just as vulnerable to concerted mass action. BA lost an estimated £40 million because of the two day wildcat action — about a month’s profits.
Industrial action can hit companies where it hurts in a far more devastating and effective manner than, say, consumer boycotts can manage.
This doesn’t mean that every one of those BA workers who walked out was turned into a militant anti-racist overnight. But it was a mini Seattle moment — a movement against capitalism, racism and women’s oppression centred on the awesome power of organised workers. We need a thousand more such moments.
A second industrial dispute, this one at Rolls Royce’s Bristol plant, is another example of the inspiration that comes when workers act together. What seems a small issue, the defence of a single union rep at the plant, has again pitched powerfully organised workers against a huge capitalist firm. And the firm is reeling.
Last week Rolls Royce announced it had won a £1.3 billion contract alongside General Electric to supply engines for the US air force’s new F-35 stealth fighter. But as the company rejoiced, it also faced a major strike in a key section at Bristol, and the prospect of more to come.
Rolls workers look very different to Gate Gourmet workers. Their history and traditions are different, the communities they come from are different, they are paid different amounts. But nearly all of the workers from both strikes would instantly recognise the similarities of their struggle and the importance of both winning.
The recent disputes also raise some sharp questions for the global anti-capitalist movement. One concerns the role of trade unions, and in particular that of the trade union leadership and full time officials that make up the trade union bureaucracy.
The T&G union played a vital role in organising workers at both Gate Gourmet and BA. But its leadership was too quick to call off the wildcat action, relieving the pressure on BA to force Gate Gourmet into reinstating its sacked workers. An understanding of why trade union bureaucracies do this — and how they can be kept in check by militant grassroots action — needs to percolate through the movement as coming struggles intensify.
The dispute also shows up the limits of spontaneous action. The decision by BA employees to walk out in solidarity was magnificent. It catapulted the Gate Gourmet workers’ cause onto front pages internationally and forced at least three Labour cabinet ministers to intervene in an effort to get the dispute settled.
But this sort of action would be much stronger if it was buttressed by stronger rank and file organisation, developed in advance of disputes. These lessons are there to be learned for the future. The key issue today is seizing the potential for drawing together the anti-capitalist movement and workers’ struggles.
The German revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg wrote 100 years ago about the relationship between political and industrial struggles and how each could infuse and strengthen the other.
We need to learn those lessons today by combining the analysis and activist traditions of the anti-capitalist movement with the experiences and struggles of the mass of working people across the world.
Workers’ struggles are not simply “one more struggle” amid a number of progressive causes. They are central because they are where our side has the power to hit the other side hardest, and because they are collective struggles. Such struggles show workers how their shared interests can overcome their individual differences.
Another world is possible — and militant organised action by grassroots workers is central to winning it.
Daniel Bavill from Bristol, who has just finished his A-levels, went to a rally of Rolls Royce workers in support of sacked union rep Jerry Hicks. He spoke to Socialist Worker about his first taste of union militancy.
‘After the Iraq war I decided I had to make my voice heard, so I went and got involved in the protests against the G8.
I met Jerry Hicks at a Make Poverty History meeting before the G8, where he delivered an inspiring speech. I also knew him from campaigns to help asylum seekers.
When I heard about what had happened to him, I felt I ought to support him. So I went to the rally organised in his defence.
The speakers at the rally weren’t what I’d normally see.
I had felt that trade unions were quite weak, but at the rally trade unions seemed like they were quite powerful — though not as powerful as they should be.
They were fighting to create better working conditions for themselves.
I was impressed with the platform of speakers. Their contributions were very inspired. I intend to go to the rally on Friday this week, and I’m trying to persuade my friends to come with me.’
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