Today’s anti-capitalist meet-up is a discussion of three news-stories in three different countries whose purpose is to serve as an illustration of the different types of working class struggles we are seeing. In many senses, they illustrate exactly where different countries are in the struggle for change and how important is the term “unite and fight.”
The first two stories came out on Wednesday, 12th of September. They left me angry and despairing; this was compounded by the BBC abandoning discussion of these two stories on Friday for a whole day of a fit of pique about the Duchess of Cambridge’s (Kate, William’s wife) breasts being displayed in a French magazine as though that story was of any import following what major stories had preceded it. I honestly do not want to discuss this at all, but the concentration of the BBC television news on the exposure of the royal teats story nearly made me weep in frustration. Perhaps if they spent one-twentieth of the time on this story and others like it, further information about the corruption in the capitalist system leading to the deaths of working people in Pakistan could have been reported on the television or the exposure of the perfidy of the police in South Yorkshire would not have had to wait 23 years.
1. Karachi, Pakistan
The deaths of at least 264 people in Karachi at the Ali Enterprise Factory (and 25 in a shoe factory in Lahore) due to two factory fires in unsafe working conditions brought to my mind the pictures of the aftermath of the Triangle shirtwaist factory in NYC in March 1911. There are some pictures that never leave your memory, no matter how hard you try to erase them, this is one that came to my mind:
With windows barred and fire doors locked, people leapt to their deaths from the rooftops. The vast majority of those that died did due to suffocation because they were trapped in the basement of the factory. According to the Labour Start campaign, to make the situation worse in terms of identification of the dead, the factory was illegally established, the workers did not have contracts to sign and hence records of who was at work that day are lacking; some people were actually there only to pick up their pay and hence even if records were there, they wouldn’t be listed necessarily for that day. Finally, identification of badly burned bodies is difficult; as of the 13th, 100 bodies still needed to be identified at the various morgues in hospital in the city (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-19577450). Adding to the problem was the fire services running out of water during the attempt to put the fire out, delay in bringing the Navy fire brigades in and the lack of aerial water spraying.
The working conditions in these factories were openly known (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-19577450), and the BBC in its reportage kept asking the question of why wonât the government act?
“In this case the factory was a recipe for tragedy – its low-ceiling halls were crammed with machines manned by workers toiling away in sweat shop conditions to produce top-of-the-line, ready-to-wear garments which earned the factory owners millions of dollars annually.
The workers, on the other hand, go home with $5 to $6 a day. There are no other benefits (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-19577450).”
I have an answer to the inane question repeatedly asked by the BBC. A cheap labour force in a country with many desperate people whose rights are unprotected draws and maintains the most repulsive exploitation; dangerous working conditions are cheap, health and safety of workers cost money. The fact that capitalists can get away with treating workers as cheap labour, keeps costs down. One of the survivors was saying “they cared more about their merchandise than for their workers.” Of course they do, workers are cheap and easily replaceable, and merchandise has a value to these people.
“The garments industry is critical to Pakistan’s frail economy. According to central bank data, it provided 7.4% of Pakistan’s GDP in 2011 and employed 38% of the manufacturing sector workforce, accounting for 55.6% of total exports (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-19598571).”
The government had not acted and probably will not act to enforce even existing health and safety legislation for working class people unless working people force them to do so. In the aftermath of the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire, strikes, lists of the names of the dead, demonstrations and a mass funeral forced them to act. This was not only the trial of the owners and managers of the factory; this was the passage of legislation protecting all workers and the serious enforcement of this legislation.
A warrant for murder has already been issued in Pakistan for the owners of the factory and they already have already been bailed. Unsurprisingly, they maintain that they are not responsible for the fire and insist that they have the requisite safety certificates while denying that the doors were locked (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-19598571). I guess the windows were not barred either and that there were fire doors also. There is safety legislation in Pakistan for factories, but enforcement is lax both due to corruption and lack of interest. In the absence of mass response to this atrocity, it is doubtful that the government will move, the interests of the upper classes are always protected. For workers to get not only justice but change, a mass movement to force a government to put through reforms is essential.
The Pakistani trade union movement has posted an action which they hope will put additional pressure on the government, please sign it and support your fellow workers. The demands are listed below and the link for the action below that; international solidarity is essential to fight for the rights of all workers:
“IndustriALL Global Union joins with unions in Pakistan to demand the government pay compensation of five million rupees (53,000 USD) to the families of the workers who were killed, and two million rupees (21,000 USD) to injured workers and that the workers continue to receive their salary.
Unions are also demanding the government arrest the employer and charge him with murder and take action against the labour department and government authorities that failed to ensure the safety and health of these workers.”
2. Hillsborough Disaster
The deaths of 96 Liverpool football fans in Sheffield’s Hillsborough Stadium (many of them teenagers) at a semi-final FA cup match between Liverpool Football Club and Nottingham Forest in 1989, has 23 years later been declared to not be the fault of Liverpool fans according to the Hillsborough Independent Panel Report(for details of the disaster itself, please see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hillsborough_disaster). The fact that 41 of the 96 dead could have been saved if proper rescue had been conducted was especially horrifying; in the initial inquest all the dead were treated as though they had all died at 3:15. The police lied and edited testimony to present their version of the events shifting blame onto the victims and this cover-up was supported by politicians at the time. It has since come out that the lies of the police were known for 14 years (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-19610226). Yet, irrespective of the fact that the police version was known to be lacking in veracity, the initial inquest verdict placing responsibility for the deaths upon the victims and survivors of the disaster held for 23 years. The New Labour politicians passed the hot potato again and left the earlier inquests results standing.
Essentially what was found was what the families of the victims and the survivors had known all along:
“In its report, the panel said it uncovered new evidence detailing crowd safety deficiencies at the ground, shortcomings in the emergency services response, failures of leadership and co-ordination and widespread alteration of police statements in an attempt to blame the Liverpool fans for what happened (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19571415).”
From a horrible disaster (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19545126), the story descended almost immediately into a cover-up by police officers to hide their failures and to minimise the safety problems in an old stadium. An excellent piece has been published by Twigg about Hillsborough and the apologies tendered by the Prime Minister and opposition for what happened.
I want to emphasise an aspect of the case beyond the appalling police cover-up and the collaboration by the Prime Minister and politicians of the time. One of the main points from my perspective was the deliberate denigration of working class and poor people. While Mike Mansfield QC (the lawyer for some of the 90 miners arrested in Orgreave clashes in 1984-5 all of whom were acquitted as testimony by the South Yorkshire police was deemed suspect, this happened 5 years before Hillsborough; http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-19587118) and earlier Jack Straw raised the point that Thatcher needed the police on her side to deal with the minersâ strike and other industrial struggles of the time (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-19584313) and hence she didn’t challenge a seriously dubious account of the incident by the police which led to a “culture of impunity“; it is questionable whether this culture of impunity still does not hold.
However, while the Independent Policy Complaints Commission (IPCC) has stronger powers in terms of investigation into police corruption and misconduct, rarely are the police actually tried for their actions by the Crown Prosecution Service and when they are, rarely are they imprisoned. This is especially the case with working class people and disproportionally those working class people of colour (http://www.irr.org.uk/news/the-spotlight-is-back-on-black-deaths-at-the-hands-of-police/; for more stats of those who died in police custody and the ethnic and racial breakdown, see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2012/jul/19/deaths-police-custody-data). The latest case is that of Simon Harwood the policeman that, without provocation, assaulted newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson as he walked passed an anti-G20 demonstration. Mr. Tomlinson who was weak after a history of illness and alcoholism collapsed and died on the street soon after the assault. Despite video evidence, the evidence of eyewitnesses and a history of complaints made against him by civilians, Mr. Harwood was declared not guilty of manslaughter (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/jul/19/simon-harwood-not-guilty-ian-tomlinson?INTCMP=SRCH). He is facing an internal police investigation for his conduct; hopefully, he will never be allowed to work as a policeman again. A case that has been recently announced is the trial of two police officers for misconduct in public office when Colin Holt (a mentally ill man) died from positional asphyxia due to being restrained improperly in August 2010; note that the charge is not manslaughter (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/police-to-be-prosecuted-over-death-8113992.html). So the impunity of police is not a historical curiosity and it should not be treated as such.
Mr. Straw also didn’t raise the other point that is still pertinent today in the UK, most probably as he also accepts the view of the working class and poor as chavs, yobs, drunks, and lazy (This can be seen in his letters on the earlier investigation of 14 years ago, see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19587302). In fact, Hillsborough in many senses provided justification for the attack on working class people and fed into a meme about them which was very convenient for the Conservative government of the time.
However, it did not end there as the denigration of working people and their culture is literally a constant in the UK today. A cursory examination of the justifications for the testing of those on disability benefits (begun under New Labour for new applicants and now being generalised to all those already on disability benefit and allowance), the so-called benefit culture, the idea of the poor being lazy and drunk and not wanting to work (as opposed to the reality that there are simply no jobs) is an extension of the degradation of the victims and survivors of the Hillsborough disaster.
Rather than the truth of fans from both sides trying to help the wounded and dying, accusations of drunkenness, lies that people did not have tickets and charged the gate to the stadium (instead the gate was opened by the police), the official story (see the cover of Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun above) deriving from a fabrication between the Sheffield Hallam MP and the Chief of Police became a classic case of blame the victim and cover the police for their grotesque failings. Accusations of theft from the dead and Liverpool fans pissing on the valiant police who were trying to save people fed into the perspective of the media and the government impugning working class values and people.
The success and acceptance of this portrayal of working class and poor people was part of the arsenal utilised under Thatcher and enabled the continuation of Thatcherite policy under New Labour. Moreover, the perception created by the ruling class still justifies the current attack on the social welfare state and the rights of the working class and poor of the current government.
It was only the determination and perseverance of the families of the victims and the survivors that enabled the creation of the independent report which has demonstrated conclusively the police cover-up that hid the truth and impugned the character of those present at the stadium that day and through that the people of Liverpool. It took 23 years to simply do an independent review. The families are demanding that the initial inquest report be overturned and a new one ordered. They are demanding prosecutions as well. This is a victory for working class people against a powerful and smug upper classes attempt to redefine reality to suit a political agenda.
The South Yorkshire police department has referred itself to the IPCC (http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2012/sep/13/hillsborough-south-yorkshire-police-ippcc). Since the charges will be police corruption, destruction and manipulation of evidence and given the outcry and vindication of the victims and survivors and their families and apologies from the police and the former editor of The Sun for its reporting of the disaster (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-19575411) and even Boris Johnson has deigned to apologise for an article in The Spectator under his editorship referring to drunken fans and Hillsborough (http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/2012/sep/13/boris-johnson-apologises-hillsborough-article?INTCMP=SRCH) it is highly probable that they will get a new inquest.
There will be an IPCC investigation, but whether or not charges will be filed and a successful prosecution is another story. But what this case has shown is that perhaps justice can be won if people simply keep fighting and refuse to give up.
3. Caracas, Venezuela (h/t to Justina Justice)
Not wanting to leave people as frustrated as I felt on Wednesday when the above stories broke, I wanted to raise something that brought me out of my gloom and gave me a bit of hope. We always talk in this series of the importance of working class self-organisation and we have also addressed the importance of womenâs self-organisation. So while the above two stories mirror the situation in the capitalist periphery and in the advanced capitalist world, we have an altogether different story in this part.
On September 14th, women’s rights groups presented a proposal to President Hugo Chavez to be considered for incorporation into government plans (http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/7255). The proposal derives out of a series of meetings between womenâs groups that worked on it for over a year towards the purpose of achieving gender equality in Venezuela.
“The list of proposals handed over to the president include; the free distribution of contraceptives for men and women, education in state schools to increase awareness surrounding gender equality, the creation of communal council based refuges for women who are victims of domestic violence, an increase in communal projects to care for children and the “socialization” of domestic labour to allow women to participate fully in political activities. The women also demanded more state regulation over the usage of women’s bodies as “merchandise” in the media (http://venezuelanalysis.com/news/7255).”
This is an excellent example of grass-roots democracy and self-organisation which attempts to address the needs of the majority of women and not only the privileged few. The participation of women’s groups and women from peasant organisations in developing this proposal not only provided a possibility of addressing issues important to working class, peasant and poor women, the fact that the president of the country came to listen and work towards women’s equality as an essential component of building socialism is only something that we dream of in many countries.
If only the same thing could hold or be done with respect to the discussion of women’s rights in the US! Decisions on a national level primarily affecting women like access to contraceptives, health care and terminations are made by a small group in Congress, predominately men representing the interests of the religious right. Top-down decisions by a tiny minority offer nothing but continued oppression and by no means can be spoken of as democracy. A reminder that change, both reform and revolutionary, can only happen when we come together and fight for it!