Dare to struggle, dare to win
Australian workers! We can be heartened! There are movements and workers on strike around the world that are making great strides to challenge capitalism. We aren’t hearing much about it, but it is happening.
First we have the teachers in Los Angeles.
Thirty four thousand teachers went on strike to stop the privitisation of the Los Angeles school district. The strike gathered momentum with both students and parents joining in the strike. They demonstrated all day long for six days and as a result won huge gains such as limited class size, reduced standardised testing, more school nurses, more school counsellors, more librarians, less police searches and handed control of thirty school budgets over to local communities. President of the Teachers Union Alex Caputo-Pearl told the striking teachers and the crowd that this strike was “one of the most magnificent demonstrations of collective action that the United States has seen in decades”. He went on to say: “we did not win because of a single leader or a small group of leaders, we won because of you – at 900 schools across the city, with parents, with students, with community organisations – you walked the line”.
The six day strike won major concessions, concessions that Austin Beutner, the Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) refused to agree to prior to the strike. Beutner is a former banker, who was selected as the Superintendent on May 1, 2018 by the Los Angeles Board of Education. LAUSD is the second largest school district in the U.S. The school district spans over 720 square miles with over 640,000 students, 900 schools, 187 public charter schools, 60,000 employees, and a $7.5 billion budget. Beutner was leading the move against teachers and public education. His grand design was to privatise and corporatize schooling. The move to privatise schools would mean any school that underperformed would be sold off, like any poor performing stock on the stock exchange. It stands to reason that schools in the poorest areas would be sold off first because they would most likely be the schools underperforming. The teachers and supporters stood firm and by demonstrating all day every day, they made this victory possible.
Then we have the Yellow Vest movement in France.
The Yellow Vests have been demonstrating for fourteen weekends straight. It started with protests against rising fuel taxes but it quickly developed into a movement demanding improvement in living standards, calling for better representation in the French government and calling for the resignation of President Macron. Macron is a leader who makes economic concessions to the wealthy in France at the expense of the poor and workers. People in France no longer believe that the solutions lie in the capitalist system, they are in fact calling for its downfall. According to News.com, “Yellow vest activists are urging French citizens to empty their bank accounts and spark a massive run on the country’s banks in their longstanding fight with the government — which could lead to the collapse of its banking system”.
As a result of this powerful activism, people in the Yellow Vest movement are facing the full force of the State apparatus. The police are using teargas and rubber bullets to dispel demonstrators. These heavy-handed tactics to stop the protests have resulted in deaths and maiming. Where are the unions in this struggle? France’s biggest union coalition, the General Confederation of Workers, called for a day of general mobilization on December 14, 2018 and in some regions, like Ile-de-France, this garnered support from other unions and federations, such as Workers Force, public employees in the United Workers Federation, the left-wing Solidaires union coalition, and the Union of French Students. However, generally speaking, union support has been limited.
The unions in France seem powerless to defend the poor and workers because they are trapped working within the legal system. According to an article published in Jacobinmag, the unions in France are weakened by anti worker laws and by the constant changes being made to these laws so much so that “they spend a considerable amount of time adapting to a legal framework and that has constantly reduced the margins of manoeuvre”. In other words the unions are becoming further removed from workers struggle as they deal with legal issues. Since coming to power Macron has made this disconnect worse by setting up Social and Economic Councils (CSE) that set out to transform trade unions into “social” managers and remove their powers as a union. They now serve as committees to manage workers. As a result the workers and poor began to look outside the unions to fight for better employment conditions, wages and living standards, hence the development of the Yellow Vests. However as has been mentioned, the Yellow Vests are not limiting themselves to a wages struggle, they are also fighting for political rights and although we hear nothing of the situation in France, the movement is far from over and they aren’t going away no matter the police violence.
The Yellow Vest movement has already won major concessions from the right wing government of Macron. He has removed the fuel tax, and according to Lucy Williams of the BBC, he is setting up committees to discuss reforms in an attempt to stem the sense of disgruntlement in the country. This is the background to Macron’s "grand debate" initiative- a series of local meetings across France to discuss political, economic and social reforms. The Yellow Vest movement has not been deceived by this attempt to quell the unrest, though without a clear direction it may not be possible to continue with such a movement. Time will tell, but for now they have shown us that determined prolonged struggle can win huge gains, as was the case with the teachers strike.
At the moment, the union movement in Australia is also caught up in the anti worker legal system. The unions in Australia are hamstrung by anti-worker laws that make industrial action and entering a workplace to defend members illegal. Unions here now have to fight institutions such as the ABCC that will prosecute and charge union members and officials for taking a stand against employers. It would seem to ordinary workers that the unions are failing to recognise that they are being reduced to defending individual members and officials for participating in union activity (costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in members’ money) while very little is being done about working conditions and living standards, especially the casualisation of the workforce. Our living standard, our wages and legal rights are all being eroded, all the while the rich get richer and don’t pay taxes and the poor get poorer. The Change the Rules campaign run by the ACTU is lacking the grassroots movement of workers. In 2018 Australia also saw the largest rallies of workers for decades, upward of 150,000 people. We have shown by the size of attendance at these rallies that we, the workers are dissatisfied with the way things are, but the campaign isn’t involving us, it is being left in the hands of union leaders to negotiate a change in the rules. We could force a change in the rules if we took to the streets in protracted strike action as the teachers in LA did.
We may not be in the same place to challenge the system as teachers in LA or the Yellow Vest protesters in France, but they have shown us that we can win if we stay resolute and strong and not be afraid to carry out a protest struggle that may last for weeks. Yellow Vest protesters are showing Australian people that we have power and that even in the face of police brutality it is possible to stand strong.
A note of caution
Be warned young workers, there is an imitation movement being started here in Australia headed up by right wing fascists using the Yellow Vest movement to gain popularity. Do not join them. They are not promoting the same demands as the French Yellow Vests. Find out what the Yellow Vests really stand for and support them, not the right wing copycat versions.
See Facebook page: YELLOW VEST Australia