We discussed some of the outstanding aspects of the current situation, meaning, the global supply chain crunch; the pandemic and state measures; the labour shortage, inflation and pay disputes. If you are interested in participating in the upcoming face-to-face meeting, get in touch.
*** The supply chain crunch
A comrade presented the main points from Sergio Bologna’s text on the ‘current crisis’ and updates regarding the current global supply chain crisis. (Click here for a summary of some recent news articles on this subject.) We then briefly discussed what the political significance of the current crunch is:
The crunch demonstrates that the system is vulnerable and that workers could potentially use their role in the supply chain to build their own power;
We should question whether the supply chain issue is ‘the’, rather than ‘an’ aspect of the current crisis. Bologna is correct about the limitations of catastrophism/final collapse politics of the left in the 1970s, but in his text the bigger picture is missing, e.g. the threat of war and military tension. A comrade criticised the limited focus of the debate – you can read his thoughts here.
The text doesn’t really draw the connection between the financial policies (difficulties to raise interest rates) and the problem of the supply chains. You have to deduce these connections: capital is concentrated in the large global logistics firms and their infrastructure, which primarily monitors the supply chains virtually. The material underbelly is subcontracted and these companies are often starved of capital, e.g. truck companies cannot keep up with modern just-in-time requirements. The same picture exists in public services, e.g. with companies like Carillion going bust due to the financial/credit crunch, leaving the rest of the services shaken. Many leftists, including comrades of Endnotes, have been blinded by the virtual smoothness of modern logistics, ignoring the often ramshackle and labour intensive material underbelly;
We would have to break down the text politically: workers experience supply problems at work or as consumers, but they are presented with technical explanations (mismanagement etc.) and solutions (relocation of production), whereas we could explain the various levels that created the crisis: from hierarchical cooperation, to the problem of money being the necessary conduit for production and reproduction, to environmental issues such as the role of water shortage when it comes to the microchip crisis, to ‘national strife’ such as Brexit or national regulations and competition, which makes a smooth cooperation impossible;
The text also mentions the role of workers and struggles in the logistics sector only fleetingly.
We entered a second discussion about the question of global finance policies at the moment and whether we can expect something like a Volcker Shock in reaction to the current inflation. As a reaction to the 1973 global slump and the level of working class militancy, the US Federal Reserve increased interest rates sharply, knowing that this would create the mass destruction of unprofitable capital and national economies in the global south. At the time, the US was the world’s main creditor and they were in the position to do this. Today the US is one of the world’s largest debtors, dependent on credits/money transfers from China, which has decreased significantly over the last three, four years (while it seems that the dependence on supplies from China has deepened during the Covid pandemic). The closing of the Chinese credit tap has led to a series of national debt defaults, largely concentrated in Latin America (Suriname, Ecuador, Argentina, Belize) but also affecting Lebanon and Zambia. It seems none of the world powers is able and prepared to ‘take the first step’ and make ‘others’ pay for the crisis. Unlike the 1970s, at the moment no country is in an advantageous enough position to start the restructuring crisis first.
We finally asked what the role of working militants is when it comes to the crunch:
The crux is that workers often feel atomised and pretty powerless. To present them with a ‘global supply chain’ crisis and how they are part of it might actually result in them feeling even more powerless as the whole thing is so massive and seemingly outside of their control. The challenge would be to complete the picture, e.g. by emphasising the increase in successful pay disputes in logistics.
At the same time we cannot forget that workers’ confidence and social power is impacted by various forces. The left and trade union rank-and-file was pretty confident that workers would finish off Thatcher in 1981, but then came the Falklands War and everything became side-tracked by flag-waving.
It is also only one thing to point out the ‘power of workers’ and the vulnerability of the supply chains. Workers can see that these things are breaking down even without them taking any action. While we should stress the power that workers have, this cannot remain just passive, as a power to stop one small link in the chain. We have to raise the question: if capital cannot guarantee global reproduction and supply, what will we as producers/workers have to do?
A comrade described two interventions in ‘supply’ disputes, of local delivery workers in Sheffield and agricultural workers in Morocco. In both cases workers put pressure on the ‘main profiteers’ (McDonalds, the international supermarket chains), but did not really relate to other workers ‘in the chain’. There are few examples where workers actually coordinate struggles along the chain, and we should find out why.
*** Covid, the state measures and the protests
A comrade presented the main questions raised in the texts by Mouvement Communiste and Sergio Bologna and our debates so far – see more detailed notes here. We then mainly discussed the issue of protests against Green Passes and mandatory vaccination:
In the UK we will not be confronted with a Green Pass as such, so the main issue will be how workers in the health sector react to the upcoming introduction of mandatory vaccines. While it’s one thing to relate to possible protests by colleagues if and when they are actually happening, we felt less inclined to actively mobilise around the issue given the fact that we all think the vaccine has been a positive thing overall.
Currently many companies outside of the health sector are trying to enforce/encourage vaccines by cutting sick pay, e.g. at IKEA where they’re offering no sick pay above the statutory, unless you’ve now had the jab.
The mistrust of many workers towards ‘the elite’ is understandable, which includes the official spokespeople of ‘the science’. The problem is that the working class doesn’t have their own bodies to create a counter-science, which means that the far-right and the conspiracy preachers can take over and instrumentalise the mistrust.
The good aspect of the leaflet by the comrades in Hamburg is that they focus on the fact that the state’s and bosses way to enforce the vaccine individualises many aspects of the reaction to the pandemic, e.g. the employer doesn’t have to guarantee collective measures, such as a changed way of working, but only make sure that individuals are vaccinated.
We have to see the class composition of these protests though, it’s not only or mainly about mistrust or ‘misled rebellion’. There are parallels to the Yellow Vest movement: the connection between small employers and atomised parts of the working class is strong and cannot primarily be broken by ‘better arguments’. The tendency towards individualism, social darwinism, fascist positions has a material base and it might be naive to think that we can change that by taking part with better leaflets.
It therefore also makes little sense to try and come to general judgements: each ‘national’ situation is different, the protests in Guadeloupe are different from the ones in Italy or Germany. We have to look at each situation.
*** Labour shortage and pay disputes
A comrade presented a paper on the so-called Striketober in the US and the situation of labour shortage, inflation and pay disputes in the UK. We discussed a few points:
Will the energy price increase lead to a bigger wave of bankruptcies/create the ground for a ‘populist’ response of small bosses and affected workers?
Is there an actual turn in the main unions away from the focus on the Labour Party towards industrial organising and disputes?
A recent GMB meeting on the recent and the upcoming pay adjustment in the NHS suggested that there is not much reflection going on regarding ‘what went wrong’. The issue was seen either as technical (the problem of’ postal ballots’) or workers were blamed for lack of interest and commitment. They also justified lack of activity with ‘strict legal restrictions’ around hospitals – something that we have to research.
Would be good to engage more with US comrades about the current situation post-Striketober, in particular because some people emphasise the fact that with Biden the link between ‘rank-and-file’ mobilisation and ‘institutional power’ is recreated, e.g. in form of legal changes of bargaining rights. That is problematic.
Related to the discussion on strikes, we heard a longer report about the current delivery workers strike in Sheffield – apparently the longest running gig economy strike in history. The company Stuart has announced a pay cut, workers mobilised pickets mainly in front of McDonalds, initially six different branches, now three. Similar problems reoccur: workers shift to other delivery companies and still deliver McDonald’s food. The picket doesn’t stop them. Stuart, nevertheless, had to face a £1 million loss due to the strike. Support is primarily from some unions and left organisations, plus students. Strike meetings are organised weekly, but attendance is sketchy.
Interesting aspects are that Stuart workers who have second jobs, e.g. at Amazon delivery, asked on the strike WhatsApp for support when their wages were not paid. The strike might reach out into different situations in this way. There is no tendency to ask for permanent jobs, people still want the flexibility of ‘self-employment’. This leads to problems, such as demands for a ‘hiring freeze’. Delivery workers in Sheffield are aware that there have been previous struggles in the sector, but there is no concerted effort. e.g. from the unions or the left, to present a systematic account and lessons. There are individual workers who are very active and eloquent and visit other pickets to promote the strike. Some showed interest in the Kellogg’s strike in the US. There are no ‘community groups’ such as religious organisations or cultural associations involved, despite the largely migrant composition of the workers. Stuart made good profits during the pandemic, but then made a £7 million loss in 2021, which didn’t stop the CEO giving himself a massive pay increase. Stuart is part of DPD, LePoste. There was a discussion amongst the organising group to shift the focus from McDonald’s to Greggs, but at least initially the Baker’s Union, who organises people at Greggs, saw potential pickets more as a ‘problem for their members’, rather than as an opportunity. Discussions are continuing. We collected money, spent some time at the pickets, and visited the protest rally on Sunday.