Friday, January 30, 2009

Ugly turn

Backtrack time? I think it is. When I wrote my post earlier, I was under the distinct impression that the racism was among a minority, and that the 'British jobs for British workers' slogan was an ill-thought-out nationalist reaction of a few that could be fought. We've seen this before. For example, there was a (tiny) minority on the Rover protests back in 2000 arguing that it was about 'British jobs', which the media focused on. In that light, the Tories, the right-wing press and the fascists all speaking out in support of the strikes would be an opportunistic hi-jacking of a genuine revolt for full union rights, jobs, pay, and conditions. That assumption is presumably why many people praised the post - they too are sick of the media perpetuating myths about the 'white working class' being especially racist.

The more I look at this, however, the more different it is. For a start, the overwhelming slogan of the Rover workers was 'Occupy, Organise, Nationalise'. But I am astonished to hear that there is a 'British jobs for British workers' protest planned by trade unionists for next week. Thus, this horrible slogan is not only the single most prominent one on the picket lines, it is actually becoming an official line of trade unionists who have in the past been an ally of anti-racists. Moreover, the arguments of some of the shop stewards supporting the strike are disgusting. This is how one Unite shop steward put it: "I'm a victim, you are a victim, there are thousands in this country that are victims to this discrimination, this victimisation of the British worker." This is an argument that comes straight from the playbook of the far right. Not all of the arguments are this bad, but there is some consistency regardless. Another shop steward, for example, states that it isn't a strike against "foreign labour" but "against foreign companies discriminating against British labour". That is exactly the wrong way to go about the argument, because it still says that the struggle is somehow between British workers and 'foreign' workers, not between the workers and the bosses. Moreover, it seems strangely congruent with the recent protectionist strategy of the Unite union. All of this is feeding into the racist coverage by the tabloids, and probably worse hysteria to come.

Of course, it is right to strike for jobs, and fair pay. That is what should be happening here. And I'm not going to pretend that the companies involved aren't engaged in union-busting. But I cannot, in good faith, stand by the claim that racism is only incidental to this strike. That was just not a realistic assessment. Given the way the demands have been raised, the only way the strikers could win would be if the the 'foreign workers' were sacked. As a consequence, I can't help but agree with those in the earlier thread who are worried about the fall-out. The bitterness that has been built up for years over low pay, deteriorating conditions, run-down housing estates, underfunded public services, and so on, has been intensified by the recession. Now, one expects Brown, whose slogan it is, to defend 'British jobs for British workers'. And the fascists, who gave it to Brown in the first place, will lap it up. But it would be a disaster if this slogan caught on. We do need a struggle, but this is the wrong basis for it.