Interview: Manchester university occupation

In November a group of Manchester University students occupied a campus building to protest against their treatment by the university authorities. One of the students involved gave us this interview.

At the beginning of this semester people understood that the university had to make decisions to stop the spread of corona virus. Then what annoyed a lot of people was that just one week before we were all due to return to start our course which we’ve all paid a lot of money for, we got an email saying there would be no face to face teaching. All the people who are coming from outside Manchester and from abroad had already signed contracts for very expensive accommodation, either private accommodation or in student halls. This was done on the promise that there would be some face to face teaching. That email, the week before term started, made it feel like there was a deception. It felt like the university knew that this was going to be the case but didn’t tell students because they didn’t want landlords or their own student accommodation to take a financial hit. The university has essentially defended landlord’s income and their own rental income before defending the interests of students.

So that’s when the seeds of mistrust were planted. Then we also heard the staff were receiving emails saying ‘yes we know your work load has increased but you have to do this’, backed up by threats of redundancies. So that was pissing the staff off.

At that point no-one was particularly organising around any of this. What I’ve noticed about these protests is that they are mostly spontaneous and only after a protest has happened do groups begin to organise around it. You’ve got all the groups, like the Labour Party, the Young Communist League (YCL) and other groups, thinking something should be done but actually they were taken by surprise by the spontaneous protests.

In Manchester there were two big events. First was Manchester Metropolitain University’s lock-down of student halls because of covid – that caused massive panic amongst the Met students – and they started putting up all those protest posters in their windows and someone stuck up ‘9k for what?’ So the YCL, Manchester Tenants Union and other groups all came together to form a group called ‘9k for what?’ and then we realised there were groups called ‘9k for what?’ forming all over the country so we all came together to form a national group with branches at the different universities.

Then the other spontaneous event which had a big impact was when Manchester Uni put up the fences around accommodation halls. That led to people just panicking and coming out, angered by the uni acting in such a disgusting way. The Uni had lied to them about the teaching and now it was locking them in. They’d got the students here on false pretences, were overcharging them and now this. All in the general marketisation of education. You see the general deterioration of respect for the students, for their conditions and the conditions of staff. That fence was a final straw. People just began coming out of the building and ripping the fences up. Then a student welfare group called SAFER really focussed on that and organised a protest just on the question of student welfare. That gained wide support and that campaign and ‘9k for what?’ have been responding to these spontaneous actions. Its like prodding a beehive, you prod and prod and then suddenly the thing erupts. Really the problems has been going on for a long time, this marketisation of education. The corona virus has just amplified everything and the beehive has exploded. Now the bees are organising themselves and fighting back.

Normally when you do an occupation you occupy somewhere that is strategic but because all the uni staff are working from home it was very difficult to find such a place. We chose a building more for its publicity focus. Manchester Tower in Owens Park is an iconic building, a piece of the Fallowfield skyline and we thought if we get in there, cover it with posters we’ll get publicity and we did. Virtually all the newspapers had pictures of it. We wanted to bring to the forefront a critique of Manchester Uni and because the staff were supporting us its really brought out things. Yes the students were pissed off because they had spent all this money on nothing but there is much more behind it all. All these recent events are a catalyst for something that’s been building up for a long time. These universities have just become businesses I think the support we’ve got, from the public both for students and the staff, is more than we’ve ever had.

We’ve tried to involve the overseas students as much as we can but of course their responses are very mixed but all of them have their own problems on top of ours. For example they haven’t been told when or if they can go home for Xmas but they have to book flights, that can’t be done at the last minute.

Because the universities have been marketised, the students aren’t seen as part of the university any more, as people deserving respect, but just as sources of income, as customers. We’re not communicated with as adults.

I think students are being conned but there are now lots of interesting discussions going on about what’s happening to education. We don’t get half the services that we’re supposed to get and we don’t get face to face teaching – all this and they still want to charge us 9k a year. People are realising the Uni doesn’t give a shit.

A new student committed suicide not long after arriving this term. Even his father came out and said this was the university’s fault. They refused to accept any responsibility and when they put that fence up, right outside the window of the flat where he committed suicide, they hung a notice on the fence saying ‘put up to protect student welfare’. Things like this have all fed into people’s awareness of how the uni is going. The marketisation of education becomes visual. The dynamics which where there already now become openly apparent. When push comes to shove the university will defend its bottom line before anything else.

Previously, a lot of people who had been campaigning on campus for a while may have seen it through Labour Party eyes, put a lot of emphasis on Labour, but that’s dead now and people have been joining other groups like the YCL but also you see more grass roots campaigns springing up, like the 9k for what? or rent strikes,. You’re seeing a lot of people who weren’t involved in stuff getting active now and coming up in a more grassroots way and I think that’s more where the left is now. People begin to see electoralism is dead and they are turning to more left wing parties, to a more radical outlook. Even the people still in the Labour Party are turning to doing more grass roots stuff and I think there’s a lot more unified action from the different left groups all getting involved in the same campaigns, like the rent strikes. After the death of the Corbyn project things feel less factionalised, people are coming together on campaigns without the electioneering and party politics getting in the way.

Leaflet on current wildcat actions at Amazon Poland

Hundreds of Ama􏰀zon workers in Poland stop work, demanding 􏰁£400 bonus.

On 5th of November over 100 forklift drivers in Wroclaw stopped work, demanding 2,000 Zloty bonus. In the following shift further 180 workers stopped picking. The action spread to other Amazon warehouses in Poland. Read more here:

Comrades will distribute this leaflet to Amazon workers in Croydon. Do the same in your area!

Amazon drivers leaflet – Croydon

Amazon is taking the piss – What are we going to do about it? 

It’s obvious to everyone that Amazon is taking the piss with its drivers. They’re sending out 300 items per shift, with the front passenger seats dangerously full of parcels. They don’t care what happens on the road or what happens to you. They only care about their parcels.

All this means that drivers are having to work long hours, not take any breaks and often stay much later than their supposed shift finish time. If you don’t finish in time, Amazon might send another driver and then charge you for it. It’s a joke. When you think that van rental is about £230/week, there’s fuel to buy and it takes 9 hour or more to finish a shift, it means that drivers are sometimes working for less than minimum wage. And this is London!

The thing is, there is no reason why things have to be this way. At the same time as Amazon is forcing some drivers to deliver 300 parcels in a shift, other drivers are only getting 3 or 4 shifts per week. This tells us that Amazon is trying to get as rich as possible off of drivers, instead of splitting up the work in a way where people can get enough days to pay their rent, and not have a heart attack or car accident from so many parcels. This situation is messed up and we need to do something about it. 

Amazon will squeeze drivers as much as possible, so long as they think they can get away with it. That’s why they paid the £2/hour coronavirus bonus. They were worried that without that, drivers would stop coming in. That would cost Amazon more in lost business then paying this small increase in wages. The lesson from this is simple – if we want to win anything from Amazon, we have to make it more costly for them to ignore us than to listen to us. 

But How Is That Even Possible?

Good question. No one said it would be easy. But thousands of Amazon workers have been fighting against the company in the USA, France, Poland, Italy and Germany. They’ve shown that if you are organised, ready to fight, and in contact with other depots, it’s possible to win. 

Amazon Croydon depends on 100 or so drivers to supply thousands of customers. Those drivers speak different languages, they don’t have much time to stop and chat, and people are scared of losing their jobs or getting shit from management. It’s hard! But at the same time, those 100 drivers have a lot of power. Without them, Croydon Amazon will stop. We need to find a way to turn that fear into anger and energy. If the drivers don’t drive, Amazon won’t run. 

So How Do We Do This? 

  1. Communication

The first step is for drivers to start speaking to each other about their problems. This requires: 

1) A form of communication (like Whatsapp, Signal or Telegram groups, and flyers like this one that we can help with). 

 2) Trust. No one wants to get targeted by management and it’s hard to know how you can trust someone you don’t know. The only way to get through that is to start speaking to each other and to us. We don’t care if management shout at us or target us. We can speak to new drivers who are angry and interested in getting involved. We can make sure they are serious and then introduce them to the drivers we already know.  

3) Translation. Apart from English, Romanian and Bulgarian are spoken by a lot of Croydon drivers. We can sort out translations and print flyers to give out to the other drivers. 

  1. Picking battles, building Confidence. 

If we are going to sort out the big issues, then we need a lot of drivers united together and ready to fight. The way to do that is to first target smaller issues and get results so that we can show to drivers that sticking together is worth it. Maybe there’s a manager who’s a prick to drivers. Maybe it’s the dangerous parcels in the passenger seats. Maybe one of the agencies is messing people around with pay. We should try and sort a smaller issue like this together first. 

  1. Meeting to make a plan. 

The reality is that no one is going to come from the sky and sort out your problems for you. Only you can – the drivers and the warehouse workers. We can support you as a group with printing, translation, advice, knowledge about the law etc. But you have to take responsibility and take action. The only way that will work is if drivers come together, say what they think and then agree on a plan. We suggest meeting up after a shift near to the warehouse and speaking for 20 mins about what we are going to do. Yes, everyone is busy. But if people aren’t up for making that effort and coming together, then nothing will change. 

  1. Co-ordinating with other depots. 

Amazon is a huge company. We know that, and we know it’s going to take a lot to beat them. But we are in contact with workers at different depots across London, the UK, Europe and North America. There is now an international organisation of Amazon workers called Amazon Workers International (https://www.facebook.com/AmazonWorkersInternational/). We are also in contact with them. Workers at the different UK depots ALL have the same problems. They are all pissed off, and there are a lot of workers thinking of taking action, like striking. If Croydon workers get organised, then we can help you to coordinate with workers across London, the UK and internationally. 

There’s lots more to say about all this. But let’s take things one step at a time. 

We need to start building a group of Croydon drivers who are ready to do something and not just complain. We need to start a whatsapp and organise a meeting to decide next steps. Get in touch:
Email: croydonsolidarity@gmail.com Call/Text: 07951421335 Facebook: search ‘Croydon-Solidarity-Network’ Twitter: @NetworkCroydon

Current situation in the UK – November meeting

We discussed this summary at our general meeting in early November. Minutes of the discussion will be circulated at some point soon.

There are UK underlying structural causes why the UK was hit hardest by the Covid crisis both in economic and health terms

Weakened productive fabric

There is the much talked about longer-term crisis of the economy in the UK: lowest productivity increases in the EU, heavy dependency on low-paid (migrant) labour and long working hours; de-industrialisation related brain-drain, which expresses itself in failures of large-scale projects (HS2) or in reliance on foreign investments and productive knowledge (5G, nuclear power). Main manufacturing is tied up in aerospace and arms manufacturing, which is capital intensive and export-oriented, the other end of the spectrum are perhaps the Boohoo sweat-shops. The inability to ‘vamp up production’ of PPE or other goods which lacked during the first weeks of the pandemic is an expression of the weak local productive fabrik. It is one question if the government actually has a plan of ‘onshoring’ and ‘re-industrialisation’ (‘Project Birch’, ‘Project Defend’, Red Wall investments), it is another question if these plans are feasible, both in terms of technical conditions (local know-how etc.) and profitability.

Weakened international position / Brexit

The Brexit negotiations had already revealed the fact that the UK is squeezed between the EU, China, US trade and tech tensions. The US under Trump demanded open access (health, agriculture), no UK tariff union with the EU (basically no deal) and the scrapping of the digital service tax as a precondition for a good trade deal. Smaller trade agreements with Japan or India could not camouflage this squeeze – and in the case of Japan revealed the uneven relation: the UK depends on investments into automobile (Nissan, Toyota) and nuclear power (Hitachi, Toshiba) and has little to offer in return (Stilton cheese, financial service). The financial crisis has shaken the believe that the City and a ‘sovereign currency’ can counter-balance the decline of industrial and military power – in particular with the tension around financial services in the Brexit negotiations. It is therefore understandable that the UK government wants to have a certain autonomy over subsidies and the right to ‘lower standards’ when it comes to a Brexit deal – without this there would be little chance for the UK state to co-manage restructuring of the industrial base.

De-composed political class

It’s difficult to tell whether the late reaction to the Covid crisis was due to the chaos and divisions within the government after the EU-friendly liberal Tory wing had been defeated or because of a attempt to see if society would swallow a ‘herd immunity strategy’, which would sacrifice the old and vulnerable. This is in line with various opportunist ‘testing the water’-type of politics, e.g. the unlawful prolongation of the parliamentary holiday, the breaking of international law when they overrode the withdrawal agreement, the hiring of people like Andrew Sabisky, the idea to build anti-migrant wave machines off Dover. A common viewpoint portrays the current Tory leadership as an opportunist, US-oriented, corrupt rentier / tech-sector party. This leftist view was put into question by the announcement of infrastructure spending and the deficit spending spree since the Covid crisis. With the withdrawal of the ‘triple lock’ on pensions the party might lose the traditional ‘grey’ voters base – but who are they representing now, when most representatives of ‘big capital’ are pretty annoyed by the Brexit politics? The tension between a ‘libertarian’ and ‘nationalist’ (ERG) wing of the party continues.

Undermined administration during neoliberal phase

Let’s not forget that the state and the government are two different things. During the Covid crisis we could see how brittle the connections between central government, (health) institutions and the wider public civil service and local state are, due to the effect of austerity and outsourcing. There were many fatal ‘mistakes’, e.g. due to lack of planning and communication between NHS and privatised elderly care. The outsourcing strategy boosted initially by New Labour slowly falls apart, first with the Carillion crisis, then with the cock up of the 850 Covid related contracts, totalling £10 billion (test and trace, Microsoft Excel). The neoliberal phase which allowed to turn any relation into a market-mediate relation is broke, the state has to take vital functions in-house again (from railways to consultancy work, on which they spent £2.6 billion in the last four years). The same is true for the main financing source for the local state, namely the real estate bubble – the central state sees the increasing risk of bust chains and imposes limits. But what alternative sources of income are there for Croydon, Liverpool, Tower Hamlets? It seems that the crisis will also undermine the ‘cooperative’/start-up Preston model of local financing – the show-piece of the Labour left.

National de-composition

Brexit and the current crisis have aggravated the regional divisions and centrifugal forces. Sunak and Johnson tried to highlight the transfer payments to Scotland during Covid (furlough scheme and company credits), while the SNP tries to hide that the material basis for independence has weakened with the slump of oil prices. Regionalism also led to uncoordinated lockdowns, e.g. Wales came out of a two week lockdown at the time when England entered it. The imposition of regional lockdowns also aggravated the north (Manchester) and south divide. We can expect that a populist ‘anti-London’ sentiment – against the elite, metropolitan arrogance, perhaps against multiculturalism, – will be part of future movements.

Weakened working class confidence

Another major factor for the Covid pandemic having more devastating effects in the UK is the weakened confidence of the local working class. We heard only of few workers’ actions against having to work under unsafe conditions. It’s revealing that areas like Brent had one of the highest death-rates: migrant manual labour, over-crowding, little health infrastructure addressing non-English speakers. The division of the local working class into three main segments seems pretty stable during the crisis: a large segment of (migrant, 0-hours) precarious labour; a ‘unionised’ public sector which has been battered by austerity, but feels like an island surrounded by outsourcing; workers like at Rolls Royce, who have pretty good conditions (£45,000 p.a.), but feel under global competitive stress (Singapore) and locally isolated. The public discussed a come-back of trade unions, at least in terms of membership and influence within Labour. The (Covid) crisis has shown that workers might join for security purposes, but CWU, Unison, RMT and Unite called of industrial disputes during the first lockdown, hoping to get a seat at the table – only to be undermined when the job cuts were announced afterwards.

Disoriented and uprooted left

The Labour left experienced the double-blow of Starmer’s real-existing statesmanship (‘Britain First’, ‘free reign for undercover cops’, Corbyn suspension) and Tory real-existing socialism (deficit spending, talk of corporate tax increase). People like Mason unsurprisingly moved to the right, few left the party, the majority seems pretty paralysed – which radiates into the ‘far left’ milieu (Plan C etc.). There is little debate about the Covid state policies in general, the criticism remains piecemeal (bank credits doesn’t reach small companies, furlough system does not cover everyone, testing system not efficient). The turn of some towards ‘working class organising’ hasn’t resulted in discussions of actual experiences or strategies yet (see Manchester Zoom meeting, Momentum people in west London).

———

Some ideas about the main points of tension in the current situation

Regarding crisis management the state has the following challenge:

The deficit spending has to be widespread enough to avoid a chain reaction of defaults and bankruptcies. This is costly and has a political risk: the state stands in the public spotlight and both capital and working class focus their demands on the state’s political will. In prevention the state tries to act through ‘market players’ (credit through banks; furlough money through employers)
The deficit spending and bailouts have to be selective enough in order to re-enforce ‘economic discipline’ – some companies have to go bust, some people have to suffer in order to re-establish profitability. There is a time-window for this, as a a lack of confidence in the state’s ability to re-store profitability would translate into devaluation of the pound – the state has fired most fiscal and monetary shots (quantitative easing, negative interest rates, debt cancellation)
The Covid crisis means the return of the state into the centre of ‘economics’. From a working class point of view this is a double-edged sword. On one side it has a positively ‘politicising’ effect, in the sense that decisions are not seen as a result of the ‘invisible hand’ or market forces, but as a question of power. Instead of having separate disputes with hundreds of companies there is a general focus on the state. On the other hand we can see how this ‘politicisation’ can also lead to passiveness and detachment from workers’ collective power, e.g. in the case of British Airways the focus on the state (BA Betrayal, the government should do something) helped to pacify the dispute – the government takes the flak, but that is what the government is there for.

Regarding workers’ struggles these questions might become more relevant:

  • Do we expect that the struggle of a particular group of workers against job cuts could act like a spark in the current situation? Will there be common struggles around the conditions of the furlough scheme or UC due to the wider significance of these payments, e.g. when the extra-UC money runs out? Where would be the focus of action?
  • We took the following tension as the starting point of the interviews: the lockdown spotlight on the essential sector gave more confidence to many low paid manual workers, which might express itself in form of wage demands – at the same time unemployment and job cuts put the pressure on from above. Brexit will very likely cause a (temporary) spike in inflation, which will add another level of pressure, which the government will try to externalise (‘It’s the EU’s fault’)
  • Brexit’s main issue was labour migration – will the strategy of the government work out? Give the current EU migrants settled status, but hassle them when it comes to (social benefit) claims; give skilled workers from non-EU countries access to the labour market on strict terms, and expect them to be grateful for the chance; import saisonal labour on short-term visas, e.g. agricultural workers from Ukraine; and expect that in the short period of time they don’t develop claims to be treated like other (settled EU) workers.
  • Brexit was not really an issue that brought together a populist street movement – and it does not feel that anyone is too passionate about it anymore. Will we see similar unrest regarding the Covid like in Italy or Spain? In Italy the ‘mobilisation’ has two souls, which often acted in spatial separation: small shop and restaurant owners vs. unemployed, often 2nd generation migrant. If we add to the mix an employer class that has an interest to minimise the effects of lockdown, while unions and organised workers fight against being sacrificed then we have a pretty dangerous mix. With the high level of self-employed and smallish ‘service companies’ the UK would be a pretty fertile ground for an anti-lockdown populism.

What can we do?

  • Turn the interviews into a pamphlet that puts forward some of our ideas: answers to the crisis have to come from below, it is a question of day-to-day power relations on the shop-floor; what do we think about Covid and the crisis: what can we learn from struggles around the world; what do we suggest as next steps (towards a struggle conference); what do we think about a social alternative – also as a presentation of our network
  • Interview comrades in Italy, Spain, US, Germany about their thoughts on and experiences with the current anti-lockdown protests
  • Discuss the strong and weak points of the tradition of ‘workers control’ during times of company closures; discuss the strong and weak points of ‘unemployed workers’ organising
    Find a division of labour ad a more systematic approach for future ‘UK reports’ – including technical details (Financial Times sub, Crabgrass etc.); how can we use the UK reports more to intervene into local debate?

Class consciousness and organisation – November meeting

We discussed this text during our general meeting in early November. We will publish a summary of the minutes at some point soon.

This is the first time in my life that I have tried to speak about the development of class consciousness. I’ve always been in a party or in some campaign with papers, propaganda and all the other assets of a political movement and just got on with things. When I bumped into the Angry Workers, suddenly there I was with a handful of people and nothing much else but some ideas. Surrounded by a world in chaos, with countless political groups posting up their recipes for salvation, I began to think about the relation between my own ideas and the development of working class consciousness.

In the English civil war the rising bourgeoisie confronted the old feudal aristocracy with its figurehead, the king, who claimed his position of god’s chosen mouthpiece. Cromwell and his followers fought for their vision of the right of all men to talk to god equally. Behind this religious battle was an earthly battle between the classes – the owners of land versus the owners of capital. But the radical elements of Cromwell’s movement took the demand for the equality before god a step further and demanded the equality of people on earth – an equality of wealth and responsibilities.

The victorious bourgeoisie cut off the king’s head but then did a deal with the old aristocracy to exclude the masses from having any say in the distribution of power and wealth. The Levellers, Diggers and other radical elements were crushed and yet their ideas lived on and re-emerged in different forms across Europe and in America.
The development of industrial society and towns with the appalling conditions for workers brought new cries for the end of the inequality between rich and poor – both from workers and from enlightened members of the elite. There began to emerge the first socialist ideas and writings but these mostly came intermingled with religion and indeed led to divisions within the church seeing the growth of non-conformism that drew support from the working classes. The heaven of the hereafter remained but a heaven on earth was also called for – William Blake’s Jerusalem for example.

Even the growth of secular, non-religious and anti-religious socialism still used the same ideological framework as their religious forebears. They decried the suffering of the poor, cursed the power and privilege of the rich and painted a picture of a different future society – a utopia. Yet, like their religious socialist forebears, the gulf between the awful present and the utopian future would be overcome by converting people – rich and poor – to their vision, to their cause. In fact they often paid more attention trying to convert the rich as they were clearly the people with the power to change things. Some were indeed converted – people like the mill owner Robert Owen who first built his workers community in New Lanarkshire and then went on to set up his ‘communist’ mill in the US where he was bankrupted by the other mill owners.

In philosophical terms all these early socialists were idealists – not because they had ideals – but because they thought that the world and society were made and changed by ideas – that consciousness determines ‘being’ – the totality of human existence. So if you change people’s ideas you will change the world.

Meanwhile away from the world of politics in another sphere of human knowledge, people investigating the natural world were rejecting the guiding hand of god as creator and source of all motion. They began to describe a world governed by its own logic, its own laws of motion and change, a world that moved irrespective of the thoughts of humans and without the need for an external almighty mover. This outlook became known as materialism – again not the meaning that people use to mean the love of things – simply a philosophical view of the world where matter, things, nature are primary and human thought is secondary or a re-flexion of that natural world.

This materialist view of the world was taken up by the socialists and others looking at the development of society. Men like the German socialist Ludwig Feurbach who argued that men had created god and not vice versa. He now located human beings and the society they had created within this ‘nature’ that developed according to its own laws, not according to the dreams of humans. Addressing the pitiful state of the vast mass of people – the workers – he argued that changed circumstances would change people. The workers created all the wealth but lived impoverished lives. Put an end to class society and you would change the nature of people.

But there was a huge problem here. A changed society would change people. The working class in a changed society will be a changed people but how was the change to occur? Feurbach’s socialism still left the central role of the ‘teacher’, the educator, the person who sees the needed change and passes on this knowledge. For all his materialism, for all his ‘being determines consciousness’, he was still left with the preacher as the agent of change.

Marx and Engel as young men were followers of Feurbach, having both come to the cause of socialism from comfortable middle class backgrounds but with a growing hatred of everything they saw in existing society. They came to challenge Feurbach’s views. Impacted by both Hegel’s writings on dialectics and by the first revolts of the embryonic workers movement, Marx and Engels rejected – or better – transcended Feurbach’s materialism and his socialism.

Feurbach and fellow materialist socialists saw that humans come to know their world, developed knowledge, through their activity but for them ‘activity’ was seen only as contemplation or investigation – which of course put the contemplator or investigator in an elevated position – the philosopher, the studier of the world.

Marx and Engels, breaking through this mystique of the ‘investigator’ saw activity through which knowledge is gained as ‘work’, not contemplation, but work – the fundamental activity of human beings, if you like the planting and harvesting of potatoes – something that seemed insignificant in the world of philosophers. Work done by people who are part of the natural world, acting upon the natural external world and in doing so, changing it and themselves.

Further, while most writers saw society composed of individual people, gaining knowledge individually , Marx saw real people living in real societies within real social relations, now dominated by capital and driven by capital’s need to self reproduce.

So now, for Marx, the materialist outlook that ‘being’ – the totality of existence – determines human consciousness had to recognise that ‘being’ is the actual world of existing class relations, and it is this actual world that shapes consciousness and that this world, this being, is already shaped by previous human activity and is constantly being reshaped by it. In their famous theses on Feurbach, Marx and Engels’ write –

The Materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing and that therefore changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator himself must be educated.

Suddenly the preacher is gone. The educator – now the communists – still has a role but it is people – the working class – in their daily struggle against capital who will develop the practical consciousness necessary to overthrow its domination.I have gone through this very over-simplified history of ideas because I want to go on and show that most of the ‘Marxists’ and revolutionaries who claim allegiance to Marx’s writings, in fact ignore his overturning of Feurbach, ignore his concept that it is the working class in their struggles who develop the consciousness needed to transform society. In fact they go back to the materialism of Feurbach with the weird, unexplained role of the educator, the preacher, the person who knows what the working class must do. Even though they will over and over repeat that it is the working class who must liberate themselves they combine this magically with their own role as leader, as the person who knows where the masses must go. In 1844 there was an uprising of workers in Silesia. This had a big impact on Marx and helped to deepen his understanding of the role of the working class – he learnt from it, not the other way round. Other people saw this uprising as limited, as an isolated event but Marx was able to see its revolutionary implications, even when there was only this embryonic working class. For him it represented the human protest against a dehumanised life. The workers were no longer simply an object of pity or noble beings or the potential recipients of propaganda for a philosopher’s utopia, but workers as the real revolutionary force in society, developing a practical consciousness in their unavoidable struggle to overcome the existence to which capital subjugated them. They were forced to fight against their dehumanised existence not just in the sense of their material poverty or even cultural poverty but in a much more profound sense. When they are forced to sell the commodity, their labour power, their ability to work, to the owner of capital who sets it work, the truly human nature of work – the collective efforts of humans to reproduce the conditions for their collective survival – is suppressed. It is this suppression and destruction of the truly human in the production process under capital that makes the working class the revolutionary antagonist of capital. All kinds of reforms can be won to improve the workers conditions but not only can they be taken away again, as long as capital dominates, the real humanity of the worker and the working class is denied and only its total, revolutionary abolition can put an end to the existence of the workers as prisoners of their work. I’m not here going to go into the other side of capital’s drive for its own self reproduction – the ever growing destructive nature of the production of things completely beyond the control of any rational, social, collective assessment of human needs. Look, for example, at the covid crisis, very much a product of capital’s globalised production process but a threat that sees class societies’ complete inability to develop a collective rational response. This lack of any form of collective control for the common good, both in relation to covid but also the environment etc etc, is now threatening the very existence of human life.

It is against all this that the working class is forced to fight and find the ways, through its struggles, through its organisation, to assert a collective, socialised control.

Marx and Engels, right at the birth of a working class movement, wrote the Communist Manifesto and put at the centre of it this revolutionary force of the working class, a force that had to find its own ways to organise its own emancipation. Of course knowledge of the past and even visions of the future can be passed from person to person. Why else bother to write the Communist Manifesto? We read, we study history, we debate and develop our ideas, in other words consciousness can impact on consciousness but only in a limited way, only to the extent that an individual’s experiences makes sense of this passed on knowledge. And above all this kind of knowledge transference is limited to the passing on of what is already known. But the forms and content of future struggles are not known in advance and have to be discovered by the working class itself, in struggle. And it is this ‘new’ that has to be studied, has to modify previous expectations and placed at the heart of the communist’s agitation.

Since the publication of the Communist Manifesto millions of people around the world, in the course of the struggles, have found inspiration in its analysis of their situation. Countless numbers of revolutionaries have thought they were following in Marx’s footsteps. They will all agree on the role of the working class but really go back to the pre-Marx view that being determines consciousness – full stop. Back to Feurbach. The working class reduced to being a kind of battering ram whose direction comes from somewhere outside the class. For them revolutionary consciousness, i.e. the consciousness of the necessity of revolution, is an already known thing, They know it – so all that is needed is a way of delivering that known consciousness, and the way becomes propaganda and above all – the party or the sect, the possessor par excellence of revolutionary consciousness. They like the struggles of the working class only because they feel that creates a fertile ground for passing on their recipes.

Lenin in ‘What is to be done’ spelt out that revolutionary consciousness can only come from outside the class – from the party, even if he did moderate his views later they fundamentally remained the same. The party now replaces the old preacher. From the party as embodiment of revolutionary consciousness comes party loyalty. Lenin’s great skills as an organiser and the Bolshevik’s apparent triumph meant that Lenin’s writings on all subjects became bibles for later generations. But Lenin’s reversion to the pre-Marx materialism, with the working class simply as object, acted upon by nature, totally suited Stalin and the Soviet State. Stalin’s writings on consciousness approvingly quotes Feurbach but makes no mention of Marx’s repudiation of it.

Trotsky took up his vital and indefatigable battle against Stalinism and the Fourth International became the centre of this struggle. But, as with Lenin, his disciples took uncritically everything he did and wrote. In 1928 when sections of the Soviet working class came into collision with the state that was demanding more and more work from them, Trotsky, leader of the left opposition, sided with the state against the workers. The 4th international, with its ‘crisis of humanity is reduced to the crisis of working class leadership’ replicated Lenin’s one sided materialism. No matter how many times you repeat that the working class is the revolutionary force in society you strangulate this revolutionary force if you think you know in advance what the working class must do, if you prescribe in advance how its must conduct its struggles and try to fit it into your pre-ordained programme.

No matter how much a vision of the future, a utopia, can inspire people, the working class does not fight out of the pursuit of a dream, but out of the necessity to fight against the present dehumanised society and it is in doing this that they discover that they have to put an end to the rule of capital. This consciousness does not come ready made, written down, presented in books or by a party. Against all the present day Marxists who think they know the answers, want to tell the working class what they need to do, how to proceed, Marx’s words need repeating over and over, ‘The educators themselves have to be educated’.

Yes of course the militants, not as outsiders, but those workers who have developed the knowledge of the underlying nature of society have a role to play, to pass on this history of human culture and experience, to pass on the understanding of the crisis of society and the need for revolution, to propose forms of struggle, but the militant has to understand that they don’t have the answers and that working class communist consciousness is developed by the working class in struggle, in opposition to what the present society is denying in terms of human needs. This consciousness is not yet known – to anyone. So we, the militants, as part of the class, not something over and above it, have to discover forms of struggle through which the practical political consciousness can develop, i.e. as part of the working class’s own need to revolutionise practice.

This view of the development of working class consciousness in no way negates the role of the militant. I end with a quote from the Communist manifesto.

‘The communists are distinguished from other working class parties by this only; 

1 In the national struggles of the proletarians of different countries they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independent of all nationality.
2 In the various stages which the struggle of the working classes against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

………….The theoretical conclusions of the communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented or discovered by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes.’

There is hardly a left group in existence that really proceeds in this way.

Covid and workers in Bangladesh

Bangladesh: Garment workers fight! (original in German: Wildcat – May 2020)

You don’t need to know much about Bangladesh to understand that the Corona crisis will lead to extreme conditions locally. The virus came into the country through returning migrant workers, most likely from Italy. The health system is hardly prepared for health crises like this: there are only 1,170 intensive care beds for 170 million Bangladeshis. At the end of April, as far as can be estimated, there are still relatively few people who are ill or dead, but the trend is rising. Millions of people are already suffering from the economic effects. Garment exports have collapsed, and in general most businesses and shops have closed. Thousands of workers in Europe are not earning money to send back, and in Bangladesh many are stuck with confirmed visas and cannot leave the country to take up work.1

“Because of the pandemic, we can’t get a new job or leave our homes, which we can’t pay rent for anymore.”

For many, the lockdown means the loss of their income. According to a study by an NGO, the income of households which depend on what is officially classified as poverty wages fell by about 71 percent compared to February. On average, these households now spend 25 percent less on food. Sharply rising food prices reduce the amount of food people can afford to buy even further. In concrete terms, a normal rickshaw driver in February could still afford to buy the ingredients for six to seven portions of a (very) simple rice dish for four people from his daily income. By mid-April, it was not even two whole portions.2 In addition, by April 13 only four percent of the population had received any financial or material support at all.

“What’s the point of respecting the lockdown if you can’t eat?”

In Dhaka, hundreds of people protested several times in April for the distribution of food in their neighbourhoods. The aid measures put in place by the government, a significant amount of 8.9 billion dollars, are barely reaching the poor and the slums: the aid packages distributed by the army and NGOs are only a drop in the ocean. Most of the aid from the government or from NGOs is provided through money transfers, for which you need a mobile phone with credit (which many people cannot pay in the crisis) and a mobile phone connected bank account, which hardly anyone has. There are also frequent protests for the recognition as ‘essential workers’, for whom the government finances health insurance. Recently, customs officials have been campaigning to be included on this list. The biggest and most important protests so far have come from seamstresses in the garment industry. Like almost all workers, they face a double threat: the virus and the crisis that threatens their jobs.

The first factories closed at the beginning of March because orders were cancelled due to the government imposed closure of shops and department stores in the target countries and many large clothing companies such as Walmart, H&M and Primark refused to accept or pay for goods already produced. These are orders worth 3.17 billion dollars or one billion garments in 1,150 factories with 2.3 million workers (as of April 24). When there was an outcry by western media at the end of March, some large retailers were forced to promise to at least pay for the goods already produced and in production. But the losses are still massive, and many entrepreneurs have not passed these funds on to the workers.3

On March 26, most factories were then closed by government order until April 4. Many workers went to the countryside to save money. Although the government extended the lockdown, export factories with open orders were allowed to resume production. This led to a chaotic mass return of workers to the factory districts. Because large parts of the local transport network had been closed down, they came on foot, on bicycles and rickshaws, with horrendous costs for the individual workers. They came back under pressure from the employers, and fear for their jobs also played a role. But the main issue was the outstanding wages for the past months; in some factories not even the February wage had been paid in full. In view of the mass return journeys of workers required to re-start production, all factories were closed again with the threat of punishment if they did not adhere.4

“Stop the blackmailing by the bosses.“

The workers were now back in the cities – and of course, after the forced closure of the factory, the outstanding wages were not paid. At least 36 large export factories used the labour law in order to classify the closure as a ‘natural calamity’: according to this law the workers are then only entitled to 50 percent of wages and bonuses (and even that only for 45 days per year!). When work is resumed, the old employment contract continues to apply and the workers retain their previous wage level.

The pressure to fight back was great: after a survey of 88 seamstresses in all wage brackets at the beginning of April, 15 percent were broke and had to ask shops to give them credit, the rest only had cash for 16 days. One third reduced their purchase of food, 70 percent stopped sending money home, paying their rent or interest. 43 percent of those surveyed no longer have any money to buy mobile phone credit.

Without being restricted by the quarantine rules (which workers in cramped housing conditions with far too few sanitary facilities cannot comply with anyway), they organised protests in front of the factories, which frequently brought up to 20,000 people onto the streets from April 12. Usually between several hundred and a few thousand people gather in front of factories and call for the payment of wages and the withdrawal of the legal ‘natural calamity’ classification. The protests clearly showed the fighting experience of the last few years. Almost never do workers from one factory remain alone; there are always workers from other factories who join in. The workers from smaller factories especially become more visible.
Nevertheless, the current protests have a different character than in recent years. Obviously they are not strikes, but the composition is also different because there are fewer residents from the neighbourhood who had previously taken part in garment workers’ mobilisations. Often the protests blockade main streets and highways as a strategic tool. And they are more strongly accompanied by direct negotiations with the entrepreneurs, which are usually conducted indirectly by the local police or politicians. The protests are very orderly, even if sometimes a window or door is destroyed, they are actually peaceful. On the other hand, the police also rely more strongly on de-escalation than usual, after two workers ran in front of a truck in a panic during a tear gas operation in a protest on April 6 and died. Often the workers of many factories protested together, in Gazipur they came from at least 25 factories, in Ashulia from over 12 factories.

“Why do you give money to the employers and not to us?”

The protests were partially successful: 1200 factories paid the outstanding wages until April 15. The same day the government reacted with carrot and stick; at the same time as it made employers pay wages under threat of punishment, it also immediately provided loans to them worth 590 million dollars. By about April 20, over 96 percent of the 2.5 million workers in the certified export factories had received their wages. But no one knows how many of the remaining almost two million workers have not yet received their wages. By the beginning of May, the workers of at least 517 factories had not received their March wages.

Many people who have been laid off have not yet been taken back, in which case the workers are paid only half their wages, if at all. For this reason, the second half of April was also marked by protests for full wage payment and reinstatement or withdrawal of factory closures. However, these protests were much smaller (at their height, a few thousand per protest), partly because many workers went back to the countryside after having receiving their wages.
Bangladesh keeps on working

At the end of April, the lockdown was relaxed, the garment factories began to start up again, and by April 30 production was running in at least 2,000 factories. The main concern of the employers is to complete orders already in production, which they do not want to lose because the fashion companies might see this it as breach of contract. Although the bosses had promised to re-start production using only local workers, by the beginning of April many workers had made the arduous return journey from their villages, driven by the worry of missing out on the April wage which contains a significant annual bonus payment. Strong protests in the last days of April demanded full payment of wages despite the fact that the factories had been standing still for many days during April. At present, the workers seem to be less able to assert themselves on this point. The government decided that layoffs should be reversed and only 60 percent of the wages should be paid if no work was done. This would be a setback for the workers. The employers’ associations warned their members directly that they should not be pushed by the workers to pay the full April wage.

Other industries also increased production again: on April 26, for example, eight of nine jute factories in the Khulna region opened. In total, 30,000 workers are employed in these factories. Agriculture and passenger transport are also supposed to resume.

Corona as an accelerator of the crisis

Representatives of NGOs and trade unions (which are often de facto NGOs because of their small membership and their dependence on foreign funding) try to use the situation politically to persuade the government to establish a welfare state. In doing so they serve their own interests: more widespread use of bank accounts, more microcredit, more influence of trade unions on politics…

In a country like Bangladesh, where a quarter of the population lives below the official poverty line and where there are more than ten million day labourers and a great many informal workers, such a life-threatening crisis can hardly be ignored. Nevertheless, it is questionable whether there will be welfare state measures, and certainly not without strong workers’ struggles. Even before the pandemic, the economy was in an acute crisis: exports had fallen, as had the profits in agriculture. Prices for state goods had risen, but wholesale prices had hardly risen at all, and the productivity gains of the ‘green revolution’ of recent decades were long gone. Remittances from migrant workers abroad have also been declining for some time.5

The crisis is particularly evident in the garment industry: the loss of sales in 2020 is already estimated at six billion dollars, and this after the severe crisis year of 2019. For years there has been an unbroken global trend here. Workers are fighting for higher wages, and yet brand and retail groups pay less for finished textiles.6

After the accumulation of catastrophes such as the collapse of the Rana Plaza, every trading company had to join some initiative to improve factory conditions because of the great public pressure in the West (especially in Europe). Most of these associations are not legally binding, but the big European ones like the ‘Bangladesh Accord’ are. This has given rise to a new industry. Almost no month goes by without some fake ‘auditor’ visiting the factory to inspect it. However, the conditions in Asian factories have indeed improved steadily in recent years.

Factory operators were able to compensate for the double burden, wage increases and improvement of the (structural) working conditions, by expanding production – but a limit seems to have been reached here. This hits factory operators in Bangladesh particularly hard: in contrast to other countries, the infrastructure is worse, the political situation more chaotic and the industry is particularly focused on producing garments cheaply according to prescribed patterns. There are hardly any opportunities to increase income by developing the patterns, taking on more work relating to quality management, direct marketing, or joining forces with other manufacturers. In addition, the competition in Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar benefit much more from investments and orders from China. Because the EU, the main buyer of clothing from Bangladesh, allowed free trade with Vietnam in 2019, clothing exports fell for the first time, and in the second half of the year there was a wave of factory closures. This development is now being accelerated by Corona.

The situation is similar at other garment producing locations: in Myanmar, Cambodia and Sri Lanka, hundreds of factories have also closed due to cancelled orders, and protests are also developing here. Overall, the consequences are difficult to assess at present. According to estimates, global fashion brands’ sales are expected to fall by 30 percent this year. In any case, it is clear that the recent garment workers’ victories in world market factories in Asia is endangered by the crisis. In recent decades, they have fought for a better standard of living and in doing so have brought about an alignment of international production conditions, even if their wages are still a good deal below European wages. They will not be able to maintain these successes without strong (international) struggles.

Update: 22nd of May 2020

Since the completion of the article, the Covid-19 pandemic in Bangladesh has spread significantly. Officially, there are now a total of 432 people who have died and 30,205 who have been infected. The virus has also broken out in the Rohingya refugee camp. There are reports of infected factory workers and reports that people who have tested positive want to escape the quarantine in the city by returning quickly to the countryside. On top of this, there is now a storm, parts of Bangladesh have been devastated by ‘super cyclone’ Amphan.

In this situation, living conditions continue to deteriorate: more and more city dwellers slip into poverty. According to an NGO, almost all female migrant workers interviewed have had no income since the start of the lockdown. 90 percent of these women worked in the informal sector, 70 percent of them were the main earner in their household. And even among the relatively well-off garment workers, household income fell by an average of 50 percent.

No wonder then that the struggles of the garment workers continue. Their focus is on the full payment of the April wage, which is traditionally higher due to the inclusion of annual bonuses. The payment of unpaid wages for March and the issue of factory closures are also still being fought over. Workers of 120 factories have still not been paid their March wages, at least 420 factories have not resumed production due to a lack of orders (of which about 100 are permanently closed). Circa 500000 of the over four million garment workers are affected by these closures.

The protests on the streets have grown larger again, and the police are increasingly trying to end them by force, including with tear gas. Workers from several factories have come together, sometimes the entire industrial area has too. In some cases thousands of workers were on the streets. These protests were also joined by others living in those industrial areas. Since many factories have re-opened, disputes on the shop-floor have flared up again: short strikes, short occupations by sit-in blockades, protests marches through the factories… The employers’ associations warn of an increase in sabotage.
We don’t know yet whether the struggles will be successful is not. It is difficult to estimate the results so far. At least a thousand employers have stated in a survey that they are not in a position to make any payment before Eid. As a result, the fighting intensified again last week, involving tens of thousands of workers. This led to a confusing mixture of promises, advances, payment of part of the wages and full wages. In about 3,000 factories at least half of the April wage was paid. Nevertheless, many workers did not receive their wages before the upcoming Eid al Fitr.

Clothing industry in comparison

There are at least 35 million garment workers worldwide, probably considerably more. Many of them work in small workshops, in the informal economy or in the cottage industry. Here, conditions are not directly controlled by the minimum wages they earn, but indirectly by changes in social wage levels.

In the following, however, we will deal with the wages of workers in factories that produce primarily for the world market. The official minimum wages are the lower limits here; in real terms most workers earn considerably more, especially with overtime. The exception is Turkey, where in recent years between 250,000 and 400,000 Syrian refugees have been working in the garment industry, often without work permits. According to surveys of workers, even these workers earn the minimum wage on average, but most women (who are probably in the minority among Syrian garment workers) earn less than the minimum wage. Turkish workers, however, earn more than the minimum wage.7

China
Workers: Six million
Lower wage limit: 2013: 1 450 RMB; 2019: 2 200 RMB (286 Euro)
Exports: 158 billion euros

India
Workers: Six million
Lower wage limit: 2013: INR 4 334; 2019: INR 8 609 (105 euros)
Exports: 17 billion euros

Bangladesh
Workers: Four Million
Lower wage limit: 2013: 5 300 Taka; 2019 8 000 Taka (87 Euro)
Exports: 28 billion euros

Turkey
Workers: Two million
Lower wage limit: 2013: TLR 505-1 280; 2019: TLR 2 030 (261 euros)
Exports: 14 billion euros

Vietnam
Workers: 1.5 million
Lower wage limit: 2013 72 Euro, 2019 163 Euro
Exports: 25 billion euros

Cambodia
Workers: 7 50 000
Lower wage limit: 2013: 70 euros, 2019: 168 euros
Exports: 6.5 billion euros

Italy
Workers: 400 000
Lower wage limit: 400 euros (black, migrant)- 1 300 euros (tariff)
Exports: 16.5 billion euros

Myanmar
Workers: 250 000
Lower wage limit: 2013: 70 euros, 2019: 93 euros
Exports: 2.3 billion euros

Bulgaria
Workers: 30 000
Lower wage limit: 2013: 129 euros; 2019: 261 euros
Exports: 1.7 billion euros

Germany
Workers: 31 000
Lower wage limit: 2019: 1 800 euros gross
Exports: 7.4 billion euros

Footnotes

1 The more than one million Rohingya who had fled Myanmar to Bangladesh are also in dire straits. The government has decided to completely seal off their refugee camp to protect it from the virus. An outbreak there would be completely uncontrollable. There is only an emergency supply of food and the most necessary medical measures. This supply is carried out a very small number of helpers (one fifth the (wo)manpower of what would normally be necessary), who are strictly controlled for the virus. The quality of life in the camp has drastically deteriorated as a result of these measures.

2 Many of the figures quoted in this article come from studies produced by NGOs or consulting firms on behalf of NGOs. Many are in some way connected to BRAC, the “largest NGO in the world”. BRAC owns one of the largest banking institutions in Bangladesh, which in turn owns bKash, the most important provider of mobile bank accounts. Other major investors in bKash are the Gates Foundation and Ali Pay. These NGOs are using their influence in the Corona crisis to expand their business model, e.g. by repeatedly complaining about the lack of mobile bank accounts and suggesting that aid measures should be implemented mainly through these accounts.

3 Clothing companies have been hit very hard by the crisis, whether Primark, Adidas, H&M, etc. They have cancelled orders and tried to take steps similar to those taken by their suppliers: not paying store rents, short-time work, announcing layoffs. The refusal to pay shop rents especially was not well received and Adidas and others had to row back after harsh public criticism. While H&M agreed to pay the textiles already produced fairly quickly, Primark believed it could get away with its usual method: setting up a relief fund without making any concrete promises. But after even Primark’s parent company had come under heavy criticism, the payment was promised on April 20. Since Primark does not sell online, the company has been hit harder than the other brands, with a loss of sales of 746 million euros per month.

4 It is not currently possible to estimate the real number of dismissed workers. Initially, the media reported figures of up to one million. However, the media equated dismissed and unpaid workers. In at least 938 factories workers were laid off, either because of company bankruptcies or closures due to ‘natural calamity’.

5 Over 12 million Bangladeshis work abroad, 80 percent in the Middle East. It is estimated that remittances will fall to 14 billion dollars in 2020 from 18 billion in 2019, making it the second most important foreign trade factor after the textile industry.

6 In Wildcat 97, we described in detail the struggles until mid-2014 and described the direct effects of the Rana Plaza disaster. In recent years, increasing repression has become more and more apparent. After a large wave of strikes in 2016 was ended by repression without any visible results, there were relatively few strikes in the two years after (Wildcat 102). At the beginning of 2019 a wave of strikes, which was large, but weaker than the one in 2013, pushed through a relatively small minimum wage increase (Wildcat 103).

7 One important source of information are the reports by the Clean Clothes Campaign. In the past, it often prioritised scandalisation of conditions over accuracy and sometimes reported minimum wages as being lower than they actually were; today the organisation’s materials are of very good quality and often backed up with data from worker surveys.

Student struggles under Covid – Manchester

A friend based in Manchester send us following article.

The shameful money-first attitude of UK universities has been exposed by their handling of the lockdown – and students are fighting back, writes Laura Dickinson

Students across the country have found themselves in an unprecedented situation. Under the renewed lockdown, thousands of young people have been confined to their halls – unable to access study spaces and resources and receiving most of their tuition online. This is hardly the university experience anyone signed up for.

While measures to curb the spread of the virus are of course essential, there is a growing sense that with fees of £9,250 per year and accommodation averaging at £140 a week, students are in fact being conned. 

University management knew there would be a spike in coronavirus cases if they encouraged students to return to campuses in the middle of a pandemic. But rather than forgoing rental profits, they made empty promises of face to face teaching and full support to bring students back to campuses – with no regard for the welfare of staff, students, or the wider community. 

In reality, our degrees have been reduced to an online streaming service, the virus has spread like wildfire throughout our campuses, and we’re paying for the privilege of being locked up like animals when we could be taking our lectures at home – saving ourselves money.

Nowhere is the crisis more visible than at the University of Manchester, where measures were met with spontaneous protest last week as students tore down fencing that had been put up without warning around their accommodation.

In response to the University’s blatant disregard for their wellbeing, Manchester students have come together with members of the Young Communist League, Labour Students and the Greater Manchester Tenants Union to form the campaigning platform 9k4What – a group that is campaigning to end the marketisation of education and get tuition fees and student rent partially reimbursed for the first half of this academic year.

On Thursday 12th November, 9k4What and a broad coalition of student groups, including UoM Rent Strike and Students before Profit, legally occupied a disused tower on campus grounds. They have committed to holding the building until the platform’s demands are met and the university management commits to sit down meetings with them. Socially distanced protests have also been organised on campus. It is right that so many students are fighting back against the Universities’ appalling response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the effects of this crisis go well beyond the financial: Students have been left without support, locked up in halls away from home, without proper communication from the faculty. This is causing a severe crisis in mental health which universities seem unwilling or unable to address. 

On October 8th, 19-year old Manchester student Finn Kitson was tragically found to have committed suicide in his halls. The University refused to take any responsibility for this tragedy. Yet, Kitson’s father could not have been more clear: “If you lockdown young people because of Covid-19 with little support, then you should expect that they suffer severe anxiety.”

Staff are also under fire, as the University attempts to push through redundancies and pay cuts, leading in part to the University and College Union passing a motion in solidarity with the student rent strikes and occupations.

The University’s shameful handling of lockdown procedures is part of a much wider issue – the marketisation of education. Since tuition fees were introduced in 1998, universities have been treating higher education like a for-profit industry rather than a learning environment – and they have become yet another example of capitalist institutions putting profit over the welfare of working people and students. 

The appalling treatment of staff and students started long before the pandemic. The University of Manchester reported a surplus of £40 million in 2019, while staff were striking over pay and pension cuts. Students have seen cuts to mental health support services while Vice Chair Nancy Rothwell earned around 9 times the median pay of staff in the 2017-18 academic year. This trend can be seen across all major UK universities. Universities can afford to do more, and cuts to services and staff are nothing more than a cynical ploy to line their own pockets. 

Students and staff alone should not be made to pay for this crisis – it is time they united to fight back against higher education becoming a cash cow for the exploitation of a greedy few, but as a right that is available and accessible to all.

Bristol: Whirlpool factory leaflet

We distributed this leaflet at the local Whirlpool factory – for further reading on struggles against (washing machine) factory closures why don’t you check out these older articles:

https://libcom.org/library/we-wanted-make-history-wildcat

https://libcom.org/history/washing-machines-factory-berlin-closing-down-2005

Most of the information we used for the leaflets are from our comrades of Operai Contro:

https://www.operaicontro.it

Leaflet PDF

*** Whirlpool workers in Naples struggle against factory closure ***

Since March 2019 over 400 of our brothers and sisters working at the washing machine factory near Naples have been fighting against the closure of their plant. They blocked the Napoli-Pompeii-Salerno motorway, organised short strikes and central demonstrations together with Whirlpool workers from other factories in Italy. They organised a symbolic occupation of the airport, but no real occupation of their own factory. Their struggles achieved at least a postponement of the closure, though the ‘truce’ was used by the company and management to soften workers’ resistance. During this struggle they faced various problems:

* A problem is to struggle against a multi-national company on a local level. Whirlpool sent washing machines to warehouses in Poland.

* A problem is to expect from your politicians that they will sort things out for you. Even the so-called ‘rebels’ of the Five Star Movement didn’t do anything once in government. Neither Macron nor Le Pen stopped the closure of Whirlpool in Amiens, France.

* A problem is if you think that ‘your productivity and quality’ will save your job. In the end the only chance we have is to threaten bosses and politicians that closures will create social unrest.

The crisis will hit harder here in the UK, as well. Our fellow workers at Rolls Royce and British Airways already feel the pinch. At British Airways we could see how one union branch sells out the other. In the end the only solution to job cuts and deepening crisis is to take over the factories, transport networks, power stations and other essential industries ourselves. 

In order to prepare ourselves we have to be organised independently, across contracts, professions, sectors and borders. As a network of workers in Bristol we want to exchange information about local and global struggles and about the situation in our workplaces and unions. We want to support each other in day-to-day struggles.  

If you have only been hired recently and don’t yet know if you will have work at Whirlpool after Christmas or you have been here for years – get in touch if you see things similarly!

07591584262 / bristolworkers@protonmail.com

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