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Anarchist Lens: Fear At Work…

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Jimmy Savile with ThatcherScandals (and industrial accidents) are often interesting for unexpected reasons. Usually an investigation or inquiry follows and via this we get a view of what is going on inside these organisations and institutions at the center of the trouble. These snapshots, so to speak, are often very revealing.

A case in point is the investigation into the Jimmy Savile affair. Next month former British judge Janet Smith is set to publish her final report into Savile’s rampage inside the BBC. The celebrity had an association with the UK broadcaster for over forty years. Savile was very successful but it has since emerged that he was not what he appeared to be. According to an early (leaked) draft of Smith’s report, Savile perpetrated:

rapes and indecent assaults on girls and boys… in “virtually every one of the BBC premises at which he worked”. He carried out abuse on the sets of Top of the Pops and Jim’ll Fix It, at least once on camera.

Savile died in 2011 but he is implicated in four definite rapes – two of girls under 16 – and at least one attempted rape. It is estimated that he sexually assaulted in total 61 individuals and that these attacks took place “in corridors, kitchens, canteens and dressing rooms” run and maintained by the BBC.

It gets  worse. According to The Guardian, Smith’s final report is expected to include ‘devastating detail of the corporation’s “sheer scale of awareness” of the late star’s activities’. In one bizarre way, of course, this is not that surprising. Savile’s criminal activities were reckless. Many of his assaults were carried out on BBC property and inevitably some of these were witnessed. Or, as is often (and was) the case, a number of victims had attempted to alert people in authority about what had happened to them at Savile’s hands – to no avail. Savile died with the extensive cover-up of his worse abuses intact.

So, what was going on?

Here’s where the ‘snapshot’ element of Smith’s investigation is most revealing. As part of her remit Smith has had the means and time to speak to a wide range of people who are (or were) working for the BBC during Savile’s tenure. She has been able to approach people at most levels. The BBC’s top management have had their say quite a number of times already and, needless to say, they have done quite an amount of hand-wringing: “It’s terrible”, “It should never have happened”,”It’ll never happen again” and so on and so forth. But Smith has also spoken to many others: those on short term contracts, permanent  and full-time employees as well as middle managers. Here is what she has had to say about that:

I found that employee witnesses who were about to say something to the review that was even mildly critical of the BBC were extremely anxious to maintain their anonymity,” she wrote. “These people were, and still are, afraid for their positions. Even with modern employment protection, people fear that, even if they do not lose their jobs, their promotion prospects will be blighted if they complain.

Not to put too fine a point on it then many BBC employees work at the broadcaster under a climate of fear. No doubt they can speak freely about many things but there are many matters that they are simply not allowed to air their views on. If they do they will suffer the consequences.

Thatcher

Even more poignant is Smith’s observation that the situation has actually deteriorated for employees in the last number of years:

potential whistle blowers [are] … even now more worried about losing their jobs. Short-term and freelance contracts [mean] a workforce “with little or no job security”, which [is] even less likely to speak out about the behavior of colleagues.

Authoritarianism in the workplace is part and parcel of capitalism. Most of us have come across it in one shape or another at some time in our life. For many, a big objective in life is to get into a situation where authoritarianism had a limited or minimal effect on one’s working life. Also some companies aren’t as bad as others. Or if you are in a union that has clout  you and your co-workers can win yourself quite a bit of wriggle room – what’s is often termed here in Ireland the ‘not a bad number’ type of job. But for vast numbers of people authoritarianism at work is a huge daily blight in their lives. Stress and depression are common responses that workers suffer. A job where you work in a climate of fear will often more illness and even an earlier death.

The inquiry into Savile crimes in the BBC exposes this and much more. Firstly, it shows, how commonplace and pervasive fear at work is. [Who would have thought and in the BBC too?! Right?] Secondly the deteriorating situation for many workers is underlined by Smith candid observations – thinks are getting worse and not better. So-called ‘workplace reforms’, in effect those changes to workplace conditions initiated by Thatcher, have hugely disadvantage workers – leading to increased casualisation, short term or zero-hour contracts as well as explosion in the use of sub-contracted labour. The effect has been to increase the power of management, making their rule even more absolute. This means greater fear in the workplace and even more silence. Workers, who are often the real eyes and ears of society, are now even less willing to speak out.

Climate of Fear

dictatorship_of_the_bourgeoisie_by_party9999999-d5j1e76The case of Savile and the BBC is no aberration. In essence it is quite similar to a host of other examples from right across the spectrum of work where a climate of fear has actively contributed to disasters and tragedies of various orders of magnitude. If we look closely at event like the Deepwater Horizon explosion or say the Bhopal disaster – to use just two well-known cases – we can read that clear warnings made by workers either went unheeded or were actively censored leading to the tragedies that we now know all about all too well.

Savile ruined a lot of lives and damaged many, many more. His long reign of terror in the BBC is one of the best examples out there now of how damaging authoritarian really is.

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Anarchist Lens Review: Blacklisted

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BlacklistedAnarchist Lens Review: Blacklisted – The Secret War Between Big Business and Union Activists by Phil Chamberlain and Dave Smith [New Internationalist]

Last April workers at the Irish supermarket chain Dunnes Stores went on strike for one day to protest zero-hour contracts.  Their action received plenty of support and was widely viewed as just.  However shortly after the protest, Dunnes’ management targeted a number of the workers involved. According to their union, Mandate, this amounted to “sanctions including dismissals of a small number of staff, cuts to hours, changes in roles and changes in staff patterns”.  The experience of the Dunnes workers would not be out of place in Blacklisted – a timely and important new book written by building worker and stalwart campaigner, Dave Smith in cooperation with journalist Phil Chamberlain. Blacklisted is a comprehensive account of the ongoing war that was (and is still) being waged by employers across the building industry in the UK.  In terms of subject matter it is largely confined to the situation in the UK but in many ways that only strengthens its main argument.  Bear in mind that in the UK (and here in Ireland too) workers have some legal protection against excessive bullying and harassment by employers.  Consider what it is like for workers in countries where such legal protection is non-existent.  Last year attention focused on the predicament of building workers on the World Cup site in Qatar – where it was reported that workers were dying on that huge building site at a rate of one every two days.  Qatar is not an exception unfortunately.  Take a look at the excellent www.labourstart.org site and you’ll get a very good idea of the scale of the problem faced by workers the world over right now.

What Is Blacklisting?

“Blacklisting” is the process whereby certain workers – usually for reasons to do with speaking up for their rights – are and were denied work in their industry over a consistent period of time.  Blacklisting of course occurs in many industries but the building trade has been notorious for the practice.  This is in part to do with the greed of the building companies but it is also to do with the problem of casualisation.  Workers are employed for short periods on a particular building job and often let ago at the end of that job.  If a worker gets a reputation for speaking up then it is simple to say when he next turns up looking for a job ‘Sorry there’s no work here just now.’

Parents Dalli Kahtri and Lil Man who have lost two sons.

“When I complained, my manager assaulted me, kicked me out of the labour camp I lived in and refused to pay me anything. I had to beg for food from other workers.” Click on photo for full Guardian article.

Many workers know full well that speaking your mind is “bad for your health”, but in the building trade the process went way beyond that.  Blacklisted recounts how the current practices got underway in the UK after the successful mobilisation of workers around the Building Workers’ Charter (p52) in the early 70s. That struggle improved wages and conditions across the industry and generated fear in some of the big building companies.  Afraid that workers might be getting too well organised they turned to systematic victimisation.  The Consulting Agency (CA) was the vehicle they used.  A relatively small operation, the CA worked under the radar from an ordinary house in the West Midlands not far from Birmingham; it was composed of a few staff and a well maintained database.  To check a name against the CA’s database cost an employer – or its HR department – £2.20 per name.  Forty-three building companies used the CA and were free to access its database after a sign up yearly subscription.  For example Carillion were invoiced for £32,393 + VAT for the a period of checking lasting from 1999 to 2004.  In other words it checked quite a lot of names!

The person behind the database was a man named Ian Kerr.  He had a record of involvement in right-wing groups and was clued-in to the intricacies of left wing politics.  He collected lots of information, purchased and scanned a whole range of left literature looking to cull information on anyone he could find that was connected to the building trade or its various trade unions.  He noted down all sorts of things about individuals, building up substantial files over many years of work.  He was dedicated, thorough and well disposed to policing the industry for his masters.  Comments about individuals like ‘will cause trouble, strong TU’ (p35) and the like were not uncommon.

A particular strength of Blacklisted is that it is dotted with examples of the type of discrimination that went on and the impact that this had on individual workers.  Alex Rayner, an electrician, typifies the experience of many construction workers.  He made complaints about safety standards on a job and suspected that from that time onwards he was being targeted.  He says (p75): “I knew I was [blacklisted], but I couldn’t prove it.  I was on a job and I complained about safety.  Sometimes it was silly things.  On another job I complained about asbestos, which is deadly.” Rayner was blacklisted for 45 years.

From HSE report 2013:

From HSE [Ireland] report 2013: “The construction sector was responsible for the second highest number of fatalities, with 11 deaths. Last year was also the third consecutive year that the number of fatalities in the sector increased.”

Safe reps were systematically targeted.  On a job refurbishing a Tesco branch, Dave Smith (the co-author) organised for the distribution of a UCATT leaflet on asbestos awareness.  He was dismissed from that job but a copy of the leaflet also found its way into a file held on him by the CA.  This dossier ran to 36 pages in total and showed that he was repeatedly dismissed when he was elected as a union safety rep.  Another case was that of Roy Bentham.  He was centrally involved in a successful strike in 1995 at a major North Wales power station that forced employers to use direct labour rather than self-employed contractors.  Despite the success of the strike Bentham and a number of other were later targeted by management and were let go. Bentham knew this was retribution for the work he had done organising at the site but it didn’t end there.  A file was opened on him with the CA and after that he ‘couldn’t get work anywhere in the north west [of England].’  Occasionally he got small bit of contracting work but he ‘suffered long and frequent spells of unemployment’.  A Liverpudlian and a Hillsborough justice activist he recalled how he had hopes of getting work on the huge shopping centre site, Liverpool One, in 2004.  But he said, “They were crying out for skilled men … but I couldn’t get work on there at all over four years’.  It had a major impact on his home life and well-being.  Many of those blacklisted were eventually forced out of the industry which was exactly what the employers wanted.

The CA’s operation was uncovered after an investigation by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office, a body charged with overseeing data protection matters in the public interest.  Since Kerr and the CA were acting under the radar (and avoiding any disclosure of what they were at) they were in breach of these regulations.  It was on this basis and this alone that the CA was prosecuted and its murky activities exposed.   The uncovering of the CA’s existence was a huge relief for thousands of building workers who were exposed to blacklisting over many years and decades.  For most of those blacklisted, they were aware some sort of discrimination was going on but they could never prove it.  Eventually with the legal prosecution of the CA, many victims were able to see the files that were held on them and small amounts of compensation were also eventually paid out.

Blacklisted is a powerful book.  It details the real world of capitalism and how neglect of health and safety is often one of the first consequences of the hunger for profit.  It will come as no surprise to many that health and safety is a core issue of concern for building workers.  It might seem obvious too that speaking out about safety is the right thing to do but as many building workers have found to their cost this is not the case.  Take the case of Garry Gargett (p200), an experienced electrical supervisor.  On the massive Crossrail site in London in 2013 he witnessed a dangerous situation where a section of 11,000-volt electrical cables was covered by scaffolding and debris thrown on top of it. He took a photograph of the problem and printed this off.  He was taking this to his supervisor when a manager intervened: Gargett was removed from site and dismissed on the grounds that he hadn’t permission and shouldn’t have take a photo on site!  That’s just one of a huge number of examples in this book.

Blacklist campaigners Pic: Chiara Rimella (from East London Lines)

Blacklisted spends a good number of pages recounting and discussing the various ways workers have resisted and fought back inside the industry.  These struggles were carried out in conjunction withe the various building unions but more often than not they were led by rank & file networks.  One example – the BESNA dispute – began when a number of building contractors tried to abandon a longstanding agreement with electricians; they wanted to put a new contract in place – called BESNA – which would have involved a 35% cut in wages.  A series of strikes got underway (in 2011-12) which in turn had to address the matter of blacklisting.  After defeating BESNA, more electricians were victimised but this time the network that had defeated BESNA remobilised and tackled this development.  It took further strike action to force an end to the new round of attacks on the rank and file activists.

Despite the revelations surrounding the CA and positive coverage given to the Blacklist Support Group – which has campaigned for justice and compensation for victims of blacklisting – the practice of blacklisting continues.  Some of the major of building firms were embarrassed when their links to the CA were make public but other defended their actions claiming they had a right to vet who worked for them.  For most of the building firms what happened in regards to the CA amounted to no more than a knuckle rapping.  As is made clear in this book blacklisting has not gone away.

The nature of what went on with the CA is further exacerbated by two other aspects discussed in Blacklisted.  One is the murky role of the police and Special Branch who – are we surprised? – colluded with the CA (see Ch 9).  The second matter is the collusion of some sections of trade union movement with the CA (see Ch 8).  The efforts to unearth the extent of this collusion between some union officials and the building firms (and the CA) has been particularly fraught.  Comments were found on some CA files were sourced back to active union officials.  When the BSG and others attempted to get  explanations, they were blocked.

Blacklisting and its relative, whistle-blowing are indicative of one very obvious feature of the workplace today: it is not free.  Not only is it not free, in many, many situations the workplace is run like a dictatorship; step out of line and you’re gone.  True the situation varies widely and depends hugely on whether trade union organisation is in existence at a workplace or not, but it largely the case for most workers that speaking your mind can have a myriad of negative consequences.  Why?  We live after all in a democratic era where it is accepted as normal and right that we should have a say over how we live? Why not the workplace then?  Why does work – a core human activity – not come under the umbrella of basic democratic rights?

The answer of course is no great secret: the workplace is un-free because capitalism requires it to be that way.  Making money and extracting it from the workforce is the aim, but actually making that happen requires that owners and managers have the means to exercise control.  Recall the Thatcherite mantra from the 80s: ‘Management must be allowed to manage’.  What she was really saying was management must able to order you about – end of story.

The authoritarian workplace is central to capitalism.   Ask a garment worker from Bangladesh, a miner from South Africa or a Foxcon/ Apple worker from China and s/he will tell you how bad it really is.  To change this is really the challenge of our time. Blacklisted ends with a great quote from someone on the front-line.  Speaking about the reality of fighting for your rights at work, Paul Crimmins, a victim of blacklisting,  states “It’s a thankless task but someone’s got to do it.’  That is the other amazing story recorded in Blacklisted: against the odds, time and again, workers have fought back against the authoritarian workplace.  They keep insisting on their rights and when they resist collectively and build solidarity they often go far beyond even their own aims. There’s a lesson in that no doubt – but that’s for another day.  In the meantime this books needs our support.  Beg, borrow and share it!  Promote it wherever you can.

Related Articles and Links:

Death toll on World Cup site (The Guardian)

Interview with Dave Smith (Hazards Magazine)

Information on the current prosecuction of Dave Smith/ Blacklist Support Group (Unite The Resistance)

Blacklist Support Group (on Facebook)

Mandate Campaign and Dunnes Workers

No Payslip, No Holiday Pay (Rebel City Writers)

Decency for Dunnes Workres

To Hell With Safety … in China

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Had to put up these photos taken on the way home from Auz in January. They are of a building site in the Wan Chai area of Hong Kong – now a part of  the People’s Republic of China.  Being a visitor I was well impressed by the skyline and the ultra-tall skyscrapers.

In the area I was staying I came across this huge building site.  The main structure, already in place, was encased in this elaborate net of bamboo scaffolding. Impressive in terms of its complexity and scale.  However close inspection revealed that the structure was being held together with plastic ties, no less.   I mean, take a look at the close-ups.  The dark ages, let’s face it.   I’m sure a safety engineer would quickly explain how a contraption such as this is just an accident waiting to happen.   The site workers are vulnerable but so are the people living around the site who pass by and under the structure each day.

I’m guessing that concern for the construction workers and for the local community is fairly low down on the priority scale when measured against the insatiable desire to make money in such a fast growing economy.

Taking a closer look at this I discovered that safety violations are nothing unusual on the China mainland.  One recent and notorious case was that of China’s flagship ‘high-speed’ rail line system.  There have been serious and fatal derailments and in one case the rail line itself collapsed.  A report noted that: 

Engineers working on some projects have complained of problems with contractors using inferior concrete or inadequate steel support bars. A report last week by the state-run magazine Time Weekly reported allegations that builders on another section of the same Wuhan-Yichang line may have compromised safety by substituting soil for rocks in the railway bed.

This is no exception.  In the chemical and mining industries there are widespread abuses.  One report put the number of deaths from industrial accidents at 200 per day!

Independent Unions

The major advances that were made in Europe and the US on safe working standards were of course made by workers fighting for safe and better working conditions.   [Take for example with the curse of abestosis where it was the asbosteos workers who led the way in the fight for safety and compensation.]  Sometimes we think that it is the other way around but not so.  In almost all of the significant cases it is workers who have driven the demand for safe workplaces and working conditions.  Of course to win such demands the key factor is the ability of workers to organise for themselves .  In other words workers must win the struggle to form and organise independent unions which can give muscle and force to their demands.

Independent unions are the very thing that are most absent in today’s China.  The abomination that is the Chinese Communist Party – with its millionaires and brutal authoritarian methods – disallows any such rights.  But wary of the  desire and needs of workers the CCP has set up a trade union structure of its own that it ‘allows’.   This union – The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) – is a hollow shell made up of careerists and party yes men.

The real struggles of workers to establish independent and strong organisations of their own goes on elsewhere.  To find out more about this  then you could no better than look at the web site and publications of China Labour Bulletin.  They recently issued a new report about the struggles of workers in China.  In this they point out the improved militancy of Chinese workers and in particular the import role being played by young migrant workers:

 The workers’ movement in China has been galvanized and invigorated over the last three years by a new generation of migrant workers. They are demanding better pay and working conditions, and are refusing to tolerate the exploitation and discrimination their parents had to endure. These young activists have not only won noticeable concessions from their employers, they have also forced the government and trade unions to reassess their labour and social policies.

The report highlights that Chinese workers are now becoming more proactive, they are getting better at organising, and they are winning more of the struggles that they engage in.  All in that this is very hopeful and encouraging news.

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Lonely Planet’s Cork and Cowen’s Head Taking Off

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Off With His Head ...

One good cut (in time saves nine ...)!

The biggest gimmick of last week must have been Lonely Planet’s inclusion of Cork in its ten best destinations for 2010. Oh come off it like, as we say around here. What sort of a langerated idea is this?  Or to put it another way, ‘Do you think like we came down in the last shower?’

Marketing by Lonely Planet, I think.  Not that the ‘tourish (sic) industry’ didn’t dine out on it for a few days and clap themselves on the back.  It was just what they needed: ‘Oh come here, really do, so we can RIP you off big big time.’

But anyway, none of this is to take away from the fact that we are special down here in Cork. Everyone knows that.  Any by way of an example, here is what I have to offer up –  take a gawk.  Isn’t that something?  I took the photo on the huge ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ march against the cuts that passed through ‘pana’ on Friday afternoon last. Now  that WAS something to see.  And pride of place for me goes to this great placard which got to the nub of the matter.  Surely like.

One good cut!  Now that’s the spirit of the Rebel County…

Waterford Glass Workers’ Interview…

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This excellent interview, published on Indymedia, was conducted by WSM members in Waterford today.  They went to the Waterford Glass plant at Kilbarry where an ongoing occupation by the workers has stopped the receiver, appointed by Waterford Wedgwood, in his tracks. This action by the Glassworkers is the first major act of resistance this year against the onslaught by the Government and media against workers wages and conditions.   The workers at the Glass have been treated disgracefully but they have a fine tradition of struggle and giving solidarity themselves.   Their occupation deserves widespread support and as the interview shows, they are indeed getting that…

Solidarity with the Glass workers!

Interview with Joe Kelly, Waterford Glass worker

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