Saturday 22 May 2010

The SWP's Cynical Stunt

Earlier today members of the SWP, "in solidarity with the BA cabin crew" gatecrashed talks between management and Unite at ACAS in Central London. Here's a BBC interview with one of the SWP'ers protesting outside:

There's more footage here of BA chief executive Willie Walsh surrounded by SWP'ers chanting and selling papers.

But the question has to be asked, what were the SWP trying to achieve? It's one thing to protest against bullying management, but quite another to
disrupt talks between them and the trade union. Does this action - which is totally unaccountable to cabin crew - help advance the cause of the workers, or will it be seized upon by a union-bashing media to discredit them as wild-eyed throwbacks to the '70s? True, not living near an airport I haven't been to a cabin crew picket line to gauge the mood. But I doubt many workers have been itching for someone to go down ACAS and force the union to abandon negotiations.

Call me cynical (and one cannot help be after watching the SWP's behaviour for a period of time), but this is about promoting the SWP and has little to do with the demands of the workers themselves. Since its split with Respect and having lost ground on the left to the Socialist Party, the SWP have placed more emphasis on narrow party building than was previously the case. That might be more comforting to the leadership and long term members who had their fingers burnt engaging with "the movements", but if it is to build wider influence it has to make its own opportunities. High profile stunts is one such way it can make itself visible to the public at large.

So leaving aside the wishes and interests of cabin crew and the trade union, AND the effects the stunt will have on popular perceptions of the strike, today's action has been an unalloyed success for the SWP. They were catapulted to the top of the news agenda for the first time since ... well ... when has the SWP
ever led a news bulletin? The coverage has also positioned them as a dynamic activist force able to throw convention aside to get its message across - a portrayal that will prove attractive to some. And lastly for the comrades involved, well, a few of them will feel a wee more revolutionary tonight than when they woke up this morning.

I'm sorry though, but this is a pretty poor show. The SWP have let down those they profess to defend, and future such antics will find them further marginalised in the labour movement. I'm reminded of Marx's remarks in the
Communist Manifesto where he declares communists have no interests separate to those of the working class. Maybe Marx was being naive. Or maybe the SWP's brand of "Marxist" politics have travelled so far from source that any similarity between them and the founders of scientific socialism are entirely coincidental.


Jim Jepps said...

I agree.

If the BA cabin crew had wanted to do this then fine - but not a single BA worker seems to have been involved in disrupting the talks that *their union* was having with management.

This was the wrong thing to do and it will hurt the strike.

Robespierre said...

"or will it be seized upon by a union-bashing media to discredit them as wild-eyed throwbacks to the '70s?"

I think the rest of your arguments are valid but this one is slightly self-contradictory. As you concede, the media is already 'union-bashing' as a default setting so should their interpretation of events really affect our calculations regarding the value of an action?

Jim said...

If the SWP had brains they would be dangerous!

Liam said...

This is a bizarre stunt. If 200 cabin crew had done it to put pressure on the bureaucrats it would make sense. How it's supposed to do anything other than get the SWP on telly and make the participants feel like radical situationists is a bit of a mystery.

It also lends some support to those cynics who suggested that the Right to Work conference, from which this "idea" was launched, was a wholly owned SWP subsiduary.

Anonymous said...

desperate oportunism... depressing to see...

Anonymous said...

I'm increasingly of the opinion that the SWP is a newspaper company posing as a workers' political party.

HarpyMarx said...

Daft & ultra-left. Surely you would involve the striking workers who would be at the forefront of the protest ? Ah no, this is the SWP and "let's lead the charge" without any accountability from anyone else, who made the SWP the leaders. Who gave them the leadership!! This stunt has pissed me off.
Did they think they were one barricade nearer to the revolution? Daft..opportunism and shows the SWP don't care about anyone else other than building their own group.

Chris Hall said...

Very dispiriting to see such a stunt pulled when a union is in the middle of negotiations. Can't see it helping those on strike one little bit.

Anonymous said...

Willie Walsh IS scum.

Brother S said...

Pissed me off too. Puerile adventurism. This post sums it up perfectly.

SamG said...

Chris H - no one is on strike yet.

All the noises coming from Woodley and Simpson on TV over recent days is that they were ready to cave into BA's demands and all they were negotiating were getting back the perks and jobs lost as a result of the dispute.

I.E. A complete victory to BA.

The SWP actions cannot make the situation any worse.

Phil said...

Robespierre, as you say the default setting is union bashing. But what the SWP have done is to facilitate this narrative. When workers are under attack, it's a funny kind of socialist who undertakes actions to make the bosses' lives easier.

Sam, who are you (and the SWP) to determine the outcome of talks in advance and then disrupt them?

Luna17 said...

There are several stupid and wrongheaded things about what SWP members did yesterday. But perhaps the worst is the awful self-justifying claptrap they are now coming out with (see Lenin's Tomb for examples, if you can face it).

Their main argument is that the union leaders were utterly compromising and selling out the workers, and are equivalent to the BA bosses. This is a complete betrayal of the SWP's political tradition, associated with people like Tony Cliff (including his writings on the role of the union bureaucracy). The union leaders have never previously been viewed as the same as the bosses. It's always been recognised that they play a mediating role between employers and trade unionists.

Also, this is a massive turn for the worse in terms of political strategy. Anyone with any background in the unions must surely recognise how disastrous it is. It is a case of a left-wing group acting utterly independently of the workers they claim to be supporting - and in a way that will anger most of those workers. It is classic substitutionism.

Phil is right to see this is as symptomatic of something bigger in the SWP. It is a caricatured version of exactly what some of us warned people about. A grim decline for the party.

Phil said...

Another justification that keeps cropping up - that yesterday's protest was mandated by the Right to Work conference - is ludicrous as well. This was primarily a gathering of SWP'ers and their friends and was utterly unrepresentative of the labour movement as a whole.

Despite the barrage of criticism and condemnation coming from the rest of the labour movement, expect similar swappy stunts in the future.

SamG said...

“Sam, who are you (and the SWP) to determine the outcome of talks in advance and then disrupt them?”

I am glad you said disrupt them because some idiots are saying the protest was designed to derail them. No hang on minute you actually said determine the outcome – how could they determine the outcome?

Ok who am I to get involved in a workers dispute, um I am a worker. A worker in a period when attacks on our living standards are being prepared and as a worker I have an interest in seeing that other workers don’t cave in, roll over and play dead. In this case it seemed from the TV interviews of the union leaders they were ready to do that on behalf of the BA workers.
I guess the ‘what does it have to do with me argument’ was behind the ban on secondary picketing.

Let us be clear this action will have no real affect on the talks at all, if the union accept BA’s measures will you say Ok the union have decided to accept defeat we must accept this. Of course you will to do anything else will be utter hypocrisy. In which case give up your activism and accept whatever fate has to offer.

Jim Jepps said...

SamG "Let us be clear this action will have no real affect on the talks at all,"

I think SamG's point that this action was pointless and irrelevant is well made.

I wonder if he'd be making this point if the protests had been greeted with universal adoration though?

Olwen said...

Thanks for this post Phil-
The SWP are selfish, stupid or both- what were they thinking- or were they not...

SamG said...

Jim, they were never going to be greeted with universal acclaim now were they! Do you know nothing of the nature of the media in this country?

The worst that you can say about these protests were that they achieved nothing in relation to the talks but the way some are talking you would think the coming revolution had just been thwarted!

I expect socialists to be ready for battle in the coming period, clearly all they will be ready for is petty squabbling amongst themselves.

And the Jim Jepps of this will world will just roll over and accept what the union leaders agree to. There will be no attempt to influence matters at all.


Jim Jepps said...

Sam, I was more thinking about universal acclaim from the left and the trade unionists involved in the dispute than the press - perhaps I should have been clearer.

However I think your other point is a little bit shrill and silly. I've been an active trade unionist for many years (how active often depending on my employment situation) and "rolling over and accepting what union leaders agree to" has never been my position and nor do you have any reason to think it is.

This action made no contribution to the dispute and you know it, yet somehow you want to keep defending it as meaningful. It's your own time you are wasting I suppose.

What is the point of me? Well, I suppose if I was an object for you to manipulate and use for your own ends this might be some sort of reasonable question. However I'm a human being with my own thoughts and feelings and, as such, have no 'point', I just am.

CathElliott said...

SamG - "Do you know nothing of the nature of the media in this country?"

It's not just the media who have greeted this so-called "action" with disdain, it's the rest of the trade union movement. Does that not tell you something?

Hint: Getting involved in a workers' dispute usually means supporting whatever action those workers decide to take themselves, not interfering and disrupting things to the detriment of the very people you claim to be showing solidarity with.

Frugal Dougal said...

A minority of BA Unite activists are obviously treating this as a poltical strike and have called in the stormtroopers to ensure no settlement can be reached - a bit like the miners' strike. The thing is, the miners wanted less hazardous conditions, while Unite wants BA staff to retain the right to stay in 4-star hotels.

Anonymous said...

"roll over and accept what the union leaders agree to"

Is this the level of respect you have for the toiling masses? They can't be trusted to make decsions so you must do it against their will?

Budapestkick said...

The 'Right to Work' folks in Ireland tried to 'storm' Leinster House last week (I say storm, tried to walk in and then just fucked off). It seems to be increasingly desperate attempts to appear revolutionary while in reality their politics are being watered down considerably.

SamG said...

"Is this the level of respect you have for the toiling masses? They can't be trusted to make decsions so you must do it against their will?"

I think these battles are very important and every defeat is another nail in the coffin of unions. So I think a battle for hearts and minds needs to be won. And I don't think just tailing the class is the correct strategy, if I thought that I wouldn't bother and would see no reason for anyone to bother frankly.

If the Union cave into BA, which it looks like they are doing by making the issue all about travel 'perks' then the union are accepting the idea that cuts are needed and workers must pay the price with their living standards. A very good precedent to set in this current climate, good if you are the ruling class that is.

neilcaff said...

Now that it appears talks between BA and Unite have collapsed the Socialist Party has released the following statement concerning the actions of the SWP and the cabin crew dispute.

Occupation A Mistake

The defeat of Willie Walsh and the brutish BA management is the most important aspect to this dispute. It is therefore unfortunate that the reported decision of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) members at the end of the Right to Work Conference to invade talks between British Airways management and Unite has partially obscured this issue. This occupation was completely mistaken.

Whatever the nature of the deal being negotiated it is not for a group like the SWP to decide to break up talks. A decision to accept or reject a deal is solely the property of cabin crew and their democratically elected representatives.

In an industrial dispute the final decision on tactics to confront the employer must always rest with the strikers themselves. Socialists can assist by sharing experiences and ideas in past disputes and building support and solidarity for the strike among the general public. This has always been the method of the Socialist Party. We will offer our opinion on the course of a dispute to workers but we believe that any initiative taken in support of a dispute should be taken in consultation with the workers themselves.

A key task for socialists and trade union activists is to raise the confidence of workers to fight not to substitute themselves for workers in struggle. This will mistakenly create the impression that a special minority of activists will do the fighting leaving workers as bystanders. The Socialist Party stands for the maximum control of workers over their dispute.

It is the view of the Socialist Party that the actions of the SWP on Saturday was not in the best interests of striking cabin crew workers. Such tactics will prove to be counter-productive. It is the mass action of cabin crew through their union that is the key to defeating Walsh, not the actions of a self appointed minority. Despite this we are totally opposed to any victimisation of those who took part in this mistaken protest.

The priority for all workers in the trade union movement now is to support the cabin crew workers against Walsh and BA management.

Phil said...

Well Sam, the union hasn't caved in ... yet. Though it's clear the leadership are desperate for a deal, I imagine this reflects a chunk of the membership who'd rather not lose their wages in what are straightened times.

But no, being a worker does not give you the right to intervene on behalf of other workers locked in dispute without their say so. It's incredibly bad politics, counter-productive and totally stupid. As Cath says above, doesn't near universal condemnation from all wings of the labour movement tell you something?

SamG said...

"doesn't near universal condemnation from all wings of the labour movement tell you something?"

The anti SWP fanaticism of most of these voices says not actually.

"But no, being a worker does not give you the right to intervene on behalf of other workers locked in dispute without their say so."

But that's your spin on events isn't it. I could say they were showing solidarity. I could say they were trying to start some anti cuts activism.
You will have to explain how it can be that the BA workers will not have the ultimate decision in this dispute. Then tell me why socialists can't protest against these cuts, whether the rest of the 'labour movement' decides to or not.

neilcaff said...

Unfortunately Phil, they don't even realise the real danger they have put their own organisation into (as far as witch hunts go) let alone the damage to the cabin crew dispute.

Sport Selections said...

It turns out that the whole thing has been a bout of tabloid hysteria. Tony Woodley the leader of UNITE has stated that said there has been no set back to negotiations. Even Willie Walsh isn’t pretending that the talks were disrupted by the protesters
The narrative being presented on the BBC, and therefore on the blogs and on Twitter etc, of the SWP single-handedly going out on a destructive course to smash up union negotiations, is entirely erroneous. By simply following a media that is largely sycophantic toward BA bosses some posters here have unfortunately been lead into reaching flawed conclusions.
The protest was actually organised on a street level impromptu basis outside the Right to Work conference and involved a group of people, some SWP but most certainly not, going to protest at ACAS. The action called (which was not about disrupting negotations at all!) was about Right to Work, not the SWP. It also turns out that the protest had the support of some represented Bassa workers themselves who had attended the Right To Work Confrence. The momentum for the protest was a group of young people inspired by the Greek strikers’ advice they had heard inside the conference. Reports from protest participants state that they had no intention of smashing up negotiations.

Anonymous said...

"I could say they were showing solidarity."

You could say Willie Walsh is a purple unicorn, that wouldn't make it true.

Budapestkick said...

'The protest was actually organised on a street level impromptu basis outside the Right to Work conference and involved a group of people, some SWP but most certainly not, going to protest at ACAS'

Me tits it was.
A quick glance at the speakers at the Irish RTW conference and half the names are either SWP or people very close to them (like former member Jimmy Kelly). Both RTW campaigns have all the characteristics of a front. Similarly a quick glance at the sheer number of SWP papers, banners etc. in the occupation tells its own story.

This has all the hallmarks of a fairly pathetic publicity stunt. If SWPers are serious about winning the support and respect of organised workers, they should take a long hard look at their dismal actions during the Lindsey dispute and other struggles and work out how they can improve their methods, rather than acting the maggot for publicity reasons.

Unknown said...

I was pleased when I saw the protest outside ACAS putting pressure on BA - but dismayed when I saw the storming of the negotiations and the disrespect for trade union negotiators who were asking them to leave.

It wasn't as if the union leaders were going behind the backs of the workers - Simpson and Woodley were providing a running commentary of the negotiations via twitter (much to Walsh's dismay when he found out).

chjh said...

Someone who was actually there comments:

ModernityBlog said...

I agree with the sentiments expressed here, Brother S summed it up succinctly as "Puerile adventurism".

The problem being that despite widespread condemnation from the Left it won't make any difference, the SWP exists in a bubble and is almost impervious to advice or counsel.

They will never admit that they are wrong, even when it is demonstrated time after time.

I suspect that we are looking at the death throes of the SWP, more ultra leftism, more waving, shouting at people, progressively losing any trade unionists that they had left, and consigning them to the territory of the Sparts, and the dustbin of history.

Jacob Richter said...

"Marx's remarks in the Communist Manifesto where he declares communists have no interests separate to those of the working class. Maybe Marx was being naive."

I blame this on the ultra-left emergence of the KPD and the stubbornness of the Communist International re. not working with the center and left of the International Working Union of Socialist Parties.

There have always been "bourgeois" and "petit-bourgeois" worker parties (like most Labour parties and the PSUV and NPA, respectively).

There have been a few proletarian-not-necessarily-communist parties (like the pre-1900s SPD and interwar USPD).

There have always been many communist sects.

Phil said...

Mod, I really don't think the SWP are in its death throes. True, over the last three years the SWP has pretty much smashed up any respect it had earned from previous activity. But now it's back in ourselves, alone mode it can concentrate on reproducing itself. As long as its ecological niche in the far left persists, so will it.

skidmarx said...

The Socialist Party ought to be feeling a bit silly that it didn't wait to see how the strikers would react before condemning the SWP, but if Neil is a guide seems to be going with "if the dispute goes south, the SWP would get the blame". Perhaps it would have been sensible to consider the possibility that a group of workers afraid to appear in public for fear of victimisation might welcome outside agitators, that condemnation by trade union bureaucrats trying to sell out the strike shouldn't be tailed, and maybe to notice that Wllie Walsh wasn't about to give in until he heard some shouting outside the room. A very basic lesson seems to need learning.

Jacob Richter said...

Phil, I'd like your opinion on a programmatic suggestion of mine re. the trade union bureaucracy. This addresses the current woes of private-sector unionization efforts and the mediation role played by fat cats in the unions:

"The wholesale absorption of all private-sector collective bargaining representation into free legal services by independent government agencies acting in good faith and subjecting their employees to full-time compensation being at or slightly lower than the median equivalent for professional and other skilled workers."

Unknown said...

I am prepared to believe that people taking part in this stunt jumped at what seemed a good opportunity to have a go at Walsh and support the cabin crew, but a bit more thought would have told them it was stupid and not going to achieve anything.
I suspect that whoever proposed and led the action was just out for a publicity stunt for the SWP, who, let's face it have not been having a lot of success lately, and resent lagging behind the Socialist Party and others in r.the National Shop Stewards Network.
They've shown disregard for the wishes of the workers actually involved in this struggle, as well as their union, as though they know what is good for the mere trades unionists. And now they just dismiss criticism as though they can't ever make mistakes, or would consider it a weakness to admit them.
I don't care what the capitalist media say, but such actions and the arrogance shown could misfire, and lead to workers who are losing their jobs looking around for interfering lefties to blame - with encouragement not just from the press but from the union. Not everyone knows or cares about the differences between this group and the other, and any group of left-wing paper sellers or person standing for office could be met with suspicion, and the charge that "you're just using our struggle"
Of course that is unfair, even to SWP comrades, some of whom I know as very genuinely dedicated to the workers movement, serious and hard working. I suspect they are not happy with this stunt or with having to defend it.

Nick O Larse said...

I don't really get why these protesters are getting such a bashing here. The cabin crew had plenty of forces lined up against them - BA management, the right wing media, most MPs, the legal establishment and the Unite Union bureaucracy. The main threat doesn't come from a handful of protestors shouting 'we support the cabin crew'. Mistaken or not,at least they were there having a go and giving Willie Walsh a hard time. So whatever criticisms you have of them, why not at least start from a position of support? Maybe the point is not that the protestors should not have been there, but that there weren't enough of them. What would the attitude here have been if there had been 30,000 protesters there rather that 30? I doubt that this protest itself had much effect at all on the dispute. But lining up with the union-bashing media in labelling the protesters as idiots certainly doesn't really help either, does it?