What do we mean by solidarity?

Submitted by bobsutton on 13 May, 2009 - 1:55 Author: Bob Sutton

1 May, May Day, is an important date in the history of the workers’ movement. This is the collective account (written by Bob Sutton) of how some London AWL activists spent their May Day.

Willis cleaners

Our day kicked off with a picket outside multinational insurance brokers the Willis Group in the City of London. In mid-2007 cleaners at Willis began to organise under the umbrella of Unite’s “Justice for Cleaners campaign”, for the “living wage”. The living wage was won but the company hit back by putting the cleaners on unworkable night shifts; when they refused to work the shifts the workers’ organisers were sacked.

Alberto Durango, an organiser at Willis (and cleaner at Schroeder’s where a dispute had been won) explains what happened next: “Unite has abandoned Willis workers, arguing that re-instatement campaigns are too difficult to win. But the cleaners have independently called weekly demonstrations for three months.”

Afterwards we marched together to join the Latin American Workers’ Association contingent for London’s May Day demo.

This year’s London demonstration, was a weird mix — predominantly made up of old timers with Stalin banners. Among this jumble of the left and pseudo-left was a block of around 20 Sri Lankan Sinhalese, who appeared to be a socialist group, complete with red flags, banners and holding up portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin. The group in question are in fact the JVP, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna.

The first thing to make absolutely clear is that these people have nothing to with socialism. People like Marx, Engels and Lenin gave their lives forming and fighting for a set of ideas that stood against the savagery inflicted on the peoples of Ireland, Ukraine and all oppressed nations. Any socialist should raise the call of “self determination for the Tamils.” The JVP on the other hand back their government’s war. Their “socialism” has nothing to do with ours.

On 11 May news came in of 3,000 killings in Sri Lanka in a single day: that a massacre upped the death toll since January to perhaps 10,000. There have been London mobilisations against the war of 200,000 and an ongoing protest in Parliament Square. At a time like this, the presence at a left event of a group like the JVP, backers of the communal slaughter, has to be regarded as intolerable.

That is why we took it upon ourselves to disrupt the JVP block, heckle them, argue with them; we held up our paper with back headline ‘Stop the war on the Tamil people!’, prevented them getting a photo, and chanted “stop genocide” slogans.

The JVP called over the police, then the stewards. The stewards were old hacks who told us to “have your arguments about politics in a room somewhere, we’re busy having a march”. We said, no, not when 300,000 people are in concentration camps and these people are effectively banging their government’s war drum.

This was something quite different to a disagreement we might have with another left group, where we share a basic commonality of ideas about the world. At a point where there is such a clear and ghastly instance of oppression, they are siding with the oppressor. A shame is on the organisers for ever letting them on the demonstration in the first place.

Whereas the JVP have come to May Day demonstrations for years, this year was the first time for a British Tamil Forum contingent — perhaps 60 or so strong, with banners and placards against the genocide.

As the march moved into Trafalgar Square some of the Tamil youth came over with their drums. Up until then they had possibly not known they were sharing a march with people condoning the extermination of their friends and relatives. They stepped up the noise. We were joined by another of our comrades, themselves Tamil. We started to chant “JVP, you’re not welcome in the workers’ movement!”

More younger Tamils came over and we urged them to get others to join in with the chanting. The JVP rolled up their banner, packed up their placards, and call in the police to attempt to stop the harrying. After a few minutes of standing around, looking increasingly intimidated, they turned and headed down into the tube station

After the end of the rally we briefly dropped by to the demonstration at KPMG (the accountancy firm), called by Visteon workers and their support group, over the company’s instrumental role in the Visteon closure. It has not been lost on any of the Willis cleaners the parallels between the treatment of these two struggles at the hands of Unite. As Alberto Durango put it: “When I saw Steve Hart (of Unite) up at Visteon I thought, ‘Don’t fucking believe him! They don’t have the same interests as the workers. What is he earning?’”

Amnesty for a few?

Then off to a meeting called by the Coordinadora Latinoamerica and Campaign Against Immigration Controls to debate the issue of “amnesty” and the position of “papers for all” — a response to the Strangers into Citizens campaign, who were to organise a large demonstration on 4 May.

SIC asks the government to regularise the status of some migrants — those who have been in the UK for six years, have clean criminal records, speak proficient English and can get sponsorship and character references from employers. Along with that they they call for a tightening of border controls and a cap on the number of new migrants entering the country — and ask marchers to carry union jack flags and sing the national anthem.

This 1 May public meeting planned a leaflet, a contingent for the demonstration and alternative speaker rally. We would be arguing against any dangerous division between “good” and “bad” migrants. This discourse conceals the reality of a great majority of migrants in this country, of anti-social working hours, social exclusion, police oppression, and discrimination in the labour market and society at large. We don’t want amnesty for some, but papers for all and justice for migrant workers.

Sri Lanka again

Our day ended with another public meeting, this one called by the SWP on Sri Lanka. Prior conversations with several SWP members had shown that their members have an understanding of the situation in Sri Lanka that is not all that different to ours — that the key to ending the oppression of the Tamils is Tamil-Sinhalese working-class unity.

They also, privately at least, recognise the bourgeois-nationalist character of the British Tamil Forum, who organised and hold political hegemony over the Tamil demonstrations.

When our comrades, both Tamil and non-Tamil, have brought leaflets and literature to the BTF mobilisations, particularly at Parliament Square, from CAIC, from the Visteon support group, and even the Stop the Slaughter of the Tamils (SST) campaign initiated by the Socialist Party, we have faced hassle from BTF organisers. Any material other than the officially sanctioned is usually met with several young organisers rushing to check out what is being given out.

During the first week of the Parliament Square protest, we brought down the Brent Trades Council banner. Given that some 40,000 Tamils work in Brent, this was a basic and straightforward act of working-class solidarity. The organisers told us to put it away as we did not have “permission”. They then got on their mobiles to some higher authority before eventually telling us that we can stay.

Anything other than flat, apolitical support, is made very unwelcome. We should ask: why is Tamil nationalism the only acceptable framing for solidarity with oppressed people in Sri Lanka?

The SWP and the broader organised left are not asking these questions. Interventions in the SWP’s meeting went no further than to salute the bravery of the Tamils’ collective action and generalise about “their” right to armed struggle for national liberation. SWP speakers expressed a clear intention to “work with” the BTF, but made it equally clear that it was “not their place” to have anything to say about the Tamil Tigers, the LTTE. This adds up to a soft ambiguity on the Tigers which makes for a very cheap internationalism devoid of class politics.

We were very clear: we vehemently oppose the genocide, the internment, the rapes, but will not not give unconditional support to an organisation that has liquidated all political opposition, has carried out ethnic cleansing and defines the emancipation of the Tamil people as an issue of nationalism, rather than democracy and self-determination.

Yes, we were met with disapproval. But as many people were nodding along with what we had to say, and we ended up having much more useful conversations. People by no means agreed with us, but appreciated our honesty and clarity. More importantly, spending our afternoon hammering the JVP had shown us to have an understanding of Sri Lanka and seriousness in action.

SWPers we talked to, rather then look to collaborate in further work, responded in a predictably sectarian fashion. They have not even acknowledged the SST campaign or sought to build it. Instead they were quick to draw analogy with our disagreements over Palestine/Israel, which quickly descended into the usual stuff about the AWL being apologists for imperialism.

Of course our approach to Sri Lanka is consistent with what we say about Israel/Palestine. In both instances we see a part of solidarity as being able to take a sharp and clear stance against reactionary and anti working class politics in “national liberation” struggles. The Tigers are a long from a group like Hamas. There are progressive elements to their politics such as abolishing the caste system, arming Tamil women alongside the men. The basic premise of their armed struggle, self-determination, is legitimate. However our criticisms remain.

Maintaining the position of the “third camp” is, to a large extent, contingent on being among the fiercest fighters against the first camp — the oppressors — whether it be against the aggression of the Israeli or Sri Lankan ruling class. The onus is on Workers’ Liberty to do the two things at once.

There is a massacre going on. To come and loftily denounce the politics of the Tigers without having made solidarity against the massacre is not on.

We are in solidarity with the Tamil people, and real working-class internationalism doesn’t just flag-wave the existing force acting on behalf of a group. We have a positive programme of working-class solidarity, and if what exists is an obstacle to that then we should confront it openly.


So how do we make solidarity? These May Day events, in different ways, brought this question into sharp relief.

The emergence of highly politicised migrant worker struggles and their coalescence into things like the “papers for all” contingent at the Strangers into Citizens demo is very significant. Where migrant worker self-organisation and resistance has happened, it has often been on politics seldom found elsewhere in the labour movement. Where else would you find people whose own stories illustrate such a full picture of the horrors of globalised capitalism?

Clara Osagiede, secretary of the tube cleaners grade in the RMT union gave an account of the struggles against paper checks and sackings following their living wage campaign. Her speech burst out of the confines of narrow trade-unionism:

“Who is legal? What does this mean? If a cleaner is raped by her manager and is unable to speak out because she is illegal, then what does it mean to be legal? We have to talk about why people are here, about British imperialism, about exploitation of people, of land and resources. Look at Nigeria. Shell devastated the country, Shell’s executives travel on the Tubes that are cleaned by migrant Nigerians. We were made into cleaners by these people.”

This affirmation of this message, “we are here because you destroy our countries” should be the starting point of fighting against the exploitation and oppression of migrant workers. The line of struggle should not just be to bring migrant workers “under the wing” of the wider “British” working-class movement. Of course they are uniquely vulnerable part of our class and urgently need solidarity, but we should see them as a key agency in our fight against the bosses, against union bureaucracy and against British imperialism.

There are three main tasks for us.

Firstly, to fight on these ideas in the labour movement. The position of the mainstream left is that “the working-class is not ready” for a no borders politics. We should forefront this at every level and fight to win over the working-class.

Secondly, we need to start a concerted programme of building and organising within migrant communities. While the programme and class collaboration of SIC is abhorrent, their mobilisation has been impressive. They focus their work on church communities, finding key leaders and winning them over to do the grass-roots organising. A good percentage of the marchers on the SIC march did not know the SIC demands, many believing that they were all there fighting for “papers for all”. These contradictions make it an arena ripe for intervention, and the Campaign Against Immigrantion Controls is beginning to do this.

There is a debate as to how best to have discussions, to organise and to make solidarity. Shift work, stress and apprehension about victimisation mean that migrants’ workplaces may not be the best place to go to first. This is a challenge for a left that is on the whole white, and not engaged in the social and community networks of migrant communities, and whose activity is often at trade union branch or trades council level.

The third and perhpas greatest task is to take on the current “leadership of the trade union movement. As Alberto put it “They have more in common with the rulers than they have with us. Inside the union we need a revolution. If we do that it can be a very powerful instrument to change society.” But he also says “If necessary, work without the unions.” Cleaners at the National Physical Laboratory fought and won without any union support, as did workers at Prisme. This too is an issue to be taken up.

But the challenges and sharpness of this area of class struggle is increasing. On 6 May, after going to a workers’ picket of the Olympic site, Alberto was arrested by police and immigration officials who had waited at the offices of his employer, no doubt with their collusion.

Alberto has papers and cannot be deported, but the brutal reality of the use Border Agency remains. This kind of repression is going to get worse. Alberto is from Colombia. When we spoke to a friend of his outside Peckham police station, where he was being held, a friend of his made the obvious point:

“This is terrible, but in Colombia, if you organise, you get killed.”

We need a movement that is courageous in the face of adversity, that sees itself as part of a global class. That is what we mean by “solidarity”.

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