Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Polish Explosion (Women’s Voice, 1980)

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 THE RECENT strikes in Poland have shown that workers’ rights no more exist there than they do in the west.  The demand for free trade unions is one which we can echo in our campaigns against Prior’s anti-union law and for democracy in the unions.  But it is commonly believed that the position of women in Poland is better than that of women in most Western countries.  Women go out to work, their equality is written into the constitution and collective childcare is an accepted part of life.

At least that is the accepted myth.  Experienced observers of Eastern Europe have even claimed that women cannot be unemployed because their right to work is guaranteed by the constitution.  Unfortunately the reality is miles away and touches much more closely on our own experiences.

As in the west, in periods of economic stagnation women carry the burden of the crisis.  After the ‘spring in October’ of 1956, there followed a period of female unemployment.  Women were sacked on the pretext of curbing the bureaucracy.  The government even discussed giving allowances to men whose wives didn’t work.

At the same time, the benefits of the family as a stabilising factor were stressed and women were encouraged to see themselves as mothers.

‘Women’s jobs’ where women are ghettoised into low paid and badly organised work are as common as in the west.  Poland has seen a ‘feminisation’ of certain sectors – 80% of health workers and 67% of teachers are women.  Traditional masculine preserves like technical and skilled manual work remain precisely that. Seventy percent of married women work, but an unrecorded number are working on small-scale farms owned by peasant families.

The burden of housework and childcare rests almost entirely on women.  Only 15 per cent of children find a place in state run crèches.  The majority are looked after by relatives or informal childminders.  Polish women spend an incredible two hours a day in queues for food and other essentials.  Shortages are a way of life and things which help women’s work in the home, such as washing machines and detergents are often impossible to obtain.

Housing conditions in a country where a family will have to wait several years for a single bedroom flat, and where little single person housing is available, place a further strain on women’s lives.

Neither do women have control over their bodies.  Abortions are only available by law if the woman is pregnant as a result of a criminal act or there are ‘difficult living conditions’ and many older women still rely on the rhythm and withdrawal methods of contraception.  This is hardly surprising when the pill is not freely available and the influence of the church is still widespread.  An estimated 40 per cent of Polish women still use abortion as their major form of contraception.

Polish society has women’s oppression built into it.  Some people believe that is because socialism can’t bring women’s liberation.  But workers self-government is a myth.  The regime is no more socialist than nationalised industry here.  There is nationalisation and goods are supposed to be produced according to a plan.  But the system has nothing to do with socialism.

The Polish government has to produce in competition with the west in order to survive.  Therefore it exports as much as possible to pay its debts to the west.  That explains why in a major agricultural country like Poland meat is so scarce and  why there is more Polish sausage in your local Sainsburys than in most shops in Warsaw.

Not everyone in Poland suffers.  If you are in possession of western ‘hard’ currency many goods in short supply become magically available.  Special shops sell western fashions, cosmetics, American cigarettes and plentiful quantities of meat and fruit.

They are for the benefit of the small group of bureaucrats who control society.  But for workers, life is as grim as it is for most workers in Britain  Food shortages, long working hours and the oppression of the family are all features of Polish life.  Control of the factories does not lie with the workers but with that selfsame group of bureaucrats.

No wonder that the demands of the Gdansk workers went much further than the call for free trade unions.  Demands included the equalisation of family allowances with the military police and the army, an end to special shops, improvements in nurseries, more housing and better maternity leave.  They show that the issues concerning women are at the heart of the Polish working class, just as women themselves are.

The strikes have shown yet again that workers are willing to take action to change their lives.  Women have one reason to be grateful to the existing Polish government.  Their entry into the workforce has meant they are totally involved in the strike action.  Now they have to begin to liberate themselves.  The struggle for that liberation will mean having  to overthrow the existing society in Poland and creating a new one, just as it will in the west.

When that happens, Polish women will find they can change the course of history and their own destinies as well.

Lindsay German

Anna Paczuska

From Women’s Voice October ’80 Issue 45

Cooking forward to socialism – Mary Beaken (Women’s Voice)

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Cooking for most women is a chore. And no wonder. When you’ve got to produce two or three meals a day, cooking is reduced to a necessary. When you’ve got to produce two or three meals a day, every day for the rest of your life, cooking is reduced to a necessary routine. As my son sits down to his fifth helping of fish fingers and beans this week, I ponder the alternative.

I enjoy cooking, I can sit happily reading recipe books, mulling over the ingredients, picturing and nearly tasting the end product. Cooking can be very therapeutic, a good way of relaxing, chopping and mixing, smelling and tasting, a touch of this, a sprinkle of that.

So why don’t I indulge in this arousing of the senses more often? I cook like this once a month – if that. Cooking, like a lot of things in this society, has been channelled to suit the system, not us.

For one thing, cooking is considered a woman’s job. OK, we all know how once in a blue moon men put on their habitat pinnies, and with a great fuss and commotion produce, usually a curry or some other ‘one off’ dish, their speciality, leaving the kitchen covered in a layer of onion skins and carrot peel. We all know how apparently the best cooks in the world are male chefs, but of course this is like any other sphere of life, men are allowed to pursue careers much more determinedly than women.

If you’re in a rush morning, noon and night, of course you’re going to cook convenience foods. If you’ve only got 10 minutes in your dinner break to do the shopping, or you’ve got a couple of kids in tow, then it’s a quick whizz round the nearest supermarket to get the food. No strolling round the market, or special trips to different shops.

There’s no way you can spend an hour or two cooking a meal. And however much you enjoy cooking, no one would want to devote that amount of time, two or three times a day, just to feed the family.

The fact is that everybody would probably enjoy cooking if we lived in a different society. If it wasn’t considered women’s daily work. If we only cooked when we wanted to.

But we do have to eat fairly regularly to live. Routine cooking could be done on a big scale. Just like we have canteens at school and at work, we could have them on street corners, like pubs or fish and chip shops now. They could become social centres where you could go for a meal after school or work or the old people’s club.

Then cooking for its own sake could come into its own. People who wanted to cook a special meal for their friends or relatives could actually choose to do it, could plan and enjoy it.

Cooking at street canteens could provide lots more variety than we at home can, and doesn’t have to be as cheap as possible – the education authorities are always looking for ways to cut the quality here, the quantity there. I’m talking about staff who will be encouraged to produce food they’re proud to serve to their neighbours, who will get their job satisfaction from working out varied and nutritious meals.

But we’re talking about a whole different world. Not the world of today where giant food companies make millions from selling us junk food. Where women are second class citizens who are ‘naturally better’ at washing up, cooking and cleaning. Where 8% of the population own 90% of the wealth.

If we controlled the wealth we produce, obviously we’d spend it on things which would benefit us: a good health service, better education, proper public transport, nurseries, leisure centres. How easily street canteens would fit into that sort of society.

Only when the drudgery is removed can we as women develop ourselves, realise what our lives could hold. Socialism is treated by the press as a dirty word. They would have us believe that it’s a grey world where everybody is the same. In fact, exactly the opposite is true. At the moment we are all the same. The magazines tell us what we’ll be wearing this year.  We’re tired by boring, repetitive jobs, and shortage of money with little opportunity to develop ourselves as individuals.

The fight for womens liberation and socialism is on! What thoughts do you have as you fry the beefburgers?

Sexism and superstition in the pulpit (Women’s Voice, 1978)

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WOMEN are not allowed to become priests in the Church of England.

What a victory for male chauvinism!  Don’t think that there must have been some special reason for the decision: it was just straight-down-the-line anti women feeling.  Listen to the Bishop of Truro speaking before the vote was taken.

‘I believe the Scripture speaks of God as Father, that Christ was made incarnate as a male, that he chose men to be his apostles…because in the order of creation headship and authority is symbolically and fundamentally associated with maleness.’

There you have it.  Men are born to lead.  And women must meekly remember their place and follow.

It’s the sort of barbaric, male chauvinist thinking that women have been battling against for more than two hundred years.  Even if you can’t imagine yourself ever becoming a priest, even if you’re not religious, just like every other barrier that has been put up against women it has to be kicked down.

How many of us aspire to be MPs, or work in the stock exchange?  You may hate football.  You may not be able to imagine yourself as an engineer.  But that women should be allowed to do these things is important to us all.  Every traditional area of male exclusiveness has to go.

But in the case of the women priests there is another side to the argument.  The Church of England is not just any old male chauvinist hierarchy.  This is the Established Church in this country.  It is a part of the structure of Government.  It helps make the rules and the laws by which we are expected to live.

What a shock it is to discover that these laws aren’t based on rational arguments but on superstitious mumbo-jumbo about God being a man.  Who knows – no one has ever met him/her – or those that have, have never lived to tell the tale!

How much better it would be if we were encouraged to think for ourselves, forced to consider how our actions affect our own lives and those of the people around us – instead of being hemmed in by man-made rules masquerading as divine law.

We would be able to decide for ourselves about abortion – instead of having a law that restricts our freedom.  We would be able to decide for ourselves about marriage and divorce – instead of being hemmed in by legal necessities.

Religion is one of the most effective ways our rulers have found to trick us into believing that, for reasons beyond our comprehension, we should accept their right to rule over us.  That’s why Marx said religion was the opium of the people.  It dulls the senses; it lulls us into a false sense of security; it leaves people to look forward to a life after death, rather than the here and now.  Put up with you lot here – something better is bound to turn up in the next world.

Socialist means the opposite.  We want people to take control over their own lives, and let reason not superstitions prevail.

From Women’s Voice issue 24 December 1978

Reflections on an industrial perspective

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The industrial perspectives set out in the SWP’s Internal Bulletin 2 are on the face of it comprehensive. They deal with at least two different types of trade union (both Unite and the public sector unions), and different kinds of trade unionism (rank and file, regional and national bureaucracy). They are equipped in a language which is familiar (“low level of struggle” … “lack of confidence”), so that on a shallow reading they feel immensely reassuring. It could be 1990, it could be 2012, it could be any year in between. Nothing much has changed because nothing needs to change, because the party is doing the right thing.

The documents’ seeming breadth conceals the fact that there have actually been two significant changes in the party’s industrial strategy in the last 10 years.

To understand either of them, you need to go back to what the SWP was like for most of its history. In the thirty five years or so between the launch of the Socialist Review Group (our distant predecessor) and the Miners Strike of 1984-5, the party’s basic theory was that workers were the class that would bring socialism into being, trade unions the schools in which workers would learn socialism, and strikes the mechanism by which workers would learn the possibility of socialism. We used to have a very direct focus on the rank and file, in the workplaces, and the lowest level of the trade union. Often critics on the left would call us “syndicalist” because of the very simple, direct and even at times myopic way we focussed on the rank and file.

Correction 1: turning to the bureaucracy

Around 10 years ago, the party changed its emphasis and began to argue for a reorientation of our efforts from the rank and file to the middle reaches of the unions, above all, their NECs. This change was subtle, but in some parts of the union movement it took effect rapidly. In 2003, SWP members in Unite were first told to increase their faciliy time, to 100% if acheivable, and there was the first serious attempt to solicit names to stand for the union’s NEC. Prior to the merger of the two FE/HE teaching unions AUT and NATFHE in 2006, the SWP had 2 members on the National Executive of NATFHE and none on the executive of AUT. When the unions merged, members were instructed to stand for the combined executive, and all of a sudden, there were around 30 SWP members on the NEC of the new combined union, UCU. Similar, if less dramatic moves were made at the same time in PCS and NUT. And they would of course also have been made in RMT, FBU, GMB, CWU, Prospect etc – if the SWP had had more than half a dozen members or so in any of these unions.

Those who listened to the party’s industrial office would have heard that behind this strategy there was a plan: pensions was the coming issue, it would unite all the public sector unions, and their joint struggle would be on an epic scale. When people put their politics honestly, it was accepted that this was a refocussing of the party’s efforts away from the rank and file. Full-timers would accept that it is barely practical for someone to both police their union’s national leadership from a seat on the NEC, and be a rooted champion of the union in their own workplace. But the change was justified for specific and contingent reasons.

As we now know, the plan reflected the hopes of a very small number of senior trade unionists, one or two of whom were tied by close bounds of friendship to individuals who were then in the party’s industrial office. They wanted a united campaign to defend pesnions, and fought hard to get one. There was indeed a united public sector one-day strike in 2011 as a result of which the number of strikes that year rose temporarily to a level (1.4 million strike days) which now qualifies as acceptable.

By 2011-2, the party had decided to put this maneuvre on a semi-permanent basis by closing down its existing “United Front” Riht to Work in favour of a new campaign Unite the Resistance (UtR), which we were eventually told – about a year after it had been launched – would (in theory) bring together the rank and file of the trade unions with the leadership, the idea being that the militant demands of the former would spur the latter into action. UtR we were told was not a rank and file organisation, as there was no basis for one, but an alliance with the bureaucracy, out of which it was hoped more strikes would come.

The old SWP would have been sceptical of moves of this sort; certainly our literature used to contain warnings about the similar justifications that were once given for Broad Lefts in the union or for Liasion Committees of the union lefts. We have, in effect, been copying the industrial strategies of the Communist Party but without its union base.

Indeed, the last twelve months’ party crisis has in many ways exacerbated the shift: witness the last UtR conference, with numbers down by a half from the year before. Fewer trade union leaders were present (they know how the last year of scandals has damaged the party’s name and have no desire to be associated with us). No-one was asked to criticise Bill Hayes, even though his union CWU has been relatively passive in response to the enormous threat of privatisation; we simply don’t dare criticise the bureaucrats for fear that none of them will come back for the following conference in another year’s time.

In the present faction fight, many critics from within the faction have criticised the leadership for exaggerating the potential of the public sector unions and for lack a strategy towards the private sector unions, and for being over-reliant on the hope that the pensions dispute will simply repeat itself, and for ignoring the tendencies in the class towards the atomisation of employment.

The boldest voices have gone further still and pointed out that the party’s explanation for the lack of struggle by workers is so general as to be unpersuasive. For a century before 1985, statisticians were collecting the number of days lost each year to strike action. Only once in all that time (1927) were there as few strikes as we saw in 2011. Strike figures in five of the last six years have been less than half of 2011’s figure. This is a historic level of inaction; to blame it all on lack of confidence and bureaucratic inertia (factors which were as true in 1986 as they are today) is to provide an explanation which is so general it is incapable of being wrong.

We use “bureaucracy” and its synonym “intertia” to explain everything from the strike-prone National Union of Miners in 1984 (a single trade union with hundreds of millions of pounds of assets and over a hundred employees) to the caution of the leaders of the present-day federation of Independent Trade Unions in Egypt (which, though undoubtedly “bureaucratic”, has barely a single employee, and no-one on 100% facility time, and this in a federation counting its members in the few millions).

If “lack of confidence” was to be an explanation rather than a mere comfort-blanket, it would need to have a history, and some explanation about when and how it becomes its opposite, “confidence”. For the moment we have but the simple truism that workers who haven’t struck recently will lack the confidence to start now. But if the idea is not to tail events, nor to revel in an unending cycle of workers’ passivity, but to change that pattern – then we need to start thinking for example about “who” it is that unconfident workers might look to inspire greater optimism (and if the answer is only “the bureaucracy”, we might as well give up now).

Correction 2: writing about the rank and file

There has been little discernible shift in the last year in the actual operation of the SWP’s industrial office: we still focus on providing leaflets for union conferences, and for NECs, we still give far more time to relatively small public sector teaching unions in which we are disproportionately represented at the expense of larger, manual unions such as the GMB or UNITE.

But those with a keen eye will have spotted an incremental movement of the leadership’s perspective in the direction of the faction’s. Even before this year, during the public sector co-ordinated strikes, the SWP had produced quite a lively pamphlet by Paul McGarr, more recently, it has held industrial day schools for new members. This year, after long periods of silence, Socialist Worker has at least published some articles about Unite and about zero-hour contracts (and in fact SW has written well about the latter). There is a little less of the old assumption that every person in the workplace has the same security of tenure and hours and opportunities as a secondary school teacher Head of History with 20 years’ service.

The industrial perspectives document written by the SWP CC for our Internal Bulletin admits (significantly) that the pensions’ strike was a “bureaucratic mass strike”, something we would not have dared acknowledge even six months ago.

We should not exaggerate the extent of the correction. You still find misrepresentations such as the following: “We’ve seen other comrades raise arguments that mirror descriptions of the “salariat” with claims that public sector workers’ wages and perhaps their “gold-plated pensions” offer an explanation for their failure to fight.” No – that’s a mangled reference to things which I’ve written, and the author stands my argument on its head. What I actually argued was that even if teachers fight (and yes, they have reason to), their strikes will not lead to cumulative radicalism throughout the class because (right or wrong) most workers don’t see teachers as having the same sorts of lives as themselves. Strikes by nurses or electricians might have that radicalising capacity; strikes by teachers don’t. This was never a criticism of teachers, but of a party which is over-reliant on them.

But alongside such nonsense, there are also better points. Here is an acknowledgment: “Standing for positions in union branches, regional bodies and for NECs has an inbuilt danger that activists can be pulled away from their base, or elected without enough support to hold them to account”

Here is a fair reflection of statement that have been made: “For some comrades, such as Ray and Jamie, the SWP’s industrial strategy is far too focused on the trade union leaders and the official structures of the unions. They argue that effectively our organisation relates to union general secretaries, conferences and elections while it lacks a concentration on the base.”

Here is an acceptance that the most important struggle in recent years, from the perspective of rebuilding rank-and-file organisation, are the ones which the faction talks most about: “the Sparks victory in 2012, the brilliant victory over the Hovis bosses more recently, Crossrail being forced to re-instate Frank Morris”.

Even UtR is repackaged, no longer a lash up between the rank and file and the top table, but much more modestly as a rank-and-file group in embryo: “an important task for us now is to continue trying to locate this militant minority within the trade unions and strengthen their ties with the wider working class via UtR. This can only be done by ‘bread and butter’ work – visiting picket lines, selling outside workplaces, attending union rallies etc. This could lay the foundations for a revival of rank and file organisation in the future and help ensure that the union leaders are not able to sell out any further potential fightback.”

I would like to pretend that this latest shift represents the brilliant insights those of us within the faction who have been criticising the party’s drift into a bureaucratic approach. It would be nice to say that the different approaches of people like Ian A-, Jamie W-, etc have been so well-put and so obviously true that a reluctant leadership has had to admit the wisdom of our arguments. In all truth, I suspect the reason for the change is that even the CC accepts it cannot afford another year spent waiting for a public sector strike. In July, supporters of our leadership were told to expect an “upturn”, i.e. a national one-day teachers’ strike, by Christmas. An offer from the government of talks was enough to stymie those hopes; and without the NUT taking part, the prospect of a co-ordinated public sector strike is limited.

What Next?

Marxists of all stripes (inside the SWP or out) face the same problem. Our politics requires the self-activity of millions of working-class people. We say that socialism will come about through strikes and other protests in which the vast majority of people will take control of their lives. But strikes are at the lowest level in more than 100 years; and they are not being supplanted by other forms of recognisably working-class protest (rent strikes, bread riots, or anything similar).

Internationally, the demand of the moment is “democracy” but in only few places has the democratic struggle reached such an intensity that workers struggle could be said to have differentiated themselves from the rest of the democratic movement, so that you can talk about workers emerging as the class which could lead society. There was the hint of that process taking place in Egypt, but most of the British left, including even comrades in my own party, have refused to see it.

Socialists should be far more confident about using trade unions to democratise workplaces. A single example:  there is a great desire within the trade union movement for branches to elect “green reps”, i.e. activists who would take up the challenge to make the workplace more sustainable. Where this is done, no doubt management might initially approve. “So the union will be the one who will find out how much money the company could save if we changed our suppliers of paper and light-bulbs. You’ll be the one who’ll find us a better recycling contract. Good, it’s less for us to do” But a good green rep would go much further, and demand not just the employer’s annual accounts but their underlying financial data, an assessment of who they were ordering from (and the suppliers’ record as employers) carry out carbon audits, and (in short) democratise the actual running of the business.

The best health and safety reps terrify their employer; some equality reps, those who use the moral high-ground of their position to undermine management’s authority to manage, have something of the same character. Even when the immediate prospect is not one of repeated strike victories, it is still possible for a union to raise the question of who controls the workplace – if the branch takes a political stance, and large numbers of workers champion it.

Who will train the activists to do this? Unions train their stewards; Unite’s community branches are, in a sense, the training-ground for a generation of future reps. A key weakness is the far left. Someone who joined the socialist left either forty years ago (through the IS or the IMG) or 65 years ago (through the CP) would quickly be trained in organising as a revolutionary trade unionist at work. These days, the reps; schools are too rare, and not followed up by further events.

The left also needs to be much better at championing the victories that there have been. When the Sparks struck, the SWP produced a pamphlet describing the roots of their victory. Nothing similar was yet been published over Hovis, and the party’s acknowledgment of Frank Morris’ victory has not been underpinned by any serious assessment of how it was possible. It certainly wasn’t a legal victory (if the case had got to a final hearing at the ET Morris, instead of being stuck in a series of preliminary hearings, Morris would probably have lost). But nor was it a simple triumph for the rank and file either. There were was never a strike across the Crossrail network or supply chain; much of the “heavy lifting” was done by  small groups of activists, blocking the road, etc, in London with the blessing of Unite.

We need to be much better at understanding the dynamics of blue-collar and private-sector trade unionism: 6 out 7 workers in Britain work in the private sector. Only 26% of workers do jobs that require a degree.

Although the party has begun to publish articles about Unite, we have never properly explained to most of our members what Unite’s strategy is or what its key weakness are. My view in brief is as follows. Unite has taken over an organising model which derives its ancestry ultimately from the decisions of the CIO industrial federation in America in the 1930s. The CIO was able to pull off an extraordinary series of organising victories – the most heroic in the history of American labour – essentially by giving young militant from left-wing backgrounds complete freedom to organise in non-union workplaces. Victories brought momentum, recruits generated publicity, and in double quick time, the steel and car production industries were unionised, more or less from scratch.

Unite’s organising model emulates the CIO in that Unite organises more like a federation than a union, and emphasises recruitment rather than sustained workplace organising, and is open to employing activists even from the far-left, as it needs the energy of militants to deliver public victories. (and I mean employing – ie recruiting from outside the union people who have previously been reps or NGO campaigners or been involved with the left parties and giving them jobs on the Unite payroll). The model has been tweaked a little compared to its historical inspiration; Unite talks about “leverage” (ie well-financed publicity campaigns involving selective litigation, putting pressure on Labour councils, etc) as being just as important as strikes. And of course Unite’s industrial model overlaps with its other policies: the ambition of recruiting thousands of its members to the Labour Party with the idea of them pulling Labour to the left, and the setting up of branches for unemployed activists who are intended to be next year’s union activists. But all these tweaks only accentuate the central weaknesses of the model – recruitment is dependant on teams of full-timers rather than stewards, there is a much clearer vision for winning recognition in workplaces where the union is not recognised than there is for developing existing workplace reps where the union already has a presence.

I have gone into this in some detail, because of course the recent catastrophic defeat at Grangemouth makes more sense if you grasp why the union, which had a base in the factory, had allowed that base to weaken.

I won’t repeat here what went wrong at Grangemouth, save to note that the workplace is of vital industrial importance (the SWP CC argue in IB2 that the mere threat of strikes at the plant was crucial in early 2012 in delivering the Sparks’ victory), and that the defeat began with the isolation of a steward accused of using his position to recruit workers to the Labour Party (i.e. doing exactly what Unite wants its stewards to do), when he was named by the Labour Party and subject to investigation. This news undermined his position and enabled the employer to counter-attack. Unite had the backing of majorities willing to take action, but was out-manoeuvered by management. Throughout the dispute, Unite’s favoured weapons (eg leverage) counted for far less than they would in an unorganised workplace.

The party has tended to blame the defeat on the absence of an organised, independent rank-and-file, and on the power of a bureaucracy which never fights. These explanations are too general; they fail to account for why there was no rank-and-file at Grangemouth itself, particularly as it has been part of rank-and-file action in recent years. And they miss out altogether the relationship between Unite’s industrial strategy and its defeat. It wasn’t “the bureaucracy” in general which let down the Grangemouth workers, but the McCluskey team. There needs to be a much clearer argument within Unite and within the unions (eg GMB) which are following Unite’s lead –  away from leverage towards the possibility of solidarity action, which is ultimately the best and only solution to weakness in any particular workplace.

Finally, the CC write, “we also need to make sure that SWP branches and districts have a serious industrial strategy”. A starting point would be for the organisation to have its own, national strategy – not a statement of eternal truths (strikes are few, workers lack confidence) but an attempt to predict where protests might break out, and a prioritisation of certain kinds of workplaces.

With that in mind, here are five predictions for the next twelve months:
1. The trend towards “atypical working” will continue – ie expect an increase in the number of self-employed workers and workers on agency and temporary contracts, and possibly the number on zero hours contracts. In the private sector, there are still entire employers experimenting with new contractual forms which take, in a single stroke, tens of thousands of workers out of employment. In the benefits system, there are still private companies urging claimants to swap employment for insecure contracts relabelled as self-employment. Sooner rather than later, the proportion of all people in the workplace who are directly employed, permanent workers on full-time contracts will fall below 55%.
2. Resistance continues in construction – particularly in the power generation sector, and there were 150 pickets at Ferrybridge this week. But if the left was to provide them with meaningful assistance, this would require us allocating resources (people, time, materials) to their campaign. It is hard to get into the habit of backing a nascent movement, when much of the party’s industrial work revolves around speaking to the bureaucracy rather than striking workers, and when we have got used to always responding to events not shaping them.
3. Grangemouth is a defeat (a 3 year no strike deal in a strategically significant workplace…) and will have a negative pull on other workers. Its effects will be felt by the groups of workers who are closest to it, industrially and geographically. The next breakthrough is unlikely to happen among Unite members in Scotland working in the power industry.
4. There are likely to be more pay strikes in 2014 than there have been in 2013. Real wages have fallen further in this recession that in any previous recession since the 30s. As employment rises, people’s fears about holding on to their jobs will lessen – if slightly, to begin with – press stories about how the economy is booming out of recession will also intensify workers’ resentment that they are being left behind – and strikes will come slowly back into the realm of the possible.
5. Hovis is capable of being replicated – whether that means more strikes in that industry, or in related industry (eg canning, food factories…) or in Wigan or around the same issue (zero hours contracts) I don’t pretend to know, but people are more likely to copy strike tactics where they see others doing it and winning.

Notes on the family under neoliberalism

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A nuclear family

“What kind of society is this”, the SWP’s Women’s Voice magazine once asked, “that turns people to violence? What kind of jobs, and housing conditions, and burdens distort human beings and lead them to harm the people they love?” (Women’s Voice, 1980)

The biggest single change in fifty years of the family’s history has been the freeing up of sex from procreation, and therefore of all other intimate relationships from the reproduction of labour. Whether you explain this by reference to the contraceptive pill or the movement that developed from Stonewall riots, the starting assumption under the welfare state capitalist societies of the 1950s and early 1960s was that young adults would settle down and have several children, be monogamous, and remain in relationships even if the initial spark was lost. The state was heavily involved in planning family size: whether through promoting births (the USSR) or through restricting them (China). Most adults were married, and marriage rates were high. In 1972, there were 426,241 marriages in Britain, accounting for over 60 of every 1000 unmarried adult women in the country. In 2009, there were just 231,490 amounting to less than 20 of every 1000 unmarried women (Rogers, 2010). The decline of marriage is however only a part of the story; for even when people marry, their relationships are different to what they were. Having children is less important, staying together is less important. What is really taking place is a proliferation of family types (LGBT relationships, unmarried heterosexual monogamy, casual relationships, singletons) instead of the single, dominant nuclear family of the past.

In all previous societies, there was always a certain gap between sexual pleasure and procreation; after all some of the oldest forms of contraception (eg the withdrawal method) have a history longer even than writing. People of the same sex have slept together for millennia. Under neo-liberal capitalism the gap between pleasure and procreation has widened as never before. For tens of millions of people this has been a liberating experience. But capitalism always seeks to assimilate the new. We see the proliferation of soft and hard pornography online, in advertising, and in print media. Huge businesses form out of the need to satisfy people’s desire for sexual expression, e.g. chemical stimulants of sexual function, a global industry with a value of around £1 billion p/a. The revolutionary gay sub-culture of the 1970s gives way to the pink pound. We get the recreation of old types of misogyny in new forms. Sex is made pervasive, intrusive rather than liberatory.

For thirty years the global rich have sought to increase their share of wealth at the expense of everyone else. As a consequence of their success, the cost of living has become vastly more expensive for working class families in particular. The average rent in the UK is £811 per month (Homelet, 2013), which is only just under half of the average net salary of £1,638 per month (ONS, 2013). The expense of housing, and the lack of social housing, has an impact on household demographics. It encourages children to stay living with their parents for longer; and defers the starting of relationships. The average age at first marriage in the UK has increased from 24 for women (and 27 for men) in 1970 to 30 (and 32) today (ONS, 2012).

Different generations experience austerity in radically different ways. The ageing of society means that middling generations have to contribute greater time to caring for the elderly, who save in very few cases do not receive state (or adequate) state provision of housing, medical care, etc. Yet those over 50 are recognised by all parliamentary parties as more likely to vote, and are in many ways shielded from the effects of austerity. Overwhelmingly, they own their own houses, and key government policies (low interest rates, pressure on banks to provide mortgages and promote a housing market boom) protect their capital wealth.

Younger people, their working lives characterised by mass unemployment and the rapid devaluation of their qualifications, show themselves to be radically unmoored to the political values of older generations; during national elections there is as sharp a divide between the voting patterns of those in their early 20s and their parents’ generation, as there is between workers and managers in any particular age cohort. Meanwhile youth protests in Spain or Britain come and go (in contrast to the revolutionary 1960s when the generations were better synchronised) on a different rhythm to the strike waves of older generations.

Increasing numbers of families fill the gap between low income and high living expenditure through reliance on state benefits. Of the five million housing benefit claimants in the UK in summer 2013 (including dependant family members, this is more than 10 million people), a fifth were in work (DWP, 2013) Under New Labour, subsidy was government policy, with child and family tax credits being used to tacitly fund millions of people taking the “right” lifestyle choices (the wider use of childcare enabling mothers to return to work more quickly after pregnancy, a shift from employment to self-employment, etc.)

Under the Coalition government, the element of subsidy has been phased out, and benefits changes have been introduced to penalise “wrong” choices, such as having more than one child (penalised through household-based global benefits caps), living in areas of the country which are intended to be reserved for middle-class families (i.e. London, where rents are double the national average, and market-rate rents are typically above the various housing benefit caps), and remaining in social housing after your children have left home (penalised by the bedroom tax).

Fifty years ago, the general expectation was that women would remain in work until childbirth, and then return to work only after many years as a full-time housewife. Many sectors of the economy (such as manufacturing, construction, and manual or labouring tasks) were predominantly considered “men’s work”. Other jobs (nursing, primary education, care) were restricted to women Between 1987 and 2012, the following sectors of the economy contracted: mining and quarrying (by 64%), manufacturing (by 46%), electricity and gas supply (46%). Meanwhile growth has taken place in areas long open to women; administrative and support service activities (up 93% in the same period), health and social work (60%), education (45%). The gap between the proportion of men and women working has narrowed and the proportions are now as close as they have been since records began.

While, as ever, the burden of gender oppression (unequal pay, domestic violence, sexual division of labour in the upbringing of children) falls overwhelmingly on women, there is a sense in which the inequality of gender contributions to childcare is being (very slowly) eroded. Despite this very partial convergence of men’s and women’s contributions to childcare, the situation persists in which society assumes that women just “will” contribute more. A mother of a child aged between 1 month and a year will take maternity leave where it is available to her; fathers take up parental leave at lower rates even when the choice is there. Parents’ services – baby classes, contacts with health visitors – are dominated by mothers. On relationship breakdown it remains vastly more common for a child to live with the mother rather than the father.

From this starting division between the sexes, the whole of women’s specific oppression follows: “women’s jobs” which relate to women’s greater role in childcare (nursing, teaching, cooking, cleaning), the part-time divide between men and women (in which employers rely on women workers to fill part-time roles, and have a seeming justification for paying these roles dramatically less than men’s), the “family bargain” (under which mothers reduce their hours on becoming parents, because someone has to look after the child, and fathers increase theirs, because the money still needs to come in) under which couples with children drift into the sexual division of labour of past generations, “sticky floors”, “glass ceilings”, the different role of men and women in initiating sexual relationships, etc.

Migration has changed the shape of the family. It has become increasingly common for women in their 20s and 30s to travel away from their family to look for work. In some societies this occurs intra-nationally, with mothers migrating with or without their children, who (if separated from their mother) are brought up by father or grandparents in a family “base”. Elsewhere we see similar dynamics internationally, and the increasing use of social media to maintain family bonds. Meanwhile, in several of the richer societies, the wealthy are increasingly dependent on migrants to provide privatised childcare as nannies, home helps, etc. The women who are expected to do this work are themselves of childbearing age, so inevitably there is a dynamic under which the constitution of a seemingly “perfect” nuclear family for rich people in any one country becomes dependent on poor families crossing borders to service them. What capitalism seeks is a marriage of two barely-compatible dynamics: the complete freedom of the rich to make use of as much labour locally as will best enable them to live how they want, whether in the home (home helps, nannies) or outside (labour in employment). And, at the same time, to keep labour cheap, by reducing its bargaining power, by making much immigrant labour illegal, and by placing the entire burden of this illegality on the workers themselves.

There is a near universal acceptance (at least in principle) of the feminist idea of equal treatment. No-one will dispute the obvious truths that it is wrong to give a job to a man just because he is a man, or that it is wrong to pay people less because of the sex they are. Yet this shallow egalitarianism hits, repeatedly, against the economic processes of neoliberalism, the ubiquity of pornography, the deepening of gender socialisation by the marketing of clothes, toys, etc as separately “girls’” or “boys’”, the increasing sexualisation of women’s bodies. Real, sensuous equality is limited by the reconstitution of the family, and in particular the ongoing division of responsibility for childcare, which constantly serves to make men’s and women’s experience of the family different. Part of this gap is filled by a rhetoric which blames women’s suffering on feminism, and says for example that if working mothers are overwhelmed by the pressure of combining paid work and childcare, this is the fault of the women’s movement for encouraging impossible ideas about women’s potential economic independence from men. In her book, Backlash, a study of the reversing of gender inequality that took place in the 1980s, Susan Faludi describes this ideas a “a kid of pop-culture version of the Big Lie” in which women’s continuing subordination is blamed on “the very steps that have elevated women’s position” (Faludi, 1992, p12)

Never before have there been societies in which the principle of women’s equality with men had as much (albeit passive) acceptance as it does today. All formal distinctions have been swept away; all directly discriminatory laws abolished. The sexual differences which persist are no longer political or legal in origin but really “merely” on the market to sustain them. And yet never before has true, sensuous equality seemed so distant.

No Place to go (Women’s Voice, 1977)

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EVERY week in Starsky and Hutch men chase, attack, fight one another. You’ll hardly ever see a man hit a woman – this is what goes on off the glamorous TV screen, behind net curtains.

The person who first publicised what went on between those four walls is Erin Pizzey. We spoke to her recently at Chiswick Women’s Aid Centre about her work over the last four years and her fight with Hounslow Council in particular.

Originally Chiswick Women’s Aid Centre had an urban aid grant of £10,000 which was withdrawn because of ‘illegal’ overcrowding. The refuge can officially take 35 persons including children. It always has 70 occupants and sometimes up to 100. Because Chiswick Women’s Aid Centre is so famous, women are sent by social workers from all over the country, as well as from London.

The refuge operates an open door policy at all times, no person is ever turned away. What this all means to Hounslow Council is a huge problem on their doorstop, that they don’t want.  But taking away the grant from Chiswick Women’s Aid Centre didn’t make the refuge go away, so they tried sending Erin Pizzey to prison. But for the moment that hasn’t worked either.

Erin herself comes from a violent background and sees the problem as one of violence – ‘the vicious circle of violence – children subjected to battering become violent adults and in turn brutalize their children and families.’ What Erin tries to do is break this vicious circle, teach people to control their violence.

Violence exists in middle class and working class families alike. When the middle class woman gets battered – and undoubtedly it goes on – she may have the economic independence to go away with her children to another home. Even if she personally hasn’t got the available funds, one of her friends may, and that’s where the difference in class lies.

Although working class women have friends they are usually in the same financial position as the battered woman herself. The working class woman will endure her hardship for a long, long time before she’ll try to get the man out of the home and leave her and her children in peace.

But she up against  the most amazing barrage of ‘experts’ who will assure her her place is with her husband and kids and ‘their’ home. He will improve, if only given time and understanding. He too suffers like she does, but she unfortunately carries the broken ribs and scars of years of violence.

Even if the woman has an injunction out against her husband, a piece of paper which is supposed to keep him out of matrimonial home, the police will not physically enforce it. Even when he returns and forces entry, even if he beats her again.

Only tipstaffs and bailiffs can enforce the injunction and they work 9am-5pm five days a week. So after maybe years of intimidation, traumatised children, the battered wife may eventually leave her man, still believing she loves him, still feeling a lot of faults in their marriage are her making. Knowing somehow she must provide a roof, clothing and food for her family, she goes to a refuge.

There, whether it is the Chiswick Centre or one of the hundred refuges run by the Women’s Aid Federation, she will find a lot of sympathy, practical help, workers prepared to go to court with her, fight for her matrimonial home back (minus the offending husband), fight for the custody of her children. Try to pull her life back together again. Try to humanise her kids who been brought up to accept violence in their homes from babies. But it’s unlikely she’ll ever rid herself of the fear of her man returning, finding her new home, watching the kids come out of school, trying to snatch them. Will he see her shopping and follow her home?

The refuge can’t stop that fear, but it can help in many other ways.

Diane Watts and Alison Kirton

‘Not everyone wants a nice plump bird for Christmas’ (Women’s Voice, 1978)

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THE MOST memorable aspect of Christmas is usually the vast quantities of food that we manage to consume. Unlike any other time of the year, we shove down the stodge, barely able to stagger from table to chair. Already though, many of us are feeling the effects of our over-indulgence – usually in the form of puffy stomachs and bottoms. Rather than returning to a normal diet, many of us continue to abuse our digestive systems with rigid ‘egg-and-grapefruit’ diets or whatever to lose the bulges we took so much pleasure in putting on.

What a ritual the post-Xmas diet season is to behold! It generally starts with the glossy women’s magazines thrusting forward their idea of how we should be seen on the sunny beaches of St. Tropez (or Brighton). Their trim figured models are supposed to portray our wildest aspirations and, let’s face it, who would honestly be disappointed to discover that, overnight, without any effort, they had suddenly slimmed down to look like one of these ideal women?

The same magazines offer up the ‘solution’ to all our problems. Their Harley Street specialists have thoughtfully spent their Christmas chewing over various combinations of foods that would be beneficial to our podgy figures.

Here is an example of one magazine’s ‘menu that’s easy, that’s fun and filling too! Her its is: ‘the Taste-a- Day Diet’…

Day 1 Egg and Asparagus Fricassee (lunch) Piquant Egg Salad (dinner) Day 2 Steak with Herbed Vegetables (lunch) Steak with chicory and orange salad (dinner) Day 3 Cottage Cheese burgers (lunch) Crab and cheese stuffed tomatoes (dinner) Day 4 Chicken with Chinese vegetables (lunch) Chicken and rice salad (dinner) Day 5 Herbed trout (‘frozen trout will do’) (lunch) Fish salad (dinner) Day 6 Homemade sausages and cabbage platter (lunch) Steak Tartare (dinner) Day 7 Pot Roast of Beef (lunch) Roast Beef with remoulade sauce (dinner)

What nonsense. They claim it is the perfect diet for the working woman. Obviously not the sort of working woman who has to wash and dress and feed the kids and has to rush around Sainsbury’s at 7.00pm on Thursday night. Yet this diet wasn’t in a very posh women’s magazine – do they honestly expect working class women to face the bailiffs in order to lose a few pounds? I suspect they weren’t aiming this so much at mum as at the bemused teenage daughter who may follow the general outline of the diet despite the cost and inconvenience.

I can clearly remember refusing my mother’s cooking so as to not spoil my appetite for my grated-carrot-and-lemon juice (that always gave me indigestion anyway).

Apart from the elaborately planned meals they command we eat, they also attempt to sell us the easy and more often than not, expensive option. Slimming pills, creams and all the rest of the rubbish pushed out on the ‘fight the flab market’ is big business.

There are around four thousand slimming gimmicks on the market with an estimated yearly turnover of £80 million. One slimming cream currently being marketed claims to remove unwanted fluid in the body resulting in weight loss. It actually contains 97.3 per cent water, the other ingredient being a thickening agent called methyl cellulose. Even if it did work and did extract fluid from the body, it is still useless because it is the fat you have to lose, not water.

So where does this leave us – back to the cheap and cheerful egg and grapefruit diet and the constipation that inevitably follows? We could always junk the whole idea of diet altogether of course and hope that the ‘slim is beautiful’ era will grind to a halt. Only about one-third of women who try to slim succeed in remaining slim, anyway. But would it be that easy to stop looking over our shoulders to see if the next woman was quite as plump as ourselves?

I am forced to confess that I started looking over my shoulder at the age of ten when my father jokingly started to nickname me ‘his daughter, the sugar-plum fairy’. My brother didn’t exactly console me when he went to great lengths to explain how some men liked having something to cuddle. I envisaged myself more as the sophisticated well developed woman about town definitely not as the cuddly pet that everybody wants to pat with a hot-water bottle before the night-life starts.

From that time on my life was a constant battle against the bulge. I’d go to a great deal of trouble to avoid meals unnoticed, usually saying that I had eaten at a friend’s. Happily, though, my obsession with weight never seriously affected my health, as usually I would weaken, sneaking down to the kitchen in the middle of the night.

It is estimated that 1 in 100 young teenage girls suffer at some time from anorexia. Anorexia is an illness brought on by weight obsession. The sufferer will refuse fattening food at first, and then will become so obsessed with the idea of successfully losing weight that she will eventually refuse all food, solid or liquid. This of course leads to malnutrition and related illnesses and sometimes to death. Most of us that complain of being overweight are not anywhere near the point where our health could suffer. Certainly nothing like one in a hundred of us are in danger of losing our lives because of being overweight.

From the year dot women have been puffed out or squeezed in to whatever shape was fashionable. Women have been expected to change from the shape of wasp waists and generous bosoms to the flat chested boyish look – going backwards and forwards like yoyos. Why is it that for so long we have allowed ourselves to be bullied by the dictators of fashion? It is interesting to note that whereas most ‘fashionable’ clothes are not available in sizes over 14, 47 per cent of the women in this country need a size 16 or bigger to be comfortable.

It is not fear of what the editors of Vogue or Womens Own think of us, nor the bosses of the highly profitable chemical companies which flog the slimming pills and potions. It is our need to feel acceptable to men. And one very important reason this is so, is that a woman’s standard of living is going to be affected by whether she has a bloke or not. Ask any single mother.

The difference in average wages between women and men manual workers is now £24 per week. Women do not have the same opportunities to be trained for skilled jobs, or even to get any job at all. A woman would find being on her own a different proposition if we had the same opportunities to get decently paid work as men. Our whole legal system, taxation, housing, social security, the health service are un in such a way as to make the single woman’s life difficult. She is not just a freak, but very likely a poor one, too.

It is all these fears that the slimming industry plays on. And their adverts work (on you and me too) because the fears area real, and the problems are real.

Our society does not allow men and women to freely chose either partnership or independence as a way of life, as a way of bringing up children, making our financial and housing arrangements and so on. Just get together with a group of women friends and try to get yourselves on the Council housing list and you will see what I mean. This means that all too often a relationship with a man is something we are driven into, rather than something we both freely decide to do. The dream industry of glamour and romance is built up to pull the wool over our eyes and prevent us seeing this reality, and thus we come to imagine that our relationships are built on glamour, on our looks and our figures. So loss of glamour threatens the loss of our ‘normal’ status in society.

How much unhappiness is caused because of these imposed standards cannot be measured… It will be a sad day for the newspaper magnates that produce women’s magazines, and the drug manufacturers that produce both tranquilisers and slimming pills when women refuse to accept their standards. When women and men win the freedom to shrug off their conditioning and develop as complete people as opposed to interchangeable units, we won’t have the time nor the inclination to worry about the trauma of slimming. Because we will have better and more exciting things to do.

Gail Cartmail