Against conspiracy theories: Why our activism must be based in reality

October 29, 2011

This is the text of a talk given at Occupy Wellington on 27 October, 2011.

Kia ora kotou, thanks everyone for coming. Firstly, a brief run-down of how this workshop will work: first, I’m going to give a brief talk, followed by an open discussion which anyone can contribute to. I also want to make it clear that I’m not here today to debunk or debate any specific conspiracy theory. I’ve got no interest in doing that, I don’t think its particularly productive. What I want to be doing is talking about the title of the workshop is – why our activism must be based in reality. So we’ll be talking about the whole conspiracy world-view, we’ll be talking about what I think is a much better alternative to that, but I’m not going to sit here and argue with you over whether the Government is secretly poisoning us from the skies, or whether shape-shifting reptilian lizards are controlling our lives, or whether or not you can cure cancer with baking soda.

First up, who am I? For those of you who don’t know me my name is Asher, I’m born and bred in Wellington, though I have also spent a few years recently living in Christchurch. I’ve been involved in activism and radical politics for around about 7 years, in a variety of different campaigns and struggles.

If we’re going to talk about conspiracy theories, the first important question is obvious: what is a conspiracy theory?

Now, if you go by a dictionary definition, a conspiracy is just a group of people who get together to plan something, and don’t tell others about it. If I’m organising a surprise birthday party for my friend, then I am conspiring with others. But that’s not a particularly useful definition for the purposes of a discussion like this.

So, for this discussion, the way I’m defining a conspiracy theory is thus: a conspiracy theory is a theory based in supposition, one that flies in the face of evidence or science, often one that claims its correctness can be shown by the paucity of evidence in favour of it, in the sense that ‘this conspiracy goes so far that they’ve even buried all the evidence that proves it!’ Conspiracy theories often encourages an ‘us few enlightened folk versus everyone else’ world view. This creates an atmosphere where conspiracy theorists look down on people, or sheeple as they are often called, and ignores the fact that people, by and large, are actually pretty intelligent. In and of itself this world-view is hugely problematic for as I will discuss later, mass social change requires the participation of the masses and therefore, we have to have faith in the ability of people to decide things for themselves, to come to correct conclusions and ultimately to change the world.

Why am I interested in conspiracy theories, or at least arguing against them? Firstly, because I’m passionate about science and rationality, and I find it fascinating how and when these things are ignored.

Secondly, because I’m Jewish, and many conspiracy theories are antisemitic – whether directly and obviously (eg: Jews run the world, or the media, or the banks). Sometimes its more subtle – people might not talk about Jews explicitly but they may use Zionist as a code word, or talk about the Rothschilds, or an elite cabal of shadowy bankers who all coincidentally have Jewish surnames.

Lastly, I’m interested in conspiracy theories because I want radical social change, and to have radical social change, we need to have an understanding of how society actually works.

We are here at Occupy because we want to see change. What we want differs: some want new regulations on the financial sector, others want to change taxes or the minimum wage, while others still want to destroy capitalism and bring in a new form of production and distribution. Regardless of which of these boxes you fit in, if you fit in any of them at all, we all want change.

We’re also here because we know we can’t simply rely on Government to benevolently grant us the changes we desire. If we believed that, we’d sit at home and wait for the Government to give us these gifts. We’re here because we know that those with power won’t give it up lightly, and that it is only through our collective strength that we can win reforms, or create revolution.

But what do I mean when I say ‘our collective strength’? I think it’s important to clarify who is contained within the word ‘our’. While people involved in the Occupy movements around the globe frequently refer to it as the 99%, I actually think that’s a really imprecise term. So, instead, I refer to the working class. When they hear the term working class, some people think simply of male factory workers, but this is not what I mean. The working class is not limited to blue collar workers in factories, but instead it includes all of us who are forced to sell our labour power to survive. This includes people who are in paid employment, whether in a factory, office, café or retail store. It also includes those who are unable to find paid employment, or have chosen to refuse the drudgery of paid work in order to attempt to live on the meagre benefits supplied by the state, and who provide a vast potential pool of labour that enables the ruling class to further keep wages down. The working class includes stay at home parents, doing vital unpaid work to raise the next generation of human beings. It includes people who are too sick or unable to work for other reasons. In short, if you don´t own a business, if you aren’t part of the Government, if you aren’t independently wealthy (such as from an inheritance), then chances are you are a part of the working class that I’m talking about, this collective ‘our’.

If we agree that we can’t simply rely on Government to benevolently grant us gifts, and that we need to fight for it using our numbers and our power, then it becomes necessary to understand how society is structured and how capitalism actually functions, in order to know where our collective strength comes from, where we have the most power, and where we need to apply the metaphorical blowtorch.

So, why are conspiracy theories not helpful here? Why are conspiracy theories not useful for developing that understanding? There’s a variety of reasons.

Some conspiracy theories, such as those around 9/11, even if they were true, which I don’t believe they are, would only tell us “Governments do bad things”. That’s not actually news to anyone. We know that the British Crown & the New Zealand Government stole vast tracts of land from Maori. We know that the Crown and the Australian Government engaged in genocidal acts against Australian aborigines. We know that Governments the world over have repeatedly sent people overseas to fight, kill and die in wars. There’s so, so much more, but to cut a long story short, everybody knows that sometimes Governments do bad things. So theories that only serve to prove that, even if they were true, aren’t actually particularly useful.

Some conspiracy theories are simply bizarre and the logical conclusions from them, don’t fit with what their believers do. If you actually believed that the majority of people in power around the world was a blood-sucking shape-shifting reptilians from another solar system, then you wouldn’t limit your activity to promoting one guy’s book tours around the globe and chatting with other believers on the internet.

Conspiracy theories often feed on people’s mistrust and their fear. They claim to provide simple answers to complicated questions, but actually when you examine them in detail they’re highly complex themselves. For example, with 9/11, it seems like a simple solution to say ‘it was an inside job by the US Government’. But actually, when you look into what would be required for this to be true, the thousands upon thousands of people who would need to be lying, it becomes incredibly implausible.

Some conspiracy theories, such as many of the shadowy financial cabal conspiracies, only serve to mystify capitalism and falsely suggest a level of control that doesn’t actually exist. Additionally, they remove any sense of our own power, whether real or potential. A theory which suggests such overwhelming power and control over the entire way we live our lives is actually a catalyst for inaction – if a group has such a high level of control over everything, then there’s not really anything we can do about it. On the contrary, capitalism is not a static system, it is dynamic and changing and constantly adapts in response to threats. The threat of working class power has resulted in a number of changes to the functioning of capitalism over time, including the introduction of Keynesian and Neoliberal economics in the late 1930s and 1970s respectively.

Even if conspiracy theories can sometimes seem relatively harmless on the surface, they play a role of absorbing us into a fictional world, somewhat like a dungeons and dragons enthusiast. Once you are in this fictional world, it becomes really easy to get lost in it and to be defensive when challenged, even when challenged on a logical, rational basis.

I’ll quote British political blogger Jack Ray:

The trouble with conspiracy theories is that they’re all rendered pointless by one fundamental, unarguable element of capitalism. That it is, whatever else you have to say about, positive or negative, a system of elites. It has elitism coded into it´s DNA, from the smallest company, to the largest multinational, from the political system to the culture. It’s purpose is to promote elites. It does this legitimately within the logic of the system. It does this publicly, lording super-capitalists like Bill Gates or even for a time, Enron boss Ken Lay. It lays its theories of elitism out for all to see, in policy projects, in university research, through political theorists.

It has no interest in secret cabals, or conspiracies. It has no need for them. It is a system openly, and publicly, run by elites. They might go home at night and secretly dine with their illuminati, lizard-jew, Bilderberg Group friends, and laugh about how they’ve taken over the world. It doesn’t matter to me or you whether they do or not. They are the elite, and we can see who they are and how they live their lives. People know that we live in a system of elites, that acts in its own interests, according to the logic of the society they dominate. Everyone who looks around know this. We don’t need internet documentaries to tell us that we’re dominated, we just need to go to work, or walk through a posh neighbourhood or have a run-in with any politicians, big businessman or even a celebrity to know that. What we need are weapons, ways of challenging that domination, so maybe we don’t have to live under it forever.

So what is the alternative to this conspiracist world-view? For that, we need to look at history. The history of how social change comes about is not always easy to find. It suits those in power to downplay the role of mass movements, so the dominant narrative is often one that ignores the long term grassroots organising that has happened, and simply focuses on legislative change enacted by the Government of the day. But a people’s history is out there – often in the form of first hand accounts by those who took part in these movements, such as those for homosexual law reform, of the 1970s strike wave across New Zealand, of the movement against native forest logging and so on.

One thing, from looking at this history, is abundantly clear. Mass action is vital for mass change. If you look through history, time and time again, it is when large groups of people have got together and shown themselves to be a threat to those in power that concessions have been granted. This happens on a small scale as well as a big one – when all 10 employees at a small business go on strike and refuse to work until their boss gives them a pay rise, the boss is forced to listen.

From this example, it becomes obvious that it isn’t simply numbers alone that allow us to exercise power. It is also using those numbers strategically to hit those in power where it hurts. As workers, we create wealth for the bosses each and every day at our jobs. Some of this wealth is returned to us in the form of wages, but much is stolen. This stolen wealth is often called ¨surplus value¨. It is the accumulation of surplus value, stolen by our bosses, that forms the wealth of the ruling class. But because the goods and services that create this surplus value ultimately come from our hands and our brains, through collectively withdrawing our labour, we can force the bosses to give in to our demands.

So taking collective action the workplace is one way we can impose our power on the bosses to help us better meet our needs and desires. And if we extrapolate this to larger numbers of work-sites, to larger numbers of people both employed and unemployed, then we can begin to see how we can make changes to the functioning of society as a whole.

I don’t have all the answers, though I do have plenty more to say than I’ve had time to touch on in this talk. But I want to open things up to discussion soon, because I think that’s one thing that is really important about this Occupy Wellington space, that we can talk through things, together, to come to new ways of thinking and working politically.

To finish things off, I want to emphasise that while it is important to have an open mind, this must be tempered with a commitment to rationality and the examining of evidence. Or, to quote Australian sceptic and comedian Tim Minchin, “If you open your mind too much, your brain will fall out”.


Solidarity #17 – October 2011

October 9, 2011

Issue 17 - October 2011

Download issue in .pdf format (0.5MB)

The 17th issue of Solidarity, free newssheet of the Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement. Download the .pdf above, or click below to read the contents online.

 

Contents:

If you want to make sure you don’t miss an issue of Solidarity, you can subscribe to either the print or electronic version.

To subscribe to the AWSM announcements list, put your email address in the form on the top right of each page on our website, http://www.awsm.org.nz.

Subscribers will be sent .pdf copies of Solidarity each month, along with other publications produced by AWSM and ocasional information – we promise we won’t spam you with a ton of useless stuff though! The electronic copy is identical to the print version.

Or, you can subscribe to the print edition to receive a copy of Solidarity in the post. $8 for 12 issues. Mail a cheque to AWSM, PO Box 6387, Wellington 6141, or contact us to organise an alternative method of payment.


Some further thoughts on Omar Hamed, abuse and the response to it

September 29, 2011

This post is a follow up to the Open Letter About Omar Hamed that I posted on this blog yesterday.

Omar had been living in Wellington in 2010, working for Unite! Union and being politically active in Socialist Aotearoa (SA). He had displayed a pattern of abusive behaviour throughout the year, and despite being challenged by a number of people, including friends of his, he had refused to even genuinely acknowledge that his behaviour was unacceptable, let alone change it.

At the end of the year, Omar moved back to Auckland, where he continued (and still continues) to work at Unite! and be a part of SA. A number of the people in Wellington who had worked to both challenge Omar’s behaviour and to ensure that people who interacted with him knew about it were extremely concerned that Omar would not simply be able to return to Auckland and continue the same pattern of behaviour that he exhibited in Wellington. In order to prevent that from happening, a small group of us in Wellington (including me) wrote the open letter back in February/March of this year.

On March 11, and in the days after, we sent the letter to a wide range of individuals and groups (mostly in Auckland, but also other parts of the country) who we knew or thought were likely to have interaction with Omar. We had a few responses, including from some Auckland people who said they would try to work with Omar to get him to sort his behaviour out. As far as I am aware, these people were forced to give up after Omar repeatedly refused to engage in any real sense with them.

A couple of days ago, Omar was prominent in the occupation at the University of Auckland (UoA). He spent much of the time controlling the megaphone, and was also shown and interviewed in the media reporting of the event. Several Auckland activists who knew of Omar’s abuse were understandably angry/upset/worried about this [For example, see the post Students; please learn]. In support of their efforts to get the We Are The University group (who organised the protest) to address the issue of a known abuser holding a prominent position in their activities, and in order to help ensure that people involved in the UoA struggle knew about Omar’s past, myself and another of the authors of the open letter decided for the first time to publish the letter publicly – on the 3 blogs that we are involved in – Anarchia, Capitalism Bad; Tree Pretty and The Hand Mirror. We also posted links to the open letter in several Facebook discussion threads related to the issue.

In the 6 months between sending the letter out and posting it publicly, we recieved no formal response from either Unite! or SA, the two organisations Omar has the most involvement with. Informally, SA as an organisation has consistently shown itself to be interested in covering for and covering up Omar’s behaviour (some individuals within SA have tried to challenge Omar, and should be recognised for that). Even yesterday this continued – I posted a link to the open letter on the SA Facebook page, but this morning it was deleted and the page settings changed to disallow posting from all accounts except the official SA account.

The main reason I’m writing this post is to respond to a few of the most frequently heard things from this whole saga. Some come from when people were challenging Omar in Wellington, others are from responses to the open letter being made public. The thing they all have in common, however, is that they all miss the problem. So, to make it clear:

Abusive behaviour is the problem, not challenging it. The fault lies with those perpetrating abuse, not with those they abuse or those challenging their abuse. What is needed is for the person who engaged in abusive behaviour to a) stop, b) acknowledge what they have done, c) work to ensure it never happens again and d) respect the wishes of people who no longer feel safe/comfortable around them.

Fallacy #1: Making these issues public needlessly divides activist movements

See the first part of the paragraph above: “Abusive behaviour is the problem, not challenging it.” An activist movement that welcomes abusers is one that is already divided. Is it really unsurprising that many women (and others) won’t feel safe or welcome at an occupation when one of the most prominent people at that occupation has a history of sexual assault?

Challenging Omar’s behaviour does not distract us from the struggles that We Are The University exists to fight. Omar’s presence in these struggles prevents involvement in these struggles (to various extents) from a number of people.

In looking at issues of abusive behaviour, it is vital that we do not place blame on those who make us look at what may feel to some people like uncomfortable truths. It must always be remembered that what causes people to speak up about abusive behaviour is the existence of abusive behaviour. If you don’t want the former to happen, we need to work towards the elimination of the latter.

Fallacy #2: This issue is between Omar and the authors of the open letter

It has been suggested that this could all be “resolved” in a meeting between the authors of the open letter and Omar. This could not be further from the truth.

Firstly, the authors of the open letter all challenged Omar’s behaviour (in a variety of ways) while he was living in Wellington. His responses are detailed in the open letter, but suffice to say he refused to genuinely acknowledge that what he had done was wrong, or to commit to changing his behaviour to ensure it did not happen again.

Secondly, and more importantly, this fallacy implies that the issue is between the authors of the open letter (on one side) and Omar (on the other). It is not a personal squabble between people, but rather a small group of people challenging the behaviour of a person. This situation won’t be resolved by us making up with and forgiving Omar – it can only be resolved by Omar taking the steps I listed above: “a) stop, b) acknowledge what they have done, c) work to ensure it never happens again and d) respect the wishes of people who no longer feel safe/comfortable around them.”

Omar has repeatedly engaged in manipulative behaviour to attempt to avoid being challenged on his abusive behaviour. To some people who have challenged him, he has appeared apologetic, sometimes even pretending to acknowledge that what he has done was wrong. His continuing the same patterns of behaviour, and his abusive behaviour towards people who challenge him that he doesn’t feel able to manipulate, however, clearly show that any admissions of wrongdoing are not genuine, and only serve to further give him breathing room to continue in the same pattern of abuse.

Additionally, those who call for a meeting such as this assume that all those who wrote the open letter feel safe and/or comfortable around Omar. The last time I saw Omar, he was being physically ejected from a party he had been repeatedly told he wasn’t welcome at, after he had tried to physically attack me. He was screaming “The next time I see you, I’m going to kill you!” Now, as it happens, I’m not personally particularly afraid of him following through on his threat. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that I have very valid reasons for not wanting to be in the same space as him. Some of the other authors of the open letter may feel the same or similar, but I wouldn’t presume to speak for them without asking.

Fallacy #3: There is no reason to air these issues in public, it could all be resolved by private emails/phone calls/discussions

Some people have taken issue with the fact that the open letter has now been posted publicly. In response to that, I offer two words:

Six months.

It has been six months since the letter was sent to you. Six months for you to respond. Six months for you to ensure Omar doesn’t have a prominent and public space in your organisation. Six months for you to challenge Omar’s behaviour. Six months for you to stop sheltering him. Six months for you to support other people challenging Omar. Six months, in short, for you to have done something. So don’t try to say it should have stayed private.

The best assurance of safety is for those who might interact with Omar to know about his behaviour. The best way to make Omar change his behaviour is to ensure he can’t go anywhere without being challenged on it. Both of these require the history of his behaviour to be made public.

Further, the lengthy period of time detailed in the open letter is unlikely to be the start or the end of Omar’s history of abusive behaviour. Publishing it may allow other women who have been abused by Omar to come forward and let it be known, or at least to know that they aren’t alone, and that there are people out there who support them, and are working towards ensuring that Omar isn’t able to hurt anyone else.

 

There is so much more I could say about this, but for now I will leave it here. My final thought on this is a massive outpouring of solidarity and support to those up in Auckland who have challenged, and continue to challenge, Omar’s behaviour since he moved back up there.


An Open Letter About Omar Hamed

September 27, 2011

Omar Hamed is an organiser for Unite! Union, a member of Socialist Aotearoa, and until recently was a defendant in Operation 8. The following letter was written in March by several Wellington activists and sent to a number of individuals and activist groups in Auckland and around New Zealand.  Omar Hamed played a prominent role in yesterday’s occupation at the UoA. Tove has written about feminist attempts to respond to him in Auckland.  The letter is reproduced here to support those who are fighting for a left that takes sexual violence seriously.

In the last year [2010], Omar Hamed has been living in Wellington.  While here he has consistently behaved towards women in a misogynistic, disrespectful and sexually predatory way. Comrades from across the left have brought up problems with his behaviour and he has consistently failed to understand the importance of meaningful consent in sexual relationships.

A group of us concerned about Omar’s behaviour have come together to draft this document outlining what has happened while he has been in Wellington and what efforts we, and others, have made to challenge his behaviour.  We have sent this e-mail to groups, and bcc’d it to individuals.  We hope it will be useful for those who work with him when he returns to Auckland.

This statement is not confidential.  We encourage people to forward this e-mail  to anyone who has or will come into contact with Omar, or who is interested in this issue.

Omar’s pattern of behaviour

We don’t want to identify the women affected, so we haven’t gone into detail. It’s also important to understand that this is a pattern of behaviour on Omar’s behalf, and not isolated one-off incidents.

He does not take sexual consent seriously when his sexual partners are drunk.  He has repeatedly ignored drunk women when they told him they were not interested in his sexual advances.  He has repeatedly encouraged women who have rejected him to get drunker and then attempted to make a move on them when they were more incapacitated.  Some women have had to physically fight him off.   He has demonstrated that he is willing to have sex with someone who is too drunk to give meaningful consent.

We have focused on his most grotesque behaviour, but he has consistently talked to and about women in ways that make it clear that he does not respect them as comrades and human beings, but instead sees them as objects.

He went to a party at the flat of a person with whom he previously had a sexual relationship, even though she repeatedly told him not to come.  He refused to leave when she asked. He tried to punch and threatened to kill a male she was talking to. This behaviour is typical of men trying to maintain power and control over their lovers and ex lovers.

Omar clearly has a problem with alcohol, and has used this to excuse his behaviour. But this problem with alcohol is not causing his misogynist and disrespectful behaviour, and neither abstaining, nor reducing his drinking will solve it.  While sober he has defended his drunken behaviour. He has made it clear to those he was talking to that he either does not understand, or does not care about, meaningful consent.

Responses to Omar from Wellington

It’s important that people from other parts of the country understand that Omar has been challenged by groups and individuals from across the left.  Basic ideas such as ‘meaningful consent’ and the impact that sexist behaviour has on women have been explained to him repeatedly.  He is not operating out of ignorance.

He has responded to challenges from individuals in a variety of ways depending on who was doing the challenging:

  • When he has thought he was among friends he has minimised the behaviour, often in a sexist way.  He responded to a lesbian’s comrade’s criticism of his sexist behaviour: “why? are you worried I might steal your girlfriend”. When two men were criticising his behaviour and one left the room he said to the other:  “But four women in two weeks that’s pretty good eh?”
  • When these tactics haven’t worked he has got very upset, begged for forgiveness and promised that he would behave differently in the future.  Despite his promises he has repeated his behaviour.
  • When he has been challenged by those who he did not consider friends he has tried to silence and discredit them.

Wellington groups have also challenged his behaviour.  AWSM banned him from their political events and outlined their problems with the way he was treating women. He has also been banned from the 128 social centre. Workers Party members collectively brought up these issues as did members of his own party.

What is to be done?

We understand that people will have different ideas about how to deal with Omar’s behaviour.  Groups and individuals have to draw their own boundaries about when he’s welcome.

If Omar is willing to change the way he relates to women, then assisting him to do that is important political work.  However, he has given no indications so far that he is willing to change, and if he does not recognise what he is doing is wrong then his comrades cannot make him change his behaviour.

The most important political action that people can take about Omar’s behaviour is to speak about it openly.  Openness about the fact that he ignores people’s boundaries and does not take sexual consent seriously is the best protection we can offer women within activist communities.  This can be really hard to do, because there are many different instincts that train people to be silent at times like these.

Here are some suggestions of what could be done to make environments and groups that Omar is welcome in safer spaces:

  • Not allow him to take up positions of power.
  • If people are organising events where there is alcohol, then a responsible person should keep an eye on him throughout the event.
  • Consider that if Omar is welcome at an event, then some women who know of, or have experienced, his past behaviour may not feel safe attending.
  • Undertake political education work around sex and consent more broadly, this could include distributing material or running workshops.

Finally, and we cannot stress this enough: the action that will make the most difference to women’s safety when Omar is around is to make sure that everyone there knows about his pattern of behaviour.

Fighting sexism, misogyny, and sexual abuse of any kind must be part of our revolutionary organising now. Omar’s behaviour is an issue that affects individuals, groups, communities, and the left as a whole.  It hurts the people he assaults, their support network, organisations he’s in, and the revolutionary movement.  To allow his behaviour to continue is to create a left which is actively hostile to women.  A left which is actively hostile to women cannot bring about meaningful change.


Wellington, August 31st: Discussion night on the rising cost of living

August 22, 2011

Facebook event: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=140335866056528


Solidarity #16 – July 2011

July 3, 2011

Issue 16 - July 2011

Download issue in .pdf format (0.5MB)

The 16th issue of Solidarity, free newssheet of the Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement. Download the .pdf above, or click below to read the contents online.

 

Contents:

If you want to make sure you don’t miss an issue of Solidarity, you can subscribe to either the print or electronic version.

To subscribe to the AWSM announcements list, put your email address in the form on the top right of each page on our website, http://www.awsm.org.nz.

Subscribers will be sent .pdf copies of Solidarity each month, along with other publications produced by AWSM and ocasional information – we promise we won’t spam you with a ton of useless stuff though! The electronic copy is identical to the print version.

Or, you can subscribe to the print edition to receive a copy of Solidarity in the post. $8 for 12 issues. Mail a cheque to AWSM, PO Box 6387, Wellington 6141, or contact us to organise an alternative method of payment.


A tale of two protests: Don’t Cut Our Future and Queer The Night

June 26, 2011

In recent weeks Wellington has seen two sizeable protests. The first was held at Parliament on May 19th against the 2011 budget, while the second, on June 9th, marched from Waitangi Park to Cuba Mall to demand an end to queerphobia and transphobia.

Up to 1400 people gathered on Parliament lawn for the Don’t Cut Our Future rally, held on the afternoon that saw the launch of the budget by the National Government. The rally, organised by trade unions, was called to protest the cuts currently being imposed on workers and beneficiaries.

The crowd was mostly made up of union officials and members, despite being billed as a “community and union rally”. While the turnout was bigger than many expected, it still mostly failed to include the 80% of workers not in unions, beneficiaries and community groups who are also under attack. Union members were encouraged to attend during their lunch break, but it seems most chose instead to spend their only precious free time during the day elsewhere.

The crowd were addressed by a number of politicians, and many of the speeches gave it more of a feel of an election rally. Labour, desperate to pretend it would actually do things differently to National if it was in government, had their leader Phil Goff speak. This is the same Phil Goff who has always been consistently in favour of free-market capitalism, and the same Labour Party who oversaw the introduction of the anti-worker Employment Relations Act during their last term in government. Despite their claims, they are no friend to workers. This is further proven by their refusal to commit to repealing most of the cuts that the National Party is currently pushing through even if they somehow manage to get back into power after the November general election.

Comedian Jeremy Elwood was the rally MC, and spent almost as much time lampooning the Labour Party as he did National, suggesting that, like him, the Labour Mps were a part of the comedy festival. Unfortunately, the leadership of the Council of Trade Unions and most of the largest unions in the country don’t feel the same way, having openly declared their aim to get Labour re-elected. Many union leaders see their positions as stepping stones to becoming Labour MPs, such as Andrew Little, leader of the EPMU, New Zealand’s largest private sector union who will become a Labour MP after the election.

This symbolic and ineffective resistance by the unions is simply the next step following their capitulation when faced with the raft of new anti-worker proposals that were passed into law in late 2010. The 90 day fire-at-will bill, attacks on sick leave and reduction of union access to workplaces were some of the most serious attacks on our rights at work to take place in years, but union “opposition” was almost entirely limited to symbolic protests around the country. Workers in Christchurch, who are facing an even harder time due to the impact of the earthquakes, had even this symbolic level of opposition cancelled by the CTU.

As workers, we make everything in this country actually function. When we fight together, we have a huge amount of power. This power, if we truly took advantage of it, could force the Government to give in to our demands. The union leadership and the parliamentary opposition do not want us to recognise this. They want us to leave the fighting up to them – give them our votes and our union dues, and they’ll look after us. History shows, however, that they don’t have our interests at heart. No political party can represent us, we can only represent ourselves, together. That is one of the key lessons we need to learn – the struggle for better wages and conditions, for a better society, is our struggle. It does not belong to MPs or union leaders sitting in their cushy offices on their massive salaries. It is our struggle, and it must be fought by us.

This lesson was evident in the other recent protest, the Queer The Night march through central Wellington. The impetus for the march was a series of attacks on queer and trans people in central Wellington in recent months. In response, a group of queer and trans people got together to organise the march, inspired by the feminist Reclaim The Night marches that have taken place in various parts of the world, New Zealand included, for years.

Approximately 800 queer and trans people and their supporters took part in a loud march through the central city, culminating in speeches (including an open mic) in Cuba Mall. Speakers included a member of School’s Out, a high school support group for queer and trans youth; members of the Queer The Night organising group; Brooklynne Kennedy, a trans woman who spoke of her experiences of harassment; and Bill Logan, a long time gay rights activist who spoke of his involvement in the struggle around homosexual law reform in the 1980s. The march organisers continually stressed the fact that the march was not the end, but only the start of a long term fight against queerphobia and transphobia, and they have already organised two follow-up meetings to help plan a long term strategy to continue this struggle.

The Queer The Night march was an excellent example of self-organisation by a group that suffers discrimination in almost every sector of our society – many queer and trans people are oppressed in their homes and schools, in their workplaces, on the street and even by those who claim to be their friends. Two and a half decades after homosexual acts were removed from the Crimes Act, queer and trans youth are still fighting for their ability to live their lives as they see fit.

The marchers were predominantly under 30, with some even attending in their high school uniforms. While the experience and contribution of older queer and trans rights activists is a vital aspect of the struggle, the comparative youth of the Queer The Night participants shows that the issues faced by queer and trans people in this country will continue to be fought until they are overcome once and for all.

Queer The Night meetings to plan future activities are held on Thursdays at 7pm. Venue still to be confirmed, but email queerthenight [ at ] gmail.com or see the Facebook group for details.


Christchurch: Introduction to Anarchist-Communism – talk and discussion, July 6th

June 16, 2011

Beyond Resistance’s monthly anarchist nights are back!

July’s discussion night will feature a guest speaker and discussion. Asher from the Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement will be giving his talk: Introduction to Anarchist Communism, to be followed by questions and discussion. All welcome!

WHERE: WEA (59 Gloucester St, opposite the City Art Gallery).

WHEN: Wednesday July 6, 7PM

FACEBOOK: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=160864693978573

Zines, refreshments and good conversation will be available on the night. Free entry. Child-friendly space.


Solidarity #15 – June 2011

June 11, 2011

Issue 15 - June 2011

Download issue in .pdf format (1.26MB)

The 15th issue of Solidarity, free newssheet of the Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement. Download the .pdf above, or click below to read the contents online.

 

Contents:

If you want to make sure you don’t miss an issue of Solidarity, you can subscribe to either the print or electronic version.

To subscribe to the AWSM announcements list, put your email address in the form on the top right of each page on our website, http://www.awsm.org.nz.

Subscribers will be sent .pdf copies of Solidarity each month, along with other publications produced by AWSM and ocasional information – we promise we won’t spam you with a ton of useless stuff though! The electronic copy is identical to the print version.

Or, you can subscribe to the print edition to receive a copy of Solidarity in the post. $8 for 12 issues. Mail a cheque to AWSM, PO Box 6387, Wellington 6141, or contact us to organise an alternative method of payment.


Looking back at anarchists and the 2006 Progressive Enterprises lockout

May 17, 2011

Looking back at anarchists and the 2006 Progressive Enterprises lockout

In August 2006, a 48 hour strike was called by over 500 unionised workers, members of the National Distribution Union (NDU), at Progressive Enterprises distribution centres in Auckland, Palmerston North and Christchurch, as a part of their effort to get a national contract, pay parity between the three centres and a pay rise (of differing percentage at each site). The distribution centres supplied much of the merchandise to Progressive owned supermarkets (including the Woolworths, Countdown, Foodtown and SuperValue brands) across New Zealand. The next day, August 26th, Progressive announced that it was locking out the workers indefinitely. The lockout continued for almost a month, finally ending on September 21st with an agreement for pay parity and a 4.5% pay rise.

Throughout the lockout, there were extensive solidarity actions and fundraising across New Zealand and Australia. While I will give a brief overview of these, the main purpose of this article is to focus on the activity of anarchists in New Zealand, and to examine some of the ways anarchists interacted with rank and file Progressive employees and union officials during the lockout. Questions will be raised about some of the issues with supporting struggles from the outside, whose voices get listened to during an industrial dispute, and how to maintain ongoing contact with workers after industrial action has died down.

A brief overview of actions taken

Of foremost importance were the picket lines. At all three distribution centres, Progressive workers and supporters held picket lines around the clock for the entirety of the lockout. In Auckland and Christchurch, picket lines held strong and more or less completely stopped trucks entering or leaving. The picket line in Palmerston North, which had highest wages prior to the lockout, was less effective, with almost half of the 93 union members at the site scabbing on their workmates, leading to the distribution centre remaining open, although not at full functionality. To get around the picket lines, Progressive also set up a number of makeshift distribution centres stocked with shipping containers in underground and aboveground car parks at their supermarkets. Some non-union temp workers hired by Progressive in Auckland quit their jobs after discussions with the locked-out workers.

Across the country, Linfox were hired by Progressive to use their trucks to continue distribution from the makeshift centres. After some initial confrontations on picket lines in Auckland, including one on September 8 in which a Linfox driver swung a metal pole out his window at picketers in an incident which saw 10 picketers (including Progressive employees and union officials) arrested by police, Linfox drivers agreed not to cross any picket lines. This agreement did not extend to the rest of the country however, and did not stop Linfox drivers in Auckland making deliveries where picket lines did not exist.

As well as the permanent picket lines at the three distribution centres, flying pickets were held at a number of the makeshift distribution centres in a number of different cities. These were sometimes done by a mix of Progressive employees and their supporters, and sometimes entirely by supporters. The flying pickets had a wide variety of effectiveness, sometimes managing to stop trucks entirely while other times they did not have the numbers (or the willingness/ability of picketers to risk arrest) to do so. In an effort to impede work at some of the makeshift distribution centres, some illegal activity was also undertaken. On several occasions padlocks holding the shipping containers shut had their keyholes glued shut. However, this most likely was only a minor inconvenience at best, as all that it required to fix was something to cut the padlock off and a new padlock purchased.

An extensive informational campaign was also held at Progressive supermarkets around the country. These would generally consist of 2 – 10 people standing outside the supermarket doors, with collection buckets and leaflets (produced and printed in huge numbers by the NDU). Often the supporters would encourage shoppers to boycott Progressive supermarkets until the lockout was withdrawn and the workers demands were met. Anecdotal evidence exists of a number of people respecting the boycott request and shopping elsewhere, although the NDU itself never actually called for a boycott. Often the leaflets were also taken inside the store and placed on shelves, especially as the lockout progressed and more and more stores ran out of stock and had empty shelves, perfect for leaflets to be put on. At the time, checkout staff (many also NDU members) were nearing negotiations for their own contract, and again, anecdotal evidence exists of checkout and security staff willingly turning a blind eye to leafleting and other activities inside supermarkets in a show of support for distribution centre staff.

Rallies and marches were undertaken in several centres by the workers and their supporters. In Palmerston North, over 200 attended a rally at the distribution centre on September 16th, which included a creative display of solidarity by the Postal Workers Union, who erected a mailbox amongst the tents used by picketers, and promised to deliver letters of support addressed to “Camp Union, Lockout Island, Corner Mihaere Drive and Mako Mako Road, Palmerston North”. The Australian UNITE union organised several protests in Melbourne outside Woolworths stores which included fundraising and leaflets encouraging a boycott of Australian Woolworths stores. A large march through the suburb of Mangere (where the Auckland distribution centre was located) also took place, which was seen as an opportunity for the distribution centre workers to thank the local community for their extensive support throughout the lockout.

Unofficial action was taken by wharfies in New Zealand and Australia, slowing down the unloading of goods destined for Progressive Enterprises supermarkets. The Maritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ) threatened to blacklist (i.e.: refuse to unload) Progressive cargo entirely, however the lockout finished before they implemented this threat. Overall, NDU researcher Joe Hendren stated that Progressive may have lost over $15 million during the lockout.

Vitally, a huge fundraising effort was also undertaken on both sides of the Tasman. At picket lines, collections in areas with high foot traffic, at public meetings and on protest marches, collection buckets were ever present and received high levels of donations from the public – as an example, four supporters were able to collect $1000 in just an hour during peak time at the Wellington train station. The NDU set up an 0900 number which could be called to make an automatic $20 donation. MUNZ members agreed to donate an hour of pay each every week until the lockout was ended, while many other unions made donations, including 3 Australian transport sector unions and Change To Win, an American union federation. In Palmerston North, the local branch of the Association of University Staff created an adopt-a-family scheme in which members would be assigned to a locked-out worker and their family to support them directly. Additionally, food was often taken directly to picket lines. By the end of September, over $400,000 had been raised for the lockout fund, not counting donations of food or other materials. This support was vital to enable the workers to survive financially during the dispute, to ensure they could still pay their rent/mortgages and feed themselves and their families.

The anarchist response to the lockout

Anarchists took part in nearly all of the actions listed in the section above. In Auckland, two anarchists were also organisers for the NDU (and one of them was amongst the 10 arrested in the incident mentioned earlier). Other anarchists, most notably members of Radical Youth, an organisation made up of predominantly high-school aged people, also spent many hours on the picket lines and engaging in flying pickets. Wellington anarchists, without a local distribution centre, engaged in fundraising, picketing a makeshift distribution centre in Lower Hutt (which saw 3 arrested for blocking a truck) and some also travelled up to Palmerston North to support the picket there. Christchurch anarchists were involved in setting up a support group for the locked out workers with other radicals, which helped to coordinate flying pickets, fundraising and a march, in addition to helping to picket the distribution centre. In other areas without a distribution centre, including Dunedin and the East Cape, anarchists were involved in fundraising and pickets of makeshift distribution centres.

However, outside of postings on Aotearoa Indymedia, communication between radicals involved in supporting the struggle was virtually non-existent, and thus no coordinated nationwide support campaign was engaged in by anarchists or the wider radical community. I was lucky enough to be travelling from Auckland to Christchurch via Wellington at the time of the lockout and participated in support actions in all three main centres, and in this I was able to see some massive differences in the activity undertaken, and some issues with some of the things anarchists did. I have used this experience in writing this article, to begin to raise some ideas that I hope will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of anarchist support for industrial actions that take place in the future, and our fight for a better society.

Relations with the locked-out workers and with the union

Perhaps the key plank of anarchist theory on struggle is that of self-organisation, that the struggle must always be controlled by those directly affected by it. In a case like the Progressive lockout, that obviously means those workers locked out by Progressive Enterprises. In some cases, however, rather than taking our lead from the locked out workers, some anarchists advocated taking the lead from union officials. In one example, anarchists from Wellington had an argument on a private email list (which I therefore won’t reproduce here) over whether or not attempts should be made to block trucks at a makeshift distribution centre in Lower Hutt – a move which had been called for by workers (and acted upon by workers, union officials and supporters in both Auckland and Christchurch) but had been directly opposed by the Palmerston North NDU official. In the end, some anarchists made the decision to blockade, which led to three being arrested (and, unfortunately, failed to stop the trucks).

Perhaps nowhere was the distinction between the workers and union officials made more apparent than at the conclusion of the dispute. During what were to be the final set of negotiations, on September 21st, the delegated negotiations team (made up of locked-out workers) was asked to leave, and the negotiations continued with just the higher-ups from Progressive Enterprises and the NDU remaining in the room. Once agreement was reached between the two sides, the proposed agreement was not circulated to union members, but rather they were not to find out the details until the next day, when they had to immediately afterwards vote for or against ratification. The Christchurch workers almost voted it down – with only 51% agreeing to sign in the end, despite them having the largest pay increase of all 3 sites in the proposed agreement. They were so angry with the agreement that they decided to vote not to return to work the next day (a Friday), but to instead take another day off. In the end, at all 3 sites, workers marched back in en masse on Friday morning only to immediately leave again. In Christchurch and Auckland actions were then taken in solidarity with fellow NDU members working at Feltex carpets (who had lost their jobs after the company was put into receivership). In Auckland, Progressive workers held a protest outside a branch of ANZ bank, who had started the receivership proceedings, while Christchurch workers marched to the Feltex site and joined the workers there in a wildcat occupation of the factory premises.

It is important to recognise the difference between workers and the officials who claim to represent them. While many union officials may be personally supportive of particular forms of action, they are constrained by both the law and their role as mediators between capital and workers, and therefore, in periods of heightened struggle, will inevitably be forced either to take a position more conservative than the workers whose dues pay their salaries or to abandon their job.

One major problem was the lack of actual conversation between the locked-out workers and many of the anarchists who joined them on the picket lines. For obvious reasons, this was a major issue in Wellington (where the nearest distribution centre was several hours away in Palmerston North) and for anarchists in the smaller centres such as Dunedin, but it was also an issue for some anarchists in Auckland and Christchurch. In a situation such as this, where the workers knew each other well, it was always going to be hard coming in from the outside, to make any real connections. Regardless, there were some anarchists on picket lines who made no effort whatsoever to talk to anyone outside of the other anarchists on the picket lines. Perhaps at a one-off this would be understandable, but in a prolonged struggle such as this, where many anarchists spent hours, or even days, on the lines, this is a massive flaw. It is only through building real connections that we can have hope to maintain actual ongoing contact with those present. Rather than parachuting in, supporting a struggle then running off to the next big thing, we need to be trying to build connections with other fights, to help broaden the class struggle, not to assist in its atomisation.

In creating these relationships, we also need to be honest about who we are and why we’re there. That doesn’t mean we need to introduce ourselves with “Hi, I’m Asher, and I’m a member of the Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement, an anarchist-communist organisation working towards a global revolution which will see the destruction of the ruling class, and indeed all classes, and the replacement of capital and state with a federation of workplace and community councils where all who are affected by a decision play an equal role in making that decision in a world without money or borders.” But it does mean that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our politics, or the organisations we are involved with, we shouldn’t hide them away. Surely if we are ashamed of our beliefs or the groups we are involved in, we should be questioning why we hold them or why we’re involved. Currently, if people have even heard of anarchism, they generally have a bad impression (black bloc and/or bombs, for example). The easiest way to change that is to change those associations – if we’re standing alongside someone on a picket line, if we’re supporting them, and they know we are anarchists, then at worst they’ll think “oh, I guess there’s at least one anarchist who isn’t a complete idiot” and at best, they may even question some of the assumptions they held about what anarchism is. If we are ever to restore the long-lost connection between anarchism and the idea of working class solidarity in people’s minds, we need to start openly being known as anarchists when we engage in acts of working class solidarity.

Looking towards the future

Obviously everything I’ve written here is easier said than done – 5 years on, and I can’t even remember the names of any of those I stood alongside, stared down trucks and shared countless cigarettes with. But it is these relationships forged in struggle that are key towards being able to move from the defensive to the offensive in our fight to create a new world. Struggle changes people, as shown by the willingness of Progressive workers to take action in solidarity with their fellow unionists at Feltex. As radicals, as anarchists, we need to stop isolating ourselves, to recognise that we don’t have all the answers.

I have no doubt that I learnt far, far more from the locked-out Progressive workers than they learnt from me. I feel genuinely lucky to have spent those weeks in 3 different cities playing my tiny part in helping to support them in their fight. Politically, participating made me fundamentally question a lot, especially around how we as anarchists interacted with the rest of society. It made me relearn the importance of class struggle and the potential power that we have as a class after 2 years of involvement in the Wellington activist scene had had me focussed on protest politics and individual action. It helped me realise that even in our seemingly depoliticised society, people were still willing to stand up and fight, and even more people were willing to support them however they could.

I think back to the dairy owner dropping off a carton of cigarettes at the Mangere picket line, the white-collar worker going to an ATM and getting money out specifically so he had something to donate to our collection at the Wellington Railway Station, the teenager who turned back at the supermarket door after hearing why we were standing outside it. 5 years on, I still have photos from the Mangere picket line on my bedroom wall. They inspire me, and serve as a constant reminder of the power of the politics of everyday life. A politics which focusses on our lives and the issues which affect us day to day, not another protest against a faceless meeting of international figures. A politics which connects us to our workmates or our neighbours, not one which merely relieves our guilt and causes us to look down on those less enlightened.

If there is one lesson I took from the Progressive lockout that I hope all anarchists can take on board, it is that. Never underestimate the ability of working class people to organise, to agitate, to fight and to educate. We are the largest force in this society, and it is only when we learn to fight collectively that we will ever be able to have a chance to defeat capital once and for all. It is simply not good enough for those of us who self-describe as anarchist or radical to assume we have the answers, or that we alone, by sheer force of will (or arms), can overthrow capital and state. If we are ever to have a chance at creating the sort of society we dream of, it has to be together with our class, the working class. We need to organise, not just with other anarchists to support others struggles (though that is also important), but with our workmates to improve our wages and conditions, with our neighbours to improve the state of our communities, and so on. We need to move from seeing class struggle as something that workers do, that we support, to seeing it as something that we do, as workers. We are not apart from the class, we are a part of it.

This article was written for an upcoming edition of Imminent Rebellion, a New Zealand anarchist journal to be published by Rebel Press.


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