03 December 2011

Clarkson's Folly is Deadly Serious

Everybody already knew Jeremy Clarkson was a professional horse's ass when he commented on Wednesday, the day of the biggest strike in Britain in decades, that striking workers "should be executed in front of their families".

Public sector trade union Unison, displaying the immense power of a trade union to mobilize thousands in a single cause (and simultaneously a right-wing trade union leadership's immense power to mobilize thousands away from the best available cause) immediately called for Clarkson to be sacked. Over 21,000 complaints to the BBC followed.

Of course, among many the response has been that Clarkson's statement was a joke, and where's your sense of humor you stone-hearted communist? Certainly, the gap between the response of trade unionists and that of non-organized individuals is striking. But this gap does not underscore a lack of sense of humour on the part of trade unionists, but rather, the media's self-imposed blind spot when it comes to the actual conditions of the working class.

These are the simple facts:

In Indonesia, striking trade unionists are being shot and killed. They are being shot and killed every few weeks as a mining company and the Indonesian state crack down on a long-running and solid strike.

In Colombia, trade union activists are regularly killed with impunity. They are being killed by the thousands. Rather than condemn the assassinations, British politicians pose with the culprits.

In Guatemala, trade unionists opposing privatisation and supporting fruit workers' rights face a sustained campaign of violence. One was hacked to death with machetes.

The situation is not especially better across much of the world, as states under pressure lash out at workers' organizers as the greatest threat to their rule.

The systematic persecution and murder of trade unionists characterized the fascist regimes in Germany and Italy and the quasi-fascist Franco regime in Spain. It can happen here: in Wales we recently commemorated the centennial of the Llanelli riots, in which British soldiers shot striking workers. The same nearly happened in Tonypandy, although no shots were fired there. In West Virginia in the United States in 1921, it was pure class war in the coal fields, complete with aerial bombing.

In Britain today, we trade unionists are not being shot at for being trade unionists. But the mere fact of being a trade unionist in Britain makes you more likely to face violence at work. Employers constantly use bullying and underhanded means to intimidate active trade unionists. In my own small corner of the trade union movement, post-16 education in Wales, two UCU branch chairs, Hamish Murphy and Liza van Zyl, have been sacked for trade union activity and a third, Guy Stoate, faced disciplinary action in retaliation for his trade union work until concerted effort by his comrades at Coleg Morgannwg faced management down. The possibility of being disciplined, losing one's job or even being blackballed from one's entire sector -- often for merely defending the legal rights our fellow workers are already entitled to on paper -- is a daily reality for British trade unionists.

The British media by and large ignores all this. The actual conditions of working people are what the media intend to distract those people from, not to call attention to. The media don't even take unions particularly seriously; if they did, the BBC would not be facing strike after strike after strike.

So when Jeremy Clarkson makes another of his carefully-timed outrages, it is easy for the tops of the media to portray whatever he says as an impossibility so absurd even David Cameron can join in the joke. For us Helots meanwhile, having read of the violence committed against our comrades overseas and mindful of the conditions we face here, the "joke" of executing striking trade unionists comes a little too close to reality to be funny.

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