cwi international conference.
Country reports from Ireland, North and South and the Netherlands presented to the 2004 meeting of the International Executive Committee (IEC) of the cwi, held in Belgium, 14 - 20 November.
Fighting on many fronts in Ireland and the Netherlands
Northern Ireland (Socialist Party)
One year after it was elected, the Assembly has not met and there is still no agreement between the parties on a formula to set it up. This deadlock may continue at least until after the next general election which is likely in the spring of next year and may last much longer than that. While the violence has partially subsided, the sectarian polarisation has, if anything, intensified.
Meanwhile the issue of racism has come to the forefront. The rise in racist attacks has led to Belfast being titled the "Race hate capital of Europe". Some of these attacks are organised and co-ordinated, with a few small fascist groups and sections of the loyalist paramilitaries being mainly responsible.
The relative decline in the sectarian violence has meant that class issues have been able to come to the surface. A dispute over pay involving civil service members of NIPSA began last December and lasted nine months. It involved two one-day strikes, weeks of selective strike action and a number of large rallies and demonstrations. The other main class issue that has come to the fore is the movement of opposition to the government’s proposal to introduce water charges.
We played a leading role in the civil service dispute and are in the leadership of the anti-water charges campaign.
There are a number of campaigns set up by various groups against the water charges. A broad trade union coalition, to which we are affiliated, has developed into a bureaucratic talking shop. There is a ‘Communities Against the Water Tax’, supported by the SWP, which initially got some publicity but has done very little on the ground.
By contrast our "We won’t pay!" campaign has had some spectacular successes. We have dominated the media coverage of the water issue and have made non-payment the central issue. Text polls conducted after we appeared on TV and radio found 85% and 75% support for our call for non-payment.
We are now taking the campaign into the communities with a series of local meetings and are getting a huge response in both Protestant and Catholic areas. The charges are due to come in 2006. This campaign will therefore last some time and provides big opportunities for us to sink roots in the working class communities.
We currently have four members on the Executive Committee of NIPSA and hold the President’s position. Although the right wing have an overall majority and determined the tactics in the civil service dispute, we were able to play a significant role, including leading unofficial walkouts against management threats at the start of the year, involving thousands of members.
The right effectively sabotaged the dispute, refusing to escalate the action. They were eventually forced to hold a ballot for an all-out strike which was narrowly lost. Yet in the Department of Social Development, where the left ‘Time for Change’ group in which we participate are mainly based, there was a 79% vote in favour of all-out action!
Issues of cuts and of privatisation are now coming to the fore in NIPSA and we are centrally involved in a number of struggles. Other key areas of industrial work have been the Fire Brigades’ Union (FBU)where we now hold the regional secretary and executive position. It was the Northern Ireland region which moved the motion for Labour Party disaffiliation passed at the recent FBU conference.
The struggle by the sacked airport workers - two of them party members - against their former employers and the T&GWU bureaucracy has continued.
We now have a comrade on the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions although it is a bureaucratic body with a still relatively low level of activity in the unions.
We see youth work as the key to growth. For this reason we took on a young comrade at the start of September for a one year period as an additional full timer to do the youth work.
This has already had an impact. In Belfast the youth work had declined since the mass movements we led of school students against the war. We have now re-established weekly youth activities and are organising Socialist Youth meetings and public meetings aiming especially at the schools. This is turning up new recruits for the party.
Outside Belfast we have suffered from a number of the key youth comrades emigrating to go to college. In Omagh, where three leading young members left the area other young members responded and have recruited a number of new members.
Socialist Youth have taken up the issue of low pay. In Omagh we picketed a local supermarket and, after a lot of press coverage, scored a partial victory in forcing them to raise their wages. Three young workers in the shop have joined Socialist Youth.
We need to re-build our work in Derry, where the three leading young comrades have also emigrated. Resources are being directed to this.
This year we have intervened in all the main campuses in the Freshers’ Day events. (The SWP only intervened in one and with a much smaller presence than us.) We now have a very active group in Queens University in Belfast working in the Socialist Society. We have made an important breakthrough in the New University of Ulster in Coleraine, where we are in the process of setting up a society.
Anti fascist work We have set up a ‘Fascists out!’ Campaign, which also involves a number of anarchists. We have used this to conduct effective propaganda work in the areas where the fascist groups are trying to get a foothold as well as to organise direct action to stop them carrying out activities.
Party-building. Although the overall objective situation remains difficult, there are now many opportunities for us to grow, both in terms of numbers and influence. A period of renewing the party leadership has begun to take the party forward. Inevitably the construction of a new leadership with the confidence and ability to build a revolutionary organisation, takes time. Important progress on this has now been made. We have a Regional Executive Committee of five comrades (two of them youth comrades) which meets weekly and a larger Regional Committee (about 18 strong) meeting roughly every six weeks.
Membership. We have had some comrades emigrating but there are many people in and around Socialist Youth who are potential recruits.
We have branches and groups of members or in Belfast, Omagh and half a dozen other areas. In all the areas where we are working it is now the youth - mainly comrades under 20 - who are the driving force in the work. We have a new and much improved office in the centre of sh:Belfast
There will be local elections and a general election next year. We are currently discussing our strategy for both. We will certainly stand in the local elections and may contest a couple of sh:Westminster seats.
The various attempts by the SWP to construct "alliances" based around themselves have come to nothing. The political character of these groups has been more left republican than socialist.
If we stand in the forthcoming elections we will do so under our own banner. In a situation where over 90% of the vote goes to the four main sectarian and right wing parties, we can only expect a small vote but we can use the elections to get our ideas across and also as a political edge for our water charges activity.
After bad results in the local elections in June, the Government parties, in particular Fianna Fail, have been forced to try to repackage themselves as more socially caring.
Fianna Fail have decided to implement the neo-liberal agenda in a more flexible way as an election could be less than two years away. In an important development, they have scrapped the proposal for a management buy-out of Aer Lingus and any other privatisation proposals for the airline until after the election.
These developments have created tensions with the minority coalition partner, the Progressive Democrats, and therefore the government is less stable. With the opposition boosted, serious question marks exist over the Government, in particular its ability to be re-elected. Despite the still relatively high levels of growth in the economy, Fianna Fail is therefore forced to look at its options in terms of future coalition partners. In that context a Fianna Fail minister raised the idea that it is only a matter of time before Sinn Fein enters some form of government in the south. Sinn Fein did not contradict the general idea.
These developments have been pushed along by the deep anger that exists amongst many sections of the working class. There has been a radicalisation of an important layer in society. A majority are dissatisfied with the government. Interestingly the lowest point for satisfaction with the government was September 2003, which was the month the bin tax battle exploded.
The situation in the workplaces
These political developments are taking place at the same time as industrially conditions are difficult. Again there is a lot of anger on many issues but the union leadership are still able to cut across struggle. But this is at the cost of weakening their position for the future. The anger that exists has not yet developed to a point that the role of the bureaucracy or the lack of confidence amongst workers, has been overcome. There is a very low level of struggle at the moment. However the situation in Dublin Bus earlier this year shows how volatile the situation can be.
The union called off a one day strike against privatisation at the last minute which caused huge anger. If union activists had moved quickly and put unofficial pickets on the depots, a very serious strike could have resulted during the Irish Presidency of the EU and a new situation could have opened up in that union. The activist layers are not strong enough yet and setbacks, including in the likes of the bin tax battle, mean that people are sober about the prospects of struggle. But the intervention of the government with the union leadership on this occasion shows they are nervous of the potential for such political strikes which could get strong public support.
The situation in the party
Because of the the role we played in the bin tax battle and our gains in the election, the mood in the party is good. The profile of the party has never been greater and there is warm support for our political stand and fighting record amongst broad sections of the class and youth. These important gains do not automatically translate into the growth of the party. The contradictory objective conditions and in particular the lag in struggle, has affected it. As we had planned well before the election, the party is striving to alter the balance of the work to ensure development in numbers, stronger branches and the cadre level.
The bin tax battle and the elections were very important for the party and demonstrated the party’s capability in many types of work. Now we must demonstrate our capability to explain our programme and our perspective for building a revolutionary party and for major class battles in the years ahead. There is the potential to substantially develop the party but given the harsher conditions that operate at the moment, many of the best potential revruits will require a developed and confident political approach in order to join and be consolidated.
Leading members are working closely with the branches in order to emphasise that, for recruitment and consolidation, the branch meetings must be effective, educational units. This and the development of strong local leaderships are the over riding priorities. Essentially we are in a process of training members into taking responsibilities and in so doing all comrades are being trained in the key methods of the party.
Recruitment. We have taken a more focused approach to recruitment and consolidation and we are confident that the bulk of our new members can be fully involved in the party. We are striving to ensure that each new member is individually assisted.
Structures and full timers. We are fighting to develop the party’s resources in order to develop a larger team of full-time workers. The membership of the Regional Executive Committee has been altered to bring on more young comrades and it is a body of full timers. We hope this will therefore give it a flexibility and capability to meet during the day for as long as is necessary. A new Regional Committee was established in September and has met twice.
Finance. Our aim over the next six months is to put the party in a position to develop a monthly surplus which can be used to strengthen our work. We are confident that the income of the party can be significantly increased, particularly on the basis of recruitment.
An important layer of young comrades have developed in the party over the last couple of years and in difficult circumstances have played key roles in the party centrally and in the branches. We have to continue to select and assist young comrades, as they will be the driving force for the development of the party. 25 comrades attended a recent meeting of the National Committee. Of those, two were in their early 20s and the average age of eight other members was less than 20.
If we can strengthen the party politically and develop a confident approach on party interventions and activities, we can make some very important gains over the next months. Most importantly, improving the cadre level in the party will be critical if we are to match the potential that will open up for the party when struggle and radicalisation become more generalised.
The rightwing government of Christian-Democrats (CDA), rightwing Liberals (VVD) and ’leftwing’ liberals (D66) is carrying out the largest round of cuts since 1945.
It announced the expulsion of up to 26,000 "failed asylum seekers" over the next three years. The Dutch government is also participating in the "coalition of the willing" and sent troops to Iraq.
Last year we’ve seen an upsurge in struggles against the government. Offensief, the Dutch section of the CWI, has done quite well over the last year. We were present at all the major mobilisations - the anti-war movement, the anti-racist struggles and the trade-union movement. This year we held a congress which took place just at the beginning of the marvellous trade union movement against the cuts.
We were involved in the demonstration in Amsterdam on the 20 March. On 26 June, only around 500 people were present in the capital of the Netherlands to protest against the continuing war and the occupation of Iraq by US, British and Dutch troops. In general it was the hardcore of the peace movement. Lacking were the thousands of people that normally come to these kind of demonstrations like on the the 20 March. Offensief distributed hundreds of leaflets of its anti-racism campaign and sold papers as well.
Expulsion of refugees
The Dutch parliament’s lower house voted on 17 February to expel up to 26,000 "failed asylum seekers" over the next three years. This cruel and inhumane policy has shocked and angered Dutch working people and also many people across Europe. The government scapegoats asylum-seekers for cuts and economic slowdown.
It is the right-wing coalition government which is carrying out the largest round of cuts since 1945, leading to increased poverty and a serious erosion of resources. Moreover, minorities face the worst living conditions in Dutch society. A recent all-party parliamentary report concluded that efforts to create an "integrated multi-ethnic society" has failed, leaving many first and second generation immigrants alienated. The plans to expel thousands of asylum-seekers will only exacerbate this problem.
Offensief was involved in the big demonstration (15.000 people) on the 10 April against the government proposals and also in smaller actions.
The return of the class-struggle in the Netherlands
Some initial strikes and demonstrations just before the Summer were called by the newly organised trade union committee, ‘Enough is enough’. Up to 60,000 angry trade-union members assembled on Tuesday, 20 September in the centre of Rotterdam to express their attitude towards the announced governement’s plans. Workers from Rotterdam and the area surrounding it were supported by groups of students of different Rotterdam schools that were on strike against the governement led by Prime Minister Balkenende. The biggest port in the world was shut down because of the 24 hour strike.
It was not only the pension reforms that brought the workers from the docks, the firebrigades, the public transport, the healthcare, etc. onto the streets. The mobilisations were also aimed at the budget cuts in education, in health and social care, in disability benefits, etc.
Offensief started in the morning with distributing a thousand leaflets at the Institute of Technology (educating young mainly immigrant people into skilled workers in printing, hairdressing, etc.) and also at another school where an Offensief member was preparing a schoolstrike. Offensief succeeded in organising a group of around 60 school students to march to the meeting point of the demo with the striking workers.
Many of them were eager to distribute hundreds of leaflets. They were also very talented in shouting slogans and with their enthusiasm they ware able to influence the protesting workers in making more noise.
From the platform there were speeches by the leaders of the different trade-union federations - the general one, the Christian one and the one for middle and higher employees). Also by opposition leaders Wouter Bos (Social Democrats), Jan Marijnissen (Socialist Party, in which members of Offensief participate) and Femke Halsema (Green-Left). There was also a kind of cabaret provided by Rotterdam dockers.
As the demonstration continued, the atmosphere became more open. There were clear signs of growing confidence of the Dutch trade-union movement after years of the vaunted ‘Polder model’. The number of people turning up definitely exceeded the expected numbers (10-20,000).
Offensief sold the newest edition of our paper with the headline ’This governement has to go. We have the power to stop them...A general strike is needed". We were helped by the comrades of the Belgian sister organisation, Left Socialist Party. We collected money for our fighting fund and 30 new names of potential members, mainly youth who want to continue with activities at their schools.
The regional strike call in Amsterdam one week later was answered by many thousands of workers in public transport, the firefighters, the dockers, etc. On the morning of the 27 September, around 10,000 strikers and other worker-activists assembled at Dam square in Amsterdam.
Also outside of Amsterdam there were actions. Offensief took the iniative of a student demonstration at the Alkwin College in Uithoorn. Around 40 students attended the 1.5 hour long protest. They listened to speeches by Offensiefmember Bobby Siecker and decided to make a banner for the demonstration on 2 October in Amsterdam.
Again assisted by Belgian comrades, Offensief comrades sold papers, collected for the fighting fund anfd distributed leaflets with a call for the Offensief public meeting. We sold material on our stall at the Dam and met some more people interested in our ideas and activities.
350,000 protesters on 2 October
More than 350,000 protesters, mostly trade-union members, assembled on Saturday 2 October, in Museum Square, Amsterdam, to show their anger at the cuts plans of the right wing government. For months, the government had talked of its plans to attack pensions, to ‘restructure’ social security, to increase the working week, which, along with growing unemployment, has led to a mood of anger amongst the population in the Netherlands. In polls, 80% said they disagree with the policies of the CDA, VVD and D66 government.
Much to the surprise of almost everybody, including the trade union officials, the turn-out was much bigger than the expected 100,000. The Dutch trade union movement, which for years was embedded in the notorious ‘Polder Model’ (a so-called ‘social pact’ between trade union leaders, governments and bosses) and which appeared almost dead, showed that it is still alive and kicking. The participants on the 2 October were not only ‘grey-haired men’ in their fifties, but people from all sectors and layers of society, that decided to show their anger and that they were no longer prepared to swallow the cuts.
Around 25,000 activists assembled early on 2 October in Dam Square on the initiative of the broad anti-cuts coalition, ‘Turn the Tide’, in which Offensief participates. Youth, elderly people, anti-globalisation activists, migrant workers, asylum seekers, children, trade union members, environmental activists…They were all there.
After one hour, the demonstration started. It was a lively and noisy protest march that expressed a widely felt opposition to the government’s plans. It took one hour before the protesters arrived at Museum Square, where they joined with the trade unions organising the event. Because of the massive turnout, the Square was packed with people. More than 250,000 assembled and listened to speeches from trade union officials. There was also music and stalls.
Even though 2 October was a magnificent turnout, it could have been bigger. Many people could not make it to Amsterdam as the trains were overcrowded. As people assembled at the Museum Square, the first protesters were already marching.
Members of Offensief are involved in all the main opposition movements against the cuts: the trade union movement, the broad left Socialist Party, and in the ‘Enough is Enough!’ union rank and file organisation that helped force the union leaders to start the strikes and demonstrations.
Along with members of the Belgian CWI, ‘Left Socialist Party’, Offensief members sold more than 500 copies of a special edition of our paper on 2 October. Many people were attracted to our paper because of its banner headline call for a general strike. We also collected names of people interested in Offensief and we ran stalls at Dam Square and at the Museum Square. As militant socialists we are not only involved in building the movement but we also put forward our socialist ideas to help make the anti-cuts movement larger, stronger and ultimately successful.
At this moment of writing it is clear that the union officials are starting to negotiate with the government and with the employers. It is not clear whether this will result in anything.
Our work in the Socialist Party
We are still actively involved in the Dutch broad left Socialist Party - through our councillors in Breda (2), Deventer (1), in the youth organisation Red, in Tilburg, Den Bosch, Utrecht and in Breda. Our members in Amsterdam restarted their activities in the local SP branch. Our members have in the past played an important role in the Amsterdam SP in demanding more democracy and more political education. This resulted in the suspending of one comrade as chair of the Amsterdam South-East sub-branch.
We are still convinced that working in the SP is important. In the anti-cuts movement we met many people that were considering the SP as their party (member and/or voting). Although we think the party is fastly moving to the right (orientation to a ‘left’government of PvdA/social-democrats, GreenLeft and SP, not openly fighting for socialism and preparing for a break with capitalism) it is still popular amongst working class people.
In the movement against the cuts we have proposed to build a new workers’party based on the SP,’Enough is Enough’ and action committees in the workplaces and neighourhoods.
In June 2004 Offensief held its congress. At this congress we discussed our work inside the Socialist Party, youth work, paper and finances, website, recruitment, etc. We took decisions on our priorities for the coming year: recruiting youth (youth campaign, Offensief against Racism), political education, strengthening of the structures and finances. And of course we decided to keep involved in all the main mass mobilisations.