Sunday, August 28, 2005

The British Unions and the New Labour government

The following is the text of a speech to the Norwegian Social Forum in Oslo in October 2004, to a trade union seminar.
To understand the situation in the British trade union movement we have to examine two developments above all others:

• The unprecedented crisis in relations between the unions and the Labour Party, or rather the New labour government;
• The emergence of a new generation of trade union leaders, referred to in the mass media as the “awkward squad”.

The crisis in the relationship has been the result of seven years of a Blair government and its neo-liberal policies. The RMT rail union was expelled from the Labour Party as a result of its support for candidates of the Scottish Socialist Party. This was followed by the decision of the FBU to disaffiliate as a result of the government’s role in the Fire Service dispute. To this must be added the decision of the GMB, a loyalist union which had supported Blair’s take over of the Labour Party that they would not fund Labour’s general election campaign, and they would only support Labour candidates who were opposed to the government’s privatisation policy. Other unions have also decided to cut the amount of money they pay to the Labour Party.

It is especially the government’s ideological commitment to privatisation which has created a fault line around which this crisis has deepened. They are in various ways opening up the public sector to private business. Now, even in the Health Service, where they said that the NHS would continue to carry out the clinical work, they are inviting in big business. Having continued the previous Tory government’s ban on council house building, they are seeking to privatise all remaining council housing, against the resistance of tenants.

Such is the level of disenchantment with the government that in the words of one trade union leader it is now impossible for a Blairite to win a union election. Over the last few years in union after union, left wing candidates, or people presenting themselves as left wingers, have won elections for the top jobs in the unions. This new generation of union leaders has been described in the mass media as the “awkward squad”, supposedly a more militant bunch than the previous supporters of Blair and of “social partnership”.

Obviously the defeat of the people who failed to challenge Thatcher and delivered the Labour Party to Blair, is something to be welcomed. But the change in one or two people at the top of a union does not add up to its transformation into a more radical organisation, nor one controlled by its members.

The limits of these new leaders, especially in the four major unions, which have been operating as a block – the TGWU, GMB, Amicus and UNISON – has been reflected in a so-called agreement which they reached at a recent Labour Party Policy Forum – the “Warwick agreement”, named after the place they met. This ‘agreement’ on a range of policies has been declared to be a wondrous thing, which one leader said had guaranteed “a radical manifesto for a third term Labour government; another said that it reflected the fact that the Labour leadership was now treating the trades unions with dignity and respect.

This is nothing other than self-delusion. The government has given a few minor concessions in order to try to stem the funding crisis. To take one example, the government’s employment legislation, ironically called fairness at work, created a situation where workers involved in a legal strike, could be legally sacked by their employer after 8 weeks. The unions were demanding that it be illegal to sack workers engaged in a lawful dispute. The government has come up with the massive concession that they can be sacked after 12 weeks!
There were other such concessions, but the government’s privatisation policy remains it place.

I now want to briefly look explain the more radical elements within the British trades unions. In the PCS civil service union, a new General Secretary Mark Serwotka was elected, defeating a right wing candidate who would have made Ghengis Khan look radical. Following his election, a grouping called Left Unity won a majority on the union Executive Committee. They face a difficult situation because the government has just announced 104,000 redundancies within the civil service, and the union is currently balloting its members for strike action.

There are, of course, a range of left groupings within most of the unions, some of which have significant numbers on union executive committees. There has in the past been a debate on the British left about alternative methods of organising within the unions: Broad Lefts or Rank and File groups. The Broad Left was the traditional organisation which the Communist Party (which used to be influential in the unions) promoted. Essentially it was an electoral machine which was assembled to decide on the left candidate for this or that election. This tended to be a means of wining positions within the bureaucratic structures of the unions rather than a vehicle for mobilising the members to break the grip of the bureaucracy.

On the other hand there were ‘rank and file’ groups, most often associated with the far left, which whilst making many correct criticism of the union machines, and speaking of mobilising the membership, did not have any strategy to democratising the unions, nor mobilising the members to win control of them.

One of the most interesting developments therefore, has recently occurred in the Fire Brigades Union, where the majority of the membership is angry and bitter at the way which the leadership conducted the recent dispute. Having set an unrealistic immediate target of a 40% wage increase, they ended up giving massive concessions to the employers, including, for instance the abandonment of pre-arranged overtime which had led to the creation of thousands of jobs.

Those opposed to the deal on which the strike was ended, have set up a group called Grassroots FBU. It was not conceived as a vehicle for uniting the members of the left groups, but for mobilising on a much broader basis, the membership that considers they have been sold out by the leadership. It was launched with a simple programme of democratising the union, defending the fire service against cuts, and mobilising to kick out the existing leadership.

Of two elections which have taken place since the strikes, supporters of Grassroots won both of them, against the apparatus candidates. With elections for Assistant General Secretary and General Secretary coming up over the next year, the union bureaucracy has acted to try to destroy the organisation which threatens to defeat it in elections. They have banned Grassroots FBU and declared that membership of it is a disciplinary issue.

I want to finish by looking at the European trade union dimension. Out of the WSF-ESF a number of more radical unions made contact and have been involved in a series of meetings. The RMT has been the only mainstream union involved in these. They have included the SUD union federation from France, the Italian COBAS, some anarchist unions such as the Spanish CGT.

The RMT took the view that it would work with those who wanted to struggle against liberalisation of the railways in Europe, be they inside or outside the main federations. There was an attempt to organise a coordinated strike against rail liberalisation across a number of European countries. For reasons I have not time to explain, the RMT was unable to deliver this action – in Britain ‘political’ strikes are banned.

But what is clear on the European level is that the main union federations have completely failed to mobilise their members against the liberalisation process. Within the EU you cannot fight on the national terrain, because you are opposing decisions of the European institutions.

At the ESF in London recently there was a meeting on the theme of the left in the unions in Europe. Discussion is taking place about the need for Europe wide collaboration between unions, especially those in the public sector. What is urgently necessary in my view is for practical collaboration between those forces in the trade union movement, be they inside or outside of the main federations, to campaign against the opening up of the public services. This can, of course, involve the social movements, but it cannot be done without Europe wide strike action, as difficult as this may seem at the moment.

Some of the independent forces that we have met with, are dismissive of the main unions because of their often bureaucratic nature. But these unions cannot be dismissed for the simple reason that the majority of the organised workers are in them. The majority of workers will not leave them simply by denunciation of the bureaucracy. The struggle to break them from their support for the ‘European Social model’ and to create an alliance, not with our own bosses, but with the workers of Europe and farther afield is necessary for those who are opposed to neo-liberalism. Trades unions can play a key role in the struggle for another world, but not in alliance with their own Capital, only in alliance with the workers of other countries. The abandonment of ‘national interest’ for working class internationalism is necessary to radicalise our unions, and to show all those oppressed by capitalism that they will fight for the collective interests of all those exploited and oppressed by capitalism, rather than acting in narrow self-interest.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The fate of Coate yet to be decided

From Swindon TUC's August 2005 E-Newsletter

Despite misleading headlines in the Advertiser, the fate of the planning application for the University campus and 1800 houses in the Coate area has still yet to be decided. More than 23,000 people have signed the petition against the application.
Council leader Mike Bawden has caused divisions within the ranks of the Tories by his support for the application. At the Council Cabinet meeting Justin Tomlinson voted against supporting the application whilst Gary Perkins gritted his teeth and abstained. Has this anything to do with the unpopularity of the proposition and the proximity of Council elections next year you may wonder?

Mr Bawden is being disingenuous when he blames the government since he was the man who told the Guardian that he had “brokered a deal” with the developers.

Meanwhile Bath University has formally rejected the proposal of Swindon Civic Trust for a University in the town centre.

Thanks to John Doyle’s research we have unearthed an article from the Swindon Advertiser in September 2001, at the time when the University’s campus at Oakfield on Park North was opened. The paper reported that the University was seeking to expand its presence in the town by building a campaus at North Star. Vice Chancellor Glynnis Breakwell mentioned that in the light of the building of the new hospital at Commonhead, the University was keen to work with the hospital. “Glynnis sees an ideal opportunity for the University of Bath to develop its medical research and teaching in Swindon.”

Hold on a minute. What about the vast distance between North Star and Commonhead? Wouldn’t that be an obstacle to such collaboration? Apparently not.

Later Mrs Breakwell came out with the convenient line that the University had to be at Commonhead next to the hospital.

So why did they change their line? Could it have had anything to do with the fact that the ‘developers’ offered the land at Coate for free; the deal ‘brokered’ by Mike Bawden?

The assertion that the only possible site was in the Coate area was only a convenience to cover the fact that the decision was an economic one.
And, of course, the offer was made because the house builders knew the chances of a planning application being accepted were better if the housing was connected with a campus.

This underlines the fact that the ultimatum to the town, “Coate or not at all” is completely unprincipled.

The split in the Tory group is a good sign that the pressure from the campaign is mounting. The “Great Debate” which the Advertiser has featured has shown an overwhelming preponderance of local people opposed to the building of the campus and housing at Coate. The battle is far from over.

(There is a new Save Coate news site at: )

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Hitting the high notes

Deny Baptiste, tenor saxophone player with Jazz Jamaica, taken at the Old Town Bowl this summer.

Denys is another award winning artist. You can hear extracts from his work on Dune's web site:
His latest CD was produced for the 40th Anniversary of Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
{Click on the photo to enlarge}

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Private Healthcare Vultures gather for NHS pickings

When the New Labour government decided to implement the Tory policy of PFI they said that clinical services would remain with the NHS. Today they are opening up the entire NHS to private healthcare. In place of planning they are introducing a market in which public and private providers compete for patients. The article below was written for Swindon TUC's April E-Newsletter.

When the New Labour government pressed ahead with PFI we were told, don’t worry, clinical services will remain in the public sector. Yet today the government is opening up clinical services to private companies. They have abandoned the principles on which the NHS was founded. The latest indication of this is the news that hospitals will be allowed to ‘advertise’ to attract patients in a competitive market in which doctors and nurses will never be sure how many people will chose to use their services.

Sir Nigel Crisp, the NHS Chief Executive, has published a report setting out how a “patient led” service will develop over the next three years. The NHS management is abandoning planning at the national level.

Under the new system:

• Hospitals will no longer contract with local NHS trusts or GPs to carry out a number of non-emergency treatments;
• Patients will be entitled to be treated at any hospital, public or private;
• A target to give private hospitals 8% of NHS work will be dropped and they will be allowed to compete for all they can get.

A Health Insight Unit will be established to provide Primary Care Trusts with ‘marketing information’ about their local populations, like that used by supermarkets to target customers.

The document, “Creating a Patient-led NHS” says:

“Risk management in the future will involve a clearer approach to dealing with failure. High performing systems accept that failures will occur, and handle them decisively. In health this means recognising that some service are indispensable while others can be displaced.

The approach to failure will distinguish between contestable services, which can be allowed to exit, and indispensable services, where the response to failure needs to ensure the service remains in place.”

In other words, services that are not ‘successful’, in terms of the number of patients they attract and the money they make, will be dispensed with. This will mean that for all the talk of ‘choice’, hospitals are likely to dispense with unprofitable services and the actual choice will be progressively reduced.

The idea of patient choice in relation to health is in any case preposterous. A sick person does not want a choice. They want to be able to be treated in their locality to a good quality. They do not want to travel a long distance when they are sick.

In reality this is not a ‘patient-led’ NHS but cost led. The more patients attending a hospital the more money they are likely to make. But just as ‘choice’ in relation to schools has led to ‘sink-schools’, this crazy market based system can only lead to declining hospitals in areas, particularly metropolitan areas, where there are a number of hospitals, rather than the situation in places like Swindon where there is only one.

The competitive market which the pro-privatisation New Labour government is introducing can do nothing else but lead to an increased polarisation between ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’ hospitals rather than doing what the NHS was set up to do, which was to develop equality of service on the national level. This government will go down in history as one which undermined equality of service.

The private healthcare vultures are gathering for the NHS pickings.

BUPA medical director Andrew Vallence-Owen welcomed the policy shift:

“We are awaiting an announcement as to what we can bid for. We and our colleagues in the sector are very keen to bid for the work, whether through national contracts or local commissioning.”

He added: 'We are in the private sector; competition is what keeps us fit. Customers can walk if they don't like what we do. Most private hospitals are already doing a lot of work for the NHS, so why should [PCTs] not offer choice of another private hospital that has the capacity?'

The NHS is being abandoned to profit making from ill health.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Eminence Grise

Tireless eminence grise of the environmental movement in the Swindon area, Jean Saunders, must be fed up with the quality of photographs in the Advertiser. I thought it was high time to take a decent photo of her. This one caught her speaking at a meeting at the Steam Museum. {Click on the photo to enlarge}

Campaign to Save Saltway School

When I first visited Saltway school to meet some of the staff, I was astonished to think that anybody would propose closing this school. Its buildings and facilities are better than most. And I was impressed by the commitment of the staff. I wrote a letter on behalf of Swindon TUC to the Council challenging the rationale of the closure. Read it here. For more information visit Swindon TUC's web site at:

Swindon Trades Union Council is writing to you to protest at the proposed closure of Salt Way School, and the way in which the process has been conducted.

First the process.

Staff at the school received a letter from Simon Nowell, Head of Staffing and Curriculum, dated 18th April, indicating a lunch time meeting on April 20th. Mr Nowell described the purpose of the meeting as to “formally consult with members of staff and discuss the proposals for the future staffing requirements of the school”. Trades union were not informed of this meeting. Mr Nowell indicated that they would be informed and invited to attend “subsequent meetings”. How could it be a formal consultation meeting when the unions were neither informed nor invited?

Mr Nowell, obviously somewhat embarrassed, and guarding his back, apologised for the “short notice”, “but I myself was only asked to send this letter out at the end of last week”!

Understandably parents are very angry about the way the Council has dealt with the potential closure. They learned about the threat to the school in the local paper. Within two weeks of this disclosure, a recommendation to close Salt Way was made by the Council Cabinet. It can hardly be a surprise that parents believe the future consultation will be a formality with no prospect that they will be listened to.

In fact when the West Swindon consultation meetings took place from February of this year parents were led to believe that this was “the start of a process to provide high quality localised services for children and their communities and to invest in our schools”. Any closure/amalgamations would not take place for 18 months to 2 years. There would be lots of chances “to have your say”. Yet here we are with a proposal to close Salt Way in January 2005.

Of course, as soon as closure is mooted the chances are that parents will panic and try to move quickly so that their children are guaranteed a place as near to their home as possible. Kate Reynolds sent a letter to parents, dated April 14th, asking them to give an “early indication” of which school they would like their children to go to if Salt Way was closed. This was even before the Cabinet took the decision on April 19th to propose closure. This can hardly be read as anything else other than a scandalous attempt to encourage the parents to accept the closure as a fait accomplis.

Salt Way school OFSTED report

Why has the proposal to close Salt Way been made so hastily? It seems that some of the content of the OFSTED report has been picked up as a pretext. For instance, “the school does not provide value for money”; a projected deficit of £65,000 in 2005/06, which might rise to £287,000 by 2007/08; falling rolls; a high level of teaching vacancies are possible from September 2005.

However, if you read the OFSTED report you can see that there is much to be admired about the school. Firstly, it was not deemed to be a “failing” school. It was not put in special measures.

The report says that the school was not “effective enough”. It provides an “acceptable standard of education” but has “serious weaknesses”.

What are the strengths of the school?

The OFSTED report says that:

“Pupils feel safe and secure in school.”
“Pupils respond well to the school’s expectations and behave well.”
“Pupils are happy to come to school and keen to learn.”
“Behaviour is good.”
“…unauthorised absence is low. Most parents are conscientious in contacting the school when the children are ill. Pupils are punctual in the mornings and lessons start promptly.”
“The generously proportioned accommodation and grounds are well cared for and used.”
“Staff organise after school clubs and sport specialists make a good contribution to the provision. Activities are popular and well supported by pupils.”
“Pupils have good and trusting relationships with adults in the school, especially lunch time staff and teaching assistants.”
“Parents agree that children are happy and well cared for and they are happy with the school’s induction arrangements.
“Children’s attitude to school and work are good, and they behave well.”
“Good practice in the nursery in listening to others, taking turns and sharing resources prepared children well for the reception class where these skills are effectively developed further.”
Provision is described as good in the following areas - communication, language and literacy; in mathematical development; in knowledge and understanding of the world; in physical development; in creative development.

What are the weaknesses of the school?

Essentially, most of the problems relate to poor management.

“The governance of the school is unsatisfactory. The leadership of the head teacher is unsatisfactory…The governing body does not sufficiently hold the school to account. The head teacher does not communicate effectively with staff and parents.”

This has resulted in a high turnover of staff, and dissatisfaction amongst parents that the management fails to respond to their concerns. As a result “a significant proportion of parents have withdrawn their children.”

“Governors rely too much on the head teacher to inform them about the work of the school. They do not take an active enough role in evaluating its work or effectively challenging senior managers. Under the direction of the present chair person, and with the involvement of external support, shortcomings and priorities are improving but their role as the school’s critical friend is not robust enough.”

Where the learning of pupils in unsatisfactory this has generally been because of turnover of staff, and the difficulty of the school finding teachers to cover absences.

These are long standing problems which the LEA has done little to tackle.

Positive improvement

Despite the weaknesses which OFSTED listed even they indicated that improvements were being made.

“The green shoots of recovery are becoming evident. Following the recent intervention of the local education authority, a clear improvement plan is being implemented. New permanent teaching staff have brought fresh blood, enthusiasm and commitment to the school.”

In Maths they say pupils in Years 5 and 6 had made good progress “because of the high quality input of new staff”. In swimming “the new subject leader has made significant progress because, through her enterprise, enthusiasm and hard work, she has empowered colleagues.”

The problems in ICT which related to poor equipment and the delay of renewal, were being tackled.

“During recent years, the subject has lacked effective leadership and management at a senior level. In the absence of a subject leader, the head teacher and governing body delayed taking action to address shortcomings in resources.”

However, a new subject leader joined the school at the start of the school year.

“His leadership and management are effective; he has identified weaknesses and begun to address them. He is working well with the governor now responsible for this subject and they have made significant strides in preparing plans and auditing needs.”

From the foregoing it is clear that this is a good school but with significant problems related to its management. But they are not insuperable problems. Indeed to rip out the plant when there are “green shoots of recovery” might be deemed to be an act of vandalism.

Why close Salt Way?

The rationale for closure of Salt Way appears to be falling rolls. This seems to us to be a short sighted approach. As the NUT has pointed out, falling rolls can also mean smaller classes, improving the amount of time that teachers can spend with individual pupils.

Garry Perkins was quoted in the local paper as saying that the parents had “voted with their feet” by sending their children to Shaw Ridge and Brookfields.

“These two can deliver the education to the children of the area so we can remove one school and still deliver the education.”

In our view this effectively blames the parents for the situation when the real problem was the failure of the school and LEA to address the failure of management, which has created the conditions where parents have withdrawn their children.

It also seems to us a very odd situation that the decision on closure of a school takes place in a consultation which did not take account of all the primary schools in West Swindon, and gave no consideration to the secondary schools at all.

In another context (the potential development at Coate), Garry said that:

“Communities lose any sense of social cohesion if children have to travel to other areas to attend school.”

Perhaps this sentiment could be applied to the area surrounding Salt Way. You have admitted that there will be a problem finding places for all the children in West Swindon.

Many people are suspicious that the main attraction in closing Salt Way is the considerable plot of land on which it rests. Naturally, they are asking what you would do with this land if the school were closed. Their suspicions have been fuelled by the fact that a request under the Freedom of Information Act for Land Values of schools in West Swindon has been refused by the Council on the grounds of “commercial interests”. The Council’s Freedom of Information Officer responded to the request by writing that:

“The public interest does not favour disclosure as it is in the public interest to maximise the consideration received and there is no overriding public interest in the disclosure of the information.”

We’ll take that as you wanting to maximise your return on any land sales. But it is surely in the interest of parents in West Swindon to know whether you are selecting their school because it will maximise your income. Even if you do not disclose a figure you could, if you wanted to show that the selling of the land at Salt Way was not your motivation, provide a table of value, indicating the place of each school in it, without giving away the actual expected price. Why don’t you?

Garry was quoted in the local paper as saying that “we don’t intend to build on the whole site”, and that there is a possibility “it will be used for another educational establishment”. What sort of establishment would that be?

Having visited the school myself and met some of the staff, it is no exaggeration to say it is a marvellous school. The buildings and facilities are in excellent condition, well maintained. The staff I met are a great team of people, committed to what they do, enthusiastic, and as the OFSTED report indicates do a good job.

Closure would be a terrible waste of resources, both physical and human. £40,000 has just been spent on a new computer room. In addition there is a nursery on site, a scarce resource, and a staffed kitchen.

The parents and school have suggested to you that one consideration would be to develop Salt Way as an “extended school”, opening it to the local community. They have rightly said, in responding to the threat of closure that:

“…the Salt Way campus is one of the newest and best looked after in West Swindon and we may be able to use our unused classroom facilities to build an Extended School to provide additional benefits for the school and community and at the same time remove the issue of excess place.”

This surely makes sense. A school can be, and often is, a focus for a local community.

If the sole criterion is falling rolls, then you can easily have a situation where decisions of an LEA are based on chasing the population. But demographic changes usually mean that the numbers of school age children rise again. As one parent suggested in the local paper, it would be a crazy situation if in the future, after closing Salt Way you found you had to build another school to cope with increased numbers.

We have also been told that the Council can no longer justify “throwing cash at schools that are not full”. However, this is not a production line we are talking about here. You are not planning how many widgets to produce according to your analysis of market conditions.

What about the social context?

The Council appears to have taken no account of the social context of the school. With 31% of children qualifying for free school meals (the highest figure in Swindon), it is clear that the parents of many of the children are poor, and they do not necessarily have transport. The ‘bad’ reputation of the school appears to be associated with the social housing within close proximity.

It has already become clear that there is no guarantee of alternative places for all the children in West Swindon. Not every parent has a car, and in any case, given the lip service often paid to ‘sustainable development’ should we be taking a decision which will add car journeys to our already heavily laden roads?

Then there is the question of the disruption of the education of the pupils at a school where they are happy, according to OFSTED. To propose to close the school in the middle of the school year seems to us to be a thoughtless decision which takes no account of the impact this would have on the pupils. The OFSTED tells of the disruption to the education of many pupils as a result of teacher turnover and problems with arranging teacher cover for absence. How much greater will that be when children are forced to move to another school? Bear in mind that 27% of the pupils have special educational needs. Social services will probably have to pick up some of the emotional and behavioural consequences.

We will, of course, have the opportunity to raise formal objections should you press ahead with the proposed closure. However, we would like at the earliest opportunity, to meet with you to discuss the issues at hand.

Yours sincerely

Martin Wicks

Secretary, Swindon TUC

Sunday, August 07, 2005

On the Wrong Side of the Road

In 2002 I travelled to Israel, a guest of the Workers Advice Centres. They took me around the country. It was a revelation. Read the report here. Visit the WAC website at:

It was my first trip to Israel. I’ve read widely on the conflict and know a fair amount about it, but to see the reality before your eyes, gives you a much more graphic sense of the political, social and economic situation than just reading from the printed page. In the current situation I would have to confess to a little apprehension going there. You would have to be naïve or stupid not to feel this.

The first thing to strike me, riding on the train from Tel Aviv to Haifa was the militarization of Israeli society. Everywhere men and women in uniform, some with heavy weapons nonchalantly slung across the shoulder (hopefully with the safety catch on). Israel is a paranoid society in which “security” is a big industry. There are “guards” everywhere, many of them civilian, who check your bags when you enter a railway station, or public buildings or even gardens. Indeed you can imagine an economic crisis if peace reigned and all these people were put out of work.

I was the guest of the Workers Advice Centres (WAC), which is attempting to build a new trade union, of which I will speak later. I visited Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jaffa, Madj El Krum, and Nazareth.

On the wrong side of the road

For me, the oppressive reality of Israel society was reflected in the situation of Madj al-Krum, an Arab village, really a small town now, with a population of 11,500. It sits on the slopes of a valley along which there are spread five Arab villages. Through the floor of the valley runs a road which splits it in half. On the other side, on a higher site, lies the city of Carmiel, a Jewish city built on confiscated Arab land. In this valley there are two communities, as different as chalk and cheese. On the Carmiel side is wealth and opulence, covered with greenery. There is no shortage of water here. On the other side you see an arid picture, a neglected community, with houses rising on the craggy, barren slopes. There is a water shortage, not because of any technical difficulties but because these people are Arabs. The flowers of Carmiel are treated better than the Arabs on the other side of the valley. Even though they are Israeli citizens they are denied the same rights as Jewish citizens and they are denied the resources which the latter have.

The richness of Carmiel looks down on the other side of the valley seemingly mocking the Arabs and reminding them of their true place in Israeli society – at its very bottom. But even this is not enough. There are some Arab houses on the wrong side of the road further down the valley. Carmiel wants them to cross the road to where they are supposed to belong. They want to develop the ‘Jewish’ side but these Arabs are in the way. They have bought out some and they are seeking to pressure the rest to move from homes in which they have lived for years. No Arabs can live in Carmiel. They must cross the road to where they belong! Samia Khatib, a woman activist in Majd al-Krum, described the situation to me as “third world over here, first world over there”.

A suburb of Tel Aviv

This is the picture of Israeli society, a colonialist and deeply racist society. And it is reflected elsewhere, in different ways. I was shown around Jaffa, originally an Arab city (with a small Jewish population), by Asma Agbaria, a young Israeli Arab woman, who is the chair-person of WAC. Jaffa is just outside Tel Aviv. As Tel Aviv expands, Jaffa is needed for housing for Jews and the town is being ‘developed’ with luxury apartments. In the shadow of one big block I saw a couple of rough and poor one story houses of bloody minded Jaffan Arabs who will not move, imagining that they have the right to remain in their homes in their current location. So as you walk around Jaffa, a neglected city, you see islands of opulence, as if you have a ‘first world’ city co-existing with a ‘third world’ city in some random arrangement, which makes a mockery of the word planning.

Jaffa is an old port which has been left to rot. In the harbour is a fishing fleet which Asma told me supports 300 families. Once again these people are in the wrong place. They want to move the fishing fleet away and re-develop the harbour as a marina for rich Israelis to use. Since this is capitalism, they will, of course, take the money of a few rich Arabs as well, just to show there are no hard feelings. The fishing fleet might have to travel farther for their fish, but no matter. Such is the path of progress in Israel.

Whilst the Arabs suffer national oppression in Israel there is also a class division which cuts across the communities. The Arab leaders of the council in Jaffa, associated with the Israeli Labour Party, have gone along with the plan to ‘re-develop’ Jaffa. Whilst this will bring plenty of money into the town, it is unlikely that many Arabs will see much of it. In every country where there is national oppression, there are always some members of an oppressed minority, who will make their peace with the ruling power in order to further their own interests at the expense of the majority of the population from which they spring (just as we have seen in South Africa with the enrichment of a small section of black people whilst the majority remain in their shanty towns).


I visited Nazareth where WAC has an office. It is the only predominantly Arab city in Israel. However, it has suffered the consequences of a new Jewish town, Upper Nazareth (or Nazareth Illit), built near-by, overlooking it (as is the custom), from a hill-top, like a fortress. I was shown around Nazareth by two activists of the WAC centre in the town, Khitam Na’amneh and Manal Jabour. They told me it used to have a thriving market. But since the building of Upper Nazareth and the arrival of hyper-markets and the like, it has declined. When I visited it, the old town centre area, where the market was based, was lifeless. There is a shortage of housing in Nazareth, so, ironically, Arabs have started moving to Upper Nazareth, or at least those who can afford it. Whilst there was initially tension, it has at least shown that Arabs and Jews can live together. In a civilised society you are more concerned with whether your neighbour has noisy children, or plays loud music late at night, rather than the colour of their skin or their nationality.


The WAC held a May Day event in Haifa. WAC was originally an information centre which also provided legal assistance for Arab workers. It has carried out important campaigns which relate to the interests of the oppressed Arab Israelis (nearly 20% of the population). For instance it managed to secure for unemployed people in annexed East Jerusalem their benefits after the authorities closed down the benefit office. It also continues to provide legal assistance for individual workers.

After a number of years of this activity it decided to try to organise a new trade union. Histadrut is the internationally recognised ‘trade union’, yet it is not a real trade union, as an organiser of workers independent of the employers. Indeed Histadrut, before the wave of privatisations, was a major employer itself. Most of the members of Histadrut were only members because it controlled the health system, and membership dues were taken out of their contribution. It faced a big crisis when all its companies were privatised and as a result it lost most of its membership.

Histadrut originated as a Zionist labour organisation whose role was to create jobs for Jews in Palestine. Until 1956 it did not allow Arabs to join, and even since it has done little for them. When the government decided to introduce foreign labour Histadrut agreed that they could be employed at lower rates than Israeli workers.

WAC has concentrated its efforts on organising Arab workers, though not exclusively (it was involved in a campaign in a Heineken Factory which involved both Arab and Jewish workers). Arab workers face a job apartheid, mostly confined to construction and labouring jobs, as well as service sector jobs. Their official unemployment rate is 20% but is undoubtedly higher. I sat in on a meeting with some local people who WAC were trying to persuade to take on some building jobs that they had negotiated with the employers. Asked whether they had any experience of this work, one young man said: “Every Arab knows this work.” They wondered whether these were jobs worth taking because of their experience of being turfed out of jobs which they thought were permanent but had proved to be temporary.

At the time of the first Intifada, when the borders with the West Bank were closed, the workers who crossed into Israel for their work could no longer do so. This created a shortage of labour which led the government to look to introduce foreign labour. Many of these have virtually worked under slave labour conditions earning wages below the minimum level for Israeli workers. This has driven up the levels of unemployment of Arab workers and adds to the discrimination they face.

WAC has taken up a campaign for jobs for Arab workers in the building industry. The employers say they cannot get any. There are the usual myths about Arab workers being lazy, not wanting to work and so on. But the bottom line is the fact that the employers prefer to employ imported labour because it is cheaper and they are more quiescent because they do not want to lose their jobs. A couple of companies said they would take local Arab workers if they could find them, so WAC has put this to the test.

The building employers federation is currently taking the government to court since it reduced the number of foreign labourers allowed in the country. They want more of them.

Whilst the work of WAC is on a small scale (it has secured around 100 jobs, and it has less than 500 members) it is nonetheless politically important since nobody else is attempting to organise Arab workers. At the May Day event in Haifa most of the audience was Arab citizens of Israel. Coaches travelled from around the country, including East Jerusalem annexed by Israel soon after it was occupied in 1967.

The national organiser of WAC is Assaf Adiv an Israeli Jew who speaks fluent Arabic. He gave the main address of the meeting about the campaign for jobs.

Obviously the Israeli regime is not enthusiastic about its Arab population being organised in an independent union. WAC was registered with the Registrar of Non-Profit Associations only after a 2 year struggle, against the resistance of the Registrar. Since then the Registrar has once again raised questions about their registration though without definite charges which they can answer. WAC wrote to the International Labour Organisation asking them to intercede on their behalf, with the Israeli authorities. Unfortunately the ILO responded that WAC was not “a workers organisation”, therefore, they could not help. This was disingenuous. Whilst it originated as what might be described as an ‘advocacy’ organisation it took the decision in 1998 to launch a new trade union association (see A New Trade Union Association – Why?).

Swindon Trades Union Council wrote in support of WAC to the ILO. They responded that if they had evidence that ‘the situation’ had changed then they would reconsider their decision. Whether or not they do not want to upset the Histadrut is a matter of conjecture. In any case the work of WAC in relation to the building industry shows that it is building a trade union organisation, if anybody doubted it. We would ask labour movement organisations to write to the Israeli Registrar protesting at his harassment of WAC, and calling on the ILO to intercede on their behalf (see Israel’s Registrar of NPA’s (Non-Profit Associations) renews his witch-hunt against WAC).


The organisation which took the WAC initiative is the ODA (Organisation for Democratic Action), a Marxist organisation. The implication of the Registrar is that WAC is a front for the ODA. This is not the case. The overwhelming majority of its members are not in the ODA. Indeed through WAC it is doing work for which there is no easy political return. They are organising for the benefit of the workers, irrespective of their political views.

I met members of the ODA for discussion. Four of its leading members were imprisoned in 1988-90 for security offences as they took part in the Palestinian struggle. The ODA has amongst its members both Jews and Israeli Arabs. The organisation decided that in the light of the terrible oppression which Israeli Arabs face that work in these communities was essential. The Israeli left has tended to be confined to the Jewish communities. Members of the ODA have to take Arabic classes, and many of them are now bi-lingual. They produce a monthly Arabic publication ‘Al Sabr’.

The ODA has genuine roots in this the most oppressed community. For some years now it has been organising activities which might, in England, appear to be social work, but in the context of Israel and the many faceted discrimination against the Arab community, takes on a political content. They organised, for instance, a Mothers School in Madj Al-Krum, designed to help women to develop the skills to teach their children. Arab schools are not only grossly under funded compared to Jewish ones, but the curriculum has tended to reflect the domination of Israeli Jews, to the neglect of the experience of Arab children. As a result Arab children are ‘under-achievers’. Jewish ODA members also help with the education of children in a way which cuts across the Zionist propaganda which they are supposed to swallow.

They are also involved in a non-profit organisation, Sindyanna, which produced olive oil and olive oil soap from a small workshop in Majd al-Krum, employing local people. (see The Politics of Live Oil)

The ODA also produced a well respected English language magazine, Challenge (6 times a year) and a quarterly Hebrew publication, Etgar. You can examine the organisation’s politics by way of a number of links below.

Challenge magazine, in its recent issue (May-June 2002) has published an in depth article on Israel’s war on the Palestinian Authority. This expresses the view that the war was aimed at transforming the West Bank and Gaza into a Protectorate under US sponsorship. (See From Statelet to Protectorate)


Israeli society’s crisis has been deepened by the latest incursions into the West Bank. A statement by 52 young people refusing to participate in the oppression of the Palestinian people marked the first collective refusal to serve for some years. It was followed by a statement of over 50 army reservists that they would not serve in the occupied territories in a “war for the settlements”. Military service is compulsory for Israeli Jews, save for the ultra-orthodox. It is no easy thing to refuse in a war zone in which the propaganda of the Israeli war machine presents this service as defending “Israeli democracy”.

I met with a number of young people, from 16 to 18, involved in the Forum in Support of Conscientious Objectors. They were somewhat shy with somebody who had travelled from abroad to meet them. However, once they opened up, the discussion showed that unlike the reservists they were asking questions about the very foundations of Israeli society. They told me about the racist attitude of many of their fellow school/college students, most of whom never come into contact with Arabs, except when they go to an Arab village to buy some cheap goods at a market, or maybe one of them serves them. “They don’t deserve water and electricity,” was a comment which summed this attitude up. They feared that change would be very slow to come because of what they considered to be the brainwashing of young Israeli Jews.

Naomi commented that “instead of the army being a tool in the hands of the country, the country was a tool in the hands of the army”.

Whilst their views on a solution were different they all agreed that the starting point was Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories. They also believed that Arab Israelis should be full citizens, with all the rights that Jews have.

My impression was that these young people tend to feel somewhat isolated, pointing to the fact that there are few people in their classes who have taken their stance. There is a lot of anger against them from their fellow students. But they are taking a stance which they feel they are morally obliged to take, whatever the consequences. Although many of them most of them have parents who are sympathetic, their decision, nevertheless has the potential to turn them into social outcasts. Yet they represent a trend in Israeli society which runs far deeper than might first appear. It struck me that these young people do not realise how important they are. They deserve the support of the international labour movement to give them a sense that there is an international movement which is with them, recognising the courage of their stand against the injustice and racism which is a cancer in Israeli society. In particular, those who suffer imprisonment as a result of their refusal should receive letters which show that there is an international movement growing which supports their stand.

At the time of writing two members of the Forum, Yigal Rosenberg and Yair Hilou, have been given their fourth and fifth terms of imprisonment. Send letters of support to them via the Forum (e-mail :

Video 48

I met Nir Nader and Shiri Wilk who are involved in the group Video 48. They produced a documentary, “Not in my Garden”, which tells the story of confiscation of Arab land to facilitate the expansion of the Jewish city of Carmiel. It gives a picture of Israel in miniature, showing the oppression and discrimination which the Arab citizens face (see “Not in my Garden”, in their Garden).

Nir spent a month in prison in the 1980s for refusing to serve in the Israeli army. Afterwards he built up a successful photographic business with a friend. As the political situation deteriorated, he began to wonder what he was doing with his life. He threw it all in to devote his time to Video 48. Likewise Shiri, who is a trained video photographer, could have concentrated on a lucrative career, but decided to use her talents for the struggle.

They are not just making videos, they are training young people to use the medium. Shiri says: “…our interest at Video '48 is not just in making documentaries. We also want to communicate the know-how. We want to start workshops, so people can learn this new technique for making themselves heard.”

They are now involved in producing a video on the work of WAC and discrimination in the job market against Arab Israelis, which should be available this autumn.

The bombings

The level of security in Israel is, of course, related to the suicide bombings. I suggested to Roni, the Editor of Challenge, that not that many people were touched by these events. She said no. “It’s not comparable with, say the IRA bombings in Britain. Israel is a small country and people are touched directly or indirectly.” Even opponents of the Israeli state have to think twice about where they go. Roni for instance, does not visit cafes. Her daughter had a well paid job in a café in Tel Aviv. It was next door to a café where there was a bombing. She was persuaded to give up the job.

The ODA is opposed to these bombings, which glorify death and “martyrdom”. But it opposes them without in any way adapting to the pressure of ‘public opinion’ which sees Israeli state violence as a response to this violence. It unequivocally condemns the Israeli occupation as the source of the violence. However, it views the suicide bombings as a waste of life, on all sides. They serve to provide an alibi for the state oppression of Israel and tend to drive Israelis into the arms of a reactionary government. Moreover, they are indiscriminate. They kill supporters and opponents of the Israeli regime alike, as well as Arab Israeli citizens.

A ‘Jewish state’

In the British media we hear a great deal about the plight of Palestinians in the occupied territories, but little about their lives in Israel. From 1948 until 1966 Arab Israeli citizens lived under military rule. They are treated as enemies. They are not equal citizens. The Jewish Land Fund owns 93% of the land, none of which they can own because they are not Jews. Recently there was reported in the Guardian the case of an Arab Israeli nurse who has been struggling for 7 years to live in a town deemed to be Jewish. He took his case to the High Court and won. Yet two years later he has still not been able to move there. This is one of the consequences of a state defined according to ethnicity. Discrimination against Arabs is the natural consequence of a ‘Jewish state’.

My trip to Israel gave a graphic and indelible impression of the reality of ‘the state of the Jews’ as experienced by the 20% of the population which is Arab/Palestinian. Racism and discrimination is a consequence of such a state. The fact of the Holocaust does not justify the dispossession and oppression of another people. But, of course, the conflict is not one of Jews versus Arabs. The numbers of Jewish opponents of the Israeli state is growing, as shown by the brave stand of the young refusers and the refusal of the reservists to serve in the occupied territories. It was inspiring to see Jews and Arabs working together in WAC and the ODA, as equals in their joint struggle against the Zionist state, giving us a glimpse of a possible future.

Below we reproduce material from WAC and from the English language magazine Challenge, published by the ODA. We list a number of web sites and links so that the reader can look at other material.

Web Sites

You can contact the Forum in Support of Conscientious Objectors at:

Suggested Reading
A New Trade Union Association – Why?
Israel’s Registrar of NPA’s (Non-Profit Associations) renews his witch-hunt against WAC.
WAC’s Campaign
By Assaf Adiv
The Local Arab Worker in the era of Globalisation
Stephen Langfur
A round table discussion with members of the new film group Video 48
“Not in my Garden” in their garden.
Nir Nader
The Politics of Olive Oil
Hadas Lahav
The Hidden Economic Logic of Oslo
Roni Ben Efrat
The Two State Solution Has Become an Impossibility
Yacov Ben Efrat
Afghan Boomerang: America’s nurture of militant Islam and the miscalculations of Osama Bin Laden
By Yacov Ben Efrat
From Statelet to Protectorate
By Yacov Ben Efrat
The Palestinian Question and the Socialist Alternative

Other Suggested sites
Adalah – The Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights
The Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories
Democracy and Workers Rights Centre, Ramallah
Daily news from Israel in English
Between the Lines – opponents of the Oslo agreement
Israeli Indymedia site
US based Middle East Research & Information Project

Soweto Kinch

Soweto Kinch, the award winning alto saxophone play, in Swindon at the Old Town Bowl, with Jazz Jamaica.

Yes, there is culture in Swindon. Soweto was born in Birmingham. He won a prize for best newcomer at the Montreaux Jazz festival. He is linked to the Dune Records lable, run by Bass player Gary Crosby.
Visit their web site at
{Click on the photo to enlarge it}

A strange fish

What has this Heron caught?

Never leave your camera at home. You never know what you might see. On this occasion I was not going to bother to take the camera with me, but had second thoughts.
This is a heron near to Shaftesbury Rd lakes. Normally they catch fish, but a dinner's a dinner for all that (as Robbie Burns might have said). The forlorn looking animal is a water vole caught swimming in the stream which runs out of the lake. Again a qhick photo was necessary. This was the third one fired off, as the Heron didn't have a good hold on the catch, dropped it on the floor and picked it up like this!

A visitor to the garden

Foxes in the town are now commonplace. But they don't usually pose for the camera
I was upstairs when I heard a call from my partner in the garden. Instinctively picking my camera up I dashed downstairs and fired off two quick shots. The fox sat that looking at us, had seconds thoughts and nonchalantly wandered off. What are those humans doing in my garden?
{Click on the photo to enlarge it}

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Chavez Ravine

Ry Cooder is best known as the producer of the Buena Vista Social Club album, the man responsible for the international exposure of the group of brilliant though forgotten Cuban musicians at the heart of the album and the film. For the best part of the last 20 years he has earned his bread by writing music for films such as Paris, Texas, The Long Riders, Alamo Bay and many more. He hated the record and touring routine, giving up doing ‘solo’ albums in 1988.

Younger people may not be aware of his rich body of work which stretches back to the 1960s (see the link below for his discography.) His latest project - Chavez Ravine - is a much praised piece of work which tells the story of the destruction of a Los Angeles neighbourhood by use of a kind of musical collage. It combines music from the period with new material written by Cooder, his percussionist son Joachim, and Latino writers who hail from the area.

Chavez Ravine took its name from Julian Chavez, one of the first LA county supervisors who bought the land in 1840. It was a "self-sufficient and tight-knit community, a rare example of small town life in a large urban metropolis." The area became a multicultural community: Mexican American, but with Chinese American, Russian and Jewish residents.

In 1946 the City of LA Planning Commission developed a housing plan for supposedly "blighted areas" such as Chavez Ravine. In 1950 the Housing Authority told the residents that their land would be purchased and used for public housing. People to be displaced were promised first refusal on housing in the planned Elysian Park Heights. Some of the residents resisted the order to move, whilst others took the money and left. Most of them received insubstantial or no compensation for their homes and property.

Using the power of "eminent domain", which permitted the government to enforce purchase of private property from individuals for projects deemed to be for the "public good", the City of LA bought up the land and leveled most the buildings.
However, the public housing would never be built. It was the subject of a decade long political and legal battle. Whilst supporters of the public housing scheme considered it an opportunity to provide improved services for poor Angelenos, opponents of the plan, including our old friend corporate America, utilised the atmosphere of the McCarthy era to denounce the very idea as a 'socialist plot'.

In 1952 Frank Wilkinson, assistant director of the LA County Housing Authority, one of the main proponents of the Elysian Heights plan, was called before the Un-American Activities Committee. Refusing to answer questions about organisations he had been a member of or known, he was sacked from his job and imprisoned for a year. Others suffered a similar fate.
The election of new Mayor Poulson in 1953 meant the project's days were numbered. He ran for office with opposition to public housing projects as a central plank of his 'programme'; a scandalous example of "un-American" spending. When elected, Poulson was able to buy back the Chavez Ravine land from the federal government at a greatly reduced cost, with the stipulation that it would be used for a "public purpose". This "public purpose" proved to be the building of a new LA Dodgers baseball stadium.

As Frank Wilkinson explained, "We'd spent millions of dollars getting ready for it, and the Dodgers picked it up just for a fraction of that. It was a tragedy for the people, and from the County it was the most hypocritical thing that could possibly happen."

There was eventually a referendum on the issue which the owners of the Dodgers won by a scant 3%. That great American hero Ronald Reagan made one of his off-screen appearances denouncing the lefty "baseball haters" who opposed the Dodgers stadium. After various legal challenges the last remaining residents were dragged away (see picture) and the stadium was built and opened in 1962.
Cooder's CD was inspired by the story of this injustice as told in two books. One was a book of photos by Don Normack, Chavez Ravine 1949: A Los Angeles Story”. Normack, fascinated by a visit to Chavez Ravine in 1949, spent a year taking pictures of the local community. At the time, of course, he did not know that he was recording the last days of this community.
The second book was by UCLA Professor Dana Cuff: “The Provisional City: Los Angeles Stories of Architecture and Urbanism. Frank Wilkinson, now in his nineties, is one of the characters in her book, and Cooder contacted him after meeting Cuff. His recorded voice appears on ‘Don’t call me Red”.
Three years ago Non Normack asked Cooder to provide music for a short film of the photographer’s reunion with families from La Loma, Bishop and Palo Verde, the three neighbourhoods of Chavez Ravine. The project originated out of this.

Cooder, who grew up in middle class Santa Monica remembers reading stories when he was child and the comments of his parents who raged against the injustice.

"Occasionally there would be photographs of some poor Mexican family from the ravine watching a bulldozer tear up their little house while being harassed by the LAPD or lectured by some city politician."

It set the post-war trend. LA was "paved over, mailed up, high rised, and urban renewed, as fortunes were made, power was concentrated, and everything got faster and bigger" in the words of Cooder. The tearing down of older areas of LA is something which rankled. “When they tore down Bunker Hill, I was crushed. I still am. I still get mad.” He wanted to bring to light the injustice of Chavez Ravine.

As with the Buena Vista Social Club, Cooder has used musicians originating from the area, allowing them to tell their story. Don Tosti and Lalo Guerrero who appear on the CD were two major figures in Chicano music of the period. Sadly, these two died before the release of the recording. The CD combines songs from the period with new material written by Cooder and these musicians. Willie Garcia, a singer from early 1960’s East LA band, the Three Midnighters, co-wrote some the songs. Chavez Ravine is their story so they were obviously keen to tell it.

Ry Cooder has never been one to stick to musical categories. His playing and writing have always to varying degrees combined elements of American folk music, with blues, jazz, rock and Latino music. He has been a unique interpreter of traditional music who has long enjoyed working with diverse musicians from different disciplines and nationalities. Cooder's interest in Latin music predated Beuna Vista. One of his long time collaborators has been 'Tex Mex' accordionist Flaco Jiminez.

Whilst this CD centres on the Latin music of the Mexican-American community which was at the heart of Chavez Ravine, he writes the first of his own material for a long time and draws on the support of Jazz musicians such as pianists Chuco Valdes (from Cuba) and Jacky Terrasson. As usual he gives old and new music his own stamp.

The song "Don't' Call me Red" tells Frank Wilkinson's story, including some anti-communist propaganda in the form of a recording of the well know programme, Dragnet. In real life and on record Wilkinson was pleased to have "outlived those bastards all"; the bastards including Edgar J. Hoover. Wilkinson ended up working as a janitor in Pasadena.
Onda Callejera tells the story of a saturday night in 1943 when 300 sailors managed to find themselves 100 taxis (must have been just cruising along) and have an outing beating up ‘pachuchos’ – smart dressing Mexican Americans. This was known as the ‘Zoot Suit Riots’. In fact it was a racist and premeditated attack.
Some listeners might be irritated by the UFO pilot warning the locals about the gringos coming to take their homes from them. However, there was a UFO mania in California in the period, probably associated the anti-communist hysteria of the time. Those Reds could come at you from anywhere!
‘It’s Just Work for me’ is the voice of the working stiff who was just doing his job knocking down the houses.
‘In my Town’ gives voice to the ruling elite of LA helping big business to make a fortune at the expense of the residents of Chavez Ravine and others who would not be allowed to stand in the way of what in those days was called ‘progress’.

There is, of course, a Chavez Ravine in every town where 'development' has been an excuse for big business making money at the expense of the local population and the environment. In Los Angeles the car became king and choking smog was the result, beginning in 1955. Mike Davis, who Cooder consulted in the course of preparing the album, has written some marvelous books (City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear) about how the environment has been butchered by 'development' US style.

Former residents of Chavez Ravine have formed a group call Los Desterrados, the Uprooted, who meets each year to picnic at Elysian Park, the playground of their childhood.
Ry Cooder has produced a marvelous CD, to these ears at least, which is worth a listen in its own right. But it tells a story which has been repeated across the globe as the US model of ‘development’ has spread like a deadly virus.

You can hear four of the tracks on the Nonesuch Website at:

For those who listen to it and like it, if you haven't heard anything of Ry Cooder's pre-Buena Vista work, you would do well to seek out his earlier work.
Other interesting links
See a photo album of Don Normack's photos of Chavez Ravine - with music as well!
Chavez Ravine: a Los Angelese story
Culture Clash a 'Chicano performance troupe' put on a musical play about Chavez Ravine in 2003 in Los Angeles. According to Culture Clash member Herbert Siquenza, although the battle for Chavez Ravine was lost, helped to create "a culture of resistance, the beginnings of a civil rights movement, of Chicano activism.",,269151,00.html
Guardian interview with Ry Cooder on the Buena Vista Social Club,,893994,00.html
Cooder's last visit to Havana?,,999553,00.html
Ry Cooder speaking about Compay Segundo
Check out Ry Cooder's discography

Martin Wicks

Friday, August 05, 2005


It’s Saturday night. I’ve just finished John Grisham’s “The Last Juror”, set in 1960’s and 1970’s Mississippi. Looking for something different to listen to, I come across a CD from the period by Max Roach, the Jazz drummer. Roach was one of those who drove the bebop revolution in the late1940’s. Instead of killing himself with heroin he was a prominent participant in the civil rights movement, writing the famous ‘We Insist! Freedom Now Suite’. There’s a track on this 1961 recording called Mendacity, with lyrics sung by Roach’s wife Abbey Lincoln. Its first verse runs:

Mendacity, mendacity, it makes the world go round.
A politician makes a speech and never hears the sound.
The campaign trail winds on and on in towns from coast to coast.
The winner ain’t the one who’s straight, but he who lies the most.

Listening to it brought to mind Blair’s love affair with America’s myths about itself. You can understand admiration of some things American (the tremendous history of struggle by US workers, the civil rights movement, Jazz, Arthur Miller, Joni Mitchell, Steve Earle). However, Blair actually seems to admire all that is worst about the USA and its political system. Does he not know that more than 40 million people have no health insurance, that more than 2 million people are incarcerated in prison, the majority of them Afro-Americans? Less than 40 years ago people were being killed for fighting for democratic rights in a system which masqueraded as a democracy.

Roach’s lyric continues:

Yes voting rights in this fair land we know are not denied.
But if I tried in certain states, from tree tops I’d be tied.
Mendacity, mendacity, it seems its everywhere.

It was only in 1964 that civil rights legislation was introduced giving black American’s formal equality: the real thing was another matter. Yet when Blair makes speeches about “the values we share”, it is difficult to believe he has ever read a history book on the USA. Can he be so ignorant? Does he really believe that Bush is a supporter of “freedom”? That American “democracy” dates back to the revolution against the British? “All men are equal” said the founders of the US constitution, but slaves were not counted as men, of course.

One of the paradoxes of the USA is that although separation of religion and the state is inscribed in the constitution many more people consider themselves to be Christians than in most European countries. But historically it was a religion which considered Native Americans and Afro-Americans as sub-human. The real American holy trinity comprised the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, and the apartheid system which was introduced after the slaves were declared to be free. Abraham Lincoln who ‘freed the slaves’, according to US myth, actually said that if he had to free the slaves to win the civil war, he would do it, but if he had to keep slavery to win, he would do that.

America is a country whose riches are the product of mass murder and oppression, resting on a mountain of hypocrisy and lies. Mendacity. The reality is as much the inverse of the propaganda as it is possible to be. Whereas British imperialism had a more genteel ‘civilising mission’ combined with occasional blood-letting when the ‘natives’ needed to be taught a lesson, the rising US imperialism simply wiped out the native Americans, driving them off the land. Apparently, God didn’t mind them killing the ‘savages’. Their Christianity accommodated their rapacious acquisition of land and its resources.

Likewise many Americans in the South could combine their weekly visit to the church with donning the garb of the Klu Klux Klan, and burning out blacks or hanging them from trees. Has Blair not listened to Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit”? The racism in the North was more genteel but none the less real, as shown in the film Far from Heaven where the central character feels the outrage of her friends at the mere suggestion of a relationship with a black man, even though none was taking place.

When American troops came to Britain after Pearl Harbour, many of the locals were shocked by the segregated army and the way that black troops were treated by the whites. Neville Shute’s book, “The Chequer Board” tells the story of the barbarism of this segregation, and British people who did not accept this inhumanity. And the war-time experience of black US troops was a salutary one. How could they fight a war for “freedom” and return to Jim Crow? In his Book “What Now?” Walter Moseley recounts his father telling him that it was only when German troops were trying to kill him that he realised he was an American! Like many southern Blacks he left the south to find work and escape Jim Crow.

Perhaps if Blair had read any Arthur Miller, Bush’s witch-hunting talk of “you are with us, or you are with the evil-doers”, might have called to mind the words of the witch-hunting Judge Danforth in the Crucible:

“But you must understand, sir that a person is either with this court or he shall be counted against it, there be no road in between.”

And woe betide anybody not ‘with us’.

Blair has supported the new McCarthyism which Bush has instituted with his Homeland Security Act and the imprisonment of foreign nationals, many of whom were kidnapped, and then deliberately incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay (illegally occupied Cuban territory) in order to avoid constraints imposed by the US constitution. Nor has his government challenged the US policy of sending prisoners to other countries where they are tortured by other governments to extract information for the Americans. Indeed Home Secretary Jack Straw indicated that the government would use the ‘information’ extracted from such torture, without, of course, supporting such methods. This is a government which allowed British citizens to be illegally held without trial for 3 years.

Dave Douglas, a US trumpeter, released a CD, “Strange Liberation”. The title was taken from the words of Martin Luther King in relation to Vietnam. “The Vietnamese must look upon us as strange liberators.” Douglas was touching on the parallel with Iraq today. Bush and Blair are indeed strange liberators. Neither freedom nor democracy can be given to a people, they must win it themselves.

Blair has sought to emulate the conditions which operate in the US economy. The great ‘success’ of its economy is something which Blair and Brown have long spoken of emulating. But behind the propaganda lies an industrial dictatorship far worse even than the one which was gradually introduced here in the Thatcher years. The growth of fabulous riches at the top of US society has been at the expense of the majority of the population. John Gray, writing in False Dawn informs that:

“Declining incomes in America affect the working majority, especially the majority of poor people who are in work. The US is the only advanced society in which productivity has been steadily rising over the past two decades while the incomes of the majority – 8 out of 10 – have stagnated or fallen. Such a growth in economic inequality is historically unprecedented.”

Some get the gravy
Some get the gristle
Some get the marrow bone
Some get nothing
Though there’s plenty to spare
(Joni Mitchell)

The job creation which New Labour’s ideologues point to has been in jobs with poverty wages. It is called the ‘Walmartisation’ of the economy in the USA: combining poverty wages with a dictatorial regime, and a pathological hatred of unions. Walmart, of course, has destroyed hundreds of local communities, driving small stores out of business, destroying town centres.

The Americanisation of British politics is something which Blair and his ideological guides like Peter Mandelson and the SDP ‘intellectuals’ like Roger Liddle consciously sought to introduce. It is based on the concept of the voter as a consumer, with a candidate sold like a bar of soap. It is all froth and no substance. It is the product of what prominent Green Party member Peter Camejo has called the ‘two party dictatorship’. It is the political equivalent of the contest between the big US brands, fighting to increase their share in the market place. It is profoundly undemocratic, designed to block the emergence of another political force, lacking the finances to challenge the two party advertising juggernaut.

Any radical force which threatens the two party system is subject to every conceivable attempt to stop its growth. The Democratic Party is currently involved in an attempt to subvert the Green Party in the USA, funding forces within it which are abandoning the struggle for a break with the two party system. “There is no alternative” to the Democrats, is the message. Ralph Nader was demonized as the man responsible for the election of Bush, though the Democrats failed to explain how they could be beaten by an imbecile.

Likewise in Britain, we are told there is ‘no alternative’ to New Labour. But it is the undemocratic first past the post electoral system which blocks the emergence of organisations to the left of New Labour. Many sections of the electorate are not represented in Parliament. Yet with the introduction of an element of proportional representation, as has been introduced in Scotland and Wales, we have seen the emergence of the Scottish Socialist Party and Forward Wales.

The party which was going to ‘transform’ politics has failed to ask why the last general election produced the lowest electoral turn-out for nearly 100 years. It was not disinterest, but the (correct) perception that people were not being offered alternatives. Even with the introduction of the unrestricted right to a postal vote, the turn out only increased by 2%.

Ideologically there is very little difference between the major parties. And no amount of mendacity by trade union leaders who portray the Blair government in glowing terms, can disguise the reality. For instance the GMB’s Debbie Coulter announced that the Blair government was the only one which was ‘protecting’ Education and Health, at the very time when news emerged that the government was abandoning the 8% target for private companies carrying out elective surgery. They can now have a crack at 100%.

When French President Chirac complains of the ‘anglo-saxon’ model threatening Europe, he misses the point. Blair is no innovator. He has swallowed the American model of the world. Blair is a follower not an equal partner with “the only super-power in the world”. He has given their imperial ambitions cover. There could have been no pretense of a “coalition of the willing” without British support.

The US is known for its cult of success. After all, the American Dream paints a picture that anybody can ‘succeed’ if only they have the will to do so. Individuals can, of course. But the fact that Colin Powell climbed up the ladder does not change the reality that Afro-Americans, as a whole, are at the bottom of the social heap, that they live in geographical ghettos and so on.

Alan Milburn has expressed the New Labour equivalent of this cult of ‘success’. We are, he said, “a party of aspiration”. What he meant was a party of personal aspiration. Historically, of course, the Labour Party was a product of a collective movement of the working class. The ambition of the labour movement was originally to organise a struggle to improve the lives of the working class as a whole. Its history is full of people who ‘got on’ and abandoned the movement and any collective outlook. In the old days British social democracy used to speak of striving for equality as opposed to the Tory party’s conception of “equality of opportunity”. But New Labour, as with much else, has appropriated this Tory ideological baggage.

Mendacity, mendacity, it seems it’s everywhere.

The ‘freedom’ which Bush speaks of, the 'values’ which Blair says we share with the USA, is the freedom of the US ‘military-industrial complex’ (of which even a Republican like Eisenhower famously warned against when he left office) to impose its will across the globe; to impose its model of ‘democracy’ and to justify it with lies. The America to look to for inspiration is not that which Blair admires. It is the America which struggles against the witch hunt launched by Bush. It is the America which struggles for trade union rights under very difficult conditions. It is the America where trades union activists struggle against trade union leaders who identify their interests with US big business. It is artists who have the courage to challenge the with-hunting atmosphere, epitomised by Steve Earle, writing sympathetically about John Walker Lind in the wake of 9/11.

It is only possible for Blair and his sycophants to support Bush because they share the same ‘vision’ of a world in which the Darwinism of the ‘free market’ has reduced billions to poverty and degredation.

In the run up to the British General Election, revelations emerged over the advice of the Attorney General on whether or not the Iraq war would be ‘legal’. It was clear from this and other releases that the government was seeking justification for a decision already taken rather than examining ‘evidence’. Blair was labelled ‘Bliar’ by the anti-war movement. The insistent denials have made him more culpable in the eyes of millions of people. He is today a hated figure, arguably nearly as hated as Margaret Thatcher.

Asked by a US journalist whether the US could have gone to war without British support, Blair said, “I don’t know. I think the United States, in the end, would do whatever was necessary for its own security. But it was important that we did not leave this up to the United States alone. I also profoundly believe that September 11th was an attack on the free world…It was an attack on America, because America is the leading power of the free world.”

The mendacity of Blair is staggering, though, of course, no surprise. British social democracy from the end of the second world war supported the ‘special relationship’ between British capitalism and the US regime. It supported the cold war. But even Harold Wilson did not send British troops to Vietnam.

Meanwhile, in the USA, Governor Arnold Swarzenneger is in trouble as a result of the campaign of the California Nurses Association against his efforts to scrap a law which sets a minimum patient/nurse ratio in hospitals. Such a law is anathema to Arnold’s neo-liberal big business backers, the very ones that Blair is inviting into the British NHS. At the same time Bush’s proposal to privatise Social Security is proving very unpopular.

On election night in Britain one of the most striking images was that of Blair standing behind Reg Keys, an anti-war candidate whose son died in Iraq. He secured more than 4,000 votes in Blair’s constituency. He said he hoped that Blair could find it in his heart to apologise and maybe even visit some of the soldiers injured in Iraq. The Prime Minister stood there, frozen in the spotlight, empty eyed, but visibly squirming. His victory speech, on the success of his “historic third term”, gave the impression of a bruised and battered man rather than someone who had won his third General Election in a row. There was no elation. He paid a heavy price for his alliance with Bush. He should remember the way that the Tory Party unceremoniously ditched Thatcher when they thought she was a liability.

Martin Wicks