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Johnson’s criminal “back-to-work” drive depends on the trade unions

Millions of British workers are being driven back to work in dangerously unsafe conditions. Behind Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hokum of “caution”, a “phased return” and meeting “five criteria” is the reality of a reckless and premature reopening of the economy that will cost thousands of lives.

With the government furlough scheme only covering 7 million workers, many have now been told to return to their workplaces. Many more will follow within weeks. Those returning will join half the UK workforce that has worked throughout the seven-week lockdown. A survey by the consultancy Healthy Return of 100 employers with 52,000 workers found that 30 to 80 percent of employees will be called back to the workplace in the coming weeks. Sixty percent of employers intend to bring in more than half their workforce and nearly a third more than 70 percent.

The Conservative government knows it is placing millions at risk and could not care less. It is seeking to reopen primary schools on June 1, despite massive opposition among parents and teachers and reports of outbreaks of COVID-19 in 70 French schools immediately on their reopening. All that matters for the government is that schools can be used as a holding pen for children so their parents can return to work.

So dangerous is travelling on public transport that the government has been forced to issue advice that it should be avoided “wherever possible.” But the situation in workplaces is just as dangerous. Nothing of significance has been put in place regarding personal protective equipment, sanitary measures and social distancing and nothing will be done to change this.

Last Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told parliament, “The Health and Safety Executive [HSE] will be enforcing” companies’ compliance with safety guidelines, “and we will have spot inspections to make sure that businesses are keeping their employees safe.”

He was lying. On Sunday, the i newspaper reported that the HSE has not carried out any inspections of workplaces since March and has not set a date for when they will resume. A spokesperson explained, “In line with government guidance to cease all but essential work that cannot be done outside of the home, minimising contact between individuals, HSE has paused all proactive inspections at this time to reduce any risk posed to our own staff and to members of the public.”

HSE says it is encouraging companies to “self-police”, a blank check for corporations to do nothing.

The HSE has been gutted by the Conservatives, with the number of inspectors cut by a third since 2010, so that inspections have fallen year on year as part of the Tory “bonfire of the regulations.” The net result of all such Tory cuts has been the needless death of tens of thousands, including frontline workers during the pandemic, and with a particularly grisly toll being taken on the elderly and the infirm.

Yesterday, the Office for National Statistics reported that “excess deaths” based on the time of year—considered by many to be the best indication of the actual impact of the pandemic—reached almost 55,000 in early May. The Financial Times estimates it closer to 62,000.

This will be dwarfed by a second wave of the pandemic. An editorial in this week’s British Medical Journal warned that without an effective strategy for case finding, testing, contact tracing, and isolation, the relaxation of social distancing would “trigger further epidemic spikes with prospects of a vaccine or treatment still distant.”

There is growing opposition to the Johnson government that presently finds no organised expression. It would be unable to implement its back-to-work plans were it not for the role played by the trade unions, as partners to the employers and the government in their criminal conspiracy against the working class.

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer never tires of issuing appeals to the Tories for “consensus” on exiting the lockdown. This has left his party so politically exposed that a slew of Labour councils have been forced to break ranks and declare their refusal to cooperate with Tory plans to reopen schools by June 1. Read the small print and many are simply calling for a slight delay.

However, it is the trade unions that are playing the key role in suppressing opposition in the working class, making occasional noises of protest but never once organising industrial action or other forms of resistance. The overarching aim of the union bureaucracy is to convince the employers that they can organise the return to work in return for Johnson including them as partners in a new form of corporatist government.

The trade unions will not only impose unsafe working conditions, they will police massive job losses and brutal speed-ups, as the full scale of the economic crisis of British and world capitalism becomes clear.

Yesterday saw reports that joblessness claims rose by nearly 70 percent in April. An additional 856,000 people received Universal Credit and jobseeker’s allowance, lifting the claimant count to nearly 2.1 million—the largest monthly rise since comparable records began in 1971, and since February 1947 based on different administrative data.

Unemployment will continue to climb. Confirming the imminence of the worst global depression since the 1930s, dwarfing 2008, the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions has reported that 28 percent of Europeans have lost their jobs permanently or temporarily since the crisis. Almost 50 percent say their working hours have decreased and 15 percent believe they are likely to lose their jobs within the next three months.

In the face of this disaster, the entire trade union bureaucracy is straining every sinew to align themselves with the employers. Writing for LabourList, the Unite union’s Assistant General Secretary Steve Turner declared, “Trade unions have also been at the virtual table in daily discussions with ministers and employers,” before adding, “But we are not putting our feet up.”

Turner appealed directly to Chancellor Rishi Sunak: “No time should be wasted in getting back round the table—unions, ministers and employers,” stressing that the UK has “become a country that now sees what can be done when government opens up to unions and steps up to its role as an interventionist, strategic partner in the economy… We have the ideas. We know what can be done.”

In opposition to the corporations and banks, the Tories, Labour, and the corrupt pro-business unions, the Socialist Equality Party urges workers to organise themselves independently in defence of their health, the safety of their loved ones and their jobs and livelihoods.

Individual resistance must give way to a collective programme of class struggle. This means organising rank-and-file committees in every neighbourhood and workplace to ensure safe working conditions and the safety of the entire population.

The reopening of schools and non-essential workplaces must be opposed until they are made safe. Continued and full income must be provided to all affected workers until the pandemic is contained.

Essential workers in health care, food production, transport and distribution must be guaranteed protective gear, universal testing and a safe working environment overseen by their own safety committees, working in conjunction with public health care experts. All those being driven back to work deserve nothing less.

Job losses and speed-ups demanded in the name of “national sacrifice” must be opposed. Instead, a massive programme of investment in health and social care and in the economy must begin now, paid for by taking the major banks and corporations into social ownership and heavily taxing the obscene wealth of the super-rich.

Workers in the UK must set out to unify their struggles with their brothers and sisters all over the world, based on an international and socialist perspective for planned production for the needs of the vast majority, not corporate profit and the enrichment of the financial oligarchy.

By Chris Marsden and Thomas Scripps
20 May 2020
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Attend March 17 London Book Launch of Why Are They Back?

The English edition of Why Are They Back? Historical falsification, political conspiracy and the return of fascism in Germany will be launched by Mehring Books in London on Sunday March 17 (tickets are available here). The book’s author Christoph Vandreier will speak at the event and will be joined by World Socialist Web Site International Editorial Board Chairperson David North, who is also the national chairperson of the Socialist Equality Party (US).

The appointment of Adolf Hitler in January 1933 as chancellor of Germany was the outcome not of an election, but of a political conspiracy involving a small number of senior military and government officials headed by General Paul von Hindenburg. Its consequences were World War II, the Holocaust and the destruction of tens of millions of lives.

Nearly 75 years after the fall of the Third Reich, the neo-Nazi right is a major political force in Germany. Why Are They Back? analyses the interaction of high-level political conspirators, media propagandists and right-wing academics at Berlin’s Humboldt University in the present-day resurgence of Nazism and German militarism.

Vandreier’s book focuses on questions of history. This is because the rise of Germany’s far-right is being abetted by a campaign of historical falsification. In Berlin, prominent academics such as Professor Jörg Baberowski have engaged in pro-Nazi apologetics, relativising the crimes of fascism, downplaying the Holocaust and rehabilitating Adolf Hitler with claims that the Nazi dictator “was not vicious.” This falsification of the past is spearheading preparations by the German state to remilitarise and suppress working class opposition to war and social inequality.

In the 1986-89 “Historians’ Dispute” (Historikerstreit), British academics, including Richard Evans and Ian Kershaw, joined their German colleagues in publicly refuting positions of historian Ernst Nolte seeking to minimise the crimes of the Nazis. But today’s more brazen fabrications are met with silence.

Christoph Vandreier, the deputy-chair of the Socialist Equality Party (Sozialistische Gleichheitspartei–SGP) in Germany, has played a leading role in the struggle that began at Humboldt University. David North will discuss the historical background to the return of the far-right, examining the nature of contemporary fascism and how to defeat it. He will provide a critique of left populism, elaborating a Marxist response to the dangerous rise of far-right parties in Germany and across Europe.


Sunday, March 17, 2 p.m.
Foyles bookshop, Level 6
107 Charing Cross Road
London, WC2H 0DT

Tickets available at eventbrite £5.00 full price—£2 concession

Transport: Foyles bookshop is within walking distance of the Tottenham Court Road, Leicester Square, Holborn, Covent Garden and Oxford Circus stations. Accessibility: The building is fully wheelchair accessible.

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Mehring Books exhibits at London Book Fair

Mehring Books, the publishing house of the International Committee of the Fourth International, exhibited at the London Book Fair this week. Its stall in London Olympia’s Grand Hall attracted interest among visitors and exhibitors from around the world.

The London Book Fair is the leading publishing trade fair in the English-speaking world and the second-largest worldwide after the Frankfurter Buchmesse. Almost 1,000 companies exhibited from more than 60 countries, with around 29,000 visitors between March 12-14.

Mehring Books’ stand featured the newly released English-language edition of Why Are They Back? Historical falsification, political conspiracy and the return of fascism in Germany; the 30th anniversary edition of The Heritage We Defend: A contribution to the history of the Trotskyist movement; and Agents: The FBI and GPU infiltration of the Trotskyist movement.

On the Fair’s opening day, World Socialist Web Site international editorial board chairperson David North appeared at a “Meet the Author” event at the Mehring Books stand. Book industry professionals from Japan, India and Israel, along with visitors from China, the UK and Canada, were among those who stopped to speak with North.

Christoph Vandreier, deputy leader of the Socialist Equality Party (SGP) in Germany, spoke at a “Meet the Author” event the following day. He explained to those in attendance, “Why Are They Back? is a book dealing with how the rise of the far-right in Germany was ideologically and politically prepared.”

The far-right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) is now the official opposition party in the Bundestag (German parliament), Vandreier explained. “Its MPs include neo-Nazi apologists who have publicly opposed the construction of memorials to European victims of the Holocaust, while they declare their support for the record of German soldiers during the Second World War.”

A wave of historical falsification in German universities paved the way for such neo-fascistic statements: “Professor Jörg Baberowski at Humboldt University in Berlin, said things like, ‘Hitler was not vicious’. There was not a single academic in Germany or internationally opposing this.”

Christoph Vandreier signs copy of Why Are They Back

A group of students visiting the fair from the United States listened closely as Vandreier discussed how the political struggle of the SGP and its youth movement, the International Youth and Students for Social Equality (IYSSE), against historical falsification, won widespread backing from students in Germany. “This received a lot of support,” Vandreier said.

“There is huge opposition to racism and the rise of the far-right in the population. The support for the far-right does not come from below, but from the top.”

The Mehring Books stand attracted a great deal of attention and interest. While book company executives passed by quickly, en route to business meetings (rights negotiations are the main business of the trade fair), more thoughtful visitors paused to take in the poster-sized illustrated covers for The Heritage We Defend, Agents and Why Are They Back?The association of Mehring Books with the heritage of Trotskyism and its concern with fundamental historical questions was apparent.

Among those enquiring on opening day was the Executive Vice President of a Japanese publishing house. He was drawn by the book display for Why Are They Back? and stopped to discuss what he described as the dangerous rise of Japanese nationalism. “This is a problem not only for Japan. In response, we are seeing the rise of nationalism in China and South Korea. The rubbish of the past is coming back, it seems.”

David North with publisher Shogo Tejima

A Russian publishing executive stopped to look more closely at The Heritage We Defend and David North’s In Defence of Leon Trotsky. He described Trotsky as “the greatest of all figures in history—not just in his political accomplishments, which were of course very great, but in his entire personality.” He explained that disinformation surrounding Trotsky’s name meant the understanding of Trotsky among Russians was low. He pointed to the recent Russian television series on Trotsky as an example, opposing its promotion of anti-Semitism.

“It seems that I have stumbled on something unexpected at the London Book Fair,” the Russian publishing executive concluded.

A search for “socialist” exhibitors on the London Book Fair app returned Mehring Books as the only result. Verso (founded by New Left Review in 1970) and Pluto Press (established in 1969 by the International Socialists) describe themselves as “radical publishers.” In general, their titles reflect the rightward lurch of ex-radical layers among the 1960s middle class, preoccupied with issues of gender, race and sexual orientation, and steeped in postmodernist hostility to philosophical materialism and the working class.

On the final day of the London Book Fair, Mehring Books featured a display in defence of WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange and former US Army soldier and courageous whistle-blower Chelsea Manning—jailed again last week for refusing to testify against Assange. The Mehring Books Twitter feed issued the following appeal: “Mehring Books, tweeting all day from the London Book Fair to #FreeAssange. Come visit us at stand 2A43. Show your solidarity with a publisher illegally detained in the middle of London for publishing true information to the world’s people!”

Mehring Books tweets in support of Julian Assange and Chelsea Manning

The response was polarised, with many in the corporate publishing world ready to believe the wall of disinformation and lies about Assange and WikiLeaks erected by the mainstream and state-controlled media. A representative from Mehring Books visited the Media Room at the London Book Fair to draw to their attention the Mehring Books initiative. “Julian Assange is perhaps the world’s most famous publisher and his fate should be of real concern to those attending the London Book Fair,” she explained. This appeal was met with naked hostility, with one senior journalist falsely claiming that Assange was “free to leave whenever he chooses” and repeatedly asserting that Assange was not being illegally and arbitrarily detained.

Despite the disinformation, there were those who responded strongly in Assange and Manning’s defence, and willingly posed to have their photos taken. “Freedom of speech is one of the most important human rights, without which the world is like a prison,” was the statement from one book industry professional, while visitors Anne and Nathalie were proud to speak out: “Chelsea has the strength of her convictions. More people should know about this. It’s supposed to be the land of the free and the brave.” The statements in defence of Assange and Manning were retweeted over 400 times, receiving over 660 likes.

Anne and Nathalie showing their support

Details on Sunday’s book launch in London of Why Are They Back?:

Sunday, March 17, 2 p.m. Foyles bookshop, Level 6 107 Charing Cross Road, London, WC2H 0DT

Tickets available at eventbrite or at the door £5.00 full price—£2 concession.