2012 May Day demonstration in Nottm - AFED throw a tantrum

Posted in Pete's blog on Sun, 06/05/2012 - 00:01,

Well first the good stuff.
A reasonably large May Day about 300 attending. This was followed by a hastily arranged indoor meeting, because of expected rain, with speakers from most unions involved in strike campaigns, and one or two trade union worthies as well as from campaigns such as Notts Uncut.
Many speeches were indeed excellent.
Unfortunately though, the demonstration and meeting may be more remembered because of the action of 8 or so anarchists of the Anarchist Federation, who on 2 occasions tried to stop the meeting as they disagreed with the Trades Council having invited Alan Meale, the Labour MP once considered on the left of the Party but not recently noted for any position or statement delineating himself from the appalling Labour Party front bench record on trade union disputes.
With placards denouncing the Labour Party and Meale, they stood in front of the speakers’ platform making it impossible for the meeting to continue. They defied requests from the Chair and the clear wishes of the meeting for them to resume their seats. On the first occasion they delayed the meeting by 5 mins whilst the Chair changed the speaking order, on the second occasion for 10 minutes whilst angry exchanges took place between them and union activists and stewards and the meeting was effectively ended.
Placards that the anarchists held up drew attention to Meale’s alleged expenses abuse and others attacked the Labour Party as being no different than the Tories. Whilst many trade unionists in attendance, with greater knowledge of the working class movement, might have found it strange that no distinction was made between voters and members of the Labour Party and its leaders, these placards wouldn’t have drawn any particular opposition from anyone present had the anarchists made a protest and then sat down. Most workers, repelled by the frequent hypocrisy of politicians who speak left and act right, would have thought ‘fair point’.
But the AFED action went further than that: they believed they had the right to overturn the Trades Council decision to invite Meale and in spite of the wishes of others at the meeting, that they were entitled to stop Meale speaking. Their action was almost universally seen by attendees at the meeting as patronising and undemocratic.
Many, if not most, of the trade union speakers including the chair of the meeting and of the Trades Council Liam Conway, spoke quite openly and loudly of the anti-union politics of much of the Labour Party. Particular reference to this was made by NUT speaker, Tom Unterrainer, whose union is in direct dispute with a union-bashing Labour City council that is attempting to outflank the Tories and introduce a 5-term school year against the overwhelming desires of teachers.
No-one listening to virtually any of the trade union speakers could possibly believe that any of them, or anyone in the meeting cheering the speeches, did not have ‘big issues’ with the current policies and leaders of the Labour Party. And then it came to Meale’s second attempt to speak.
Now the anarchists of AFED could have demanded that it be put to the meeting whether Meale speak or not. No, they didn’t do that. They could have put it to the meeting that Meale answer some crucial questions about why he had reneged on some policy pledges in the past. No, they didn’t do that either.
They could have demanded, as many speakers had implicitly done, that Meale back unions like the NUT in their strike against an anti-union Labour Council or the strikes on May 10th and that he pledge himself to fight to reverse all cuts when Labour return to government. Any or all of that would have been useful.
An MP’s promise clearly should never be taken lightly or naively. We know many lie if they can get away with it. But while socialists try and build a movement that can hold Labour politicians like Meale accountable to any pledges they may make, anarchists of AFED simply don’t want a Labour government, they don’t want be involved in any arguments on what such a government should do. They, a small minority, therefore decide that despite what anyone else may think Meale should not be heard. Up they get and the meeting is stopped by 8 people who think their views are more important than the hundred or so still in the room.
In a sense the anarchists let Meale off any hook.
What is sad about the anarchists’ actions is that a number of them involved had put in considerable work over the last 18 months building the Notts Save Our Services campaign. They had seemed to have learnt, although they would have been idiots if they had not have learnt, that the trade unions are hugely powerful instruments to organise struggles against capitalism. They had justifiably gained some respect from trade union activists.
Even in their little action on May 5th they were probably genuinely motivated by a desire to stop political hypocrisy. They don’t understand that the arrogance revealed by their tactic is so repellent.
But any trust of AFED by active trade unionists in the town has now gone. The instinctive reaction, particularly of trade unions activists who didn’t know them, was that they were little different from fascists with their contempt for any norms of democratic conduct.
Absolutely they are not fascists! But they are politically stupid, deluded by their ideology which too easily blurs the class enemy with the mass instruments within capitalism of class struggle, the trade unions.
It appears that the education they gained in the period from Nov 2010 to Nov 2011 has stopped and is in reverse. In Nov 2010, thousands mobilised by the trade unions marched in Nottingham at the Trades Council/ Notts SOS anti-cuts demo. Nov 2011 saw the massive joint-union strike against pension cuts. It is unlikely that AFED would have attempted anything then.
But since last November, some appalling compromises have been made by trade union leaders and a strike movement has been significantly shunted into the sidelines, if only for a while. The anarchists, not understanding the dynamics of class struggle, have clearly been looking for people to blame – and have decided it is in the ‘Labour illusions’ of the trade union movement.
So the anarchists of AFED have retreated into their prejudices – the trade union movement, the Trades Council should be treated with contempt, its decisions defied, its meetings disrupted. They treated the May Day meeting, most of whom had been involved in the last year of organising strikes, no different from how they might be expected to treat a meeting of the Conservative Party or UKIP.
AFED made no friends on May 5th. Many might over-react to them. But it should be repeated: some anarchists had done good work over the last 18 months; some were simply young and drawn by the exhilaration of direct action; some whilst educated were clearly ignorant of the labour and trade union movement. We should resist calls to bar them from meetings.
With their current prejudices there is little hope of much constructive work with them. It is quite likely, given their recoiling from any co-operation with trade unions, that they will not be interested in any dialogue with trade unions, never mind joint work. But hopefully when the strike movement starts up again, some of them at least will start learning again.
Whilst some people may have been demoralised by a seeming division amongst anti-cuts activists, the AFED disruption was by a small minority and the meeting was not stopped by their actions. In the meantime let’s draw encouragement that May Day in Nottingham is again taken seriously by trade unions. Let’s hope that the major struggles, that trade unions face, will help us build our trade union organisations and make the next May Day much bigger.

For a fuller account of the political evolution of Nottingham Afed, there is a longer article found here
Issues and Campaigns


Submitted by Cautiously Pes… on Mon, 07/05/2012 - 16:05

I'm sure there's more serious criticisms to make of this piece, but speaking as a complete outsider who's just been following this stuff through the online coverage, it seems pretty inaccurate to just describe this as an AFed action. The initial article saying he shouldn't be given a platform was a joint piece by Nottingham AF and Autonomous Nottingham, and the only anarchist write-up I've seen of the day's events so far seems to be written by a member of Autonomous Nottingham - phrases like "the Trades Council wrote to Autonomous Nottingham requesting a meeting with us" make it pretty clear what their affiliation is. As someone who's not a member of either group, it certainly sounds like AFed members might have been involved in the action, but it definitely doesn't sound like they were the only people taking part, so it doesn't make you look that credible that you keep on going on about the AFed again and again without mentioning Autonomous Nottingham.
Also, I lolled at "no distinction was made between voters and members of the Labour Party and its leaders" - is Alan Meale just an ordinary voter or grassroots member now, or is he a professional politician? If the latter, and he's been singled out in a way that an ordinary party member wouldn't have been, does that not indicate that a distinction *has* been made?

Submitted by Pete on Mon, 07/05/2012 - 16:54

From one point of view, thanks.
When I wrote the article I hadn't seen the article from 'Autonomous Nottingham' and the only thing I had to go on was the fact that the 2 known anti-cuts activists who were most prominent and fronted the disruption were AFed. I haven't a clue who the personnel of 'Autonomous Nottingham' are? I presumed they had overlapping memberships, or whatever descriptions you use to describe your collectives.
Re: "no distinction was made between voters and members of the Labour Party and its leaders" I was actually talking about the slogans on placards re: 'Tory/ Labour - the same'

Submitted by Cautiously Pes… on Thu, 10/05/2012 - 10:58

"AFed/AA think they themselves are the vital element."
I challenge you to find one single statement by either group to support this. Anarchists are not vanguardists. It's pretty much a defining feature of being an anarchist. You think the trade unions are vital, we think the working class is vital. It goes without saying that the vast, vast majority of the working class have no connection to the anarchist movement, but then most of the working class isn't unionised either. Anarchists support working-class struggle when it takes place through the trade unions - hell, I'm writing this comment while killing time between the picket lines this morning and the strike rally this afternoon - but we also recognise it's most likely to be successful when it breaks out of the limitations imposed by the trade union form - compare and contrast the way the sparks' rank-and-file network was able to take on the bosses and win because it was out of the union's control, whereas the pensions dispute has stayed solidly within the confines of trade unionism, and we've had months and months of total inaction that led us from the huge strike and combative mood of N30 to the depleted and dispirited picket lines this morning.

Submitted by AWL on Thu, 10/05/2012 - 15:53

Perhaps I've misunderstood Cautiously Press. If so, apologies. However:

The Sparks are themselves members of trade unions and were only able to do what they did because their rank-and-file network was rooted in and intertwined with the unions, and they were able to push the unions into action. What's happened to the pensions dispute - which the AWL has covered rather more extensively than any anarchists, and made far more initiatives to combat - is not due to the "confines of trade unionism", but the fact of the state the labour movement (primarily the unions) is in and the absence of rank-and-file networks within the unions to address that. N30, though magnificent, was largely controlled by the bureaucracy too! The idea that's what is needed to go outside the unions, as opposed to building a serious rank and file within them, just doesn't make sense.

In so far as the "confines of trade unionism" idea is true, it's mainly true in terms of the lack of a serious political dimension to the pensions campaign - something I don't anarchists have in general contributed that usefully too, preferring to limit themselves to syndicalist-type local solidarity - unsurprisingly, since a political campaign must involve positive proposals for demands on the state.

Sacha Ismail

Submitted by Cautiously Pes… on Wed, 16/05/2012 - 14:41

"The Sparks are themselves members of trade unions and were only able to do what they did because their rank-and-file network was rooted in and intertwined with the unions, and they were able to push the unions into action." I admit that the sparks are a slightly complicated case - but then again, when are these things not complicated - and I think we're stressing different aspects of the same phenomenon here. I think that they were able to do what they did because they had a high level of independence from the unions - as we saw at the start of December, when the courts challenged Unite's strike mandate, Unite backed down, and the sparks went ahead and took unofficial action anyway. They were only able to push the union into action because they were already taking action independently, they'd have achieved a lot less if they stuck to the union-approved channels of lobbying the union leadership, trying to pass policy, etc.
"The idea that's what is needed to go outside the unions, as opposed to building a serious rank and file within them, just doesn't make sense." I don't see the two as opposed. I think the vital task is to build working class self-organisation independent of the unions. Sometimes this will mean building networks inside the unions, sometimes outside them, but it always means pushing against the divisions the unions impose - unless you seriously think that, to take the example of a school, we should have one network of NUT members, one of ATL members, one of NASUWT members, and another for cleaners and caretakers who might be in Unison? That really does make no sense. Clearly, in such cases, what's needed is to build networks that cut across the union's divisions.
"In so far as the "confines of trade unionism" idea is true, it's mainly true in terms of the lack of a serious political dimension to the pensions campaign - something I don't anarchists have in general contributed that usefully too, preferring to limit themselves to syndicalist-type local solidarity - unsurprisingly, since a political campaign must involve positive proposals for demands on the state."
This I disagree completely with. Even if anarchists completely dropped their anti-state principles and drew up the most beautiful social-democratic programme ever devised, it'd be completely meaningless without the ability to impose it on the government. That requires effective action, which is what's really missing from the pensions dispute - and, as the example of the sparks show, effective action is most likely to happen in campaigns controlled directly by the grassroots instead of the union tops. Insofar as syndicalist-type local solidarity can help to strengthen the rank-and-file, it makes perfect sense to concentrate on that, rather than drawing up a leftist shopping list of demands with no relationship to reality.

Tom: "At no point does the document suggest that you'd be involved in R&F initiatives aimed at opposing the current leaderhip, getting unions to change their policy, to call strikes etc... Have you changed your policy?

An AFed member in the NUT did assist AWL and other comrades at this years union conference in organising for a rank and file initiative. I'd assumed that he didn't agree with your policy - not least because he'd have been elected through official union structures in order to be able to attend conference in the first place."
Sorry mate, but you're talking absolute shit here. Please actually read "On the Frontline". If you had actually read it, you might have noticed these sections:
"However, we do not argue for people to leave unions until they are made irrelevant by the revolutionary event. We also do not believe that workers’ organisation can bypass the question of trade unions altogether. The union is a common point of departure for many workers, where more militant workers can meet each other and begin to organise...
The goal is for workers to organise themselves to resist management and to be able to take direct action of their choosing to achieve this.

In an already unionised workplace, the trade union provides a number of potential opportunities to further this goal. Membership of the union gives some protection for public confrontations with management, for open organising and criticism. Workplace union meetings potentially open a private space where it is possible to meet other militant workers and work together away from the eyes of management. They also provide a chance to argue for militant struggle that is directly controlled by those taking part and which goes beyond the confines of the unions involved.

Sometimes, to realise these possibilities it may be necessary to engage more directly with trade union structures. AF members sometimes take positions as reps or shop stewards, but only where they feel that this advances the class struggle...
Rank and file initiatives can often strengthen the working class in the battle for anarchist communism. However, they are also often dragged into futile attempts to reform bureaucratic structures. The AF looks at these initiatives on a case by case basis. Where they believe a rank and file initiative can advance the class struggle, AF members will take an active part in it. They should at all times, however, argue that struggles be directly controlled by those taking part.

We always argue against seeing the rank and file initiative as an end in itself or as an attempt to reform or take over the union. We reject what can be called rank and file-ism in favour of seeing rank and file initiatives as one opportunity amongst others to broaden, strengthen or intensify workers' struggles."
So, rather than the AF comrade you worked with disagreeing with the AF's policy, perhaps it's the case that he actually understands the AF's strategy, while you clearly don't?

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