Friday, March 30, 2018

Martin Luther King killed defending labour’s rights

By Chris Mahin

The 4th of April is one of the saddest days of the year. On that day in 1968, the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Although many events are held each year to honour Dr King’s memory, too often people forget – or have never learned – why he was in Memphis that spring. Dr King went to Memphis to help striking sanitation workers – and paid for his stand with his life. That makes 4th April an important anniversary not only in African American history (and in US history in general), but in the history of the labour movement as well.
On 12th February 1968, hundreds of Memphis sanitation workers went on strike. At the time, they were making less than $1 per hour and were eligible for welfare. They decided that they had had enough of poor wages, terrible working conditions and a viciously anti-union mayor.
The workers were members of Local 1733 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The strike was the culmination of years of mistreatment. The workers worked 12 hours per day carrying garbage with busted, leaking pails. Some of the pails were infested with flies and maggots, and the workers had no place to wash up in the yard when they had to leave the trucks. Some of the workers had no running water when they returned home after work. The workers had no real benefits of any kind.
This dire situation came to a crisis point on 1st February 1968, when the accidental activation of a packer blade in the back of a garbage truck fatally crushed workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker.
Almost 1,400 sanitation workers joined the strike. They shut the city down.
The workers and their supporters marched daily to pressure the mayor and the city council to recognise the sanitation unit under AFSCME Local 1733. The men wore signs that read “I AM a Man,” a slogan that was eventually recognised around the world.

Tension grew in the city as Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb called the strike illegal and threatened to hire new workers unless the strikers returned to work. On 14th February, the mayor issued a back-to-work ultimatum for 7am on 15th February. The police escorted the few garbage trucks in operation. Negotiations broke off. The newspapers began to report that more than 10,000 tons of garbage was piling up.
It was in that tense environment that AFSCME organisers appealed to Dr King to come to Memphis to speak to the workers. Initially, King was reluctant. He was immersed in work preparing for the Poor People’s Campaign. This was a huge undertaking, an effort to bring poor people of all ethnicities to Washington DC in the summer of 1968 to protest against poverty. But when AFSCME organiser Jesse Epps pointed out that the fight of the sanitation workers in Memphis was part of the same struggle as the Poor People’s Campaign, King agreed.
Once in Memphis, King immediately grasped the importance of what was unfolding there. On his first visit to the city, on 18th March, he spoke to a crowd of 17,000 people and called for a citywide march.
On Thursday 28th March King led a march from the Clayborn Temple, the strike’s headquarters. The march was interrupted by window breaking at the back of the demonstration. The police moved into the crowd, using nightsticks, mace, tear gas – and guns. A 16-year-old, Larry Payne, was shot dead. The police arrested 280 people and reported about 60 injuries. The state legislature authorised a 7pm curfew and 4,000 National Guardsmen moved in.
On Friday 29th March some 300 sanitation workers and ministers marched peacefully and silently from Clayborn Temple to City Hall – escorted by five armoured personnel carriers, five jeeps, three huge military trucks and dozens of National Guardsmen with their bayonets fixed.
 In the last days of March, King cancelled a planned trip to Africa and made preparations to lead a peaceful march in Memphis. Organisers working on preparations for the Poor People’s Campaign in other cities were directed to leave those cities and come to Memphis, for it was clear that the Poor People’s Campaign could not be won without winning the fight in Memphis.
On 3rd April 1968, Dr King returned to Memphis. That evening, he gave an extraordinary speech to hundreds of people at Mason Temple. The speech has gone down in history as the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. Anyone who reads it today will notice that it is an eloquent statement of support for the sanitation workers. (That night, King called them “thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering.”) But it is also a farewell speech, the oration of a man who knew he might not have long to live, and who was searching his soul to make sense of his life and his place in history.
In the speech, King emphatically rejected the calls not to march again because of an injunction: “Somewhere I read of the freedom of assembly. Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech. Somewhere I read of the freedom of the press. Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest for right!”
At the end of his remarks he referred indirectly to the underhanded attempts by racists, the FBI and other forces to sabotage his leadership and destroy the movement, declaring: “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like everybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
Less than 24 hours after uttering those words, Martin Luther King Jr was shot dead whilst standing on a balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Urban rebellions broke out in more than 60 cities. In response to pressure from all over the country, the federal government sent Labor Department officials to Memphis to mediate a settlement to the strike.
On Tuesday, 16th April AFSCME leaders announced that an agreement had been reached. The agreement included union recognition, better pay and benefits. The strikers voted to accept the agreement.
It was a bittersweet end to a long battle. The strike ended in victory but at a terrible cost – the death of one of the foremost symbols of the fight for justice in that (or any) era. AFSCME’s victory in Memphis inspired other workers in Memphis to join unions and other employees throughout the South to join AFSCME. The Poor People’s Campaign, which Dr King had been working on when he went to Memphis, did take place later in the tumultuous year 1968. As King had hoped, it brought together poor people of all ethnicities to demonstrate in Washington, DC – African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans and whites.
Given Dr. King’s role in the Memphis sanitation strike and the tremendous community support that the strikers received, perhaps the month of April ought to be a time to remember that not all labour leaders have an official position with a union –- and that labour comes in all colours, and includes both employed and unemployed people. If we hold on to those lessons, we will honour what was won with such great sacrifice in Memphis in April 1968.

Monday, March 26, 2018

A Welcome Victory

 Jennie Formby has won the race to be the next general secretary of the Labour Party. Ms Formby, a full-time officer of Unite, has been a Labour activists for years. Supported by Jeremy Corbyn, and backed by Unite and the GMB, she defeated her nearest rival in a secret ballot of Labour’s executive committee members by 35 votes to two.
Though the post is administrative and not political, the general secretary oversees Labour’s national campaigns and in the past the general secretary has used the powers of the post to apply the rule book as he or she sees fit. The previous incumbent, Iain McNicol, was directly in charge of the unelected and discredited “compliance unit” that purged thousands of pro-Corbyn members from the party, including prominent activists such as former London Mayor Ken Livingstone and others, on trumped-up charges of “anti-Semitism”.
One victim, former Momentum vice-chair Jackie Walker, who has been suspended by Labour for almost two years, welcomed the result saying: “Things are definitely changing in the party, but they are not changing fast enough for a lot of members who remain suspended or expelled based on trumped-up or false charges or simply because they are active supporters of Corbyn.”
That’s certainly the case. The wounds inflicted by the despicable Blairite rump in the Labour Party can only be healed with an end to the witch-hunt and the return to Labour’s ranks of all those unjustly suspended or expelled over the last few years.
The Blairites bleat on about another “hard-left” victory as part of a hysterical bourgeois media smear campaign that’s been launched to try and stave off another Tory defeat in the local government elections in May.
But as communist leader Mao Zedong said during the Chinese civil war in 1939: “I hold that it is bad as far as we are concerned if a person, a political party, an army or a school is not attacked by the enemy, for in that case it would definitely mean that we have sunk to the level of the enemy. It is good if we are attacked by the enemy, since it proves that we have drawn a clear line of demarcation between the enemy and ourselves. It is still better if the enemy attacks us wildly and paints us as utterly black and without a single virtue; it demonstrates that we have not only drawn a clear line of demarcation between the enemy and ourselves but achieved a great deal in our work”.
The Blairites say Corbyn’s left policies make Labour unelectable but what they really fear is that Labour will be returned to office on a programme of trade union rights, public ownership and social justice that they so bitterly oppose.
The Corbyn leadership victory shows that the Labour Party is still a potentially strong weapon for our class and has vindicated the New Communist Party’s long held electoral position. Although the New Communist Party (NCP) has never confused the Labour Party with a revolutionary party or imagined that we can gain a workers’ state through parliamentary elections, a Labour government, with its organisational links with the trade unions and the co-operative movement, offers the best option for the working class in the era of bourgeois parliamentary democracy. Our strategy is for working class unity and our campaigns are focused on defeating the right-wing within the movement, and strengthening the left and progressive forces within the Labour Party and the unions. Day-to-day demands for reform, progressive taxation, state welfare and a public sector dedicated to meet the people’s needs are winnable under capitalism, particularly in a rich country such as Britain today. We support these demands, and back those within the Labour Party and the trade union movement who are campaigning for greater social justice.

But social democracy, left or right, remains social democracy whatever trend is dominant within it. It has never led to socialism. So, at the same time, we must build the revolutionary party and campaign for revolutionary change.

Made in North Korea

By Dermot Hudson

The gentrified area just north of Kings Cross, with its trendy shops and coffee bars, is not the sort of place where you would expect to find an exhibition of socialist realist art from a revolutionary anti-imperialist country. Yet the House of Illustration in London’s Granary Square (an area redeveloped from old railway land) is hosting an exhibition of graphic art from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) that ranges from posters to canned food labels.
      The exhibition was arranged by tour operator and film maker Nick Bonner as part of an effort to promote his book Made in North Korea. Needless to say, commercial and business considerations were reflected in the fact that an admission fee of a minimum of £7.50 was charged and there was merchandise such as the book itself,  priced at £24 (well out of reach of many low-income supporters of People’s Korea), along with the Comrade Kim Goes Flying DVD. This is the only joint British–DPRK film ever made and is about a girl miner who aspires to be trapeze artist, and was priced at £15.
There are those who question the motives of people such as Bonner. Some believe that they have a ‘reform’ and ‘opening up’ agenda for the DPRK – basically trying to undermine its socialist system by subtle means, acting as a form of ‘soft power‘ for imperialism.
The exhibition had a range of art and products from the DPRK. Many of them were quite familiar to people such as myself, who has visited the country 14 times. They include posters and things such as notebooks, badges, pens and other souvenir items you very easily find in gift shops when you visit the DPRK. Bizarrely, even Air Koryo sick bags had been included!
The DPRK is very famous for its poster art, and pride of place was given in the exhibition to posters encouraging workers and farmers to increase production, for improvements in health care and many other things. The militant anti-US posters were not to be seen in the exhibition however, probably a deliberate omission. Moreover, the explanatory notices for the exhibition omit any mention of the Juche Idea, the DPRK’s guiding ideology, and the Songun (Army first) idea. Also, clich├ęs such as “state run” had seeped into the explanations, plus one or two questionable assertions about the DPRK that probably reflect wishful thinking on the part of the organisers.
Despite his long involvement with the DPRK, Bonner does not appear to have any understanding of Juche and the Juche-based socialism of Korean style, so makes reference to the DPRK “copying” Soviet and Chinese art. In fact President Kim Il Sung argued strongly for Juche in art as well as all other fields of society. Copying Soviet and Chinese styles were regarded negatively as flunkeyism towards big powers.
I would suggest that those who want to learn more about People’s Korea start off by joining the Korean Friendship Association (KFA); basic membership is free of charge