Paddy Gibson reviews the key political events and moments of resistance of 2009
The year began with global capitalism teetering on the brink and hundreds of thousands of people around the world demonstrating against Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza.
Two million people flocked to the inauguration of US President Barack Obama, jubilant at the promise for change. They booed outgoing President George Bush, figurehead of the “war on terror”.
But despite a shift in strategic orientation from Iraq to Afghanisation, America’s rulers have maintained their commitment to brutal domination of the Middle East.
Three days after his speech, Obama authorised drone strikes inside Pakistan. In April he sent an extra 7000 troops to the war and 30,000 more were announced in December.
2009 saw the highest level of insurgent activity since the invasion of Afghanistan. This has thrown the occupation into protracted crisis, seriously undermining Obama’s domestic popularity.
By November, fraudulent elections in Afghanistan had destroyed the facade of “democracy” used to justify the occupation. US establishment figures like former Republican Presidential candidate Fred Thompson declared the war lost.
Support for Obama had also come from working people craving relief from deepening poverty due to the recession.
But he has done nothing to reverse escalating unemployment or evictions. His response to the economic crisis centred around trillion dollar bail-outs for Wall St and the banks.
A refusal to put forward plans for a genuine system of public health coverage, or call on his support base to fight for change, opened the door to a serious right-wing backlash. Conservatives and racists have used the health-care debate to mobilise large numbers.
By November Obama’s approval rating had fallen below 50 per cent.
Rudd charts neo-liberal course
Late 2007 saw John Howard suffer the same fate as George Bush—an electoral revolt against years of economic rationalism, war and racism.
New PM Kevin Rudd went to greater lengths than Obama to theorise his brand of “change”, publishing an essay denouncing the crimes of “extreme capitalism” and positioning himself as a social democrat.
Rudd’s essay reflected the extent to which the depths of economic crisis had shaken the system’s ideological foundations.
Governments around the world, for decades addicted to neo-liberal policies and the free market, were suddenly forced to take drastic state action, spending unprecedented levels of public money to save capitalism from itself.
But while he talked about “social justice”, Rudd’s essay outlined no policies that would see a redistribution of wealth or greater protection of workers rights. The priorities of his “hands on” state would be resurrecting profitability.
In policy terms this meant a thoroughly neo-liberal, $50 billion “stimulus package”. One-off cash payments were sugar on the bitter pill of wage restraint and ongoing restrictions on unions (see “Ark Tribe faces court”). Private contractors were bank rolled to build school halls, while class sizes continued to swell and teachers were forced onto performance pay. The government guaranteed bank loans, while thousands of bank workers lost their jobs.
The announcement in February that 1850 workers would be sacked from textiles company Pacific Brands demonstrated the impact of such policies. The company had taken $17 million in government subsidies over the previous two years. CEO Sue Morphett had almost tripled her own pay packet to $1.86 million and hired a security guard to watch her $2 million mansion while proceeding with the sackings.
The MUA and TWU announced they would ban any attempt to move machinery out of the country, but the TCFUA representing Pacific Brands workers failed to initiate any strike action, or call for the nationalisation needed to save jobs.
Meanwhile in France, the first of a series of general strikes brought the country to a standstill.
Strike wave rocks Europe
As the IMF announced that the global economy would shrink for the first time in 60 years, working class resistance began to flare up in parts of Europe.
March 19 saw the second French general strike in two months, with millions demonstrating in 200 cities and towns.
On the same day a general strike rocked Greece. This was the culmination of weeks of action by different unions, leaving garbage piled up and causing power outages across the country. Scores of university campuses were occupied.
Calls for a general strike grew louder in Ireland, following a 120,000 strong demonstration in Dublin in late February. The protests were led by over 300 sacked Waterford Crystal workers who were occupying their plant demanding nationalisation—an action that succeeded in saving 180 jobs.
Uniting the mobilisations across all three countries was opposition to cutbacks as a means to deal with economic crisis.
Governments had gone on the offensive against pensions, public service jobs and pay and education funding to pay for bank bail-outs.
All economies suffered spiraling unemployment, but government-led attacks were not uniform across Europe and neither was the resistance.
The racist slogan “British jobs for British workers” by oil workers in Britain, raised against the hiring of migrants, showed that anger could go in dangerous directions.
Polarisation of working class opinion—to the far right as well as the far left—was further demonstrated in the European elections, where Nazi groups like the British National Party enjoyed success at the same time as the new Anti-Capitalist Party in France and Die Linke (The Left) in Germany increased their vote.
Indian students rally against racist attacks
In late May thousands of Indian students demonstrated in Melbourne against racist bashings. Following an afternoon protest march, demonstrators occupied the major intersection at Flinders street for hours, until being brutally removed by police at 5am.
The protests catapulted the issue into the international spotlight. Both Rudd and Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull—who had long denied there was any problem—denounced the bashings and promised action.
Indian diplomats pushed for change as images of Rudd were burned on the streets of New Delhi. But Rudd continued to deny that racism is a serious issue in Australia. And he did nothing to address the structural racism that lies behind the demonisation of international students.
The international student industry is worth $15 billion. But lack of regulation leaves thousands at the mercy of shonky colleges. Student visas only allow 20 hours of work per week, forcing students to violate legal restrictions to get by.
Vocational training courses require students to complete 900 hours of work experience—meaning many are effectively used as slave labour by industry. New restrictions mean that many students who have completed these courses will now be denied access to permanent residency.
Ark Tribe faces court again
Thousands of construction workers rallied in defense of Ark Tribe, an Adelaide union delegate who refused to appear at an interrogation by the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).
The Rudd government’s ongoing commitment to the ABCC shows most starkly its continuation of Howard’s anti-union laws.
Building workers have no right to silence when being interrogated by the ABCC. If they fail to give information about union activity, they can be jailed for six months.
At the ACTU congress in June, Julia Gillard was delivered a “statement of concern” by the peak union body and was heckled by delegates.
At further mobilisations in October, the CFMEU leadership called on all members to prepare for a national strike if Ark Tribe is jailed.
Resistance to the ABCC has been the sharpest edge of union opposition to Rudd’s industrial regime. Despite promises to “tear up WorkChoices”, the new government has retained core anti-strike laws.
Secret ballots are still required to authorise industrial action, the ban on pattern bargaining remains, workers automatically lose four hours pay for even a five minute stopwork and industrial action can be suspended where “harm” is caused to a third party.
None of these restrictions were contained in the Coalition’s 1996 Workplace Relations Act.
Union right of entry has been expanded, but many restrictions—on where unions can hold meetings or the requirement to give notice—remain.
Unions have also campaigned against Rudd’s attempt to water-down awards and occupational health and safety standards.
Protests in Iran
A mass uprising in Iran against fraudulent elections sent political shockwaves around the world and demonstrated the possibilities for revolution in the 21st Century.
A central myth of US imperialism is that people in the Middle East need democracy brought to them by the barrel of a gun. But the enormous, militant street mobilisations, the biggest since the 1979 revolution that toppled the Shah, clearly rejected both the authoritarian clerical regime and western intervention.
A crisis at the top of Iranian society over economic problems and the country’s standoff with the US provided the oxygen for a people power explosion demanding democratization and the redistribution of wealth.
While thousands of Iranians were still staring down government bullets, strikes and street fighting also broke out in Honduras in response to a military coup.
Action for climate jobs at Vestas
Kevin Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) dashed hopes that the new government was serious about “action on climate change”. It locked in an abysmal 5 per cent target, promised billions to big polluters, offered nothing in terms of concrete investment in renewable energy and slugged ordinary workers with rising prices for energy and fuel.
The CPRS was of a piece with regulatory regimes established by governments around the world in 2009.
Universally, these have relied on “emissions trading” rather than public investment, entrenching the interests of big polluting companies and the free market and doing nothing for the climate.
The climate movement in Australia struggled to respond to Rudd’s CPRS and expose it for the scam that it is.
But on the Isle of Wight in Britain, a small group of sacked renewable energy workers from the Vestas wind-turbine company began an occupation of their workplace that electrified imaginations around the globe. When the company declared the factory would close with the loss of 600 jobs they moved into action.
The Vestas workers argued that the market would never solve climate change. They posed nationalisation of their factory and a massive expansion of public sector, renewable energy jobs as the perfect solution to both the climate and economic crises.
August 12 saw a national day of action in Britain in solidarity with the Vestas occupation. Stop work meetings took collections and heard from Vestas workers.
A campaign calling for the government to employ one million people in climate jobs was launched by a coalition of major trade unions.
Walk-off speaking tour against NT Intervention
In July, Aboriginal elders from Ampilatwatja in the NT led their community in a walk-off against the NT Intervention, setting up a bush camp outside the boundaries of the “prescribed area” and pledging to stay until the laws are repealed.
The catalyst for the protest was an overflow of sewage from household toilets onto the streets of Ampilatwatja. The Intervention had transferred community housing stock from a local committee to the NT government.
Despite a $700 million program, no new houses have been built anywhere through the Intervention. Small communities, like Ampilatwatja, will actually see resources restricted over the coming years through government attempts to centralise people living on traditional lands into “hub towns”.
The legitimacy of the Intervention is in tatters. The government’s own figures show evidence of profound social breakdown since its introduction (see page 8). Protests and legal challenges have delayed the attempt to compulsorily acquire the Alice Springs town camps.
The walk-off protest echoes the strikes for land rights and equal wages that transformed Aboriginal politics in the late 1960s. In October, a speaking tour by walk-off spokesperson Richard Downs won widespread union support for the protest camp. $20,000 has been raised to sink a bore and the campers are digging in for the long haul.
As conditions in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan drove desperate asylum seekers towards Australia, Kevin Rudd’s rhetoric took on the tone of Howard, as he took drastic measures to “stop the boats”.
Despite some small changes Rudd’s refugee policy has the same foundations as Howard’s—mandatory detention, border protection and offshore processing.
Resistance to this policy by Tamil asylum seekers fleeing Sri Lanka has exposed its brutality. Refugees intercepted by the Oceanic Viking, an Australian customs ship that took them back to Indonesia, refused to disembark from the boat. This example was followed by refugees aboard a boat at Merak, which had been stopped by the Indonesian navy following pressure from Rudd.
As the crisis came to a head, Australian labour movement leaders called on Rudd to honour Australia’s commitments and let the boats land in Australia. Right-wing AWU leader Paul Howes said we should “roll out the red carpet” for refugees.
Tragically, 13 other Tamils perished at sea, attempting to sail straight across the Indian ocean to Australia and escape the “Indonesian solution”.
As the year drew to a close, the health of the world economy appeared to have improved, but business and governments are still promising more pain through job losses and spending cuts.
Global climate negotiations at Copenhagen will fail to deliver any serious action on climate, as will Rudd’s CPRS. The racism of the NT Intervention and Rudd’s refugee policy show no signs of diminishing.
But Rudd’s Tampa-style “solution” to the refugee crisis symbolised a growing realisation amongst people that, just like Howard, Rudd will have to be campaigned against and pressured over all these issues. That understanding puts us in a better position for 2010 to be a year of fighting for real change.