At Heathrow, once we’ve decided what we want, what actions shall we take to get it? And what can our method of action tell us about what we want? Some recent events might give us some hints.
Livorno and Naples Dockworkers.
Amidst the continuing atrocities against Palestinian civilians in the occupied territories, in mid-May, Italian dock workers at the Port of Livorno are refusing to load weapons destined for Israel. The workers of the USB (Unione Sindacale di Base) in collaboration with the Autonomous Collective of Port Workers of Genoa and the WeaponWatch association discovered the shipment and issued a statement. Dockworkers in Naples with the S.I.Cobas union also stated their determination to refuse to load military shipments destined for Israel, should they discover them. These actions aren’t totally spontaneous, but the result of ongoing organising work. Dockworkers in Genoa did the same in solidarity against the slaughter in Yemen with a shipment destined for Saudi Arabia back in 2019. After that action, Weapon Watch was established – a research group monitoring arms traffic in European and Mediterranean ports. In this region of Italy, links have been formed between researchers, autonomous worker collectives and base unions, to create situations where actions to defend working class people thousands of miles away are possible. Scaled up, these could be perceived as the embryonic rudiments of a counter-power capable of taking on nation-states and transnational corporations.
Refusing to do something you are contractually obligated to carry out isn’t allowed. But companies have limited options if the workers have unity, as the examples above show. It becomes not so much about whether something is legal or illegal but what power do workers have at work? What is the cost for bosses if they steamroller something through? Teachers in Chicago went on wildcat strikes a few years ago and even though they were thoroughly illegal, they had enough power to get their demands met nevertheless.
This is especially interesting for us as workers at Heathrow – a major logistics hub. Heathrow was already Britain’s largest port by value. The pandemic has seen demand for freight increase, even judged against pre-Covid levels. February 2021 saw a 9% increase on 2019 levels of freight. Companies are keeping less stock meaning they need to quickly order bits in when they run out; manufacturing in general is holding up quite well, and the pandemic is disrupting supply chains causing delivery delays, which prompts companies to opt for air transport, which is quicker. Added to this is huge quantities of PPE flown in since the beginning of the crisis. With passenger numbers likely to be uncertain in the near future and cargo proven more reliable and profitable in these troubled times, companies are likely to adjust their infrastructure and business models to accommodate it. Emirates adapting a huge double decker A380 into a cargo plane is a sign of this trend. This all means that, like dockworkers on the west coast of Italy, as Heathrow workers, we have a significant effect on global trade and power relations. Us workers have enormous potential power to wield, if we choose and make steps to use it. The relative success of the BA Cargo strike late last year shows that BA management were willing to make greater concessions to their cargo division than the other departments. The question is how to use it to link up to other groups of Heathrow workers, who may not wield so much direct power (e.g. cleaners), but who are vital parts of the Heathrow machine.
Organised port workers studying their own situation and realising the power they have, can improve their living standards, support workers elsewhere to do the same and contribute to the development of a broader discussion and understanding about aviation, global trade, the environment, human emancipation and the conflicting relationships between them. They can also offer direct, practical solidarity to their brothers and sisters overseas in their struggles, as the recent cases with Palestinians show.
Glasgow Immigration Raid
On the 2nd May, a crowd gathered in Kenmure Street, Glasgow in reaction to a dawn raid by immigration officials. Officials barged into the top-floor flat of the two men who have reportedly lived in the area for 10 years and work as a mechanic and chef. The men, originally from India, were loaded into a van to be taken to a detention centre because of “suspected immigration offences.” The crowd prevented the vehicle from leaving by the sheer weight of their numbers. After a nine hour stand off, the two men were released and escorted to a local Gurdwara for protection.
What started off as a few people with signs making phone calls soon turned into a crowd of hundreds. The protest didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. Tensions within the local community surrounding asylum issues have been escalating over the years and the community has been organising. The No Evictions and Anti-Raids networks have been active in raising awareness and attempting to disrupt Immigration Enforcement operations. That said, unless many members of the local community not linked to those groups had come out and refused to allow the abduction of their neighbour, they wouldn’t have achieved what they achieved. It was an amazing display of solidarity. It shows that people have considerable power to dictate the course of events, when they act together. It is clearly “illegal” to completely block the transportation of someone that Immigration Enforcement have earmarked for detention. But after watching the footage of the event, it’s hard not to conclude that with enough social force, the law begins to become pretty inconsequential. The roar of collective joy released when the men emerge from the back of the van is spine tingling. A healthy ripple of jealousy should reverberate through those of us that weren’t lucky enough to be involved. It should spur our efforts to cultivate the kind of environment in which these actions are more common and the exhilaration of overcoming the authorities, more widely dispersed. The Home Office has not given up and have said they’re committed to prosecuting the case. But they have been given a bloody nose and the community will have grown in confidence.
Again, Heathrow potentially has a quite significant role to play in all this. With deportation flights leaving from Heathrow and Europe’s largest detention centres on our doorstep, workers here are ideally placed to intervene. The so-called “hostile environment“ is being turbocharged under the stewardship of Priti Patel. The poor conditions at detention centres (not that we would find good detention conditions acceptable), the dawn raids outlined above, and the Home Office’s dodging of due process in asylum cases, is causing a massive amount of unnecessary suffering. The stated purpose is to discourage ‘illegal’ immigrants. The often implied purpose is the racist scapegoating of migrants that “drive down “our” wages,” while simultaneously stealing all “our” jobs and claiming all “our” benefits.
Recent reports of labour shortages due to Covid, Brexit and the hostile environment, which may lead to an increase in wages, will obviously cause problems for employers, eager for available workers to make them profits, but will play well politically for the UK’s ruling elite. The Conservatives and their media mouthpieces will spin a narrative, using increasing wages to justify the restrictions to immigration. Some workers will agree and reason that they have things hard enough and that they don’t need any extra competition from migrants. While this might be true in the short-term, this view fails to see the mutual interest all workers have in fighting together for improved living standards and control of our workplaces and communities. The rich can move their money wherever the labour is cheapest. If our wages get too high for the capitalists to stomach, they can migrate elsewhere. How does it benefit us to pretend that throwing up “our” borders solves anything? The system is so sick and perverse that it punishes us for improving our lot. Either through inflation, benefit cuts, improved technology or offshoring, the gains we make can be taken away from us in an endless cycle. Escaping this loop though needs a longer-term perspective and a realisation that the power of today’s rich resides in their ability to blackmail workers and even nation-states, with taking their investments elsewhere.
Workers’ response should be global in outlook and pay no respect to borders that benefit the ruling class at the expense of our fellow workers abroad. But when things seem hopeless, it’s easy to see that people look after themselves first and foremost. This is even more so when we see how many workers have, for the most part, been on the defensive for a good many years now, the attempts to to fight ‘fire and rehire’ strategies from management being the most recent example.
Aviation workers everywhere have significant power to challenge the dominant border regimes – if we coordinate our efforts. If we refuse to deport people, they can’t be deported. If we blockade detention centres, people can’t be detained. Much like the Italian dockworkers, it’s possible to conceive of a collaboration at Heathrow, between research/campaign groups like Detention Action, autonomous workers collectives like our own, and more militant unions leading to actions that help to destroy the “hostile” environment and create a much better one. Workers can come up with alternatives to the global Hunger Games we are expected to fight in. And have the power to bring them about.
Old Trafford Pitch Invasion
2nd May 2021 saw the first ever protest induced postponement of a Premier League football match in history. The scheduled Manchester United home fixture against Liverpool was abandoned after Manchester fans broke into the ground and occupied the pitch. Fans lit fireworks and flares and held banners and placards calling for the club owners (Billionaire businessmen Glazer brothers) to “fuck off.” The protest wasn’t entirely peaceful. Fans showed a large amount of commitment and dedication to entering the stadium. Police reported (to the extent that we can believe them) that six officers were injured in the protests, with one sustaining a fractured eye socket.
The cause of the protests was anger against club owners and (their now aborted) proposals for a new European Super League (ESL). The league’s announcement at 11pm on 18 April, to accommodate US audiences, was accompanied by rising share prices and jubilant advertisers. ESL operations were suspended three days after its founding due to a furious backlash from national football governing bodies, pundits, players and fans. Some fans are continuing the protests in an effort to get their clubs under new ownership. The Old Trafford pitch invasion was part of that effort.
It has been interesting to watch football legends turned pundits debate societal values and capitalism in their pre-match discussions. The whole affair has foregrounded debates about the state of our economic system and the trajectory of our society in general, more than most issues today. What the ESL proposed for football was, in many ways, another example of what has been happening in advanced economies for decades – the offshoring of production. While ticket sales, merchandise and TV subscriptions still contribute a significant amount of income for clubs, like so many industries, the real money comes from advertising. When an industry is dominated by an advertising revenue model, the product is not this or that widget, but the eyes watching the screen. The products are the fans watching the match, the consumers are advertisers. The greater the number of eyes on the match, the more you can demand for your advertising space.
Advertisers also want the viewers with the fattest wallets watching. No point advertising your high-end products or your gambling website to people with no money! This is partly the rationale behind the ever-increasing season ticket prices and the disgusting amount of atmosphere-destroying corporate boxes, full of hob-knobbing company boot-lickers separated from the hoi polloi and not watching the match. Corporations, and the wealthy elite that run them, don’t want informed, secure and empowered members of a community. They want ill-informed, insecure, impotent and isolated individuals – so they’re easier to rip off. Advertisers see the pitch as a distraction from the billboards and the match is the interlude before the important bit: the adverts. The fans’ love and sense of connection to the clubs (that are now transnational corporations) is the unpaid labour that fuels this industry. Under this model football’s historic ties to working class communities are being shattered. The orchestrators of the ESL were attempting to expand the scale of this market to other continents and increase their share of the existing revenue stream by setting themselves up as an elite league. The terrible job the would-be ESL owners made in pitching the proposals exposes their level of detachment. It’s pretty clear they have no idea what the fans of their clubs are thinking – and don’t care.
The backlash from fans, players and pundits was intense, but may not have been the major factor in getting the ESL suspended. The national governing bodies were obviously incensed and made various threats. There is a plausible theory that the ESL clubs were merely making a power play in an attempt to get a better deal from their respective governing bodies, UEFA and FIFA. Whatever the case may be, fans are now looking for solutions and contemplating actions. Many fans are wondering whether fan ownership is the answer. The refusal of the German clubs, that traditionally have far more fan ownership than in the UK, to participate in the ESL seems to support this view. Other fans, like those at Arsenal, drawn in by promises of “fan representation,”are pinning their hopes on a supposedly more benevolent billionaire, Spotify owner Daniel Ek and a consortium of team legends to save their club.
Fans have been discussing how they might link up with other fans across borders to press their interests. Reports of Barcelona fans kicking off were welcomed and debated. Some form of fan ownership may be a step in the right direction, but if fans really want to revive the feeling of attachment and local community that they expect from their involvement, questioning the capitalist’s system that drags their beloved game and everything else of value into the gutter, is essential. If football remains beholden to advertisers, fan-owned clubs will be subject to the same pressures and imperatives as big money owned clubs and degenerate just as surely. The profit motive is noxious and corrupting.
A major consequence of the direct action at Old Trafford was that a day after the protest, and following other protests across the country, the Premier League announced plans to bring in a new owners’ charter, which would prevent football club owners from forming future breakaway leagues, as well as introducing further restrictions and tougher penalties for non-compliance. More importantly on 8 May, UK retail and technology company The Hut Group pulled out of a £200 million sponsorship deal with the club due to the protests.
Is this such a bad thing given all of the above? It depends on what you want. When it comes to football, it is amazing and frustrating in equal measure to see fellow workers speaking with such erudition and acting with such conviction. We have incredible knowledge about the ins and outs of the entire process and have complete confidence that we are capable of doing just as good a job as those at the top. “I can play better than that idiot,” “the manager’s dog shit, he should use these tactics.” We make these assertions even though they are almost never true for premier league clubs (most top flight players and managers didn’t get to where they are by being crap at what they do) and even though we have almost no influence over the course of events. Why don’t we think like this when it comes to something we genuinely do know about and have influence over? – Our work!! If we spent half the time we spend on pondering a tactical decision at a match we can’t influence, in thinking about the way we want our daily lives to be run, we would be well on our way to solving a great many problems in our society!
Direct action could be defined as the use of one’s own power to achieve a political/economic end, as opposed to solutions that appeal to authorities for help. On this very narrow definition alone, it should be clear why direct action is preferable to all other forms of political engagement. If we have the power to effect a desired change, why would we appeal to authority to do it on our behalf? But do we have the power? 250 years ago, in his essay, ‘Of the First Principles of Government’, David Hume addressed the paradox that,
“Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs….. than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few, and the implicit submission with which men (sic) resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find that, as force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is, therefore, on opinion only, that government is founded, and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.”
If we take Hume’s comment on face value, it would imply that all we need to do is change our ‘opinions’; for us to realise that actually, it is us that have the power and we just need to stop accepting the state or bosses’ control over us. But if it were this simple, I’m sure we’d have told the bosses to fuck off by now! So what’s missing? We think that material conditions – mainly an economic system that forces us to relate to one another and our wider environment in a competitive and exploitative way – help form our opinions. They also prevent or discourage the development of opinions and the acquisition of knowledge that might challenge the dominant power structures in our society. So how do we overcome these structures, whose very purpose is to keep us disciplined and feeling powerless? Unlike reading an essay by some old Tory philosopher, we think direct action can more concretely, change our social relations, and therefore our ‘opinions’. The act of using our own powers to achieve our objectives, has the effect of affirming and expanding those powers and altering our perception and consciousness of their scope and application.
Heathrow Workers Power