Friday, 27 May 2011

Book Review - Live Working or Die Fighting by Paul Mason

Live Working
Die Fighting

How the Working Class Went Global

Paul Mason

Harvill Secker  £12.99

The BBC’s economics editor Paul Mason is best known for his investigative probing of big business leaders, economists and politicians who appear on Newsnight. The result can often be compelling, and the same is true of his book Live Working or Die Fighting. In this he brings to life the voices of workers, past and present, worldwide with the clear aim being to draw lessons for successful future struggles designed to raise living standards everywhere.

Published at a time when the post war consensus of a decent pension, healthcare and welfare benefits are coming under vigorous attack Mason’s book will be of great interest to trade unionists. Mason may welcome the creation of millions of new waged workers in places such as India and China, not forgetting in former eastern Bloc countries, but he certainly doesn’t want to see them being used to undercut the wages and conditions of their Western counterparts.

For Mason it’s a case of workers defending what they’ve got and not letting multi-national corporations play one group off against another. That means organising collectively and Mason starts his book with an examination of events at Peterloo in 1819 when Manchester’s then new industrial workforce marched in their thousands in demand of the vote and were cut to pieces, by those serving the ruling aristocracy, for daring to do so.

Repression its clear can be guaranteed from the ruling class and Mason provides plenty of examples over the intervening years to prove so. Yet it can’t stop workers organising. Even under Hitler Jewish workers through the Bund refused to lie down and fought heroically during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in April 1943. It also can’t prevent workers winning. In 1889 London dockworkers rose en masse to win sixpence an hour rather than five but, more importantly, by doing so demonstrated solidarity and a capacity for self-organisation. In the aftermath tens of thousands of unskilled workers rushed to join trade unions that much later merged into one union in Unite, whose attempts in recent years at organising migrant workers in the London docklands  builds on the original dockworkers honourable traditions.

Now in the search for ways of defending wages and jobs workers are revisiting some of the practices of the past. In Flint, Michigan in 1937 workers belonging to the United Auto Workers Union at General Motors occupied the plant to win a recognition agreement. Seventy-four years later when management at the Zanon ceramics factory in Neuquen, Argentina moved during an economic crisis to close it and remove the ovens the workers acted quickly to take over production.

Ten years later, and despite deciding to lessen work speeds, Zanon is still open and has taken on more employees from amongst the thousands of locally unemployed. Sometimes the workers really do know best, and it’s to Mason’s credit that he doesn’t attempt to pretend he knows better than them. Instead what he’s done is write a thought provoking book that is a really good read.

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