Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln provides an excellent though dramatised snapshot of one of the most seminal moments in US and world history, when slavery was formally abolished with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution as the Civil War neared its conclusion.

It is hard to grasp, when viewing these events 150 years later, the monumental part that Abraham Lincoln played in ending slavery in the midst of a political environment which ensured that its abolition was far from certain right up until the vote on the Thirteenth Amendment was taken.

As the movie highlights, the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 was a temporary war measure drawn up by Lincoln under his constitutional authority as commander in chief of US armed forces. It was not a law passed by the US Congress. The danger that Lincoln faced was that if there was no amendment to the Constitution formally abolishing slavery then the power to do so would revert to the States once the war was over, making it certain that it would remain sanctioned by law in the former slave states. The amendment passed easily in the Senate, where the Republicans held an overall majority, but in the House they did not and winning the vote by the two-thirds majority required was far from a foregone conclusion.

Lincoln was faced with centrifugal political forces both to the right and left of him as he sought the votes he  needed to pass the amendment. On his left the radical Republicans, led by Thaddeus Stevens, would brook nothing less than immediate steps to recognise the full and complete racial equality of the slaves, up to and including their enfranchisement.  This Lincoln knew was impossible. The best that could be won, based on the forces arrayed against him to his right in the shape of a small group of conservative Republicans and War Democrats, was equality under the law. Ever a gradualist and pragmatist, Lincoln was a man who understood the necessity in politics of tailoring aims at any given time to prevailing conditions.  In the movie this is depicted in an exchange between Lincoln and Stevens, during which their respective differences on the speed at which full equality can take place are discussed.

In response to the Senator’s accusation that Lincoln is a compromiser and weak, Lincoln tells him

“A compass will point you true north. But it won’t show you the swamps between you and there. If you don’t avoid the swamps, what’s the use of knowing true north?”

I’m not sure if this exchange was apocryphal or not, but it offers an object lesson in politics as the art of the possible, an art in which Abraham Lincoln was a true genius.

To his right, Lincoln was faced with those War Democrats and conservative Republicans who were up in arms over the possibility that the amendment would result in racial equality and the enfranchisement of 4 million former slaves being called for by Stevens and the abolitionists. For them the priority throughout the Civil War had always been the maintenance of the Union and to halt the expansion of slavery rather than see its complete abolition. It was the same position taken by Lincoln himself, reflected in the contents of a letter he wrote in response to an editorial by Horace Greeley which appeared the New York Tribune in 1862, calling for abolition. Lincoln wrote

“My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

However, further on in the same letter, he writes

“I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.

Here we see irrefutable evidence of the distinction that Lincoln drew between what he viewed as his official duty as president of the United States to preserve the Union at all costs in 1862, including slavery if need be, and his personal wish to see it ended. It is a vital distinction, as it serves to refute the notion that Lincoln was not anti-slavery as a matter of principle but instead adopted an anti-slavery position as a tactic to help win the war.  The difference between 1862, when he articulated the sentiments expressed in his letter to Greeley, and 1864-65 when he was pushing for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, was two years of Civil War making the conditions required to push for abolition more favourable and his re-election with a mandate to do so.

Frederick Douglass, the great black champion of the abolitionist cause, once said of Lincoln, “In his company, I was never reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color”

Lincoln was able to win the necessary Democrat votes required to give him his two thirds majority by offering patronage in the form of federal jobs and positions of influence. The passing of the amendment is a very powerful moment in the movie, illustrative of its impact after 400 years of African slavery. The fact that Lincoln shared a country with millions of barbarians who believed that slavery was right and ordained by nature and the bible, his achievement in winning the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment was a phenomenal one. But by no means did the struggle end there.  The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which taken together with the Thirteenth are known as the Reconstruction Amendments, followed after Lincoln’s death on April 15, 1865, when he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

The movie includes Oscar winning performances by Daniel Day Lewis (Lincoln), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), Sally Field (Mary Lincoln), and David Strathairn (William H Seward). Typically of a Speilberg movie it is beautifully shot and the attention to historical detail when it comes to sets, costume, and atmosphere is first rate. There are a couple of melodramatic moments in the film that it could have done without, however – none more so than the unlikely scene of two black Union soldiers repeat the Gettysburg Address to Lincoln while the president is on a visit to their camp.  It is also unconscionable that Frederick Douglass is missing from the movie, given the historical role that he played in the campaign to end slavery and his relationship with Lincoln.

Finally, a word on the pictures that accompany the article. They are of the only monument to the US Civil War that exists outside the US. The monument is located in the Old Calton Cemetery in Edinburgh city centre and was erected in 1893 honour of Scottish soldiers who volunteered and fought for the Union side.


David Renton, Struck Out. Why Employment Tribunals fail Workers and What Can be Done (London: Pluto Press, 2012).
David is the socialist barrister who helped the blacklisted Dave Smith win his case. This is an extremely well-informed but readable book. It describes why Employment Tribunals were set up, how they have developed, why the current government wants to stack the odds against workers even more and why strong workplace organisation is the key to defending workers’ rights.

The main points about the legislation were as follows:

a) The two-year ‘probation’ period for new starters was worse than currently applied by employers.

b) Workers currently win 60% of cases once they get to tribunals.

c) The raising of costs to up to £20,000 is designed to take good cases out of tribunals.

d) Fees of between £400 and £1,500 for tribunals were designed to prevent smaller claims.

e) TUPE ‘harmonisation’ allowed for conditions to be worsened.

f) ‘No fault dismissal’ and ‘protected conversations’ were a bully’s charter.

g) There were eight reinstatements out of 40,000 unfair dismissal cases in 2010-2011.

h) The BA/Unite case had discouraged employers from seeking spurious injunctions.

The trade union response should be ‘a howl of protest’ (without accepting that previous legislation was adequate), roll with the defeat while industrialising disputes, organising walk-outs and initiating collective disputes (perhaps using a test group).

Workplace trade union organisation needed to be tightened so that an effective collective response can prevent individuals from having to go through the long, expensive and very uncertain experience of getting to an Employment Tribunal.

Trades Councils are ‘a repository of knowledge’ and every union branch should affiliate.

Why not get Ben Sellers to order you a copy?

Dave Harker

‘Passing the Buck: Corporate Restructuring and the Casualisation of Employment’, Work Organisation Labour and Globalisation Volume 5 Number 1, 2011

Generally speaking the term ‘casual’ has positive connotations – relaxed, informal, easy-going. Applied to the world of labour though, the reverse is true. It increasingly describes a situation of insecure, pressure-driven employment at the whim of employers whose demands may chop and change, forcing millions of workers to realign their lives, routines and other commitments in their struggles to get by: less casuals than casualties. This new edition of WOLG examines the boom in casual employment over the last quarter of a century, as globalisation, corporate restructuring and the dynamics of ‘financialisation’ have undermined established employment patterns and national accords between capital, labour and the state around the world.

Setting the scene Ursula Huws points out that our received views on casual labour – as an anachronism swept away by industrialisation, the growth of a formal economy and state regulation – are incorrect. Formed against the backdrop of the regulated post-war economy of the West and its model of employment (with permanent jobs, collective bargaining on pay and conditions, and a supporting welfare state) we have mistaken this temporary arrangement for a universal process; and are now rudely confronted with a dramatic reversal in new political and economic circumstances. An unprecedented trend of casualised employment is being unleashed by those capitalist forces of modernity we once assumed would sweep it away.

Today’s transnationals (TNCs) increasingly rely on armies of reserve labour around the globe, attracting migrant labour or offshoring work, to staff its value chains, for both primary and secondary functions. The old secure ‘core’ is now itself under pressure through outsourcing, bringing casualisation into the heart of the modern formal economy. All this has had massive effects on labour, which now faces a far more diverse and fragmented working experience across the globe, bringing new challenges for workers and the organisation and power of labour movements.

Let’s begin with the role of the TNC as mainspring of the new casualised employment patterns, as traced by Claude Serfati. He argues that the roots of this lie in the dual nature of its modern form, both industrial conglomerate and financial group. These giants are driven to expand value along both axes by short-term, market-led strategies, in a world where deregulated financial markets, new product innovations and the offshore economy allow  great scope for the asset management of their ‘vast, but evanescent networks of portfolio companies’. The much-noted turbulent restructuring of global value chains, changes in corporate ownership, fragmentation of production processes and switch to cheaper, precarious workforces all flow from this central tendency.

TNCs are able to develop their own integrated global spaces to coordinate these productive and financial activities, relying on extensive outsourcing, offshoring and the creation of intermediaries to house various forms of financial engineering – intra-company trading, transfer pricing, tax avoidance, trade in intangible seerrvices, even FDI flows. The two strands are increasingly intermingled, with as much focus on rent appropriation through the exercise of financial and intellectual property rights, as value-producing manufacturing. In sum, the logic of ‘financialisation’ has clearly taken hold of TNC activities, with drastic consequences for workers everywhere, as the case studies that follow show.

These studies, drawn from all corners of the global economy, illuminate some of the great variety in the contemporary forms of casual / informal / precarious employment. At one extreme are the Brazilian cosmetic resellers, an 800,000 strong workforce for a company that provides no contracts of employment, has no shops or distribution outlets, and prescribes no defined form or place of work. Ludmila Costhek Abilio suggests it is this very amorphous and dispersed quality that holds the key to their effective exploitation. Their direct selling can be inserted into a variety of social relations and spheres (home, work, family, neighbourhood, friends), combined with other existing social roles (paid work, domestic labour), and is open to all-comers – a feature that underpins its recent expansion.

From the point of view of capital accumulation, it is the resellers who bear all the risks and costs: they must deal with the ordering, delivery, storage and control of the stock, organise presentations and sales, manage the intense competiton between themselves, and provide marketing and feedback functions for the company. Most remarkable in all this is that the workforce undertakes all these tasks willingly, with no sign of any resistance to the extra exploitation it brings.

In the South African garment industry, Marlea Clarke and Shane Godfrey discover a dramatic shift from formal to infomal employment in recent years, as the sector struggled to deal with new competitive pressures unleashed by trade liberalisation and the rise of low cost importers like China. Unable to easily respond, its producers looked to outsource their work to local ‘cut, make and trim’  (CMT) operations that used informal labour. The powerful domestic retail sector added further constraints, forcing extra price and timescale concessions on manufacturers through their control of industry supply chains. A full-scale shift to informal employment across the sector duly followed, with manufacturers giving way to CMT operations coordinated by a new set of labour intermediaries and ‘design houses’ in a bid for survival. Overall the authors find that employment levels have stayed the same across the industry – but garment workers themselves now face far worse pay and conditions in unregistered firms or working at home, beyond the national standards and rights upheld in the formal sector.

Meanwhile in the booming Indian economy, the processes of development are playing our across the state of Karnataka (and its IT hub of Bangalore)  in new hybrid forms, with formal and informal labour acting as coexisting partners. Thomas Barnes draws on Indian Economic Census data to map these changes, showing that from 1990 – 2005 there has been a marked rise in waged labour, rather than the non-waged labour of household commodity production. However, this ‘proletarianisation’ has been primarily within small-scale enterprises which rely on informal labour, and has not resulted in masses of labour brought together in large factories (the assumption of Classical Marxism). Barnes argues the Census data actually underestimates the scale of this informal labour, since it does not capture its use witihin large enterprises of the fomal economy, by employers who rely on ‘atypical’ workers for their extra ‘flexibility’, costing less to hire and fire, and lacking any of the protections / rights linked to formal employment. The ‘old’ is clearly inside the ‘new’ here.

‘Passing the Buck’ also contains a set of more general, theoretical reflections on the role of casualisation in the global economy. Looking at the picture across the whole Brazilian economy, where over half the workforce now has an informal status, Ricardo Antunes describes this restructuring in terms of ‘freeze-dried flexibility’. Labour is losing its old stable forms: flexible labour practices, subcontracting, outsourcing and homeworking, variable pay and the loss of permanent contracts, all leave it moving uneasily between work and under or unemployment. This tendency is found in manufacturing and the service sector, where a growing ‘infoproletariat’ performs its virtual labour. For Antunes the increasingly knowledge based nature of modern production is expanding the forms of labour degradation, cognitive labour being employed and its powers appropriated into the productive machinery, as the spur to further exploitation, through the ‘continuous improvement’ techniques of lean production. What results from all this is a familiar paradox: the age of scientific progress and digital accumulation is also an age of labour informalisation, insecurity and its fracturing into a massive variety of forms, social regress in place of social progress.

Giovanni Alves takes a closer look at what this generalised ‘precariousness’ means for workers caught up in it. Flexible employment practices covering working time, pay and contracts are creating ‘ a new structure of everyday life for the working class’, affecting their working time, their subjectivities and overall quality of life. Relationships between work and non-work times and spaces are being redrawn to suit the needs of capital accumulation; the linking of pay and performance to targets generates pressure in work, as well as undermining collective wage negotiation; whilst the lack of any permanent contracts leaves workers uncertain, fearful and fragments their working experiences. Looked at in its broadest terms what we have here is not simply the dismantling of established labour relations but a wholesale assault on workers lives, their subjectivities and labour collectives.

Within the modern corporation itself Claudia Figari cites evidence from Argentina to show how labour force recomposition and precarious employment fits into overall corporate strategies of ‘modernisation’. Although ‘Taylorism’ and ‘continuous improvement’ systems lie at the heart of corporate restructuring, their actual implementation depends on a lower level ‘set of mediations’ to reorganise working practices, labour forces and their cultures. She finds a two pronged approach of standardisation and differentiation at work here. Company managers are systematically excluding experienced older workers – through voluntary retirement schemes and outsourcing of various functions – to clear the way for the introduction of new forms of standardised managerial control over a younger workforce, based on individual targets and remuneration, behavioural monitoring et al. Workers themselves are then divided between those retained as direct employees and those facing a more precarious existence in outsourced firms. This restructuring can throw up problems – especially a loss of technical know-how in ther workplace – but none of the examples Figari cites showed any significant organised worker opposition, even where trade unions had an active presence in the company. Labour is undoubtedly worse off as a result – worked and monitored more intensively, with less security of employment.

Overall then, as Ursula Huws points out, ‘precariousness is the normal condition of labour under capitalism’. After the historical interlude of post-war labour stability in the West, trade unions everywhere now face massive challenges in responding to labour precariousness, needing to move beyond protecting the interests of formal labour market insiders to include the masses of disposable casualised labour. On the evidence of ‘Passing the Buck’ there is a long way to go. None of the unions discussed here – in India, South Africa or Argentina – had any great success in resisting casualisation or ‘organising the unorganised’. In one case, the South African garment workers union found its efforts to achieve national collective bargaining undermined by the sector’s shift to informalisation, leaving many workers outside the scope of any agreements reached. This fundamental organisational challenge for trade unions today is one you can follow elsewhere on the New Unionism website.

Richy Leitch

Amanda Tattersall, Power in Coalition. Strategies for Strong Unions and Social Change (Cornell University Press, 2010), £12.95

Many in the trade union movement are now looking at building alliances with other social groups in their struggles against the Tories.

Is this simply a matter of bringing together other affected communities and launching a loud collective ‘NO’?

Not according to this book. Amanda Tattersall looks at some of the key principles that underpin successful alliance building, examining three examples of union – community coalitions, spanning struggles against the privatisation of education and healthcare, and a living wage campaign.

Some of her arguments are surprising. For instance, it is not the breadth but the depth of a coalition that gives it strength.

An ‘all-comers welcome’ approach often leads to a minimal programme (which is all the disparate groups can agree on).

There is a key role for coalition organisers as coordinating forces and bridge builders, one that needs independence, rather than someone doubling up on top of their existing organisational duties.

We cannot succeed purely with defensive struggles and agendas. Progressive coalitions need a vision of what they are for.

And finally, she is adamant that unions cannot rely on purely ‘instrumentalist’ approaches to coalition building – looking to gain support for their own pre-determined agendas, rather than committing to building a genuine partnership where all players have a say in shaping a common goal.

Strike any chords??

Richy Leitch

For a fuller review, see

Gareth Peirce, Dispatches from the Dark Side on Torture and the Death of Justice (Verso, 2010), £7.99

‘We inhabit the most secretive of democracies, which has developed the most comprehensive of structures to hide its misdeeds, shielding them always from view behind the curtain of “national security”‘.

These are the opening comments of Gareth Peirce, a brave human rights lawyer renowned for her work in seeking the release of the wrongly convicted Birmingham 6 and Guildford 4.

Few books have been written on the use and abuse of torture, though Philippe Sands, a liberal lawyer, published Torture Team, and raised serious questions on the flagrant abuses and blatant ignoring of international human rights laws.

Dispatches from the Dark Side gives glimpses of the redefinition of torture and abusive practices Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld , but claims to be almost completely in the dark about the part played by the British intelligence services, and, in turn, by Blair, and Foreign Office, and Home Office ministers, who provided information that was used in torture conditions.

This careful scrutiny gives clear evidence that British foreign policy and domestic policy has been – and is being – conducted in violation not only of our own laws, but also international laws, and makes the British government complicit in torture and the commission of internationally prohibited crimes against humaity.

The book covers the atrocities of Guantanamo, the abuses in Ireland, and revelations on Lockerbie, and stresses that important human rights law are evidently under threat from the current government regime.

This slim book packs a punch above its weight, and is an important tool for all campaigners and all who cherish human rights and seek to resist attempts to discredit and dismantle human rights laws.

Buy it!

Dave Ayre