Summertime, When the Living Ain’t Easy – Israel and the ‘Tent City’ Protests

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In many ways 2011 has, thus far, been a year of public protest and action, frequently verging on the revolutionary. With the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Algeria and Syria, either having proved successful in changing government and/or government policy, or showing no signs of abating until they do, global media attention has become focused on how such outpourings of public discontent are being organised and maintained. Much writing and commentary has been devoted to the internet as a source of free-floating information that circumvents the controls governments have previously been able to exert over their populations. A negative aspect of this preoccupation, has been the increasing ‘threat’ to social cohesion that the internet has come to represent even within supposedly democratic governments such as France, the UK and the US.


After the UK riots at the beginning of August, much of the press and government criticism was directed toward the ease with which individuals were able to organise and incite public violence via on-line social media and mobile technology. In many ways this has paralleled the increasing mistrust of the internet amongst more obviously totalitarian regimes, such as Iran and China, which in turn is fuelling the desire for western democracies to crackdown on the ‘too free’ circulation of information via the internet’s various social media sites. Part of the UK government response to the riots was to utilise emergency legislation to prosecute individual’s who were seen to be using the internet to spread provocative and inflammatory information regarding the public violence. In America the S.773 Cybersecurity Act of 2009, proposed by Sen. John Rockefeller and Sen. Olympia Snowe, has been working its way through Congress. This act whilst seeking to tighten the US’s Federal interstate internet security procedures, also includes the possibility for the federal government to seize control of private-sector internet networks (in much the same way as the Chinese government does), in the event of a ‘cybersecurity emergency’.


The internet has become a source of intense paranoia for global government regimes, as internet users far from being bound to their desks by the ready availability of frivolous on-line entertainment, have increasingly sought to use the powers of the internet to organise large-scale public activities and demonstrations. Aside from the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings, there have also been Tea Party and anti-Tea Party rallies throughout the US, all year long, many of which have harnessed similar social media tools to give their movements shape. In Greece and Spain general strikes and protests have been organised, via the internet, in response to vast and rapid cuts to ailing public sector institutions and state welfare services. Throughout Europe and North America regular protests against the Afghan War have similarly been prompted by direct internet action. Whilst in Chile students have organised various actions against the government during August, in protest at the poor infrastructure in the Chilean secondary and higher education systems.


Perhaps one of the most intriguing and challenging of recent national protests have been those taking place in Israel for the last six weeks. Whereas the ‘Arab Spring’ protests, were in effect uprisings, whilst the Greek, Spanish and Chilean protests were limited to narrow, if important, political aims, and the Tea Party/anti-Tea Party rallies in the States were more about different, conflicting ideas of governance, the Israeli protests have featured a panoply of social and political issues that have come from middle-class Israel, as well as lower-class Israel, and have sought to blur the strict, dividing boundaries between Palestinian and Israeli concerns. At the core of these protests is a disillusionment with the lack of socially responsible economic reforms made by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government, which has in turn spilled over into increasingly radical demonstrations against social issues that are, as a result of this inaction, biting at the financial heels of more than just the worst-off in Israeli society.


These economic and social action protests have politically energised and engaged a normally relatively docile, if divisive, Israeli population, with over 450,000 people having taken to the streets in various different demonstrations and activities over the last six weeks. Unlike in London, where a slow-acting and alienating government, endured the kind of violence that stems from a generalised breakdown in the relationship between youth and authority, with little or no obviously articulated political agenda underpinning the rage and chaos upon the streets, Israel has seen weekend after weekend of carefully marshalled and organised political and social demonstration. Much of this activity has directly stemmed from the population’s engagement with different internet forums (at the forefront of which have been the ‘Activism’ blogroll and the ‘Wisdom of the People’ portal, which utilises a live chat messenger service to help organise events and actions) and social media, leaving Netanyahu’s government looking increasingly embattled.


The origins of the Israeli protests can be traced back to the issue of housing and accommodation in Israel, as well as a more generalised concern with the cost of living, as embodied by the effective protests regarding the price of an Israeli dietary staple, cottage cheese. The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, has written extensively over the past six weeks about the protests. Initially the protests developed around a Facebook-organised protest instigated by Daphni Leef, which asked for people (at first mainly students) to congregate along Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv and construct a ‘tent city’. Leef, a filmmaker who had been involved in previous political protests regarding army service and civil marriage, had discovered, when she was looking for new accommodation in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, that rent costs had doubled over the previous five years. Concerned and shocked by this information she set about sounding out students and young people on Facebook, to see what other people’s experiences were of the rental issue.


On Thursday 14th July 2011, the first tents began to be erected in and around Rothschild Boulevard. Within days the movement had transferred to other cities and communities (such as Beersheba and Ramat Gan) and the Likud government began to realise that there was a significant Israeli popular political protest underway, for the first time in the country’s brief, but troubled, history. Normally Israeli’s would limit street protests to issues of defence and settlement, fearing that a protest directed at domestic policies of government would destabilise their regional power base in the eyes of external aggressors, such as Iran. Leef’s movement seemed to be establishing a different relationship between Israel and her neighbours, seemingly channelling some of the energy from the Arab uprisings in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Bahrain and directing this toward Netanyahu’s government and their apparent lack of understanding of basic domestic issues affecting the majority of Israelis.


As Bronner points out Likud and their finance minister, Yuval Steinitz, initially were seen to react quickly to the concerns and demands of the protestors:-

“promising construction of thousands of new housing units, along with a set of changes to bulldoze bureaucracies and press landlords to expand the market through a mix of carrot and stick (sell and get a bonus; don’t sell and face a tax)”

Yet some are now beginning to question whether Israel’s government have perhaps been a little too responsive to the demands of protestors.


A few weeks prior to the tent protests, Israel’s government had faced political pressure over the soaring cost of cottage cheese. Under fire from various protest groups the Knesset authorised State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss to look into the issue of cottage cheese prices, resulting in a 25% reduction in the price of cottage cheese. Clearly buoyed by the success of this particular issue, certain groups on the political left in Israel, such as The National Left, had begun to cultivate and mobilise protest groups against the issue of housing costs. Leef’s decisive intervention in establishing a Facebook site for much of the political dissent bubbling under the surface of Israeli society, has since snowballed into the longest period of political protest in Israeli history and has effectively brought together elements of the political right and left, as well as Israeli and Palestinian communities – one of the most noted ‘tent city’ constructions was that carried out by Palestinian activists in the Israeli-Arab city of Tayibe (or Taibeh).


On consecutive weekends during the last week of July and the first week of August, protestor numbers swelled to over 300,000, counting for something like 5% of Israel’s total population, a figure unheard of in Israeli domestic protests. The movement had shifted from its narrow focus on issues to do with housing, to a concern with something it was terming ‘social justice’, with the left-leaning independent mayor of Beersheba, Ruvik Danilovich listing “education, health care and affordable housing” as the most pressing social issues that the Israeli government needed to address. The general tenor of the protests themselves was seen as being a commitment to numbers rather than issues, with a feeling that the protests whilst being mainly peaceful, were doing nothing more than creating ‘party atmospheres’ in which politics was taking a backseat. Regardless of the protestors intentions, the sheer volume of people on the streets couldn’t be ignored by Netanyahu and his government.


As Gideon Rachman puts it in his excellent FT column, 2011 has had a the feel of “the year of global indignation” and whereas nothing obviously links the politics behind the street demonstrations in Chile, Greece and China, with those occurring in Israel, Rachman is right to point out that

“Many of the countries hit by unrest have explicitly accepted rising inequality as a price worth paying for rapid economic growth”

The free market, possibly neo-liberal, economic theories of the likes of Friedman and Stigler have been refined and gradually worked into policy in countries like Chile, Sweden, the US, the UK and, of course, Israel. The aggressive rolling back of the social policy mechanisms of state in many countries, after the economic turmoil of 2008, have left an increasing number of people around the world feeling dramatically disenfranchised from the apparent wealth of their national economies. In Israel, as Bronner points out, Netanyahu’s government has, on paper, managed economic growth superbly. Yet despite the fact that the

“unemployment rate was 5.8 percent, a 25-year low and about half of that of Europe. Its currency, the shekel, is strong. Its exports outstrip its imports. It is attracting foreign investors, especially in the high-tech sector”

it has still being unable to adequately convince large parts of its population, particularly those under forty years of age, that these are indeed times of plenty.


Having already extracted numerous ‘assurances and guarantees’ from the Likud government, as well as some noted immediate policy intervention, in recent weeks the protest movement has once again morphed from peaceful protest and demonstration to a slightly more legally ‘dubious’ approach. Esther Witt, a special education teacher, originally from the Netherlands, is one of the figures who has spear-headed the ‘lightning squat’ recently adopted by ‘social justice’ protestors. Witt had been in attendance at ‘tent city’ protests in Independence Park, Jerusalem, earlier in August. In an article featured in Haaretz she had given a very clear, individual picture of some of the difficulties families were facing in Israel just to meet the costs of keeping a roof above their heads.


During the last weekend in August Witt, and a coalition of fellow activists, engaged in the first truly ‘controversial’ piece of political theatre of the protests, thus far. The group broke into a vacant building owned by the Jewish National Fund (JNF), not far from Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem. Taking over the four-storey building they christened it the ‘People’s House’ and held a public squat, that Witt hoped would force the government to introduce stricter property-ownership regulations, making it impossible for such buildings to remain unoccupied. In a Guardian report by Luke Brown, Witt claimed

“We’re trying to make a point – this building could easily house four families but it has stood empty for 15 years, … We want those people who own apartments in Israel but only come to the country for two weeks a year to feel that if they leave their apartment empty, it’ll be squatted, and so it’s in everyone’s interest if they rent them out instead.”

Witt, and those like her in Israel, are people newly committed to an old-fashioned idea of ‘society’ in the face of a perceived widening of social inequalities, as a result of aggressively pursued policies for economic growth. Whereas the noises from governments throughout the developed world are mainly of the bemused variety (how can people be protesting when so many nation’s are wealthier than they have ever been?), it is in protest movements like that in Israel that we are seeing the first articulations of dismay with the self-serving nature of much global economic policy and social reform.


CODA:- (Since starting work on this article much has changed about the situation of the protests, that can only really be reported, rather than directly commented on. What follows is an addendum tracing outlining recent events)

This latest escalation in the protest movement was followed by a momentary lapse in demonstrations, where the numbers of protestors in ‘tent cities’ across the country dwindled, but on Friday 2nd September the largest protests of all were stage across Israel, pulling in upwards of 450,000 people. The largest protest was staged at Kikar Hamedina, a large plaza in the centre of Tel Aviv. Protest leaders and student groups addressed the crowds asking for action and recognition from the Knesset. In the aftermath of this historic night Israeli city councils poured pressure on the protest movement to begin sustained dialogue with the Knesset and the Trajtenberg Committee instituted by Netanyahu on August 8th 2011 to examine the socioeconomic issues at the heart of the protests.


A temporary hiatus was called amongst the protest movements various bodies, but no solid attempt, as yet, has been made to discuss issues pertaining to Israel’s socioeconomic problems with the Trajtenberg Committee (many protestors remain opposed to any talks other than with the Knesset). The protest movement has since intimated its demands are to

“ “eliminate economic centralization”, propose a discussion to end monopolies, dismantle economic pyramids, increase competition, tax reform that would cancel the lowering of corporate taxes while raising taxes on high-income individuals, lowering indirect taxes, and monitoring of the capital market.”

Furthermore there have been increased calls for a return to the ‘welfare state’ model of social governance, that Netanyahu’s government has assiduously dismantled. Within the last 48 hours, a hardcore contingent of protestors that have chosen to ignore the requests of the government, local councils and the protest movements leaders, have been engaged in skirmishes and clashes with Israeli police. It remains to be seen what will happen next in this monumental protest movement, but it is unlikely that Netanyahu’s government will be able to ignore the events of the past six weeks and attempt to draw a line under proceedings.

Power-To Disap-Point

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Article Prompted by:- The Political Party That Wants to Ban PowerPoint (Julie Bindel, The Observer, Sunday 28th August, 2011)

I occasionally worry if Orson Welles (as Harry Lime) wasn’t really on to something after all with his wonderful justification of amorality from atop the Ferris wheel of Vienna’s Prater amusement park. Switzerland occasionally bursts into the public consciousness with global projects like the LHC, but more often than not it drifts about in a willfully decadent obscurity of its own making, seemingly disconnected from the global events that besiege other wealthy nations. This belies the fact that Switzerland tends to do a fairly good job of tackling social crises’, such as their growing urban heroin problem in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Far from being an unresponsive and sluggish politics, the Swiss approach to national governance, with its tendency toward direct representation and reasoned consensus, actually seems to do an admirable job of empowering its citizens, given them most of what they want, whilst managing to ensure economic stability. In many ways it is a shame that Switzerland doesn’t take a more vocal role upon the international stage, where for many, it is nothing more than the low-tax playground for the privileged and the pompous (Phil Collins, anyone?).

How irritating then that the one story involving the Swiss political landscape that does get a bit of serious media mileage, is the almost too laughable tale of Matthias Poehm, a former-software engineer turned experienced public-speaking trainer. Mr. Poehm has seen fit to try to establish a serious political party around one of the most pressing issue of the day – the overuse of Microsoft’s PowerPoint presentation software at conferences, seminars and public-speaking events. For Poehm, who is at pains to highlight on his website the fact he is “organizing the most expensive public speaking seminar in Europe” (penis envy, anyone?), the scourge of modern society is Microsoft’s all too-handy presentation utility, which reduces even the most enthralling talk to, as Bindel puts it, an exercise in boring an audience to tears “with fiddly slides consisting of flying texts, fussy fonts or photo montages”.

Whereas Bindel, in her article, is actually highlighting a more crucial issue, namely the wastefulness of many an ‘academic’ conference, in terms of the money required to front the proceedings and the likelihood that said conference will actually generate any stimulating work, beyond that which could have been printed on a blog, or in a journal/book, Poehm seems to be more obsessed with the idea that the software itself is responsible for a CHF 2.1 billion loss in the Swiss economy. Poehm puts together his economic theorem by pulling a whole lot of statistics out of the ether (4.1 million employees in Switzerland, including school children; 11% of whom are involved in PowerPoint presentations regularly, at least twice a week; 85% of participants in these presentations are demotivated by them, the swiss average hourly wage is CHF 56.30). As you can see this ragbag of statistical data lacks even the slightest pretence at contextualisation. How are school children employees? Where does his ‘conservative’ estimate come from? How can he regulate for presentations twice a week? Where is the economic model to quantify the damage of demotivation? Oddly this impressively vague and random assortment of information, actually makes one wish that Poehm was more versed in presenting statistical data, using software like PowerPoint, as an example that comes quickest to mind.

Bindel’s justifiable ire at the shoddy state of much academic discourse (particularly in the Humanities), conducted through the flawed medium of the Conference, has somehow attached itself inscrutably to a kneejerk neo-Ludditism and found something of resonance in Poehm’s frankly farcical political campaign. In many ways Bindel and Poehm’s complaints are nothing more than the blaming of one’s tools for the poor quality of work one produces. Is it not far more likely that the poor-standards of presentation are perhaps more to do with the poor quality of the ideas behind them, or even the inability to execute the presentation of these ideas properly using the software selected. Rather than talking up a relatively politically pointless Anti-PowerPoint agenda, perhaps we should be targeting the more serious ineffectiveness of multiple conferences, presentations and seminars, or the poor standard of computer skills training within many institutions (particularly of the educational variety) and companies.

What confirms the absurdity of Poehm’s position is the solution that he floats, as if it were something people had never considered doing before, of utilising a flip-chart in presentations. Bindel stands by her man here, by claiming that she turns up to conferences nowadays with “a set of index cards on which I have jotted down key points”. What, both Poehm and Bindel, genuinely seem frustrated with, is the notion that a person can get up in front of a room full of people and stumble through a flashily animated computer presentation, without having devoted any time to what they wish to achieve with the presentation. They are right to suggest that there is more to public-speaking than some computer-generated fireworks, yet their obsession with PowerPoint, or more broadly computer technology, as an obstacle to direct human communication, strikes me as more than a little fallacious, knowingly or otherwise. The absurd statistic that Poehm produces, and cannot even justify in his video address, that 95% of PowerPoint presentations would be as effective, if not more effective, if delivered on a flipchart, is just another reason to deeply mistrust the political ethos at work here.

One area in which Poehm’s agitation does seem to be appropriate is with the idea that PowerPoint has become an enforced requirement of presentations within schools, academies and workplaces. Here he is absolutely right to criticise the fetishisation of Microsoft software (and similarly Macintosh products), particularly by educational institutions who should really be resisting applying such restraints on creativity. In his own rather silly way, Poehm is stumbling upon a key reason why Microsoft has managed to achieve such market hegemony in the computer software sector. Alas, after repeated viewings of his political address as President of the APP, I can’t shift the sneaking feeling that this is all some sophisticated (and impressively po-faced) piece of Swiss satire, as Poehm seems to be wishing nothing more than “wanting only people to talk about it”. If not, then I return to my Orson Welles opening and suggest Harry Lime may well have called it right, in discussing the CUCKOO clock.

Hipsters are Doing it for Themselves

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Is there anything more annoying than a ‘hipster’? Well, yes, the person(s) who uses such a term to identify a sector of the population, with an utter disregard for the suitability of such a moniker. After all a ‘hipster’ was originally a jive-talking, jazz groupie, desperate to be seen in all the right circles, following the proscribed lifestyle traits of the jazzmen and women, but with none of the skill, flair, or talent for creating wonderful music. Nowadays, lazy hacks and cultural commentators seem to bandy the word around in relation to any young person who adopts a considered, usually slightly aloof, pose toward society, regardless of whether they are actually producing anything of merit, other than just simple affectation. Chances are if you come from a privileged, American, college-educated background and profess an affection for irony and whimsy, then you’ll probably be labeled thus.

It seems that one of the quickest ways to get landed with the ‘hipster’ tag is to develop a serious following on Youtube for your homemade video content. Last year the talk of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, much to the chagrin of a more seasoned performer, was the live appearances due to be made by a twenty-year-old ‘satirical’ songwriter from the States, called Bo Burnham. Whereas the likes of Tim Minchin had worked about a ten-year grind of comedy clubs and fleapits before breaking into the big time, young Burnham had managed to have a much greater degree of ‘instant’ celebrity foisted upon him in little over three years of Youtube videos and high-profile live shows.

A few years prior to Burnham’s emergence, Edinburgh had been taken by a similar internet-based, Youtube-hyped, media frenzy around Glaswegian comic Brian Limond, aka Limmy. In the space of about a year he’d had upward of a million hits on his website and at least a 100,000 hits on many of his Youtube postings. By the end of 2006 he was making live appearances, had featured in The List’s (the Scottish equivalent of TimeOut) Hot 100 of the Year and was rumoured to be in discussion with BBC Scotland about a television show (that has since appeared in 2010 and had a second series in 2011).

Both of these comics were utilising Youtube’s attention-grabbing possibilities as a means of building up strong word-of-mouth about their video creations. In both cases there seemed a real sense that the Youtube work was intended as nothing more than a calling card for greater things and could thus be viewed as an alternate paradigm for media career-development. Rather than cutting their teeth in low-level comedy clubs, or putting together a promo reel and sending it around production companies, both Burnham and Limond were showing a belief in their work finding a wide audience, thus making them irresistible media commodities. Far from the cooler-than-thou posing and zero-work ethic popular conception of the hobbyist ‘hipster’, this was clearly two hard-working and committed, creative individuals, exploiting the best self-marketing tools at their disposal.

Perhaps taking things even further down the line of internet self-sufficiency and creative entrepreneurship has been the rapid rise of the musician couple Jack Conte and Nataly Dawn. Their collaborative work under the title of Pomplamoose, a play on the French word for grapefruit – pamplemousse (yes, that’s how precious we’re about to get), has seen them covering everything from Earth, Wind and Fire to Beyonce. It was a 2009 cover of the latter’s Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It), that broke the couple into the Youtube big-time, pulling over eight million hits, as of August 2011.

Conte and Dawn’s work with Pomplamoose incorporates lots of intriguing elements of modern internet-based media productions. First of all they have a ‘gimmick’, as they are not just covering pop songs, but they are creating a new medium, of sorts, called the VideoSong. The VideoSong, as Conte defines it (Conte appearing to be very much the tech-head of the duo) is an authentic approach to video presentation, essentially what you hear is what you see, and if at some point you hear it in the mix, then it will be seen somewhere in the video. This is straight out of The White Stripes guidebook, as by placing these restraints upon themselves, they manage to make relatively innovative videos that belie the cheapness of their production, by seeming, at first, so hypnotically strange. In this respect it helps that the duo are both Californian-photogenic, with Dawn’s abstracted air of knowingness mainlining a great deal of Golden-era Hollywood close-up coyness and Conte’s high-energy mugging acting as a perfect foil.

Another trick that the duo have not missed is the idea of promotional tie-ins. From the moment they started doing the cover material as Pomplamoose, they have also been canny enough to find simple ways of promoting their own digital releases through iTunes, Tune Corps. and ReverbNation, selling over 100,000 downloads of their own material alone. By attaching sales features to their Youtube videos and drawing in subscribers to their Youtube channel they’ve been able to target an audience for their products directly, cutting out the middle-men of the ailing record industry.

Furthermore, Dawn and Conte have realised that they are themselves part of the product that people are buying into. As Pomplamoose’s videos have garnered more attention, Dawn and Conte have conducted more interviews, and have ingeniously stapled on a Vlog segment to most of their later releases, that gives the fan a tiny flavour of their lives, whilst allowing the duo to promote their latest merchandise, or tour dates.

At each stage of the duo’s expansion in popularity Conte and Dawn have shown a keen market awareness, to go alongside their infectious enthusiasm for the creative process. Dawn has also harnessed such internet-funding models as Kickstart to enable her to acquire donations from fans to help fund an album release. During 2010 Pomplamoose even branched out into advertising, providing a couple of cover versions for two car companies Hyundai and Toyota. It was their appearance in the Hyundai commercials that seemed to bring some degree of critical backlash against them, with its wall-to-wall coverage during the holiday season in the States managing to alienate a sizable viewing audience. However, the money that they’ve brought in from such work must surely be able to sustain their creative endeavours over the next few years.

Aside from Pomplamoose’s canny marketing and careful exploitation of a new on-line creative business model, they also do have some talent. The most striking thing about their videos is the quality of the photography, which adds a touch of class to their homemade approach. Although their cover versions are interesting, I wonder how effective they would be when robbed of the added visual stimuli that is, after all, part of their creative package? Whilst Dawn’s solo material meanders around in Madeleine Peyroux ‘loveliness’, Conte’s efforts actually bear some comparison to fellow bedsit luminaries such as Elliott Smith and Quasi, only with slightly smoother edges. The duo also seem to be genuine in their desire to promote a do-it-yourself aesthetic for the 21st century music scene, with Conte, in particular, spending hours of interview time talking about the various technical aspects of home-recording and music production. Clearly it has helped Conte to have musical friendships with the likes of Ben Folds, but this still should not detract from the admirable amount of genuine hard work and effort that both Dawn and himself have put into getting their music and creative ideas out there.

A more low-key, but equally fascinating example of Youtube creative promotion, comes courtesy of fellow Californian Kate Freund. Fitting the modern stereotype of ‘hipster’ far more snugly, Freund is one of those people who seems to be trying their hand at a little bit of everything, without ever really breaking out in one particular direction. Along with her partner, comicbook artist and comedian, Rob Schrab (of Scud infamy), she has worked on the long-running internet/live event Channel 101, indulging in a spot of hilarious film parodying (Le Typewriter and The Legend of the White Tiger), whilst also pursuing her own animation and modeling interests. Perhaps her most noted Youtube effort is the ‘fanvideo’ for The Magnetic Fields ‘I Don’t Want to Get Over You’, that has had over 300,000 hits and has been tacitly accepted by the band, in much the same way as Jon Salmon’s ‘fanvideo’ for MGMT’s ‘Kids’. Whereas, Pomplamoose have integrated many facets of advertising and promotion alongside their creative output, Freund seems to be content with simply allowing her Youtube channel to act as a business card, or flyer, for her creative output. Yet the very fact that comic work of the quality of The Legend of the White Tiger is being made so readily available, shows that the tired notion of ‘hipster’ ennui is no longer really viable in an increasingly ‘can-do/will-do’ internet-led creative media age.

Poland’s Regional Rail Strike

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Information sourced from:- The , Dziennik Baltycki, The European Industrial Relations Observatory, The Warsaw Business Journal and The Polish News Bulletin

Today employees of Poland’s regional railway service Przewozy Regionalne (PR), the country’s largest rail operator, have gone on a 24-hour strike, as of midnight. The strike is as a result of a stalemate being reached between the Federation of Rail Workers’ Unions – spear-headed by the combative stance of Vice-President Dariusz Browarek – and PR senior management.

The main dispute appears to be over pay, with Browarek’s union demanding a 280zl increase in monthly salaries for PR rail workers, effective by the first quarter of 2012. Government promises have been thus far limited to a 120zl pay rise (to be phased in by the end of the calendar year), followed by a further 160zl increase toward the end of 2012. Much of this Union action over salaries is as a result of the 7% wage increases negotiated by the Teachers’ trade unions in 2010 (due to start next month). Public sector workers in other areas, such as mining, border controls, the fire services and the rail industries, regard the lack of a similar pay bump to be unacceptable and have been threatening industrial action throughout 2011.

The Federation of RailWorkers’ Unions has also expressed concern at government policy which threatens unprofitable railway companies, such as PR, with forced bankruptcy and liquidation. In the last two financial years (2009, 2010), PR has reported rapidly decreasing losses (290mill zl in 2009, 170mill zl in 2010), but still expects to report between 30-40mill zl losses for 2011, dependent on the final price of increased salary costs.

PR operates low-cost, regional rail services that connect the various voivodships (or counties) of Poland. As a result of their commitment to low costs, combined with the infrastructural chaos of much of the Polish rail network and a schedule that sees between 2,500 and 2,700 trains in operation daily, PR has found itself in an increasingly difficult financial predicament. This has in turn ignited further fears of job cuts and service mergers amongst the Union rank and file.

As reported by the PNB, local union leaders have also sought increased investment in infrastructure and a reorganisation of the way in which the umbrella organisation PKP S.A. is organised. With a general sense that Maria Wasiak, the CEO that only recently replaced the unpopular former incumbent Andrzej Wach, will not provide the kind of determined and innovative leadership the beleaguered Polish Rail Network requires.