Mass unemployment, workers’ struggles; political consciousness and building new workers’ parties

“There is not one bright spot for capitalism throughout the continent of Europe. Every single country is affected by the most serious crisis for 80 years”, said Peter Taaffe in opening this plenary CWI School discussion, in Belgium, on 15 July. Contributions from comrades from 16 countries described and analysed the devastating effects the working class is starting to experience under the blows of capitalist crisis, and the way this is affecting the outlook and willingness to struggle of workers and youth.

The financial crisis is still unfolding. German banks could have to write-off $500 billion. Austrian and Swedish banks lent huge sums in Eastern Europe which they cannot recover. One thing all the ruling classes are agreed on is that these monumental bills will be presented to working class and young people.

Features that were present in the situation in the 1930s are developing now. There is a fall in production and factory closures; the income of all classes is falling, leading to intensified class struggle; unemployment is becoming long-term and ‘built-in’ to the system; there is overproduction and the middle class can no longer be integrated into capitalist society. These were elements of the pre-revolutionary situations that Trotsky analysed in the 1930s. Many examples were given of similar developments today.

But political factors are needed to turn these into revolutionary situations. The outlook and understanding of the working class is still affected by the past thirty years of neo-liberalism. During this period, there was an economic boom but attacks continued on living standards and welfare. Privatisation, the collapse of Stalinism and the denigration of socialism went unanswered by the former workers’ parties or trade union leaders.

The situation can suddenly change when workers’ consciousness catches up with the objective situation, something that the more far-sighted capitalist representatives fear. The British MPs expenses scandal showed how quickly moods can change because of the deep anger beneath the surface. The most vital factor to take the working class forward is still missing – mass parties offering an alternative to all the parties of big business.

The capitalist dream of a united Europe lies in ashes. The single market has been undermined, as each ruling class takes national measures in its own interests. The Euro currency is under threat. It stops the weakest economies, like Ireland, Greece and Italy from devaluing their currencies, while there is growing opposition in Germany to “footing the bill”.

Workers fight back

EU directives are still implemented enabling bosses to drive the ‘race to the bottom’. This was directly responsible for the two Lindsey oil refinery strikes in Britain, this year, where engineering construction workers were brought in to replace the existing workforce on worse conditions. The Lindsey workers took immediate action, and spread the strike throughout the industry, breaking anti-trade union laws in the process. Pressure on the official trade union leaders led to some backing, which encouraged the strikers.

In Lindsey and two other industrial disputes in Britain this year – Visteon and Linamar – the role of the Socialist Party (CWI England and Wales) has been a vital factor. Members not only intervened but put forward a clear strategy at each stage of the dispute. This has been recognised by workers involved and also by a wider layer of trade union activists, although the mass media did not report the victories gained.

Rob Williams told the School how he had been sacked by Linamar because of his role as union convenor. He had led a successful militant campaign to defend wages and conditions. The bosses expected to buy him off with a large sum, and he would have been offered a full-time job with the union. But he refused to sell-out his fellow workers. A strategy of putting pressure on the company and the trade union leaders paid off. The workers responded with an 88% vote for strike action, and the management capitulated. But, Rob warned, there would be future battles to stop the plant closing.

Despite the recession, workers have been prepared to fight. Over 10,000 striking electricians in Ireland are likely to win a 4.9% pay rise – a partial victory. The Russian town of Pikolova was shaken by closure of the cement factory that the population depended on for heat and electricity. When protests were not supported by the trade union leaders, workers blocked the federal highway.

French Goodyear tyre workers also fought successfully with pickets, blockades and mass demonstrations, forcing the bosses to withdraw a pay cut, although the union leaders had signed up to it. General strike days in January and March involved 2-3million French workers. These, and the general strike in Guadeloupe, supported by up to 90% of workers, shattered the arrogance and confidence of the ruling class. The Guadeloupe workers got widespread support in mainland France and succeeded in winning a 200 euro pay rise and price cuts.

However, pay cuts, short-time working and job losses is all that is offered to large sections of the working class. A Spanish bank has offered workers a five year ‘holiday’ on 30% pay. Low-paid Irish civil servants have had 200 euro per month pay cuts.

The ruling class has tried to blunt resistance by claiming it will be a short crisis and then a return to business as usual. There are also still relatively high unemployment benefits in some countries. But hopes of a quick recovery will be dashed.

Youth

Young people are hit particularly hard by the crisis and this terrifies the ruling class. Around 250,000 school students struck in Germany. Unemployment among youth has already reached 1930s-levels in Spain. There is a danger that despair and rioting and even terroristic moods could gain support amongst deeply alienated and frustrated youth.

The youth revolt in Greece, last December, followed a huge movement against university privatisation in 2006/7. Then there were three big general strikes on pension attacks and many smaller struggles. But the trade union leaders applied the brakes to this movement. When a 16-year old boy was shot by police, the accumulated anger of school students erupted and paralysed Greece for two weeks. 150 cities saw daily demonstrations with majority support for the youth.

This changed when anarchists and provocateurs started burning the centre of Athens. Although Syriza was the only party to fully support the youth, it did not take a clear position on the fire attacks. Only Xekinima, the Greek section of the CWI, called not only for the downfall of the ‘government of killers’ but its replacement by a government of the left parties with a socialist programme.

New Workers’ Parties

The European elections showed a failure of the ex-workers parties to benefit from growing unemployment. New workers’ parties mostly failed to make poll gains.

The launch of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA) in France was welcome as the first step to fill the vacuum of a workers’ political voice. But its launch was done without clarity or debate. Die Linke (Left Party) in Germany put a contradictory position, posing the possibility of a future coalition with the pro-market social democrats. Die Linke won 7.5%, which is much less than in the opinion polls a few months ago. Similarly, Syriza, in Greece, won 18% in opinion polls last year but only won 4.7% in this election. Syriza has been unable to link with the working class. The Greek CWI warned that Syriza needed to move to the left or come under pressure from the ruling class.

Over the last two decades, the strongest of the new workers’ parties in Europe was Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) in Italy. But the PRC has now reached a point of no return, after losing credibility from its participation in the coalition government led by Prodi. Although this has depressed a layer of activists, CWI members in Italy and Contracorrente point to the need to learn the lessons of the PRC and to urgently redevelop working class political representation. As more and more workers and youth move into struggle, new forces will emerge upon which a mass party can be built.

The Socialist Party (CWI in England and Wales) and International Socialists (CWI in Scotland) participated with the RMT transport union and others in the electoral initiative ‘No2EU:Yes to Democracy’. With little time to get known, its vote was modest but it has highlighted the need for an electoral challenge by the working class in Britain’s next general election.

The only exceptions to the recent electoral failure of new left parties have been the increased vote for the Left Bloc in Portugal and the marvellous victory of the Socialist Party (CWI in Ireland) where Joe Higgins was elected to the European Parliament and six Socialist Party local councillors were elected. This result is a beacon to trade union and youth activists throughout Europe.

The formation of new workers’ parties will be drawn out and with contradictory processes. CWI involvement in these organisations will see Marxist ideas reach wide layers of workers and youth. The CWI’s ideas also reach radical youth outside left formations. For example, Sozialistische Alternative (CWI in Germany) won a council election in Rostock standing independently.

There is a danger that the far right will make gains if workers’ parties are not built. In Italy the Liga Nord doubled its vote. The Freedom Party in Austria lost votes, but together with the split-off from it, got a combined vote of 17%. Two British National Party MEPs were elected. But the far right NDP failed to make gains in Germany, where Die Linke offered an alternative at national level.

Nationalist moods can also develop in the absence of a workers’ alternative. This is a factor or potential factor in the situations in Belgium and Scotland, for example, as well as in other countries.

The former Stalinist countries of Eastern Europe have been hit hard by the economic crisis and illusions in capitalism are being blown away. In Latvia wages, pensions and the numbers of hospital beds have been cut, while the cost of hospital treatment has gone up ten times. The government was forced to resign by mass protests but no workers’ alternative was available. An explosive situation is developing in the Czech Republic as prices and unemployment rise. Young workers have been joining the Solidarity trade union in Poland, where 10,000 miners and steelworkers demonstrated on the 20th anniversary of the founding of Solidarity with the slogan: “It wasn’t supposed to be like this!”

Tony Saunois replied to the discussion. The full effects of the financial crisis have yet to be felt in all countries. The hope that things will get better has prevented or slowed generalised struggles. But short-term swings of the economy will drive workers and middle class people to profound conclusions. In this situation, we can build the membership of the CWI and the authority of our parties in the next months and years.

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