AS STRIKES and demonstrations against public sector cuts sweep France, Germany, and Austria, the mainstream British press’s most prominent mention of this mass movement is in the gossip columns – apparently Madonna is upset because her daughter’s teachers have been on strike!
It is no accident that there has been a virtual news blackout on this pan-European strike movement, New Labour are terrified that workers here in Britain will take the same road.
The governments of France and Germany hoped to gain electoral support as a result of their opposition to the war on Iraq. However, despite the popularity of that one policy, they remain as deeply disliked as Blair in Britain. And like Blair, they are conducting a vicious class war against working people.
Against a background of economic recession, ’neo-liberal’ attacks (ie cuts in social spending, privatisation, labour market deregulation, etc) are being stepped up against the working class. In France and Austria the centrepiece of these attacks is a ’reform’ (ie destruction) of the pension system (see below). In Germany it is "Agenda 2010" – a brutal Thatcherite onslaught on benefits and working conditions.
Capitalism is an inherently crisis-ridden system. The German economy and to a lesser degree that of other parts of the Eurozone, is experiencing a severe slowdown. For the capitalists the solution to this crisis is to restore their profits by driving down the living conditions of the working class.
The working class in France, Austria and Germany have not suffered the defeats that Thatcherism inflicted on workers in Britain. They are fighting to defend social reforms won in the post-war period (when capitalism could afford to more easily give concessions to the working class) which have long been undermined in Britain.
But this does not in anyway mean that these struggles can’t be won. After all, it’s not the first time that ’pension reform’ has been attempted in France. When a right-wing government attempted it in 1995 they were met with massive strikes of the public sector, which defeated the attacks and led to the fall of the Juppé government.
This time, the government is very determined but so too is the French working class, despite the prevarications of their leaders, as shown by the massive million plus strong demonstration in Paris.
Escalating the action
The next step should be to build towards a private and public sector general strike. Already private-sector workers, including Michelin tyre workers, have taken part in the action to a greater degree than in 1995.
France may seem a world away from Britain but, despite the differences, it is not. Until a few weeks ago Austria, now engulfed by a major strike movement, had a lower level of strikes than Britain. Yet now, the Committee for a Workers’ International’s (CWI – the socialist international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated) call for a 24-hour general strike is receiving an enthusiastic response.
In Britain workers are facing a new round of neo-liberal attacks from Blair. Foundation hospitals would be a qualitative step towards the destruction of the NHS.
Working class communities and sections of the middle classes are also facing education cuts and top-up fees. And while there are not currently national strikes taking place there are a whole series of local public sector strikes.
The mood of the strikers is more angry and determined than it was a year ago when the number of public sector strikes first started to escalate. Blair is right to be worried by workers here learning from the mass movements shaking the Eurozone.
The time when the outlook of Britain’s working class was dominated by the defeats of the 1980s has come to an end. Instead, we are at the beginning of a new period of struggle.
The socialist has a vital role to play in politically arming the struggle, while arguing that only on the basis of a socialist transformation of society can working people permanently attain decent living standards.
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