Europe: Workers fight back

During the first months of this year, city centres across Europe reverberated to the chants of the millions who took part in what was the biggest anti war movement in history. More recently the streets and piazzas of many cities have again been filled by huge demonstrations; this time of working class people protesting against attacks on services, on welfare payments and on pensions.

On Sunday 25 May, one and a half million people marched through the streets of Paris opposing the assault on pensions launched by the right wing Raffarin government. The proposed changes mean that public sector workers will eventually have to work 42 years instead of 37.5 before they qualify for a full pension.

An explosive movement has developed opposing the pension plan and beyond this opposing the government’s overall attack on public services and on living standards. 25 May, which was called by two of the main trade union federations, the CGT and Force Ouvrier, came after three other days of strikes and protests called in a space of less than two weeks.

On 13 May, around two million workers took strike action and 250,000 demonstrated in Paris. Other protests took place on the 19 and 22 May. This movement is on a bigger scale than the public sector strikes that defeated the Juppe government’s pension "reform" in 1995.

This time the government has tried to divide the movement, excluding some workers from the pension proposals and arguing that the private sector is not affected. This strategy has failed and private sector workers, like those at Michelin, have taken strike action and joined the protests. One poll showed 72% of public sector workers and 46% of private sector workers ready to take to the streets.

The momentum of this movement has been from below. City wide Assemblees Generales have been set up in many areas and have taken charge of the day to day running of the strikes and protests. Some workers who have been called out on limited strike action have stayed out. With education workers, postal workers, air traffic controllers, rail workers either already involved or planning strikes, the pressure from below is towards a public sector general strike.

Neo-liberal offensive across Europe

The attacks on services and pensions in France are part of a common political landscape across Europe. Whether governments are made up of the openly right wing parties or are of the former "left" parties like the Tony Blair’s New Labour, they speak with a single voice on economic and social issues.

Right wing leaders like Berlusconi in Italy or Aznar in Spain have launched a neo liberal offensive against services and living standards. Under the deceptive headings of "reform" and "modernisation", they are attacking state pensions, cutting and privatising services, while in the name of "labour flexibility" they are cracking down on trade union rights and workplace conditions.

Blair has implemented an identical policy; even going to the length of threatening to ban further strikes by firefighters and impose his "modernisation" agenda on the fire service. Just as Blair has, on some issues, gone further than even Thatcher would have dared, so his counterpart in Germany, Social Democratic leader Gerhard Schroeder, has launched an even more vicious assault on the welfare state than anything carried out by the previous right wing Kohl government.

Even Michael Sommer, chairman of the 7.7 million German Trade Union Federations, the DGB, has labeled Schroeder’s "reform" programme, Agenda 2010, a step towards the "dismantling of the welfare state." Agenda 2010 proposes cuts in unemployment benefit and a shortening of the period of entitlement to earnings related benefit. The trade unions estimate that one third of unemployed people could lose their right to unemployment allowance, this at a time when 4.5 million are officially unemployed and when the real figure is more like 7 million. Sickness benefits are also to be cut with a provision that extra private medical insurance will be needed before they can be paid. The age of retirement is likely to be raised while pensions will be frozen. Hand in hand with the privatisations being carried out by city and regional governments, this represents the most severe attack on the welfare state since the war.

These attacks come on the back of a deepening economic crisis that is affecting nearly all economies in Europe. Within the general context of the world economic crisis there is a particular crisis of European capitalism. Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe, accounting for one third of the Eurozone economy, has been especially blighted by this eurosclerosis. After growing by 3% in 2000, the economy has come to a standstill. Last year there was a paltry growth of 0.2%. Figures for the first quarter of this year show that it has fallen back into recession. By the end of this year, there will most likely have been three years of stagnation, the longest such period since the Second World War.

Other countries are in a similar situation. Italy recorded only 0.8% GDP growth last year, with the economy dipping into recession in the last quarter and contracting by 1% in the first quarter of this year. France, Denmark, Austria, and the Netherlands also had negative growth in the last quarter of last year. This situation is likely to be compounded by the economic course now being set by the Bush administration. The US economy is faced with industrial stagnation, layoffs and the threat of Japanese style deflation. Growth has been maintained only through consumer spending – and consumer debt – which, with the strong dollar, has meant the sucking in of relatively cheap imports from the rest of the world and the opening up of a huge trade deficit.

Now Bush is attempting to shift the burden of the economic crisis overseas. His administration is trying to weaken the dollar so that the source of cheap imports dries up and US consumers buy American goods. In the last three years, the Euro has risen by 29% against the dollar. In effect, Bush is attempting to unload the deflationary threat onto Europe and make the European economies shoulder the full weight of the economic crisis. This means an added injection of pain into economies like Germany and Italy that are heavily dependent on exports but will find it more difficult to sell their goods in the US marketplace.

In turn the ruling class across Europe is attempting to pass the burden of this crisis onto the working class.

Standing in their way is the angry opposition and growing resistance of millions of working class people that is now spreading across the continent. Until very recently, the main focus of this resistance was in southern Europe in countries like Italy, Spain and Greece where the working class has greater traditions of spontaneity and tends to move more quickly and more explosively into struggle.

General strikes rock Southern European governments

An early harbinger of the bigger movements to come was the one-day general strike in Greece on 26 April 2001 against cuts in the Social Insurance Fund, out of which pensions are paid. General Strikes are not uncommon in Greece, even in periods of downturn in the class struggle, but not all are successful. This strike was historic in that it attracted huge support and brought the country to a standstill.

Similarly the Spanish general strike on 20 June last year, called in opposition to cuts in unemployment benefit, was solid throughout the country and was marked by massive, colourful and noisy demonstrations in most cities. A new chapter in the stormy history of the Italian working class was also opened with the 16 April 2002 general strike against Berlusconi’s attempts to change the labour laws to make it easier to sack workers. This was the first time in 20 years that the three main union federations in Italy had come together to call a strike and the result was a mighty demonstration of the power of the Italian working class. A second general strike a few months later – on 18 October – got a similar response.

The resistance across southern Europe is ongoing. The huge mobilisations in Italy and Spain against the war were also demonstrations of opposition to the economic policies of the Berlusconi and Aznar governments as well as their support for Bush and Blair. Early in February, 60,000 Portuguese workers and youth took part in a trade union demonstration in Lisbon against the right wing PSD government’s proposed "Labour code" and anti-union laws. A week later many of the same people were back on the streets as part of the February 15th world-wide mobilisation against the war. The Italian unions have called another general strike for June against pension cuts.

Northern Europe awakening

Now there are indications that this southern European "contagion" has crossed the Alps. For decades, Austria has been held up as a model of stability, with a tripartite partnership arrangement between the unions, employers and government seemingly guaranteeing social peace. The offensive by the right wing People’s Party government coming on the back of economic stagnation has shattered the "consensus". A draconian plan to cut pensions by between 30% – 50% has unleashed a tidal wave of angry opposition. Pressured from below, the Austrian trade union federation, the OGB, has been compelled to organise two days of mass protest.

On 6 May 500,000 took part in meetings and rallies. Despite the fact that there was no clear call for strike action, many workers, including teachers, transport workers, printers and civil servants, downed tools for the day. A second day of action a week later brought an even more impressive show of strength. 200,000 marched through Vienna, braving two hailstorms and driving rain, in what was the biggest trade union demonstration held in the capital since 1945.

The German working class have also begun to move into action against Schroder’s Agenda 2010. Demonstrations on Saturday 24 May called by the unions, especially the public service union, Verdi, and the powerful IG Metal, brought tens of thousands onto the streets. Anger at the Social Democrat government, which was helped get back into power because of its partial opposition to the war, is shown by its opinion poll rating of 26%, an all time low.

In other countries, important disputes which signal the dawn of a new epoch of struggle have taken place. The firefighters’ strike in Britain is an example, even though hesitancy by the FBU leadership and the reluctance of other union leaders to organise solidarity action, meant that it was more of a skirmish than a full scale confrontation with Blair. Another example is the strike by council workers in Sweden that began on 12 May when more than 50,000 low paid, mainly female, workers stopped work.

Although there was a short strike by council workers in 1995 this is on a much bigger scale. It is the biggest and most important industrial battle in Sweden since 1980. It is the first time for years that picket lines have been organised anywhere in Sweden and, whatever the outcome, is likely to mark the beginning of the end of the downturn in struggles that took place in the 80s and 90s.

Union leaders vacilate

All these movements would go further and have a much more decisive impact were it not for the vacillation and hesitancy of the right wing trade union leaders and, in many cases, the inability of those on the left of the unions to come up with any alternative strategy. The council workers’ leaders in Sweden have a record of co-operation with privatisation. The strike involves selective action and they are holding back from escalating this towards all out action. In Germany the same Michael Sommer who described Agenda 2010 as the "dismantling of the welfare state" ,followed the day of protests by declaring that there had been "improvements" in the programme and announcing a "truce". It remains to be seen whether the leaders of individual unions like Verdi will organise further protests.

The attacks announced by the Austrian government amount to a declaration of war on living standards. Yet the trade union heads in the OGB are clearly more concerned with trying to keep control of the movement they have helped unleash than they are with halting the attack on pensions. Rather than outline a programme of action to force the government to retreat, they are appealing for round table talks with the government and employers to try to arrive at what would be a rotten compromise.

In a similar vein the momentum of the movement that took place in Italy last year was lost when the leaders of two of the three union federations broke ranks and did a deal with the government. In France, the leaders of the CFDT, the third major union federation, signed a compromise deal with the government and did not support the 25 May march. The deal was signed over the heads of CFDT members, thousands of whom showed their disgust by joining their CGT and FO colleagues on the streets.

France has shown that the movement can reach a point where it is very difficult for the leadership to hold it back or contain it. Even leaders whose only wish is to reach an early accommodation with the government can be forced by the huge pressure from below to sanction action, hoping to be able to rein the movement in at a later stage.

Again, as is now being seen in France, a new generation of activists who want a serious struggle to resist the neo-liberal offensive will be thrown up as these movements develop. Inevitably they will come up against a reluctant and vacillating leadership. Rank and file bodies like the Assemblees Generales can play a key role both in co-ordinating the movement and in organising to democratise the unions.

The struggle against the common political platform of both the right wing parties and of the former mass working class parties like New Labour, the German SDP, the Italian DS, and the French Socialists poses the need for a political alternative. These parties are now fully part of the political establishment and no longer a potential vehicle for the working class. Where right wing governments are in power, as in Spain and Italy, workers, seeing no alternative, may turn back to these parties in elections. It is also possible that here and there opposition voices can be raised within them, reflecting the pressures of the class struggle. However, the main political direction of the unfolding working class movement will not be back to these organisations but will be to the building of new mass working class parties. A new period is now opening in Europe, a period that has one crucial defining characteristic – the re-entry of the working class onto the stage of history. The strike and protest wave that has swept many European countries is likely to turn out to be only an overture, presaging even more decisive struggles to come.

Written in early June.

From the summer edition of Socialist View, magazine of the Socialist Party, CWI in Ireland.

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