Workers must fight attacks on living standards
European workers, civil servants, pensioners and the unemployed have come under ferocious attack in the past year and a half from their governments and the private and public sector bosses. cwi member Karl Debbaut looks at the strategy and programme needed to repel the renewed capitalist offensive that is driving down wages, living standards and destroying social provisions. socialistworld.net
’Social Europe’ – just another form of capitalism
Most recently, Dutch workers have been at the forefront of a movement against neo-liberalism. The Dutch government plans to abolish unemployment benefits for people who haven’t worked in four out of the past five years and replace it with a welfare payment of E550 for a single person.
This has provoked the biggest demonstration in the history of the Dutch workers’ movement. On 2 October, more than 300,000 workers joined a demonstration in Amsterdam against attacks on pensions, early retirement schemes and unemployment benefits.
The trade union leaders, who have been in social partnership with the employers and the government since the beginning of the 1990s, were propelled into action after a grass roots trade union group, initiated by Rotterdam dockworkers, threatened to take unofficial strike action. The national demonstration was prepared by city-wide strikes and actions in Rotterdam and Amsterdam.
The brazen response of the Dutch government was that the protesters "were not well informed" while Jacques Schraven, head of the Dutch employers’ federation, accused the trade union leaders of living in the past: "Their strategy is that gains achieved in the past, protection, early retirement, need to be maintained or only changed marginally".
This is in line with the declarations made by government ministers and employers’ representatives all around Europe. In Germany, after deals to freeze pay and extend the working week from 35 to 40 hours were pioneered by companies such as Siemens and Daimler Chrysler, capitalist commentators demanded a 50 hour working week as the only way forward for capitalism.
As part of Agenda 2010, the German government of the former social democratic party, the SPD and the Greens, is implementing a brutal restructuring of unemployment benefits. From 1 January 2005 millions of people in Germany will see their unemployment benefits fall to between E331 and E345 a month. Half a million people will lose their benefit altogether. The government is creating a low wage sector by forcing people to accept jobs that pay E3 or E5 an hour.
Thirsty for more
The claim, often used by trade union leaders in Britain, that the countries of the European Union are more ’civilised’ when it comes to respecting workers’ rights, is utterly wrong. The blatant neo-liberal policies of New Labour, which – let’s not forget – is once again Ken Livingstone’s party, are pursued by the governments of all European countries including Italy (see article on page 11).
Spain has the highest percentage of casual workers in Europe and in Greece workers are being asked to foot the bill for the country’s post-Olympic depression. After French prime minister Raffarin’s pension and education ’reforms’, the French ruling elite are thirsty for more workers’ blood. The president of the French employers’ federation, MEDEF, complained: "The poor prime minister Raffarin is often accused of pursuing the policies of the employers’ federation, we totally refute this: since Raffarin has come to power, he has done nothing for private enterprise".
The French ruling class are hoping that the siege upon workers’ conditions and wages by their European counterparts will affect the resistance of French workers and their organisations.
French governments have tried to privatise gas and electricity providers, to give but one example, for over 15 years now. Each time those attempts have been fought off by magnificent mobilisations of the working class, proving it is possible to achieve victories. However, under capitalism these victories are temporary as the bosses keep coming back to squeeze more profit out of European labour.
Trade union leadership
Announcements of factory closures and job losses are made every single day. General Motors announced last week the intention to shed another 10,000 jobs in Europe. The main reason why European employers are able to blackmail workers into accepting these redundancies and worsening work and living conditions is the lack of a determined fight-back by the trade union leadership.
With high unemployment in most European countries, whatever falsified official statistics may say, the trade union leaders have to realise that demonstrations or a series of isolated strikes are not going to stop the bosses’ offensive. Mass mobilisations against the government’s plans took place in East Germany every single Monday for the last two months but petered out because of a lack of perspective for the struggle.
Many of the trade union leaders and activists mistakenly limited their strategy to pushing for a series of bigger and bigger demonstrations without a plan to deepen and broaden the struggle, including strike action and the call for a one-day general strike in Germany.
In the Netherlands the leaders of the Dutch Trade Union federation, FNV, are promoting the idea of a referendum to bring down the government. This proposal is aimed at disarming the movement and bringing it back into the fold of traditional capitalist politics, while the only thing on offer on the negotiating table is a defeat.
In Britain the leaders of the main trade unions and the TUC are suddenly proclaiming the gospel of the Warwick deal and the promise of concessions from New Labour. In exchange, the leaders of the big four unions, T&G, GMB, UNISON and Amicus will support, or remain silent about Labour’s big business agenda of privatisation and attacks on public services.
Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, has been granted a platform at this years ESF and he may talk a good fight but he is a false friend of the anti-globalisation, anti-capitalist movement. The real question for Mr Barber is whether the TUC will call for solidarity action and strikes, particularly a one-day public sector wide strike, to support PCS members who are fighting against the massacre of over 100,000 civil servants’ jobs, or whether he will abandon them to please his friends in New Labour.
The realities of European capitalism are teaching some hard lessons to the labour movement. We need democratically accountable, fighting trade unions. Unfortunately, in many cases we will need to rebuild them from the ground up and fight for them to adopt an action platform, including the organisation of a European-wide warning strike against the bosses’ offensive.
European and world capitalism is in crisis. The question of an alternative looms large. The ruling classes will always try to crawl out of economic crises on the backs of the working class as long as their system is allowed to survive. While we need to fight for every reform and defend everything the working class has been able to achieve through struggle, capitalism gives no guarantees when it comes to the living conditions and standards of the majority of the people.
We need socialism; a society based on a democratically planned mode of production, where the decisive sectors of the economy would be brought under public ownership with democratic workers’ control and management.
From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales