John Edmundson The Spark November 2010
Europe has seen a massive upsurge in worker resistance to planned implementation of continent-wide austerity measures. The size and militancy of the demonstrations and strikes should serve as an inspiration to workers in this part of the world, where class consciousness is at an all time low and union leadership has been sorely lacking and misdirected. In New Zealand, the CTU’s national day of action against the proposed extension to the 90 Day Act and other attacks on workers’ rights was morphed into a Labour Party election rally and Christchurch, where job losses due to earthquake related business closures, and earthquake recovery projects will mean workers there will be more exposed than most to the provisions of the 90 Day Act, the CTU decided in its wisdom that “for obvious reasons,” there would not even be a rally.
Compare this with the situation developing across Europe and the contrast could hardly be starker. The Spark has already given some coverage to the massive demonstrations that struck Greece, but huge worker rallies have taken place across many European cities and industrial action has hit several countries, most notable Spain and France. While it would be wrong to read too much into the potential of these actions, they do represent a significant positive development given the relative quiescence of the working class movement.
A huge rally in the vicinity of 100,000 people took place in Brussels, Belgium, where the European Union headquarters is situated. Workers from as far away as Poland and Romania joined local unionists to demand an end to the austerity measures that many European governments are implementing. Unemployment is on the rise and job and wage cuts, as well as attacks on benefit provisions and a proposed lift in the retirement age have spurred workers into action on a scale not seen for years. The rally was planned to coincide with an EU plan to fine governments that run up deficits.
In Greece, where mass street demonstrations took place in May, anger has continued as the Papandreou government has insisted that it will continue with its plan to cut the budget deficit from 13.6% to 8.1%. The plan includes massive cuts in the public sector workforce and sizeable tax cuts for business. Demonstrations have continued but are currently on a smaller scale than those which occurred in May. Still marches numbering in the thousands, and regular strikes are keeping momentum building there in anticipation of another big series of demonstrations. This has not prevented the Pasoc “Socialist” Party government sending in the riot police to dislodge protesters. In Romania thousands of people have marched in protest against government plans to slash the wages of state employees by twenty five percent and a rise in the retirement age to sixty five. Slovenia’s “centre-left” government has attempted to freeze salaries until 2012, resulting in chaos at the border as customs officers went on strike.
The most dramatic events to take place on September 29 occurred in Spain where the first general strike in eight years was held. Thousands poured into the streets and some sectors of the economy, including transport, were paralysed. Confrontations with the police took place when workers were attacked by baton-wielding riot police and rubber bullets were fired at the crowd. At least police car was burned. Fifty thousand marched in Lisbon and another twenty thousand came out in Portugal’s second city, Porto.
In France, the first big nationwide demonstration against the austerity programme occurred on May 27, with an estimated one million taking part. The By the time of the second mobilisation on June 24, numbers had nearly doubled. A twenty four hour public sector strike on September 7 was supported by demonstrations drawing an estimated 2.7 million workers and their supporters. Subsequent marches in late September and early October reportedly exceeded three million participants.
The issue which has brought people out in their millions in France has been the question of pension reform. The Sarkozy government intends to push through changes that will raise the age of entitlement to a pension from sixty to sixty two years, and a “full” pension from sixty five to sixty seven. At the same time, the time worked to qualify will also be lifted, which will impact especially hard on women, many of whom spend a number of years out of the paid workforce raising children. The government has attempted to divide the workforce, arguing that this change is of benefit to younger workers as they will have to pay for the pensions of older workers. This argument has gained little traction however, with secondary students joining the demonstrations in large numbers, and in many cases, stepping up into the forefront of clashes with the police. School students are concerned that it, in an economy with double digit unemployment, it will be even harder for them to find jobs if older workers are compelled to stay in their jobs for another two years.
French workers went out on open ended strikes and occupied fuel depots and blockaded roads to prevent fuel from being distributed. At times, over half the petrol stations in France were experiencing supply problems and France had to import fuel and electricity. Sarkosy responded by sending in the riot police, declaring that “troublemakers” would be dealt with “with no weakness”. Yet in the midst of the strikes and blockades, polls revealed that over seventy percent of French people surveyed supported the industrial action.
It has been a significant development in all the cases of major militant action, in Greece, Spain and France, that the rank and file workers have in many cases been much more militant than the union leadership, which has often endeavoured to negotiate a “solution” and get the protesters off the street. In France for example, Bernard Van Craeynest, the president of the main white-collar union, the C.F.E.-C.G.C., announced that in the face of “excesses” by some demonstrators, “it will be necessary without doubt to pause to reorient the actions” of the unions. By and large, despite comments like this, the struggle has in fact become more militant.
By the time this article is printed, events will have moved on, for better or for worse. But regardless of the outcome of the worker actions in France and throughout the rest of Europe, we should take inspiration from the militancy of the workers there. New Zealand has become addicted to passivity. Ideas like “partnership” with government, and continued faith institutions like the Labour Party have disempowered New Zealand workers. We need to remember that everything we have as workers, from access to hospitals and education to health and safety legislation and whatever wage gains we achieve have been gained by struggle and in the absence of struggle they will be at risk of being lost. Viva la révolution!