Europe’s fightback holds lessons for all workers

by Andrew Pollack

Just as in the U.S., the deepening crisis in Europe is developing on two levels. On the one hand is an economic system going through one of its regular, decades-long downturns. On the other hand, that downturn is played out on a terrain of nation-states of differing economic size and strength, which themselves are the products of long-term political evolutions. And these nation-states, which long ago lost their economic rationale for separate existence, nonetheless continue to frustrate even the feeble efforts of the European Union to unite the continent’s markets.

Despite the differences in how the crisis plays out in each country, common to all of them is the rhetoric used by the bosses and the policies being pushed. Common also are the initial weaknesses of each country’s working class flowing from past defeats.

But equally common have been inspiring strikes and demonstrations, which are beginning to break down those weaknesses. Flowing naturally from those struggles are calls by revolutionaries across the continent to deepen and, most importantly, to unify the struggles.

An article by Ingo Schmidt for Canada’s Socialist Project summarized well the roots and current manifestations of the crisis: “The rich and powerful in the centers of the Euro-zone are concerned. The convenient practice of dumping most of the costs of economic crises on workers in the periphery [i.e. the poorer European nations], so that workers in the centers feel safe from income and job losses, doesn’t work as smoothly as it did so often in the past. Protests and strikes flare up from Athens to Dublin but also Paris and London. … German workers, who are told the crisis is over, are deeply suspicious about the security of their jobs and incomes.”

Commenting on a proposal to turn the ad-hoc funds used to “save” the Greek and Irish, and soon other, economies in the periphery into a permanent fund, he pointed out that “this IMF-style fund doesn’t solve the uneven development of the European centers and its periphery, which is, together with a world-wide over-accumulation of capital, the root causes for such crises.”

Rather than unifying and harmonizing development levels across Europe, as the EU was supposedly designed to achieve, the EU “has generated systemic macroeconomic imbalances: a bloc of surplus countries centered on Germany on the one side, and a deficit bloc in the Mediterranean periphery on the other.”

Schmidt notes that countries that have only recently joined the “surplus” club did so when social democratic governments boosted exports by cheapening labor. Once they’d done that favor for capital, their ruling classes tapped populist resentment to install conservative governments, while also encouraging far-right parties, such as that of the openly racist and Islamophobic Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.

The parallels on the U.S. political scene are obvious—except that the United States is still at the stage in which the Democrats, with their cuts, are preparing the stage for a government-wide Republican ascendancy (and a bigger Tea Party-type movement, echoing Wilders’ rhetoric).

Schmidt noted the parallel between Europe-wide production shifts and those in the United States, comparing U.S. corporations that migrated to Southern right-to-work states in the 1980s, to break unions, to German capital that jumped at the chance to pit unorganized workers in the East of Germany against better-organized workers in the West. “The result was wage restraint that no other capitalist class in Europe could match.” That’s the basis on which Germany’s stronger economy today rests—a basis ever more shaky as the weaker countries fall deeper into debt and offer shrinking markets for surplus countries’ exports.

What’s more, the supposed integration of the peripheral countries into the Europe-wide market happened in a way that left them relegated to the less efficient, less capital-intensive end of the production chain—the most expendable links in a crisis.

Schmidt ends with a call “to build coalitions between deficit and surplus countries. After all, many workers in the latter think they have to make sacrifices to the benefit of Irish and Greek slackers but don’t realize that they are effectively bailing out the rich who had invested in the periphery.” And the part “that stays in Ireland and Greece helps the rich in those two countries.”

Proving Schmidt’s point about the woes even in surplus countries, the Dec. 24 Wall Street Journal reported that Bavaria “is at the center of Germany’s resilient economic success, driving the nation’s growth even as much of Europe struggles to stay solvent.

“Except that many people in this region, and around the nation, seem subdued and uncertain about their own financial health. Germany’s good fortune … is widely viewed here as having come at the expense of its workers, who for the past decade have sacrificed wages and benefits to make their employers more competitive.”

The Journal quoted several German workers resentful at sending money to poorer European countries and expressing nostalgia for the Deutschmark, as the gains from export-driven trade in the Euro zone hasn’t trickled down to those making the goods.

“Low salaries—and higher prices—are a core complaint of German workers who are increasingly demanding wage increases after a decade in which their real earnings dropped by 4.5%. Exports have grown robustly in part because workers agreed years ago to reduced wages and reduced hours to make Germany more competitive.”

On Nov. 24, three million Portuguese workers took part in a general strike called by the country’s two union federations, the General Union of Workers (UGT) and General Confederation of the Workers of Portugal (CGTP, linked to the Communist Party). It was prepared with a demonstration in Lisbon on Nov. 7 of 300,000 workers.

The strike was called in response to the government’s plan to bring the public deficit down by cutting public sector wages, freezing pensions, slashing social spending, and increasing Value Added Taxes.

Labor Notes reported that Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents subway and bus workers in New York City, was invited to send a solidarity delegation to Lisbon as guests of the Railway Workers Union and the CGTP. The delegates reported on their return: “Although the government has not backed down from its planned budget, railway unionists and activists from left parties feel that the strike raised the fight to a new level and are optimistic that they will be able to force a change in government policies.”

Manuel Carvalho da Silva, leader of the CGTP, said: “From now on we will be more demanding and strong in defending our demands such as the minimum wage, compliance with the agreements on defense of workers and the unemployed, and the demand for different policies.”

Two Portugese Marxists, Brais Fernandez and Xaquin Pastoriza, summarized the lessons of the strike on the website of the International Marxist Tendency (, in an essay that mirrored conclusions of revolutionaries about similar upsurges elsewhere in Europe: “So far workers’ demands have been mainly defensive in character with a view to preserve rights acquired in decades of battles….

“The recent movements in France and Greece show that in the current situation it is difficult to stop the adjustment and austerity plans. … Under these conditions the union movement needs a serious strategy of struggle which increases the intensity of the movement.”

The authors called for recurring and prolonged general strikes in Portugal, and they raise the idea of European-wide mobilizations. “Moreover, it is important that the Portuguese left adopts a program that emphasizes that these attacks are the consequence of the crisis of the capitalist system and therefore require a genuinely socialist program to fight them.”

A general strike was also held in Greece on Dec. 15, following up on the big Nov. 17 rally (see article on next page). The strikes were called to protest the latest stage of labor “reforms” demanded by the European Union and the IMF when they extended a $146 billion loan provided in May. The reforms include a new round of pay cuts and salary caps in the public sector, and restrictions on collective bargaining in the private sector.

Echoing the logic of all budget cutters in this period, Socialist Prime Minister George Papandreou said, “We want to keep firms afloat and prevent layoffs” by allowing bosses to cut costs.

Meanwhile, students came to the fore in the fight against cuts in the UK. Alan Thornett of Socialist Resistance wrote in International Viewpoint that the ruling class has launched “the biggest package of cuts in Britain in living memory—the sacking of at least 500,000 public sector workers, with an additional 500,000 job losses in the private sector as a consequence. … Their project is to put an end to the age of welfare which opened up as the Second World War came to an end.”

The bosses’ rhetoric in Britain sounds just like that in conservative U.S. media outlets, with “endless stories of ‘benefit scroungers’ sponging off ‘hard working taxpayers’ and ‘housing cheats’ living in luxury accommodation with huge families. … Public sector workers are demonized as useless bureaucrats sitting in overstaffed workplaces waiting to draw their ‘gold plated’ pensions. … Alongside all this reactionary spin has gone the ridiculous mantra that the debt must be repaid and ‘there is no alternative.’”

Thornett described the almost complete abdication of national union leadership: “In most industries massive attacks have already taken place without resistance. … Under these very weak conditions action against the cuts does not come easy. This is why the student demonstrations we have seen in recent weeks have been so magnificent. The response from the students in terms of mass demonstrations, occupations and protests exceeded all expectations.”

Thornett noted with optimism a Nov. 27 conference against the cuts, which united parts of the movement that had previously jealously guarded their turf.

Meanwhile, revolutionaries in France were drawing a balance sheet of the revolt there and what it implied for the next stage of fightback. New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) Executive Member Fred Borras wrote: “The government repeated that increased life expectancy would cause the bankruptcy of the French pension system, concealing its real goal, to get rid of it.

“Since the government’s ‘pedagogy’ on pensions had not been particularly effective, we saw crude operations like the aborted attempt to divert attention onto law-and-order issues or onto the Roma … Nothing worked. Nothing, except attrition.

“Taking into account the scope of the attack and the level of determination of the government, it would have been necessary to strike much harder. Not to be satisfied with blocking this or that branch of industry but blocking the whole country. Only an ongoing general strike would have made that possible.”

The hesitancy to broaden or continue the strike among rank-and-file workers “relates first of all to a lack of confidence in the possibility of winning. … In certain sectors the weight of past defeats weighs negatively in the balance. Other important factors were the atomization of the working class, the extent of unemployment and precarious work, uncertainty about the future, the difficulty of ‘making ends meet.’” All of this was exacerbated by the willingness to compromise of top union leaderships.

Nonetheless, “The first tests of mobilization showed a high level of readiness for action, and trade-union activists on the ground wanted to push further and harder. Local inter-union coordinating committees demonstrated greater combativeness, multiplying blockades involving workers from different sectors, adding departmental one-day strikes to those announced at a national level.” Unfortunately, “Nothing arose on a national level like this.”

Still, “since the end of the revolt, union recruitment has increased. … Teams of radical young trade-union militants have emerged and that is an asset for the future.” And although the government succeeded in passing its bill, “it lost on the idea that its policy is the only one possible … an invaluable gain in these times of crisis.”

The need for continent-wide unity among anti-cuts activists was the centerpiece of the Third European Anti-capitalist Conference, held in Paris at the height of the French revolt.

The statement adopted by the conference highlighted the “deep and durable character of the crisis,” which is “structural rather than temporary.” It noted that neoliberal economic policies are accompanied by “a return to ‘values’ that tend to legitimate the return to the house of hundreds of thousands of women. … The governments are trying to divert anger by encouraging xenophobia and racism, targeting immigrants and the Roma as scapegoats.” (Unfortunately, the statement doesn’t mention the mushrooming Islamophobia promoted by the same forces.)

In addition, in Germany, Switzerland, and Poland, “there is a new offensive favoring the construction of nuclear power stations, which is only beginning” yet has already provoked protests.

Alongside a series of demands in defense of wages, services, and benefits, the conference noted that “the crisis also shows clearly the predatory character of the profit system, by recklessly exploiting natural resources, annihilating peasant agriculture, destroying ecosystems, causing global warming. As never before, justice and self-management, emancipatory projects, and a socialist horizon are becoming consubstantial with the environmental struggle.

“To fulfill fundamental human needs, it’s necessary to abolish the illegitimate public debt,” and banks and hedge funds must be “expropriated in order to socialize credit.” Winning such measures “requires a government born from the mobilizations, under their control and able to impose respect for workers’ rights.

“The future belongs to socialism, to social ownership of all the main means of production, whose management already depends on the cooperation of billions of men and women at an international scale.”

> This article was originally published in the January 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.

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